The Graduate

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My daughter graduated yesterday from Staffordshire University with a First Class BA(Hons) in Photojournalism. I couldn’t be prouder. The ceremony took place at Trentham Gardens on the edge of Stoke-on-Trent, her university town. It was a Fairy at Trenthambeautiful setting, with a lake, Italianate Gardens designed by multi-gold medal winner at Chelsea Flower Show, Tom Stuart-Smith, and grass and flower gardens designed by Piet Oudolf, also a gold medal winner. Various sculptures and statues also sit in the landscape, notably a series of stainless steel fairies by renowned sculptor Robin Wight. All the above plus a beautiful, bright, sunny day combined to give plenty of opportunities for some memorable pictures. Congratulations to Nee, and all the other 2015 Graduates.

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Bouquet

My niece was married this weekend and her flowers were stupendously stunning. All found in a typical English cottage garden, the blooms were deliciously scented and breathtakingly beautiful. Here are a few of my favourite shots. For horticulturalists, a list of flowers and foliage used appears below (as many as I can name). … click pic to view large …

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  • peony (“Bowl of Beauty” and others)
  • rose
  • clematis
  • phlox
  • hydrangea
  • evening scented stocks
  • astrantia
  • astilbe
  • sweet pea
  • lily of the valley
  • ivy
  • beech
  • eucalyptus
  • cow parsley
  • delphinium
  • alchemilla mollis
  • sweet william
  • cherry
  • fern
  • antirrhinum (snap dragon)
  • choisya
  • lilac
  • solomon’s seal
  • digitalis (foxglove)
  • nigella
  • milkweed
  • weigela
  • scabious
  • spiraea
  • lupin

Love

The two loves of my life, my pride and joy.

I’ve been practising with my new secondhand camera and what better subjects than these two photogenic young things. My daughter was on her way out to dance the night away in Woolacombe and my son was on his way to his school prom also in Woolacombe. This is the first time he has ever worn a proper shirt and tie; I think he made a good job of tying it.

The North

StokeI’m in Stoke-on-Trent today, having driven up yesterday to pick up my daughter and all her belongings from her University Halls. It seems like a very early end to the academic year, but her uni. had shorter Christmas and Easter holidays than many and hence is finishing earlier too. Most of Nee’s flatmates have left already or will be going today. Just one or two are staying on for a final examination next week.

We took a walk around the Student Quarter last evening – it reminds me a lot of the terraced housing in Leicester where I lived in the 1980s. I saw the house she will be living in from September; it’s right across the road from Hamley Park, and allegedly the best student house in Stoke.

We had a takeaway curry from Akash Restaurant which was the best Bangladeshi food I’ve had for years and really puts my local curry houses in North Devon to shame.

Now preparing the car for the long drive back home.

I'm sure there was less in September!
I’m sure there was less in September!

What Price Education?

Financial planning for university life.

In just over a week I’ll be driving my daughter the 225 miles to her university, where, if all goes to plan, she’ll be living and studying for the next nearly three years.

This process began almost a year ago when Nee first began looking into which universities offered courses in her chosen field. She received brochures and details of courses, then made her list of five favourite universities and sent her applications.

 

The next stage was to make some visits to universities on their Open Days. We decided to visit only one because Nee was adamant that this was the one she would go to. The Open Day was scheduled for a Saturday which meant I didn’t have to book a day off work, and was also at a university only a couple of hours from our home.

So that was all straightforward; we had a tour of the campus and accommodation, a talk from the head of faculty and another one from the lecturer and we were both very happy. Cost: fuel & carparking £49.

The next stage was to wait for the selected universities to call Nee in for “questioning”. She was lucky; all five invited her for interview. Each one stipulated its own requirements which were generally a portfolio of existing work and an essay on a given subject.

As our family doesn’t have much of an income, we decided that we would attend interviews at only Nee’s top two choices. The third choice wanted everything submitted on-line so that was duly delivered costing nothing.

So I booked two days off work and accompanied Nee on her two interview days. It’s not obligatory of course for parents to attend, but I think it would be pretty heartless to send your 17-year-old off on a long train journey into a scary new environment to have an interview which will hopefully secure her future, without any support. Interview #1 Cost: fuel & carparking £49 loss of earnings £40. Interview #2 Cost: fuel & carparking £28 train £190 loss of earnings £40.

The interviews all went well and offers duly came in from all three universities. Nee changed her mind slightly and switched her no.1 and no.2 unis so her top choice was now the furthest from our home. Now came the time to put some hours into studying and making sure the necessary grades were achieved.

Results day came and the grades were good and the numbers added up and immediately (via the wonders of the web) came the firm offer of the place on the course and a room in the Halls of Residence – the latter requiring the swift payment of a deposit to secure it. Cost: deposit for room £250 (some universities require up to £1,000).

Now came the collecting of the “stuff”. This includes: stuff for the room – bed linen, pillows, duvet, towels, bath mat, hairdryer, clock, desk lamp, full-length mirror, coat hangers, under-bed storage boxes, rug, waste bin, stuff for the kitchen – rice cooker, wok, saucepans, bowls, plates, cutlery. mugs, glasses, chopping board, knives, baking trays, muffin tin, various utensils, can opener, corkscrew, oven gloves, tea towels, dish mop, detergent, grater, colander, laundry stuff  – clothes horse/airer, detergent, hamper/laundry basket.

I know what you’re saying…”surely not all those things are necessary”, and yes, she could probably do without some, and some have been gifts for her 18th. birthday, and a lot is available at charity shops and carboot sales, and lots will come out of the cupboards here at home, so I’ve taken all that into account when I’ve calculated the Cost: stuff £100 -£300.

Nee has bought a load of stationery items which I’m not counting as they will come from her grant, but another outlay today has been an injection of cash into her newly opened student account in order to activate her overdraft facility. This will keep her afloat until Student Finance get their act together to pay her the student loan/grant that she has applied for. Cost: bank transfer £300.

I’m also anticipating forking out for a starter pack of food and toiletries to keep her going until she has found the whereabouts of all the local shops and has found time to visit them amongst the hectic schedule of Freshers Week. Cost: starter pack £50.

Lion in Zion – a must for any student room

Finally, there’ll be the 225 mile drive up North and home again to take Nee and all the above to her flat. Cost: fuel £85.

I make that a total of £1,181 (and probably more). The bank transfer and accommodation deposit should come back to me, but I’m not going to hold my breath!

As for Nee, she will come away from university in 2015 with an Honours Degree in Photojournalism and a debt of around £40,000.

Clever/poor girl.

Sow’s ear to silk purse

…with a bit of elbow grease

Back in May I made the obligatory visit to the local annual Village Fair. I go every year and have done since I came to live here in 1999. It’s a good place to pick up plants and secondhand books and to watch junior football. Back in the heady days of 2004 the Fair reached it’s zenith as far as my family is concerned.

My niece, Laura, was the Fair Princess and got to circumnavigate the recreation ground waving from the Rotary Club trailer. My daughter, Nee, dressed as a Mexican ranch girl and looked fabulous – the theme that year was “Wild West”.

My son, Dan, with his team Braunton Wanderers U8s, played the final of the local football tournament and won! (medals for all). I had a stall selling homemade cakes which wasn’t a great success as the rain fell relentlessly all day, but the football players were pleased to get a steady supply of chocolate cake.

Since 2004 there have been few village fair highlights for me, though I do make a point of showing up each year and spending a pre-determined sum of money on whatever treasures I find, all to benefit local charities.

So, about three months ago, on a fine Bank Holiday Monday, I dragged myself out of bed and down to the rec. with a pocketful of tissues to staunch a heavy cold. On a little stall selling broken jewellery and porcelain nick nacks I found this grubby little brass box…

It was badly tarnished, but I thought it might clean up and make a nice little gift for my daughter who’s about to go off to university. As a bonus, I discovered it played a tune when I lifted the lid. The tune of an ice-cream van!

I paid the £3 asking price and stashed the box in a drawer away from prying eyes until yesterday when I decided to see if I could pull off a transformation. I’m pleased to say that with a bit of this…

three hours, and the strength in my right arm, this is the end result…Good as new! With a picture of the family on the underside of the lid, a square of red felt in the base and a pair of earrings inside for her newly pierced ears, Nee will have a nice little keepsake to remind her of home.

Think you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear? Think again.

Thai Dogs and Englishmen

The other day my daughter got out the shoebox; our library of analogue photographs. It turned out to be another late night, but some memories were brought into focus which is always welcome.

From 1992 until 1998 I lived on the beach in Thailand; first here on Koh Samet

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photo: Wikipedia

then here on Koh Chang.

photo: iamKohChang.com

When we arrived on Koh Chang it was a very quiet place with no paved roads, no mains electricity and no girly bars. We arrived from Koh Samet by boat with our sea kayaks, surfboards and sails (wind was our thing) and our dog, Felix. I know what you’re going to say… “Felix? A dog?” and I would have to agree.  Felix is, and has always been, a cat, but our Felix had been named by a German tourist, and there is a slight possibility that Germans are oblivious to this fact. Anyway, I digress…

We had come to occupy our newly purchased piece of beach at White Sands complete with two bamboo huts, kitchen/restaurant and, we were soon to discover, resident dog. She was a small red bitch very similar to a fox and I named her Cringe. Despite a couple of warnings from Felix, Cringe  decided to stay and within a few weeks presented us with a brand new litter of puppies. We were less than delighted at the prospect of many new mouths to feed as we were barely making ends meet at this stage. But, hey ho, rice and eggs were cheap at that time and we were serving a few meals to travellers which meant leftovers for dogs. The puppies were adorable of course and very popular with our guests, but over time we were left with just one, a strawberry blonde female which I named Hen. It’s a hard life for a beach dog in Thailand; at that time there was no vet and no sterilization programme on the island and the Thai people are not generally known for their fondness of pets.

So let’s fast forward a little – there we were, on the beach with Felix, Cringe and Hen having a lovely time in the sun, giving food and shelter to travellers in return for the means to pay our mortgage, and expecting our first baby. There being no health provision to speak of on the island back in 1994 I had to go to the mainland to give birth.

polaroid028A couple of weeks later our new family of three returned home to find that Cringe was once again pregnant but also looking very poorly. She had picked up a virus or possibly some poison and was very out of sorts. On our second night home she delivered two boy puppies outside our bedroom door then skulked off into the jungle and was never seen again. So there I was with not only a new baby who woke me up through the night for food, but also two puppies who cried all night for food. I was exhausted and not really sure if the watered down cow’s milk I was feeding the puppies with a syringe was doing them any good. At this time, Hen, their half sister, was about 9 months old and had not had her first season. She wasn’t even slightly interested in the puppies, but in my desperation I made her lie in a cardboard box and put them in with her. Their natural instinct was to suckle, and that’s what they did, and miraculously Hen’s teats swelled and she began to produce milk. I had never heard of this before, but apparently it sometimes happens and boy, was I thankful! Hen did a brilliant job and surprised us all and probably herself too. 

The miracle puppies were named Butch and Sundance. Poor old Felix had lived a long life, unusual for a beach dog, but gave up the ghost soon after our daughter was born, and little Butch succumbed to some other forgotten fate before he was fully grown.

Sundance with an Aussie visitor who’s name now escapes me. If you know him, say Hi!

Hen was our snake killer and caretaker should we ever be away from home; Sundance was the nursemaid. He took on the job of childminder and was our daughter’s (and later our son’s) constant companion. Wherever she was, Sundance would be close by, watching and listening. Should any stranger approach the baby, Sundance would take a step or two nearer just to make his presence felt.

His greatest feat of heroism took place one hot afternoon when I was feeding baby Nee in the shade of our great tree on the beach. Sitting cross-legged on a mat, quietly sharing that special bond that breast-feeding creates, I saw Sundance suddenly spring to his feet before us and start barking. This was very out of character but he was not to be shushed. His gaze was fixed just beyond my right elbow which was cradling Nee’s head. I looked round to be faced with a snake rearing in defence, it’s head only two feet away from my baby’s. My heart was in my mouth. Something in my subconscious told me not to make any sudden movement, so I turned, rose and sidled out of range as slowly and smoothly as I could, while  Sundance created the diversion. He could then finally move in on the snake, knowing that we were safely out of the way. He really earned his dinner that day!

Our home Yakah Bungalow in January 1997

To pierce or not to pierce

“I’m gonna get my ears pierced hahaha I’m scared x”

So read the text message I received from my 18 year old daughter a few minutes ago; it made me smile- it was a proud smile. I’m proud that my girl took the time to consider this action (two years) and I’m proud that she didn’t just follow the crowd when she was a pre-teen.

Although I have had several piercings myself (ears and nose) I am now down to a single hole in each ear lobe. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with young children having holes made in their bodies. Some young girls with pierced ears are literally babies, and I’m sure it wasn’t their choice to have their bodies mutilated.

More and more here in England we are also seeing little boys who are not yet old enough to even go to school, sporting a pierced ear or two. Did they pressurise their parents into taking them to the piercing salon? Did their parents make the decision on their behalf  in order to have a new “cool” accessory?

I remember my son being in single figures, and he was interested in identifying car badges on passing cars, playing football, skateboarding, pokemon cards and climbing on stuff. I can’t imagine there was a single moment when he thought he ought to have his ear(s) pierced. And if there had been and if he’d voiced it I would have simply told him he’d have to wait until he was sixteen because it’s against the law*.

Same as I told my daughter. (*In the UK you have to be 16 to have a piercing unless accompanied by a consenting responsible adult)

Piercing can be painful. You can get an infection, then it’s more painful than ever. The piercing needs to be looked after for a few weeks, bathed, cleaned, twiddled, given some TLC. Until a person is old enough to understand and accept responsibility for all this, I don’t believe they should be pierced.

Well, Nee has arrived home with her slightly throbbing ear lobes studded with titanium and a list of care instructions and a bottle of something antiseptic. She looks pretty, but then she always has (it’s her father’s genes of course), and I will never again be stuck for an  idea when auntie or granny asks me, “What would Nee like for her birthday?”

Branching Out

Since writing “Endless Summers” a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about my family history and decided to try and find out some of what shaped my ancestors’ lives. My father’s side of the family is from London, mainly Leytonstone, and the males are Fredericks, Charles’s and James’s; the females are Margarets, Elizabeths and Amys . Just the sheer numbers living in London made the task of building a family tree quite slow and complicated, and I lost a thread in the 1860s when Benjamin Oliver’s offspring appeared to be farmed out to relatives, and his wife, Maria vanished without a trace….. death?….. deportation?….. dead end.

So I looked at my mother’s branch of the family, which came from Hampshire and many of whom were farmers. This proved to be far more straightforward because I knew a lot of people already, having myself grown up in Hampshire rather than London. I spoke to my mother who gave me some old photographs and I was able to quickly piece together several generations. On this side of the family tree the males are Georges, Henrys and Charles’s; the females are Marys, Fannys and Flossies.

My maternal grandfather George Bennett and his sister Mary. About 1922.

My Grandfather, George Bennett, didn’t want to be servant waiting on a rich family like his grandfather had been, or a clerk in the Town Hall like his father. He decided that he wanted to be part of something new – the mechanisation of the farming industry which would surely be coming soon. So he took himself off to agricultural college and learned everything he would need to know to be a successful modern farmer.

Click on pictures to enlarge

George

Meanwhile my Grandmother, Mary Watson, was growing up on a farm not so far away, the oldest of seven children. Having just turned twenty-one and undoubtedly terrified of ending up as the daughter who never marries but ends up working /living with and looking after her parents for the rest of their lives (as many girls seemed to have done in previous generations), Mary was out to catch a young man’s eye.

Mary Watson (far right on grass) with all her siblings and their mother. About 1920.

In the summer of 1930 the local Young Farmer’s Club held a dance and Mary duly attended. As the eldest daughter she probably had something nice to wear that hadn’t been handed down. At the dance she met a dashing young man called George and saw that he could be the one for her; the one to ensure her escape from her family responsibility. Also, he was so absolutely gorgeous he could have been in Hollywood! Mary could see the other girls were keen to meet George too and she knew she had to act fast. She was obviously an intelligent girl and used all of her feminine charm to ensure that George didn’t want to look at anyone else. 6 months later they were wed, and 3 months after that their son (my uncle) was born. In time, two daughters followed. The mechanisation in farming did eventually come, although it had been delayed by the onset of World War II. The couple enjoyed a long and happy life together until George died in 1986, his lungs clogged with tar from his Gauloises (non filter).  Mary lived on until 1994, but I don’t believe she ever felt she had a real purpose in life after George had gone.

So there it is….granny was pregnant when she got married. Nothing out of the ordinary now, but I imagine it was quite scandalous in 1930. Two lessons I have learned from this tale :

  • You can get it if you really want
  • The cigarettes will get you in the end
George and Mary Bennett 1981 after 50 years of marriage
Mary Bennett (nee Watson) far left, with all her siblings in 1978