July 31-August 3, 2009

Chilling out, down Canterbury way

Eureka! We've finally done it. After years of spending holidays rushing around like mad things, we've now mastered the art of chilling out.

Holly's still away (with her friend Rachael and parents, on holiday) and Sean is old enough to be left on his own, so for only the third time since 1992(!) me and Julie managed to slip off for a weekend on our own. Just the two of us.

When freedom itself is a novelty, you don't have to go anywhere fancy, and a campsite in Kent was more than adequate for what we wanted to do - which was mostly not much.

Sitting around in the sun, reading books, people watching, listening to iPods and thinking what we are going to do for dinner was all we have to report, although we also spent a nice afternoon/early evening with another couple of happy campers (Jean and Andy, a copper), who turned out to have an uncanny amount in common with us, including being temporarily sans-kids (one of whom turns out to be called Sean). The four of us decided that we were sufficiently cool to deserve chilling out even more with a curry. And very nice it was too.

It's funny how people talk to you on campsites more if you don't have kids, although it may also have something to do with being around more, rather than dashing off. Also on our campsite was a loud Northern Irish lady called Olive, who delighted in telling us how she had outraged the local elders of her church.

Our resolve did crack slightly on Saturday, however - the one day of the four where the weather wasn't camping-friendly. With the clouds gathering, we drove to Sheerness, on the Isle of Sheppey, to discover that apart from a nice walk along the concrete sea defences and people taking iguanas for walks around the shops, there isn't much there.

In fact, I couldn't even find much to photograph, apart from labybirds (above), which demonstrate the amazing macro capabilities of my cheap camera, and I also saw one of the best examples I've ever seen of apostrophe abuse (below). And don't get me started on the shopkeeper's indiscriminate use of capital letters and overuse of exclamation marks, either.

July 25, 2009

Buying British

We've only gone and ordered a new car.

Our old Fiat Brava has more or less given up the ghost, and because of the current generous Scrappage Scheme that gives us £2,000 discount if we scrap our old car and buy a brand new one, we've been scouting around the showrooms, looking for a replacement.

One option would have been to stick with just the one car, but after a complicated couple of weeks, we've decided the taxi service we run for our two teenagers needs to continue as before.

We checked out Mitsubishi, Nissan, Kia, Renault, Fiat, Citreon, Chevrolet, Peugeot and Hyundai options before returning to Nissan to order a white Micra today. One of the deciding factors was that our new car - when it arrives in four to six weeks - will be built in Sunderland. Buying British wasn't our main priority, but having bought British, we're now pretty pleased we did.

I have to be honest and say I would have chosen a Fiat 500 - mainly because this modern retro version of the old model of the same name looks so cool. At almost the same price as the Micra, it was easily the best deal. Still, the Micra does have its attractions and was chosen because it was the only one that satisfied our three main needs: it has to be a practical family car; it has to be quite small; and it has to be fun.

Mela seven

It was Swindon Mela day again today - the seventh time the event has been held, the seventh time we've been, and the seventh time we've come away thoroughly cheered up by the atmosphere.

In a nutshell, it's a festival that inspires Swindon's Asian community to celebrate their amazing culture, and the rest of Swindon turns out in droves to join in the fun. In a way, if you've been to one Mela you've been to them all because the ingredients - Asian music, dance, food, arts, culture - are always the same, but we never miss it. This year we spent most of the day with our friends Pete and Julie, and another good thing about the Mela is you are also liable to bump into loads of other people you know.

It's incredible how happy everybody seems to be at the Mela, the weather is always good, it's the perfect event to make the most of the Town Gardens, and there was something else, which I only realised today, that helps make the Mela extra special.

How can I put this delicately?... one thing you are guaranteed not to get at a Mela is riff-raff.

July 24, 2009

Holly holiday

Silence has descended on the Carter household tonight as Holly is on holiday.

She's off, first thing in the morning, with her friend Rachael and her mum and dad, on a two-week trip to Norfolk.

It's the longest any of our kids have been away from home. On the one hand it's nice to have a kind of freedom not experienced for years and have a break of teenage girlie angst, but on the other hand, two weeks is an awfully long time...

July 18, 2009

Park life

Can it really be a year since the last Carter family barbecue?

It was back to Lydiard Park today for the annual gettogether of the clans - about 30 of us altogether, plus Lennon the dog. The star of the show was my four-year-old great neice, Millie (along with her little sister Amber), especially when grandad (my brother) flew a kite for her and everybody present got a personal invitation from Millie to come and have a look.

That's something you miss when your kids get older: their assumption that when they see something new or exciting, it's also new or exciting for everybody else. It's obviously difficult to get teenagers enthusiastic about anything.

There was also the traditional dads and sons football match and the spectacle of ageing men trying to recapture the past and overcome reluctant lungs and muscles.

The number of years we've been doing all this is another thing I've lost count of, but long may it continue.

July 17, 2009

Singular success

A big night for our band tonight, with a gig at a posh venue (Lydiard House Conference Centre) in front of a discerning audience (the Square One Singles Club). It was the club's summer ball, and it went better than any of us could have hoped.

It's nearly a year since we first ventured to play in public, and it is really gelling now. I've got over the blind fear of it all, have literally lost count of the number of times I've now done it (eight or nine), and actually ended up enjoying it more than enduring it. And we got paid more than usual.

We played three half-hour-plus sets, and each time went down really well. At the end, the chairwoman of the club, who organised the whole thing, said we were "absolutely fantastic" and loads of people came up to tell us what a great night they had. In short, we were like rock stars!

We looked the part, too, starting off in professional-looking black shirts and changing into Hawaiian shirts during the first break.

I was relieved that we dropped the song I sing, which we had planned to do, because the crowd were up dancing to faster songs. I was especially pleased for fellow band member Dave, who got us the gig because he's a member of the singles club himself, and was therefore under a lot of pressure to do well. He enjoyed the success even more than me.

July 10-12, 2009

Oh gear

This weekend saw a long-planned camping trip near Portsmouth, with my brother Brian and his wife and two kids. Our family was reduced to three, Sean now having officially decided that camping is not only not cool but too cold and damp to qualify as fun.

Nobody keeps their eyes on weather forecasts like hardened campers, and for a long time it looked like the weather would spoil this trip. Then the campsite turned out to be pretty lacking in facilties (a campsite without facilties is a field), and threatened to ruin it. But, in the end, it turned out to be ruined by something else.

The weather was bad all day at Portsmouth on Saturday - drizzle on and off - but the real downer was our car suddenly developing an ominous juddering as we headed back to our campsite from Portsmouth on the M27. Our initial hopes that it was the road surface and then a puncture soon disappeared as the juddering continued, even at low speed, and we were forced to pull over on to the hard shoulder.

At least we have the consolation that the bad weather had blown itself out, we thought, but as we waited to be rescued, it bucketed down - and didn't stop for the next six hours.

We eventually limped to a garage/control centre where we arranged for the car and our trailer (which was back at the campsite) to be towed home on the Sunday. The cover from our breakdown service not being enough to get us home - is it ever? - we had to fork out £308 for the privilege, plus a £20 taxi fare back to our soggy tent. In fact, we went to a nearby pub.

Faced with a potentially wet and complicated pick-up at the campsite on Sunday, we were amazed to discover that the wet weather had given way to sunshine in the morning and, apart from a small shower, allowed us to pack up without incident and even get suntans while we waited for the van to arrive.

Surprisingly, we actually managed to enjoy our weekend overall, especially as the historic dockyard at Portsmouth is so good. We'd been last year and still had year-long tickets, this time taking in the Naval Museum, a (return) visit to the splendid HMS Warrior, a harbour tour and my favourite: the only surviving sail flown by HMS Victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, complete with damage caused by cannonballs.

But it will always be remembered as the weekend when we witnessed the death throes of a faithful old car that will now almost certainly have to be replaced.

Amazingly - especially as we can ill afford the expense - we don't let setbacks like this worry us any more. Even when you are huddled together in pouring rain behind the crash barriers of the M27, there seems less and less point in getting upset about things that our beyond your control.

July 9, 2009

World first

A very pleasant birthday number 48, although mine and Julie's traditional day out, riding around and taking lunch like a couple of pensioners was spoiled by Holly's school dreaming up an end of year presentation day for the middle of the day that only one of us could attend, owing to demand for tickets.

There were lots of treats for me, though, including Buzz Aldrin's new book, but probably the best was a small globe that the kids bought me for my desk. I've always wanted one because they give you a unique insight into the world that flat maps never can, but I'd never owned one before today.

Actually, it's not quite true that I've never owned a globe as we bought an inflatable one to take on our family trip to Australia in 2001. We always tell the true story of how it was nicked while we were off the plane during refuelling at Singapore airport, and how we always said that although the theft was disappointing, it wasn't the end of the world.

July 5, 2009

More chess

Another milestone for Holly today as she competed in yet another UK Chess Challenge Gigafinal - the national final of the world's biggest chess championship.

She's qualified for this for the last I-don't-know-how-many years - six or seven (I need to check) - and as her junior chess career is nearing the end, we want to see her finish on a good note, so both went along to the Gigafinal at an incredibly posh school for rich kids in Crowthorne, Berkshire.

She mostly did well today, winning two of her first three games before unluckily coming up against a player with a very high grade. Then she was beaten in the second quickest time ever known after making a blunder, but redeemed herself by winning her last game to finish on three out of six.

So no trophies today, but a respectable finish - and we get another souvenir in the shape of the personalised name plate all players get at this level in this tournament (pictured). It's a nice reminder that she is - and has been for years - competiting at a very high level (Suprema meaning she's the overall girl champion for her age in the county).

July 1, 2009

Amazing family history discoveries

My brother Brian continues to turn up some stunning family history discoveries, which also prove that no matter how much you think you know about your genealogy, sometimes big stories can go untold.

The latest is that my dad (who was born in 1923 and died in 1977) had an older brother who died aged 58 days (Donald Hamilton Carter, 19.1.22-16.3.22). We always thought that my dad was the eldest child - and so, we believe, did he.

There were also two later children whom we were previously unaware of - one who died after four days (Anna Carter, 2.1.26-6.1.26) and another unnamed daughter, who was stillborn (sometime between February and June 1932).

Not only have these three children never been spoken about before, to our knowledge, but we don't believe that my dad even knew about them, even though the third child died when my dad was nine. For him to not know about it, it surely must have occured during a period when he wasn't at home. My dad, along with his brothers and sisters, was taken into care, because of apparent neglect by my grandfather, but I've always assumed that happened after his mother died.

If he wasn't there, maybe he just never got to know about what was happening at home. More significantly, it seems he wasn't told in later life, either.

And the plot thickens. About twenty years ago, I made a couple of visits to meet my grandfather's younger sister, Flo, and we talked a lot about the family history. Despite this golden opportunity to tell me about these three children, she never did - yet she must have known.

I can only guess that there was some kind of feeling that although infant deaths were still not uncommon, maybe at least the first two deaths could have been avoided, which led to a concerted effort among those who knew about the three dead babies to 'hush up' their existence. The cause of death for the elder brother was dyspepsia (which is just indigestion, according the dictionary), plus 'general debility' - which sounds like the baby could have been disabled in some way. The saddest thing of all would be if the hushing up occured because the family felt some kind of stigma at having a disabled baby. I'm still only guessing here, but I wouldn't put it past people of that era to have lunatic morals and philosophies like that (nor some people today).

There was also a stillborn child on my mother's side of the family. She had a stillborn sister. Even with that more straightforward case, the story handed down in the family is probably wrong. My mum was told the baby was born one day and died the next. But that would have required birth and death certificates, and we haven't been able to find either. Stillbirths, on the other hand, weren't registered in those days, and is therefore much more likely.

It seems incredible to us, now, that the basic facts involving something as major as a death in the family should get muddied, let alone be brushed under the carpet completely.

Returning to my dad's side of the family: the fact that he was the oldest surviving child was significant. His mother died when he was just ten years old, and because of the aforementioned neglect by his father, as the eldest, he was left with responsibilities for bringing up - or at least looking out for - his younger brothers and sisters.