March 25/26, 2011


There were not one but two family birthday milestones to celebrate this weekend - and very timely they were too.

First there was a curry with my brother Brian and his family to cheer their daughter Lucy's 18th birthday (actually a couple of days before). We often go to the Biplob on the kids' birthdays, which is always a treat, so we knew we were in for a nice evening. (Lucy is pictured above right, with Holly).

Then a contingent of Carters made our way down the M4 and M5 to Wiveliscombe for my sister Carol's 60th birthday (actually the day before).

Carol and Dave live a short walk from the excellent Three Horseshoes pub (with its choice of West Country ales, local cider and genuine traditional pub character all on tap). This not only provided the well-nigh perfect setting, but the landlord even made it a private party - the first time, in my recollection, that I have ever been to a private party that closed a pub.

Our family has faced various well-charted adversaries over the years and over recent weeks, and all of these have served to bring us closer together as a family.

That was also true geographically. With my sister living a hundred miles away in Somerset and our lives being busier and more complicated than ever, we don't get down there so often these days, so it was really, really nice to have a good excuse to go down, and I am glad to report that we all had a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable evening, with great company, great food and great drinks.

Carol had a drink or two during the evening, too, as you may be able to tell from the last picture below.

March 23, 2011

The million-dollar cat

Our emotions have taken such a battering in the last three months that I suppose it was inevitable that 2011 would deal us another blow - and sooner rather than later.

It came today when I was left no option but to ask the vet to put down Elvis, one of our two cats.

He's been quite sickly for about three years, having had a bowel problem that made it difficult for him to take nutrients from food, so he usually alternated between thin and very thin, and we had needed lots of medication and regular vet consultations to keep his weight up.

His long-term problems seemed to come to a head last December when he had to be admitted to the vet's for a week, suffering from pancreatitis, but, against the odds, he came home again and, ironically, probably enjoyed the best three months of health in his life. Until Monday.

Then he stopped eating - which was his greatest passion in life - and when we took him to the vet yesterday, we were told he was suddenly back to square one at best. The vet feared there were other problems and complications, and this morning I got the phone call we have been dreading, to say he was deteriorating, with no hope of improvement.

He was only ten years old, but there was no longer any doubt that his time had come. His breathing was starting to become laboured and for the first time in his battle for health he was beginning to suffer.

Having to make the ultimate decision before fate made it for us is, of course, the ultimate gift you can give any living thing that faces suffering, but it's still very hard to make, all the same.

Because we had spent so much money at the vet's, we had got to calling him 'the million-dollar cat', but really it was because he was worth a million dollars to us. It's not always clear whether it's a blessing or a curse to be put on this earth as animal lovers in general and cat lovers in particular, but all four people in our house have it in our genes.

Elvis was not just a lovely, friendly, placid, characterful cat, but, because he was a bit daft and needed extra healthcare, we felt extra responsibility for him, which made him even more a part of the family. Probably for the same reason, he never went more than a few feet or yards from us. He was always there. The kids both grew up with him.

We've known for a while that he was on borrowed time, and although we thought he would survive longer, we knew we had to make the most of him and love him even more since he came home at Christmas. So we did.

You have to know the heartbreaks and setbacks we have been suffering all year to understand how punch-drunk we feel from being knocked down every time we try to get up.

And you have to be an animal/cat lover yourself to understand just how sad we all feel today about the loss of our little friend.

March 18, 2011

Pass notes

Our luck may be changing as Sean has passed his driving test.

The whole driving thing had turned into a catalogue of bad luck and frustration, and the odds seemed stacked against him again today because he was having to take it in our Micra, which until 48 hours before, he had never driven, and he had very limited time to get used to it.

So he went into his test genuinely expecting to fail, which may have relaxed him and worked in his favour in the end. I remember feeling exactly the same about my test, all those years ago.

Sean was relieved to pass, but not as much as Julie was to hear that he had passed, being the family's resident fusser and panicker. It is also a relief in terms of us no longer having to ferry him to places, which was mostly to work. Indeed, suddenly the tables are turned and he can start ferrying us around - including picking us up when we go out and both want to drink (hurray).

All we need now is another car - and we are also thinking our luck is changing because the insurance company's valuation of our poor old Fiat that was written off (see below) is almost the same as ours. We are absolutely flabbergasted to discover this, having assumed there would be no justice and we would lose out by hundreds of pounds.

There is still a lot of paperwork and stuff to do, but our search for a new car (more accurately: a new old car) can begin. I have some offbeat ideas about what we should get, but when it comes to cars in our house I have no say in the matter and we will probably end up with something agonisingly practical.

My weird new friend

I suppose everybody has at least one weird friend - but probably not as weird as mine. I am the friend of a cemetery.

My interest in local history has got me involved with a brand new group who are calling themselves The Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery*. It was founded by Mark Sutton, who is well known around town as an authority on the First World War, and Frances Bevan, who writes local history features for the Swindon Advertiser.

They were concerned that Swindon's historic cemetery, which opened in 1881 but now has only burials in existing family plots, was getting a bit neglected. Some vultures have been up there, stealing lead and other metals, and a few of the graves and memorials have been battered and pushed over by the elements and vandals.

In the middle of the cemetery is a little chapel (pictured) which is partially restored and now hardly ever used, but Mark and Frances are working on getting it opened for community/local history purposes. Last year they did a guided tour of the cemetery and this year (on May 21 and 22) they are repeating it, but also opening the chapel on both days for historical displays, including, naturally, one about Alfred Williams.

There are two sides to the project: wanting to preserve the cemetery as a nice place to go - it's even a bit of a nature reserve - but also to highlight the fact that it is overflowing with history. There are a few war graves and lots of important local historical characters are buried there, and the idea of the guided walk is to tell some of the human stories and bring those people back to life, so to speak.

In all, there are 33,000 people in the cemetery, but only about a thousand are marked, which, in itself, says a lot about people's lives being forgotten.

I spent a couple of hours with Mark and Frances, last week, walking round the cemetery, and today I had a very brief look at the records (which are held at Kingsdown Crematorium), followed by a quick visit to the Upper Stratton cemetery in Green Road, where lots of my ancestors lie in unmarked graves.

I and people close to me have had their fill of cemeteries and crematoria just lately, so it's ironic that I now find myself going back to them, but it is necessary if you want to be a proper historian.

When I stopped to think about it, I realised that my interest in history (in general) and local history (in particular) is changing for the better. Whereas I have always been interested in places, events and big characters in history - not in itself a bad thing - these days I find myself more interested in so-called 'ordinary' individuals and their lives, which is, ultimately, the real story.

We should never forget that the dead have more to teach us than the living.

Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery Facebook page

*I already have several personal connections with Radnor Street. My mum was born there (number 88), the first house I rented was there (number 9) and the first house I bought (also where we lived when we were first married) was number 36. Ironically, that was opposite the cemetery gates.

March 16, 2011

Home again

Sean is home from his latest musical adventure (a tour of Germany and briefly Belgium with his band, The Cold Harbour), looking a bit thinner that when he left.

His money ran out after only a few days of the 12-day trip, so he ended up taking advantage of the free vegan food on offer from the driver/promoter rather than the hot dogs and burgers they were buying at the beginning (and if you ask me, vegan food is just as unhealthy). Despite that, his verdict was this year's tour was that it was "even better than last year's".

Details of exactly what they got up to while they were away are sketchy, but as he celebrated his 19th birthday while he was there, we are quite happy to look at it on a need-to-know basis and continue in blissful ignorance. No doubt some of it was rough and a bit wild, but it sounds like most of it was legal.

It's no doubt significant that they didn't allocate much time to sightseeing, despite being in Berlin for a gig and then later for a whole day - what I would immediately think was an opportunity to see the Brandenburg Gate, but something that doesn't seem to have occurred to them for a moment. On the other hand, Sean did drink enough bottled German lager to decide that, despite its reputation, it is grossly inferior to our idea of beer, and said he most enjoyed the Belgian (British-style) beer in Antwerp (that's my boy).

Sean was full of stories of how nice everybody was, which is not what you might expect in view of the dubious-looking characters that are probably attracted to this kind of music. It is, after all, a derivative of the punk that shocked my generation (or, more accurately, my parents'), although my view of the original punks has always been that they may have looked scary, but most of them were rebelling against the world because they cared.

In fact, the older I get, the more I think the rough-looking people on this planet are the ones to trust and it's the smart ones you need to be wary of. I'd rather take my chances with a pub full of punks and Hell's Angels than an office full of bankers.

We can't help feeling a bit of relief that he's home safely, but both Julie and I are full of admiration for the fact that Sean and his mates got up and did it. It's the kind of thing I talked about doing when I was younger and never got round to it - and he's already seen much more of certain parts of the world than me, such as the old East Germany. They visited its outer reaches - Leipzig and Zittau - which Sean thought was a nice part of the country.

I was surprised he wasn't surprised it was nice, and he was surprised I was surprised he wasn't surprised. This goes to show how our expectations of Europe change if you are not weighed down with out-of-date preconceptions - even though my view of Europe is more positive than almost everybody I know. More accurately, I understand more than most that while we like to think we are superior to those fools on the Continent and they can teach us nothing, when you actually go to those places and meet those people, you often find that the exact opposite is true.

As far as I can see, there is only one certain exception: the brewing of beer, and even then, there is no doubt the Belgians are as good at it as we are.

March 14, 2011

Worthless and tenuous so-called historical items I have brought home - number 37: the brick that Alfred left behind

I have been neglecting Alfred Williams lately. In fact, I've been neglecting him so much that I am not going to link to the official website (which I maintain) because it hasn't been maintained very well, although I have almost completed a revamp and reorganisation which better honours his memory.

Anyway, today I stepped up my researches into the life of this local hero by visiting an old farmer at Sevenhampton. John Hill's family have farmed the area for generations and, along with his wife Rosemary, and this morning I spent more than an hour with them, gleaning information.

I'd actually arranged to visit them because they are hoping to find out more about one of Alfred's paintings, which they can remember seeing hanging on the wall at Rose Cottage, where Alfred spent most of his childhood. I am going to try to track it down, although there is no guarantee that it still exists as they remember seeing it in the 1970s.

But they were able to furnish me with valuable information, especially about the old Wilts and Berks Canal that ran through South Marston. It's significant because Alfred talks about it in his writings, but also because some of the stone that he used to build his cottage at South Marston (with his bare hands) was taken from a disused lock, which he had bought. He and his wife Mary moved it all by wheelbarrow to the building site, a good mile away.

It's not something that would keep many people awake at night, but I always wanted to know which of the four South Marston locks was the one in question. Today I got my answer as the Hills told me it must be the lock near Longleaze Farm, which is the last of the four. According to local knowledge/legend, that is the only one that was dismantled; the other three were just buried.

Mr and Mrs Hill even gave me a copy of an old map and because their family actually own and work the land, I had permission to go walkabout on the fields and find the site of the lock.

Ironically, what has survived best is not the canal itself but the feeder ditch, which is easy to follow most (if not all) of the way from South Marston to its source - a brook at Liden. Almost all the canal is filled in, with hardly any hint that it ever existed unless you know its history. But there is a small trace of the actual bottom of the canal leading to slightly higher ground which, although overgrown with trees, is obviously where the lock once was.

I looked around for any trace of the structure but found nothing apart from an old brick, which looks to me like it once might have been part of a lock, so I did what I always feel compelled to do in these situations and brought it home.

Of course, it could be one that somebody once threw over the hedge when they were mending the road, but it seems more likely to be part of the old lock, so I will forever refer to it as my brick that Alfred left behind.

I'll probably leave it on the decking and wait for visitors to ask me what that old brick is doing there, by which time it will be too late for them to avoid hearing the whole story, all over again.

March 9, 2011

Slings and arrows

The first thing to say about this blog entry is at least nobody was injured or died, but it does seem like every single day of the winter has been designed to be a test of our resilience.

I don't want to go all Shakespearean on anybody, but we now know what he meant about slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and taking arms against a sea of troubles.

Today we sent our (Blue Fiat) car off for a service and MOT, sure it would pass with flying colours, but by the end of the day it was a write-off.

The nice man who does our mechanics picked it up in the morning and, while he was en route to the garage, another driver decided not to give way at a roundabout or was going too fast to stop, so hit the back of our car, spun it round and then smashed into the front.

The front wheels are now pointing in different directions and the whole of the front of the car isn't quite pointing in the direction it was in the morning, either, but we are grateful that although our man was shaken, he wasn't hurt.

Life is all about counting blessings and finding silver linings at the moment, so I should also say that at least it wasn't our newer car, either, and there was a witness, so there should be no argument about who was at fault. But we will now certainly lose money we can't afford because of something that wasn't just not our fault, but we weren't even there!

Julie's dad, whose car it once was, not only drove it carefully, like a true pensioner, but really looked after it, and since we inherited it we've had it serviced and treated it kindly too, so the insurance company certainly won't give us what it was worth. And we not only have the bother of dealing with the insurance claim and finding a replacement - which is always a lottery - but we have the complication of having to do it through somebody else's insurance company.

To add more insult, the reason we were having it MOT-ed - even though it wasn't due - was Sean was going to drive it in his test next week and we thought it would be wise to make sure it was perfect. Now we'll have to insure our other car, which he has never driven, and he will have very little time to practise in it as he returns home from Germany less than two days before. This is on top of a string of bad luck which has prevented him passing or, in one case, even taking previous tests. He failed his last test on not looking in his nearside mirror on a roundabout (which he is absolutely adamant he did anyway), and this is obviously a better reason to keep him off the roads than the selfishness of today's licence holder who (to quote today's witness) "came flying onto the roundabout".

At the end of the day - and putting aside the fact that the car did have sentimental value because of its connection with Julie's dad - we have to tell ourselves it was only a car. In comparison with so many recent setbacks, disappointments and sadness involving friends and family - some of which I can't discuss here - nobody needs to tell us that worse things can happen. They can and they do. Regularly.

And, of course, losing a car doesn't even begin to compare with the other losses and the outright tragedy we've suffered over the last three months.

Just now, though, life seems like an exercise in putting things in perspective, of trying to rise above all kinds of adversity and searching for ways to stay positive, creative and inspired, against the odds. This is not exactly the ideal background for where I find myself at the moment - at a crossroads in my life and trying to make big decisions about which paths to take. All I can think of at the moment is: I have already had enough of 2011.

And here's the worst thing of all: that unmistakable feeling of spring that's in the air and was hinting at a change of luck is already beginning to sound like another empty promise.

March 7, 2011

Postcards from Ilfracombe

You know when you get a postcard from somebody and it's taken so long to get to you that the people who sent it have long come home? Well that's how it is with this entry.

I had intended to upload some pictures from our highly successful annual 'February weekend' which this year was more than a weekend (five days) and took us to Ilfracombe (February 18-23). But it's taken longer than anticipated, partly because, as anybody who knows me well will testify, I do like to take a picture or two, and they can take some sorting through. Well, I've now got round to it.

We left for the trip after my nephew Trev's funeral (see below), and meeting up with Pete and Julie; Percy, Liz and Sarah; and James and Julie, as well as my twin brother Brian and his family (Sarah, Lucy and James) was never better timed or more appropriate, time away with lifelong friends being just what the doctor ordered.

We have been taking these trips since 1992 and they now follow a tried and trusted formula which involves renting a large and interesting house; long walks, especially early in the morning (The Seven O'Clock Club); over-indulgence in carefully organised meals; serious tasting sessions (which started with whisky and has somehow worked its way down to fish fingers); trips out to see the local area (Combe Martin, Exmoor, Woolacombe); trying out the local pubs and beer; and other untrendy pursuits.

To borrow a phrase from Percy, who has a gift for summing things up, Ilfracombe means well. It was quite fashionable in Victorian and Edwardian times and especially boomed when its harbour used to welcome paddle steamers (seven at a time in one old picture I saw). Our accommodation turned out to be very central and very convenient, so we got to walk round and above the place and we all agreed it means well and wouldn't mind going back some day.

There is, naturally, no shortage of photos, which I have put on a separate page for the pleasure of those who attended and those with an unexplicable interest in other people's holiday pictures, although some of them also come from my 'arty' folder. Meanwhile, the offcial history of our annual trips can be found here (although it awaiting updating with this year's trip).

I foolishly failed to get a 'team picture' of all who attended, only the above, which was taken at Woolacombe and is missing those who went home early (Sarah, James and Julie).

Next year: Kent and the fields of France Belgium.

The Alfred Williams connection

There was a little geeky bonus for me at Ilfracombe as Alfred Williams visited there in May 1914, at a crucial time in his life.

Off sick from his job at Swindon Railway Works, he uncharacteristically accepted a gift of £20 from friends to take a four-week convalescence away from home, which included two weeks at Larkstone Terrace, Ilfracombe (presumably then a B&B), which I naturally sought out.

He also sent a postcard from the Torrs Walk around the coast above the town, which was almost literally only a stone's throw from our accommodation and was one of the destinations of our Seven O'Clock Club.

It was a significant time in his life because he was at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to carrying on at the Works. In the event, and against doctor's orders, he did go back for one last try, but soon reverted to the conclusion that must have been made on his trip - and perhaps at Ilfracombe - which was to leave the Works and try his luck as a market gardener.

That paved the way for the publishing of his key historical book, Life in a Railway Factory, but he also completed Round About the Upper Thames while he was away - of which I own a first edition, presented by my fellow members of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society at last year's festival.

The Alfred Williams connection may not have been of much interest to anybody else, but it is for somebody with an interest in Alfred Williams and who gets a thrill out of stepping in people's footsteps and being in places where things happened.

March 5, 2011

Going out for a ruby

There was another Carter family gettogether again today - this time for a much happier reason than of late as we all enjoyed a thoroughly nice evening hosted by my niece Claire and her partner/fiance Ian, all in honour of my brother Ron and his wife Jenny's ruby wedding, which is tomorrow (congratulations).

Nobody - including them - were quite sure how we should mark the occasion, given the recent death of their son (my nephew) Trevor, but 40 years is 40 years and ought to be celebrated. So the family (Jacky and Claire mainly) sorted out some irresistible food and a few drinks and we all reminded each other of some of the things we do have to be thankful for.

I only took a handful of pictures and somehow none featured the anniversary couple, but I did get a nice one of two of my great nieces, Millie and Amber.

Millie's ongoing happy story of growing up to be a perfectly normal little girl despite once knocking on the door of the Guinness Book of Records for inclusion under premature births, is told in my nephew Stuart's blog. Tonight she kept us entertained with her general cuteness and then, by persuading us all to play a game she had invented which utilised the pool table and which she called 'Colours Running Around', stole the show.

And rightly so.

Footnote: It occurred to me to add up the collective anniversaries of me, my three brothers and one sister (and their spouses, of course) and was surprised to find it is now reached over 160 years (my/our contribution bringing up the rear with 23 years). Now, some people will tell you this is a feat of endurance, but we know it is a measure of good taste. But I am not saying whether I am talking about the taste of those who were born Carters or those who were born to become Carters.

March 2, 2011

Unprodigal son

I have just looked up the word 'prodigal' in the dictionary because I wasn't sure what it meant and I suspect most people don't, either.

It nearly always gets paired with 'son' (you never hear of a prodigal daughter) and describes somebody who goes off and wastes time and money, and invariably returns, repentent.

Well, my son Sean has gone off today on a tour which some people might consider prodigal but which I think is quite the opposite. In fact, I wish I had had the... um... balls to do something like it when I was younger.

He's off on a tour of Germany and Belgium with his band, The Cold Harbour, who play modern punk (he plays guitar). Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I prefer old-style punk, so although Sean writes most (if not all) the music, I cannot put my hand on my heart and say it's my kind of thing - mainly because of what passes for 'vocals' these days.

But I really do admire them for doing it.

Last year they spent a week in a van, touring Germany and Poland, and this year they are flying to Berlin and then spending 12 days flitting all over Germany and briefly into Belgium, playing each night, and starting on Friday (March 4). That includes his 19th birthday (March 10), when they will be in Leipzig - one of two dates on the tour in the former East Germany. He's back on Tuesday, March 15.

I was strictly forbidden from taking a picture of Sean leaving - a serious violation of the freedom of the press - so we'll have to make do with his luggage instead (above).

All the members of the band purchased an extra seat each for their guitars, so they could sit next to them in the cabin, rather than put them in the hold, and to save money, they are only taking hand luggage on their (Ryanair) flight, which means they only have tiny bags to put all their stuff in. Or, to paraphrase the title of an old Cliff Richard song, they are travelling light.

Any similarity between Cliff Richard and this tour ends there.