I’m not sure that I process death in the same way that “normal” people do. I blame my family.
When my grandmother died in 2006 I was just in the process of packing up the car with Claire to try to get up to visit her before the inevitable happened. I received the phone call to advise me that she’d passed, and – ten emotional minutes later – Claire told me that she’d “never seen anybody go through the five stages of grief as fast as that before”. Apparently I was a textbook example of the Kübler-Ross model, only at speed. Perhaps I should volunteer to stand in front of introductory psychology classes and feel things, or something.
Since my dad’s death seven years ago, I’ve marked Dead Dad Day every 19 February a way that’s definitely “mine”: with a pint or three of Guinness (which my dad enjoyed… except if there were a cheaper Irish stout on draught because he never quite shook off his working-class roots) and some outdoors and ideally a hill, although Oxfordshire makes the latter a little difficult. On the second anniversary of my dad’s death, I commemorated his love of setting out and checking the map later by making my first geohashing expedition: it seemed appropriate that even without him, I could make a journey without either of us being sure of either the route… or the destination.
As I implied at his funeral, I’ve always been far more-interested in celebrating life than mourning death (that might be why I’m not always the best at supporting those in grief). I’m not saying that it isn’t sad that he went before his time: it is. What’s worst, I think, is when I remember how close-but-not-quite he came to getting to meet his grandchildren… who’d have doubtless called him “Grandpeter”.
We all get to live, and we’re all going to die, and I’d honestly be delighted if I thought that people might remember me with the same kind of smile (and just occasionally tear) that finds my face every Dead Dad Day.
I’ve just listened to Robert Plant’s new album, Carry Fire. It’s pretty good.
A long while after my dad’s death five years ago, I’d meant to write a blog post about the experience of grief in a digital age. As I’ve clearly become increasingly terrible at ever getting draft posts complete, the short of it was this: my dad’s mobile phone was never recovered and soon after its battery went flat any calls to his number would go straight to voicemail. He’d recently switched to a pay-as-you-go phone for his personal mobile, and so the number (and its voicemail) outlived him for many months. I know I’m not the only one that, in those months, called it a few times, just to hear his voice in the outgoing message. I’m fully aware that there are recordings of his voice elsewhere, but I guess there was something ritualistic about “trying to call him”, just as I would have before his accident.
The blog post would have started with this anecdote, perhaps spun out a little better, and then gone on to muse about how we “live on” in our abandoned Inboxes, social media accounts, and other digital footprints in a way we never did before, and what that might mean for the idea of grief in the modern world. (Getting too caught up in thinking about exactly what it does mean is probably why I never finished writing that particular article.) I remember that it took me a year or two until I was able to delete my dad from my phone/email address book, because it like prematurely letting go to do so. See what I mean? New aspects of grief for a new era.
Another thing that I used to get, early on, was that moment of forgetting. I’d read something and I’d think “Gotta tell my dad about that!” And then only a second later remember why I couldn’t! I think that’s a pretty common experience of bereavement: certainly for me at least – I remember distinctly experiencing the same thing after my gran’s death, about 11 years ago. I’m pretty sure it’s been almost a year since I last had such a forgetting moment for my father… until today! Half way into the opening track of Carry Fire, a mellow folk-rocky-sounding piece called The May Queen (clearly a nod to Stairway there), I found myself thinking “my dad’d love this…” and took almost a quarter-second before my brain kicked in and added “…damn; shame he missed out on it, then.”
If you came here for a music review, you’re not going to get one. But if you like some Robert Plant and haven’t heard Carry Fire yet, you might like to. It’s like he set out to make a prog rock album but accidentally smoked too much pot and then tripped over his sitar. And if you knew my dad well enough to agree (or disagree) that he would have dug it, let me know.
No matter how prepared you think you are for the questions your toddler might ask (and the ways in which they might go on to interpret your answer), they’ll always find a way to catch you off guard. The following exchange with our little one began last weekend in the car:
Her: “I read the Beano Annual at Grandtom’s house.” (Grandtom is what she calls Ruth‘s father – her maternal grandfather.)
Me: “Oh? Did you like it?”
Her: “Yes. Did you have the Beano Annual when you were a little boy?”
Me: “Yes: I would sometimes get one for Christmas when I was little.”
Her: “Who gave it to you?”
Me: “My mummy and daddy did.”
Her: “Your mummy is Nanna Doreen.”
Me: “That’s right.”
Her: “Why haven’t I met your daddy?”
That’s a question that I somehow hadn’t expected to come up so soon. I probably ought to have guessed that it was on its way, given her interest in her extended family lately and how they’re all connected to one another, but I’d somehow assumed that it’d have come up organically at some point or another before her curiosity had made the connection that there was somebody clearly missing: somebody whom she’d heard mentioned but, inexplicably, never met.
Me: “My daddy died, a couple of years before you were born. He was climbing a mountain one day when he had a nasty accident and fell off, and he died.”
Her: “…” (a thoughtful pause)
Me: “Are you okay?”
Her: “How many birthdays did he have?”
Me: “Fifty-four. That’s a bigger number than you can count to, I think!”
Her: “How many birthdays will I have?”
Wow, this went further than I expected, very quickly. Obviously, I want to be open about this: the last thing I want is to introduce a taboo, and I’m a big believer in the idea that on I’m suddenly conscious of the fact that she’s clearly close to a minor existential crisis, having for possibly the first time connected the concepts of age and death. And, of course, I’m trying to translate my thoughts into ideas that a toddler can follow every step of the way. While simultaneously trying to focus on driving a car: she knows how to pick her timing! Okay…
Me: “Nobody knows for sure, but you’ll probably get lots and lots: seventy, eighty, ninety… maybe even a hundred birthdays!”
Her: “Then I’ll have a hundred candles.”
Me: “That’s right. Do you think you could blow out a hundred candles?”
So far, so good. Knowing that, like most toddlers, ours has a tendency to make some new discovery and then sit on it for a day or two before asking a follow-up question, I briefed Ruth and JTA so that they wouldn’t be caught too off-guard when she started telling them, for example, what she’d like for her hundredth birthday or something.
And all was well until yesterday, when we were laying in the garden under the recent glorious sunshine, playing a game that involved rolling along the lawn and back and bumping into one another in the middle, when she stood up and announced that she’d like to play something different.
Her: “Now we’re playing the die game.”
Me: “Oh…kay. How do we play that?”
Her: “We’re going to go up a mountain and then fall off.”
Me: (following her in a stomp around the garden) “Then what do we do?”
Her: “We die.” (mimes falling and then lies very still)
And so that’s how I came to spend an afternoon repeatedly re-enacting the circumstances of my father’s death, complete – later on, after Ruth mentioned the air ambulance that carried his body down from the mountain – with a helicopter recovery portion of the game. I’ve role-played some unusual games over the years, but this one was perhaps the oddest, made stranger by the fact that it was invented by a three year-old.
Toddlers process new information in strange (to adults) ways, sometimes.
I recently finished reading a novel called Ice & Lemon, which was given to me by my mother for Christmas (my reading list is quite long at the moment; I’m only just getting close to catching up!). I could tell you about what I liked about the book – and I will, in a moment – but before that I’d like to mention what makes this book personally so spooky to me, as a reader.
My mother got it for me because the coincidences apparent on the front and back cover appealed to her:
The author’s name, Pete Hartley, is remarkably similar to my father’s name, Peter Huntley.
The strapline contains a date, and that date is my mother’s birthday.
The protagonist of the story is called Daniel, which is – prior to that point in the late 1990s when I started going by Dan among virtually everybody – my name.
The front cover shows a picture of a baby’s hand, and Ruth‘s expected delivery date of New Year’s Eve was thus a hot discussion topic for us all around Christmas-time.
Okay, so – that’s a handful of quirky coincidences, certainly, but I’m sure if you looked at every volume in a bookshop – in the right frame of mind – you’d find a dozen other novels that seemed similarly fortuitous. But as I began to read the story, I discovered that I shared a lot more in common with the story’s Daniel than I could have possibly predicted. It was almost as if I were reading an alternate-history version of my own life – it’s incredibly easy to see how believable choices made in the early 2000s could have lead to a reality that even-more closely paralleled with my own:
Daniel’s partner is called Claire. In 2005, when the story is set, I too had a partner called Claire.
Daniel grew up in, and lives in, Preston, near to the football stadium and his local supermarket, the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys. I grew up in Preston, and my parents houses are both within sight of the football stadium. My father used to, and my mother still does, do their shopping at the Deepdale Road/Sir Tom Finney Way Sainsburys.
Some time after an apocalyptic event takes place, Daniel joins a group of survivors who call themselves “Camp Q” (no explanation is given for the choice of name). Some time after the date of the event as it appears in the story, I changed my surname to Q.
There are about a hundred smaller coincidences in Daniel’s story, too, but after a few of them you stop looking objectively and you can’t help but see them, so I’ll spare you the list. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could find plenty of things that definitely didn’t fit me: for example, Daniel’s significantly older than me. That sort of blows the alternate history idea out of the water. But nonetheless, it was a disturbing and eerie experience to be reading about a protagonist so much like myself, travelling around a post-disaster area that I personally know so very well. I feel like I ought to reach out to the author and check that he’s not just pranking me, somehow. His son features in the book, but somehow the coincidences that naturally occur as a result of this are less-impressive because they’re pre-informed.
The book itself is pretty good: a soft science fiction story full of a thorougly-explored post-apocalyptic grief. Very human, and very British, it exemplifies that curious sense of humour that we as a nation exhibit in the face of a disaster, while still being emotionally-scarring in the sheer scope of the tragedy it depicts. The science of the science-fiction is… questionable, but it’s not explored in detail (and it’s only treated as being speculative by the characters discussing it anyway, who aren’t scientists): this is a story about people, suffering, and survival, not about technology nor futurism. There are a handful of points at which it feels like it could have done with an additional pass by a proofreader; while occasionally distracting, these typos are not problematic. Plus: the book contains the most literal deus ex machina I’ve ever encountered (and thankfully, it doesn’t come across as lazy writing so much as general wasteland craziness).
It’sunder £3 in ebook format, and if I didn’t already own a paperback copy, I’d be happy to pay that for it. Even if it didn’t make me feel like I was looking at an alternate version of myself.
To commemorate the second anniversary of the death of my father – a keen hiker and cyclist, who was killed during a hiking accident while training for a trek to the North Pole – I thought the best thing to do would be to strike out somewhere random. And where could be more random than a geohash? This was also my first ever geohashing expedition, although I’d been meaning to do it for a long, long while. And so began the Peter Huntley Memorial Geohashing Expedition!
I cycled from Kidlington, near Oxford (in the next graticule over) via National Cycle Network Route 51, through Bicester and towards Milton Keynes. Early on, I had to ford a river which had broken its banks and flooded the cyclepath (and even saw a minnow swimming across the cycle lane – quite surreal!). Later, I had a minor whoopsie when I stayed on the cycle route too long and ended up in Steeple Claydon, on the wrong side of the Padbury Brook valley, but soon corrected it. I’d anticipated having to hop a fence to get to the hashpoint, but it turned out that the field – which had been left to fallow – didn’t have a fence, and I only needed to walk about thirty paces into it in order to reach the hashpoint.
In memory of my dad, I pulled out a drawing of him and drank a bottle of Guinness (his preferred drink after a long day’s cycle), and began to head back. But disaster struck! Somehow, raptors must have gotten to my bike tyre while I wasn’t paying attention, because it was completely slashed. Being that I was now at the furthest point from home in my planned journey, I pushed it to the nearby village of Hillesden in the hope of finding a shop that might sell me sufficient supplies to repair the puncture, but was without luck. I was now faced with a choice: I could continue pushing it home, and try to get to Bicester (a little over three hours walk away) before the bike shop there shut, or I could turn and walk the wrong way (away from home) towards Buckingham (only about an hour’s walk away), and hope that I’d be able to find supplies there.
I headed for Buckingham, but the students I spoke to when I passed the University campus suggested that there wasn’t a bike shop in town, but suggested a hardware store that might sell a bike pump (I’d since found a patch kit at a corner shop, although it was of course useless without a pump). But while looking for the hardware store, I discovered quite by accident Solstice Cycles, a wonderful little bike shop right in the heart of Buckingham (at the time, Google Maps on my phone had been completely unable to find me a bike shop at all). The man there switched out my inner tube in a jiffy (he agreed that it could well have been a raptor attack that had damaged it), and set me on my way.
Unwilling to add further to my diversion, I took a more-direct route back to Bicester, straight down the A4421, and I’m sure I must have agitated the motorists who weren’t used to seeing cyclists on such a major road. In Bicester, I ate the remains of my packed lunch before getting back onto the cyclepath home.
Total distance travelled: 57.75 miles; mostly cycled, but more than I’d have liked on foot. And a spectacular first geohash.
This blog post is the fifth in a series about buying our first house. In the third post in the series, we’d contracted some lawyers and applied for a mortgage, and in the fourth post we asked for help with the upcoming move. If you feel like we weren’t telling you the whole story, that’s because we weren’t: some of the bits we can now reveal were things that we needed to keep close to our chest while we were negotiating over the sale…
Things were continuing apace with our new house purchase, and that was the way that we wanted it. We’d had an offer accepted, applied for a mortgage (of which we’d been provisionally accepted already; this was just a paperwork affair), and our solicitors had gotten started with the searches and drafting the contracts. So long as the surveyor’s visit didn’t turn up any problems, we were on a roll.
Unfortunately, a few things did seem to be conspiring against us. The first was that the two sellers – a married couple who were in the middle of what appeared to be a… messy… separation – didn’t seem to be very communicative either with one another nor with their solicitor: or else, their solicitor was incredibly slow at relaying information back to our solicitor.
This posed a problem, because Ruth, JTA, Matt and I had already arranged with our letting agents that we’d be vacating our current house by the 5th of August. We’d left two clear weekends of possible “moving” time, but they were rushing up fast. Before the exchange of contracts, we couldn’t really let the sellers know how important it was that we complete the sale in a hurry, or else we’d be in a very weak negotiating position (and they’d be free to move the goalposts, knowing that we were running out of options). On the other hand, we really wanted to push to get the last couple of issues sorted out as soon as possible.
This ties in to the second thing that conspired against us: there were two particular issues with the house that we didn’t want to go ahead without resolving. The first was that the boiler hadn’t been serviced in a long time, so we insisted upon a gas safety inspection being carried out before we would exchange contracts. The second was that the front door was more “hole” than “door”, believed to have occurred during some kind of fracas between the owners (did I mention that their divorce was a little unpleasant?).
The gas safety inspection got sorted out after a while, but we went back and forth over the front door for what felt like an age. Who should repair it? Who should pay? We were told that the sellers were having cashflow problems and weren’t sure that they could pay for the repair of the door prior to the sale, but we weren’t happy to agree to the sale without a commitment that the door would be repaired by the completion (our insurer, answerable to our mortgage lender, wasn’t keen on us moving in to a house will a hole in it): we were at an impasse. So when the sellers produced for us a list of furniture they’d like to offer to sell to us, we noted with some suspicion that the total value of the furniture was remarkably close to the value of the quote for the repair of the door: clearly, they planned to offer to give us the furniture for “free” in exchange for not repairing the door.
Which might have been fine, except for the fact that we didn’t want about half (by value) of the things they were offering. Having been living in unfurnished accomodation for several years, we’ve already got a sufficiency of wardrobes. We were keen to take their appliances off their hands (including a gas cooker and a very large fridge/freezer), but we weren’t willing to buy something that we didn’t need just so that they could find it easier to repair something that they broke! We made a number of other offers, such as lending them the money to repair the door (which they’d be able to pay us back following the sale), but they weren’t keen.
We put into place our emergency plan, and made arrangements to go and start viewing rental properties, in case we ran out of time and needed somewhere to live. JTA and I played “good cop, bad cop” with them in a spectacular tag team, leveraging this situation as a threat to pull out of the purchase entirely… and just like that, they caved. Within a day or so, their solicitor had agreed to the terms of our contract, and the sellers agreed to sort out the front door prior to completion of the sale, and we made sure to get it in writing. Our solicitor had already requested the money from our mortgage lender, so we agreed upon a completion date later in the week.
We popped open a bottle of prosecco and celebrated the successful exchange, and redoubled our efforts to fill our house with boxes, prior to the move.
Went up the PYG track this weekend with the TransAid team, raising money in memory of my father (who was killed when he fell from a cliff last year, while in training for a sponsored trip to the North Pole). Whlie the stragglers made their way up to the summit, I whipped out my GPSr and found this wonderful little cache (pretty sure it wasn’t here when I last came up Snowdon, in early 2006).
A glorious day, marred only by the ludicrous number of walkers that had come out to make the most of it – the top was heaving with people!
Didn’t have a pen with me, and there wasn’t one in the cache. I’ve taken a photo of myself holding the cache (which I’ll provide on-demand, but in order not to spoil the cache for others I’ve not included it: instead see attached a photo of my group at the summit – I’m the guy at the front with his arms out; I’ve just run up from where the cache is in order to get into the picture at the last second!).
This blog post is the second in a series about buying our first house. If you haven’t already, you might like to read the first part.
When Ruth, JTA and I first set out to look at houses, we didn’t actually plan on buying one. We’d just gotten to the point where buying one felt like an imminent logical step, and so we decided to start looking around Oxford to see what kind of thing we might be able to get (and what it would cost us, if we did). Our thinking was that, by looking around a few places, we’d have some context from which to springboard our own discussions about what property we’d one day like to own.
There’s something about “window shopping” for houses that’s liberating and exciting. We don’t need a house – we’ve got somewhere to live – but we’re going to come and look around anyway. Once you’re on their lists, estate agents will bombard you with suggestions of places that you might like, and you feel a little like they’re your servants, running around trying to please you (in actual fact, almost the opposite is true: they’re working on behalf of the seller… although it’s certainly in their interest to get the property sold promptly so that they can take their cut!).
But as we got into the swing of things, we discovered that we were ready to buy already. Between our savings (and, in particular, boosted by the first parts of my inheritance following my dad’s death last year, as we’re finally getting his estate sorted out), we actually have an acceptable deposit for a mortgage, and our renewal on our current place was looming fast. None of us having bought a house before, we did a bit of reading and decided that our first step probably ought to be to work out how much can we borrow. You know, just to make our window-shopping a little more believable. Maybe.
One of the estate agents we dealt with introduced us to a chap called Stefan Cork, a mortgage broker working as part of the Mortgage Advice Bureau network. We were still only window-shopping at this point, but hey: if we were going to be allowed some free, no-commitment mortgage advice, then we might as well work out how much we could potentially borrow, right? After checking his credentials (the three questions you should ask every mortgage broker), I spoke to Stefan on the phone, and talked him through our situation. I described our unusual relationship structure (which he took in his stride) and the way that we means-assess our household contributions, alongside more mundane details like how much we earn and what kind of deposit we could rustle up. He talked us through our options and ballparked some of the kinds of numbers we’d be looking at, if we went ahead and got a mortgage.
And somehow, somewhere along the line, our perspective switched. Instead of looking at houses just to give us a feel for what we might buy, “maybe next year”, we were genuinely looking to buy a house now. We re-visited some of the places we’d seen already, and increased our search of places we hadn’t yet seen. Over time, and by a process of elimination (slow Internet area; too many hills; too narrow staircases; too expensive; too wonky), we cut down our options to just three potential properties. And then just two. And then we came to an impasse.
So… we put offers on both. Under the law of England and Wales, a property purchase isn’t binding until the contracts have exchanged hands. Sellers benefit (and buyers suffer) from this all of the time, because it permits gazumping: even after the buyers have spent money on lawyers, mortgage applications, surveys and searches, the seller can change their mind and accept a higher offer from a different prospective buyer! But this legal quirk can work for buyers, too: in our case, we were able to put offers in of what we were willing to pay for each of two properties (different values, at that), and let them know that the first one of the two to agree to our price would be the one to get the sale!
Haggling for a house in this way felt incredibly ballsy (I’d been nominated as the negotiator on behalf of the other Earthlings), but it played against the psychology of our sellers. Suddenly, instead of being in a position of power (“no, we won’t accept that offer… go a little higher”), the sellers were made to feel that if they didn’t accept our offers (which were doubtless lower than they had hoped), they’d have a 50% chance of losing the sale entirely. When there are hundreds of thousands of pounds on the line, being able to keep your cool and show that you’re willing to go elsewhere is an incredibly powerful negotiating tactic.
True to our word: when one of them came back and accepted our offer, we withdrew the offer on the other house and began the (lengthy) paperwork to start getting the purchase underway. But that can wait for another blog post.
This is the first in a series of four blog posts which ought to have been published during January 2013, but ran late because I didn’t want to publish any of them before the first one.
2012 was one of the hardest years of my life.
It was a year of unceasing disasters and difficulties: every time some tragedy had befallen me, my friends, or family, some additional calamity was lined-up to follow in its wake. In an environment like this, even the not-quite-so-sad things – like the death of Puddles, our family dog, in May – were magnified, and the ongoing challenges of the year – like the neverending difficulties with my dad’s estate – became overwhelming.
In the week of his death, my sister Becky was suffering from an awful toothache which was stopping her from eating, sleeping, or generally functioning at all (I tried to help her out by offering some oil of cloves (which functions as a dental contact anesthetic), but she must have misunderstood my instruction about applying it to the tooth without swallowing it, because she spent most of that evening throwing up (seriously: don’t ever swallow clove oil).
Little did she know, worse was yet to come: when she finally went to the dentist, he botched her operation, leaving her with a jaw infection. The infection spread, causing septicæmia of her face and neck and requiring that she was hospitalised. On the day of our dad’s funeral, she needed to insist that the “stop gap” surgery that she was given was done under local, rather than general, anasthetic, so that she could make it – albeit in a wheelchair and unable to talk – to the funeral.
Five weeks later, my dad finally reached the North Pole, his ashes carried by another member of his team. At about the same time, Ruth‘s grandmother passed away, swamping the already-emotional Earthlings with yet another sad period. That same month, my friend S******suffered a serious injury, a traumatic and distressing experience in the middle of a long and difficult period of her life, and an event which caused significant ripples in the lives of her circle of friends.
Shortly afterwards, Paul moved out from Earth, in a situation that was anticipated (we’d said when we first moved in together that it would be only for a couple of years, while we all found our feet in Oxford and decided on what we’d be doing next, as far as our living situations were concerned), but still felt occasionally hostile: when Paul left town six months later, his last blog post stated that Oxford could “get lost”, and that he’d “hated hated 90% of the time” he’d lived here. Despite reassurances to the contrary, it was sometimes hard – especially in such a difficult year – to think that this message wasn’t directed at Oxford so much as at his friends there.
As the summer came to an end, my workload on my various courses increased dramatically, stretching into my so-called “free time”: this, coupled with delays resulting from all of the illness, injury, and death that had happened already, threw back the release date of Milestone: Jethrik, the latest update to Three Rings. Coupled with the stress of the 10th Birthday Party Conference – which thankfully JTA handled most of – even the rare periods during which nobody was ill or dying were filled with sleepless nights and anxiety. And of course as soon as all of the preparation was out of the way and the conference was done, there were still plenty of long days ahead, catching up on everything that had been temporarily put on the back burner.
When I was first appointed executor of my dad’s estate, I said to myself that I could have the whole thing wrapped-up and resolved within six months… eight on the outside. But as things dragged on – it took almost six months until the investigation was finished and the coroner’s report filed, so we could get a death certificate, for example – they just got more and more bogged-down. Problems with my dad’s will made it harder than expected to get started (for example, I’m the executor and a beneficiary of the will, yet nowhere on it am I directly mentioned by name, address, or relationship… which means that I’ve had to prove that I am the person mentioned in the will every single time I present it, and that’s not always easy!), and further administrative hiccups have slowed down the process every step of the way.
You know what would have made the whole thing easier? A bacon sandwich. And black pudding for breakfast. And a nice big bit of freshly-battered cod. And some roast chicken. I found that 2012 was a harder year than 2011 in which to be a vegetarian. I guess that a nice steak would have taken the edge off: a little bit of a luxury, and some escapism. Instead, I probably drank a lot more than I ought to have. Perhaps we should encourage recovering alcoholic, when things are tough, to hit the sausage instead of the bottle.
Becky’s health problems weren’t done for the year, after she started getting incredibly intense and painful headaches. At first, I was worried that she was lined-up for a similar diagnosis to mine, of the other year (luckily, I’ve been symptom-free for a year and a quarter now, although medical science is at a loss to explain why), but as I heard more about her symptoms, I became convinced that this wasn’t the case. In any case, she found herself back in the operating room, for the second serious bit of surgery of the year (the operation was a success, thankfully).
I had my own surgery, of course, when I had a vasectomy; something I’d been planning for some time. That actually went quite well, at least as far as can be ascertained at this point (part three of that series of posts will be coming soon), but it allows me to segue into the topic of reproduction…
Because while I’d been waiting to get snipped, Ruth and JTA had managed to conceive. We found this out right as we were running around sorting out the Three Rings Conference, and Ruth took to calling the fœtus “Jethrik”, after the Three Rings milestone. I was even more delighted still when I heard that the expected birth date would be 24th July: Samaritans‘ Annual Awareness Day (“24/7”).
As potential prospective parents, they did everything right. Ruth stuck strictly to a perfectly balanced diet for her stage of pregnancy; they told only a minimum of people, because – as everybody knows – the first trimester’s the riskiest period. I remember when Ruth told her grandfather (who had become very unwell towards the end of 2012 and died early this year: another sad family tragedy) about the pregnancy, that it was only after careful consideration – balancing how nice it would be for him to know that the next generation of his family was on the way before his death – that she went ahead and did so. And as the end of the first trimester, and the end of the year, approached, I genuinely believed that the string of bad luck that had been 2012 was over.
But it wasn’t to be. Just as soon as we were looking forward to New Year, and planning to not so much “see in 2013” as to “kick out 2012”, Ruth had a little bleeding. Swiftly followed by abdominal cramps. She spent most of New Year’s Eve at the hospital, where they’d determined that she’d suffered a miscarriage, probably a few weeks earlier.
Ruth’s written about it. JTA’s written about it, too. And I’d recommend they read their account rather than mine: they’ve both written more, and better, about the subject than I could. But I shan’t pretend that it wasn’t hard: in truth, it was heartbreaking. At the times that I could persuade myself that my grief was “acceptable” (and that I shouldn’t be, say, looking after Ruth), I cried a lot. For me, “Jethrik” represented a happy ending to a miserable year: some good news at last for the people I was closest to. Perhaps, then, I attached too much importance to it, but it seemed inconceivable to me – no pun intended – that for all of the effort they’d put in, that things wouldn’t just go perfectly. For me, it was all connected: Ruth wasn’t pregnant by me, but I still found myself wishing that my dad could have lived to have seen it, and when the pregnancy went wrong, it made me realise how much I’d been pinning on it.
I don’t have a positive pick-me-up line to put here. But it feels like I should.
And so there we were, at the tail of 2012: the year that began awfully, ended awfully, and was pretty awful in the middle. I can’t say there weren’t good bits, but they were somewhat drowned out by all of the shit that happened. Fuck off, 2012.
Here’s to 2013.
Edit, 16th March 2013: By Becky’s request, removed an unflattering photo of her and some of the ickier details of her health problems this year.
Edit, 11th July 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s personal details have been obfuscated in this post so that they are no longer readily available to search engines.
Edit, 26th September 2016: At her request, my friend S******‘s photo was removed from this post, too.
As part of the ongoing challenges that came about as part of the problems with my dad’s Will, I was required the other week to find myself a local solicitor so that they could witness me affirm a statement (or swear an oath, for those of you who are that-way inclined). Sounds easy, right?
Well: it turns out that the solicitor I chose did it wrong. How is it even possible to incorrectly witness an affirmation? I wouldn’t have thought it so. But apparently they did. So now I have to hunt down the same solicitor and try again. It has to be the same one “because they did it partially right”, or else I have to start the current part of the process all over again. But moreover, I’ll be visiting the same solicitor because I want my damn money back!
I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty. Suffice to say that this is a surprising annoyance in an already all-too-drawn-out process. It’s enough to make you swear. Curse words, I mean: not an oath.
Since my dad’s funeral earlier this year, I’ve been acting as executor to his estate. What this means in real terms is lots of paperwork, lots of forms, and lots of dealing with lawyers. I’ve learned a lot about intestacy law, probate, inheritance tax, and more, but what I thought I’d share with you today are some things I’ve learned about Wills.
Note: This blog post discusses the duties of an executor in a way that some people might find disrespectful to the deceased. No disrespect is intended; this is just the way that I write. If you’re offended: screw you.
Here are 4 things you should do when writing a Will (which my dad didn’t):
1. Keep it up-to-date
What you should do: So long as you’re happy with the broader clauses in your will, there’s no need to change it frequently. But if there’s information that’s clearly missing or really out-of-date, it ought to be fixed.
What my dad did: My dad’s Will was ten and a half years old at the time of his death. In the intervening time, at least five important things had happened that he’d failed to account for:
He’d bought himself a flat. Unlike his other real estate, he’d not made specific mention of the flat in his Will, so it fell into his “everything else goes to…” clause. We can only assume that this is what he intended – it seems likely – but specific clarification would have been preferable!
I changed my name. This was a whole five years before he died, but his Will still refers to me by my birth name (which wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem except for the issue listed below under “State your relationships”).
I moved house. Seven times. The address for me (under my old name, remember) on my dad’s Will is one that I lived in for less than six months, and over a decade ago. That’s a challenging thing to prove, when it’s needed! Any of the addresses I lived at in the intervening 10+ years would have been an improvement.
The ownership model of a company in which he was the founder and a large shareholder changed: whereas previously it was a regular limited-by-shares company, it had become in those ten years an employee-owned company, whose articles require that shares are held only by employees. This posed an inheritance conundrum for the beneficiaries of these shares, for a while, who did not want to sell – and could not legitimately keep – them. Like everything else, we resolved it in the end, but it’s the kind of thing that could have been a lot easier.
His two daughters – my sisters – became adults. If there’s somebody in your Will who’s under 18, you really ought to re-check that your Will is still accurate when they turn 18. The legacies in my dad’s Will about my sisters and I are identical, but had he died, for example, after the shares-change above but before my youngest sister became an adult, things could have gotten very complicated.
2. State your relationships
What you should do: When you use somebody’s name for the first time, especially if it’s a family member, state their relationship to you. For example, you might write “To my daughter, Jane Doe, of 1 Somewhere Street, Somewhereville, SM3 4RE…”. This makes your intentions crystal clear and provides a safety net in finding and validating the identity of your executors, trustees, and beneficiaries.
What my dad did: In my dad’s Will, he doesn’t once refer to the relationship that any person has to him. This might not be a problem in itself – it’s only a safety net, after all – if it weren’t for the fact that I changed my name and moved house. This means that I, named as an executor and a beneficiary of my dad’s Will, am not referred to in it either my by name, nor by my address, nor by my relationship. It might as well be somebody else!
To work around this, I’ve had to work to prove that I was known by my old name, that I did live at that address at the time that the Will was written, and that he did mean me when he wrote it. And I’ve had to do that every single time I contacted anybody who was responsible for any of my dad’s assets. That’s a job that gets old pretty quickly.
3. Number every page, and initial or sign each
What you should do: If your Will runs onto multiple pages, and especially if you’ll be printing it onto multiple sheets of paper (rather than, for example, duplexing a two-page Will onto two sides of the same sheet of paper), you should probably put page numbers on. And you should sign, or at least initial, the bottom of each page. This helps to reduce the risk that somebody can tamper with the Will by adding or removing pages.
What my dad did: My dad’s will is only dated and signed at the end, and the pages are completely un-numbered. It clearly hasn’t been tampered with (members of the family have seen it before; a duplicate copy was filed elsewhere; and we’ve even found the original document it was printed from), but if somebody had wanted to, it would have been a lot easier than it might have been if he had followed this guideline. It would have also made it a lot easier when he made an even bigger mistake, below (see “Never restaple it”).
4. Never restaple it
What you should do: Fasten the pages of your Will together with a single staple. If the staple bends or isn’t in the right place, destroy the entire Will and re-print: it’s only a few sheets of extra paper, the planet will cope. A Will with additional staple marks looks like a forgery, because it’s possible that pages were changed (especially if you didn’t number and/or sign every page) after the fact.
What my dad did: His biggest mistake in his Will (after failing to identify me in an easily-recognisable manner) was to – as far as we can see – print it, staple it, remove the staple, and re-staple it. It was the very first thing I noticed when I saw it, and it was among the first things out lawyers noticed too. In order to ensure that they can satisfy the Probate Registry, our lawyers then had to chase down the witnesses to the signing of the Will and get statements from them that they believed that it hadn’t been tampered with. Who’d have thought that two little holes could cause so much work?
I could have made this list longer. I originally started with a list of nine things that my dad had done when he wrote his Will that are now making my job a lot harder than it might have been, but I cut it down to these four, because they’re the four that have caused the most unnecessary work for me.
Unless your estate is really complicated, you don’t need a solicitor to write a Will: you just need to do a little reading and use a little common sense. I’m a big fan of people doing their own legal paperwork (hence my service to help people change their names for free), but if you’re going to write your own Will, you might like to do half an hour’s background reading, first. This stuff is important.
When I first looked at the task of acting as my father’s executor, after his death, I thought “I can have this all wrapped up in eight months.” That was six months ago, and there’s probably another six months or more in it, yet. I heard from a friend that they call it “The Executor’s Year”, and now I can see why. We’re getting there, but it’s taking a long time.
Even when all the crying’s done and the bereaved are getting on with their lives, the executor’s always got more to do. So please, for the sake of your executor: check today that your Will doesn’t make any of these four mistakes! They’ll thank you, even though you won’t live to hear it.
I’m not sure that they expected me to attend. I’m certain that they didn’t expect me to bring a bottle of Guinness Original with me. But I had a plan: when the moment seemed right, I got everybody’s attention and – explaining that my dad was never really a wine drinker but enjoyed a good stout – christened the vehicle with a spray of beer.
I think that this is a wonderfully fitting tribute to a man who did so much for the transport industry, and – based on the mutterings I heard at the naming ceremony – I wouldn’t be the only one to think that perhaps other bus companies ought to have done the same! In any rate, as I joked to my sister: “My dad would have been delighted to know that now all of the young ladies of Nottingham can ride on Peter Huntley all day.”
If you find yourself in the vicinity of Nottingham, keep an eye out for a big orange Optare Versa, registration YJ12 PKU. That’s Peter Huntley you’re riding, too.
Further reading: another take, including a photo of the new bus driving around.
[spb_message color=”alert-warning” width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]Warning: this post contains details of the nature of the accident that killed my father, including a summary of the post-mortem report and photographs which, while not graphic, may be evocative.[/spb_message]
Last week, I attended a coroner’s inquest, which (finally) took place following my father’s sudden death earlier this year. It’s been five months since he fell to his death in the Lake District, while he was training for a sponsored trek to the North Pole this spring. Despite the completion of the post-mortem only a week or so after his death and the police investigation not running on too much longer after that, it took a long time before the coroner was ready to set a date for an inquest hearing and finally put the matter to rest.
I made my way up to Kendal – presumably chosen for its proximity to the coroner who serves the hospital where my father was airlifted after his fall – in a rental car, picking up my sisters and my mother in Preston on the way. We were joined at the County Hall by my dad’s friend John (who was with him on the day of the accident), Kate (a partner of my dad’s), and – after his complicated train journey finally got him there – Stephen (one of my dad’s brothers).
Mostly, the inquest went as I’d anticipated it might. The post-mortem report was read out – the final verdict was that death was primarily caused by a compression fracture in the upper spine and a fracture of the base of the skull, which is a reassuringly quick and painless way to go, as far as falling injuries are concerned. John’s statement was summarised, and he was asked a series of clarifying questions in order to ensure that my dad was properly equipped and experienced, in good health etc. on the day of his accident.
This was clearly a painful but sadly-necessary ordeal for John, who’d already been through so much. In answer to the questions, he talked about how he and my dad had rambled together for years, about how they came to be where they were on that day, and about the conditions and the equipment they’d taken. And, in the minutes leading up to my dad’s death, how he’d been coincidentally taking photographs – including the one below. He’d been in the process of putting his camera away when my dad slipped, so he didn’t see exactly what happened, but he looked up as my dad shouted out to him, “John!”, before he slid over the cliff edge.
Later, we heard from the police constable who was despatched to the scene. The constable had originally been en route to the scene of a minor road crash when he was diverted to my dad’s accident. He related how the two helicopter teams (the Air Ambulance hadn’t been able to touch down, but paramedics had been able to leap out at low altitude, so an RAF Search & Rescue helicopter was eventually used to transport the body to the hospital) had worked on the scene, and about his investigation – which had included seizing John’s digital camera and interviewing him and the other ramblers who’d been at the scene.
That’s all very sad, but all pretty-much “as expected”. But then things took a turn for the unexpected when Kate introduced herself as a surprise witness. Making an affirmation and taking the stand, she related how she felt that my father’s walking boots were not in adequate state, and how she’d told him about this on several previous occasions (she’s now said this on her website, too).
I’m not sure what this was supposed to add to the hearing. I suppose that, were it not for the mitigating factors of everything else, it might have ultimately contributed towards a possible verdict of “death by misadventure” rather than “accidental death”: the subtle difference here would have affected any life insurance that he might have had (he didn’t), by giving a reason to reject a claim (“he wasn’t properly-equipped”). John’s statement, as well as subsequent examination of my dad’s boots by my sister Sarah, contradicted Kate’s claim, so… what the hell was that all about?
We all handle grief in different ways, and its my hypothesis that this was part of hers. Being able to stand in front of a court and describe herself as “Peter’s partner” (as if she were the only or even the most-significant one), and framing his death as something for which she feels a responsiblity (in an “if only he’d listened to me about his boots!” way)… these aren’t malicious acts. She wasn’t trying to get an incorrect verdict nor trying to waste the courts’ time. This is just another strange way of dealing with grief (and damn, I’ve seen enough of those, this year).
But I’d be lying if it didn’t cause quite a bit of concern and confusion among my family when she first stood up and said that she had a statement to make.
Anyway: regardless of that confusing little diversion, it’s good that we’ve finally been able to get the coroners’ inquest to take place. At long last – five months after my dad’s death – we can get a proper death certificate I (as an executor of his will) can start mopping up some of the more-complicated parts of his estate.
It feels like most of the time I’ve spent in a car this year, so far, has been for travel related to somebody’s recent death. And so it was that yesterday, Ruth, JTA and I zipped up and down the motorway to attend the funeral of Ruth’s grandmother.
It went really well, but what I wanted to share with you today was two photos that I took at service stations along the the way.
This one confuses me a lot. If I buy alcohol from this service area, I can’t drink it either inside… or outside… the premises. Are they unlicensed, perhaps, and so the only way they’re allowed to sell us alcohol is if we promise not to drink it? Or is it perhaps the case that they expect us only to consume it when we’re in a parallel dimension?
It’s hard to see in the second photo without clicking (to see it in large-o-vision), but the sign on the opposite wall in this Costa Coffee implies the possibility of being an “Americano Addict”. And there was something about that particular marketing tack that made me cringe.
Imagine that this was not a café but a bar, and substitute the names of coffees with the names of alcoholic beverages. Would it be cool to advertise your products to the “wine addicts” or the “beer addicts” of the world? No: because alcoholism isn’t hip and funny… but caffeine addiction is? Let’s not forget that caffiene is among the most-addictive drugs in the world. Sure, caffeine addiction won’t wreck your liver like alcohol will or give you cancer like smoking tobacco (the most-popular way to consume nicotine) will, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there are many people for whom a dependency upon caffeine is a very real part of their everyday life.
Is it really okay to make light of this by using such a strong word as “addict” in Costa’s marketing? Even if we’re sticking with alliteration to fit in with the rest of their marketing, wouldn’t “admirer” or “aficionado” be better? And at least that way, Costa wouldn’t leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
This weekend was the worst net weekend of cinemagoing experiences that I’ve ever had. I went to the cinema twice, and both times I left dissatisfied. An earlier blog post talked about the second of the two trips: this is about the first.
You know what – 2012 has been a pretty shit year, so far. We’ve had death (my father’s), more death (my partner’s grandmother’s), illness (my sister’s horrific face infection), and injury (a friend of mine lost her leg to a train, a few weeks ago, under very tragic circumstances). We’ve had breakups (a wonderful couple I know suddenly separated) and busy-ness (a cavalcade of day-job work, Three Rings work, course work, and endless bureaucracy as executor of my dad’s will).
But it gets worse:
On Friday night, I went out with my family to watch Piranha 3DD.
This is one of those bad films that falls into the gap of mediocrity between films that are bad but watchable and films that are so bad that they wrap right around to being enjoyable again (you know, the “so bad they’re good” kind of movies). To summarise:
Lots of nudity, all presented in 3D. If there’ll ever be anything that convinces me that 3D films are a good idea, porn will probably be it. Boobs boobs boobs.
3D films remain a pointless gimmick, still spending most of their time playing up the fact that they’re 3D (lots of long objects, like broom handles, pointing towards the camera, etc.), and still kinda blurry and headache-inducing. Plus: beams of light (e.g. from a torch) in 3D space don’t look like that. The compositor should be fired.
The cameos mostly serve to show off exactly how unpolished the acting is of the less well-known actors.
Plenty of less-enjoyable pop culture references: if you’re not going to do the “false leg is actually a gun” thing even remotely as well at Planet Terror, don’t even try – it’s like trying to show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie, but not even managing to do that.
Unlikeable, unmemorable characters who spend most of their time engaging in unremarkable teen drama bullshit. Same old sex joke repeated as many times as they think they can get away with. And then a couple of times more.
Lackluster special effects: mangled bodies that don’t look much like bodies, vicious fish don’t look remotely like fish (and, for some reason, growl at people), and CGI that would look dated on a straight-to-video release.