A Giant Hedgehog, an Albino Squirrel and Dame Judi Dench

Outside the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield there is a hedgehog the size of an elephant. It is probably the most impressive over-large thing I’ve seen and I’ve seen the world’s biggest thermometer. The hedgehog isn’t real obviously but it is so splendidly well-rendered that it’s actually difficult to tell. There isn’t a prickle out of place; it’s so realistic you can almost smell the milky bread on its breath.

The hedgehog is probably the main attraction at the Centre so its position in the car park is slightly unfortunate. Every animal which follows it seems slightly insignificant in comparison, even if they are more animate. In fact the hedgehog is visible from the road so it’s possible to sample the best bit of the British Wildlife Centre and keep zooming on by. Essentially the hedgehog is the A22’s answer to the Angel of the North.

There’s nothing exotic about the inhabitants of the Centre, most of them you could probably meet on a particularly ambitious ramble. But there are treats within if you look hard enough, although you might first have to pass through what appears to be a section dedicated to vermin. This is mainly rats, who’ve colonized a grubby transparent drainpipe.

Sometimes the Centre resembles more of a sleep institute; a lot of the animals appear to hibernating out of sight in a bush. Or just lying in. At one point it felt like we were the victims of an audacious scam in which we’d been tricked into walking around pointing at hedgerows. We did see about a second of an albino squirrel which made all the traipsing through empty shrubbery worthwhile.

The Centre offers a solid selection of squirrels, of varying shades. The red squirrel enclosure is plastered with several images of Dame Judi Dench, who appears to have some association with the Centre. We did not see Dame Judi Dench while were there. It may have been that she had snuffled down in the foliage with a lazy weasel.

I should stop focussing on the amount of shiftless animals at the Centre. We saw a massively high-octane stoat. I’d never really given the stoat much consideration before, but this one was quite striking. It looked like a tiny lion with a ferret’s head, with an amazing furry extravagance at the end of its tail. It spent its entire time entertaining us by pelting up and down its chicken wire play tunnel.

We also came across a family of foxes strutting around their pen, smug in Tory-proofness. Nice wholesome foxes, not like the scabby ones near our home that look like they’ve been scraped together from pipe cleaners. We also saw a parade of fat owls, a very still heron that might have been a garden ornament and a troupe of otters wrestling on the bankside.

But still nothing as magnificent as that hedgehog. It’s worth the admission fee alone. Except that technically you don’t need to pay the admission fee to see it.

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The Real Horror of Growing Your Own Butterflies

To grow your own butterflies sounds like a charming childhood activity. Like rustling up a batch of homemade marshmallows or establishing a pixie colony at the bottom of your garden. We thought that butterfly-cultivation was a chance to gaze in wonder at one of nature’s most remarkable transformations.

The reality is a bit grubbier.

The process begins when five caterpillars arrive in the post. The thought of insects travelling through the Royal Mail system struck me as odd for some reason, although I’m not sure how I thought they’d be delivered. Perhaps on a lettuce leave by a local squirrel.

They actually pitched up in a container that looked like a Waitrose hummus pot, which was within a jiffy bag. It seemed cruel for the caterpillars to be transported in this way, but my guilt was tempered by the fact that we were protecting them in their early weeks from hungry predators like a starling or a shrew or my two-year-old son.

The caterpillars are miniscule when they turn up, no bigger than an eyelash. But they immediately start to grow, increasing in girth at an alarming rate. It happened before our very eyes, like they were enchanted caterpillars. I began to feel uneasy that they would not stop growing and they would begin to pose some actual threat to the family.

The other thing that began to grow was a hefty pyramid of caterpillar shit at the bottom of their pot. I have no idea what the caterpillars were eating to create such a massive output, perhaps residual hummus. But it’s revolting. Eventually the confines of the pot meant that one tragic caterpillar became mired in his and his pal’s own sewage heap and didn’t make it.

It is no surprise that quickly after this accident the four remaining caterpillars, each now about the size of an overly-plucked eyebrow, sought asylum within their chrysalises. The transition from caterpillar to butterfly is a staple of children’s books, it’s a genuinely magical happening. But what actually occurs is grotesque, more like the plot of a schlocky body-horror.

The caterpillar basically blends itself into a chunky broth featuring its own organs. It then congeals itself somehow into butterfly. It probably for the best that this happens behind the dusty curtains of the chrysalis. Unfortunately one caterpillar was perhaps too eager to slip inside his sleeping bag and appeared to have liquefied himself too quickly. The result was a lonely caterpillar head dangling from the top of the pot like a badly-misjudged Christmas bauble. And then there were three.

Once the chrysalises are fully formed it is up to us, the farmers, to transport the circular pad to which they are attached safely into a net in which the butterflies will eventually appear, probably a bit confused. Once installed the chrysalises gradually begin to rise eerily away from the pad, in a position that can only be described as ‘erect’. Then the chrysalises begin to split apart and the shiny metallic bodies of the butterflies show themselves.

Of the butterflies that had made it through to the final three, one got caught up in its own chrysalis and passed out from the energy required to escape. I thought about intervening but David Attenborough has always said don’t get involved in nature. And I’d have probably obliterated its delicate structure with my clumsy fingers anyway.

So two butterflies eventually made their way into the great beyond. Probably delighted to flee their own private hell of the hummus pot. And probably straight into the waiting beak of a hungry starling.

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An Awfully Pig Adventure: The Peppa Pig Film Preview

I went to school with a boy who later went up to Oxford and became a film critic for one of the student rags there. He became notorious for writing reviews of films he hadn’t actually seen. His claim was that his film knowledge was so superior that he could form opinions based simply on who made the film, who was in it and what it was about. Like most right-minded people I find this approach both high-handed and objectionable. And that is why I am trying very very hard to reserve judgement on the upcoming Peppa Pig film.

Or Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience to give it its proper title. The name strikes me as curiously functional, like re-imagining Raiders of the Lost Ark as Indiana Jones and the Search for the Culturally Significant Religious Artefact. In fact the label doesn’t refer to plot of the film. It’s directed at the audience themselves.

Thus it becomes probably the first film in cinematic history to incorporate its own marketing strategy into its title. But at least this way any potentially harrowing scenes involving Peppa’s first encounter with a hot dog stand are avoided.

I speculated as to the content of the film and how the makers would tackle the challenge of making this well-loved television character a cinematic proposition, without losing its essential Pepperiness. But actually, the Peppa Pig film isn’t a film at all, it’s nine new episodes shown back-to-back. So it may just be that Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience is less of an artistic endeavour and more of a profit-making one.

This novel formula at least offers a raft of opportunities: a week’s worth of surround-sound Coronation Street. 3-D weather forecasts. Or A Question of Sport: The Movie.

In fairness you could say that most films are propelled by financial imperative. And the format suits my children, particularly the Minor who would probably struggle to sit through the opening credits. I’ve sat through a few Peppa Pig marathons myself, normally at around 5.22am. It is possible to enter a sort of stasis during this period, and rouse yourself an hour or so later, slightly furred like the inside of an old kettle.

I should add also there are some episodes of Peppa that contain a streak of subversive humour which is genuinely appealing. Who can forget the classic moment when Daddy Pig reads The Wonderful World of Concrete to his kids at bedtime? Uttering the immortal line: “concrete is a construction material composed of sand, water and chemical admixtures”.

The resident cast boast several actual comedians, which has been bolstered for the “film” by the likes of Jo Brand and David Mitchell, perhaps playing a slightly spluttering middle-class badger railing at the rank commerciality of it all.

The most concerning element of the Peppa Pig cinema enterprise is that it’s apparently interactive. I’ve researched this and this involves live action characters (failed actors in intimidatingly large suits) initiating dancing and sing-a-longs. No parental hibernating here. Given that the only famous song associated with Peppa is the theme tune, I can only see this going one way.

Altogether ladies and gentlemen and children…

“Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun Pepppppa Pig dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun Peppppppppa Pig….”

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Why I Really Really Like Going To The Dump

Of all the sickening sights that I’ve witnessed as a parent there is nothing more putrid than the nappy bin in a public baby changing room. The stench from my own son’s nappy is unholy enough, but when the nappy is atop of a mound assembled from a hundred other children’s nappies then it becomes overwhelmingly evil. To glimpse down the open shaft of a communal nappy bin is look into the actual depths of hell, the very basement of hell where even Satan is a bit scared to go.

A lot of parenting is waste disposal. It’s not just nappies, there other revolting unwanted substances to get rid of: half-digested breakfasts, dripping snotrags, sodden bread crusts. Bin administration dominates conversation. The quality, or lack of quality of bin bags has a serious material effect on my wellbeing. We have three large bins outside our house which we fill almost the second they are emptied. Some homeowners want to improve their house by converting the loft or installing a new kitchen. We need to create a landfill site in the garden.

One of the few benefits of producing so much rubbish is the necessity to visit the local dump on a regular basis. I’ve been so often recently I deserve a loyalty card. In truth I’ve been keen on dumps even before I became a dad. I have many cherished memories of the dump in Wembley near where we used to live. It even had a traffic-light system in place to ensure that waste was disposed of in an orderly manner.

The dumps local to me are not as organised. It’s sensible to go early in the morning when the ginormous bins are just starting to glister under the milky sun. Even at this time there are several other dump-goers. And there is a communality, a sense of shared satisfaction in clearing the decks, getting things in order and flinging large objects energetically into skips. I find peculiar pleasure in lobbing bottles into the bottle banks. If I hit the right trajectory a tremendous smashing happens. But I’ve also got it wrong on occasions and shattered a bottle on the side of the bank like a mental Queen christening a liner.

What I really like about all the dumps I’ve visited is that the staff always seem to genuinely care. The customer service is excellent. The moment they spot you grappling with a large slab of MDF they’ll dart over and say things like: “ooh, I know a lovely bin where that could live”. I once turned up with a knackered old microwave and the operative waved me over to a small stack of microwaves he’d built. I felt like I was releasing the microwave back into the wild.

This piece is an excerpt from The Good Dump Guide 2017.

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A Good Way To Entertain Your Child In The Supermarket

I once saw a man limping down a supermarket aisle, a demanding toddler in each arm and a basket crashing rhythmically into his thigh. Both his children had obviously required an urgent cuddle, but he also needed to buy his groceries. He looked exhausted. And faintly hunted. I would not do well in this scenario. I do not have the muscle. The three of us would end up cowering in a huddle by the bakery counter. Continue reading “A Good Way To Entertain Your Child In The Supermarket”

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It’s One Small Step In Gazing Up At The Stars

Like most children probably, my sons are inquisitive by nature. They ask a lot of questions. Normally I can field these satisfactorily but sometimes they happen upon a gap in my knowledge. This is always a concern to me because I’d rather the boys regard me as wise and all-knowing so later in life when important decisions need to be made they’ll seek my advice and in this way I’ll exert some sinister form of mind-control. Continue reading “It’s One Small Step In Gazing Up At The Stars”

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A Mildly Miffed Letter To a Train Company

My youngest son is a big fan of trains. The older one quite likes trains too. To be honest after some years of commuting I’ve gone off trains, particularly as one tried to eat me:

Dear Sir or Madam

I am writing to complain about an incident which occurred while disembarking one of the 0835 from King’s Cross at Grantham station on Monday, 7 November. Around 50 of my colleagues and I were attending a ceremony to celebrate long service at a country hotel not far from Grantham and had travelled up from Kings Cross that morning.

The doors opened as usual once the train had pulled to a halt in the station. I was already stood in the area by the toilets waiting to step off the train. I allowed a lady to disembark first and then followed her off the train. To my surprise the doors closed as I was leaving the train and struck me on the neck. Gladly I was not decapitated by this as it may have put a dampener on my day out. If I’d have turned up at the hotel without a head then I would not have been able to enjoy the tea and shortbread that was served on arrival. Disregarding the shortbread and thinking more about long-term strategy, my head and body have worked well together as team previously and it certainly would have been a shame not to be able to continue with this arrangement.

It may also have had a negative impact on my marriage if I’d have returned home without a head. My head is one of the reasons my wife fell in love with me. God knows it wasn’t my body. I also think that my employers may have looked upon it dimly had I shown up to work without a head; it would negatively affect my capacity to fulfil my duties properly and also look a bit scruffy.

I’m being facetious. I can’t pretend that the impact of the door even hurt. But it was a shock. And I have a strong virile neck. If I was a little frail old lady with a little frail old neck then the ramifications could have been more serious.

Happily for me, the doors opened again and I was able to step down onto the platform. I was one of the lucky ones. Most of my colleagues were sat in a different carriage and had diligently gathered their luggage and queued to leave the train as it was pulling into the station. Unfortunately some at the back of queue were unable to leave before the doors closed again, this time permanently. 14 ladies made an unscheduled trip to Doncaster. I’ve heard that Doncaster is lovely in late autumn, but when there is tea and shortbread promised on arrival at a hotel near Grantham then it’s not the ideal destination. Happily they were able to turn around and return to Grantham in time for lunch (rice, new potatoes, a selection of cold cuts).

Again I’m being facetious, but again there could have more serious implications. If a family had been disembarking and the children were allowed to get off first the doors may have closed behind them, temporarily orphaning them and sending their parents to Doncaster. The children would have been left to fend for themselves on the mean streets of Grantham with no-one to look after them but a little old lady with no head. Sorry, facetious again. Can’t help it.

When we remonstrated with the station guard he explained that there was nothing he could do. Apart from not blow his whistle perhaps. He offered nothing by way of apology. Perhaps he had a shiny new whistle which he couldn’t wait to blow. Or maybe he simply couldn’t conceive that 50 people actually wanted to get off the train to visit Grantham. He said that all passengers should be ready to disembark before the doors open – which is fine until 30 people want to step off the same carriage. They’re not circus performers, they can’t all get off at once.

One of the Doncaster crew spoke to the train attendant who explained that stations are fined if they keep the train in the station too long. If this is true then I would suggest that the guidelines are eased slightly to allow for common sense to be applied and to allow 50 people who just want to get off the train and eat a little bit of shortbread.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts

Kind regards

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The Unique Challenge Of A Trip To The Cinema

The first time I took the Major to the cinema it was just the two of us. I told him that it was a very special treat. But he demanded some kind of reward as if he was fulfilling some distasteful family obligation, which in a sense he was.

Maybe he was also aware that as far as special treats go this one isn’t that special. The cinema near us offers tickets for selected children’s films on a Sunday for £1.75. That is £1.75 for children and £1.75 for adults.

I’ve not yet established whether the reduced price for an adult is reliant on being accompanied by a child, but if you’re in your thirties and turn up to watch Monsters Inc. on your own then probably prepare yourself for some odd looks and to be put on some kind of register.

The economy of a cinema trip is not the only attraction as it also represents a rare opportunity for me to sit in the same place for an hour. It seems that I am not alone in this. The cinema is always lit up by a galaxy of Smartphone screens, operated by parents enjoying the freedom of an entertained child.

I envisaged our trips as an induction for the Major into the noble filmic arts. But actually he regards the cinema as simply a dark room where he can eat snacks. When the scoffing is over the cinema has outlived its usefulness and the Major wants out immediately. I’ve never watched an entire film at the cinema with the Major.

So if I really want to know what happens at the end of Hotel Transylvania 2 then I need to both provide full snack-catering but also ensure we take our seats at the precise moment the opening credits appear. This is a challenge because of the various factors that have to be weighed up in timing our run.

Of course the advertised start time of the film is actually the start time for an absurd amount of adverts, some of which are weirdly age-inappropriate. I mistimed our journey to Shaun the Sheep: The Movie and watched on in horror as the Major guzzled half his popcorn in front of various ads for women’s hygiene products.

At my cinema the queue for food can stretch out into the car park; columns of exasperated mums and dads waiting for the shuffling staff, who frequently disappear for suspicious lengths of time to retrieve hotdogs from a back office. I am profoundly disconcerted by this. Hotdogs should be visible at all times. I can’t help imagine some kind of aquarium of grease where the frankfurters swim about waiting to be fished out.

Once in the cinema I am comforted by the fact it seems the Major isn’t the only one with a short attention span. There comes a point in every film when the collective fidgeting breaks out into foot-races on the stairs and a wrestling tournament in the aisles. And that is normally our cue to leave.

I always try to initiate some kind of critical review on our way home. What was your favourite bit? Who was the best character? What kind of socio-political message was the director trying to convey with their use of form and light?

But mainly the Major wants to know what a Lilet is. Still. At least I’ve spent only £3.50.

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A Mildly Miffed Letter to a Garden Centre

Dear Sir or Madam

My sons and I were enticed to your garden centre by the promise of a fun Disney-themed treasure hunt that you had advertised on your website. We were looking forward to rooting out Donald Duck from the composted bark mulch or unearthing Olaf from Frozen in the screened topsoil. Or knowing what I know now about your operation, Mickey Mouse sat behind a desk in the management offices.

I checked on your website to confirm that you were open on Bank Holiday Monday. Your website was very helpful. It had your web address displayed on it. The one I just clicked on to get there. It conveniently linked to the same page, presumably in case visitors have a psychotic episode and forget where they are or what they are doing. It seems you specialise in sending your customers on pointless journeys.

It took 40 minutes to get there. When we arrived at the entrance the signals were mixed. Two large signs saying ‘OPEN’ were fixed to the gates, flanking a large industrial padlock which kept the gates firmly closed. Together with the barbed wire spiralled at the top of the gates, and the metal bollards which guarded the front I figured on balance that the garden centre was indeed closed. It did occur then that you had gone out of business, which would make a lot of sense in retrospect.

I now had to break the news to the boys. Their reaction was instantaneous and catastrophic. A kind of awful harmony of screaming, the little one holding a top-line treble scream while the older one belted out a lower bass scream. I didn’t know how to make it better. In the end I appeased my younger son with an apple, which he stuck in his mouth in a workable impression of a roasted pig from Tudor times. They couldn’t comprehend why the Disney fun had suddenly been taken away from them; in fairness neither could I.

I felt it was best at this point to take them somewhere, anywhere away from the garden centre and do what I always do when my children are unhappy. Buy them shit. Immediately. That meant heading to Woking. You can imagine the scale of my problem that the only presentable solution was Woking.

In truth we sort of drifted towards Woking because my sat-nav had packed in. We were sucked into its one-way system. This appears to have been designed by a drug addict with a Curly-Wurly fixation. The giddying sequence of chicanes and hairpins was too much for my younger son, who promptly served up a fresh helping of apple puree.

I can’t blame you for Woking. But I can blame you for us being there. Please make sure that the information on your website is correct. The waste of petrol has an impact on the environment and more importantly my wallet. It’s also a waste of tears. It’s a waste of an apple. And it’s taking the Mickey. And Pluto and Goofy and Minnie for that matter.

I look forward to hearing from you


Bad Dadu

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It’s Best to go on Holiday with a Swift

When we are in Norfolk we often see swifts flitting about in the twilight. The swifts are in Norfolk for the summer as we are, but the similarity between our journeys is negligible. Swifts spend their winters in South Africa before making the epic passage up the globe to East Anglia. This is a non-stop trip; they do not touch down once, not even for duty-free in Dubai. The swifts live their life on the wing during this time. They eat, sleep and mate in the air.

It can take a swift a year to reach its destination, although when I heard this the churlish part of me did think: hurry up, you’re supposed to be a swift. With a fair wind it can take us about three hours to arrive on the North Norfolk coast but where a swift can cross hemispheres without the need to stop, our family doesn’t share the same powers of endurance.

The Major’s bowels have evolved so they whirr into action as soon as the keys are turned in the ignition. Because we can have been on the road for minute before he expresses an urgent need for a poo. For this eventuality we are always equipped with a Potette, which is essentially a toilet seat with a plastic grocery bag attached to it. Or a pooper-scooper for humans. We’ve had issues in past disposing of the waste because no-one wants to carry a bag of shit around on a long journey. A scarcity of bins in rural Suffolk meant that I recently lobbed a shit-bag into a bottle bank. Of course I am ashamed to admit this but on the flipside I was vaguely exhilarated by the tiny rebellion of the act. It’s a way to feel alive. A shit-bag in a bottle bank.

On another occasion we were in Thurrock services within half an hour of departure. We attempted to leave on three occasions, having to return each time to the services on various errands. At one point I thought we were going to have to holiday there: eating out at KFC, dipping our toes by the industrial banks of the Thames estuary and finding entertainment at the local speedway track.

Like the swift we are able to eat en route. However sleeping while driving is inadvisable and mating is in contravention of the Highway Code. Unlike the swift we require a satellite navigation system to guide us. Scholars have debated how the swift knows its way. My thought is that they probably go in convoy with another swift who’s already been to the UK. But there are various schools suggesting that swifts use the constellations to plot their route, with an innate sense of direction. Not entirely sure what they do during the day to be honest.

My dad believes he has a similar inbuilt sense of direction which he calls his ‘old trapper’s instinct. On various family holidays, the old trapper’s instinct has taken us left when we needed to go right, north when we should have headed south and once to the peak of a mountain in Scotland when we should have been flying down the motorway.

The bird-boffins have now mainly agreed that the swift has evolved so that the migratory map forms a physical part of its brain, it’s embedded into the actual cortex. So the next time you hear something described as “bird-brained” it actually means “completely fucking amazing”. It set me to wondering if anything was woven so magically into my own sons’ brains. So far I’ve come up with the ability to need a poo whilst in a moving vehicle.

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