Simple Things Become Difficult When You Have a Child and You’re A Bit Rubbish

There’s a nature trail near where we live that we visited recently. There’s more than a hint of asphalt to the trail itself, so it’s more like following a dirt-bike track than a nature trail. The owners of the trail have decided to install scarecrows into various bits of foliage along the pathway. We’ve been there previously and the effect is a bit creepy, particularly as they often cut out pictures of celebrities’ faces and pin them to the bulbous heads of each scarecrow.

They’ve also used a lot of reclaimed industrial unitary like rusted iron girders and old ladders to create bridges, dens and forts. One section features a tunnel system created out of ginormous concrete cylinders, which is reminiscent of the serial-killer’s hideout at the end of the first series of True Detective, which seems particularly grim when the lifeless bodies of Ant and Dec are swinging from a nearby tree.

Still the trail includes a quiz, the question sheet for which is distributed at the farm shop over the road along with a free little pencil, so obviously we were bang up for it. Or I was bang up for it and the boys didn’t have a choice. There’s also a very nice café in the garden centre adjacent to the start of the trail, so we headed over for ciabattas and Penguins to discuss quiz tactics, motivate ourselves for the upcoming challenge and bond as a team. To foster team spirit, the Major donated a tiny shard of Cheddar from his sandwich to me.

The café was unusually busy. It seemed we had inadvertently walked into some jazz. A live band was playing. The quartet was led by a saxophonist with an industry-standard ponytail who parped away at his instrument with great intensity like he was in a smoky, seedy Harlem jazz club and not in a garden centre in Surrey. He was further undermined by his keyboardist who was struggling with putting on a grubby fleece during the bass solo to Fly Me to the Moon.

Towards the end of lunch, the Major was keen to leave. He wanted to inspect the playground facilities and perhaps go through some warm-ups to prepare for the quiz trail. I was still balls deep in a bowl of chips, so we agreed that his mum will accompany him outside and the Minor and I will follow on later. All I needed to do was to pack up the changing bag, put the Minor in his padded romper and then into the sling.

Chips completed I first of all packed up the bag, which I absolutely nailed. I was buzzing after this so I set about cleaning up the detritus underneath the Minor’s high-chair which is resembling a derelict Roman mosaic made of cheese.  Having successfully achieved this, I then made my one critical error. In my jubilation I picked up Minor from his high-chair and gave him a triumphant cuddle. A sensible parent always think three moves ahead.

When I went to put him back in his chair he began to perform a sort of suspended Riverdance in protest. He was clearly enjoying his cuddle. So I fetched him back up and bob up and down a bit like we’re jiggling along to the jazz while I ponder my next move. Eventually I spotted that my wife had left a lone chip in her bowl and I was able to entice him back down into position using the chip as bait.

I now had put on the sling. Putting on a sling is probably like humping a squid, I’m never sure what goes in what hole and it’s ultimately frustrating. It took me about five minutes to achieve this after a tiring amount of twisting and flailing. I was stood stage-left of the jazz band so the sling-struggle in combination with the music probably came across as the world’s least sexy burlesque revue.

The Minor is one year old and probably old enough to be embarrassed by the inadequacies of his dad. But he’d been distracted by another father, an ostentatiously wacky dad in a knitted Gruffalo hat pulling funny faces at him. I wasn’t sure if this was a show of dad-solidarity but I found it uncomfortable.

The next stage of the process is to set up Minor in his snowsuit. By now it felt like the eyes of the entire café were on me, but of course no-one is interested in a malcoordinated man and his son: they have toasted sourdough sandwiches and jazz.

It’s a good job because I had to practise some extreme chiropractic manoeuvres to inveigle Minor into his suit. The booties detached themselves and one of them had fallen in a dollop of mayo that I had failed to clean up. It had all gone to shit. Even the Gruffalo’s Man-Child looked away. Eventually the Minor had been installed. I was a little harassed and perspiring. But we were ready. Ready to enter the lair of a deranged psycho with a penchant for killing light entertainers.

Any good?

This Sick Rabbit Will 100% Get Your Child To Sleep

People like to talk with certainty. Like when somebody tells you to go to a particular restaurant because it serves “the best steak in London”. As if they’ve visited every single place in London that serves steak, analysed the strengths and weaknesses of each steak they’ve ordered and then recorded their findings in a massive steak spreadsheet.

This kind of chat is particularly prevalent in parenting circles. I’ve listened on as someone has advised me to buy a life-changing nappy bin or a cup that they absolutely fucking swear by. A special evangelism is inspired by the techniques and routines found in child-rearing guides, the books that tell you to sit your child on a mat and teach it to fetch sticks just so it will sleep better. I have no doubt that these manuals are essential to some families but they fail to recognise that children are different. And perhaps more pertinently so are parents. Children are not DVD players, they can’t be programmed. And I for one can’t program them.

This is why I was suspicious when I found out about The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, a book written by a Swedish psychologist as a means of persuading frisky children off to sleep. It quickly became a bestseller as mummies and daddies the world over used it to put their kids down at night. Its gargantuan success is largely down to it being a set of instructions on to how to hypnotise your child. Hypnosis seems to me like gross cheating, you may as well slip your child some Valium. But I was prepared to give the book a chance given that at the time he should be settling down for the night, the Major prefers to frolic naked up and down the landing, periodically flinging himself on our bed and wiping his genitals on my pillow.

The Rabbit Who is essentially a dramatization of the hypnotist’s mantra “you are feeling very sleepy”. Dramatization is the wrong word. The plot is numbingly tedious, although admittedly a twisty edge-of-the-seat thriller would be self-defeating in these circumstances. The first thing that struck me about The Rabbit Who was the illustrations. They are crude and unnerving, no more than overgrown doodles. The rabbits themselves have sad and swollen eyes, like they’ve got early-onset myxomatosis.

When I read the book to the Major I diligently followed the instructions which require certain words and phrases to be spoken either forcefully or softly. He asked me to stop before I got to the end of the first page. I think he thought that Dadu may have been suffering some kind of breakdown, given the random shouting and whispering.

Fortunately The Rabbit Who is also available as an audiobook, so we set up a CD player on his bedside table. The narrator of the audiobook has a familiar voice that I can’t quite place. It’s suave and sinister at the same time and I’m pretty sure it belongs to a showbiz predator from the 1970s.

The CD was remarkably effective. Unfortunately in a sort of sleep induction ‘friendly fire’ incident it missed its target. I very quickly began to experience the odd sensation of having my eyeballs fondled vigorously from behind and having my head enveloped by the Major’s pillow. My face began to glow with intense heat. The next thing I knew the Major was tapping at my sternum trying to wake his hot-faced dad. I was snoring loudly. It seemed to set a precedent because the Major hasn’t allowed me to play it to him since.

What is informing about this whole experience is that my wife has used The Rabbit Who CD to great effect on most nights. She absolutely fucking swears by it. It just goes to demonstrate that some of the tools of the parenting trade depend entirely on their workmen.

Agent Spitback
Any good?

Sticks, Stickers and Stick Man: Adventures in Sticks

The Major is massively into wielding sticks. He is a wielder. Every time we take a walk in a forest, he picks a stick up and wields it. The bigger he gets, the bigger the stick he wields is. At this rate, at some point in his late teens he’ll parading around wielding a Highland caber.

The Major is also therefore into Stick Man. Stick Man is the story of a man who is also a stick. The tale of Stick Man has been adapted into an activity trail by the Forestry Commission who have sites all over the UK. Our nearest option is Jeskyns Park, which isn’t really a forest, more a few pleasant fields next to the M2 in Kent.

We visited Jeskyns in the autumn to follow the Superworm trail; Superworm is a character from a book by Julia Donaldson, who also wrote Stick Man. On that occasion I failed to realise that I’d need cash to purchase the activity pack as part of the trail. I’ve speculated on why my dad and other men of his generation always seem to carry a wad of notes. It’s to pay for activity trails. The unscheduled detour to the cashpoint was marketed to the Major as all part of the adventure, as if the first stage of the Superworm trail was in a petrol station in Morrisons Gravesend.

This time round there was no mistake. As I retrieved the money from my coat pocket to pay for the parking, the attendant asked if I was going on the Stick Man trail. “Yes I am!” I replied, before looking up and realising she was talking to the Major. I am very enthusiastic about trails, it’s one of the reasons I started a family. To give me an excuse to go on trails.

The Stick Man activity pack was disappointing compared to the Superworm version, which contained the actual book as well as a page of stickers. The Major loves stickers, as well as sticks and Stick Man. If he turns out to be as perverse as me then he’ll also be into Sticklebricks and stickleback fish.

So we set off on our adventure. The activities on the trail were necessarily stick-related. Throwing sticks, building towers from sticks, making a nest out of sticks, using the sticks to create those creepy figures from the Blair Witch Project. There was also a suggestion to play Pooh-sticks in a nearby stream, but this was obviously intended for the Forestry Commission sites in actual forests with charming babbling brooks and not a reclaimed farm near a motorway.

Jeskyns was being battered by a breeze that had apparently hotfooted it straight from the Arctic Circle. I lost most of the feeling in my face. The Major is quite slim-hipped like me and his trousers are always low-slung. Every time he knelt down to attend to a requirement of the activity trail his entire backside was exposed and the brutal wind blew straight up it, which has at least redressed some of the balance, given his flatulence. Further details of the activities were included on a leaflet with the dimensions of a Daily Telegraph, thus diabolically difficult to handle in a gale with useless frozen hands.

It was about halfway around the trail that the Major requested a cuddle, which was his way of saying the he’d had enough. At least that’s what I took it as. I’d had enough. I scooped him up and lugged him through the rest of the activities and into the warmth of the café. I rounded off this treat by giving the Major some exclusive Stick Man merchandise: an actual Stick Man figurine (a stick I found on the ground) and a limited edition chocolate Stick Man and his wife (a KitKat).

Any good?

Am I Reading Too Much Into Stories At Bedtime?

I was bang up for reading to my children at bedtime. I felt it was massively in my wheelhouse. God knows I wouldn’t be constructing any treehouses but I could sit on a chair and read a book. I’d watched a lot of Jackanory. I knew the right pace and the right comforting low pitch. I could do voices. I knew to say the last few lines very slowly while simultaneously closing the book. And to lean over to kiss them on the forehead and bid a fond ‘good night’ as they slip off to the Land of Nod, heads full of fantastical images.

Now that I’ve written it down, it does sound a bit creepy. Perhaps that’s why the reality is very different. First of all the Major normally takes some persuading that he wants me to read to him at all. He evaluates my skills differently, mostly requesting his mother to read to him. When I explain to him that mummy is downstairs making me my tea, he counters that mummy is the ‘reader’ and I am the ‘cooker’. I guess I should encourage his unchauvinistic view on household management, or take it as a stirring endorsement of my scrambledy-bambledy eggs on toast. What it is really though is just another slightly disheartening reminder of the recurring theme of my parental experience so far: that Major wholeheartedly prefers his mum.

So bedtime stories has become a battle of wills. I once recited Incey Wincey Spider to the Major only for him to ask me to read it again ‘like a man’. Obviously my ego was bruised so I repeated the rhyme in a sort of Clint Eastwood snarl. The Major then asked me to read it like a lady, then a girl and then a little boy. After that challenges became more surreal: Incey Wincey Spider came out like a giraffe, a leaf and most obviously a spider.

This seemed to entertain both reader and audience so I started doing funny voices for other stories. I try to read Thomas the Tank Engine in a Scouse accent like Ringo Starr, the original narrator of the television series. Like all my accents, it comes out Indian. Except my Indian one, which comes out Welsh. You’re probably sympathizing with Major now but when you have to read Harry and the Dinosaurs United on a perpetual loop, then certain tactics are required.

I shouldn’t single out Harry and the Dinosaurs United. There’s Harry and the Dinosaurs Say Raaah and Harry and the Robots, which doesn’t feature any dinosaurs. The Major is wise to my aversion to the Harry series because invariably he’ll select one off the shelf. I confess to throwing a few minor tantrums on these occasions.

Sometime Major likes me to make up stories. The most coherent of which was about a lonely crocodile that gained acceptance from the other jungle animals by dribbling a football with his nose. There was one about electric pylons turning into robots and stomping all over the countryside. The plot dribbled off into nothing quite early which was a good thing because it would have probably have been absolutely terrifying. And then there was another one about a dinosaur that was also a princess called Dianasaurus Rex which hasn’t got past the concept stage.

Mainly it just ends up with me listing stuff very slowly, which is probably the genesis of most of the children’s books. A typical example would be Peppa Pig walking into a forest and bumping into every single Peppa Pig character I can think of and some that I’ve made up like Clive Cow and Simon Salmon.

The Major is now three and I’ve began to read longer text-heavy books, intended to be read episodically over a few nights. Unfortunately it seems that he cannot be left with a cliffhanger without flying into a rage so these occasions have turned into something of a marathon. I spent a full hour reading him Roald Dahl’s The Twits which is a basically a novella. At the end I at least thought I’d filled his head with fantastical images and that I could lean over and kiss his forehead as he slipped off to the Land of Nod. But the Major was wide awake and the fun had just begun.

Any good?