A Celebrant's Tale

One of the requirements of a funeral celebrant is to encapsulate significant life events in a succinct and engaging form. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, I have very little information to work with. Lockdown inevitably lends itself to reflection. Hence, for the reasons set out below, I thought it would be a good time to summarise my own life in 3,000 words.

If you would like to have a short biography, perhaps this may prompt you to write your own? Alternatively, you could commission me to a write a biography for you, or help you to do so.

Reasons to do this are as follows:

1 to provide an account of what you feel are the significant events of your life to yourself, family and friends

2 to collate a record of your achievements that may help you feel good about yourself

3 to provide a space in which to reflect on what you feel are the most significant events in your life

4 to enjoy the open-ended process of reflection and recording in itself

5 to see how someone else portrays you in text. This may be quite different to how you see yourself

6 mindful that all journeys must end, to provide a reference source from which someone can construct a eulogy when you reach the end.

You will notice that my account reads as an irreverent romp through the highlights. Some will be inclined to be more serious, more soul searching, more introspective; or alternatively, more comic or irreverent. There is no right approach, but there is a right time. And that time could be now.

Let me know if you are interested in doing this.

Trevor Carter

January 2021

A Celebrant's Tale

Trevor Carter made his first appearance in the world on 10th February 1954, courtesy of Vernon and Muriel Carter, but had to wait over half a century to make his first appearance on the stage as an entertainer. His father, a keen supporter of Sunderland Football Club, wanted to name him Horatio after a famous footballer. His mother strongly objected to what she regarded as a preposterous choice, and they eventually settled on Trevor. 

Trevor had a slow start in life. He was a sickly child. He was informed that he came close to an early exit in childhood due to asthma and eczema. Although he remembers nothing of it, on one occasion in his third year he was rushed to hospital with breathing difficulties. He was also later told that his eczema was so acute that his hands were wrapped in bandages to stop him scratching himself to death. “Poor little mite” his paternal great-grandmother wailed. According to his mother, the eczema was cured when his great-grandmother took him to see a herbalist called Dr Leadbitter. The asthma hung in much longer however, and has done its best to plague his life, even making occasional attempts to prematurely end it. Thankfully, in recent years, it has almost gone.

Vernon and Muriel were working class and lived in something resembling a council house. Resembling a house in that it was a house which had been converted from two flats and consequently had unusual features. One day a council official, confused by the numbering, knocked on the door and asked “Is this a house?” He was informed “Yes, if you use the term loosely.” It was located in one of the less salubrious areas of Sunderland. Neighbours considered the family to be posh on the grounds that Vernon had a job and had never served time in prison.

Trevor has a brother, Michael, four years younger, and a sister, Julie, ten years younger. Whilst his relationships with his parents were always fraught, those between the three siblings were a great source of mutual support. In adult life these relationships have continued to be strong but, for reasons too complex to explore here, not stable.

Vernon was a man of fixed ideas. He extolled and epitomised Victorian values; fervently believing that people should respect their place in the order of things and not ask too many questions. Certainly, Trevor does not remember being asked any questions by Vernon, except perhaps for interjections such as “Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?” Conversely, Trevor has always been keen on asking questions. During parental rows, which were frequent and generally vehement, Muriel would castigate Vernon for his cold and disinterested attitude towards his eldest son. Vernon was heard to reply “Sons should be like their fathers, and he’s nothing like me.” Trevor, overhearing this, had to concede to himself that the latter part of this assertion was true.

Trevor had a sometimes unwelcomed disposition to think outside the box. Unwelcomed because these were boxy times. In primary school one day, the children were asked to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Trevor wrote that he would like to change his job quite frequently so he didn’t get bored. The teacher was intrigued by this unconventional approach to the question, and whether by accident or intention, his career path did turn out to be full of twists and turns. He embarked on his first attempt to earn money at the age of twelve. Being too young to gain employment delivering newspapers, he exhibited early entrepreneurial initiative by growing lettuce in the garden and selling it door-to-door. The produce was usually transported in his sister’s pushchair which, whilst serving as a carriage for the merchandise, also contained two-year old Julie. Her presence served to provoke customer interest, and she seemed to enjoy being used as Trevor’s USP – buy a head of lettuce and wave to the baby.

Trevor’s best friend through school was also called Trevor. Trevor, like Trevor, was generally regarded as an outsider and an eccentric. The Trevors had much in common. They committed the heresy of not being particularly interested in football; they were both asthmatics, chess players and interested in books and music. The Trevors somehow lost touch after leaving school. Then, forty years later, Trevor managed to track down and visit his childhood friend a few times before he died in 2017.

Although he was generally not good at school, an early memory lingers of the headmaster reading out one of his poems in the school assembly and likening it to something out of the Bible. While listening to this, Trevor had a fleeting thought that perhaps one day he could become a writer. His best subject at school, in which he was consistently top of the class, was history. This proved to be a life-long interest, especially American history. However, the comment that he “could do better” was a persistent feature of his school reports.

With his school years drawing to a close it was time for the visit of the careers officer. At that time the main industries in Sunderland were the mines and the shipyards. Hence the careers officer, when interviewing boys, would generally kick off with the question “Well lad, do you fancy the mines or the shipyards?”. Trevor naively replied that he was interested in journalism or teaching. “Really Trevor! Look, that’s just unrealistic. I’ve got your reports here and I really don’t think you have the sort of ability or personality to meet the demands of those careers. How about some sort of clerical job? The Civil Service, perhaps?” And so it came to pass that a few weeks later, armed with only two O-Levels, he started work as a clerical assistant at the Department of Health and Social Security for the dizzying wage of £6 11s 6d. Adult life was about to begin.

Trevor stayed in the Civil Service for over two years before deciding to branch out. The early seventies were a boom time in the car factories of the south. Vauxhall was so desperate for workers that they visited depressed northern towns, such as Sunderland, to conduct mass recruitment campaigns. The pay, £28 a week, seemed fantastic to a boy earning about a quarter of that. So, in January 1973 Trevor applied and was accepted.

During the first week in Luton Trevor found himself sharing a house with four others. Due to the cold and absence of heating they all bedded down cowboy style, wrapped in blankets in the living room by the fire. As there was no fuel for the fire someone suggested it would be a good idea to burn some of the furniture, given that it was all junk anyway; then everyone gleefully joined in breaking it up. A few days later Trevor escaped, managing to secure lodgings with an Irish couple in a comfortable house with good home cooking and a room all to himself. This was the first time in his life he had had his own room. In Sunderland he had always shared a room with his brother. Although one of the youngest and most unworldly of the northern recruits, Trevor stuck it out in Luton for about eighteen months, saving what seemed to him at the time quite a lot of money. 

During the early seventies, like many young people, he did quite a lot of hitchhiking. One of the most memorable lifts happened early one evening while he was hanging out his thumb on the M1. An estate car stopped and the driver said “I don’t mind giving you a lift if you don’t mind travelling with him in the back.” It transpired that the him in question was the body of someone who had died on holiday. The driver went on to expand on the virtues of the funeral business as a career. Trevor was interested; but felt he was not ready for it yet.

In April 1975 he embarked on a great adventure. He had always been intrigued by America and its history, so what could be more exciting than a long journey round America! Sailing there seemed a good option. The cost of flying in 1975 was not much less, and sailing presented a holiday within a holiday. It was a no-brainer. Trevor delighted in the diverse onboard company, the lavish food, the nightly entertainment, the dancing, the Polish girls off to seek a new life (it was a Polish ship), the American girls on their way home and the company of the other adventurers, such as the guy who was heading for Alaska in search of gold. It was a non-stop party.

The party lasted for ten days, and after sailing up the iceberg-strewn St Lawrence Trevor found himself in Montreal. After a few days lodging in the youth hostel, sightseeing and finding his feet, he was ready to head south into the USA. The outline plan was to travel down the east coast to New Orleans then across the south to Los Angeles, up the west coast to Vancouver, then back across Canada. He had a Greyhound ticket for a month’s unlimited travel and intended to hitchhike when it expired. He also had £300 in traveller’s cheques to live on for two months and an intention to do some bits of work if the opportunity presented.

Broadly speaking, the plan worked. He got as far as San Francisco by Greyhound then started hitchhiking from the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fortune smiled on him that memorable morning. After waiting for about half an hour, he turned down a ride from someone who was only going a short distance. Soon afterwards a white Volkswagen stopped. 

“Hi. I’m heading for Vancouver. How far are you going?”

“Oh, I’m going north for quite a ways.”

“Sounds good, thanks.”

The driver was a guy from Arizona called Mark who was holidaying alone. They started talking and got on fine. Later that day Mark confessed that he was in fact going all the way to Vancouver, but was planning on taking his time to get there and doing some hiking along the way. Trevor said that if he didn’t mind the company that was fine with him; and so began a beautiful friendship. They ended up spending two weeks travelling together, creating a hitchhiking record perhaps?

In the end Trevor spent four months travelling, rather than the two he had originally planned for. And there were sufficient adventures in those months to fill quite a big book. Highlights included a few days in a secluded log cabin with a woman he met in Boston, a short-lived job on the Florida Keys as a painter, staying with a Mormon family in Utah, camping in the Grand Canyon, building greenhouses on Vancouver Island and meeting a woman who picked him up hitchhiking (another white Volkswagen) then abandoned her car and all her clothes to his care while she went for a swim in a glacial lake in the Rocky Mountains.

On his return it took him some time to reacclimatise to everyday life. His body had returned to Sunderland but his heart was still in America. He worked sporadically at dead end jobs then in the summer of 1977 set off on a misadventure with a Canadian woman to cycle to Greece. The trip was abandoned after a month when she had an accident in Germany. She returned to Canada and Trevor returned to Sunderland to train as a bricklayer. In 1978 he moved to Bristol, got a job as a bricklayer and bought the house he lives in to this day. After working on a contract which involved building a house in the corner of a field in January without any facilities, he decided to leave construction and become a milkman, a job he much enjoyed. However, the early starts and seven-day weeks made social life difficult, so after three and a half years he returned to construction.

After years of much work and little play he started going out a bit and developed a relationship with a nurse called Liz. Like many young women, Liz was looking for a husband. But Trevor, the product of a difficult childhood whose parents had by then divorced, lacked belief in himself as suitable material. After eighteen months the relationship floundered.

During his twenties Trevor’s idea was that if he worked hard and saved some money, this would enable him to do a degree, and perhaps get into teaching. After doing A-Levels at evening classes he was eventually admitted on to a degree course at what was then Bristol Polytechnic to study social sciences in 1986. Trevor loved the student life and became a model student. After first being rejected for the course because his A-Levels weren’t that good, he won a prize for being student of the year in history and politics: a satisfying outcome. Nevertheless, the academic distinction failed to impress the right people and his subsequent application for teacher training was rejected. After several years of failed applications and doing nothing in particular he was eventually admitted on to a PGCE course for teaching adults in 1996. He then got a job as a teacher in October of that year. Not teaching history, as he aspired to do, but brickwork. Still, a mere twenty-six years after leaving school, he had eventually become a teacher. 

Trevor completed his PGCE in 1998 and soon afterwards he started work in a children’s home, first as a teacher, then as an NVQ assessor. The Care Standards Act 2000 required all staff in children’s homes to gain an NVQ3 in ‘Caring for Children and Young People’. Trevor was charged with training and assessing the entire staff of the company to meet this stipulation. It was a challenging and satisfying job which kept him occupied until 2009, when he was made redundant due to a lack of work. Having got most of the staff through the qualification there was little left for him to do.

He had dabbled in writing poetry during adolescence but once he entered the world of work the impulse fizzled out. Reignited by redundancy from running a course for the long-term unemployed, it had sparked back into life in 2002. While working part-time at Bath College he entertained his colleagues with satirical verse often related to educational issues. Some of them urged him to put a book together. 2007 saw the publication of his first collection ‘Diamonds in the Desert’ and soon afterwards he started getting paid gigs. As he lives on the top of Windmill Hill, someone suggested he could call himself the Bard of Windmill Hill and he seized on the name.

By this time Trevor had found his present partner Sally. Short story: they met at a Christmas Ball on a blind date. She was the lady in red, he the man in black: they danced, they talked, they fell in love and have never yet looked back. In 2008 he became co-director of Lansdown Cabaret, an old-time style variety show. The shows happened about four times a year at The Lansdown pub in Clifton. Trevor was the poet in residence and main promoter. He worked with the show’s presenter, Matt, to source the acts. Sally supported the shows by taking bookings and being on the door. The shows were great fun and developed a loyal following. Lansdown Cabaret ran for eleven years, after which Matt felt it was time to call it a day.

Trevor’s second collection ‘Children of the Fire’ followed in 2011. For some years Bristol Storytelling Festival had been running a slam competition, competitive storytelling to an adult audience. At the second time of entering, Trevor won the competition in 2014 with a story he describes as a modern parable, ‘Meeting Mr Hogg’. He is the only poet to have become ‘Storyteller of the Year’. Most entries were dramatized folk tales, but Trevor’s was a modern story which was, of course, entirely original and loosely based on a real-life experience. On reviewing his first draft of the story, the previous poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy advised him to “get some pyjamas into it”. He took this advice and remains indebted to her for her help in his rise to microcelebrity status.

He then started to get work in schools as a visiting writer and found this massively rewarding. One large Bristol primary school provided his biggest ever audience when he performed to the whole school after being introduced by the head… “Well children. We have a very special guest in the school today. We have the storyteller of the year!” He also starting doing shows at festivals and in theatres.

To complement his work as a poet, in 2019 he trained as a funeral celebrant, reasoning that his writing and presentation skills should ensure success in this new field. He was also mindful of that advice given to him on the M1 decades ago. You may ask why he waited so long? To which he would reply that you have to live a lot and see a lot and feel a lot before you can become a great storyteller. Now he felt he was ready. Destiny called. His instincts were confirmed when one satisfied customer commented “I thought your speech and the way you delivered it was fantastic and helped make a difficult day special”.

Trevor is fond of the maxim “Fortune favours the bold”, and holds this to be self-evident. At school he was seen as being timid; in adolescence deep and troubled; in early adulthood brave but lacking in confidence. In his later years he has become more comfortable in his own skin, the anxieties largely resolved, the compulsion to prove himself less intense. In conclusion, after an inauspicious start, Trevor’s life has turned out to be a colourful experience marked by considerable achievement. He did some bad, he did some good; but he did rather better than they thought he would.