Tuesday, July 08, 2008

In Memory

On Saturday we had the memorial service for my father, held at the school where he was headmaster for 23 years and where we grew up. There was a huge turn out of over 200 old pupils, teachers and people who had worked at the school in his day, as well as family, friends and even ex-pupils and colleagues from his previous schools. There were some wonderful speeches, which will have let him know just how much he was appreciated by his former pupils and which brought back many memories for us all.

The quote of the day went to my 2 year old niece, who we’ve met for the first time on this visit. During the service she noticed all the people behind her, who had bowed their heads for the prayers. “Everybody hiding!” she observed in delight, thrilled with this new game!

Thinking July meant sunshine we’d all planned on wearing summer outfits and debated whether tights would be too hot on a sunny day, but we needn’t have worried - it was rained upon in true English style! There is something about the English character that comes up trumps in the face of adverse weather conditions and maintains a wonderful note of optimism by continuing to plan outdoor events, with a balmy idea of floating around in summer dresses on green lawns, Pimms or scones and tea in hand, despite the frequent realities of shivering in cotton frocks under ineffectual umbrellas. Our memories hold on to some universal ideal of croquet, tennis or picnics under blue skies and endless sunny evenings, despite the fact that the last really long, hot summer we can reliably remember was in 1976, when bathwater was rationed in my first term of boarding school!

The idea had been that after the service the old pupils, parents and friends would be able to wander around the present day school and watch the children playing tennis, cricket and any other sports that would be going on, enjoy strolling around the gardens and woods before sauntering over to the front of the old building where tea would be served on the lawn. As the service drew to a close the light pattering of rain on the sports hall tin roof crescendoed to raindrops drumming overhead and everybody scurried over to the main building and crowded into the old school hall for tea, creating a convivial but well sandwiched atmosphere!

The girls did wear the pretty summer dresses and sandals that my mother had bought them for the occasion, just adding leggings underneath and, even though the rain lashed down at a fierce angle, had plenty of fun running around the building and making raids on the sumptuous plates of sandwiches, cakes and biscuits that were piled high on trestle tables around the hall.

I don’t think any of us stopped talking for a moment after the service, as there were so many people we hadn’t seen for years coming up to introduce themselves, shake hands and say nice things about him. I haven’t had enough practise being in the spotlight and did my best to carry off the role of ‘family’, but there is a certain skill needed to conclude one conversation gracefully as new people keep coming up to start another one, besides the challenge of trying to recognise people you haven’t seen for twenty years. There just wasn’t enough time to have proper catch up conversations with other members of the family either, but it was still lovely to see everyone and there was a real buzz to the occasion too.

The day before we had been over to the school to set up a display of photos, both of my father and of my children’s school in South Africa (as we are setting up a fund in his memory to sponsor the school fees of one or more children there), and we took the kids with us so they could see where my brother and I had grown up.

The school has grown a lot since then, with new buildings built over the vegetable gardens and double the number of children, but once we had signed in and put on a Visitors badge in accordance with EC regulations, we were allowed to go exploring and found that much of the original building is still much the same, so we could show them all our old hiding places, including the trap door in the ceiling of the linen cupboard leading to the roof space, which was the one that intrigued them the most!

It was amazing how much the feel of the place was the same, despite many new buildings in the grounds. The same stone flagged corridor in the kitchen passages, the same polish smell of the wooden floors of the hall, even the same oil smell in the cellars from the boilers that run the central heating system. There is something about the building that retains its friendly family feel. It must be soaked into the warm golden stone that went into the original manor house 150 years ago when the local squire built it for his family. Try as the pupils might to conjure up some spooky ghost stories to tell after lights out, they never can make them really convincing, as the house just doesn’t have that shivery feel of being haunted.

I had to keep restraining the urge to show the kids all the out of bounds areas, like the way out to climb on the rooves, strictly forbidden of course and probably dangerous, but it would have been fun to show them where our names are carved in the lead … it must have been my teenage self calling to me, partially left behind there in the stones of the place where I grew up!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Rainy Days Out

We spoke to the family in South Africa today and it has been raining solidly for four days there – good solid winter rain filling the reservoirs to overflowing, just as it should do on a good year.

Here it has been raining too – English summer rain guaranteed to pour down in torrents whenever an outside event is planned in July! It was Middle Daughter’s birthday last week. For the first time in her memory, being away from home, we broke with tradition and didn’t have a birthday party with treasure hunt for her birthday, but organised an outing instead to Monkeyworld in Dorset, which is an amazing primate rescue centre that the children have seen for years watching the programme Monkey Business on Animal Planet.

Her birthday dawned overcast and showery looking and, mind in Africa-mode, I wondered whether we should postpone the outing, picnic lunch and all for a finer day. I’d forgotten that in England you go ahead anyway, that there might not be a finer day for weeks! We actually had a lovely time. The intermittent showers saw us sheltering under cover listening to a keeper’s talk on Woolly Monkeys, or picnicking under the covered terrace of the cafĂ©, or stopping for an ice cream under a wonderful African-inspired, thatched boma. In between we were able to see several of the animals that the kids knew from watching the series and listen to a few more keeper’s talks, watch the troop of ring-tailed lemurs and the baby chimps. At the end the sun came out in full force and dried up the rain so the children were able to clamber over the rope structures in the playground too, with bright patches of blue sky behind them.

Talking about the experience on the way home our son was conservative in his praise – we’d seen it all from the visitors’ perspective and it was interesting but he thought it was better to see it from the keeper’s perspective on Animal Planet, he said. It’s a shame that reality doesn’t quite live up to TV… The girls decided that if they got left behind they’d go and live in the lemur enclosure as they liked the sound of their diet, as described by the keeper – fruit and nuts definitely beat the capuchin monkeys’ mixed diet with frogs featured on the menu!

More rain today with drenching showers demanded drastic measures to get the children out of the house, which is just a little too small for them to be cooped up in all day long. We took them out willy-nilly to Yeovilton Air Museum, completely ignoring Middle Daughter’s protests that she didn’t want to go and see some old aeroplanes.

She did manage to rustle up a little interest in flying some of the model planes and seeing how the controls on a harrier work and also survived the simulation experience of being on board an aircraft carrier, with all the noise and mayhem of planes landing and taking off. Youngest even said afterwards that it was nice . The hardest part of the experience was in manoeuvring through the gift shop at the end, with £1 pocket money burning a hole in their purses. Finding anything desirable at that price was well-nigh impossible and we ended up comparing the relative merits of pencils and rubbers, pens and notepads. The decision process took at least twenty minutes, by which time we were desperate to get home for a cup of tea and found that the sun had come out at last. Maybe it will shine for our next trip out on Wednesday, but I'm not betting as much as a souvenir pencil with keyring attached on that as a certainty!