Godstone Farm: Getting More Than You Bargained For

 

I grew up surrounded by farmland which was mildly idyllic, although now I associate farms and farmers with a chronic intolerance of trespassers, putting stray kittens in bins and being simultaneously rich and miserable. This has not been passed onto the Major because pretty much ever since he’s been able to point at something and squawk he’s been fascinated by farms. When I say farm I mean livestock and not arable. He’s not well into barley for instance.

We are fortunate as we live near one called Godstone Farm where you are invited to watch, feed and interact with the animals. It’s the very place if you’ve always yearned to interact with a terrapin.

Godstone Farm is gigantic and the best thing about it is that it feels like a farm would be if it had been designed by a child. So along with all your industry-standard farm animals there’s an entire section inhabited by dinosaurs. I should clarify that the dinosaurs are synthetic. One of them does growl as you walk past, although it is standing suspiciously close to a speaker system. There are also two vast Saharan sand pits, a barn housing only slides and an entire silo full of jelly beans. Okay, there are no jelly beans. Or a silo.

There are some things you should know about Godstone if you are thinking of a visit. Firstly due to a strategic oversight the goats have been installed next to the entrance. I doubt that their cleansing routine is any less enthusiastic than its neighbours but the odour they emit is worse than the vague smell of manure everywhere else. It hits you in the nose and the eyes and mouth as soon as you’ve negotiated the ticket office. But just get your head down, walk on and soon there will be sweet-smelling turkeys.

If you’re a big fan of cows you may be disappointed. There are two token cows here. But there are pigs everywhere. The reason for this is evident. In my experience pigs are friskiest of all the farm beasts. My family and I once witnessed this at close quarters when two of them went for it big-style recently. While other parents ushered their children away, my wife and I stood transfixed as the couple embarked on a brutal but impressive routine during which the man-pig sniffed his mate from behind, bit her in the udders and then mounted her in the most punishing way imaginable. The results of this kind of action are all over the farm and they are genuinely adorable.

Godstone Farm has a solid selection of poultry. I continue to be impressed by the ducks here. They can walk, swim and fly but don’t make a massive fuss about it, getting all up in your grill like the geese sometimes do. There are also more leftfield animals, by which I mean not traditionally farm animals as opposed to animals standing in a field in the left. Chipmunks, tarantulas, ferrets, and a gecko called Erica.

So for us, and our growing family of farm-obsessives Godstone Farm is a godsend. And we will continue to visit until our boys become interested in something else. Like barley for instance.

Why Play-Doh is Like Kryptonite to Me

 

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.

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.

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

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).

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.

The Five Big Beasts of the Playground Ranked in Order of Fun

 

I find playgrounds intimidating. They seem to bring into focus all my physical inadequacies as a parent. There are other strong, confident dads swinging gracefully through the monkey bars with a toddler under one arm, probably freestyling a rap about the size of their love for them. There are OAPs leaping off whizzing roundabouts, scooping up their grandchildren and hoisting them up round their necks in one athletic movement. I once saw my own pensionable father slip majestically down a pole from the top of a wooden rampart before flinching at the same prospect myself and scrambling down the nearest ladder of shame.

I also have a sense of the playground being a little patch of the actual world and the need to protect my sons from it. From the aggressively friendly children, scooting around with total disregard of playground convention. Standing dementedly on the seats of swings, crawling up slides. And covens of older kids gathered under the ramparts of the climbing fort, loudly listing all the sex acts they’ve ever heard of. And the dogs. I once saw the Major sprint off in terror when he spotted a cocker spaniel puppy benignly trotting towards him with intentions probably no more violent than sniffing his bum. Perhaps he wanted to check his nappy, like an oddly invasive Lassie.

I’ve been to a number of playgrounds and to stave off my neuroses I’ve identified the areas which offer the best and worst opportunities for fun whilst avoiding potential humiliation or injury. I’ve enthusiastically ranked these, beginning with my preferred choice:

No.1 – In terms of the ratio of infantile enjoyment to adult effort the swing is the probably the most effective means of entertaining the boys that I’ve found. Once I’ve worked up a solid rhythm in the swing I find that just a light one-handed push to the centre of the back can send the Major or Minor soaring off on a lovely carefree arc and give them the sensation of flying like a canary on a bungee. It also leaves a hand free to look at sport on my phone.

No.2 – The Major enjoys a roundabout and seems to possess the stamina of a NASA cadet when subjected to the impressive amount of G-forces I’m able to generate in spinning him. Issues arise however when he requests my presence on it I can’t hack it and have to stop after literally seconds. Otherwise it’s off to a quiet corner of the playground to put my hands on my knees and spit queasily into some thistles.

No.3 – If I was to describe a slide as gravity-defying it would make it sound thrilling but I’ve watched on countless times as the Major has sat motionless and confused at the top as the expected plunge hasn’t materialised. We don’t need a bobsleigh run we just want basic laws of physics adhered to. If Isaac Newton had sat at the bottom of a playground slide and not under an apple tree then we’d all still probably be groping around wondering what was stopping us floating off into the stratosphere. And he’d be on a register.

No.4 = The see-saw necessarily requires a two-man workforce. Due to a mismatch in weight between the Major and me we quite often arrive at a situation where he is basically just sat at the end of a stationary plank of wood. At the other end I have had to form my long legs into a sort of M-shape which is stretching unpleasantly at my undercarriage. If we approach this process with any more energy there is a real danger that my bulk may catapult the Major through the air.

No.5 – The zip wire or flying fox is a relative newcomer to the playground. When I was small they could only be found in woods surrounding National Trust properties. It was what turned a mere playground into an adventure playground. Until very recently the Major was unable to operate these alone and I was obliged to gather him up and board the mechanism together. This meant that I had to straddle the dangly down bit which immediately moved forcibly towards the top of my crotch when it squashed unnervingly up against other dangly down bits it met there. It’s also really difficult to dismount due to the lack of anything to get purchase on and the gravitational forces acting against us (where were you on the slide?). We normally have to rely on a kindly gran to scoop up the Major and remind him that physical co-ordination does exist in at least some humans.

Mummuddlingthrough

Gas and Air and Haribo: A Dad in Labour

 

Witnessing the birth of my children as a father was an odd experience in some ways. It’s the most momentous, brilliant thing that will ever happen to me but at the same time it wasn’t about me at all. It was about my wife and the medical team assigned to extract the peculiar little creatures living within her. I was a minor character in the action, an extra loitering at the back of set. Albeit with a small cameo towards the end.

My wife had issued me with the remit to sit quietly and only speak was I spoken to, like a Victorian child. This chimed with my passive, reactive nature so throughout both labours I squirreled myself away in a corner with a multipack of salt and vinegar Hula-Hoops, playing puerile games on my phone and awaiting any instructions.

Unaccountably both my sons were reluctant to come out and meet us and had to be induced. There was no high-octane dash to the hospital on either occasion, just a measured journey to be admitted to the induction ward.

The induction ward is what I would guess an olden-days military field hospital was like. On the induction ward you are never more than a yard away than a woman beginning to experience what I imagine is the acute sensation of having her undercarriage dismantled from within. Most mothers-to-be at least suffer these early ravages in the privacy of her own homes, but during induction only a thin vinyl curtain separates them from a strange man awkwardly immersing himself into a mobile version of The Sims. Naturally I felt that my presence on those wards was intrusive.

During our second trip to the induction ward, there seemed to be urgent demand for Entonox, or gas and air. Unfortunately it was only available in one canister which had to be passed around the ward via a nurse like a suspicious cigarette at a student party. My wife’s pain was exacerbated by an ovarian cyst, a situation noted by a kindly midwife who ushered us discreetly through to an unused ward to provide my wife her own space and crucially her own drug supply.

Midwives are among the best people I’ve met. The ones I’ve worked with most effectively are able to adapt to each delicate situation by either offering sweet reassurance or a full and frank slap in the face. Like a good cop and a bad cop in the same well-pressed uniform, a person who might greet you with a lovely warm meaningful hug but then punch you in the tit for not hugging hard enough.

I am convinced that the addition of a few Haribo Tangfastics rendered the gas and air more powerful that night. During the first birth, my wife inhaled a small cloud of the stuff but described the feeling as ‘being a bit pissed’ but with no reduction in pain. Another unforeseen side effect was a bizarre misplaced paranoia that she sounded like the American drag artist RuPaul. This lead to a temporary obsession with RuPaul and his career.

The disappointing impact of the Entonox on that occasion was partly the reason that my wife decided to have an epidural. She viewed this as some kind of failure, but she was the only person in the room that thought this and we all gave her our fulsome support. We were also a bit tired of RuPaul.

The epidural was left in the needle second time round and the delivery team explained that the option of a water birth was available. I’ve heard stories about dads stripping off and getting in the tub with the mums or being equipped with a net to fish poo out like the worst fairground game ever. But my responsibility was to remain outside and hold my wife’s head so as to prevent her plunging underneath the water as she pushed, thus avoiding an impromptu witch-trial.

Before the first birth I had resolved that during the final pushes I would station myself close to my wife’s head and away from the business end. But when it came to it I was magnetised towards that area, until I my face was only a yard or so away from the action. What I witnessed there was like the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen. More specifically being taken step by visceral step through the greatest magic trick and still having no clue how it was achieved. The miracle of childbirth may be a cliché, but it’s definitely true.

Seriously. When Does This Parenting Lark Become Less Difficult?

 

When I was told that the second child would be easier I thought that this meant that everything would be easier. I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen. Perhaps that the Major would start looking after Minor, preparing him meals in his tiny Ikea kitchen and clambering up inside his cot in the middle of the night to stop him crying. In reality their relationship mainly involves them gently head-butting each other like a couple of very adorable rutting stags.

Bless their little cottons..
Bless their little cottons.

The Minor wakes up around six o’clock with a plump nappy the weight of a house brick. Once changed he sets about his daily business, which is normally compiling a kind of stuntman’s show-reel that includes exploring the inside of dishwashers and standing up precariously on the seat of his high-chair. He also likes to put various bits of household debris in his mouth like a particularly gnarly Jackass-style jape.

The Major gets up a few minutes after his brother. He is naturally more considered but is prone to occasional meltdowns. Each day he requires to be provided with a roster of about 400 activities which occupy him for about ten minutes at a time. Most of these will inevitably at some point compel the Major to drop the same bits of household debris that the Minor puts in his mouth. Both my sons regard the floors of their house as an extended network of toy storage, rubbish dumps and in the case of the Minor, dinner plates.

At night the Minor wakes periodically. For some reason we have been unable to fathom, he’s normally in a rage. Fortunately his tears don’t rouse his brother, who is busy coughing into the back of the head of whichever parent hasn’t left the bed to pacify the Minor. Both boys are rich in snot deposits.

It has occurred to me that we might be approaching a tipping point beyond which parenting will become easier. In a year or two there will be no nappies or bottles. The boys will be able to entertain each other, engaging in wholesome games of Ludo or Monopoly or all-in wrestling. They might decide to sit down and watch sport with me. The Minor won’t require a security detail stationed permanently a yard away. And fundamentally we will get our sleep back. Perhaps they’d even grasp the concept of a lie-in or at least learn to make their own porridge.

But I’ve asked around older parents and a consensus has formed that children might start becoming reluctant to get out of bed in the morning at around ten or eleven years old. This is a phenomenally tiring thought. I have now written off the next ten years as a long bleary-eyed descent into chaos, a continuous massive bundle, a decade-long Royal Rumble in which I am spectator, referee and participant.

After this I’ve envisaged a period of relative calm during the boys’ adolescence. Based on my experience as a teenager, we will probably be marginalised as parents only being communicated with through a sequence of grunts and farts. Peace may break out in the house.

When I asked my mother-in-law the question about when life got easier as a parent she blew her cheeks out as if to say that even after thirty years the experience was increasingly challenging. In fairness it probably will do when your grandchildren are plopped on your doorstep three times a week. Her point was that looking after your children is harder when you can’t look after them; when they’ve escaped your fretful grasp and headed to the park, the bowling alley, the pub, the nightclub. When they’ve gone to Magaluf.

By this stage we’ll obviously be dabbing nostalgic tears from our eyes, longing for the times that our sons slept with their heads jammed into our necks or lovingly gripped our calves. Or spoke to us.

Of course the moral of all this is that there is no sense in trying to guess when it all becomes easier or tougher. Just get the fuck on with it. Adopt the brace position for the bombardment of shits (or when they’re being shits) and enjoy the ongoing assortment of deep diverse giggles.

Soft Play can be Really Really Hard Play for some Parents

 

When I was a boy I was taken to Yorkshire and forced down a hole in the ground in the name of boy-scouting. At the bottom of this hole was a network of smaller holes some of which were being rapidly filled with gushing dark water. I was required to crawl through these holes for a time until eventually popping up back in daylight through the same hole I’d disappeared down originally but much colder, wetter and sadder than before.

At one point we were made to inch our way on our stomachs through a clammy fissure in the limestone called the Cheesepress. It was only about six inches high so to navigate it meant we had to press our little scout noses into the rock. Further on in the complex I plunged towards a stagnant pool fortunately to be saved from drowning by a kindly hand on the hood of my cagoule.

I revisited this sense of emotional ruin recently when I was compelled into the belly of a large soft play area. I had to retrieve the Major who had become becalmed in its furthest reach, struck down by a lack of confidence in his physical capabilities. The soft play was a sprawling structure located on an industrial estate. Like most other soft plays it seems.

The ball pool is just off to the left.
The ball pool is just off to the left.

To reach the Major I had to pot-hole my way along Perspex cylinders, flopping through human mangles and avoiding the many glistering snot-trails. Once we’d been reunited at the heart of darkness the Major and I had negotiate our way back out, the only means of escape being a slide so precipitous I’d have preferred to abseil down it. On a different occasion my wife reached a velocity so great she literally burnt a hole in her sock.

I get soft play, I really do. It allows you to unleash your child into a less perilous, softer world than our own. I’d happily convert my own house into a soft play, somehow creating an entirely squidgy kitchen, with a helter-skelter slide instead of stairs and the opportunity for any member of the family to curl up for a snooze anywhere, anytime.

What really frightens me about soft play is what frightens me the most about the entire parenting experience: other people’s children. I never seen anything particularly malevolent in soft play, it’s mainly boisterous hi-jinks. But boisterous hi-jinks can sometimes resemble a kind of playful mixed martial arts. In fact with all its netting, soft play is probably the genesis of cage-fighting.

I once watched as the Major struggled to ascend the face of a large cushion until another boy comradely winched him up by his arms, basically dislocating his shoulders in the process. I did not intervene, mainly because I am scared of other people’s children, and also because it would have necessitated me removing my shoes. I have a vague paranoia about the toxicity of my socks.

There are three types of soft play parents. There are those who embrace its philosophy, its capacity to swallow up your child for an hour while you remind yourself what it was like to sit down. There are some soft plays that are tacked onto pubs – they’re called things like Wonky Warehouse and House of Maim – which means that the relieved parent can submerge themselves in hard liquor.

The second type of parent willingly enters the soft play, partly in support of their child and partly because they very much enjoy cocking around in ball pools.

I am in the final band. We stand vigilantly by the sidelines, silently cursing the over-aged trespassers in the toddler section or the children dementedly walking up the slide. We adopt the classic pose of the concerned parent: one hand on the hip, the other reaching up around the neck like we’re gently throttling ourselves. We’re a bit like football physios coiled ready to tend to the injured, but without the holdalls full of smelling salts. Although that might be handy.

The last time we were at soft play, the Minor intrepidly ventured into the arena. Touchingly, Major attempted to marshal some kind of safe zone around his brother to protect him. He failed. Within minutes Minor had been inadvertently body-slammed into a crash mat by a rambunctious passer-by. And he loved it. Perhaps I should go away and sit down and drink some more liquor.