Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Universe, or at least Radio 4, Hates Me

At 5.30 the alarm goes off and I haul myself out of the deep pool of sleep in which I have been wallowing. I lie staring at the dark ceiling, stunned and then, before my eyes close again I get out of bed.

An hour later I leave the still-silent house. Helen will get the girls up and dressed and off to school before heading off to do a 12 hour shift in Glasgow which she will not get home from until after midnight.

I arrive at work at 7 and after two hours in which I get a lot done, I am smothered under a blanket of back-to-back meetings in which I feel I manage to do absolutely nothing. I try to leave work at 2.30 but my way is blocked by a queue of colleagues who want to ask me many, many questions. I try again at 2.40 and by dint of feigning ignorance of everything, I succeed.

I'm late to pick up the girls from school so I cycle like never before and arrive in the playground just as the bell rings. I am a ragged, speechless, sweating mess but I have, at least, brought chocolate hobnobs and not - shudders - oatcakes and apples. Sorrel permits me to live.

We wait for Lulu to get out at 3.20 and then I string their various bags onto my handlebars and we walk home.

When we get there they want to watch TV. I want them to do their homework. There is a brief battle of wills that I - unusually - win. I help them both with their work and then, whilst they watch telly, I cook the evening meal.

We eat together at the kitchen table and have a nice chat about their days: what lessons they had; who they played with and what games were played; who said what and to whom and why it was knicker-wettingly funny at the time.

As it's Wednesday they both have swimming lessons so they get changed out of school uniform and put swimming costumes on under their clothes. I pack knickers and towels and goggles and armbands and ear plugs and snacks into two bags and we head back to school.

I sit in the stifling environment of the high-school swimming pool for an hour and a half; showering both girls as their lessons end and then overseeing them getting dressed. Both of them have plenty of friends in their swimming classes so this bit of the evening is a bit mental. If, after a days work, you feed me a nice meal and then take me for a swim in a very warm pool, I will become drowsy and compliant. If you do the same to my children they act as though they have been mainlining sugar and yellow food colouring for the best part of the preceding 48 hours. I ponder the wisdom of the law that forbids shooting them with a tranquilliser gun.

Back at home I gently coax them down from their post-swimming high with some toast and get them ready for bed. I read them stories all curled up together on mine and Helen's bed. It's the best bit of the whole day for me.

Once they are in bed I go downstairs and clear away the tea things. The dishwasher is full of clean dishes when I come to fill it. This discovery never fails to give me a profound feeling of ennui. There should be a special word for it. I sigh heavily and empty it before refilling it again with the dirty plates.

There is a load of dry washing on the rack so I take that down and fold it and then put out the wet load that I set off this morning before leaving the house at 6.30. I put the swimming stuff in the now empty machine and set it off.

Next I make the girl's (and my) packed lunches for tomorrow. And then I clean their shoes.

Finally, I can stop. It is 10.30. I pour myself a beer before bed and switch the radio on.

I press the button and hear this: "...men don't pull their weight domestically..."

I switch it off again.

Fuck you, universe. And fuck you, Radio 4.

Monday, 18 February 2013

A Bad Start

Sorrel, who's only 5, has not been well. She's had a hacking cough and a cold for most of the half term holiday. Yesterday however she climbed Arthur's Seat.

For those of you unfamiliar with Edinburgh, we are blessed with a mountain in the centre of town. Not the one the castle sits on. A much bigger one. Arthur's Seat is an 820 ft high extinct volcano and something of a right of passage for the young citizens of Edinburgh. Either you've walked up it or you haven't.

Well, yesterday, she did.

This morning is a different matter. This morning she is tired. This morning is the first day back at school after a week off. This morning she will have her revenge.

Helen is working an overnight shift tonight (starts at 10pm...finishes at 10am) so she needs to lie in. It's up to me, then, to get the girls up and dressed. Sorrel has trotted through and climbed into our bed in the middle of the night. She does not want to get up.

"Uh!" she grunts at me. "UH!"

Lulu in contrast is sitting up in her own bed reading.

"Can I just finish my chapter, Daddy? I'll get dressed and come downstairs after."

Well OK... I go back to Sorrel. "Come on Sweetie. Leave Mummy to sleep for a bit."

She glares at me. "Where are my SLIPPERS???"

"I expect they're downstairs."




"Um. No. Not if you're going to speak to me like that. Now why don't you come and get dressed?"

"No! I want to go downstairs first!!!"

"Well, come downstairs and you can get your slippers when you're down there"


We go downstairs. She curls up in an armchair in the corner of the kitchen.

"I'll go and get you some clothes," I say gently.


I sigh. "OK. What would you like?"


I explain that we have 45 minutes in which she has to get dressed, have breakfast and have her hair and teeth brushed. At this point Lulu arrives in the kitchen, dressed and smiling. She asks for some toast.

"Would you like some toast, Soz?" I ask as I pop a slice in the toaster.

She sighs the sigh of a labourer who has been heaving a vast sack of despair up a ladder only to find there is nowhere to put it when he reaches the top.

" I hate toast," she informs the world in general.

"How about some bread and jam?" I suggest, astonished at the deep well of patience I am currently tapping.

"OOOOHHHHH!" she groans as if longing for the day that I would grow old and die, finally brining an end to this incessant round of ludicrous questions. "Is there ANY strawberry?" she growls in the tone of one who knows the person she is speaking to is an utter cretin who can't keep strawberry jam in the house to save his idiotic, miserable life.  And on learning that there is, "OK. Bread and jam then. But NO BUTTER!!!"

A moment later I place a slice of bread and strawberry jam on the table. She drags herself out of the armchair and over to the table. She hauls herself onto the chair. She stares, incredulous, at the plate in front of her.

"Where's my TOAST!!!???"

The rest of the morning is not much better. She cries when I suggest she wears her new boots ("They're too bummfully") and then cries for them when I appear with her shoes. ( "Oh no! NOT my shoes!") She complains, loudly, that the clothes I have fetched from upstairs have not been warmed on the radiator. She screams, punching my leg repeatedly, as I very gently brush her hair.

She weeps bitter tears of frustration when she realises that this morning, as every morning, we'll be walking to school. ("What's the point of having a car if we never use the car?!?!?!).

It's frosty outside so I insist on gloves being worn ("Gloves??? NOT gloves!!!! Waaaaaaaaaahhh!!!")


When Helen picks her up later she cries and moans all the way home but insists on going the long way round because she knows it's shorter. Even though she needs a wee. And it isn't.

By the time I arrive home at six she's wrapped herself in a blanket and gone to sleep without eating any tea.

To the doctor's tomorrow, I think....

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Temper, Temper

In what is possibly his most famous poem, Philip Larkin wrote...

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had 
And add some extra, just for you.

I've thought about these words often since becoming a father. I think my job is to not let this happen but then real life intervenes and my best intentions are steamrollered by the heat of the moment.

Before you read on, please be assured that this is not some startling revelation that will have you dialling Childline. Just a somewhat banal snapshot of family life that I'm sure most of you will recognise.

Last night was Halloween. As we do every year, one of us takes the girls out guising whilst the other waits in for the doorbell to ring so as to be regaled with awful songs and even worse jokes. (Just an aside for any non-Scots. We don't do trick-or-treat. We have a much older tradition where the kids all dress up and go round the neighbourhood knocking on doors and doing "turns" in exchange for sweets or nuts or fruit or, sometimes, cash! If you don't want to be visited, you don't put a jack o' lantern out.) The girls came back with bulging sacks of loot. Most of it made of sugar. There were cakes, hundreds of sweets and a couple of huge, nasty-looking iced biscuits. One of our friends had given them each a home made toffee apple.

These toffee apples were the cause of a family-wide disagreement this evening in which an idle comment made by Helen had been taken and lovingly nurtured by Lulu. She had cared for the comment, watered it, fed it and kept it warm until it had finally grown into a magnificent sweeping

The Promise was along the lines of agreeing that she could eat her toffee apple after school. Of course when it had been uttered the utterer was not remembering that Lulu was going to friend's house for tea and would only be coming home just before bed time.

Whilst I drove her home, I had the Promise explained to me. Frankly I can't be arsed with toffee apples so I am unaware that they take about ten hours to eat. And anyway Helen had promised so of course I agreed that she could have it.

When we get home Sorrel is dancing to music. She dances with all the grace of a table falling down a concrete stairwell. Lulu, however, decided that this looked like an excellent game and joined in. Although she embellished the game by insisting that she don her leotard and dancing shoes. Whereupon Sorrel burst into tears and insisted that she too should be thus accoutred.

I, meanwhile, am running a bath and declaring that, once it's full they must come and get into it.

The toffee apple is forgotten. Dancing is go!

The problem, however is that dancing takes time to do. Eating a toffee apple also takes time to do. There really isn't that much time. The supplementary problem is that, having had one nice thing (tea at a friend's house) Lulu has managed to wangle two more treats. A tertiary problem is also floating around: namely that Helen is working overnight and has to leave at 8.30. Deadline.

We have to get them into the bath and then to bed.

What happens next in terms of the order of events and the precise way in which things unravel is unclear. There is some business that features me the key thrust of which is the sudden and irritable withdrawal of the toffee apple and the end of the dancing. Both of the children take my lead, skip any sort of incremental build up and become hysterical. We respond in kind with raised voices. I am issuing stentorian threats that sound like an angry, panicky foghorn that is about to flush bags of sweets down the toilet. Words like "last chance" and "unacceptable behaviour" and "disgraceful display" pepper the air.

The girls are beyond upset. They are keening like a pair of wet-faced banshees. Helen, to her credit, reins herself in first. I retreat downstairs where I quickly feel the hot flush of guilt at how badly I have handled things.

Here's the thing. I have a temper and my temper is profoundly bound up with the depression that I have suffered with for most of my life. I would like - as far as I am able - to spare my daughters from being the sort of person I am, in this respect at least. But Larkin is right. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we show the worst of ourselves and demonstrate behaviour to our children that is not the behaviour we would wish to see from them. That we do it because we have failed to teach them, in this instance, that plans change and that we as adults are sometimes fallible is so ironic as to be almost funny...were it not so bloody sad.

Ultimately we are not just rearing our kids. We are also struggling to rear ourselves. And I know what I'd like to be when I grow up: calmer.

(Things were not left like this. We all calmed down and big cuddles were had before stories were read and we tucked them up in bed. I've just looked in on them and their smooth, untroubled faces as they sleep leave me hopeful that I may not have entirely ruined their childhoods. Yet.)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

20 Rules: The Important Stuff I Want My Kids To Know.

On Sunday, when Helen was at work, Lulu, Sorrel, and I were hanging about the house. I was reading in a desultory manner and they were playing one of those elaborate games that kids play that seem to consist more of them explaining the scenario and rules to each other than actual play. Often these games break down when a dispute arises over who's going to be which imaginary character or whether there's a baby in the game or not.

On this occasion, however, they just segued into being silly. Sorrel has a nice line in surreal humour and a gift for the ridiculous bon mot. Lulu's humour is more character based. She does accents and impressions. On this occasion she was Prince Charles trying to sell some plaice to Sorrel's imaginary friend Scravvels (who's a ladybird). You had to be there. We all ended up - well I did - with tears streaming down our faces from laughing so much.

When we'd calmed down there was a brief rare moment of stillness when we were all sat together on the sofa.

"Listen," I said, "I want you to remember this. And I want you to remember what I'm about to say because it's important."

They looked at me with big serious eyes. One pair palest of pale blue, the other golden-green.

"Never forget how to be silly," I said, "It's a rule I want you to try and stick to."

I don't know if they'll remember or, indeed, if they took me seriously at all. But it set me thinking about the rules for living that I'd like them to abide by.

I've been mulling them over but they weren't hard to to write down. So, here they are, in no particular order, 20 rules for living. The sum total of my accumulated wisdom.

1. Be kind

2. Violence is to be abhorred. If you are forced to use it by circumstances beyond your control make sure you win.

3. Boys are NOT more important or better than girls in anything. The boys who don't know this are not worth bothering with.

4. Never forget how to be silly. It doesn't do to take yourself too seriously.

5. You're lovely. Make sure you believe it and understand why. It's a lot easier to like others if you like yourself.

6. Try to remember for later what it was like to be you, now.

7. Always carry a handkerchief and a penknife.

8. Try to see yourself from the point of view of others. If you find you act like an arse make adjustments.

9. Don't be cynical. It's lazy.

10. Like everyone but be careful who you trust.

11. Don't bother hating people. Why expend the energy on them?

12. Don't lie. There's less to remember if you stick to the truth.

13. Don't waste time moaning about stuff you can't affect. Do something about the stuff you can change. There's more of the latter than you think.

14. Forgive. But don't necessarily forget.

15. Be brave. Be loyal. Be fair.

16. Never stop learning.

17. Never stop playing.

18. Treat everyone with respect. Earn it back.

19. Most things are more important than money. Nothing is more important than love.

20. Don't be disappointed by people. You're an arsehole too sometimes.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Bathtimes of Despair

All the books and articles you read about parenthood tell you that you should treasure every moment because it will pass so quickly. Or they describe with glum pleasure the horrors of sleep deprivation and having no social life. Neither of these views is realistic of course. Most people find it to be a generally agreeable experience with interludes of hilarious delight or utter despair.

Me, I'm prone to despair. I have a depressive streak running through me like the writing in a stick of rock. If you snapped me in half - something, on occasions, I might beg you to do - it would read, "kill me quick." I try, however, be a good, funny, attentive and kind Dad but on occasions my alter ego - a character I like to refer to as Flashpoint Charlie emerges, raging. Bedtime is one of the occasions that he appears.

Tired children, at the end of a long day, just need to be fed, bathed and poured into bed. 


Well actually, no. For inexplicable reasons the feeding and bathing seems to revive them to a state so far past awake that you couldn't see awake if you looked at where it used to be through the Hubble space telescope. A state akin to passing a low electric current through a box of bees. It is when they are in this state - when, conversely, I am very tired and grumpy - that they like to hide. 

Let's get something straight: they're shit at hiding. Mostly they hide under the bed covers...or the bed itself and then giggle loudly and uncontrollably. As I write this it all sounds rather sweet and endearing. But it's not. all I want to do is to have calm children who will consent to have their teeth brushed and then settle down to have some stories read to them. What I get is a squirming, uncooperative mess of girl limbs that is incapable of doing what it's told. 

The blue touchpaper is lit for me by hearing them whisper, "Hide!" conspiratorially to each other. Sometimes they try to hide when they are in the bath. Mind you I once overheard them playing hide and seek together whilst in the bath so, for them, anything is possible. 

This is often the point at which Flashpoint Charlie emerges incoherent with exasperation. His hallmark parenting technique is a sort of passive/aggressive rage that teaches the kids nothing except that it's OK to shout and that their Dad's a prat. 

However, on most occasions I try to keep Charlie in check. I do this by a following a series of rituals that I have evolved over several years. 

The first is making them jump. 

By a happy accident our house is constructed in such a way that the bathroom comes off a small landing just at the top of the stairs. This gives it a higher ceiling than all the other upstairs rooms so that the cold water tank can be accommodated. It also means that you can climb the stairs without being seen and then, if you lie down on your stomach on the landing you can wriggle into the bathroom undetected by the person or persons in the bath. This enables you to either spring up like a jack-in-the-box or pretend to have climbed up as though the bath were perched atop a high pinnacle...and to fall down again.

Once in the bathroom we can engage in a game of "Buttons, Butterflies or Bees" in which I adopt the persona of a homely Lancastrian woman who is uncommonly interested in their preferences from the short and bizarre series of choices she offers them. "So, loveys, which do you like best: hay, straw...or fish? Hands, feet...or spam?"

Finally, it's time to get out of the bath. They hate this and will do almost anything to prolong bathtime. Even when the water has gone cold. For months this was a major flashpoint that would end in tantrums and hysterics on their part and shouting on mine. 

Once, with an utterly appalling lack of judgment and at a point of deep despair I said to them, "If you don't get out of the bath right now.....I'll die!" It felt to me as though it would be a blessed relief - at least I'd get to lie down somewhere quiet. To her great credit Lulu retorted, in a tone that was terrifyingly reminiscent of her mother, " Don't be ridiculous. You're not going to die if we don't get out of the bath!" I was forced to concede that it was ridiculous and, thankfully, normal service was restored.

Shortly after that I hit on a discovery. If I could get them to stand up I could simply lift them out of the bath, wrap them in their towels and no fuss would be made. I tried a variety of means to trick them onto their feet until I found one that worked. It required a bit of training and some occasional elaboration but it still serves nearly 18 months after I invented it. 

What I do is this. Whilst they are in the bath I usually sit on the toilet lid and chat to them. When I think they've been in for long enough, I spring to my feet and shout, " I AM SPARTACUS!" Whereupon they spring to their feet and shout, "NO! I'M SPARTACUS!" and I lift them out of the bath. 


Of course what wasn't simple was explaining slavery and the slave revolt to a four year old and a six year old. But that's for another time.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

I've got a bike you can ride it if you like...

Here's the news: two weeks ago Lulu learnt to ride a bike. It's a milestone in any child's life and ranks alongside first words, first steps and learning to read as one of the key achievements of childhood.

It's been a bit of a long haul to be honest. Both Helen and I use bikes to get about all the time. But Lulu, despite showing early promise, has been a reluctant cyclist.

She started well. We got her a balance bike when she was two. It was a wooden two-wheeled affair that looked like a it had been bike-jacked from a midget Victorian gentleman flower-seller. She loved her balance bike and would race off on it lifting both feet off the ground to coast on two wheels down startlingly steep hills.

When she was three we bought her a proper bike. The advice was, given her excellent use of the balance bike, to not bother with stabilisers because she'd not want or need them.

People who say things like this don't have children. Well, they don't have my children anyway. Lulu is susceptible to peer pressure and at the time time of the arrival of her lovely new pink bike she had a best friend who lived a few doors down who did have stabilisers. So she insisted on having them too.

Of course the friend did away with hers about 6 weeks later whilst Lulu found the weird jolting, rocking experience delivered by stabilisers utterly terrifying and became convinced that if she stopped using them she would FALL OFF. Which, clearly, would hurt.

The upshot was that from the age of three to the age of seven she could barely sit on a bike without weeping fearfully, mourning in advance all the skin that she would scrape off when I allowed the bike to VICIOUSLY THROW HER TO THE TARMAC.

We came to the stage where she would set up a lose/lose conversation that went along these lines:
She: (tearfully) Everyone in my class at school can ride a bike except me!
Me: (Really gently) Well why don't you learn? I'll help you.
She: (appalled and angry) NO! I HATE MY BIKE!! BIKES ARE STUPID!!
She: everyone in my class can ride a bike except me....

At which point I would beat myself insensible with a track pump.

Finally Helen took it upon herself to teach her. In a display of patience that convinced me that she must have been self medicating with powerful tranquillisers she cajoled and coaxed our daughter back into the saddle. And eventually, a little at a time she managed to get Lulu to cycle a few yards by herself.

I joined in and we got her to cycle between the two of us steadily increasing the distance.

We made no fuss about it and didn't scold when the session might last only a few minutes.

Then, one day, I suggested that we took the bike to the park. She agreed but insisted that I had to wheel it all the way there. We arrived and she managed a few small trips between Helen and me as before.

"Why don't you try going a bit further," I said. "I'll run alongside you just in case."

So I started off holding onto the back of her seat for a few yards and then I let go. I ran alongside her. "You're doing it," I told her, "You're doing really well."

She rode for 10 seconds. 15 and then 20 seconds. And then after half a minute she put the brakes on, coasted gracefully to a halt, dismounted, let the bike fall to the floor.

"That was really weird," she declared firmly. "I am NOT doing THAT again."

She has not ridden since.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Party, Party, Party

It's the first birthday of this blog and I've astonished myself by still being here. A year ago today I felt compelled to write a warning to myself and others about the risks of holding your child's birthday party in your own home.

At the time I feared that my sentimental attachment to my children would lead me into repeating my foolhardy mistake. But no. My lovely wife is made of sterner stuff and this year we held Lulu's seventh birthday party at a trampoline centre.

It's an industrial party machine that most parents claimed never to have been to, but on arrival several suddenly recalled having parties there themselves 30 years ago. So these people are experts. Although the jukebox in the trampoline room was decidedly odd. I was trying to imagine the children's party at which it was appropriate to play the first Portishead album or indeed anything by Leftfield.

However, it was all fine. We under catered on purpose. Largely because I object to having tiny sandwiches for tea for most of the following week. We used paper plates so we could just clear up into bin bags and not have to wash up. We didn't plan any games, we just left them to bounce for an hour. Then we fed them and afterwards were driven out as the staff pointedly swept the floor around us. MUCH better than last year.

Lulu particularly impressed me by staying calm and not wigging out about having to wait until we got home to open her presents. She also made a point of speaking to everyone there and if anyone seemed to be getting left out of the games she went and got them and gently persuaded them to join in.

She was charming.

And when present-opening time finally did arrive it was Sorrel's turn to impress by showing interest in what had been received but not weeping at the injustice of receiving nothing herself - something she's done a lot of recently.

Helen was working on the following day and each of the girls had another party to go to. Naturally they were on opposite sides of the town and at slightly different but overlapping times.

So Lulu was collected by some friends whose daughter was going to the same party and we arranged that I would pick her up from them after the party Sorrel was attending

In the car on the way back from Lulu's friend's house the girls compare party bags. Lulu expresses disappointment that Sorrel has cake whilst she does not.

"That's OK Lulu," says her sister, "You can have it."

If that's not surprising enough then when they get home they agree to tip the contents of their respective bags onto the table and share everything out equally.

I'm stunned, but delighted by this display of mutual generosity.  Everything goes into the sweetie jar and we agree on what can be eaten now. A small packet of sweets each. They go off to play. When they leave the room I find in my pocket a further packet of sweets that Sorrel had won in pass-the-parcel. I place it on the kitchen counter.

About ten minutes later it has gone.

"Girls!" I call, "Where is the packet of sweets that was on the counter?"

They make the most hopeless display of innocence I've ever seen. Over-protesting their ignorance of the packet of Gold Bears (I hadn't named the sweets); failing to meet my eye; trying really hard not to smile; Sorrel forgetting to wipe away the one sweet that had inexplicably stuck to her face.

"I want those sweets back here by the time I count to ten", I say. "ONE...."

Lulu's shoulders slump. "We can't," she sighs, "We ate them." And then brightening, "It was Sorrel's idea!"

Sorrel bursts into tears, goes over to the bin, gets out the empty sweetie wrapper and brings it to me, her head hung in shame as her tears drip onto the floor.

I explain, in a very serious tone, how disappointed I am in them both and how unacceptable it is to take things without asking. It's also unnecessary: I almost certainly would have given them the sweets if they'd asked.

Sorrel is very contrite. But Lulu makes one last stab at deflecting the bad feelings overwhelming her.

"WELL, IT'S YOUR FAULT!" She yells in my face.

I pick her up and carry her into the sitting room and close the door - just as I remember my father doing to me if my behaviour ever crossed the line.

"You are seven," I tell her, "That's old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. And what you have done is clearly wrong. I don't care whose fault you think it is. You know you've done the wrong thing and I want you to apologise for it."

Her face crumples as she realises that I am not only right but also that I obviously still love her regardless. She flings her arms around me and buries her head in my shoulder and sobs her "Sorries" into my now soggy neck.

Parties: they're no fun until someone cries.