A Happy Place: The No More Bad Photos competition and your chance to win a Sony Cyber-shot HX20V camera
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Can you see us, happy and expectant and shoeless, in this grainy photo? It was taken at the beginning of a long day when we went fishing, some by trawler and others by ancient row-boat, chancing our luck that this would be the day the fish were biting. Later that evening, a sumptuous meal of freshly caught mackerel and whiting and jacket potatoes will be pulled from a campfire before us. We will eat like kings.
For one glorious week, everyone I love is gathered to us in Cornwall. We are a rollicking and raucous clan, some related by blood, others connected through enduring friendship. Three families who usually live in various parts of the country are together on holiday in what will soon be remembered as the hottest summer in living memory. It is 1976.
There’s Uncle Eric, chipper and funny as always in front of the children, but privately complaining to his brother (my Dad) that his eyesight is a little wonky and he now has something called tunnel vision.
There’s Aunty Sylvia, a gentle soul if ever there was one, whom I’ve never heard raise her voice, laughing, shepherding her children, rolling her eyes at yet another transgression committed by her wilful boy.
There’s Phil, my favourite cousin in the world, just a year older than me and more like a brother. In the week he has stayed with us he has read me vampire stories in the dark and scared me witless. During the hot days he has wandered with me into our small town and taken to staring at every teenage girl who walks past, rating them purely on the size of their boobs.
And then there’s Aunty Heather, not related at all but my mother’s oldest and dearest friend, down with the girls from Berkshire in her battered pop-top Kombi camper, beatific in her fuzzy peach haired skull and radio-therapy wasted face. She has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, has been fighting it for six years. Right now she is well, so she’s piled the girls into the camper, driven 300 miles on a whim to Cornwall and shown up on our doorstep without warning. The tiny three bedroom house, already crowded with our visiting cousins, somehow expands to fit in the others. Her two girls, Lynn and Jane, are the same age as me and my sister. We are the closest thing they have to cousins. When I think of our childhood holidays together – there were many – I don’t recall anything but laughter. It is joyous to see them again.
Within a few hours, Heather has convinced all of us to head to Mevagissey to spend the following day at the beach. It’s her favourite camping spot in Cornwall and it’s where she and the girls are staying for the week. It is the first week of August, the weather is cloudless and hot and we kids are restless. It’s an irresistible offer.
My dad is an enthusiastic fisherman but hopelessly unlucky. He will invariably catch next to nothing but it never stops him from having a go. Fishing charters run out of Mevagissey harbour so he and Eric stump up the cost and take as many children as they can wrangle onto the boat for the day. As usual, Dad ignores the pain in his knee which is crumbling under early onset osteoarthritis, ever optimistic that this will be the day his luck changes. I chicken out – fishing charters are not my favourite pastime. My sisters go, so does Phil, his sister Jan and Jane and together they take a motley collection of rods and nets. It is Mum who takes the photo of them getting on the boat, her feet securely land-locked on the beach.
After the trawler chugs out of the harbour, Heather notices dinghies for hire, little wooden row boats with outboard motors and wooden rudders. She piles me and Lynn into a boat, commandeers the motor and putts out just beyond the harbour wall, then kills the motor and we bob on a sea so languid it’s like an enormous blue mattress. We dangle hand lines over the edge and within minutes start catching mackerel, which we can clearly see swimming beneath us.
In an hour we have caught more than a dozen fish.
The trawler comes back a few hours later and for once Dad is triumphant. In calm and clean waters they have hauled in so many mackerel and whiting that eventually they simply throw them back. It is an epic day. Dad is crowing.
Later that afternoon, my mother, who even then has a phobia of boats and who has refused to get in either one, makes her contribution by wrapping up whole potatoes in foil and encourages everyone to find driftwood. I don’t know if it is illegal to have a campfire on the beach – it may well be now – but it is her idea that we all eat around the fire.
While I had never forgotten this holiday I had not seen photos of it for over thirty years until Mum unearthed more than 1000 slides from the garage earlier this year. Dad had put them all away. Slides – do you remember slides? There is a whole ten-year stretch of our family’s life captured on slides, crucial years from when I was six to sixteen, all carefully stored away on a shelf. The ancient slide projector long since gone, Mum had no choice but to hold each one up to the light and decide which slide would be converted to digital and which would be left alone. She was looking for photos of Heather to send to the girls when she came across this mother lode. She showed me and in an instant I was fourteen again.
I look back on that summer and I think of it as a perfect time. Of course the photos don’t do it justice, how could they? For one thing, no photo of our evening meal or the campfire remains. At best, these photos are a fleeting impression of how golden and untroubled our lives were. We had our problems but they are not visible in these pictures.
When I remember my childhood, this glorious day remains a standout. That simple dinner of fish and potatoes remains one of the great food memories of my life. It was the company that made the meal taste so good, a perfect synergy of love and friendship and good weather and no cares in the world, in the hours before the incoming tide swept away the embers of the fire. These are some of the last shining hours we shared together.
Before life came roaring back in, obliterating everything we knew.
Before Eric was diagnosed just a few weeks later with a large brain tumour. It was promptly removed along with his pituitary gland but it was too late to save his optic nerve. Eric woke up to permanent blindness and was tipped into years of rehabilitation and unemployment.
Before Dad could no longer bear the pain in his knee and finally went into hospital just a couple of weeks after his brother’s operation. He returned two months later barely able to walk, his knee cap permanently removed by barbaric naval surgeons. He never had a pain-free day again. He was not yet 40.
Before the luminous Heather died a short six months later during an icy winter, leaving two abandoned girls to find their way, my mother sobbing into the phone for the loss of her friend.
Before Phil got caught skateboarding along the rollers in a local crematorium late one night. I know it shouldn’t but it still makes me laugh, even though we both mourned the loss of his dad in that place years later.
Before we migrated to Australia the following year – before Life got in the way and destroyed utterly that group of families and bonds we all thought would last forever.
This was our happy place.
And I had never thought to tell you any of this until the wonderful people at Sony sent me a brilliant little Cyber-shot DSC-HX20V camera to play with. They also wanted me to enter this competition, called No More Bad Photos, because they believe that there are always photos that ould stand to be re-taken. And while there are countless blurred photos of travel and friends and babies and parties and even camping trips in my collection, it’s this moment I would most like to recapture, with a wonderful camera that does justice to the colour and movement and brilliant energy of the people involved.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Could it be replicated? No, not completely. For one thing, time has taken the older people, except for Mum and Aunty Sylvia, now in her eighties. In the blink of time’s eye the children are now the grownups in the picture. But we are all still in touch, with families of our own. We haven’t holidayed together since that summer but all have referred to it in separate conversations over the years. What would I do to bring us all together around another campfire on a Cornish beach?
Well, I’d start by hiring a charter boat and sending everyone out to catch our dinner. I’d stay behind and wrap potatoes in foil. I’d wait for the tide to go out to build a large bonfire in this, my first British summer in thirty-five years. I’d take great care to take as many photos (and, gloriously, HD movie footage) as possible, of the meal, of the people, of the laughter. No doubt my daughter would carefully supervise me to set the correct aperture, the right colour wash, the correct exposure just to be sure. We’d take advantage of the incredible 20x optical zoom lens (or more than 40x clear image zoom), of the more than 18 megapixels of hi-res images available to us, of HD movie images you can playback on your 3D TV, of face and smile detection, panorama settings and more downloadable editing options than I have ever dreamt of using.
I’d smooth down my hair then compose everyone in the group just so, just to make sure Phil isn’t being so ridiculously funny that he makes everyone laugh just when I’m taking the picture.
And I’d post the resulting photos in every social media forum we have between us, on this blog and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and in all the places and spaces and groups we belong and everywhere we can think of like clouds and memory sticks and cyber time-capsules – and best of all, blown up as a huge family portrait and hung on Mum’s lounge room wall.
Just so we never lose sight of our happy place again.
To be in the running, please tell me about YOUR HAPPY PLACE that you would most like to re-capture using this beautiful little baby and how you would best use the camera.
Open to Australian residents only. Winner will be selected at random from the comments listed below. You can comment as often as you want.
Entries close 7pm EST, Sunday 24th June 2012.