Stepping Inside the Nativity Actor’s Studio

 

I never got the opportunity to appear in a nativity play. When I was at the appropriate age my school decided instead to put on a series of dramatized nursery rhymes. In what may have been a satirical commentary on my chronic bed-wetting at the time, I was cast as Wee Willie Winkie. This required me to flounce about in a flannelette nightie banging on imaginary doors like a rudimentary Marcel Marceau.

The next year I was at a different school, but still no nativity. That Christmas we staged a chaotic production of the ’12 Days of Christmas’. My memories are little misty, but I do remember that the collected troupe of French hens and calling birds had been decimated by a sick bug. Which in retrospect it may have been an early strain of bird flu.

I was hopelessly miscast as the romantic lead, the ‘true love’, although in truth there wasn’t a lot of romanticising to be done. My job was to introduce the various cast members by walking on stage holding a sign with the number of the day on it, like a bimbo in a boxing ring.

On about the fifth day I accidentally waved the sign upside down and it got a massive laugh out in the stalls. So I did it again and then again and again. And each time the laughter rang out a little more pallid than before, until eventually the merriment fell away to universal tedium among the audience.

The director added a final twist during which the exasperated recipient of all the gifts chased me off stage with a broom. For all the milking maids, gold rings, leaping lords and, as far as the punters were concerned, for all the feeble comedy stylings.

My son’s school has opted for the more traditional nativity which hopefully limits the chance of him following in my cringeworthy footsteps. About a month ago he came home and let us know that he had been selected to play a donkey. It seemed quite early to start the process, but perhaps they wanted to rehearse the shit out of it. To get it right. If they were taking it so seriously, then maybe we should too. We could go full method and send him to a local farm and spend time with the donkeys there. Learn something of their ways, what makes them tick and so on.

But it turned out that the donkey role was just part of the audition. We should have realised when we discovered one of his chums said he was down to play a vampire. I am proud that my son overcame his natural timidity and volunteered himself for a part. He was rewarded with the plum role of the shepherd.

For the sake of authenticity it is important to get the costume right. I have begun sketching some potential designs and created a Pinterest board. I’m thinking some thick pelts, a longish beard and possibly a live sheep slung across the shoulders like my Grandma’s fur stole.

He only has the one line: “tonight it is calm and still”. He has a challenge on his hands to fill this with enough pathos to make an impression. He can start with the accent, but pulling off ancient Judean is probably quite problematic for a five-year-old. My tip would be to pause on each word, making it sound a bit broken and emotional, perhaps repeating it a few times. Without throwing his colleagues off their cue hopefully.

Tonight….it is calm…..and still.

Tonight….it is calm….and still.

TONIGHT…it is calm…and STILL.

Tonight it is calm and still.

How We Accidentally Conceived After Half a Year of Trying

 

On the morning of New Year’s Day 2012 I was deeply and irrevocably hungover. My wife wasn’t. Not even a bit. In fact she was chipper. She shouldn’t be chipper on the morning of New Year’s Day. It was wrong.

In fact, it was very right. She was pregnant. It seems that her unusual sprightliness was her body’s way of getting her attention. To say it had something important to tell her.

When she showed me the line on the stick the first thing I felt was a searing sensation in my face. My brain at that moment must have resembled a ginormous home computer from the 1980s. It didn’t have the processing power to deal with the information just fed into it. And it overheated under the strain.

That the news came as a shock was a shock in itself. We had been trying for six months after all. But we had reached the stage of introspection and self-doubt. I had looked deep into my own crotch and wondered if the issues were to be found there.

It was troubling to think that my own genitalia could be so obstructive to the thing we wanted most. Like they had declared independence and were acting directly against the rest of me. So one of the first things I experienced that morning was a warming sense of pride that me and my bits had collaborated to such productive effect. And I gave them a high-five (virtual obviously). We were impregnators.

The truth is that we had become a little more precise in our process. Nothing too taxing, just a simple case of knowing when ovulation was happening and acting on it. Egg-timing, I suppose.

We are confident in pinpointing the moment of conception to a night just before Christmas. I am fairly sure that I had inadvertently prepped my swim team by going ice-skating. When I say ice-skating, I mean ice-mincing. I mean clinging onto the side of the rink and at one point briefly yet violently interrupting a young smooching couple.

I am convinced that the ice had brought down the temperature of the lads downstairs. Apparently cool sperm are healthy sperm, and I’d just subjected mine to the equivalent of a fortifying Boxing Day swim in the Serpentine. They were just jiggling about for warmth.

It took a few weeks for me to properly get my chops around impending fatherhood. In this time I often sought sanctuary in John Lewis. There I would roam around the baby paraphernalia section trying to ascertain exactly what emotional and financial toll that my unborn child would bring. More often than not however I would simply ride up and down the escalators in a stupor. I still do that now. I regard it as a mindfulness technique.

The only thing I was certain of in this ocean of unknown was that again all of me would need to work together as a team. Hot face, cold balls, we were all in this together.

I Think My Sons Only Love Me When They’re Asleep

 

I’ve wanged on at length in the past about my eldest son’s very obvious preference for his mother over me. I have made my peace with this. It makes sense after all. His mum rented out her insides to him as a bedsit for nine months. Then she provided free milk from a pop-up dairy in her breasts. And even now after these bodily offerings have long since been phased out, his inclination is strongly towards her.

What is curious is that when his younger brother popped out, he decided to plump for me. Perhaps he thought that his mum had already been allocated, that his brother had already planted his flag on her. I was what was left, a Hobson’s choice of a parent, the last miniature Bounty in the Celebrations tin. So when he was at his neediest age it was normally me that was summoned for.

But now he is older, his affections have also swung over to his mum. It’s no surprise really, she offers a more premium service than me in all areas: catering, entertainment, making robots out of leftover bog roll. It’s created logistical difficulties at bedtime, when her presence is insisted on in two bedrooms at the same time.

To make his message clear my youngest has begun a campaign of brutality directed almost exclusively at me. Most of it is the sort of sporty argy-bargy you might get on a football field and some of it is probably worthy of a red card. From time to time he also bites me, maybe he actually thinks I’m the last miniature Bounty.

My wife has advised that I seek comfort in a book called Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph. Normally I avoid parenting guides because they assume to know what is happening in my children’s heads. I don’t know what’s happening inside my children’s heads. Probably a million tigers, jacked up on Fruit Shoots jumping on a bouncy castle.

The reason she ushered me in the book’s direction was that it contains a section that explains that a father does not come to fore in the eyes of his son until the child is six years old. So next year when my oldest wakes up on his sixth birthday, I am expecting to be bathed in a heavenly light and the truth of how amazing I am will be revealed to him. And we’ll go do a jigsaw or have a beer or something.

The other source of encouragement for me is that whenever my sons wake in the night and hop into our bed they both like to cuddle into me. This may be because they can’t actually see who I am, but I like to think that it’s also because somewhere deep down in their dormant subconscious is some affection for me. My youngest will manoeuvre himself up onto my frame and nestle his head down on the pointiest part of my collar bone. Perhaps he does love me. Or just thinks I’m a really shit pillow.

Scissors, Glue Guns and Sexy Underwear: That’s Crafting

 

There is a notice currently outside my son’s classroom inviting families to make their own robots for display at the school. The most appealing word on this notice is ‘family’. This says to me that this project is not aimed solely at the child but also at the parent. That the parent shouldn’t be just hovering in the background like a butler, just to help with scissors. Perhaps it’s the child who just helps with scissors.

Or perhaps the child should just entertain themselves for a bit while daddy gets on with the important business: developing moodboards, creating concept art, procuring materials. Truly, it’s this type of endeavour that excites me these days.

Crafting is like D.I.Y. in safety mode. The potential for causing lasting structural damage is minimal. And that is comforting for someone like me who can’t plug in a power drill without inadvertently smashing down a supporting wall. It’s also a chance for me to prove my value to my children; Christ knows I won’t be building any climbing frames for them.

I should clarify that I only properly enjoy craft time without my children. With them, it’s like being slathered with glue and left out in a sandstorm of googly eyes. Today my son celebrated his fifth birthday with a jungle-themed party. Which was an excuse for my wife and me to get round the table and bang out a selection of suitable animals. This is special ‘mummy-and-daddy’ time now. My wife will produce some of her sexiest hosiery. And we’ll stuff them with newspaper to make reticulated pythons.

The most exciting innovation of our craft-time is the glue gun. What a way to feel alive. The greatest appeal of the gun is that the glue is so strong. I don’t mean in the way the scent curls up your nostrils and distorts the mind, although that’s probably why I like to take my top off, daub my face in water-based paints, point the gun in the air and yell “it’s craft time, bitches!”

What I mean that its adhesive power is so impressive. I can fire off a couple of rounds into the back of a pom-pom and it will stick to a papier-mâché tarantula for eternity. A glue stick is frail and ineffective in comparison and leads to a chaos of gummy pom-poms and naked spiders.

The other essential tool for the discerning crafter is some high-end scissors. There is nothing like the feeling of a paper gliding gracefully through paper without a single snip. I hope that soon my son will experience this. We’ve had a note from his teacher that he hasn’t quite mastered handling scissors and that he needs to practise. Perhaps he should step forward from the background and take the lead on the robot project. It’s craft time, bitches.

Things To Know About Buying A Fish For Your Kids

 

We decided to get my son a pet for his birthday. My wife despises animals and I have a lot of quite specific criteria. Nothing with a visible bumhole for instance. Or anything that might look at me with a sad, neglected face. Or anything that needs washing or combing. Which doesn’t leave much. But my son loves animals, so we plumped for a fish. We figured it would create a big impression, but at little cost.

I did no research before we purchased the fish. I had no real experience of fish-keeping. The only goldfish I’ve ever owned was won at a funfair, throwing a ping-pong ball into a jam jar. It lived for a few probably quite unhappy weeks in a glorified bucket, before leaning over and floating to the top. I did not want that existence for my son’s fish.

So today we went to the local garden centre which contains a concession selling tropical fish. I took my son along so he could choose for himself. But we were soon advised that we’d have to prepare the aquarium for at least week before we could move the fish in. The water needs to be treated and filtered first. My son’s birthday is on Monday and essentially we’re getting him an empty fish tank.

The man in the shop really liked fish. I felt like if I’d proceeded with anything other than the welfare of the fish as a priority, cost for instance, he would have thought less of me. I figured the same from my son. There was silent judgement from all sides. So when I was told the fish would need a little heater I bought one. Special healthy water powder? Yes please. Nu-rave pink gravel? Go on then. I’d promised my son a little ornament to entertain his new friends in their home. He opted for a pagoda. Because it reminded him of the local Chinese supermarket. Which will obviously make them feel comfortable.

Suddenly this cost-effective gift wasn’t very effective any more. And my regret swelled when I got it home and began to assemble it. The instructions were testing. A bit like that middle bit in the Bake-Off when the contestants are asked to construct a croquembouche with a recipe that just says “put together some bits of something or other and then bake it”. Once I’d finally assembled the filter, the heater and the aquarium light I connected them all to the mains and lobbed them into the water. I feel as if I should have been fatally electrocuted there and then. It may still happen.

And now it’s in the corner of my son’s bedroom. He fell asleep looking at it. But the light is bouncing off the lumo-pink gravel giving the room a weird seedy glow like a brothel. I’m still regretting it and we haven’t bought the fish yet.

It’s Not Just The Kids Who Are Learning At School

 

We felt a lot of trepidation before my son started school. He had no idea what was coming, but his mum and I contemplated all sorts of challenges that he might face: the difficulty of making friends, the stress of homework, the phenomenal adjustment required to step on to the five-day-a-week treadmill. But so far he has adapted very well. This is probably a lot to do with his teacher, who I am beginning to suspect is the most brilliant person in the world.

We expected the extreme fatigue. The overwhelming newness of everything whacks him out. And with the overtiredness naturally comes the rage. His anger is not directed at school but at his parents and our tiresome insistence on bathing and sleeping. And feeding him watermelon. And the usual paradox is at work: the more sleep a child needs they less they want it. But this is all to be anticipated.

There are elements of his school experience that have surprised us all however. He managed to get lost within the confines of a single climbing frame for instance. He was retrieved by a kindly classmate who was rewarded with a sticker for his efforts. He’s also perplexed by the manner in which the children are allowed to go to the toilet; they appear to be kept in some kind of holding pattern. Which would seem bizarre to me too.

Stuffing caught him unawares also. As a family we don’t really do stuffing. It only really makes an appearance on our dinner table at Christmas, along with hot ham and dessert wine. Stuffing has passed my son by. So when he was served it for his lunch, he was confused. Which is fair enough, it just looks like squidgy meat. He described it as ‘yucky sausage’, in case any stuffing advertisers are looking for some copy.

I have been learning too. I have learnt that I need to take my glasses when I pick my sons from school. To prevent me waving enthusiastically at the wrong child and scaring the shit out of them. If you’re reading, little boy on the trike, I am profoundly sorry.

Last week I picked up my younger son from nursery at lunchtime while his brother was halfway through his school slog. I am not sure what I thought would happen, perhaps that the youngest would be presented to me through a hatch. Instead I was invited to wander through the school grounds to fetch him from his classroom. My concern was that his brother would glimpse me, mistake the situation for his extraction and an unseemly kerfuffle would ensue.

So I turned up the collar of my coat, edged along with my back against any wall and made my way furtively to the rendez-vous by the mud kitchen. Which is not a good luck for a lone adult man in a primary school. I eventually had to explain myself to a suspicious janitor. Once he was satisfied by my explanation I reached the nursery.

Happily I arrived undetected. My older son was nowhere to be seen, possibly at that moment missing within the vast climbing frame. Of course the first thing my youngest wanted to do once I’d picked him up was to seek out his brother. He suggested that I use a pair of binoculars.

We all have a lot to learn.

I’m A National Trust Member And I’m Officially Past It

 

I remember when it all ended for me and my wife. Even as the transaction was complete I felt some of my life-force slip away from me, like we’d taken a shortcut into our autumnal years. I looked down at the little circular sticker that I’d just been presented with and all it said to me was: IT’S OVER FOR YOU. We were members of the National Trust.

We joined up in March last year at Wimpole Hall near Cambridge. Wimpole has a working farm and terrific selection of ginger pigs. We were seduced. Since then I have attended only a few events that might possibly described as youthful. This summer I went to a music festival on an industrial estate in Peckham Rye. And even though the dancefloor was filled with people of my own age, I felt decrepit.

The stigma of NT membership fixed itself to me around like the stench of homemade preserve. I shuffled around as if ‘ANCIENT’ had been branded onto my forehead. All I could do was to loiter sheepishly in the wings and tap my foot arrhythmically. I may as well have been a chaperone, a fusty old dad only there to pick up his kids. I was a member of the National Trust, the oak branch logo lit in the sky above me like the Bat signal.

The motto of the National Trust is “for ever, for everyone”. But mainly for old people. There seems to have been a concerted push to appeal to younger families, but in truth there isn’t a vast amount to do for a small child. They introduced an activity list for children, but it’s mostly things you can do on your doorstep, like making out farm animals in cloud formations or rounding up beetles. On a doorstep.

If there is an adventure playground then it isn’t very adventurous, perhaps a small curve of tree stumps to skip along. At Easter and Christmas treasure trails are offered, mostly perfunctory copy-and-paste jobs from the year before. If you are lucky, somewhere in the grounds there might be an angry owl on the end of a rope and a man in an oven glove waiting to show it off.

But I don’t regret signing up. Because even if there isn’t a great deal to do, National Trust properties are nice places to be. They’re always kempt, the woodwork always freshly chalk-painted, and you can set your watch by the jam scones in the cafes. I believe that they may have found the perfect baked spud and cheese and cloned it.

There is something affirmingly democratic about how the National Trust allows the population at large to scurry and nose around what used to be exclusive domains of toffs. Our preferred NT property is Polesden Lacey, where the Queen’s mum and dad had their honeymoon. Its history doesn’t register with our kids. When you are running off your cloned jacket potato on the vast rolling slopes, nothing does.

My Advice To My Son As He Starts School (Which He Didn’t Ask For)

 

My son starts school tomorrow. And he has only asked me for one piece of advice. He is concerned about accidentally breaking wind in his classroom (I’m paraphrasing for reasons of delicacy). I have explained that he shouldn’t feel ashamed if he lets something slip on the odd occasion but to try and avoid making a habit of it. Just in case his classmates start giving him and his emissions a wide berth. I added that if he was suffering from excessive wind then to speak to his teacher and ask permission to visit the toilet.

In a half-baked attempt at crowdsourcing, we also asked the six-year-old son of a friend of mine for some general tips on reception class. His core message was that it gets more difficult in Year 1. In fact it was his only message. He offered nothing about reception itself. It seemed a bit brutal, but he’s probably on to something.

It only gets more difficult from here. Part of me feels sad for my son because from now he’s basically going full-time. And he will remain full-time until he is pensioned off. Apart from some respite in school holidays and at university, which from my experience is just a long series of afternoon baths.

Of course I am not telling my son any of this. And obviously it’s not like he’s joined the rat race just yet. He’s outside the rat stadium on the rat warm-up track, honing his racing skills with his new rat pals. From what I can gather reception class involves finding stuff out, a bit of structured play (the best kind of play) and the constant provision of snacks. In this environment my son is going to thrive.

It’s probably best that my son hasn’t asked me for any guidance other than my thoughts on flatulence (clearly he considers me to be an expert in this area). But if he does seek my counsel again then I will let him know this: to make the most of his school days he should be kind, have fun and use all the talents that he obviously possesses.

And just go easy on the free flapjacks. If you’re still worried about the wind.

Yet Another Fine Mess We’ve Got Ourselves Into

 

I am not what you might call house-proud. I was once fined by my university for the appalling state of my bedroom. But even with my low living standards I find the speed and scale of the mess that my children make overwhelming.

Within seconds of waking in the morning my youngest son will set about his work. Mess is the first thing on his to-do list. Before I’ve even rubbed my eyes and scratched myself he has unleashed the explosive power of the mess on his bedroom. His commitment is admirable, particularly at such an early hour. It is as if he has drawn an imaginary grid on the floor and made sure that every square foot contains a bit of his mess.

Mess grows through the house like a peculiarly fast-spreading fungal infection. In the some areas it pools and establishes itself permanently. There is an end of our kitchen table that I haven’t seen in weeks. It’s swamped under scrap paper and stationery.

Perhaps the most debilitating aspect of my children’s mess is that it is unconquerable. It is relentless. Quite often even as I am tidying away, my sons are acting against me. Removing toys the moment I’ve put them in the cupboard, leading us on an unending hokey-cokey of housework.

Their play room is naturally the messiest place in the house. I have spoken before about how it looks like a scene from Toy Story, if Toy Story was set in a Victorian slum where the inhabitants periodically riot.

We have made several attempts to bring order to the chaos of the room. We bought a job-lot of tote boxes and tried to introduce a filing system, separating little plastic people from little plastic animals and separating them from little plastic dinosaurs. Like a sort of little plastic apartheid.

The theory is that one box can be emptied at a time, its contents played with, before the box is filled up again and put away. But our little Nelson Mandelas have always rejected the segregation and a rainbow nation of toys inevitably appears quickly after. In each square foot obviously.

My sons don’t so much ‘play’ as ‘ransack’. Books in their thousands are strewn urgently across the floor like the boys have broken in to look for a sensitive file or something. It is unfathomable to me that Amazon hasn’t developed some kind of Kindle for picture books. A kid-Kindle would literally change my life.

Like the devil, mess takes on many forms. Book mess. Food mess. Clothes mess. Art mess, which is particularly problematic. Throwing away anything that my sons have created feels insensitive, it flies against everything I stand for as a sappy dad. So we are left with accumulating stacks of paper, some with just the smallest mindless scrawl on them.

And then there is car mess. Put it this way, based on the state of our current car if I’d had one at university they’d have thrown me out.

Mastering The Art of Art With Children

 

I have many ideals when it comes to parenting; a sort of fantasy blueprint for how my two sons and I go about our joint business. One of these involves art-time. In my head the three of us sit around the kitchen table, pencils and crayons lovingly laid out in rainbow order, each of us beavering away at a potential masterwork. And perhaps one day when the pair become globally renowned artists, they’ll show some of the pieces created during this early period as part of a retrospective at the Tate.

The reality is that after about five minutes my sons will have become bored and dashed off to some other room probably to graffiti the walls. They will have left me still labouring away at a biro portrait of Kung Fu Panda, essaying careful pen strokes to make sure I’ve got his eyes just right. Once I’ve finished the boys will return to the table to deface whatever I’ve managed with their crude squiggles.

In the time that the two are at work a surprising amount has been achieved. Invariably the manageable pencils and crayons are ignored in favour of what I consider the Four Horseman of the Art Apocalypse: felt-tip pens, stickers, Play-doh and paint. Weapons of mess destruction.

My youngest son has an unusual approach to using felt-tip pens, preferring a sort of jackhammer method of repeatedly smashing the pen down onto the paper. This has two results, a cluster of colourful bullet-holes and an obliterated tip. If I can persuade him to actually draw something, it’s normally a face. On his socks.

The stickers in our house live a nomadic existence, scattering from the kitchen to the darkest corners of the home. There’s a fungal quality to them, a relentless spread, like Dutch elm disease. I swear that they creep about when we are sleeping, dancing around the door frames and gathering in the cupboards. The bravest ones will attach themselves to your person, and seal themselves on the soles of your feet. And eventually, inevitably, you’ll look down and find Chase from Paw Patrol plastered to your bum-cheek.

I have so many issues with Play-doh that it requires an entire post. The tragedy of a tub of Play-doh is that it is never better than when it is opened. Fresh and clean and moist to begin with, it quickly degenerates. Within seconds, my sons will have sourced an alternative shade of Play-doh and jammed the two together. This will first produce an agreeable marbling effect. But this rapidly subsides into a brown lumpy mass soon to be discarded.

Paint has the most potential for catastrophe: even a gloop of children’s water-based paint has the power to ruin soft furnishings. I once allowed my older son to quench his thirst with a slurp of bright red paint. It was from a tester pot of outdoor wood paint, which led to a panicky call to the NHS emergency line. They advised to keep an eye on him to see if there were any after-effects. Gladly there were none, although he did look like Ronald McDonald for a while.

And when I think again of that retrospective, perhaps it would just be a series of Tracy Emin-style installations: a bin full of decapitated felt-tip pens and a hospital bed with a poisoned toddler in it.