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October 29, 2011

The aunt who never was

A little more information has come to light about the family history information I posted here a few days ago.

It concerns a child that would have been my uncle or aunt - the fourth of four siblings of my dad's who died as infants. This unnamed girl was born on April 30, 1932, and was registered at Green Road Cemetery, Upper Stratton, as a stillbirth, which we already knew must be an error because we discovered there was a death certificate (stillbirths are covered by an entirely different registration system). My brother Brian has now having obtained a copy of that certificate, which tells us the baby lived for two days.

Perhaps most interesting to our modern family is the cause of death, which was "premature birth". We will never know how premature the birth was, but we do know the era that the baby was born into almost certainly decided her fate.

My nephew Stuart and his wife Mel had a daughter, Millie, who nearly made into the Guinness Book of Records for surviving a staggeringly premature birth - and the fact that we are still following Millie's normal progress, more than five years later, on Stuart's blog is testimony to how modern science often laughs in the face of premature births these days.

Another nephew, Glyn, and his wife, Laura, also had a seriously premature child, Henry, a couple of years ago, but he has also put his premature birth completely behind him. Glyn was a very premature baby too.

If she had lived longer than two days, my aunt might well be still alive today, but it is probably significant that her parents (my grandparents) never took the trouble to name her in those two days - almost certainly reallsing that a premature baby born in 1932 had almost no chance of survival.

Ironically, I am researching infant deaths at the moment, for The Friends of Radnor Street Cemetery. I am lucky enough to have a copy of the registers for the cemetery (in advance of them being put online) and they are endlessly fascinating to somebody who is interested in history. I have just surveyed the entries for the first three months of 1900 which shows that almost exactly half of the burials were for people under 20, with 40% under five years old and 28% under a year old.

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October 26, 2011

Paralympics here we come

Further to yesterday's entry about the Olympics, we have just heard that we are getting some tickets for the Parlaympics. Now we just have to wait to find out what events they are for, exactly.

This creates a further dilemma as the same conditions presumably apply to volunteers for the Paralympics as for the Olympics, which is: if you get chosen as a volunteer and your shift clashes with an event you have tickets for, you can say goodbye to seeing the event.

If I say we have applied for £800-worth of Paralympics tickets for five different sports at five different venues, plus the opening and closing ceremonies, you can get some idea of how keen we are to be there and see it. It's not even money that we can really afford right now - and neither is money the point.

It just wasn't practical for us to pay for all four of us to go to the Olympics events we applied for, but this time round, we decided to apply for four tickets to most events as we felt it was something we wanted to do as a family.

We are big fans of the Paralympics. I expect some people might see them as a poor relation of the 'proper Olympics', but really they are an extension of the Olympics Games and, more importantly, the Olympic Ideal. We've got so much pleasure from watching it in the past, and although I'm not a very patriotic kind of person usually, the fact that the GB Paralympic team does so well produces something very rare in me by making me feel proud to be British.

Now we will be there in person and hope to see Britain win a gold medal or two, but it seems that silly rules will once again prevent me from being a volunteer too, which would have been the icing on the cake.

When it comes to the Olympics and Paralympics, and no matter how passionate you are about it, it seems that people like me can't have their cake and eat it.

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October 25, 2011

Non-starter in the Olympics

The good news is I've been selected for an interview to be a volunteer at the London 2012 Olympics. The bad news is I'm withdrawing my application.

I've been really keen to be a volunteer ever since the prospect arose following London's successful bid, so it's really disappointing not be a part of it.

I'd actually received an invitation to go to a selection event in London, which would have included a 30-minute interview for the 'Transport Team'. If successful, it would have meant a 50-50 chance of becoming a driver during the Olympics, which, they say, could have included ferrying VIPs and maybe even athletes around. On the other hand, they said it might have meant standing around all day, possibly in the rain, presumably directing cars in car parks.

To be honest, I wasn't too bothered what I did and thought that it would be nice to be involved in an historic event as it happened. I was even looking forward to going up to London for the day for the selection event, but when I started checking on rules and regulations, the inflexibility put me off.

It turns out that if you are selected, you are not allowed to change any of your shifts - even if you are holding tickets for Olympic events. That even means you are not allowed to swap your shift with another volunteer.

We, of course, are holding tickets for the session featuring the men's 100m final, although it's not the fact that this is the premier session of the whole Games that is important so much as the principle. Whatever tickets we had got, I think I would have felt the same about missing out.

We also have tickets for rowing finals and are planning to make a familiy day of it by going up to see both the marathon and the cycle road race. To potentially miss out on any of that because they have a rule about not changing shifts seems a little unreasonable considering volunteers commit to a minimum of ten days' work and get only meals and a uniform for free. All other expenses have to be found by the volunteer. The fact that they will refund the value of tickets is not much consolation. After all, it was something that Julie and I are looking forward to doing together, so to miss out because I was volunteering would also unfairly affect her.

Whlile giving all that time for free, plus shelling out for travelling and accommodation expenses, it seems a little unfair that the 70,000 volunteers could end up not only seeing none of the Olympics themselves, but maybe not seeing much of it on TV either. And the policy clearly only applies to the volunteers at the bottom of the pile. I don't suppose Seb Coe will have any trouble getting time off from his (paid) job if he wants to see events.

It makes me wonder what sort of people will end up as volunteers: presumably those who aren't really interested in the sport or the spectacle or the occasion. So I wonder why they are volunteering in the first place and what sort of people they are.

I don't want to sound bitter about it because I still think the Olympics is one of the best things that could happen to London and Britain, and I'm really excited about next year, but it's a shame I won't get to be part of the effort.

I am still seriously considering volunteering for the Paralympics, which I have registered for, even though the same problem might apply. We have potentially spent a lot of money (which we can't really afford) on tickets for that and organised it so we can do some of it as a family. We are still waiting to find out what tickets, if any, we have got for the Paralympics.

As I say, it's a real shame, particularly as the big thing the Olympics is supposed to be the taking part.

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October 21, 2011

Number 93


I spent some of today doing something that I seem to do a lot lately - poking around in burial records and traipsing around cemeteries. But one discovery alone made it all worthwhile, and there were, in fact, several.

Along with my brother Brian, who is the keeper of the family history records, we visited the offices of Stratton Parish Council to see the registers for Green Road Cemetery in Upper Stratton. We were initially disappointed to discover the records they hold only start in 1924, even though the burials began in at least 1868. But fortunately that included the main burial we were looking for - my grandmother Lucy Caroline Carter (nee Hale). She was one of two grandparents I never met, having died long before I was born, aged just 41 in 1933. Indeed, my father was only ten years old at the time.

We'd always known she was buried at Green Road, but - as with nearly all our ancestors - she is in an unmarked grave and all we knew was that the grave was somewhere towards the back of the cemetery. Well, today we found out exactly where it is, discovering from the registers that she is in grave number 93. Having been armed with this information, we decided to revisit the cemetery to find the spot.

As an atheist and a non-believer in any afterlife, I have to be honest and say that the location of graves and, indeed, what happens to somebody's body when they are dead hold only limited interest or significance for me, but it was pleasing to be able to find the exact spot where my grandmother lies, especially as I missed meeting her by nearly 30 years. I don't know whether my ten-year-old father (Eric Carter) would have stood on the same spot to witness her funeral, but it crossed my mind while we were there.

Unlike Radnor Street, which is Swindon's main cemetery, a maximum of two people are in each grave, and my grandmother, the records confirmed, is the only one in grave 93, but she is not far from two other ancestors whose final resting places, until today, we also had no idea of. They are my great-great-grandparents Albert Edward Carter (known as Abner) and his wife Eliza Ann Carter (nee Mulcock) and they lie together, diagonally next to grandmother Lucy, in the row behind.

There is a sad footnote to this because when old Abner died in 1934, it was at Tower House in Salisbury, which subsequent research has found was actually the former Alderbury Workhouse. From 1920 it was known as Tower House Poor Law Institution, and then, four years before Abner died there, became a 'public assistance institution'. This suggests conditions had improved from the dismal workhouse days, although I still dread to think what his last days might have been like.

At least he lived to a ripe old age - 89 - and at least we now have details of his death. Because of the unexpected Salisbury connection, we had previously been unable to find any trace of it.

We made a few other interesting discoveries, including solving another mystery - why the death of grandmother Lucy's mother, Annie Hale (nee Staples), didn't previously show up in records. It appears that her name was actually Hannah Annie, even though she was apparently always known as Annie.

We also made another sad discovery of a previously unknown child (recorded as stillborn) of grandmother Lucy and grandfather Albert Jack Carter. This brings the total number of either stillborn or infant deaths of my dad's would-be siblings to four. We comparatively recently discovered he had had an older brother, Donald, born in 1922, who lived 57 days, and there was also a younger sister, Anna, born in 1926, who lived only four days. Then there was a stillborn child (sex not recorded) in 1931, which we did not know about until today.

The fourth is recorded in the burial registers as stillborn in 1932, with the sex not recorded. However, there is a bit of a mystery because Brian has discovered this actually appears in the register of births and deaths as a baby girl, so it is almost certain that this was not technically a stillbirth. Maybe the baby lived a matter of seconds or minutes. Until we get to see the actual certificates, we can't know for sure.

All of these four children were unknown until recent family history researches, and we don't even know if my dad knew anything of the first two. He must have remembered something concerning the latter two, but the information was never passed down to our generation.

I was going to say the pictures below show grandmother Lucy's grave (to the right of (someone else's) small memorial in the first, and to the left in the second). But 'grave' doesn't seem appropriate when it's clearly just a piece of graound, the only marker being the cast iron number 93 set into the ground at her feet.

*Although we have only just discovered grandmother Lucy's final resting place, we do have lots of details about her life. Click here to see a summary, which includes a list of all her childbirths.



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October 19, 2011

Inspired


Just when you think the world is going completely crazy, something happens to restore your faith in your fellow man...

Tonight I attended a committee meeting of the Alfred Williams Heritage Society (I'm vice-chair, just in case you haven't been keeping up), to which a fellow Alfred supporter was invited. I can't name him because he's pretty shy and modest.

I had met him once before, almost exactly a year ago, when he explained that he had been out of the loop for a while because of family tragedies and ongoing problems, so it was great just to meet him again and share our interest.

He said then - and repeated it tonight - that he is really chuffed that we formed our society and even called it "a dream come true" that somebody is taking up the challenge of spreading the word about Alfred, who we all feel is an unsung local hero.

After the meeting he needed a lift home, so I took him, and when we got to his house, he invited me in for a cup of tea - partly so we could carry on talking about our shared interests, but also because he wanted to give me a little gift of a book which I had let slip was missing from my collection (it's missing because I can't afford to buy it). He eventually insisted on giving me three books.

If I say that two of them are rare poetry books written by Alfred Williams and therefore over a century old, you can guess at their monetary value. If I say they are first editions, you can probably double the number you first thought of - and double it again because they are in very good condition.

So a man I've only met once before and isn't rich insists I take home two rare collectors' items. For good measure, he also threw in a biography of Alfred - because I don't have that particular edition of it.

He said it was only right that he should give away (rather than sell) one of the books because somebody had given it to him, and therefore he wasn't morally able to pass it on unless it was also free. I should add that he is perfectly aware of how much the books would fetch if he put them on eBay or a specialist sale.

There are plenty of reasons why I feel touched about all this. One thing I like is that in a world that nowadays seems to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing and still seems infatuated with capitalism, even as it is falling about their ears, the monetary worth of these books have been completely forgotten. I mention it here not because I would ever entertain the thought of selling them, but to demonstrate what a kind and generous gesture it was. They are, of course, more precious than any price tag could ever make them.

It's also flattering to be told that something you've been a part of has been valued so much - especially when he had done plenty, himself, to keep Alfred's memory alive, and we hope to tap into his knowledge in the future.

The word we always come back to when explaining this fascination we have in Alfred Williams is "inspiration". His story is inspirational because he was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things - a working class hero, if you like - and he is inspirational as a writer because he is so readable. These things are not hard to understand.

But there is another dimension to some people that makes them inspirational in a different, greater and more subtle sense. If someone is able to inspire gestures like the above, involving two people who barely know each other, and 81 years after they drew their last breath, then they are a special inpsiration indeed.

Call us nerds if you like, but we are inspired nerds.

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October 16, 2011

Potty


I visited an open day hosted by Wroughton History Group today, which included a fine display of various stuff, from quite recent to ancient - everything from the history of Wroughton water, on which Swindon has historically relied, to its former horseracing heritage.

They also had various archaeological fragments that had been picked up in the vicinity, including two bowls full of medieval and Roman pottery, which I was delighted to find had a label attached, telling visitors to help themselves to some.

You have to understand that they were only fragments of pot that you might even find in your own garden, among all the other stuff, but I wasn't going to turn down the chance to permanently own something - however modest - that experts had confirmed had been shaped by human hands at least 500 years ago and up to narly 2,000 years ago.

No matter that when I die and people are sorting through my stuff, I am sure these two shards of history will be thrown into the nearest bin with a shrug of the shoulders and probably some comment about why the poor old soul was hanging on to two bits of old clay.

Just in case anybody is interested, the medieval one is on the left and the Roman one is on the right.

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October 15, 2011

Happy birthday Izzy


Birthdays come thick and fast in our family in October, including, this year, my great niece Izzy's first birthday (actually next week), which was marked by a special party today.

Her parents Rich and Carla hired a hall and marquee at the Black Horse, Wanborough, for a gathering that was half for children and half for adults. All family gettogethers have taken on a greater significance in our family after the massive ups and downs of the last few years, so it's always nice to have an excuse for us all to meet up.

Izzy has made remarkable progress in just a year and was happiest when she was mucking in with all the other children, including her cousins Millie and Amber. It was if she was determined to shake off the image of 'baby' and become a fully fledged 'toddler' to mark the event.

For the adults, especially the ones who can now go to such events knowing their own children need no supervision or attention, it was a chance to enjoy seeing the much younger kids run around and - if I am honest - enjoy watching their parents run after them.

You just have to get on and deal with it when you have very young kids, but today was a reminder that hardly a second was your own while they were awake, so you didn't get much of a chance to step back and enjoy it.

At the risk of sounding like I have prematurely gone into grandparent mode, I cannot tell you how much pleasure it is just to be able to watch the kids - nearly all of whom had painted faces - having a whale of a time, in the knowledge that that's all there is left for us to do with kids for the moment: watch.

Even children's parties, which any modern parent will tell you are fraught with all kinds of stresses, are now a pleasure.







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October 14, 2011

She was just seventeen


Today is Holly's seventeenth birthday, which we celebrated with a meal out - just at the local Harvester, which was very pleasant indeed. It was just the four of us, plus Jack, Holly's boyfriend (above).

It is no less than she deserves, given the incredible amount of work she has got through in her first few weeks of A Level studies, especially in her two art subjects - fine art and graphics. When I say she has already produced more work than I did in the full two years of my art A Level, all those years ago, I mean it literally. She has already disproved the myth that A Levels are much easier than they were in our day. They certainly aren't.

As part of her birthday, we bought her provisional driving licence (£50!) because she is quite keen to learn to drive, although we suspect she has no idea how hard it really is to learn and how frustrating she is likely to find it, once she gets behind a wheel for the first time.

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October 6-10, 2011

Englishmen abroad

I think it's fair to say the long-awaited LNO50 trip to Barcelona was, on the whole, a resounding success.

Just to recap - this was the extended international version of our monthly Lads' Night Out (LNO) gatherings, especially convened because all five of us plus honorary LNOer Simon (who lives in America) reached 50 years old this year. We all went to school together and have been friends ever since, so it was as much a celebration of that as our half centuries.

Six of us took the trip. There was me, my twin brother Brian, plus Simon, Lukey, Percy and James. He's the one, right, trying (and failing) to set a new trend on the sun-drenched Barcelona beaches during a bike ride as he takes pictures with his film camera. We all have such differing personalities and interests that we have the makings of an old-fashioned sitcom like Dad's Army between us. Indeed, I am the only completely normal one out of the six. So there was no guarantee that this first trip away together with just us and no wives to keep us under control, would work.

But it did.

The only major problem was Percy having his pockets picked on the train from the airport to the city, which meant he lost all 600 euros he had brought with him. Barcelona has a hell of a lot going for it, but being the pickpocketing capital of the world is not one of them, and it's such a shame that such a nice city calls for such vigilance when you are there.

The only other thing I can criticise Barcelona about is the food. I was determined to try paella and tapas, because I had never had either before - and I will probably never have them again. Not being keen on fish, which is the hallmark of most paellas, I found a spicy sausage one instead, but it was, well... pretty boring. And when we decided to go for a proper tapas too, I soon realised it was going to be a disaster. Although there were about 30 different things to choose from, most were random bits of dead animal that may well have been supplied direct from the butcher's or trawlerman's dustbin, or purloined from the catfood factory - tripe, cuttle fish, snails, anchovy, kidney, oxtail... need I elaborate further? Even when the tapas was suitable for human consumption, it came in such tiny portions that I was able to put the experience down to a useful dieting exercise.

When I go back to Barcelona I will also make more of an effort to seek out more interesting drinks. I enjoyed my first taste of sangria, even though it's only really mulled wine that hasn't been warmed up, but I'm sure there are better beers to be had than the default Spanish San Miguel which is no different to any other fizzy, bland, soulless lager you can buy anywhere else in the world.

OK. That's enough negatives.

Everything else about Barcelona made me determined to go back again sometime, with Julie. We went on an excellent guided cycle ride (that's the six of us and a knowledgeable local called David), and took in a tour of the Nou Camp (home of Barcelona FC) which was well worth doing, even though it left us kicking ourselves that we hadn't had more forethought and tried to arrange the trip so that it coincided with the chance of seeing a match there.

The city has not one but two cable cars, which provided memorable views across the idyllic harbour and bustling city, and took us to the cool Montjuic area, where there is a castle and the former Olympic park, plus a charming walk down back into the city and our dinner in a former bull ring-cum-shopping centre.

But the best thing of all about Barcelona is the architecture. This is mostly thanks to the genius of Antoni Gaudi, and I spent most of one day, variously accompanied by other members of the gang, seeking out the unmissable La Pedrera, Palau Guell, Park Guell and Casa Batllo, plus the crowning glory of them all, which is the sensational Sagrada Familia (below).

Despite being an atheist, I am no stranger to churches or cathedrals on account of their overwhelming historic and architectural appeal, and I have seen some stunning buildings in my time. But nothing - either ecclesiastical or not - compares with Gaudi's masterpiece. I have never seen such an impressive building in my life.

I was fully expecting to be impressed, and the outside soon proved to be no disappointment, but once inside (after queueing for an hour, first thing in the morning, which was comparatively short), I was amazed to find that it is even more impressive inside than out. And there was the bonus of a trip up the spires - up in the lift and down 400 spiral steps - which provided superb views over the city. The building is famously unfinished, so it will be even better when I go back and see it again.

The irony for me is that Gaudi, who was pious almost to the point of obsession and he must have thought his building was a monument to the glory of God. If anything, though, I see it as a monument to the genius of mortal men and evidence of what greatness can be achieved thanks to the evolution of the human mind.

We were lucky in that our apartment had the perfect location, overlooking another (this time more ancient) church and a picturesque square, less than two minutes from La Ramblas, the tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare that is the epicentre of the tourist traps. Barcelona shopping, even if you are only in the market for souvenirs, is as good as it gets almost anywhere, which meant I couldn't resist coming home with a globe made in the style of Gaudi's trademark broken tile decorations.

There is so much to do and see in the city that our three and two half days there were never going to be enough, so there will be plenty more to see when I return one day. I suspect the city's art comes a close second to the architecture, but my plans to at least visit a gallery dedicated to Barcelona artist Joan Miro had to be jetisoned through lack of time.

If anybody reading this is planning to go to Barcelona, make sure you check out internet advice or ask me how to outwit the pickpocketing lowlife. Apart from this and the disappointing food, I really cannot recommend a visit highly enough.

PS I am still sorting through the hundreds of pictures I took, which will appear on my Flickr account in due course. In the meantime, my brother Brian's photos of the big trip are here.


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October 2, 2011

Official tour merchandise


Excitement is mounting in our house. Well, I'm excited, anyway, because I am the one who is going away in four days... for four days.

It's our long-awaited LNO50 trip to Barcelona, 'LNO' standing for lads' night out, our traditional monthly night out that features me, my twin brother Brian and three old school friends - Lukey (Pete), Percy (Phil) and James (James); and the 50 referring to the fact that this special international trip is to mark the fact that we all passed 50 this year.

We will also be joined on the trip by Simon, another old school friend who now lives in America. But no wives.

Everything is now ready, including the tour merchandise, bearing the logo I designed, based on Barcelona-born surrealist artist Joan Miro. Percy had the stickers made and I got the badges done - by the excellent Wee Badges, who I thoroughly recommend to anybody who needs or wants badges for their big trip or other event.