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Yesterday I found some of my grandfather's old photographs of his holidays visiting pen pals on the continent.
See more of the Dutch trip here...... )
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The Harrold family. The boy standing on the chair is my grandfather. I wonder if my daughter has inherited his hair. He died in 2006.

The 'gun'

8/7/09 12:26
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My Dad always tried to impart a high degree of safety consciousness to us as we grew up. He was particularly worried that I might follow in his youthful footsteps and acquire a taste for motorcycles; an enthusiasm which cost him several broken bones and brushes with death. He needn’t have bothered. I am afraid of all forms of motor transport.

So, it surprised me when he recently came out with this amusing (in retrospect) story of how he nearly killed his younger brother, and himself, when they were children. He must have held back this little anecdote for decades, for fear that it would adversely influence us.

They decided to make a gun. Now, first you need to visualise their surroundings. They lived in a deck-access council flat in 1950s Birmingham. Their front door overlooked an estate of single-storey pre-fabs. These pre-fabs served as temporary housing for families made homeless by wartime bombing. They had long metal chimneys which my dad found convenient to use as targets for his BB rifle. In fact, the nearest chimney was pock-marked all over on one side, thanks to dad.

But air guns weren’t interesting enough. They were going to make a real gun. They constructed this from a piece of steel tubing which they stuffed with gun powder. A large ball-bearing served as a bullet. Dad’s little brother then stood on a chair at the open door of the flat, gripped the ‘gun’ firmly in both hands and aimed it out over the pre-fab estate.

“…and then I lit it” my dad explained. I interrupted him at this point, horrified.
“Hang on. That wasn’t a gun. That was a bomb.”
“Yes, well, I know that now, obviously.”

Anyway, he lit it, and three totally unexpected but thrilling things happened simultaneously:
  1. The ‘gun’ vanished from his brother’s hands, as if by magic. They never saw it leave. He was just left gripping thin air.
  2. There was a loud thud from the back of the flat.
  3. Way over on the other side of the estate, the chimney of one of the pre-fabs exploded spectacularly, and the tenant shot out of his front door shouting “whaaaaaaaaat the hellllllll?!!!!!!”
It took them a while to work out what had happened. The ball-bearing had destroyed the chimney. Success! But the recoil had sent the ‘gun’ in the opposite direction. There was a fresh hole in the bedroom door. This lined up with another fresh hole in the door of a wardrobe on the other side of the bedroom. They found the ‘gun’ inside the wardrobe.

As you may have gathered, their parents weren’t around much. They were too busy working long hours in their green grocer shop. Was there hell to pay when they finally got home? “Well, they were a bit annoyed by the holes, but they never enquired further.” Poor old pre-fab man across the estate never figured out what happened to his chimney either. Ah, halcyon days!
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I catch my flight back to the UK this afternoon. Goodbye Australia!

  • My clever, volatile sister and her clever, manic boyfriend. They are a phenomenon.
  • My childhood friend, Tyler. A driven genius writing an eye-popping novel. Somehow, not having seen each other since 1986 didn't matter.
  • Renata, who I last saw at her house in the Czech Republic, just outside my wife's native village. Nice to see her here living her new life, evidently successfully.
  • Australian food. The standard here is consistently high and less than half the price of the UK. An average Sydney cafe serves food and coffee better than anything I've had in France, and quality asian and middle eastern fare is ubiquitous.
  • Large and exotic flora absolutely everywhere. Gaily coloured parrots playing in the trees every morning.
  • Vicious sunshine that burns in 20 minutes. Giant roaches.
  • Sydney traffic. Less than half the population of London but it's already this bad? Jesus. Doesn't bode well for the future.
  • The lack of children. I really miss mine. Where do they hide them in this city? Are they so unwelcome in public? The few I saw seemed tightly confined to a small number of playgrounds and swimming pools.
  • The social drinking. Very generous but, really, I think it would kill me in a few months. The wine is superb, of course.
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An ancestor of mine who became quite wealthy as a wholesale fishmonger. I posted other photos of him and his family a while back here and here. He looks uncannily like my Dad.
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My sister, recently relocated to Sydney, has discovered that in Australia the queen's birthday is a public holiday. How retro is that? What's funny is that nearly all the Australians she's talked to labour under the impression that this is a holiday in Britain too. Upon hearing her English accent one shop keeper remarked "hey, must be a big day in England, no?" When she tells people that it's not a holiday in Britain and that, in fact, it passes by completely unnoticed, they are appalled and disillusioned.

Why should they be so annoyed by this? It's a free holiday isn't it?
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My sister has arrived in Sydney and is slowly exploring her surroundings. Our mutual school friend [profile] tinkytylertoo  is playing host to her at the moment. This is interesting in itself as neither of us had set eyes on him since 1986. In the the last couple of years, through enthusiastic e-mail correspondence, he has grown into a sort of legend; an intriguing character on the far side of the globe, with a semi- fictitious aura about him. Strange, then, to see him sitting cheerfully next to my sister on the webcam, as if she's passed through the looking glass.

And so it is that sis finds herself in a flat/ house (I'm not sure) in what I gather is an aboriginal slum so notorious (but quaint-looking, see above) that taxis won't go there after dark. This doesn't bother her. More alarming is the sheer sprawling size of the place. She describes it as a cross between Hong Kong and Santa Cruz, the only two Pacific cities with which she is familiar. Sydney has developed along the Los Angeles model; low density in all directions, without restraint, swallowing all the outlying villages and towns and all the spaces between. Travelling west to the town/suburb where she'll be starting her new job she found herself in a landscape of peeling weather boarded houses and Vietnamese restaurants, interspersed with gaudy palaces built by Lebanese-Australians. Visually bland but ethnically interesting. It amuses her that she has yet to see a single living example of the stereotypical white, hetero, beer-swilling Anglo-Australian. Except for our old school friend, I quipped, but then remembered that both his parents were Canadian, so even he doesn't count. He says he is delighted to have a visitor who he can talk French to, no matter how badly, because "my friends will be so fucking impressed!"
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My parents returned from Beijing yesterday. I was interested to know what my architect father thought of the place.

"A shit hole" he reported. 

But what about the Forbidden City? What did he think of that?

"Boring" was his overall impression. "The whole thing seems to have been built in 1420, as far as I could make out from the guidebooks, so every building is essentially identical." One aspect did interest him however. "There are no drains, and it is completely flat. I would like to see what happens when it rains. I think that's why all the buildings are on raised plinths."

Was there anything that really impressed him?

"The new airport building is amazing."
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One of the 19th century buildings at the Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie hospital in Benešov u Prahy, Czech Republic; last year before it was restored and last week after they had just finished it. I've spent a lot of time visiting my sick in-laws at this place. It is interesting to see what hospitals are like in other countries and compare them with the British one I work in. I'll put a few more photos under a cut after these ones......

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This is my great great grandfather and his family. I've been greedily rifling through photographs of my Dad's ancestors and scanning them into my computer. I've posted more of them here and here and here with explanations.
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My sister's birthday party last night in a 'cowboy' themed restaurant. She's the one wearing the shades. I'm very curious as to what my American audience make of these antics, haha. Why is that American themed restaurants always have stained glass lampshades? I've never seen them anywhere else. I don't actually own a cowboy hat so I wore my 1960s office-worker's bowler instead. My sister's friends are all dead cool and mainly either psychiatric nurses or employees of Her Majesty's Prison Service.
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My sister-in-law's garden in the Czech Republic today.

P.S. Happy 33rd birthday to my sister!
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Just watched "Borat" with Eva and Mother-in-law (and the baby, though she didn't watch much). It was slightly tough going because Eva had to explain, in Czech, what was going on, but we all enjoyed it immensely in the end. Eva and Mother-in-Law were able to get their heads around the central joke of the film: that British Jewish comic actor, Sacha Baron Cohen,  travels across the USA pretending to be a nominally Kazakh,  embarrassing, anti-semitic, sexist, TV presenter. However, I think Mother-in-Law found the Kazakh part a bit unconvincing, as she can read and speak Russian and took holidays in communist Kazakhstan. Also confusing was that Baron-Cohen's invented 'Kazakh' language, as well as containing Hebrew, borrows from Czech, and so he greets his audience with the typical familiar Czech "Jak se máš" (how are you?) but in a strange accent.

Eva's English was good enough to get the jokes in 'Borat' but she ran into a bit of difficulty distinguishing between the fake foreigner antics of Borat and his sidekick and the entirely real ones of the foreigner Americans. At the point where Borat visits an evangelical fundamentalist Christian church service she got confused because she couldn't quite believe that the congregation leaping about possessed by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues weren't a comic invention of the film makers. "Are they real?" she asked me.
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My mother-in-law has been having great difficulties with small things. She's highly skilled at comforting the baby and sending her off to sleep; no problem there. No, it's the two gerbils she has to share a room with that cause her aggravation. Their furious digging and chewing was driving her wild last night. Periodically we would hear her calling out in Czech "I'm going to kill you!" This morning she complained that grown men like me shouldn't keep little animals as pets. I pointed out that many grown adults (including her) keep silly little dogs and cats as pets and I see no great difference between these and my pocket sized friends. She doesn't like their names either. I call them 'number one' and 'number two'. She's renamed them Amanda and Betsy.

Mother-in-Law was looking through some pictures on our computer just now and I noticed something amusing. She can't use a mouse. I mean she understands the principle, but cannot actually move it accurately enough to make the cursor go where she wants. She tries to move it using her whole arm, like the gear stick of a car. Haha.
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I've only just noticed that my cousin Gerald wrote about Jana on his blog only a few hours after she was born. I rather like his take on baby photos and the complexities of genealogical nomenclature.
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I saw this picture for the first time today. It was taken around 1915.  Now, let me run you through a sequence of biological events. Pay attention. The old lady on the right gave birth to the lady with the hat. The lady with the hat gave birth to nine children, and her eldest daughter is the young woman standing at the back. This young woman gave birth to three children including the young girl seated at the front, in the middle. This young girl grew up and gave birth to my MOTHER, who gave birth to me.

So, I grew from an egg inside my mother, who grew from an egg inside the little girl, who grew from an egg inside the young woman at the back, who grew from an egg inside the lady with the hat, who grew from an egg inside the old lady on the right.....and so on, and so on, for hundreds of thousands of years, through an unbroken maternal chain until we reach one, probably ape-like, woman from whom all human beings are descended.

I need to lie down now.
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Do I support Aston Villa football club? No. But, you see, I was curious. What football team would I support if I, or indeed any member of my family, was interested in football? Years of tracing my paternal ancestry through the births, marriages and deaths registries reveals that I am the descendant of several generations of Birmingham silversmiths. One of them even made ornate tableware for the Titanic. Which part of Birmingham did they inhabit? The now notorious suburb of Aston. So, here is the logo of the club which, as my birthright, I should claim as my own......if I was interested in football, which I'm not.
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My Grandad died last night. He was a nice man and the son of another nice man who mined coal in Warwickshire. He loved gardening, kept bees, made jam and cakes, and built Spitfire engines during the war. He outlived his wife by 20 years. My cousin knew him better and has written a better obituary than I can.

At my other grandfather's funeral he said "what a waste of flowers. I don't want flowers at mine,"
"What do you want then? Chocolates?" I joked.
"They'd have to be diabetic ones" he replied, grinning.

Once, remembering a colleague at Rolls Royce, "He loved fishing. We'd catch him at his desk looking out of the window day dreaming and we'd shout 'look, he's pulling one out!' He's passed on now. Funny things, people. They come and go."

When my sister and I were very young we found a dying bee in the garden. We went and got grandad in the hope that he could cure it. He said that he couldn't because it was too old. He stroked it and said "poor bee".
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We went to Gatwick airport to pick up my Czech mother-in-law last night. She’ll be staying with us for ten days. When we got back to our car in the airport multi-storey we found another car halfway up a ramp nearby with its engine still running….and on fire! I thought there were people still in it. But then this pretty, bemused-looking girl with a French-African accent appeared and asked. “Is it safe?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Safe to get my bag and phone out. They’re still in there. Do you think it’ll blow up?” My mother-inlaw was in frantic mode by this time; shouting in Czech:
“Call the police! Do something!”
“Probably best to forget your bag” I told the girl, who smiled weakly as the carpark began to fill with thick, acrid smoke. Then orange flames leaped from the car’s engine and, bizarrely, it came to life, as if with a mind of its own, and started flashing its lights and crawling slowly up the ramp.

Tee Hee!

We left them to it and went home.
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Here’s another bit of local colour from the Czech trip (for more of which see below). Eva’s uncle Fanda told us he’d had to attend the funeral of an old friend who had committed suicide. He told us this story with Eva translating…….

“It was very sad. He was a really great bloke. He used to go drinking with us every week and he was always the life of the party. Always laughing and joking. He was one of the funniest men I knew. But every few months he would become terribly depressed. It was not the first occasion on which he had tried to kill himself. This time he was determined to succeed. He got himself really drunk and went out into the cold night to die of hypothermia in the forest. By the time they found him his body temperature was only 17°C. They took him to the hospital where they did everything they could to warm him up again.”

“But failed, obviously” said Eva.

“No, they were successful. He recovered completely.” Then uncle Fanda sat back as if the story was finished. I was confused and asked Eva if I’d misunderstood. I thought uncle Fanda had just been to his friend’s funeral. Eva looked a bit flustered. She was worried she’d mistranslated something and asked her uncle how, if he had recovered, had his friend come to be dead. He became animated again.

“Oh, as soon as he was warmed up again he got out of bed and jumped straight out of the third floor window of the hospital.”

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