Laura Murphy examines how social media and improved telecommunications have changed the lives of one family.
Dressed in a black Guinness T-shirt, Stuart Caulfield’s face smiles at us cheerily from the laptop screen.
He remarks that it is unusual for him to get “such a clear picture” of his family; often, it can be quite pixillated, but this morning, the image of the living room of his parents’ home in Articlave, Co Londonderry, is so good that he can even make out the family portrait on the wall behind us.
Slowly, we crank our necks around to the picture behind us to see what he means.
Then, as asked by the photographer, Stuart holds up his favourite comfort food which reminds him of home - a packet of Tayto cheese and onion crisps.
Wearing an appropriately matching ‘cheesy’ grin, it’s a case of click, flash - the job’s a good one.
It all might sound a little bizarre, but it was certainly a fun way to spend a Monday morning.
I had travelled up to the pretty coastal village a few miles outside Coleraine to meet Jean and Owen Caulfield, and their sons Gary and Stuart - the latter, literally in the ‘remote’ sense of the word.
For Stuart, 43, is currently living thousands of miles away in New Zealand, and maintains regular contact with his family via Skype. Both he and his older brother Gary, 46, are naturally comfortable with computers and technology, having worked with them as part and parcel of their careers all their lives.
But pensioners Jean and Owen, 74, come from a generation where a ‘wireless’ was a household luxury, and you received important news from overseas via telegram - yet they have managed to get the hang of communicating with their son and his children, their grandchildren, five-and-a-half-year-old Evan and two-year-old Tessa, via Skype and SMS.
Their family is a true example of how the benefits of technology can be enjoyed by both younger and older people - it is not about age, but a shared interest and a keenness to develop new skills and learn. And for Jean and Owen, thanks to Skype, they feel properly connected with their family, because as I saw that day, it feels as though Stuart is really in the same room as them.
“We’re cheek to cheek now,” joked Gary, as he held the laptop up so his photo could be taken.
On New Zealand’s South Island, it is 10.38pm - 12 hours in front of Northern Ireland - and Stuart is relaxing after a day at work. It’s the summer holidays, so he is enjoying some time with his children (he is separated from their mother Charlotte) although they are in bed just now.
By day, Stuart works as an account manager for a tiling company called Mapei.
“He used to be a tiler but now he goes around and does workshops, teaching tilers how to use the Mapei product,” explains Jean, adding that both her sons have always been globe trotters.
Stuart first got the travelling bug in 1992 when he went to Berlin, and has been living and working in New Zealand for six years now.
Jean and Owen have travelled out to New Zealand to see him and the kids three times, but Jean says that no matter how many times he has had to leave them and their home on the outskirts of Castlerock, “you never get used to the goodbyes.”
However, the couple first discovered the benefits of using Skype as a tool through which to keep in touch with their son after visiting friends of theirs who had family in Belgium.
“We visited them one night and they were speaking to their children through Skype - but it was away at the very beginning when it first came out, and the picture wasn’t very good,” recalls Jean.
“I said, ‘right, we have to get that’.”
Jean says she and Owen did go to an Adobe class to learn about working with photographs on the PC, and Owen took a computer class, but in the main, they got used to working with software packages by picking things up as they went along.
“You learnt by your own mistakes,” she says.
“When we started working on computers in the beginning, I said we were like Jack Spratt and his wife – what one didn’t know, the other did, so we worked at it together ourselves. I’m also Beaver leader, and when I saw wee boys of six and eight whipping through the computer, I thought, well, if they can do it I can do it!
“We get a lot of fun out of the computer. We make all our own cards, I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a one.”
(The pair have a package on their computer with 40,000 different images which can be used for greeting cards - but Jean laughs that she can never find one to please her, and likes to design her own anyway to “add the personal touch.”)
It seems somewhat amazing, for Jean is the first to admit she is of a generation where telecommunications were limited to say the least.
Born in 1941 in Alexandria in Scotland, to a Northern Irish father and a Scottish mother, her family came back to Castlerock to settle after her father became homesick for his native Co Londonderry following his trip back home for his own mother’s funeral in 1947.
“When he went back to Scotland he was totally homesick and talked my mother into going back to Northern Ireland,” says Jean.
“He landed back here with my mother who was used to electricity, gas, a bus running past her door, all the mod cons, flush toilets – my mother arrived over here with three children under six, no car, not even a bike, no running water – you had to carry every single drop of water from a well as far away as from here to Articlave.
“I often say my mother had to have a real strong love for my father when she put up with that.
“He bought a tractor mill and bailer and went round all the farmers and bailed their corn and did any work for them.
“We were reared up there with absolutely nothing and we were the only family in the countryside who actually had a wireless (radio). Our house used to never empty on a Sunday night, people sitting with their ear glued to it.”
If an important piece of news needed to be relayed to Jean’s family, it was done so via telegram. But even that had its limits, as she said with a laugh: “The man that delivered them was very fond of his wee bevy and it all depended on whether he was sober or drunk when he got the tele to deliver, or whether he was recovering from being drunk!”
Today, Jean carries a Blackberry and is a huge fan of texting - not only to arrange suitable times to Skype her son, but to relay simple, personal messages when she feels the need.
“If you’re in the house and something comes into your head you’d love to tell Stuart, two minutes does it to text him, and even if he’s sleeping he’ll get it in the morning.
“Or if you want to tell him you love him – just a wee text to say, ‘I’m thinking about you, love you’, and he always replies, ‘aw shucks’ back.”
Stuart tells me that for him, Skype is “absolutely worth its weight in gold”.
“There’s nothing like it. I’m a big fan,” he says, his voice slightly crackly but still completely audible.
I tease him and accuse him of having picked up a New Zealand accent, and Jean insists that it is his son Evan who has adopted the bona fide ‘Kiwi’ way of speaking, and begins to imitate him.
Stuart says that his children are always “very excited to see Granny and Granda and Uncle Gary on the TV – they know exactly who they are, although they are a bit confused as to who Uncle Gary is as I’ve got a couple of friends called Gary, so they think they have three uncle Garys!”
The Gary in the room with us jokes: “At least with Skype they know I’m the good looking one!”
It is this kind of typical family banter which is facilitated by the likes of Skype, helping to maintain that closeness, no matter how many miles are between family members.
And as Stuart says, Christmas is just around the corner, and it comes in particularly valuable at times like that.
Not just for having happy, festive, family chats either, it seems. As Gary intercepts: “What about your friends last year Stuart - they came out of the pub and Skyped you just to make you involved, and then they were so far gone they fell asleep on the camera!”
Cue more jubilant laughter from all corners of the room. It’s clear that for this family, thanks to the joys of modern technology, the seas will not separate them.
Monday 29 April 2013 is European Day of Solidarity between Generations