Saturday, 24 October 2009

Chapter 11 - Kids!!

Dick with Charlie Arran 1982
Kids (1983 – present)

Night arrives with her purple legions
retire now to your tents and to your dreams
tomorrow we enter the town of my birth
I want to be ready (Jim Morrison)

Your children are not your children
They the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself
(The Prophet Khalil Gilbran)

When Katharine and I bought Charlie, our idea was to travel via the fashionable ‘hippie trail’ through Europe and the Asian sub continent, and arrive back in in back in Oz, or more specifically in Dubbo. There we imagined living in rural splendour & sunning ourselves for the greater part of the year whilst doing the odd days work here and there to keep ourselves in style and suntan lotion. Having seen Katharine’s reaction to a two week holiday in Spain in 1999; average temperature about 35 degrees during our two week holiday there, I’m kinda glad that our Aussie odyssey never became a reality. To say she visibly melted would be an understatement! She never really liked the heat, being after all a Mackem (if you don’t know look it up); a native of a a place where they shun central heating and during the depths of winter fling open the windows as if it were a bright sunny day. If I told you that male football fans there will cheerily dispense with their replica shirts – ones they’ve paid half a million quid for - even in February you might get an inkling of what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I know for a fact (cos she’s subsequently told me) that she never had any intention of going overland to Australia, because, actually, she had other ideas. Or one idea – to get herself as pregnant as she could as quickly as she possibly could, and begin raising a family. So, one day after we’d been married about a year, she announced that she was indupitably and beyond all shadow of a doubt with child as the books coyly put it. Now this is what most blokes in their 20’s (I was 29) dread happening as a result of a ‘permanent’ relationship. Loss of freedom, loss of ability to sit round in the boozer talking about footie and birds; loss of ability to shag around; loss of ability to take off at a moments notice and disappear into the sunset; loss of chances for getting very stoned and listening to very loud rock music. Everything in fact, that a young virile male imagines to be necessary for a complete lifestyle – swept aside in instant to be replaced with howling infants, dirty nappies, endless nightly disturbances to feed, change or placate the small monster you’ve blamelessly spawned, and later the dreaded pipe and slippers, Steve Coogan cardies and teenagers who behave like Harry Enfield’s Kevin, communicating only in grunts.

Gosh, nobody then, was more surprised than I to actually feel a great sense of adventure and challenge from the expected arrival. Was I ready to give up my former pleasures? Only time would tell, but I had a good feeling about being a dad (although I’m still, even 26 years later, not really able to believe I’m a father).

Nothing prepares you for the joy of being a parent; the almost unbearable elation when you take part in the birth; for the first smile; the ridiculous interest in every tiny gurgle and noise; for being fascinated with what this small being eats (and more worrying, produces at the other end – yeuuch!) Later there is almost real communication – listen I’m sure she said your name, I think he just asked for more. Actually these are random noises but later become real, distinguishable, words, and then the fun starts. Ellie’s first word was pussy, but by the age of three she’d progressed to words like camouflage, shocking our friend Simon so much he nearly choked.

Being like, er, radicals man we agreed that we didn’t want a nasty fascist, oppressive, male dominated birth for our first child in some soulless hospital where Katharine would be subjected to the indignities of being treated like a patient or a number. No, we wanted the joy and nutaral-ness of a home birth (and up yours to the authorites). After all; we kept reminding ourselves that we’d been told that Chinese peasant women could give birth in the rice field they were working in and carry on with their toil unhindered – total bullshit of course but we believed it. All the magazines, pamphlets and booklets we read (one was by the Radical Midwives Association) assured us that birth was the most natural thing in the world, and that we must shun at all costs the nasty patriachial male doctors with their shiny steel implements of torture and gas and air etc.

Our doctor took a very dim view of this approach, pointing out – not unreasonably – that hospital births are safer than flying by plane or some such thing, and that if anything does go wrong we would have access to the best help available. His protestations fell on deaf ears, we were young, deeply in love, immortal and on a mission. As a result he made us jump through a number of what we saw to be totally unjustified hoops in order to secure the home birth we wanted so desparately. In fact, it transpired that the only thing he could find to quibble about was Katharine’s deficient iron level, and this was soon sorted. We discovered afterwards, when Parents Magazine arrived to interview us, that this had been the first home birth in Wandsworth for 35 years, we began to understand why the doc had made such a fuss about it.

As the date of the confinement drew close we began to plan the music, invited friends (really), attended the odd NCT class, bought various books by child experts and gurus such as Sheila Kitzinger. There was a short lived plan to keep the placenta and cook it and eat it while dancing around in the moonlight, but mercifully we thought that this was a bit extreme and loopy even for us and the idea was quietly shelved.

What we didn’t do was worry, have Katharine go on strange diets or study the most auspicious times for birth, and I certainly didn’t give up smoking or drinking! Nowadays expectant mothers are beset with all sorts of dire warnings about eating the wrong foods (this kind of fish is OK but that kind will cause the baby to go yellow and have eye problems in later life etc etc) along with a huge number of possible complications and crimes against the potential long - term health and mental stability of the unborn infant.

Where does Charlie come into this, you may be asking, and I’m going to tell you. We were determined not to let the arrival of the firstborn cramp our style; we would still party with the best of them, still go see all our mates at odd times of the day and night, still go to gigs and festivals, take unplanned trips to nowhere in particular and generally live a free and unfettered lifestyle. There is a small problem here, as any experienced parent will tell you. Small babies and children require feeding, having nappy changes, sleeping and being entertained. You can’t just go out of the house on a whim. You are required to take a panoply (look it up) of baby support systems and items: cots, pushchairs, bottles, milk, changing mat, clothes etc etc.

So…Charlie became a kinda travelling nursery on wheels. We equipped him with nearly everything required for baby life support, even down to a travel cot which folded neatly away when not in use. Ellie invariably went to sleep in the cot almost as soon as the engine turned over, as did her sisters after her, which afforded us at least four hours of untroubled travelling time. This enabled us to venture forth to, well, pretty much anywhere that took our fancy. This usually overnight stops or festivals. I’m sure our girls thought of Charlie as a second home in the same way that Simon and Paul were their second dads (yes I know 1+1+1 = 3 and doesn’t add up if you include me, but I had to get a mention in here for them). I’m also sure that the distinctive chuga chuga sound of an aircooled engine also helped to induce sleep, and even years later if I hear one I get a sort of secure feeling of warmth and comfort.

Actually, in the depths of the English winters, Charlie was not particularly warm, given the inadequate level of heat from the heath robinson style ‘heat exchangers’ which ducted the warm air all the way from the engine (at the back) to the cab (which was at the front), thus affording it time to cool down to a point where it was only actually useful after a journey of about 50 miles or so. Also in summer they didn’t seem to turn off completely, which gave more warm air when it was least needed. Despite the fact I have huge admiration for all things VW and German in terms of mechanical engineering, I think they got this one wrong, and I searched in vain for the fabled petrol (petrol!) driven heater which had acquired urban myth type status among VW enthusiasts, but my search was always in vain.

Our family members will aways point out a VW van when we drive past one (usually in the overtaking lane, boom, boom!) and a general chorus of approveal will be registered with a resounding ‘There’s a CHARLIE VAN.’ That’s just how important Charlie is to us, and wherever I am in the world any site of a VW T2 is a good exultant feeling. Part of the extended Charlie Van family, if you like.

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