I can’t give advice on Christmas gifts. I once gave my sister a rape alarm. In mitigation the alarm was attached to a stopwatch, she was well into jogging at the time. The alarm was a secondary feature, but for some reason that was the bit she dwelt on.
I also once got a rubbish present, a metal detector. In fairness to my parents I had asked for a metal detector. I grew up close to a Roman road and it was near here that one of my neighbours excavated a coin that year. Knowing what I know about myself now I was entirely motivated by greed and the tantalising thought of uncovering some treasure. But at the time I persuaded myself it was an interest in local history that had fired me.
As soon as I unwrapped the metal detector I was suspicious. It was smaller than any that I had seen on the television. There were no giant headphones included with it. I assumed that these were essential. It was also assembled with bright orange fittings and big bulbous handles that made it look like a Fisher Price toy, a sort of My First Metal Detector.
Once I whirred it into action a fundamental flaw was revealed. The metal detector could detect metal, but only metal that you could see. I placed a two pence piece under the rug in the sitting room as a test. But the carpet was obviously impenetrable to the detector’s feeble glare. This may have proved an impediment when looking for antique hoards buried under centuries of earth.
In its defence the detector was brilliant at finding doorknobs. If you were ever approaching a door and weren’t exactly sure where the doorknob was, then you’d simply move the detector slowly around the frame of the door until a buzzing sound could be heard – and there, you’ve found the knob and could pass through the door safely.
In desperation I headed to an antiquarian shop in Cambridge which specialized in peddling spurious historical items to the many tourists in the city. I bought some fake Roman coins. I went back to the Roman road and scattered the coins by the pathway. And then “detected” them.
Perversely of all the brilliant presents that my mum and dad bought me over the years, the BMXs and the table football tables, the metal detector is the one that has given me the most sustained pleasure, simply through the amusing memory of how crap it was. It’s the best and worst Christmas present I ever got – put that in your Christmas gift guide.
The metal detector itself was shoved into a cobwebbed crack next to the tumble-dryer, left to fester in an open grave. Maybe one day in the far-off future it will be discovered by inquisitive archaeologists. Perhaps they will ponder what its use was. Definitely not metal-detecting.
There is little more dispiriting feeling as a parent to turn on a television programme for your child and realise that you’ve watched it before. My sons know what they like when it comes to the television we view, the stories we read and the songs we sing. So naturally there is a level of repetition. Which means I have begun to connect with them on a completely different level; reading subtexts into plots that aren’t there or rounding out characters with non-existent philosophical dilemmas.
For instance I have dwelt for a long time now on the issues surrounding the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine. Is he okay with being called fat? Does he just regard as it friendly joshing, banter originating from the lads working down Tidmouth Sheds. Perhaps he deserves more respect, he is a captain of industry and a knight of the realm after all. I worry that this harsh nickname hurts him more than it appears. It may compel him to eat even more. Maybe the Fat Controller, with tremendous dark irony, has lost control of his calorie-counting.
What was the thinking behind the littlest Billy Goat Gruff crossing the bridge first? How would the biggest Billy Goat Gruff have felt if he had watched on as his tiny brother is gored to death by a starving troll, knowing that he could have saved all the silly bother by fronting up and dealing with the troll beforehand?
What happened earlier in their lives which lead to Soo the Panda being able to speak fluently but Sweep only being able squeak and Sooty as a complete mute? Do Jake and the Neverland Pirates’ parents know they’re out? Who is Norman Price from Fireman Sam’s dad? Is his absence why he’s so naughty? Why do the Highway Rat and all his little animal victims possess human faculties, but his horse is still just a horse? If the majority of the emotions living inside the girl’s head in Inside Out are negative ones how come she isn’t completely embittered and paranoid? What the fuck are Bubble Guppies?
My latest pointless fixation is with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the song in which his bizarrely luminescent nose saves Christmas by being employed as a set of fog lights. I find one line of lyrics particularly troubling:
All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names
It seems that before the night in question that there was systemic bullying in the stables at the North Pole. It slightly sours the magical image of Father Christmas flying across the wintry skies in his sleigh, knowing that he is being propelled by a squad of bigots. While the object of their bigotry sits at home, discriminated against on account of his disability, pondering a formal complaint to the Reindeer Resources department. Even old Santa himself may have been culpable.
But what were these names that the other reindeer were calling him? Given the Rudolph has gone down in history as the Red-Nosed Reindeer, he’s obviously happy with his schnozz being highlighted as unusually red. So what were these names then?
I was born on Christmas Eve. I basically share a birthday with Jesus. As a child I was resentful of Jesus because most people cared more about his birthday than mine. The entire village would gather at the church to celebrate his birthday. Some of them would tell anecdotes about his birth, about how he was born in a stable and got some slightly quirky gifts. No-one wanted to talk about my birth. I was born in a bed in a hospital.
People would sing jolly songs about Jesus and his mum and his mum’s womb. And then local children would fetch tiny effigies of Jesus and his mum and her birthing partners, some of whom were actual cows, and place them carefully together at the front of the church. No-one thought to create a tiny effigy of me.
Afterwards the village would decant to a nearby home where someone would be throwing a party in honour of Jesus’ birthday. Often it would be my own family. On those days, in the heady punchy fug of mulled wine fumes, my mum would make her frantic preparations. She was aware that a neighbourly hoard was about to descend on her and judge her on her interior design choices and her honey-glazed cocktail sausages. Sausages which were glazed because it was Jesus’ birthday.
At the end of these festivities at last Jesus would step aside and the party would sing Happy Birthday to me. There are lots of lovely things that can happen to someone on their birthday, having Happy Birthday sung to them is not one of them. It’s awkward. It raises questions. I’ve never known what expression to wear during it. I’ve never established where to look when there’s no cake to focus on. After Happy Birthday the party would end and everyone would go home. But the celebrations would continue into the next day. Which was Jesus’ birthday.
When people discover now that I was born on Christmas Eve they wince, understanding the tribulations that come with sharing a birthday with a big birthday-hog like Jesus. But the truth is that for all the sense of being sidelined or feeling like the occasional victim of a joint birthday-Christmas present swindle, a Christmas Eve birthday has always been a special day.
I have never been at school on my birthday. I have never been at work on my birthday. I have never had to commute or carry out mundane errands. I have always been surrounded by people who have some kind of affection for me. In the rambunctious days of my late teens and early twenties, Christmas Eve became less about Jesus and more about meeting up with old friends and getting shitfaced.
So if you are a Christmas baby or the parent of a Christmas baby (that doesn’t include you Mary and God/Joseph), then perhaps dwell less on the unfortunate consequences of a festive birthdate and more on the unique potential of it. And at least no-one is going to sing about your mum’s womb.
Fatherhood is a game of fine margins. Things can escalate quickly. One minute I can be dreaming of my Dad of the Year award and the next I am in my underpants and on my knees, scouring pools of puke off the kitchen floor. Which is what happened last Sunday.
As with most of my parenting catastrophes it all began when my wife went out and left me on my own with the boys. She had decided to run a few errands. After having children the errand takes on a new appealing status, almost like a leisure activity. A trip alone to retrieve a package from the postal depot becomes an opportunity to relax and regroup, sourcing cable connectors from Homebase is now the chance for a carefree saunter among the aisles.
So Mum was in a far-off supermarket when the Major let me know that he would like a snack. And because the Minor is currently performing as a tiny tribute act to his older brother, he asked for a snack as well. So I diligently peeled two satsumas, broke them into segments and served them to the boys in individual bowls.
The Major chowed down but the Minor, a keen fruitarian normally, pushed his helping away. With my paternal intuition I deduced that he was tired and he needed a nap. I warmed him up a bottle of milk and ferried him upstairs to his bedroom. While he was slurping away I pondered what bodily science is at work that allows a child to readily go down for a morning snooze having woken from his nightly slumbers a few hours before, yet another six or seven hours after that will always takes a lot more persuasion.
Perhaps the Minor took exception to my assumption that he would immediately drop off because he began to wriggle off my lap, point downstairs and say “downstairs”. Which meant he wanted to go downstairs.
In our absence the Major had finished his satsuma. Unsated, he had clearly been eyeing up his brother’s portion but waited to make his move until the very moment that we re-appeared. My sons have become very territorial about their possessions, like a couple of young dog-foxes spraying on trees. I believe that the Minor didn’t really want that satsuma. Or care that there was a whole pyramid of them in the kitchen. It seemed that the sight of his brother snaffling what was rightfully his sickened him to his core.
His reaction was a fierce protest of screaming and tears. I tried to reason with him. What I should have been doing was urgently sourcing a better alternative to a satsuma, probably a biscuit. But the wailing became more dramatic and eventually, perhaps inevitably, he was sick.
I am becoming paranoid that my sons are conspiring against me. I deal with a lot of sick. It’s as if they’ve evolved a special additional chamber in their gut, permanently filled with sick which can be triggered whenever I’m sole-parenting. Presumably as a strategy to ensure that their mother doesn’t leave them too often.
So I was covered in the stuff and hence down to my pants. To make matters worse the Major had assumed some blame and was guiltily trying to hook out the half-chewed satsuma with his finger. Regurgitation in it all forms was happening around me, in full cinematic Technicolor. It was a vomnishambles. As I say, things can escalate quickly.
Sophie looked at me with her big black eyes as I took hold of her neck. Her face seemed to say “please, don’t let it end this way”. But my mind was made up. She had been essential to our family but she now had outlived her use. Into the bin bag she went. She probably ended up at the landfill. We didn’t even recycle her or donate her, not with all the bitemarks and historic spittle.
The demise of Sophie the teething giraffe was part of a calculated cull of toys that my wife and I carried out recently. Previously our playroom was grotesquely overstocked. If its inhabitants came magically to life like they do in the Toy Story films then the room would be like a sprawling slum, tote-box tenements rising and tottering from the floor. All the crash and bash of Victoria Station at rush hour, a thousand tiny dinosaurs and Playmobil figurines stampeding to the entrance of the Happyland line, treading on each other and calling each other wankers.
So we decided to carry out an audit of the toys that had become useless to us. Most of which were the unworkable foam bits that come attached to CBeebies magazines. Seriously, they should fix actual litter to the covers and save us all the bother of attempting to play with it.
It occurs to me that this kind of operation will become more difficult in the future, when the toys are bigger and more animate, and our children’s (and my) attachments to them are firmer. When I say this I am mainly thinking about Graham.
Graham came to us from Costco. Graham is a ludicrous outsized teddy bear with a similar stout stature to a rugby prop forward or Lou Carpenter. I am ashamed to say that at first I mocked him. He used to just lie there looking like the lifeless body of Bungle from Rainbow. A big silly giant floundering about among all the normal-sized toys.
In the weeks after his arrival I got to know Graham and discover what Graham was all about. One afternoon the boys were playing in the room and I became overwhelmed with post-lunch fatigue. There was Graham, arms wide waiting to envelop me in warm open embrace. There is no judgement from Graham, just a shoulder to rest my tired head on. Sometimes Graham will take all us all into his cuddle and listen on silently as we read our stories. And if the boys decide to use him as a climbing frame or a urinal then Graham accepts it uncomplainingly.
But a day will come when we will usher Graham into retirement, when he is replaced by a snooker table or a PlayStation. I cannot face throwing him away but I don’t think I could evict him to the attic either. To live a hermit’s life among the cobwebs and the loft insulation. Besides I might forget he was up there and he’d scare the shit out of me; I might think Lou Carpenter has gone loopy and hidden up there.
I would hope that we can offer Graham a new existence, perhaps with a new deserving owner via a charity shop. I know someone who had to depart with their own gigantic teddy in this way, but their daughter insisted that at least the bear should be driven there in the front passenger of the car with a seatbelt.
That seems fair enough me. In fact I regret not strapping Sophie into the front seat and taking her straight to the landfill.
I performed my first ‘pass the parcel’ at the Major’s fourth birthday recently. I never knew it could be so difficult.
My memory of the game as a child is mostly negative. That it brought out the worst in its participants. And that it was a format easily corrupted by acquisitive little shits trying the game the system by lingering on the parcel as it made its journey round the group. I was determined that the Major’s party games wouldn’t descend into acrimony and tantrums so took the necessary steps. I may have overthought it.
To ensure that every attendee at least a minor sense of victory we included a small treat within each layer of wrapping and enough layers so that each child got a treat. The result was a hugely bulbous package. We had in effect turned a light-hearted moment of fun into a test of endurance. There were children suffering repetitive strain injury in their tiny hands, having been forced to the lug the monster parcel around again and again. It was a pass the parcel-athon. Some of the kids were passing around sponsorship forms to raise money from their efforts.
As the package dwindled in size so did the interest. Before long the circle was on the brink of breaking up, attention drifting off to the bouncy castle or a nearby sausage roll or a white-painted wall. We avoided tears of disappointment but replaced them with tears of boredom.
We tried to get clever with the music. Instead of a simple portable CD-player we placed a wireless speaker in the centre of the circle in the hope of creating an immersive sonic experience for the competitors. It actually sounded more like a tiny man singing from the next suburb. No wonder eyes were looking towards the emergency exits. One of the kids called me DJ Fire Alarm. When the music stopped it was almost inaudible; often I had to explain that it had stopped to the baffled circle.
The knack of stopping the music in pass the parcel is to do so when then the package is squarely in one pair of hands. If the stop happens while there are four mitts on the parcel then there’s a real risk of controversy about ownership. I envisaged having to build an elaborate system of mirrors in order to time pressing the pause button without anyone noticing but in actuality I stood in plain sight adjacent to the ring. Nobody was looking at me, too enrapt in sausage rolls.
Much to everyone’s relief after a few exhausting hours the game ended. The prize had landed in the hands of a little boy who immediately donated it to the Major. At first I thought fatigue had scrambled his mind. But it seemed that he was simply observing a protocol unknown to me that the birthday boy should take the spoils. In any case it was a charming gesture. It seems that some kids aren’t acquisitive after all. And I had definitely overthought it.
I had an idea of what I wanted my children to be like before they were born. Cheeky without being naughty, intelligent but not precocious, individual without being weird. And of course, without a hint of paternal partisanship, both my sons have lived up to my expectations.
But now that the Major is approaching pre-school I’m worried that the vague otherworldliness that endears him to me so much will be a source of suspicion among his peers. That he’ll pitch up at the playground quoting his favourite Beatrix Potter book and eventually find himself alone and friendless in book corner.
I read once that the Prime Minister sits down every week to watch a selection of footage gathered by a team of minions. The footage provides a summary of recent happenings in popular culture like celebrity and sport news. It’s designed to prevent the Prime Minister appearing fusty and alien to the electorate, more connected with normal folk.
I wonder if I should create something similar for the Major. He starts at pre-school in September and he may need to be brought up to speed with the modern world. Minecraft and Zlatan Ibrahimović and mansplaining. Which is sort of what I’d be doing actually.
And that is why Pokémon Go seemed especially appealing. It’s sent the rest of the human race into a rabid, foaming frenzy. Even Theresa May has had to have a full day-long debrief.
The Major has had a troubled history with computer games. They seem to affect his wiring and unleash something very cross inside him. But I figured that Pokémon Go at least required some interaction with world at large and therefore marginally more wholesome.
First of all we were directed towards our local green to collect some Pokéballs, basically cutesy man-traps for catching Pokémon. I was mildly uncomfortable scrabbling around at the base of the war memorial looking for virtual sparrows, an echo of some of the more sinister side-effects of the craze.
We came across other Pokémon-hunters and there was a genuine sense of camaraderie out there. We were kindly directed towards the church hall where apparently there was a bunch of Pokeshits hanging out. And in a peculiar reversal of the traditional ‘don’t talk to strangers’ scenario, a young man leant out of his car window to advise us to head to the petrol station to capture some augmented pigeons. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more part of the community. It’s just a shame that it’s a community made up of eight-year-olds.
But that’s Pokémon Go. It’s weird. It sends people a bit loopy. Parents are naming their children after Pokémon. Avid hunters are being warned off venturing into defunct nuclear disaster zones. And Theresa May has been pictured sniffing around the Cenotaph.
So perhaps the Major isn’t so otherworldly after all.
I didn’t have many dealings with Play-Doh as a child so when I did come into contact with it I regarded it as lurid, exotic substance. My grandmother owned a Play-Doh Mop Top Hair Shop, the mechanism of which allowed the operator to shove Play-Doh up through the follicles of plastic figurines with the intention of styling their newly-grown Play-Doh hair. It was rich in creative possibility. You could make your clientele look variously like a Vegas drag queen or a proto-hipster or a weirdly-coiffed tramp. It was brilliant.
So I was very enthusiastic when the Major expressed an interest in Play-Doh and slavered slightly as I prised open the lid of his first tub and reluctantly handed over the pristine lump. But it seems that in my old age I have become quite particular in the way I like Play-Doh to be handled. Because there is something about the sight of the Major mixing one colour in with another that strikes at my sense of what is right about this world.
Of course I would never seek to intervene with his artistic method so I have to watch on as the process is repeated again and again until all the original vivid hues have been replaced by a single greyish slurry-brown. Play-Doh also disintegrates into tiny flecks which are unnaturally resistant to hoovers and require cleaning up with a dustpan and brush, the least satisfying of all household chores. It’s basically multi-coloured gravel, only good for constructing wacky driveways. After only a few days of Play-Doh action each tub has a fraction of its initial wedge, containing something that resembles a prehistoric turd.
Regrettably both my sons have dabbled in clay in recent times. Clay is like some Play-Doh that’s let go of itself. If it had a personality it would be embittered. Embittered that it’s been taken out of its home in the ground and given over to the whim of small erratic children. It dries exceedingly quickly, turn one’s back for one second and a small pile of stones has appeared at the kitchen table. Clay leaves a powdery residue in its wake like a grainy snail and it also sucks the juice out of hands, rendering them shrivelled and lifeless.
For reasons best known to himself, the Minor decided to sample a morsel of clay, which compelled me to frantically examine the side of the pot to check if it was poisonous. It was at this point I shouted to my wife, “it’s okay, it’s only a choking hazard.”
Which is the best thing I can say about clay. It’s only a choking hazard.
Major’s Christmas list last year had five items on it, which had been whittled down from a long-list of nominations comprising every single toy advertised on television over the previous three months. We approached Major’s presents like we would a roulette table, preferring to spread out our outlay over a number of different options, hedging our bets as opposed to spending hundreds of pounds on for instance a massive cuddly white elephant which might remain unloved and unused like, er, a massive white elephant.
And so it was that Major’s fickleness came to pass. The singing Olaf, the camp snowman from Frozen spent his early career wedged under the driver’s seat of the car, the piteous drawl of ‘In Summer’ becoming less and less audible. The Shaun the Sheep snakes and ladders is yet to be played, but its dice and counters have migrated to all parts of the house.
I felt very strongly that at least one gift was going to hit its target. I’d spotted a promotional video for a gigantic clownfish balloon online and it looked absolutely amazing. In effect it was a miniature airship, a small motor attached to the underside powered its tail which in turn propelled the fish forward. And in this way the movement of the balloon eerily replicated an actual clownfish. As I say, absolutely amazing.
The balloon arrived necessarily deflated and it wasn’t until the first weekend of the New Year that I drove to the nearest florist to purchase £6 worth of their finest helium to fill it. It was a very blustery day. A ribbon was tied through a loop on the belly. I wrapped this tightly around my fist to secure and then basically embraced the balloon out of the shop and onto the road outside. The fish seemed quite capricious in nature and it did enter my mind that it might take me off into the skies over South London like a crap Mary Poppins.
Before that happened the ribbon snapped. The balloon immediately absconded over a hedge. By the time I’d run around the hedge I was in a park and the clownfish was nowhere to be seen, already up in the atmosphere, up where the air is clear. Perhaps it had gone to find Nemo. That didn’t stop me careering all over that park, slipping across the wet grass, becoming increasingly frantic. Any passer-by who might have seen me might have thought I’d lost a child and not a balloon.
Major was delightful. He understood. I hugged him tightly, putting my head on his shoulder which must have been quite uncomfortable because I have a really big head. So we replaced the fish at once. I went back to the florist two weekends ago but this time I took Major with me, mainly for an extra pair of hands but also to give him the opportunity to see the balloon in all its turgid glory in case it decided to fly off in search of his brother or Nemo. I parked illegally in front of the shop and very briefly left Major in there while the florist brought the fish to the entrance. I gave a balloon priority over my son. I straddled the rear of the fish, essentially riding it to the car and successfully bundling it inside and home.
Then it got difficult. To achieve the optimum cruising height the balloon needed to be extraordinarily finely calibrated. Any extraneous weight and the fish would remain permanently grounded. As such each sticky pad that was provided to attach the working parts was suitably small, which rendered the whole operation of assembling this mini-dirigible exasperatingly difficult. Of course the balloon was hugely uncooperative being that it just wanted to hang out on the ceiling. It was a bit like a dressing a child, albeit a strangely rotund child in outer space.
With the help of his mum and her friend who helped out physically suppressing the balloon, finally the clownfish was done. Except that it needed further calibrating because at that stage it was pointing upwards, again obsessing over the ceiling. The fish was balanced out by loading putty into a niche at the front of the motor. It took a while to find the putty as Major had borrowed it to make Morph. I have no idea where he got Morph from; I thought Morph had died with Tony Hart.
And finally it was done. We loaded up the batteries into the motor and the joypad. The next ten minutes were some of the most exhilarating of my life, piloting that fish on its journey up and down the landing while the Major skipped with glee after it. In truth I wasn’t ready to hand over controls to him, but I did figure it was technically his toy after all.
It was then that the botched job I made of putting the clownfish together became obvious. Dorsal and pectoral fins began floating, falling to the floor. The tape had not been applied properly. Soon the motor itself came loose and inevitably the fish looked to the ceiling again, flouncing up to sulk for a week by the door to the spare room.
And then the following weekend I went to the local garden centre and bought some silver duct tape, which at least had the advantage of looking vaguely like clownfish scales. We began to re-assemble the balloon but it was soon clear that the tape was too bulky. Regrettably we had to take the decision to partially dismember the fish but eventually, five weeks after Christmas, it was operational again. It was now that Major chose to reveal to us that he found the fish weird and didn’t want to play with it.
And then on the Monday, I received a WhatsApp from my wife:
It seemed she had opened the French doors to the garden to let the Major out to jump on his trampoline and the clownfish had spotted his chance to nurture its migratory instincts. By the time I got home from work he had extricated himself from the tree and disappeared, perhaps to re-unite with his long-lost brother. Or Nemo. I’d like to say it was fun while it lasted but that is only true for ten stolen minutes. All I am left with is a roll of silver duct tape to do some dad shit with and two useless joypads. No idea what’s joyous about them.