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”
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”
Children don’t remember anything before the age of two. Their brains are too tiny to retain all the memories. It does make me wonder why we bother doing anything nice with them while they’re small, they’re not going to remember anyway.
It also occurs to me that this memory deletion also works as a coping mechanism for the trauma of teething. I’ve now witnessed both my sons go through this ordeal and I’m glad I’ve forgotten my own experiences. It’s saved me thousands of pounds’ worth of therapy bills.
I can’t really imagine what it must be like to live your entire life in benign gummy innocence only to find yourself attacked from within by rude stabby rectangles bursting through into your mouth. Added to this is uncontrollable drooling, ruddiness, insomnia and a fierce desire to chew off your own hand.
For some curious reason my sons also suffered sore bottoms during the process, possibly because the hands they’d just eaten hadn’t agreed with them. It’s chaos theory in one miniature body. There’s no sugar-coating it: teething turned each of my children into a tiny sad shambles.
I’ve tried to picture as an adult what this pain and confusion must feel like. Perhaps discovering that your spine has started poking through the skin on your back and you’ve got a cold and the same digestive issues as the last time you ate a lamb vindaloo.
We’ve only found one thing that has come close to resolving these teething problems: mounds of pure uncut powder delivered straight to the tongue. We went straight for the good stuff. The teething powder my wife chose is made by a company called Ashton & Parsons, a name I found comforting because it sounded solid and old-fashioned.
I felt like they weren’t manufacturers, but purveyors of teething powder. Perhaps they were official suppliers of teething powder to the Queen, in case the Queen suffered from random new teeth and a poorly bum.
I later discovered that they have been operating for 150 years. Of course back in Victorian times, teething powder was even more important than it is now as it got the child workforce healthy and back down the mine or up mill.
At the beginning I imagine that they sold teething powder in shops down Burlington Arcade, where men in tall hats browsed while Dickensian waifs pressed their noses against the window, coveting lovingly-merchandised pyramids of powder.
Having seen what I’ve seen, if the plot of A Christmas Carol had Tiny Tim suffering from teething issues, then he’d have been probably been saying instead: “God help us, everyone!”
This tangent was not sponsored by Ashton & Parsons.
It had just turned midnight. 2017 was minutes old. The crowd was full of expectation. Both for what the New Year would bring but also because I had just moved towards the decks, ready to take them to a higher level with my triumphant selection of tunes. A writhing mass of bodies on the dancefloor hanging on every knob-twiddle, awaiting the first monumental track…
…and then my kids woke up and I had to go and deal with them.
In truth the writhing mass was a couple of slightly pissed neighbours and the dancefloor was a small space created when we pushed the table against the kitchen wall. The atmosphere was mainly being provided by a peculiarly funky cheeseboard. The decks were in fact the Spotify app on wife’s phone connected to a puny Bluetooth speaker, my DJ skills limited to operating the keyboard function.
The record I had lined up was ‘Kiss Me’ by seminal artist Olly Murs. Perhaps a man approaching his forties shouldn’t be dabbling with popular music of the teeny-bop persuasion but I’m always seduced by a guitar bit that sounds like the incidental music from an erotic thriller in 1987.
Olly Murs’ guitar had to be put on ice because both my sons were awake and calling for their mother. But their mother had already been up there for an hour before midnight and because of an unspoken rota system between mum and dad the boys had to settle for me.
Earlier in the evening various party-goers had brought their children and put them into temporary storage in vacant bedrooms, turning the first floor of our house into a toddler doss-house. We knew that if the boys became aware that like-minded small people were close then they would be electrified to the point of insomnia and we’d end up mainly spending the New Year cajoling and lulling and shushing. We deployed an energetic aunt and uncle to exhaust them with a robust itinerary of activities in the day, and both boys sparked out long before the hoard arrived.
But I was uneasy. I knew a prompt turn-in was probably part of a long game that they had concocted to ruin our fun. I’ve seen it before. They can sniff out when we’re planning some festivity that doesn’t involve them and they’ll sabotage it. It’s not just house parties.
I’ve had to live off scraps of football-watching since fatherhood, a bit like sleep. But there are some games which are sacrosanct. The boys know this and when mum is out and there’s an important evening kick-off, they will stage a bed-boycott. And I will miss out on most of watching England lose.
So I was up there for an hour until mum was obliged to return. I could hear the party escalating downstairs, perhaps a third person had hit the dancefloor. All three of us were in my bed, and for different reasons all of us were fighting off sleep. The boys because they wanted me to stay with them, and me because I wanted to leave them.
Eventually my wife came to tag me out so I could return to the fray, determined to carry on as before. But as I minced quietly along the landing children began to wake all over the house, cries spreading like a forest fire. In effect it was a call for last orders, as deflated parents accepted their fate and scooped them off into the night.
I was left to wait for dishwasher to finish while mainlining Nutella cheesecake straight from the dish it had been served on. And in the morning I woke suffering a fraction of the hangover that I might have done had the boys not intervened. And down the street, tales of similar relief came through. Perhaps all our children weren’t out to ruin our night. Perhaps they were looking after us.
Or perhaps they don’t think I should be listening to Olly Murs.
Recently when I’ve watched my sons go about their business, I’ve wondered what aspects of their personality and behaviour I have foisted on them. Both through my genes but also the traits they’ve picked up from me hanging together over the last few years. I’m not interested enough to conduct any scholarly research, but what started me ruminating is a physical quirk that the Major exhibits that is an exact replica of something I regularly performed in my younger days.
This extravagant tic happens as a result of a sudden exhilaration, an onrush of adrenaline. It includes some relatively standard jumping on the spot, perhaps a slight bow forward and a furious waggle of both hands effected by a rapid breaking of the wrists. That doesn’t adequately describe the absurd scale of the manoeuvre, so here is some grainy CCTV footage of a little me at the start line of my school sports day.
My mum called it a ‘jiffle’. For a long time I thought that my mum had invented this term. It’s actually an old Norfolk dialect word that refers to rushes swaying in the breeze, but has evolved to a more general meaning of moving restlessly or fidgeting. I was disappointed when I found out that my mum couldn’t lay claim to its creation. A bit like when I discovered she made her sloe gin just by putting sloe berries in some gin. I’d previously thought she’d somehow distilled the gin herself using fermented sloes, perhaps in some secret gin-laboratory under the gazebo.
The sports day footage was from my golden age of jiffling. I was a keen jiffler in this period. I continued to jiffle even through to adulthood. I’ve managed to restrain the loopiest elements of the jiffle now, the excessive hand-waving and the frantic jumping. I can now direct my excited energy into a less conspicuous action: walking. I’ve had friends report their bewilderment as I’ve randomly sped off down the pavement during a stroll together.
So I don’t believe that the Major has inherited the jiffle from observing me. I can only think that I have bequeathed the jiffle biologically. I am aware that there are scores of children who jiggle and twiddle dementedly, but there is something so hauntingly reminiscent about the Major’s execution it sets me speculating.
Is the jiffle embedded in my genetic code? Are the actual strands of my DNA jiffling themselves? Or is the replica jiffle a product of the anatomical similarities between the Major and me? As with all my parenting quandaries, I don’t know the answer. But it’s making me want to jiffle just thinking about it.
The time has come to select our preferred primary school for the Major. I have dreaded this decision for some time and there are three reasons why. Firstly and fundamentally because I have a heavy sense that for the first time we are allowing him out of our grasp a little.
The Spartans of ancient Greece sent their children to military school aged six, where their teachers prepared them for the basic shitness of life by not feeding or clothing them. The children were encouraged instead to steal their essentials, but were also beaten if they were caught.
The Spartan education authority was clearly run by fucking wallies and bears no comparison to today, but I am weighed down by the feeling that we are now lashing the Major to life’s mast to be bashed by the winds and rains of human existence. Left to face real issues like being misunderstood or underestimated by your seniors or being ostracised by your peers.
Secondly because I am nervous that a misstep in our decision-making here has a serious material effect on the Major’s happiness. I have been told that we should listen to our gut when evaluating schools. But my gut has only really contacted me when I’ve put too much rich food in it. We’ve never discussed education. And so I don’t trust it as an advisor.
I have therefore composed my thoughts on our choices based on two factors: proximity and Ofsted findings. We are very fortunate that our closest school has been given the thumbs-up from the Ofsted bods. So in truth I had already made my mind up before we visited, although my wife still wanted her gut to have a look around.
I was impressed immediately, largely by the vivid gallery of art on the walls and the ginormous flat-screen television fixed to the wall of the school-hall. It’s this kind of stupid detail that influences me. My own primary education does not form a satisfactory basis for comparison. The first school I went to consisted of 23 pupils in one room, overseen by a headmaster who later turned out to be a paedophile. The school closed down with a year of me being there.
The third and most feared reason is that our choice may not be a choice at all, given that we are beholden to the swelling and shrinking of the school catchment area. Sometimes it feels like we’re tying the Major’s name to a balloon, releasing it and educating him wherever it drifts off to. We don’t know what will happen. There is no red dotted line on the pavement to denote the catchment area.
We’ve heard the stories. The families that have tried to game the system by renting near the school only to find that the catchment area has ebbed away from them like the tide. The sad people who moved to the road adjoining the back of their preferred school only to find that the centre of the catchment area was measured from the school gates at the front, and they were cast out. Or the bizarre influx of twins in one year that froze anyone else outside of spitting distance of the school.
Oh I don’t know. All we can really do is to be a robust mast and make sure we’ve lashed the Major tightly to us.
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?
So far I’ve come up with ‘red-nosed prick’.
Happy Christmas everyone x.
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.
I recently said goodbye to my sons’ highchair with a tinge of genuine sadness. Its passing marks the end of an enjoyable era during which it has been a constant dependable presence in our house. It has no decorative features, no cute furnishing and it has offered our family quiet, uncomplaining service like a reserved Edwardian butler. I probably shouldn’t be so maudlin over a plastic item bought for £12 from IKEA, but it has provided a safe haven for my children for the past four years.
In truth by the end it wasn’t a chair at all, more a high-diving platform for the Minor, scrambling out of his seat. And so it was forced into retirement. I wiped off the last of felt-tip graffiti from its back, dismembered it and stored in the loft for use by some unborn niece or nephew. I know that there’ll be other comrades that fall along the way, but not many that I cherish as much as the chair. In fact there are some bits of parenting paraphernalia that I’ll be very glad to be rid of.
Very obviously I long for the day that nappies are not required. We flirted for a while with a specially-designed nappy bin. When I say ‘flirted’ I mean we used one for a bit, we didn’t ask it if it had done something different with its hair and buy it a Crunchie. But the bin became a source of great horror to me, knowing the evil that was building up within. When it came to opening it there was always a fear that the wafting fumes would melt my face like the Nazi shits at the end of Indiana Jones. The internal mechanism creates a chain of soiled nappies, the inspiration for which may have been a sausage. A sausage is also full of crap coincidentally.
I’ve also had some run-ins with bottles over the years. There’s a make of bottle with a teat apparently formed like a lady’s nipple, to simulate the mother’s breast and put the baby at ease. Now I’ve seen a lot of nipples in my time (mainly on the internet) and I’ve never seen one shaped like this. I am irritated by this teat because it only works one way up, so when my son and I are flailing about in the pitch black of night then he can waste hours of valuable sleep-time slurping away fruitlessly.
There’s another manufactured by a company called Avent that includes an inner ring sat between the bottle and the teat. I Avent a clue what purpose this ring serves (sorry that should have come with a warning), but without it the bottle is rendered useless, except for creating a vicious milk-tsunami into my son’s face. You wouldn’t get that with an IKEA highchair.