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February 18, 2011

Trevor Carter, 1973-2011

Because we went away for a short family holiday afterwards, I am writing this nearly a week after my nephew Trevor's funeral. Those few days away - happy ones, with old friends - gave us time to reflect on one of the most difficult days of our lives.

In the week after his death I wrote a blog entry which said I hoped our first memories of Trev in the future would not be as the tragic one of the family who died suddenly (and so far inexplicably) at the age of 37. What I wrote seemed to strike a chord, but I wasn't the only one who sensed a need to focus on what we'd loss rather than the fact that we had lost. So it was with relief that the funeral, for all its heartbreaking sadness, somehow managed to be positive.

Those who wrote and delivered speeches with such strength - his father (my brother) and mother, his brothers* (my nephews), his widow Conny and various friends - along with all those who packed into the Memorial Hall at Wootton Bassett, managed to produce something that was fitting for somebody who gave and inspired a lot of love.

The second part of the funeral took us to Kingsdown - not to the crematorium, but to the new cemetery there, Trev having decided that burial was a greener option than cremation. It was the first time I've been to a burial, which may have added to this part of the day feeling surreal, just as the last few weeks have, with the feeling we have been watching a scene, as if it was a movie, rather than actually being part of a reality.

As his brother Stuart brillantly summed it up, "Trev wasn't in that box any more than he's in the sky playing a harp," and I'm glad I felt exactly the same. As an atheist, my definition of 'spirit' is at odds with religious folks' needs to believe in souls moving on, intact, to a different place, but I am coming to the conclusion that some kind of spirit (if that's what you want to call it) is abroad. As Trev and our reaction to his unexplainable absence seemed to prove, sometimes someone has enough human spirit for it to overflow and jump from one person to another, even after they have gone. And you could almost see that happening.

There is nothing supernatural or mystical about this, although it is true that some people, for some reason, have more of it than others. So instead of telling each other fairytales, we should have more faith in it and not underestimate ourselves nor each other in terms of our ability to inspire and influence the people around us.

My abiding memory of Trev is going to be the ever-present smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye, and the tribute that the whole funeral paid to him succeeded in defining the spirit that was behind that twinkle.

And there was a bonus. The funeral included a recording of Trev himself, in his band, The Familiar Sound, singing a song called Couldn't Be Better, which he wrote. I may be biased and it may just be wishful thinking, but if I am not very much mistaken, it's a beautiful song. I love it, and at the moment I can't get it out of my head, I am glad to say. At the moment it still brings tears to my eyes to listen to it, but it is a priceless legacy to have.

The title is wrong, of course. Things could be much better. It would be better, obviously, if Trev could still be around in person to sing it to everybody who went to his funeral. But he's not and never will be again, and although it may take time, everybody who was there will eventually take strength from taking home their share of the spirit he left behind.


*Read Stuart's eulogy here.

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February 16, 2011

The good, the bad and the ugly

Time for a little bit of a round-up of the week's events, which fall neatly into three categories.

The first was good - Holly's school report, which confirms she is on course for lots of As and Bs when she takes her GCSEs in the summer. Being a responsible parent, I can put my hand on my heart and say we have never put any pressure on our kids when it comes to exams, only encouraging effort - and the over-riding theme of the report was that Holly has worked damned hard at both the subjects she likes and is good at, and the ones she doesn't like and wasn't so good at. So I already count that as success.

Her favourite and best subject is art, and I continue to be amazed at how much work one person can put into one subject. Once it has been marked, I intend to make a photographic record of all her coursework and upload it here as an example of both quality and quantity.

From my own personal point of view, the report is a landmark as it was the final school report we will ever receive as parents - and as the school understandably sees it as the most important, being the last one before the exams, it wasn't just sent home in an envelope, but handed over in a meeting with a senior teacher. As we always do with meetings at the school, if it is humanly possible, both Julie and I went along for this - and, not unusually, Holly seemed to be the only one there who had two parents behind her.

From the good to the bad: Sean's third unsuccessful driving test. This one was the hardest to bear as he thought he had done a faultless test, only to fail on something that he was adamant he had done, which was to check his nearside mirror on roundabouts.

Understandably miffed by this, he made the valid point that he is an honest person, and told the examiner she had got it wrong. Then, when he was handed the result slip, he screwed it up and threw it down. I suppose that isn't to be condoned, but when somebody who is usually laid back, respectful and reasonable does something like that, then you have to say he probably has a point - and I am secretly glad he did it.

In the end, complaining about the outcome of driving tests is as futile as moaning about the weather (and there is another one coming along next month, anyway), but... well, we all know the driving test is so much of a lottery it should be run by Camelot.

After the good and the bad comes the ugly: six ugly blokes, including me, who have, this week, booked a trip to Barcelona in October. Officially called the LNO50 trip (with an official logo, designed by me), it is an extravagant extension of our monthly LNOs (lads' nights out) organised to celebrate the fact that all members of our party celebrate our 50th birthdays this year.

Barcelona was not in our original plan as we had somehow decided to go to Cairo instead (the result of a flawed voting system), and our re-think has recently been proved to be prudent as (for the benefit of posterity) there has been blanket news coverage from Cairo recently on account of their (fortunately almost bloodless) revolution.

The Barcelona apartment is now booked, as are the EasyJet flights, and we are all pretty excited about it. The older we get and the more trials and tribulations life throws at us, the more we value such long-lasting friendships, and it should be a really memorable trip, one way or another.

Right on cue, this weekend, comes our annual February break (now in its 19th year) with almost the same crowd (plus their wives and some of their children), as we all head off to convene in Ilfracombe.

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February 14, 2011

Starship Carter

One of my favourite moments in any film is the bit in Apollo 13 where there has just been an explosion, all plans have gone out the window, alarms are going off and everybody is looking shocked and stressed. In the middle of it, the cool guy who is in charge of it all (in real life, Gene Kranz) rises above the confusion and says, very calmly: "What do we have on the spacecraft that's good?"

Well, I feel a bit like Gene Kranz at the moment because I can report some good news on the Starship Carter, which concerns Sean's ongoing attempt to build a career as a drum/guitar/general music tutor.

Over the last few months he has been trying to build up paying customers, which is a process that we expected to take some time, but it is already happening quicker than expected. He already has six or seven little kids he is teaching drums - one through a private arrangement and the other through another, much-longer established local drum teacher. And there are other bits and pieces, including a four-hour shift with Swindon Rock School that he puts in on Tuesday evenings.

Altogether, this amounts to about ten hours a week, but that is about to be doubled as he has been asked to do some of the teaching for Swindon Music Service's Rockpod set-up.

Rockpods are for bands - usually made up of schoolkids - who are all plugged into the same sound system, which is built around an electronic drum kit but also includes inputs for guitars and vocals. That way, half a dozen bands can all play in the same room, monitored by teachers, now including Sean. It's all pretty new but already a huge success, and the whole set-up is also due to move to new premises soon, so he is lucky to be in at the start of something that's breaking new ground. The set-up suits him perfectly as it uitilises his drumming skills but also his ability to play guitar; makes the most of the skills and confidence he got from taking his music technology A Level; and even draws on his experience of being in a band.

His band (The Cold Harbour) have finalised details for another European tour, which sees them fly to Berlin and then play about a dozen dates in Germany and Belgium next month (he will be away for his 19th birthday). They are also releasing an EP - on vinyl!

All this is linked with my late nephew Trevor because he set a precedent for it. We just weren't a musical family before Trev and his brothers Stuart and Rich started a garage band, and he was the one of the three who carried it on, and was still playing in a band up to his death. Indeed, the last conversation I had with him (at Christmas) was about music, and he was joking that he was going to get rich writing commercially viable songs. In reality, he was what I call an honest musician, playing and writing the kind of stuff he liked.

I think some of my outlying older cousins might have beaten him to it by playing instruments, but in terms of any immediate family, Trevor was the first member of the family to be in a band, and this helped to pave the way for Sean to pursue music as a career.

I am a great believer in precedents in life. I think people tend to grossly underestimate the importance of them in every sphere of human activity, which is why nearly all my heroes are people who did something first or at least did something radical. It certainly helped Sean to have an older cousin who could not only play an instrument, but had formed a band and was keen to play honest, live music. So thanks for that, Trev.

It even helped to inspire me to join a band. The first time I played with real people - as opposed to backing tracks - was at a jam session I organised for family and friends in March 2007, when Trev was one of the guitarists. In a rare break from tradition, I am reproducing a picture from that day (taken by my brother Brian), below, which shows me drumming for Trevor (right) and my brother-in-law Steve.

Don't worry - I don't have any illusions about my own musical career, although it has recently progressed, through experience, from being a terrifying challenge to something that I can actually enjoy.

It's quite different for Sean, of course. There is now no doubt that it is a viable career for him, and also opens up all kinds of opportunities and possibilities in the future.

That's not only something to be pleased about, but also to be proud of.


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February 13, 2011

IWTWHW


When I started this blog - incredibly, now over four years ago - I didn't know how I was going to handle the sad and momentous days that it would inevitably throw up. But there's not much point in putting things down 'on paper' in a diary/blog if you are only prepared to include half the things that happen. So I had to be prepared to make it a warts-and-all blog, or nothing.

It turns out, however, that writing about the hard times are not so difficult - in a way, it's a kind of therapy - and the hardest thing has been picking up the story again afterwards. No more so than in the last couple of weeks.

Everything that has happened since the death of my nephew, Trevor, has seemed ridiculously trivial in comparison. Even though we have had little option but to get on with our own lives, we still haven't stopped thinking about the impact on the rest of the family.

Many people, it seems, are unable to understand how much that matters to us. It's easy to assume that everybody else's family is like this, but when Julie went to work and told her colleagues our sad news, one asked: "So you know all your nephews then?"

She felt like saying of course we do - but couldn't explain how that wasn't even half the story because of how close both my and her family are, even if we are geographically separated, and even if we are not in each other's pockets. It's difficult to explain, but there is some kind of telegraphy in our family that means we instinctively feel that when things go against us, we are all in it together. I'd like to think this is in our genes, except it also seems to apply to people who marry into the family.

I was talking about this with my nephew Stuart (Trevor's older brother) and he said it was years before he realised not all families were the same. His two brothers have always been his best friends and they've always done things together, even though there is five years between them - which wasn't so much of a gap once they reached their thirties, but should have seemed huge when they were younger. He said it suddenly struck him, sitting in the pub with all their mates one night, that they - Stuart, Trevor and Rich - were the only brothers there. None of their friends went around with their family.

It has also only just struck me that their mother, Jenny, always refers to 'Our Stuart', 'Our Trevor' and 'Our Richard'. If she was a northerner, that would be no big deal because up there they say it habitually as a way of distinguishing family, but when southerners do it, it means more. Somebody once pointed out to me that I always referred to my mum as 'Our Mum' (which we all did/do) and how strange it was to hear this from a southerner.

The downside of being so close, of course, is grief hits you harder.

Over the last few weeks I have come to understand a bit more about what grief actually is, and that it must be an evolutionary thing - something that kicks in when humans face a crisis, and, like other human instincts, isn't necessarily logical.

Both my blogging nephews (Stuart and Rich) have spoken about the guilt side of grief - that feeling that you really shouldn't be anything but completely miserable because of what has happened, and that you should feel like this for the foreseeable future and maybe even the rest of your life. Even thinking - let alone writing - about anything else therefore somehow feels disrespectful, and sometimes this means even positive things get suppressed.

I think grief is our brains' way of fixing the departed person in our minds. We automatically understand the need for memories to be strong because, from now on, they are going to have to make up for the fact that that person isn't physically there, and our brains are so fixed on preserving somebody's memory that it relegates any thoughts of anything else.

What it is impossible to believe at the time is there is nothing wrong in turning our attention to other things - and we have already bolstered our memories of the departed person enough to allow that to happen.

I found this out, ironically a few days before Trevor died. Julie's brother Steve's eulogy for their father (my father-in-law) Keith suddenly came to light, nearly five years after Steve read it at the funeral. Its power to instantly transport us back not to the funeral, but to when Keith was still alive was surprising, and had all of us in tears - even including Steve, who was able to deliver it without tears at the funeral.

What it told us is our memories of people get put in the background sometimes, but they are never overwritten, and only need a little reminder, even years later. We were all in tears after re-reading what Steve wrote, but they were tears not of grief as such, nor joy, but something in-between. The best thing is those memories came back better than they were before - because they weren't tarnished with huge grief and had had time to mature. I wasn't quite sure why I wanted to copy the words to this blog at the time, but now I understand a bit better.

Friday's funeral is going to be hard for everybody, but there is a real desire to turn it into a genuine celebration of Trevor's life, not just to counteract the grief, but because it should be a celebration. There are some ideas I really like.

The first is that all mourners are being encouraged to bring along a photo of him and write an anecdote to remind ourselves of him and, hopefully in the way that I've just described, makes way for the time, in the future, when we can look back without being weighed down by grief.

Most people deal with their grief by instinctively saying that the dead person wouldn't have wanted us to be miserable, despite what's happened. To be honest, that's probably true of nearly everybody, but in Trevor's case, especially so. As one of his friends wrote on his blog, life did makes his eyes did light up, and we all noticed that he instinctively knew life was for living.

That's why mourners won't be wearing black at his funeral (unless they want to), but they will be wearing badges designed by his brother Stuart saying 'IWTWHW' - it's what Trev would have wanted.

Don't ask me to explain why I think this is such a brilliant idea. If you can explain why an idea is good, it's not as good as you thought it was, because the really brilliant ones are brilliant because they just are. And IWTWHW badges just are, for sure.

And if you don't believe me, the picture at the top of this entry (which goes with this entry in Stuart's blog) says it all.

I was going to update this blog with those other things that have been going on in our lives - including some good news - but this one is already far too long, so I will look forward to doing that tomorrow.

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February 2, 2011

Trev

The enormity of the family's grief at the death of my nephew Trevor, who died suddenly on Sunday, aged 37 (seemingly as the result of a pre-existing but not properly understood medical condition), is not something that is ever going to be told in words, let alone in the first few days after it happened. We are no nearer to coming to terms with something we will probably always find unbelievable.

I could write for hours about how sad we feel, and even more about how painful it is to try to imagine the grief of other members of the family. And, just in case that wasn't enough, I could tell you how we have all been knocked sideways by something that just doesn't follow the natural order of things.

But what I want to say most of all is something about Trev.

Of all my nephews, he was the one I'd seen least of since he grew up. He moved away from Swindon a few years ago and we mostly only bumped into him at big family gatherings, including twice recently - at a family Christmas party and finally at my mum's funeral, only three weeks ago. The happiest day was not so long ago - his and Conny's wedding in August 2009.

Whenever we met again, he was always the same. Always upbeat. Always cheerful. Not just smiling. Always laughing. Indeed, if I close my eyes and think of him now, he's laughing. That's one hell of an image to leave behind.

I've heard other people describe him as "a gentle giant" - he was well over six feet tall - and "laid-back". Well, that's true, but I hesitate to endorse it because both those terms are what you might use to describe people who drift along and let life happen to them without offering much in return - and that's definitely not true of Trev. He energised the people around him - as the incredibly supportive reaction of his friends to his death proves. He cared about things; he took an interest in the finer things the world had to offer; and he understood the real value of priceless things. Basically: all the qualities I admire most in people, above all others.

OK, you might think - it's easy to roll out compliments about people when they are dead, and you can conveniently forget the bad things. But there is no sentimentality or compensation in any of this. He was genuinely one of life's good guys and if nobody has a bad word to say about him at the moment it's nothing to do with being respectful, but because nobody ever seemed to have anything bad to say about him when he was alive.

His two brothers, who, it is clear to see, were also his best friends, both write honest and heartfelt blogs, and because neither have yet written about the depth of their grief, I don't wish to pre-empt them. But I wanted to explain how the shockwaves are reverberating throughout the whole family and among his friends - and why.

The future seems a long way off in our family just now, but what I hope for, most of all, is that however much we feel the tragedy at the moment, it doesn't cloud our memories of him in the years to come. I don't want my first thoughts of Trev to be about him being the tragic one of the family who died before his time.

I would hate to think that the last moment of his life overshadows the other 37 years that made every member of the family proud to be his flesh and blood.

See Stuart's blog and Rich's blog for suitably beautiful pictures of Trev with two of his nieces.