Dear Dave

Friday 30 March 2007

Super~Mum's secret

Dear Dave,

Thanks for asking about Scary Karen's parent and toddler group. Things have been going reasonably well the last couple of weeks. Karen has a new friend in the form of a Polish mum whose English is limited to discussing the weather and cricket. Even south of the border this wouldn't normally make for particularly lengthy conversations but Karen is more than happy to take up the slack. The Polish mum sits and listens, her face screwed up in concentration as Karen rabbits away, and I get to eat my chocolate biscuit in peace. If someone has to listen, they might as well be getting free language tuition at the same time, I guess. The other mums seem to have accepted me. Everything is quite relaxed.

I was more tense this week, however. As you know, I was expecting Julia the Super~Mum to show and I wasn't sure how well she'd get on with the other parents. I was meaning to get there right at the start and introduce people but we arrived late. Very late. We all slept in and I had to abandon Marie to Numberjacks while I rushed to get the boys ready for school and nursery. Then, when I did get to her, she refused to eat her breakfast and simply yelled, "I not eat yogurt!" whenever I looked in her direction. This continued even after I'd eaten the yogurt myself, washed up the bowl and shown her the fridge was empty. Next up was trying to get her dressed. She wanted to go to parent and toddler in a nappy and sparkly pink wellies. I suggested she might get cold. "I not eat yogurt," she said defiantly. I realised it was going to be one of those days.

Eventually I managed to persuade her to choose some other clothes. She selected a red and green top, pale blue trousers, rainbow socks, sandals, pink gloves and a santa hat. She looked like the bargain rack at Oxfam but at least she was dressed. I opened the door and tried to leave. She insisted on going in the buggy. I pointed out that parent and toddler was across the road and that she could walk. She insisted on going in the buggy... and taking her little dog with her.

She doesn't have a dog.

I pointed this out as well. "It purple," she said. She doesn't have a dog, real or stuffed, purple or otherwise. I offered her every other toy I could think of. She took them all... then demanded her dog. I had to draw her one in the end. She held the picture proudly in both hands as I wheeled her over the road, two dozen soft toys jammed into the buggy around her. She grinned broadly, nodded to herself and, with a satisfied sigh, said, "I not eat yogurt."

It was barely worth turning up by the time we made it to the Millennium Centre and wheeled our way down the corridor to the hall. Trevor the stocky bouncer was blocking the doorway. "You don't want to go in there," he said. I laughed politely, thinking he was joking, and tried to go in. "No, I'm serious," he said, raising his hand. "You don't want to go in there. She's got Karen and she's..."

Then the singing started.

I'm used to attempts at group singing at parent and toddler. It normally involves one enthusiastic helper belting out some nursery rhymes, a handful of parents mumbling along and a mob of toddlers clubbing each other around the head with tambourines. The overall effect is seldom melodious. No one in their right mind tries anything fancy. The fact that the sound of Row, Row, Row Your Boat was drifting out of the hall in cacophonic three-part harmony suggested that a truly insane person was at work within.

"This is all my fault," I said and pushed past Trevor.

Marie looked at him suspiciously as we went in. "I not eat yogurt," she muttered under her breath.

The scene which greeted us was hard to take in all at once.

The first item to catch my attention was an enormous Twister board drawn out on the back of some old strips of wallpaper. There were many brightly coloured handprints and footprints on the board and surrounding area. It was as if players had been forced to dip their bare hands and feet in paint before taking part. This was not an encouraging start.

The second item was a table laid out with drying papier-mache artworks. These were a far cry from the models of my youth, which tended to involve just slapping sticky newspaper all over an inflated balloon and then drawing a face on it. It appeared that the children had been encouraged to use their creativity in choosing items to encase in a giant spit-wad. There was a handbag, a toy giraffe, three shoes, the tea urn, a scooter and one very surprised looking cat.

The third item was the refreshment trolley. It was piled high with very healthy looking snacks. None of them had been touched.

The final item was an enormous cardboard box which had been placed in the centre of the room. It was decorated to look like a house. A door and windows had been cut in it but these were shut. Gathered round the box was the most miserable group of bedraggled mums and toddlers I have ever seen. They were covered in paint and glue but were being forced to smile and sing. At least one parent was soaking wet and two of the children appeared to have been stuck together. I sensed that no one had received their normal quota of tea or chocolate biscuits.

Julia was standing with her back to me, conducting.

I decided to retreat but in my panic-stricken terror I stepped into a tub of paint, tripped over and landed in a tangle of buggy, soft toys and art supplies. The singing stopped. All eyes turned to me. I picked myself up and tried to wipe away the yellow paint that was dripping from my crotch but my hands were already covered in green. I merely created brown.

"You must be Ed," said the woman who had been conducting. She wasn't Julia. She was an older, greyer, more frightening version of Julia. I realised that I was dealing with Super~Mum's mother. Technically, this might define her as Super~Gran but, believe me, there is nothing 'gran-like' about her. Amidst the chaos she had wreaked, she still stood smart and proud, her expensive clothes and make-up untouched. She is the GrandParent of Doom.

There was a pause as the GPD surveyed me with distaste. Behind her no one dared move apart from Julia's three-year-old, Marcus. He silently flicked up a piece of paper. On it were clumsily scrawled the words, 'save yorselv.'

"Julia is busy teaching the older children calculus so I decided to bring Marcus along myself. I'm Julia's mother, Eleanor," said the GPD. Her words were polite but her tone gave the impression she viewed me as an aberration of nature. There was another pause. All the eyes remained fixed on me but I couldn't think of a reply. One corner of the GPD's mouth curled upward in the glimmer of an evil sneer. "Thank you for the invitation," she said.

The assembled eyes narrowed. Sympathy for me drained away. There was dark muttering in Polish.

The GPD seemed pleased by this response. "Seeing as you're so late, perhaps you and your daughter would care to give us a rendition of She'll be Coming Round the Mountain." She pointed to a central spot in front of the box. I unstrapped Marie and slunk over, already slumped in defeat.

Marie seemed oblivious, however. "I not eat yogurt," she said.

"We'll see about that," said the GPD.

It was a nightmare. Fortunately the singing was soon over but a few minutes later I inexplicably found myself dangling a multi-coloured Marie over the Twister board while trying not to topple over on Tess and her son. Admittedly I was covered in paint already and Marie was keen but how I got there is something of a blur. I think the GPD must employ some kind of Jedi mind control.

"Where's Karen?" I whispered as we all reached for a yellow.

Tess motioned her head towards the centre of the room.

"She put Karen in a box? How did she get Karen in a box?"

"She got us to do it," said Tess.

"YOU put Karen in a box?"

"Don't have a go at me. You've only been here five minutes and you're using your daughter as a paint brush. Think what the crazy witch would have you doing if you'd been here an hour. She thought the way Karen was feeding her baby was indecent and, well, I don't know, it just kind of happened."

"But why did Karen let you...?" My voiced trailed off as I looked about. The devastation in the hall was complete. I would have given good money to have been able to hide from it inside a cardboard box. Worryingly, even a cardboard box with Scary Karen already inside seemed quite attractive. I wondered if the GPD took Visa.

Time dragged on. We painted. We stuck. Eleanor put a straw in some natural yogurt and tricked Marie into drinking it. The girl was almost finished before she realised what it was. She burst into tears. "I not eat yogurt," she whimpered. The GPD snorted contemptuously at us both and then walked off.

"It's time to go but no one's eaten their snacks," she announced shortly afterwards. "Eat them now or take them with you. They are made from my own recipe and extremely nutritious." Then she made her error. "What will your husbands say if you don't feed your children?"

Obviously this annoyed me for various reasons but Karen is single and half of her friends are divorced. Most of the rest manage to raise their children despite their husbands' intervention, not because of it. The temperature in the room plummeted several degrees.

"When I was bringing up my children..." continued the GPD, unaware of her mistake.

"Enough!" The cardboard box burst asunder and a towering figure emerged, her hair dyed stiff and yellow with paint, her body stained blue, a baby still clamped to her vast, undulating chest. Scary Karen was transformed into something terrifying - a Pictish queen ready for war. She looked at the gaggle of toddlers huddled by the buggies. They were messy, tired and desperately in need of caffeine and sugar. She pointed at the GPD. "Kill!" she said.

They didn't need persuading. They surged forward, ready to batter her senseless with pinatas and then paint her orange. Luckily for her, Trevor rushed in and held them back with a table. "I think you'd better leave," he said.

"Well, I've never..." she began but there was a tap on her leg. "What is it?" she said, turning to see who was behind her.

"I not eat yogurt," said Marie with satisfaction and tipped a bowl of the stuff over the GPD's immaculate shoe.

Victory was complete. The GPD grabbed her grandson's hand and marched squelchily away, huffing to herself. Everyone cheered.

I went and collected Lewis from nursery and then came back to help clear up - I needed to earn a little forgiveness. Later, I made Julia a cake and took it round to give her some sympathy. It turns out that her mum lives a couple of streets away and has nothing much else to do except come and help with the kids. This explains a lot. We talked a bit, she cried, the kids ran riot and we ate the cake. I think we'll get on a lot better now.

After that, I had to go to the shops and buy some yogurt. Marie really wanted some.

Hope things aren't as crazy for you. How's Liz doing?

Yours in a woman's world,


Tuesday 27 March 2007

Teletubbies save the world

Dear Dave,

I'm sorry to hear that the teletubbies are destroying your sanity. I remember when Fraser was young and I happily got to watch re-runs of ER all day mixed in with Working Lunch and an occasional documentary about Alexander the Great or quantum mechanics. Then he got a bit older and emergency chest surgery ceased to be suitable background noise for playtime. Not long after that, he realised that I had Dipsy and co. held captive within black rectangles of plastic and could make them perform at any time simply by feeding them to the video machine. Overnight I went from learning about the fundamental properties of matter to watching a teddy-bear tap-dance. On loop.

When we were children, television didn't start until nine in the morning, there were only three channels and kids' TV was restricted to lunchtime, teatime and Saturday mornings. This was obviously to the benefit of parents, giving them peace to get meals ready during the week and to pretend to be sleeping at the weekend. Now television never stops, there are dozens of channels and kids' TV is only ever moments away.

That's not to say that my children watch more television than I did as a child, it's just most of what I watched ranged from desperate, e.g. the testcard, to astonishingly inappropriate, e.g. an Open University lecture on human biology. The problem isn't too much TV, it's that control has been given to the child. By the power of CBeebies, there's no reason for them to put up with boring adult telly. By the power of rewind, there's no reason for them to stay glued to the set and not go disturbing 'sleeping' adults.

Deprived of both sex and TV, adults are bound to go slightly crazy. Add to this being constantly bombarded with The Fimbles, Tweenies and Fireman Sam, and hallucinations are almost a given. I've found myself imagining episodes of CSI: Balamory ("We made casts of the tyre impressions on Archie's head and I have to say it's not looking good for you, Penny."), Dr Who in Toy Town ("They've exterminated Big Ears!") and Jack Bauer the Builder ("Tell me where the hammer is, Spud. Tell me now and I won't have to hurt you..."). Then there's the episode of Come Outside where Auntie Mabel, the middle-aged spinster, does a musical number about sewage. (No, hang on, that really happened).

Maybe I should just throw the TV out the window like Super~Mum says...

No, actually that's a little drastic. TV gives kids some of their social identity. I know this because I spent a year in the States as a teenager. There were many occasions when I felt far away from home but the one that sticks in my head was sitting around in History class discussing shows we'd loved as kids. I'd never seen Sesame Street and never cared about Mickey Mouse. They'd never heard of Mr Benn. They were all able to share together and forget their differences. It was as if they were four again. I, however, was more different than before. There was a new cultural barrier between us.

On the flipside, it turned out that the cutest girl in class had spent a few of her younger years in Britain. We paired off and reminisced about the episode of Bagpuss with the chocolate biscuit machine. We bonded. Shared memories of kids' TV brought friendship and snogging. Kids' TV is good.

Thanks to this experience, I believe that the Teletubbies are in fact the best hope we have for world peace. I know you hate them now but Sam will soon find something else to be fixated on. You will move on to Tikkabilla. The Teletubbies, however, will continue to be shown all over the world. By adding localised film-clips they can infiltrate any nation. There are so many episodes that they will pad out daytime telly forever. No child will entirely escape. Eventually these children, our children, will grow up and be in charge.

I imagine a point in the future when the world is edging towards war and the General Assembly of the United Nations meets for one last attempt to avert disaster. No common ground can be found, however. Voices rise. Fingers move edgily towards buttons. Suddenly Nicole Kidman realises the only way to save the day. She races up to the control booth and switches on BBC7. CBeebies radio blares out over the public address system.

"Who spilled the tubby custard?" says a well-spoken, male voice and hundreds of interpreters babble out translations.

There is a pause. Then, as one, the ambassadors of the world respond in their native tongues but there is no need to translate. Creed and colour no longer matter. For once, each person understands their brothers and sisters around them with perfect clarity. United, the people of Earth cry out, "It was Po! Po spilled the tubby custard."

Then they give each other a big hug.

From that single moment of shared identity will come new hope. Everybody will have their turn to wear the skirt and there will be tubby toast for everyone...

Or maybe I'm being too much of an optimist. Feel free to fall back on Plan B:

A trap baited with tubby custard. Dipsy's hat and Laa-Laa's ball lie next to it.
There was the sound of an approaching scooter and Ed waited patiently for his next victim. The Teletubby infestation would soon be dealt with...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 23 March 2007

Darth Vader's bread bin

Dear Dave,

Happy PS3 Day!

Yes, the PlayStation 3 is finally released in Europe today and, in worrying news for Sony, I haven't pre-ordered one. I haven't even forgotten to pre-order one. I'm simply not getting one. Considering I have enough games consoles to be running low on fingers when counting them, this is something of a surprise to everybody.

It's just too expensive.

This is a shame really, since it's actually the best value for money of the new consoles - it's the most powerful, it has built-in wi-fi, a large hard-drive and an HD movie player. The thing is, though, all I really want to do is play games and almost all the games on PS3 I can already play on my Xbox 360. A PS3 would be an extravagance at half the price. (And at half the price it would still be more expensive than a Nintendo Wii).

As I said, this is not good news for Sony since I must be fairly near the top of their target demographic:

  • I'm an avid gamer.
  • I've bought their previous consoles.
  • I'm mysteriously drawn to sleek black gadgets.
  • I have a fair stash of pocket money lying around because I seldom have the opportunity to go out and, let's face it, when I do have the opportunity I'd rather stay home and play games.
  • I'm a sucker.
Unfortunately for them, however, my resistance is still high and I don't get to the shops much so I'm going to be fairly oblivious to any hype in the window of GAME. It used to be that the local shopping centre was fifteen minute's walk away and the nearest point of interest upon leaving the house. Now that I have three children it is at the very fringes of my world and getting there is an expedition. All my clothes are falling apart but I can't be bothered trekking to Burtons with my grumbling offspring only to have to squeeze into a changing cubicle with them all and then listen to them discuss my underwear very loudly. ("You blue pants, Daddy. They got hole!") Now the PS3 is out, I may actively avoid going to the shops. The last time I went to buy trousers I came back with the 360 instead.

So, to sum up, I'm not buying a PS3 and I'm not going near one, just in case. How did Sony get in this mess? Once again, I can only imagine the planning meeting:

Sony VP: How are we going to get people to buy Blu-ray players?
Sony Exec (newly arrived from my last letter): Let's put them in all PS3s.
VP: Making the PS3 more expensive than any other console and driving down sales.
Exec: Yes, but once they have a Blu-ray player in their homes, people are bound to start buying movies and HDTVs and we'll make the money back.
VP: Er...
Exec: Come on, it's a PlayStation, people are bound to buy it.
VP: Maybe, but how can we make sure? How are we going to get people to buy PS3s?
Exec: Ah! That's obvious! We'll put Blu-ray players inside them all.
VP: Er, sink two birds with one stone, kind of thing?
Exec: Yes, yes, exactly. We'll sell the PS3 cheaper than any of the stand-alone Blu-ray players...
VP: By losing money on every one we sell...
Exec: Yes, but once they have a games console in their homes, people are bound to start buying games and we'll make the money back.
VP: So we're going to use the PS3 to sell Blu-ray and Blu-ray to sell the PS3? Isn't that a little... risky?
Exec: Not as risky as covering ourselves with jam and prancing naked through a swarm of termites.
VP: Quite, but what exactly has that got to do with...
Exec: Don't worry. Everything will be fine. (He exits the room by pulling extremely hard on his own bootstraps and launching himself spectacularly through a skylight).
VP: That was amazing! We'd better do what he said. Everything will be fine...

I'm not saying I'm never going to buy one. (With my track record, that would be foolish). I'm just not going to buy one for a while. A long while. Probably not before Wednesday, 23rd September, 2009, anyway.

That will be Marie's first full day at school. My resistance will be low that day.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Please send trousers.

Tuesday 20 March 2007

Keeping up with SuperMum

Dear Dave,

You are not a rubbish parent. Just because some mum you met has her kids signed up for three stimulating activities every day doesn't mean you are a lazy waste of space. Who knows how much help she's getting, how much she's exaggerating and what potent cocktail of medication she's taking? As a full-time parent with a small child, you are probably working an eighty hour week and suffering from sleep deprivation. You don't need to add guilt to that. Even good parents need to let Scooby Doo take some of the burden of childcare from time to time. Look after yourself. Sneak off for a coffee when you can. Have quiet days. Don't worry you haven't taken Sam to a museum for a few months or even left the house since Sunday. Do the amount of stuff that keeps you and your family sane and happy. Some stimulation is great. Too much just creates tired, crotchety know-it-alls. That's not really something to aim for...

I took the children out Saturday morning. We went to the kids' club at the cinema in the shopping centre. This is fantastic. It's cheap and it counts as getting them out of the house away from the TV even though it's really just taking them on a bus to an absolutely enormous TV and then giving them sweets.

Marie's still a little young and so I dropped her off in the centre's creche for a couple of hours. I'd normally leave her at home but Sarah had to go into work. Manager Steve is trying to impress the top brass and for some reason he believes doing stupid overtime is more impressive than actually getting the job done without needing to do overtime. Sarah is seriously considering using Voodoo on him.

I went into the cinema with the boys and there was an unusually long queue. That there was a queue at all at quarter to ten on a Saturday morning was fairly strange. Still, we waited... and waited... and waited. The film was nearly starting before we got anywhere near the front and found out what was going on. Just ahead of us were a group of nine-year-olds and ahead of them was a mum and her seven-year-old. The mum got to the desk and asked, "What's on?" My mind boggled. Who turns up at the cinema with a young child without checking the listings? More than that, the woman had been standing in a queue for fifteen minutes with nothing to look at but a vast bank of brightly illuminated screens telling her what was on. Nonetheless, the man behind the desk patiently explained there was a choice between Cars, Deck the Halls and Barnyard. The woman discussed this choice loudly with her son. They settled on Cars, bought their tickets and the queue finally moved forwards. The three boys reached the desk. "What's on?" asked the tallest. The ticket guy patiently explained their choice again, although he had to be a little louder this time in order to be heard above the noise of me banging my head against a pillar. The youths then had an argument about whether they wanted to see a Christmas film in March. Eventually they decided they didn't. They bought tickets for Barnyard and then walked off without them.

The ticket guy and I shook our heads at each other. He called them back, gave them their tickets and then it was our turn. "Three for Barnyard," I said, handing over the money. He politely gave me my tickets and the correct change. I have to suspect they weren't paying him anywhere near enough.

We had a quick (but expensive) stop at the pick'n'mix display, grabbed some popcorn and then hurried into the film. We were just in time to be mildly entertained for an hour and a half.

Last year was the year of the CGI movie. I can think of seven without even trying; most of them involving cute, fluffy creatures. Of course Pixar used to be the masters of this kind of thing, with only Shrek being memorable among all the wannabees of the computer generated world. Then Cars came along. I can only imagine how the planning meeting for that must have gone:

Disney Exec: We'd like something with more obvious marketing potential. You know, something where the toy is actually on the screen. I was thinking maybe Toy Story 3.
Pixar Producer: Look, no. I'm not going to tell you again.
Disney Exec: Sorry, sorry. You don't want to sully your creative integrity. I get it. How about a film about cars then. Kids love cars.
Pixar Producer: Yeah, maybe. I can't think of a good story off-hand, though.
Disney Exec: Just recycle something.
Pixar Producer: Er... Did you have something particular in mind?
Disney Exec: You could remake Days of Thunder.
Pixar Producer: That's a little obvious. We might get sued.
Disney Exec: OK, how about Doc Hollywood.
Pixar Producer: Yes, that's definitely... less obvious. How about we kind of mix them together?
Disney Exec: Sounds great. Have a six figure bonus. Oh, and can you make it dull, at least half an hour too long and impenetrably American?
Pixar Producer: Er, why?
Disney Exec: No reason.
Pixar Producer: OK, I'll see what I can do. (He slinks off, wishing he'd agreed to another Toy Story).
Disney Exec: You do that. (A week later, he jumps ship and goes off to plan Sony's PlayStation 3 marketing strategy).

Barnyard was OK but nothing special and it gave the impression of having been created by townies. The farmer is a vegan so it's really more of an animal sanctuary he runs than a farm. Also, the male cows have udders. Never mind that the cows walk around on two legs when nobody's looking, it's the udders that break my suspension of disbelief. Ho well. My kids are convinced that milk comes from supermarkets anyway.

At least the moral message of the film was clear: 'A strong man stands up for himself; a stronger man stands up for others.' Again, this coming from a cow was a little odd but I had the kids repeating it on the way home.

We collected Marie from the creche and were about to set off for the bus when a gaggle of smiling, highly-scrubbed children rushed over to us, closely followed by their immaculate, beaming mother. It was Julia from our street, and her kids. They all seemed delighted to see us.

Julia is known as SuperMum in our house. (If there was some form of punctuation which signified a roll of the eyes when saying a word then SuperMum would definitely have it. Maybe I should invent some. How about Super~Mum?) She has four children under the age of ten WHOM SHE HOME~SCHOOLS. She also has a successful career as an artist. Last time I asked how she was, she brought me round a pie to say thankyou. Not only had she made the pie herself, she had grown the apples as a project with her kids. The only thing me and my kids can grow is sunflowers. (Our pies taste terrible).

Super~Mum's most annoying trait, however, is that she constantly suggests I perform heroic feats of parenting. Kids bored? Take them on a daytrip to Aberdeen. Kids not eating? Cook them a traditional Bolivian meal. Kids afraid of a bit of dirt? Go on a family pot-holing expedition. Kids watching too much TV? Tip the TV out the window and enroll them in an acrobatics class instead.

These ideas are, of course, insane. The very thought of attempting any of them with my three children makes we want to go and have a lie down in a darkened room. Merely contemplating them sends dizzying tendrils of madness scurrying though my brain. Unfortunately, these aren't the crazy witterings of an American child psychologist or of a creepy elderly gentleman on the bus. Julia has actually done these things herself. With four children. I know this for a fact - I salvaged a battered flatscreen from her shrubbery and fixed it up and now her kids are always lurking outside our lounge window desperately trying to catch a glimpse of Scooby Doo. Since our lounge is one storey up, I can only assume that the acrobatics class is going well.

There were a lot of greetings and polite questions and then it transpired that they were going bowling. We were invited to join them. Before I knew it, I was wearing slippy shoes and trying to prevent children from dropping heavy spherical objects on my toes. I don't really know how it happened. Julia just didn't seem to understand how an unplanned excursion might be in any way troublesome or tiring. It didn't help that Fraser loves bowling and jumped up and down at the prospect. If I hadn't gone, I would have felt both rubbish and guilty.

I shouldn't have gone. It was a nightmare. I had to help the boys bowl while keeping Marie entertained and listening to Julia regale me with the joys of eating Bolivian snacks down a mineshaft. My multi-tasking skills were tested to their limits. Fraser kept bowling too slowly, the ball drifting to a halt against the bumper halfway down the lane. Fortunately, our lane was right at the end so I could walk down beside it and give the ball a shove. Unfortunately, the final time I did this I turned round to discover that, despite being told not to several~times, Fraser had taken his second bowl. This was bad. That he'd decided to bowl his sister was somewhat worse. A blur of fluffy pink whizzed towards me, arms outstretched and yelling, "I get strike! I get strike!"

I grabbed a fistful of knitted jumper as it went past and yanked Marie to safety. "You not carry me," she complained. "I am ball!"

We managed to get away soon after that but I was shattered. I flicked on Scooby Doo as soon as we got home and lay on the sofa for a rest. A couple of hours later, Julia popped round with a pie to say thankyou for the lovely time. I felt the need to stand up to her; to explain that it hadn't been that lovely really; to suggest she consider the feelings of other parents slightly more carefully; to get her to give her own kids a break. I chickened out, though. Instead, I invited her and the kids along to Scary Karen's parent and toddler group.

I know this was bad and wrong. I'm hoping their evil superpowers will somehow neutralise each other but there's a good chance that their very meeting will create a rift in space and time that will cause the entire universe to unravel. I'll try to be a stronger man next time.

Get some sleep while you can.

Yours in a woman's world,


Saturday 17 March 2007

Big Friendly Daddy

Dear Dave,

You're right - you do wonder what they're going to remember.

You slave away day after day. You get them out of bed, dress them, feed them, keep them entertained, undress them and then get them back into bed again. You wash up, wipe down and hoover around. You play games, run about and get head-butted in the privates. You pour your very life and soul into keeping them happy and turning them out right. It's hard work... You kind of want them to remember something of that. If nothing else, it should count in your favour when they're choosing your nursing home.

Sadly, however, Sam's memory of early childhood will probably be so hazy that he will believe that he was raised by Bob the Builder and a crack band of Teletubbies. Your years of sacrifice will be forgotten as he smiles wistfully at happy memories of talking machines, Tubby custard and enormous rabbits. He will build a shrine to Laa-Laa and you will spend your twilight years in a coalshed in King's Lynn.

I'm sorry to say that your future is bleak. I think mine might be worse, though. Not only am I going to be there in that shed with you, my kids will skimp on the extras. You at least will get food and a blanket, I will get to starve in my underpants. Every so often a little goblin will come round and poke me with a stick.

I mean, Marie's two-and-a-half and she already thinks I'm an imbecile. Today I was talking to her about how we'd been on a bus at the weekend. "No, Daddy," she replied. "We go IN bus." It was a hard one to argue and doing so only made me appear more of an idiot.

I then got a further insight into how she views me. She insisted she wanted to watch something she referred to as Me & You. She started hunting through the stack of DVDs but couldn't find it. "We watch Me & You!" she shouted desperately. I had no idea what she was talking about so I tried asking lots of questions about the programme - what happens, who's in it, that kind of thing. "We.. watch... Me... &... You!" she replied slower and more loudly, as if speaking to a foreigner she perceived as slightly dim. This went on for awhile.

Eventually I discovered an animated version of Roald Dahl's The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) that had fallen behind the sofa and Marie jumped up and down. "You and me!" she cried. Everything became slightly clearer and I was less than happy. You see, the cover art has a picture of the BFG holding a little girl in the palm of his hand. Obviously Marie associated herself with the girl, so there weren't many options as to how she pictured me. I am apparently an old, balding giant with poor dress-sense, a bulbous nose, ears the size of radar dishes, bushy eyebrows, nasal hair and dodgy teeth.

I paused for a moment and decided that there must be more to it than that. After all, my teeth are fine. I decided it must be something the giant does in the film that made her think of me. This, however, didn't help matters much. The giant kidnaps the girl, feeds her horrible food, inadvertently covers her in slime and nearly gets her eaten.

He also farts a lot.

Then he sings about it.

You're wondering what our kids will remember. Well, I'm hoping she forgets that.

Of course, I could have it all wrong. The film does pick up later on. The BFG takes the girl to see the queen, they have some fun and the bad giants get put in the zoo. There are some scary moments but it all works out in the end.

Maybe Marie just sees me as a big friendly giant who scoops her up and carries her off to have an adventure. That would be nice. When I'm old and my teeth have gone dodgy, she might even look at them and have a vague recollection of bushy eyebrows, flapping ears and strong arms carrying her along. Maybe then she'll smile and maybe, just maybe, I'll get that blanket after all.

I don't think there's any avoiding the coalshed, though. (Sorry).

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 14 March 2007

Taking the effort out of being ignored

Dear Dave,

I'm sorry to hear that little Sam has ceased to listen to a word you say. You're right that he might have picked up some anxiety about your pending new addition to the family but it's more likely that's he's simply two-and-a-half now and believes that he knows better than you. Honestly, you're probably lucky he's listened to you this long.

Take my three, for example. They were all standing in a line next to a low wall today. Marie wanted to climb onto the wall and jump off. "No, it's wet," I said. So she climbed on. At which point Fraser sat on the wall. "No, it's wet," I said. Fraser grinned and then Lewis rubbed his sleeve backwards and forwards along the top of the wall. "No, it's wet," I said. They all looked at me blankly. Then they complained they were wet.

Sam will be ignoring you entirely before you know it. You'll have to say things three times before he even realises you've spoken. This could be quite annoying but fortunately I have been working on a solution. The prototype is complete. Another couple of weeks of testing and then my Patented Parental rePeater (TM) will go into full production. The Triple-P (TM) will save the voices and sanity of childcare operatives the world over. Hang it round your neck, go about your daily life and then, at the touch of a button, have it repeat the last thing you said. Press a different button and it will continue to repeat the phrase at regular intervals for several minutes. Each repetition is louder than the last and delivered in a more exasperated tone of voice.

A number of useful phrases come pre-programmed into the Triple-P. These include:

  • Look where you're going.
  • Don't eat that.
  • Say, "Please."
  • Not up your nose.
  • Put your shoes on.
  • Take your shoes off.
  • Don't do that.
  • Sit down.
  • Eat up.
  • That's not a hanky.
  • Do what you're told.
  • Not up my nose.
  • Close the fridge.
  • That's my foot you're standing on.
  • Leave my Triple-P alone.
  • That's not yogurt.
  • That is yogurt.
  • Where did you put my phone?
  • For crying out loud, not up anybody's nose.
  • Turn your hearing aid on. (For use on grandparents who are supposed to be helping out but have in fact opted for a crafty nap).

There is also memory available for the user to record often repeated phrases of their own. From your letters, I suggest that in your case these might include:

  • Shredded Wheat is not for shredding.
  • Put the PlayStation down.
  • Don't feed the hoover.
  • You'll be needing those trousers.
  • Why's my phone in the fridge?
  • Step away from the hamster.
  • I'm not a camel.
  • Don't eat your shoes.
  • Don't use your grandparents as a hanky.
  • What's this yogurt doing up my nose?

The Triple-P also has several special modes:

  • Stressed Whisper - for use in church.
  • Firm but Polite - for use on other people's children.
  • Extra Loud - for parties, playgrounds and natural disasters.

The Triple-P is waterproof, shockproof, easily portable, resistant to toxic bodily fluids and has a battery-life of between 3 hours and 7 weeks (dependent on the number, age and behaviour of your children). Look out for it soon in all good retailers (and on ebay shortly after).

Triple-P - taking the effort out of being ignored.

(Go on, you know you want one...)

Yours in a woman's world,


Saturday 10 March 2007

1966 and all that

Dear Dave,

I quite understand the trauma you're going through trying to choose a nursery for Sam. There are so many things to consider: the adult/child ratio, the quality of the equipment and facilities (both inside and outside), the curriculum, the teaching ethos, the discipline code, the evaluation report, the nutritional content of snacks, the colour of the walls and the level of drugs slipped into the milk. We gave up and just went for the one at the end of our road. Seems nice enough.

Marie could start when she's three so I finally got round to registering her the other day. It didn't take long - they copied most of the information from the boys' records. I still had to tell them her nationality, though, and this was harder than you might think. I had three viable options - Scottish, British or English. All were serious possibilities and I tried to peek at the school secretary's monitor in order to see what I'd said last time for Lewis. I hoped I hadn't panicked and told them he was Swiss. Deftly swivelling her screen away from my prying eyes, the secretary looked at me with an amiable smile obviously reserved for the kind of simpleton who doesn't even know the nationality of their own child.

I tried to think fast. It should have been easy - she was born in Scotland, she lives in Scotland, her mum is from Scotland. There's a pattern there. The only thing is, I'm not from Scotland. I'm from the middle of a blackcurrant field in Norfolk and I'm as English as the day is long. Admittedly, I used to describe myself as British but then I moved to Scotland and discovered that in some dialects of Scots this just means 'I'm English but I want your oil and somewhere to keep my nuclear missiles.' It doesn't go well.

British would probably have done for an answer in this context but it felt wrong. It would have been like calling myself European - specific enough if I was in rural China but stupidly vague in central Edinburgh. Britain doesn't have a football team. And, realistically, that was what I was choosing - her national identity, her sense of belonging and her level of expectation for progression to the knockout stages.

Much was made of Andy Murray's unwillingness to support the English football team in the last World Cup. I have to concede that I did find it mystifying when I first moved up here that there are so many fond memories of England losing to Germany in penalty shoot-outs. After all, most English fans are happy to wish the Scotland team well and even to support them if England are already knocked out. Turns out, though, this is quite patronising and annoying. Imagine how Manchester City fans would feel if they made it to a cup final and a whole load of United fans turned up to join in the celebrations. Or how Canadians would feel if Americans started taking credit for Celine Dion.

Not pretty, is it?

I've lived here long enough that I'm not entirely sure who I would support if England played Scotland. Probably England... but if they won the World Cup then it would be the main headline on The Six O'clock News for at least a week. That would do more for the cause of Scottish independence than almost anything. I'd probably vote for the Nationalists myself if it meant I didn't have to hear about 1966 and 20XX ever again. I don't fancy Alex Salmond being in charge, though. Every time the man opens his mouth I want to slap the smugness out of him with a wet fish. Independence would be expensive and a waste of time. It would be far cheaper just holding compulsory classes for English people on how not to irritate their neighbours. Can't see it happening, however, and it would be a shame to break up the Union over football.

As I stood at the secretary's desk, all these thoughts flashed through my mind and I realised that Scotland needs all the support it can get. An extra cheer here or there might make all the difference. "Scottish," I said.

The secretary nodded. "Wise choice," she said and rubber stamped Marie's forehead with a Saltire. The deed was done.

Of course, you won't have this problem. Unless Liz is French. Then maybe you'd have something of an idea of where I'm coming from. If England and Scotland ever do meet in a World Cup match I'll probably just dig myself a hole in the back yard and hide in it until it's all over, slapping myself occasionally with a wet haddock in an act of ritual penitence for being born the wrong side of the border.

That's what I normally do when the rugby's on.

Good luck with the nursery hunt. Have you started looking into secondary schools yet?

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 7 March 2007

What do you mean we're out of wipes?

Dear Dave,

We had a family day on Saturday.

Yes, that's right, that's one of those occasions where we drag the kids kicking and screaming away from the TV and computer and force them to have an exciting trip to somewhere cold and wet. This lasts from the moment they've finished their breakfasts until a time well after they were supposed to be in bed and long since they have ceased to be civil. The trauma helps us bond together as a unit and is a good excuse to drink a bottle of wine when it's all over.

On this particular occasion there was a deal where we could buy a special train ticket to Glasgow and then go to lots of attractions for free once we got there. Being cheapskates, this appealed to us and we set off early in order to visit as many places - and thus save as much money - as we possibly could. Of course some of the most expensive things in life are free, and our pockets were steadily drained of cash by cafeterias and giftshops thoughout the day. Still, we saw plenty of things we would never have got round to otherwise.

We ended up at the Science Centre. (The home of Nina and the Neurons, CBeebies fans!)
This is a fantastic place full of hands-on experiments and exhibits but our first concern was grabbing lunch. It was pretty decent. Marie refused everything apart from milk and Hula Hoops but the rest of us tucked in. As usual, though, the boys finished their food before drinking their drinks - their vast, brimming cups of chocolate milk. There are only so many times I can say, "Drink your drinks before they get spilled," without giving up in despair, however. That's something I need to work on. Quite how Fraser managed to launch his beverage container a foot into the air while still creating enough rotational motion to splatter all of us is a mystery.

After we'd cleaned up the mess, I went and got Fraser another chocolate milk and I picked up some fruit for later. He gulped it down and we headed to the vast hall full of wonders. Sarah let the younger kids press buttons until they were bored and then pointed them in the direction of something else. I vainly attempted to explain to Fraser the polarity of magnets, the fundamentals of flight and the propagation of sound. He ignored me, pressed buttons until he was bored and then ran off to find something else. I gave up. I taught him to do a Towers of Hanoi puzzle, added a couple of extra rings made from a key fob and a wrist strap, and sat down for a long rest. A very long rest.

Later we went to the giftshop. It was crammed with brightly-coloured exciting looking things packed full of educational potential. I quickly tried to hide my wallet in my sock but Fraser was too fast. He grabbed a pack of plastic bobbly things.

"Can I get this?"

"What is it?" I asked.

"I don't know."

"How much does it cost?

"Five pounds."

"That's a little expensive for something when you don't even know what it is."

"How about this then?" he said, grabbing a smaller pack of different plastic bobbly things.

"What's that?"

"I don't know."

"How much is it?"

"One pound and fifty pence."

"OK," I sighed. "I guess that's more reasonable. Go and give the money to the man at the till." He went off happily just as Lewis approached, a board game clutched to his chest. From somewhere else in the shop I heard the familiar voice of a little girl scream, "You don't touch it! Pink dinosaur mine!" I sighed again.

We left as closing approached and caught the open-top tour bus (another part of the deal) for a scenic trip back to the station. We all piled upstairs and sat along the back. The boys were starting to wilt and I gave them the fruit to keep them going. This was a mistake. After they'd already gorged themselves, I bit into an apple and discovered it was quite sour. There was nothing wrong with it as such, it was just not very sweet in a way that suggested it might take some concentrated digestion. I suspected it was not really the thing to give two boys prone to travel sickness while they sat on a bus twisting and juddering its way through the Glasgow traffic.

"Are you feeling OK, Fraser?" I asked nervously.

"Yeah," he replied. "Why?"

"No reason," I said. "How about...?" I began turning to Lewis but I was already too late.

Everything happened at once.

My younger son leant over the back railing and spewed mightily, somewhat to the surprise of the cyclist directly behind us. I called down an apology but I had more immediate concerns: the sight and smell of Lewis' titanic chunder had started Fraser gagging. I grabbed the plastic bag containing our souvenirs, emptied it in Sarah's lap and then held it under Fraser's chin. I was barely in time to catch the geyser of chocolate milk which erupted from his mouth and just kept coming. There was so much, and it was under such high pressure, I expected it to spray out his ears at any moment. Then, finally, the seismic activity eased and I sighed in relief - I had caught every drop. I held the bag aloft in triumph.

Unfortunately, it had a hole in the bottom.

I stared at the hole, my eyes wide in horror, and time slowed. The trinkets falling at Sarah's feet hung in the air, I could hear my own heartbeat and I suddenly noticed the warm, damp feeling around my knees. Reality spun round my outstretched arm...

...then snapped back into place. I dumped the bag on the floor and hunted for the wipes. The previous chocolate milk incident had seriously depleted our supplies and a couple of nappy changes had left us very short indeed. We had one left. One wipe to last us nearly two hours. One wipe to see us through over three hundred and fifty child-minutes. That's not a lot of back up. I decided to save it in case of a real disaster and cleaned up as best I could with my scarf. By the time we reached our stop, Fraser and I looked nearly presentable.

We were left with that age-old dilemma of whether to leave the leaking bag of sick on the top deck of the bus or to carry it the full length of the bus, down the stairs and out the door, leaking a trail of sick behind us. Tricky. In the end, I put the bag inside my woolly hat and made a break for it. I hurtled to the door, leapt onto the pavement and barged my way to the nearest bin, the crowd parting before me like the Red Sea before Moses. (Though I doubt he yelled "Let me through! I have a hat full of sick!" to get the job done).

I was tempted to dump the hat with its contents but instead stowed it with my scarf in the net carrier under the buggy, as far from anything else as I could manage.

We cleaned up a bit more in the station and headed home. We'd had a pretty good day, even if some of us did smell faintly of curdled chocolate milk. Marie fell asleep on the way and the boys played with their new toys. I spent most of the journey rescuing multi-coloured bits of plastic from obscure crevices of ScotRail seating. Some of these little gaps were unpleasantly sticky but I did score a two pound coin, a return journey from Falkirk and a Lego Darth Vader complete with light-sabre. Result!

It was extremely chilly when we got back to Edinburgh and by the time we had walked half way home I was freezing. I peered under the buggy in an effort to see if my hat and scarf had gone crusty yet. Sarah rubbed her hands against the cold. "Don't even think about it," she said without even looking at me. Marie was snuggled cosily under a blanket so I stole her pink, fluffy pixie hat and jammed it down on my head. It's possible I may have looked like a lunatic but it's only a real lunatic who walks around with cold ears when they have other options.

It was late. We got home and bundled the kids into bed before putting on a load of washing and settling down in our pyjamas with a bottle of wine and the TiVo remote.

"You did well today," said Sarah as we cuddled up on the sofa.

"You did too."

"Want to go to Dundee next week? I got this leaflet in the Science Centre about... What?"

"More wine..." I muttered. "More wine..."

"Never mind." She kissed me and then poured me another glass. "I'll tell you tomorrow."

"Good idea," I said and reached for the remote. "Now which is it going to be - Vegas, New York or Miami?"

Yours in a woman's world,


Sunday 4 March 2007

My children are doomed

Dear Dave,

Fraser is very good at maths and has learnt to speak Pokemon. I've been thinking about whether I've turned him into a geek or whether it was just inevitable. I think the answer is probably just 'yes'.

Girl: Look, Daddy! Triangle! Dad: Technically it's a tetrahedron.

Yours in a woman's world,


Thursday 1 March 2007

Cancel the search party

Dear Dave,

I'm still alive. I made it through an hour and a half of the new toddler group and got out with only a few minor dribble stains and a small bruise. Which isn't bad going considering. Here's what happened:

Scary Karen had asked me to bring along a donation of toys so I packed up a load of things I've been desperate to get rid of for ages. These included a very noisy Thomas the Tank Engine which whistles tunes, a motorised pig which sings Old MacDonald and a pair of electronic maracas. I foolishly forgot to take the batteries out of anything, though.

Then I headed across the road to the Millennium Centre, through reception and down the corridor to the side hall. I was somewhat surprised to find a bouncer at the door. He was a squat, bald-headed guy who had bulging muscles everywhere, even places I'm pretty sure I don't have any muscles at all. A wealth of tattoos rippled over his bare arms.

He looked at me suspiciously. "You here for the toddlers?" he grunted.

I had a momentary vision of myself driving off with a cattle-truck full of under-fives. I almost mentioned it but then I noticed the assault rifle inked onto his bicep. It was labelled 'Betsy'. I decided to play things safe. "Er, yes," I said and waved my bag of toys and small child at him. "This is my little girl."

"I like pink!" shouted Marie to back me up.

The bouncer looked at me even more suspiciously. I could almost see the cogs turning in his brain - it was a parent and toddler group, I had brought a toddler, I was a parent, he couldn't justifiably turn me away... but I had showed up to the party one X chromosome short. The cogs spun for a while. I detected a faint smell of burning rubber.

"I go play now," said Marie and walked through the door.

The man's brain re-booted. "'Spose you'd better go in," he said. I smiled and thanked him and went in.

Some mats had been put out in the middle of the room and sprinkled with toys and children. A dozen or so chairs were placed round the edges. Four women had pulled their chairs close together and were having a heated discussion. They looked at me suspiciously as I entered. I smiled at them and followed Marie. She made a bee-line for a toy ironing board and iron. She picked up a baby doll, cuddled it and then proceeded to spend several minutes systematically removing the creases from its face before stuffing it in the trunk of a ride-a-long car. (No more CSI for her).

The women obviously knew each other and were having an argument about who had the worst scar. (Don't ever go there...) I tried not to listen, which was easy since every child in the room except mine appeared to have a whistling Thomas that they were beating to death with electronic maracas. No one else had thought to remove the batteries either. I stared into space and muttered encouraging things when Marie took the baby out of the car and replaced it with the singing pig.

Eventually Karen entered the room with a refreshment trolley and all the adults drifted towards it and the promise of chocolate-covered sugary goodness. Karen gestured at me and said, "This is Ed." Instantly the eyes of the four women widened in a mixture of recognition and awe. Karen introduced them to me as well but I instantly forgot their names. Let's call them Jess, Bess, Tess and Cress. (I've been reading Meg and Mog a lot recently). The bouncer's name was Trevor. He glared at me through narrowed slits.

"You're the housedad," said Jess.

"Karen has told us all about you," said Bess. Tess nodded in a the way that suggested this might have been a lengthy process.

"Really?" I said. I couldn't entirely remember ever having had much chance to tell Karen anything about myself.

"Yes," said Tess firmly.

Cress started speaking very rapidly. "You have three children, aged 6, 4 and 2. You look after them all day, deal with them at night and then get up the next day and do it all over again, even when they're sick, or you're sick, or you're all sick. You clean the house, you change the nappies, you wipe up the mess. You take them out in the fresh air, you do their homework with them and you feed them at least five portions of fruit and veg every day. You..."

I interrupted as she took a breath. "Don't you do all those things for your kids?"

"Yeah," said Jess. "But you're a man."

"Do you do the cooking as well?" said Bess, jumping up and down a little.

"Kind of," I said. "I don't have much time. These days I tend to just move food from the freezer to the oven rather than cooking, as such."

"That's more than any of our men ever manage," said Tess irritably but then softened. "Want a chocolate digestive?"

Things settled down after that. Karen's friends weren't that scary after all. It turned out their community service was just for getting out of control in a protest around Faslane. Trevor, however, made me nervous. He lurked around the trolley. He didn't have any children of his own with him. He continued to glare at me. He looked like he should have worked at Faslane, possibly as a missile.

He only stopped glaring when Karen came and sat next me for her normal chat. She wapped out her baby's elevenses and Trevor's brain went into spasm again. He didn't know where to look and then pretended to read the notices on the wall. I forgot about him for a while as I became mesmerised by Karen's account of her attempt to return an item at Ann Summers and I prayed for the world to end.

However, when the lights went out and I was finally able to grab Marie and head for the exit, Trevor sidled over to me. He wasn't very good at it. "You and Karen," he muttered shiftily.

The cogs in my own brain suddenly clicked into place, then slipped out of gear and whirred away helplessly. Shock, surprise, understanding, fear and incredulity battled for control of my eyebrows. "Karen is merely a... er... friend," I stammered. "I have absolutely no desire to... er, have any, er, desire. Erm, is that the time? I have to collect my son from nursery. Nice to meet you."

I got the bruise clunking my shin as I ran away. It's still sore.

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Next week's an arts and crafts session. All this but with added glue... I can't wait.