If you want to do something nice for your seven or eight year old kid, take him or her on a fantastic voyage. It's just about the most exciting family activity going.
As a little squirt I lived for the hours I journeyed with mum and dad in our white Austin 1100, orange Morris 1300 or maroon Morris Marina (dad got through a lot of cars back then). The back was my exclusive domain and sweaty legs would stick to sun-scorched seats while my chin would press up against the back of the vinyl passenger seat, my position of choice, behind my mum's head. From there I would soak up all the stories my dad could offer about his tenure in the RAF. Or I would make my mum squeal with pretend delight at my parrot-like recreation of Monty Python sketches learned from BBC comedy LPs.
A favourite destination would be my Auntie Evelyn and Uncle Trevor's house in Pontllanfraith, a tiny town very much locked into the South Wales Valleys. Collieries were still a thing then (this was pre-Thatcher) and the landscape was scarred but very much alive with black sinews and huge shaft wheels.
From Exeter, this was always an epic slog. There was no M5 yet: we let the A38 lead us slowly through Tiverton, Taunton and around Bristol to the amazing Severn Bridge. There, we would break. Egg and chips and some kind of chemical fizzy pop would be all mine at the devastatingly modern Aust Motorport (my mum continued to call motorway service stations 'motorports' all her life). And then the tunnels at Newport would appear, and the short last leg through tiny Valleys villages, coal mines and fields full of sheep would finish us off.
Uncle Trevor was a kind but slightly intimidating man - to this young mind, at least. He was a fantastic and fun, big-hearted soul, but his deep voice and strong frame were less attractive to the mollycoddled junior school version of me than my incredible Auntie Evelyn.
Of all my Welsh relations, I loved her the most (my darling cousin Linnet comes a very close second). This was down to purely mercenary reasons. Every time we visited she would magic up a present for her nephew... whether it was close to a birthday or Christmas or not. Amazing!
Best of all, she had a knack for picking presents that were way outside the box. She was imaginative and considerate with her gift buying. A brush and comb set was an early nod to manhood for me. There was a small telescope one time – which doubtless launched my enduring fascination with the stars and planets. Books – really good books – were gifted to me too. And so on.
The only gift I didn't accept from her, offered when I was a little older, was a genuine Nazi tie-pin that she had acquired from God knows where. To show off and act mature, I pretended it gave me the creeps. Stupid me: I was actually quite fascinated. I should have just shut up and gratefully accepted it.
Fast forward to the adult version of me. In the 1990s, I found myself working and living in Newport, not far at all from my Aunt, Uncle and cousins. I would see a little of Evelyn, from time to time, in her new granny flat down the hill from her old house, and when she grew ill I visited her at the Royal Gwent Hospital.
At a pensioner's club she was encouraged to undertake a gentle writing project. This was intended as a bit of fun for the old folk, but Auntie Evelyn took this task to a completely unexpected level. Scribbling like a demon, she sealed all of her early memories onto paper – from following her dad (a cattle drover) through the streets of Exeter (on the back of a dog with a saddle attached!), to a sad life in a children's home, to entering servitude as a young teenager, through the (alleged) murder of her half-brother Joe, to the time she was wooed by one of the Welsh blokes in the travelling fair which rolled into town one summer. Guess what? She ended up marrying and spending her life with him. It's all in there, and it's a fantastic read.
My dad always had a very special place in his heart for Evelyn, his youngest sister. When she died, I think in a way my dad started to die as well. Spiritually, if not physically.
Today marks the date Auntie Evelyn left us. I still have some of the presents she gave me. And some photographs of her as a young girl. And, of course, her incredible essay – which, whenever I happen upon it and re-read it, comes as an efficient reminder that I have been lucky in life. I grew up with both parents in a family home and I have always had food to eat, clothes to wear, a sense of security and the freedom to grow ambition.
Auntie Evelyn, though she would never let it show, was unable to take any of those things for granted. The generation of Bardings that came before me had a very hard time of it. Evelyn had to fight, really hard, for everything in her life. But she made it. She was a star.
God bless you, Ev.
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