Over the Atlantic Radar

Spotify’s Release Radar does a surprisingly good job of alerting me to new releases from rather obscure artists that I do actually have an interest in.

Today’s surprises include Dion Lunadon of early 2000s NZ garage rockers The D4, and fellow kiwi Nik Brinkman, who put out a deep-seated favourite album of mine under the moniker Over The Atlantic in 2006.

Both kiwi artists, and both solo releases from people once associated with another wider act.

There’s even a new track from Silverchair’s Daniel Johns – a similar category to the above (solo release from Australasian man previously in band), but he already has a much wider appeal so is a slightly separate case to the others.

I’m not sure if the weighting for these recommendations is done by something as nuanced as ‘low-level artists from Aotearoa’, or the algorithm knowing that The D4 = Dion Lunadon.

Probably most likely it is just fed by users’ listening habits: listener A listens to bands 1 and 2 and 3; listener B listens to bands 1 and 3, so recommending band 2 seems sensible.

It’s still cool though, and I get a lot of value from it.

Great to be reminded of Nik Brinkman. Looks like I’ve missed out on some recent stuff from him – the track recommended to me this week was an acoustic re-take of a song of his from the last year or two. Looking forward to going back and discovering that.

Nik’s stuff is on Bandcamp, too – so although I can thank Spotify for giving me the heads-up, I also have the option to give him my direct support.

Radio Diary for March 2022

This month I’ve delved further into the local amateur radio community, seeing what repeaters I can reliably pick up and when they tend to be active, as well as more spontaneous conversations and simplex conversations whether scheduled or not.

(Simplex is when two – or more – people are conversing on the same frequency. Kind of like a walkie-talkie. They both need to be in range of one another. A repeater is an automatic device that takes an input on one frequency and spits it out on a slightly different one. You set your radio accordingly, and you can speak to people outside your normal range, as long as the repeater is in the middle of the Venn diagram of both your ranges.)

My little Baofeng does an admirable job at allowing me to listen in to a few local repeaters, and it’s an annoyingly nice device to use given how cheap it is. It even just feels nice in the hand.

Sure, it’s clunky in adjusting the settings and programming channels (I do not have a USB programming cable), but once a set of channels has been programmed in, it’s easy to just switch it on and set it scanning through those channels for any signals, or going to a particular memory channel when you think there’s going to be activity. (It can monitor two channels at once, which is nice.)

The scan function can be set to either stop when it finds a signal and stay on that channel until the signal cuts, or to do so briefly but move on after a few seconds. The latter is preferable as the Baofeng is occasionally susceptible to interference which makes a channel sound active and thus the radio stops on it, playing a burst of static and noise. In time mode, this only lasts a few seconds before continuing the scan in silence; in signal mode the radio will simply stay locked to that burst of static and noise until the user presses a button.

I now routinely just switch the radio on at random times, or around times I know local groups have scheduled meetings/conversations. And although it’s a bit weird just listening in to strangers talking, it is oddly not too weird as a) they know it is a public medium, albeit a very niche one, and b) the conversation matter is usually at least partly to do with radio and related technologies, and usually relating to local clubs, repeaters, atmospheric conditions etc. So there is usually something for me to find interesting or learn from. And the conversations have certain protocols which make them simple enough to follow: the speakers must identify themselves by callsign every now and then, and it’s relatively simple to ‘feel’ the flow of the conversation based on these and other standard greetings.

It’s also oddly calming as – certainly with repeaters – only one can speak at a time. The ‘overs’ (each person’s part of the conversation) can last anything from a brief word to a couple of minutes, and in a flowing conversation, they become a little list of responses to what was said by the previous speaker. In this way it’s a little like letter-writing, or web forum posts, and it makes it easier to follow.

It does, I suppose, get a little harder to follow when the voices all sound similar, the names are generic (and often identical!), and the call signs are said a bit too briefly to catch. But I’ve spoken briefly about amateur radio’s issues with diversity, and that’s a bigger issue for another day.

I have also found that the Baofeng can be set to frequencies set aside for PMR or personal mobile radio. My understanding is that this is a set of frequencies made available to use by unlicensed users, and there is a range of radios available to buy that can only be used on these specific channels and users can talk simplex to one another, like walkie talkies, or CB radio. They seem to be mainly for business use, but I have found people using them for casual conversation (which I think is permitted), and so I’ve added the channels to my scanning frequencies.

If this makes you think of the cliched police scanners which were around years ago, those days are mostly over. Most emergency services use encrypted digital radios now, which can’t be easily monitored. But I have found that the marine world uses analogue channels which are in the range of my Baofeng, and I’ve added some to the memory for scanning when I’m near the coast. I’ve heard a mixture of the Dover coast guard instructing a fishing vessel, as well as two fishing vessels agreeing who should go on which side of who while passing – spoken variously in English, French and Dutch(?).

Anyway. My point is there seems to be a lot of activity in my local area, and I’m finding a lot to learn and enjoy about it all.

Before we moved, I had been studying for the RSGB’s foundation amateur radio licence, and I was pleased that it covered not just the manners and protocols used by amateur radio users, but the technology and science behind it. I held off on taking the exam to get my licence as I wanted to see if I would be able to make use of it once I’d moved – to see if there is an active amateur radio community in this neck of the woods. It seems that there is – so watch this space.


I’ve had an SDR (software defined radio) USB dongle for years now, and it lets me do lots of things.

It’s primarily designed to let the user watch digital terrestrial TV (DVB-T), but it has a wider frequency range than that, and it can be used to scan the radio bands, from broadcast to amateur radio and beyond. It’s a great little toy with many uses.

As with all these things, there are basic ones for about a tenner and amazing ones for a few hundred quid. Mine is the former – and it still does all these things admirably.

One use for these dongles is to decode a very specific frequency which is transmitted by aircraft to relay their altitude, speed, bearing, etc. It’s called ADS-B, and it seems to be broadcast by most aircraft over a certain size.

If you’ve ever used Flight Radar 24 or a similar website to see the details of a flight going overhead, those websites basically use a global array of receivers which grab the ADS-B data local to them, plot it on the map, compare it with others nearby, and then FR24 and others collate it all to make a global map of air traffic.

I’ve always found it very cool, and I was pleased to find that amongst things I already own, I can make a small, automated unit that grabs ADS-B data and submits it in real-time to FR24 (and others). I can also view the local data for just my device, giving me a sort of air traffic controller’s RADAR view of nearby aircraft. And by submitting the data to FR24, I get a free premium subscription, which is nice – I have actually paid for FR24 in the past as I find the service to interesting.

The bits I scraped together were: my SDR dongle, the antenna it came with, a Raspberry Pi Zero (kindly given to me by my buddy Troels years ago – tak, brör!), a few Pi accessories like a USB hub (mainly as the Zero is so tiny and doesn’t have on board wifi), and a few cables.

The antenna that comes with the SDR dongle is small and basic. But it’s the right gear for receiving digital TV, so it does the job. The dongle has a small connector for antennae, which makes it usable with other types, too. ADS-B operates on a wavelength not too far off DVB-T, and the fundamental thing about antennae is that their length should ideally match the wavelength you’re tuning to – or some fraction of it, too.

What this means in reality is that the DVB-T antenna can basically be snipped off to a certain length to optimise it for ADS-B reception. It’s brutal – but it works.

An aside. We moved house recently, and we’re still in the process of finding things in boxes. One of those things was my dongle’s antenna. I started playing with ADS-B a few months ago, and I was using a homemade antenna which I had made for reception of amateur radio signals from the repeater on the International Space Station – more about that another day. But I found when I set up my FlightRadar24 unit that my stupid little antenna, with silly bits of wire hanging off a choccy block terminal strip… Well, it worked. I was getting signals from aircraft 20 or even 30+ miles away!

But I always knew I could do better, and thankfully I found the dongle’s original antenna (along with my RSGB foundation amateur radio licence study book and my revision notebook – convenient). So I re-fitted that to the dongle, trimmed it down to the correct length, and put it back in place. And the results were great! I’m now routinely getting signals from aircraft more than 60 miles away (it’s actually nautical miles for some sort of aviation-related reason), and I find that amazing.

Pro users can get signals of over 200NM, almost at the bounds of line-of-sight reception owing to the curvature of the earth – but even in my range of 60-70NM, being able to get such good data from a cheap device hacked together and just stuck in the window of an upstairs room is incredibly cool to me. It’s slightly mad to think that although I can only see up to the nearest ridge on the hillside, there’s a little radio next to me that can see an aircraft in the air over north west London and beyond. I love it.

I can tell I’m going to want to improve this antenna further. That’s the thirst of radio play: better, more, further. Gear acquisition sydrome, like with photography. So I’ll try and keep that in check and make do with what I’ve got. In many ways, of course purpose-built hardware will do a better job. Part of the joy here is using absolutely basic equipment and getting somewhat decent results out of it.


And finally, a brief nod to leaky feeders.

I first came across these a few years ago reading about their application in US colleges and summer camps to broadcast radio in a small area. The basic principle is using a wire which runs the length of a building or location as an antenna. Normally with wires and antennae you have the antenna at one end spraying the signal out like a sprinkler, and the wire leading to the device is carefully shielded to keep the precious radio waves in.

Imagine a tap with water pumping out, and a hose carrying it to the sprinkler. Just like you wouldn’t normally get any water randomly coming out along the length of the hose itself, you also wouldn’t get any radio signals along the wire either. But what if you wanted to? Leaky feeder! Cut some small, regularly spaced holes along that length of wire (or hose, for my analogy), and you end up with small, controlled bits of radio (or water) leaking out along its whole length.

Now imagine running that cable around the length of a college campus, or strung up around the various bunkhouses dotted around a summer camp ground. Now all the people in any of those spaces can tune a radio and get the signal – and you’re not just broadcasting it out to the wider world.

A more UK- (okay, London-) centric application for the leaky feeder is the tunnels of the London Underground.

Using radios for communication in underground tunnels is notoriously difficult. Radio signals want to radiate out in all directions, but tunnel walls just block them. But what if you run a leaky feeder down the length of the tunnel? Now that signal can be picked up down its whole length. And if it’s wired up correctly, you can have connections going up through the earth to the ticket office and down to platform level, and it all just works.

Fast forward to a year or two ago and Vodafone installed a 4G leaky feeder into the middle part of the Jubilee Line tunnels, giving passengers full 4G when not just in the stations but while travelling through the tubes as well. Amazing.

(Less amazing was that this meant Vodafone pulled out of the coop wifi in use across most? all? tube stations, and now I can no longer use my phone on the Tube unless I’m on the Jubilee Line, which is rare nowadays.)

The Vodafone 4G installation was done, I believe, in conjunction with a new emergency services radio system which – quite understandably – aims to improve their radio use in Tube tunnels.

(There’s a decent Wired article here which gives a fair bit more detail – while oddly referring to all the measurements in inches throughout…)

It all reminds me that one thing that blew my mind when visiting Paris probably 20 years ago was that I had mobile phone signal underground! Looking back, I don’t actually know if this was simply due to the Paris Metro being more of a cut-and-cover shallow network in comparison to the Tube’s deep level tunnels. But perhaps they had installed leaky feeders for mobile phone access way back then? I should check.

But it got me thinking – of course it did – that it would’ve been fairly straightforward to install leaky feeders on the Tube for FM radio reception. Wouldn’t it? If I understand the technology correctly, this would’ve enabled passengers to listen to the radio while travelling underground.

Let’s argue that this would’ve been done in the 1990s when people were less likely to carry a mobile phone and more likely(?) to carry a pocket FM radio. I don’t know. Probably the answer is either a) no one wanted this, and so it never happened, or b) enough people would’ve wanted it, but it’s simply not technologically feasible. I’m sure there’s an obvious answer. I just don’t know what it is, so here I am rambling about my silly concepts.

Anyway, that in a nutshell is another month in radio. If you made it this far, I can only apologise. And I’ll see you again in four weeks or so.

Idle thoughts

I catch my Flying Nun t-shirt in the mirror, and I briefly see the reflected ‘NUN’ as ‘NIN’ and I suddenly daydream the perfect scenario: FLYING NIN: A Nine Inch Nails Tribute to New Zealand Music.

Imagine Trent Reznor and his band attacking a Gordons song? And with Reznor’s range, he could tackle a whole raft of NZ music from delicate ambient stuff, to classic songwriting from the Knox or Kilgour catalogues, right on up to full on hardcore and metal.

Of course this idea would come to me, and of course it would appeal to precisely a dozen other people around the world.


Running past the ‘Premier Inn Hastings’ this week (which has the dubious honour of being precisely two and a half miles from what I would consider the centre of Hastings), I noticed that from this lofty height just off The Ridge, the high road that forms the town’s northern edge, I could just briefly glimpse the sea. As I ran alongside the multi-storey hotel, I imagined some of the rooms must in fact have a sea view. I wondered if they are sold with this designation? Probably not. I don’t think Premier Inn goes for that kind of marketing.

But it got me to wondering: this combination of a tallish building on a high rise of land near the coast… I wonder what is the furthest inland hotel room in the world that can legitimately claim to have a sea view? Annoyingly, I just know that there are about three databases one could throw some AI at to answer this question. Possibly there’s a hotel that even specifically claims this already, whether rightly or not. But it’s a fun thought.


I watched Talk Radio this week; it was on my list of ‘radio films’ to watch. It very definitely is a radio film, and a very claustrophobic one at that, with the bulk of it taking place within a dimly lit radio studio.

The set design is actually really convincing and apt. I naively wondered for a moment if it might in fact be a real radio studio, before realising the acres of space and the weirdly dim lighting and all sorts of other extremely cinematic design decisions at work.

It was interesting (or perhaps distracting?) to see in the opening credits that it was adapted from a play – I noticed throughout its runtime many scenes which had a very theatrical feel. Not in a bad way; I could just see how it would work very well as a play.

In fact, it was an Oliver Stone film, and looking at his list of credits, I think it was my first. Whether because of Stone’s direction or just the source material, it’s a really dark film, with some surprisingly edgy themes and dialogue. I was left with quite a sour taste of a particular slice of ambiguously bleak Americana in my mouth. But it was a great, enthralling film – and what a performance from Eric Bogosian.


That unsavoury, ambiguous slice of Americana was complemented this week by my continued reading of The Road to Somewhere, a book by James A. Reeves (he of Atlas Minor dot com; his blog should be in your RSS reader).

It’s an enjoyable read, mainly in the sense that it gives me more of what I wanted from it: Reeves’ stream of consciousness, descriptive passages about what it is to be an American, a man, a human being, and an occupant of this strange planet, as well as passages describing the feeling of blasting down dark desert highways with the AM radio relaying voices of demented and devious folks, catching the occasional glimpse  through the windshield of a ghostly figure in the night.

His writing is accompanied by photographs – really decent images, too; infuriatingly well-observed writing alongside neat illustrations of the moods and scenes he’s describing. It’s a page-turner in the most literal sense of the words: each snapshot is one spread, with an image on one page, and a perfectly formed vignette in words on the other. These vignettes are assembled into roughly themed chapters, but I find myself sipping at this book, telling myself ‘just one more’, until the book’s heft becomes too much and I place it down next to my bed until another night.


I listened to the Oceansize album Frames yesterday evening, along with Southkill’s self-titled 2002/3 EP, which features the sublime Horizon at Aramoana. I never did visit Aramoana when I was in Dunedin. Sad times. I may yet visit again the most southerly point on earth I’ve yet been to – but it does seem a remote dream, literally and figuratively.

Frames sounded incredible. I’ve always considered Oceansize’s debut Effloresce their best, but I heard Frames in a new light yesterday – partly as I was listening via headphones plugged into a hefty lump of vintage Sony amplifier. I hadn’t realised the full potential of that device, and it’s slightly terrifying to see how loud it got with the volume – sorry, attenuator – knob turned only a quarter of the way round. Ooft.

Frames just has a cohesion to it that, yes, Effloresce does too, but… Yeah. It clicked for me yesterday. I reminded myself of the dozen or so albums Chris Sheldon has produced or mixed that are all-time favourites of mine.

I also listened to Björk’s Verspertine yesterday* – earlier on and just via headphones on my phone – and that album clicked for me as well. I particularly enjoyed the birdsong she’d sampled in underneath one track, and found it curious that she’d bled the sample into the next track too – but, ah, no: I slipped off my headphones and the deafening sound of seagulls was very much local to my own listening environment. Nice accompaniment though.

* ahem, for the first time…

Radio Diary for February 2022

As usual, February was a month which contained a number of radio-related resources to stimulate, entertain and inspire. So much so that I have inevitably ended up with a whole mess of tabs, recordings and ideas that I want to try and record even just for my own sanity.


FM/DAB/broadcast

On top of our usual regular morning listening of BBC 6 Music on DAB – Chris Hawkins’ sardonic wit is great, and I’ve been enjoying Deb Grant’s filling-in shows when I catch them – we listened to local radio while decorating in half term. The winter storms Eunice and Franklin rolled in, and it quickly became apparent that we would be best served by tuning in to BBC Radio Sussex to hear more localised updates about the storm’s progress. We heard traffic updates and anecdotes from callers and it was useful to have this resource to get an understanding of the impact on our local area.

Where radio really came into its own, however, was when we lost power on the Friday lunchtime. Fortunately we have a number of radios, and many of them can be powered by the mains or batteries. M’s rather old and battered Pure DAB radio is still very technically proficient, and sounds great – and its battery still holds a good charge.

When we lost power, we also lost radio. I checked the radio and it had successfully reverted back to battery power, but there was no DAB signal. Not too surprising, but I flipped over to FM and found that there were no FM signals to be found – that was a shock.

We also found that although we had mobile phone signal, the 4G signal had died, leaving the phone only capable of making calls and sending and receiving SMS.

A short while later, FM stations were back on the air – presumably the FM transmitter fell back to backup power, but perhaps the DAB transmitter is different or requires more power. DAB would be restored quite a while later,

I can’t remember the last time I lost FM signals. If I’d had more time I would have spent a bit of time tuning around, embracing the interference-free airwaves to see what distant stations I could pick up. But as usual with these events, the priority was in making sure the house was safe, and then carrying on with the decorating. I don’t think M would have appreciated me sat twiddling knobs and playing radios while she carried on!

Our power was restored about three hours after we lost it. It was a wake-up call: we are a little more isolated here than we used to be in London, and when power goes, it can take longer for it to be restored. These winter storms are becoming more frequent, and it was a useful lesson in preparedness – ensuring we have various battery packs and radios charged most of the time, and keeping an eye on what we have in the house that can be stored or warmed up for food using our camping gas stove etc.


Retekess V115

I recently ordered a couple of low-priced radios from a Chinese retailer, and the first to arrive was the Retekess V115. It’s a small, portable unit which receives FM, AM, LW, and short wave. It also has a micro SD card reader and can play files from it, as well as recording to it from the various radio bands, or even the built-in microphone.

I’m still getting used to this radio’s features, but the initial impressions were good – especially for such a small device. The display is bright and reasonably high resolution for this sort of radio, and I was quite stunned by the tone and loudness of the volume – the speaker is quite powerful, and it has a second ‘sub woofer’ type speaker at the back, giving it quite a rich sound.

I’m still getting to grips with the capabilities of it – there are odd ‘holes’ in the FM reception, and I want to do some more comparisons with my Tecsun PL-380 on short wave to see how it performs – but it is pulling in stations in my initial tests. If it is a generally good radio, the recording feature could be really useful.


Radiophrenia

Radiophrenia –  the self-professed “light at the end of the dial” was back this month for two weeks of incredibly diverse radio. The station is broadcast via FM in the Glasgow area, and is repeated over DAB via Resonance, as well as being streamed online for listeners around the world.

The website schedule was as full and complex as it has been in previous years, and I spent a bit of time poring over the descriptions to see what shows interested me the most, at times I might be able to listen in.

As Radiophrenia is a live station with shows going out around the clock, it feels even more special to find unique shows and pieces that have been submitted for broadcast, and to listen live when there may not be an opportunity to track it down online later. The magic of live radio – or at least linear broadcasting.

This doesn’t stop me from using the schedules to find new and interesting audio/radio artists to follow online, hence my reference above to having dozens of tabs open to explore: people to look up and try and check out their work where I’ve been unable to catch it live.

Some highlights I did manage to catch live included various bits of Hali Palombo’s work – I’ve heard some of her stuff before and was delighted to see she had a number of pieces and shorts in the schedules for 2022’s broadcast. She works with amateur and short wave radio recordings as well as field recordings and spoken word type stuff. It always adds up to something fascinating and inspiring and I love checking out her work.

I was also pleased to see Radio Cegeste had something debuting on Radiophrenia – a piece combining Morse code, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and the recent pandemic media coverage. It was an edited down version of a longer piece that ran in Melbourne last year.

One early highlight was Adriana Knouf’s experiments with SSTV – slow scan TV – tones, turning these rhythmic pulses into something approaching techno music. At times hard to listen to, inventive, amusing – all the things experimental radio art can and should be.

And then closing out the last day I enjoyed the Shortwave Collective piece Open Wave Receiver, an audio how-to guide on building a self-powered radio. It features instructions on how to construct a simple radio receiver, as well as recordings of people doing so, and the delighted sounds they make when it works.  Extremely meta radio, and admittedly not easy to follow if you were truly trying to listen along and make what they were describing with no other visuals or instructions. But a lovely thing to listen to.

As I mentioned elsewhere previously, I am so glad that Radiophrenia exists, and one day I feel like it would be amazing to have a piece broadcast. But I need to go away and work on that to make it happen. In the meantime, the platform it gives to such a wide variety of performers, presenters, musicians and… whatever else… is just such a great effort.


Amateur radio

When I am at home in the my office / box room, I often have radios on in the background, and the same goes for my little Baofeng UV-5r, which is a cheap little handheld for the ham bands and enables me to listen in to conversations between amateur radio users in the local area – when they are talking directly – or via repeaters, which extend the range of their individual signals.

I am lucky where I am to be within good range of more than one amateur radio repeater, and I’ve also found a couple of local clubs and nets that have scheduled chats on set frequencies which have enabled me to test the reception of the Baofeng. This radio can also transmit – though not until I have a licence – and knowing that in my new location I can pick up local conversations and repeaters has given me renewed impetus to pursue getting my amateur radio licence.

I studied the excellent Essex Ham course last summer, and enjoying learning a lot of new things. At the time I didn’t go as far as taking the exam, and I knew my London location would be no good for amateur radio – my Baofeng never picked up anything at home. But now I have a new location, and an apparently active ham radio scene, it might be time to do some revision and get myself licensed.

It is… very apparent to me how un-diverse the amateur radio scene is. This is partly why I am such a fan of what Shortwave Collective does – they are an international feminist art group promoting the creative use of radio. Hearing Hannah Kemp-Welch’s use of amateur radio in particular was very inspiring, and I want to hear even more diverse voices on these platforms. And although as a white male I am not bringing much diversity to this scene, I may at least provide a slightly younger voice. And who knows, if my own involvement somehow leads to anyone else paying an interest in the medium, then that would be incredible. One step at a time.


MW/AM

Whenever I tried to listen to AM / medium wave stations in my old flat in London, I was frequently disappointed by the small number of signals I could pick up, and the high levels of interference which got in the way.

But now in this new location I have returned to the open arms of the MW bands where I can frequently pick up fifty or more broadcasts, most of which are international, and a number of which share the same frequency, allowing for some fun fiddling to refine the signal and identify the stations I can hear.

I haven’t dabbled with MW properly for a decade or more. It’s a fascinating new angle into the radio hobby and I am enjoying learning about the kinds of stations I can pick up here, and at what times and in what conditions.

When we were looking at moving here I hoped that a new location would open up new possibilities in my enjoyment of radio – from broadcast and beyond – and I’ve not been disappointed. I suppose going from a semi-submerged duplex flat to a standard semi-detached house halfway up a hill would inevitably give better conditions for radio, but I have been pleasantly surprised just how much of an improvement this has made.

Onwards!

Half term – a productive week

What a productive week.

I almost started with “what a week!”, but that has a sort of dual meaning, both positive and negative. I had a good week, but/and a busy one.

We started half term – I took the week off along with M to work on the house – with a visit from the electrician who came to do a whole house survey. Thus far, the only reassurances we’ve had that the house’s electrics are sound are a) that nothing, so far as we can tell, has gone wrong yet – not even a tripped fuse; and b) an electric cooker was installed, and this has to be done by a qualified sparks. As well as checking our earth and voltage (current?), the cooker installer also looked over our consumer unit and general cupboard-under-the-stairs situation, and, far from recoiling in horror, he reassured us that he could see nothing untoward.

But we still wanted/needed the whole house survey, mainly to answer one big question: do we need a rewire? And the answer, fortunately, is no. As I understand it, this means that the fundamental construction of the house’s circuits, and the types of cables used under the floors and in the walls, are of a standard high enough to be safe to use and to not need complete replacement. A huge relief.

There are many areas around the house that do need sprucing up – many of the sockets/outlets are dated and one or two have even physically seized up, so we will replace those as and when. But knowing that the underlying systems are fine has given me the confidence to replace more things on my own. Our electrician talked us through a lot of stuff, explaining logically why things are the way they are, and he took the time with us to muddle out the handful of bits that have been added later which took some head-scratching for us all to understand.

We (and by we, I mainly mean M’s father) had already replaced a couple of light fittings and one switch, and I had done some other switches – including a dimmer; what a saga that was.

But now that someone has physically checked every end of the whole system, I am filled with renewed confidence to do more work on the lights, sockets and switches around the house. And, as I reasoned to M, it is these elements that we come into contact with the most – so refreshing a yellowed, dated unit with a smart white unit (or maybe a more charming, individual one here and there), will make such a difference.


This all came in handy as this week our main project was the box room, aka my home office. It’s a decent-sized third bedroom, which will serve as an extra bedroom for visitors, and will provide lots of storage for books and CDs. It also serves as a home office for me three days a week, so it’s a room I spend a fair bit of time in.

As with other rooms in the house, the decor was dated, it felt quite dark and gloomy (north-facing), the carpet was old and stained, and the ceiling wallpaper showed signs of some sort of prior, unknowable catastrophe.

And so we (and by we, I mean mostly M – I had more of a sous chef role) stripped the wallpaper, pulled up the carpet and underlay, sanded the skirting boards and window frames, filled the holes in the walls, sugar soaped and treated all the surfaces, pulled out random tacks in the floorboards, and then proceeded to put primer/undercoat on all the walls and ceiling before painting the whole thing a crisp white.

Once you start painting a dim and gloomy room white, you begin to notice all the beige/yellow elements of the room – and how many coats of white it takes to suitably cover those parts.

And finally, we didn’t paint it entirely white; M had the great idea of incorporating a bespoke motif of strong vertical bars and hemispheres done out in oranges and teals and so on. She did these free-hand, first measuring out the shapes and their specific geometries in relation to the wall they would go on, and then traced this out on the bare wall. It is a remarkable job, and the incorporation of round mirrors is ingenious. Those, combined with the beginnings of a gallery wall opposite, make the space inviting and intriguing and very pleasant.

Aside from my supporting roles – I managed to do two or three coats on the ceiling amongst other things – my main jobs in this room were replacing the light switch, light fitting and a double plug socket.

The light switch was simple enough – I just replicated what I found inside the old one and spent a good few minutes flicking the new one on and off again, satisfied.

The light fitting was a bit trickier. I’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos now on the standard wiring of a British home, but it still surprises me a little when I find quite as many cables as I do hidden inside a ceiling rose. It makes sense: three cables (each with three cores) – one going to the switch, one coming into the light, and one going to the next light. It’s simple enough. But it still feels like a lot when you first encounter it inside that tiny fitting.

Added to this three-squared bundle of copper wires I find, I also have to juggle some colours in my head: most of the wiring I’ve encountered is old enough that it follows the old standard colour-coding – red for live, black for neutral. It’s now brown for live and blue for neutral.

With practice I’m sure this will become second nature to me, but I do still find myself having to check out loud or via a visual reference that, yes, where it says brown, I must do the same with the red.

Red should make sense for danger, but brown is a little… subdued for what is actually the live wire. (Yes, I’m aware of the mnemonic for remembering what colour your underwear will go if you touch the live wire…) And although black is nice and, well, neutral, I find that the blue brings to mind an electrical spark…

At least the earth is either green or green and yellow. (But, wait, isn’t actual earth – like soil – brown…? Oh dear…)

But I did manage to swap out the light fitting successfully – the crucial bit I had to remember was keeping in mind the switched live wire and making sure this one goes to the right bit of the new fitting. I’m still not totally sure what would happen if I neglected this part – perhaps the switch wouldn’t work, perhaps the house would burn down – and at one sweaty-palmed moment when visually checking my work I thought I’d done it completely wrong. But no. All good.

And finally there was a double plug socket to change. Most, if not all, of the houses sockets and switches are, alas, surface-mounted. This makes them slightly easier to deal with, but means they all stick out in slightly annoying places like along the skirting boards or in corners, making furniture placement tricky.

Removing the old-style MK sockets dotted around this house is an ongoing project of mine – they’re classic and robust and have served us well, but they now look faintly like something Doc Brown might hook up to an experiment in the 1950s.

I had by accident picked up a new MK socket which has screwless terminals – well, I was happy to go with this choice when I saw it, but slightly less so when a) I found out that they’re quite new, and b) that I couldn’t get the bastard thing to work initially.

On standard fittings with screwed terminals you have a little brass lug and a small screw. Loosen the screw, stick in the copper wire, then tighten the screw, locking the wire in place, making a solid contact. Simple.

On these newer screwless terminal MK units, you have a row of flappy plastic tabs, colour-coded to each wire’s function. The tabs are small, and feel delicate, and the problem I had was simply that I wasn’t opening them enough. They have a natural, spring-based latching mechanism and I felt that they were open wide enough to receive the wire*, but it just wasn’t seating properly.

* More than once I found literature related to electrical components speaking of ‘offering’ a cable to something, or another part ‘receiving’ it.

After some frantic YouTube searches I found that they’re a little more robust than I’d first expected, and the tiny flappy plastic tabs should in fact be forced up to about 90 degrees, pushing them well past the point at which it feels like you might snap the mechanism and ruin the whole unit. I’m so used to tinkering inside modern electronics with tiny tolerances and delicate connections that I had forgotten how robust MK brand home electronics devices should be.

So once I’d sussed out the screwless terminal mechanism – one which I now quite like for its speed and simplicity, I just had to squeeze all the wires inside the backplate behind the socket, screw it together, and test it. Fortunately it worked.

It should here be noted that the above electrical work took a lot longer than I’d expected. Each process was soundtracked by me speaking out loud my thoughts and processes; M now knows to a certain degree what it is like to inhabit my mind while tackling a new and complicated task. And I kept having to double-check stuff because while I would understand the basic concept, each fitting had a little gotcha that I then quickly needed to check before proceeding.

But it all worked – and I changed another light fitting in the dining room, too, which had its own little gotcha: a metal fitting, and instructions from Dunelm which said it MUST be earthed, but no earth terminal to attach the wire to. I have now learned that some metal light fittings can be what’s called ‘double-insulated’, meaning the live bits are inside a plastic case within the fitting, and an earth connection is in fact not needed. There’s a small symbol to confirm this: . So in the end I just had to park the earth in a choccy block and tuck it out of the way. Look at me, don’t I sound like I know what I’m doing?


Towards the end of the week, we reassembled the room so that it would become an office again, and also to take some ‘after’ pictures to go with the now rather bleak ‘before’ shots. I then had the pleasure of spending Monday this week in my new office, finding it to be a delightful space, surprisingly bright with its new white paint, and enjoying various little views of the walls and the new view out of the window now the desk has been moved into the corner. A very pleasant space to be.

And this has all been said without reference to the two storms which rolled through over the past week: Eunice and Franklin brought high winds and amplified the spring tides. The house took quite a blasting from the gusts of wind – no damage that we’ve spotted yet, though at times the roof sounded like it was about to be wrenched off – and we were without electricity for a couple of hours on Friday, resorting to BBC local radio to hear what was going on.

It was a revelation experiencing a powercut in a smaller town for the first time in many years: when our own power died, we found that the mobile data signal was cut, too, and for a short time even the FM signals went out. That was a first!

But we weren’t hindered too much: it was during the middle of the day, and we were only painting and cleaning at that time. We filled a couple of flasks with boiling water between power cuts in case any future outages lasted much longer, but by the sounds of other local outages, we got pretty lucky with our power being restored by early afternoon.

It was a pretty packed week with the house stuff. We feel very satisfied with all that we’ve achieved and learned. And we even had time this week to get out and explore town some more – finding new pubs to hunker down in, exploring new bits of the coast in varying conditions, visiting new exhibitions to take inspiration from, dipping our toes in the sea (and by our, I mean M’s), and looking at upcoming events to get tickets for and partake in.

It’s all quite exciting.