Family values


Two senior ladies, mother and daughter as it happens, are sat in Costa Café wondering why so-called small coffees have arrived in soup tureens.

Older senior lady: there’s absolutely nothing to recommend getting old.

Younger senior lady: well you don’t have all that monthly business and you can’t get pregnant.

Older senior lady: well there’s no sex so it doesn’t make a difference.

Younger senior lady: shall we go and see the penguins then?

DSCF4783There is, after all, something to recommend being aged – you can get into Longleat much cheaper than you could if you were under sixty. And we are here specifically to visit Penguin Island. My mum likes penguins and donkeys so this is a good read for her.

It’s the inaugural day for Penguin Island – the penguins spent last night in their new home acclimatising. Now, they’re standing in a bewildered line staring at their first ever visitors who, in turn, are staring back. The website advert says we’ll be thrilled to see the penguins swimming under our feet through the glass-covered tunnels that lead to the other tank. Because it’s their first day in a new job, the penguins don’t know that the glass-covered tunnels lead anywhere, let alone that they’re supposed to thrill the audience by swimming through them. They’re still staring, mesmerised possibly by the womb music and the disco lighting. It’s nice though. They’re not stressed and neither are we so their probationary appraisal should go well.

DSCF4788On to the second attraction opening today – Stingray Bay. The good thing about coming here in a heat-wave is that hardly anyone else has bothered to make the effort: no crowds and we get to lean over the water and touch these lovely animals (fish?)

I’m not going to give a full account of everything else we did except to say we did do everything else at a pleasing pace: river cruise, jungle train, house, safari park – you name it, we were there. Except for the maze: too hot to get lost in there without supplies. What a treat to be out with my mum with her penguin pick-up stick; doesn’t pick up things very well but then she only bought it to peck at my dad’s nose.

But for something completely different – why not have a daughter who goes on one of those find-your-lost-family-websites? And when you’ve found all the lost family, why not invite them round for the afternoon? So we did. The day after Longleat. Just in case we weren’t tired enough.

No photos here so we can protect the innocent. The problem is identifying the innocent. Obviously all those present are innocent… not their fault they’re related to the guilty. Not their fault that they’re all struggling to remember or explain how they came to be related. Or whether Charlie, who died from the direct hit of a bomb whilst sat in a chair was the same Charlie who’s recorded as being found dead in the street. Or whether said chair was in the same room as his latest trick and child were cowering under a nearby table. And who were they anyway? Must have survived or how would we have known Charlie was in the chair in the first place?


Could this be THE chair? Probably not.

Younger senior lady, who has had a very morally strict upbringing, is somewhat taken aback to learn that everyone was doing it with everyone else, that no-one seems to have been married, or if they were – not to the right people – and can’t understand all the double standards, conflict, compromise and adjustments. Younger senior lady has spoken to several folk at work and discovered that no-one’s grandparents seem to have been married. As for the great-grandparents, well, what a shower. Baby Boomers and children of the sixties, we thought we were the brave new things who invented sex and freedom. Actually, without exception, we were governed by idealistic principles that bear no relation to the reality of our ancestors’ behaviour. We cowered in the invented  fear, disgrace and embarrassment imposed by the last generation but one.

Younger senior lady: you can’t get pregnant

Older senior lady: you can’t have sex.


Phil and Rene

DSCF4616Inspired, perhaps, by Harold Fry, Phil and Rene are walking to London from the depths of Northamptonshire. They’re taking the path that follows the Grand Union Canal for 92 miles. This pair recently celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary so, like their marriage, they’re taking the trip slowly and in stages to make it last.


Accompanied by three sea bass, a bag of seaweed and two bottles of the red stuff, I went up to see Phil and Rene the other day. They always have plenty of their own red stuff but, living in middle-earth, not much in the way of fresh fish; unless you count Waitrose, which I don’t. During our fishy dinner, I was asked to join them the following day on the next stretch of their unlikely pilgrimage from Stoke Bruerne to Grafton Regis. This was a great privilege, being the first time that they’d allowed a fellow traveller to join them; a dangerous strategy, I fear, given what happened to Harold Fry when other folk hitched a ride on the bandwagon.

Phil and Rene are prepared for the terrain: flask filled with coffee – check; walking boots in the car – check; walking sticks on hand – check; route well-planned – check; pub located at end of stage – CHECK! And off we go.


I forgot to mention the number of cars involved. We take two cars to the end point of the stage. We leave one car there and all drive back to the beginning of the stage. We do the walk, get in the waiting car, drive back to the other car and everyone drives home. Simples.

They didn’t check the weather but it was ok: no downpours even though they said it was always sunny when they travelled alone. And there were people to talk with and lovely English countryside to enjoy.


Phil and Rene were lulled into a false sense of security. A veritable horde descended the following day. Wikipedia gives a definition of horde as ‘a socio-political and military structure in nomad cultures such as the Mongols…sometimes from the Caucasus Mountains’. This lot comprised extended family from Dorset. So not much difference then.  And Phil and Rene made the mistake of inviting them on the next stage of the walk that would commence at Grafton Regis.

The socio-political structure from the south had not arrived bearing gifts, it being a Friday which is always a good excuse for forgetting the preceding week and anything they should’ve remembered. Further, they ate no intellectually stimulating fish, but still managed to down sufficient quantities of the red stuff to ensure that eight people felt adequately qualified to offer their opinions on how best to accomplish the task ahead. At the same time as each other.DSCF4652

The first suggestions involved the use of four cars. This was, naturally, deemed ridiculous and the plan was whittled down to three. One bright spark maintained that if we could work out the solution to the conundrum of the man, the chicken, the fox and the corn crossing the river, we would know what to do next. DSCF4653

What we did next was drink some more of the red stuff. Next, it was agreed to take only two cars and split into two splinter groups which would start the walk from opposite ends of the trail. We would pass each other at the half way point, exchange a wave and car keys and drive home in the wrong car. We drank some more of the red stuff. There were other suggestions entailing some people doing the walk and then turning round and walking back again. Others argued that it would be better to walk one way and wait for another group to reappear. Others fell off their chairs. As it happened, we divided into two groups each of whom went for a walk in completely different places from the other and none of whom ever saw a canal. A number of photographs had to be taken to prove everyone was present.

We left on the Sunday. ‘So long, and Thanks for all the fish’, shouted Phil and Rene, unaware of their plagiarism. They were too busy clearing up and planning never to ask for company again.

“There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler’s mind.”   Douglas Adams (1984)  So long, and Thanks for all the fish. 

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