Dear Dave

Monday 31 August 2009

Top tips for surviving fatherhood

Dear Dave,

Being a dad is a constant mental battle. On the one hand, you're always learning new things. On the other, you're frequently surrounded by wittering children whose sole purpose in life seems to be to addle your brain to the point where you can't remember who you are or what you were doing. This means that... Erm...

Where was I?

Oh, yes... I need to write down the most important fatherhood lessons I've picked up, before they're entirely over-written by school timetables, facts about Vikings and the names of Pokémon. Future generations will thank me. (Plus, as a 'little accident' myself, I know there's always a possibility I might be needing this information again one day. Best to keep it in a safer place than between my ears. I'd hate to have to learn it all the hard way again.)

Here's a start:

101 things I wish I'd known before becoming a dad.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 26 August 2009

PEGI peril

Dear Dave,

That's an interesting question. There really are plenty of factors to be taken into consideration. You have to reflect on any number of emotional, moral, philosophical and logistical issues. Even then, the answer is by no means clear cut and the ramifications of your decision could still be affecting your dealings with your children when they're teenagers. It's tricky. I mean, seriously, good luck. Great men and women have pondered this one for decades and still not found a definitive response. Perhaps there isn't one. Perhaps every parent must find their own way...

Yes, I'm afraid you're going to have to decide for yourself. Is Scooby Doo! suitable for a nearly two-year-old? I couldn't tell you. Is Scooby-Doo! suitable for your nearly two-year-old? Well, that's up to you.

If it's any help, the live-action version was Lewis' favourite movie at that age and we saw it every meal time for a month. Marie, meanwhile, still shrieks and hides under the table while viewing the cartoon. That doesn't stop her wanting to watch it but it's pretty annoying if I'm trying to have a quiet lunch and makes me less inclined to put the show on. She's nearly five.

Of course, I never had these problems when Fraser was small. Without older children around to work a remote, I was able to keep him blissfully unaware for years of any programmes other than Teletubbies and Balamory. If anything, I was concerned he was living in a sheltered world of cute, fluffy creatures and twee aphorisms well past an age where he should have been learning from a gluttonous dog how to spot con-artists in rubber masks. It was actually a relief when he graduated to trashy cartoons and started watching animated cats and mice beat seven shades of slapstick out of each other.

For the last couple of years, though, it's been a struggle to maintain an appropriate viewing schedule that keeps all three children mostly happy most of the time while still providing an adequate number of fluffy aphorisms to morally educate the youngest and a sufficient supply of villains and comic peril to entertain the other two. I've messed up on occasion - the Dr Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, is still way too scary for Marie, for example - but generally it's gone OK. Thanks to my prior knowledge of many of the shows available and to the usually sensible broadcasting policies of kids' TV channels, I can effectively evaluate what's on and judiciously censor what my children see. Sorted.

Life is even easier with computer games. They have handy age ratings on the box to let me know whether they contain material unsuitable for my assorted offspring.

At least they used to...

Someone somewhere is clearly trying to make my life harder. Games used to have the possibility of two age ratings on them, one from Pan European Game Information (PEGI) and the other from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). All games had a PEGI rating of 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ or 18+ and those given a 12+ or higher were also examined by the BBFC to see whether they needed a legally enforceable* 12, 15 or 18 rating. The BBFC ratings were the important ones since they were based on the same criteria as for films and had the same logos. Any parent paying the slightest bit of attention could spot a BBFC rating and know what kind of thing to expect, no matter whether they played games themselves or not.

Unfortunately, having two rating systems was confusing. Last year, the Byron Report into the risks faced by children from the internet and video games noted that many people mistook the PEGI rating as an indicator of difficulty rather than of mature content. Tanya Byron recommended stream-lining the system and concentrating on the BBFC ratings because everyone knows what they mean.

I'm guessing some European politics and a lack of resources at the BBFC got in the way of that. The government opted to go solely for the PEGI ratings and they're now legally enforceable.

The problem is, PEGI ratings make no sense.

Really. I can't tell from a PEGI rating whether a game is suitable for my kids or not. I play games - goodness knows what it's like for parents who don't.

For a start, PEGI has to cater to the sensibilities of every member country. If the Portuguese happen to find the mere image of a banana sexually suggestive or the Danes have a problem with boomerangs or the Swiss find rabbits terrifying, then it affects the rating in a way that's incomprehensible to a UK audience.

PEGI is also much stricter than the BBFC system. Almost any violence involving humans brings a minimum rating of 12+. I recently played G.I. Joe on the Wii and was truly amazed to find it has a 16+ certificate. It involves lots of shooting but it's about as realistic and immersive as Space Invaders. Enemies in the game are faceless, bloodless and gormless - paint them silver and they'd be robots. The whole thing is totally what you'd expect from a game based around action figure soldiers for under-10s and contains less questionable material than the old black-and-white war films I used to watch as a kid on weekday afternoons on BBC2. Nonetheless, a fifteen-year-old can't buy it. To put this in perspective, a twelve-year-old can pick up a copy of Quantum of Solace on DVD without a problem.

As a bonus, there's no obvious consistency to the PEGI ratings. Ratchet & Clank involves a similar gameplay style and level of shooting as G.I. Joe but that's a 7+. (Remember children, it's wrong to shoot people. It's absolutely fine to go nuclear on any aliens you happen to meet, though...) Trials HD features motorcycle assault courses where your realistically-modelled rider comes to life-threatening grief every few seconds with a splatter of blood and the snap of bone. I'm all for my children associating motorbikes with horrifying injury, but 3+? I'm not convinced. Obscure 2 has mutilated corpses, shooting, chainsaws, drug use, extensive sexual references, gore and evil monsters which leap out of the undergrowth. It's understandably a 16+ but this makes the rating of G.I. Joe yet more bizarre. The two games are on the same shelf but in different leagues.

To add to the confusion, PEGI seems to have made its ratings harsher at some point. Take the Super Smash Brothers series, for instance. Super Smash Brothers Melee on the GameCube is a 3+ but Super Smash Brothers Brawl on Wii is a 12+ despite being nearly identical in terms of gameplay and graphics. In both, Nintendo characters attempt to knock each other off the screen using Popeye levels of violence. I would struggle to tell them apart and yet the age ratings are radically different. One is allegedly fine for a passing toddler to watch while the other should be kept away from anyone who isn't at least at secondary school.

After a quick glance through my kids' game collection, I suspect this change in criteria happened in the last year or two, meaning there'll be a good mix of games graded differently still in stores. Great.

The upshot of all this is that in spite of having a keen interest in monitoring my childrens' viewing choices, I'm reasonably happy to ignore the PEGI rating on a game. The things are simply unreliable. Worse, they're almost certain to make me look like a totalitarian idiot if I try to enforce them:

12-year-old: I want to play G.I. Joe.
Parent: You can't. It's a 16+.
12-year-old: I saw Dan playing it at his house. It's just like Ratchet & Clank and you let me play that.
Parent: That's a 7+.
12-year-old: But they're the same. One's just got action figures instead of aliens.
Parent: Yeah, I know.
12-year-old: So I can play it?
Parent: No.
12-year-old: Why not?
Parent: Because it says on the box.
12-year-old: But why?
Parent: I dunno. Maybe it has boomerangs and bananas.
12-year-old: What?
Parent: Er...
12-year-old: So can I play it or not?
Parent: Well... I... Erm... Look here's a DVD. Leave me alone and go watch James Bond graphically kill some people in cold-blooded revenge, will you?

The PEGI system might be legally enforceable at point of sale now but it would be an idiotic struggle for parents to comprehensively police it at home. If some 12+ games seem acceptable for a pre-schooler and some 16+ releases appear vastly more suitable for a seven-year-old than the average episode of Emmerdale, the ratings are bound to be disregarded sometimes. This makes them counter-productive. Every game purchase is open to becoming a pester-power nightmare as kids whine at length that a title isn't any more mature than something else they've already played. Without a reliable rating scheme, parents are left to discern suitability from the publisher's blurb on the back of the box. More than that, there's a huge risk that parents and children alike will assume that all the ratings handed out are overly restrictive. If one 16+ has no discernible dubious content, then maybe the others are all fine too. Thus the chance of children playing unsuitable games is actually increased.

Don't get me wrong. I'm heavily in favour of a strong, consistent rating system where, when my children demand an inappropriate game, I can point to an age on the box and end the argument. I'm just a little upset that we don't have that anymore.

I took the kids to GAME recently to blow the last of the vouchers we had lying around from Christmas. Thanks to a convenient sale, we collected an impressively high tower of merchandise and headed for the till. The haul included a primate-exploitation simulator, a recreation of post-Apocalyptic survival, a replica plumber-eating monster and a game about heroically saving the world from extra-terrestrial invasion. The assistant scanned Super Monkey Ball, Wall-E: The Game and the fluffy Goomba without a second glance and then raised an eyebrow as he held up a box with a stark picture of an alien skull on the front. "Is this for you, sir?"

"Uh-huh," I nodded, resisting the urge to make a smart comment about how the cuddly toy was for me but my four-year-old was really looking forward to turning E.T. into entrails.

"We have to check. Sometimes parents don't notice the age ratings. We can't sell to adults if they're getting the game for a child."

I considered mentioning that although the kids would never see me slaughtering aliens, my four-year-old was quite likely to witness her brothers rolling cartoon monkeys around a maze (which apparently rates a 7+). On reflection, however, I concluded that this might not be such a wise conversational gambit. Instead, I muttered, "Yeah, I know," and then handed over the vouchers and made a hasty retreat, pausing in my escape only long enough to subject the poor bloke to a five minute rant on the shortcomings of the PEGI system...

So, yeah, ultimately only you can decide about Scooby-Doo!. Think of it as practice for when Sam and Daisy are older. This censorship issue only gets harder and, frankly, as far as games go, we're on our own.

Yours in a woman's world,


*STOP PRESS: Would you believe it? Someone in Margaret Thatcher's government forgot to phone the European Commission twenty-five years ago and so it turns out that none of the age restrictions on pre-recorded material have been legally binding in the UK since then. Shhhh! Nobody tell any teenagers for a few months until the current regime has rushed through some emergency legislation...

UPDATE: I emailed PEGI about Trials HD because I simply couldn't believe the 3+ rating and thought it was a mistake. They were very nice but gave the following explanation:

"We have examined the game Trials HD before the rating licence was issued and we did not encounter any violence in this game. The biker can fall of his bike, but then he becomes a ragged doll. We did not encounter any clear depictions of injuries.

"The difference between this game and a game like Super Smash Brothers, is that in Super Smash Brothers, you can find depictions of violence. You can actively beat someone up, this is the whole purpose of the game. Trials HD is in essence a bike-game and does not show any violent acts."

I'm a little bemused. Personally, when it comes to my four-year-old daughter watching her brothers play computer games, I'm OK with the Tom & Jerry style violence of Super Smash Brothers Brawl but I'm much less certain about a guy endlessly breaking his neck in a warehouse full of shadows and flame. Just call me old-fashioned...

Oh, and I was apparently right about them having drastically changed their criteria. Fantastic.

Friday 21 August 2009

Slugs and snails

Dear Dave,

Thanks for asking how Marie's first day at school went. She seemed to enjoy herself. She certainly emerged from the playground gate with a drawing and a big grin. Then she smugly pointed out all the children who'd cried.

Ho well. I suspect her turn for tears will come in a couple of weeks when she gets tired and realises she has another thirteen years to go...

Still, things have gone very smoothly so far. She's even found a good answer to satisfy the various people who've asked her what she learnt. Her instant reply is, "Where the toilets are." It's not exactly rocket science or brain surgery but it's a solid start that can be built on. Truth be told, I always count my own initial session in any new situation as a success if I manage to locate the facilities. She'll go far.

The highlight of her first day experience was the moment she noticed that her choice of uniform options meant her socks and hair scrunchy coordinated with her dress. She was delighted to find herself a green Gingham fashion icon. The only thing which came close to this was getting to show off all her pink jewellery when a friend came round after school.

As you know from my recent rant, I'm not a fan of gender stereotyping. I'm clearly not in a traditional role myself and I'd be quite happy if Marie became a physicist or a plumber. I really have tried to bring her up the same as I did the boys, it just hasn't turned out quite the way I expected.

I suspect much of this is down to her nature but it came to my attention recently that treating girls and boys the same is harder than it sounds. You see, I had to buy birthday presents for a mixed pair of four-year-old twins, Katie and Peter. (Don't ask.) I don't know them that well and I wasn't sure what kind of stuff they had already, so I wandered round a toy shop searching for inspiration. Since they're the same age, have had the same upbringing and share the same home, the task became a perfect experiment to test my own attitudes. With little knowledge of their individual preferences and nothing to distinguish their circumstances, I could only be swayed by their genders into getting them different types of toys. I was confident, however, I could easily overcome any deep-rooted prejudice I might have and find a couple of play-things that would be acceptable to any child, no matter whether the kid was composed of sugar and spice or molluscs and canine extremities.

I was wrong.

I immediately found myself considering anything pink, sparkly, fluffy or creative for Katie and anything involving vehicles, flashing lights or sport for Peter. In fact, the obvious choices were a design-your-own fairy kit and an electronic rally car.

This was not a great start.

It's not as if my own boys like cars or sports (although they can be very easily distracted in an emergency by dangling a torch on a bit of string and giving it a good spin). Marie has played with our toy garage far more than both of them put together. Nonetheless, I felt drawn to buy speedy mechanical things for Peter in a way I simply didn't for Katie. They would have been good enough to get for her if I couldn't locate anything else but they weren't really right. In contrast, there were plenty of art materials and doll sets I thought Katie would love but I couldn't imagine buying for Peter. When it came down to it, I didn't mind getting them both 'boy' toys but couldn't bring myself to get them both 'girl' stuff. (To a certain extent, anyway - two Ninja Robot Aqua CommandosTM would have been as inappropriate as two Rainbow Princess PoniesTM.)

I stared at the shelves for several minutes, unable to find gifts that adequately satisfied both my gut instincts and my finely-honed liberal values, then I struggled on round the shopping centre, consumed by indecision. I didn't want to go with traditionally gender-oriented toys and I wasn't brave enough to make role-reversal purchases. My closest approximation to a solution was to pretend the twins were both rather restrained boys. This made me uncomfortable, though, because as I said in my last letter, equality that's achieved by making everyone act male isn't very pleasant. I was stuck.

To complicate matters further, I had Marie with me, holding the power of veto over my choices. Every so often I forlornly picked up a box, turned it over in my hands and showed it to her. "What do think of this for Peter?"

She rolled her eyes. "That's a girl toy, silly. It's got a picture of a girl on the box."

"He might like it anyway."

"I'd like it more. Can I have?"

I sighed and put the box back on the shelf. "Maybe when it's your birthday..."

This scenario repeated itself a number of times, interspersed with occasions when Marie picked up a fuchsia item covered with glitter and mermaids, and said, "I think Katie wants this."

"I'm sure she does but we're not getting it for her."

Marie nodded. "Can I have it then?"

I sighed and took it from her and put it back on the shelf. "Maybe when it's your birthday..."

After the third shop, I lost the will to live.

I gave up and got a Bob the Builder board game between them. Of course, buying one present between two children because they're twins is a whole other issue, so I felt compelled to buy a small toy car as well, just so they'd have a parcel each. Unfortunately, this back-fired later when it came to handing the gifts over. I went into spasm over who should unwrap which one, holding them out to the kids and then crossing my arms over a few times in rapid succession as my brain did some last second calculation. I ended up literally tying myself in a knot and then falling over.

The twins astutely ignored the gifts and frisked my dazed body for sweets, loose change and credit cards...

There are a couple of important lessons here:
  1. Gender preconceptions are clearly insidious.
  2. All kids, irrespective of gender, are cheeky little chancers.
There's not much to be done about the latter problem (apart from keeping your PIN numbers safe) but, in an effort to break some social conventions, I may have to go paint my boys' nails and then encourage them to become primary teachers.

Oh, no, wait a minute, I've already agreed to play a board game involving space marines with them this afternoon, while Marie makes a bead mosaic and watches a show about yoga-loving animals with pet butterflies. I'm booked up.

Maybe tomorrow, eh?

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 17 August 2009

Porridge stains aren't sexy on anybody

Dear Dave,

The holidays have gone by rapidly and it's only another couple of days until the new term starts here in Scotland. I'm going to miss the laid-back schedule of the summer but it will be nice to return to routine again.

We've stocked up on all the necessary equipment - gym shoes, uniform, stationery, etc - and we're nearly ready to go, despite being slowed by Lewis' resistance to change. He had a meltdown when he learnt the trousers he's had for the last two years are now too small. He promised to stop growing at once if allowed to keep wearing them, and he assured us that the hole in the knee isn't a problem (even though it's so big that a passing family of rabbits have taken up residence). We've insisted the trousers are replaced, however. Now he just wants to erect a shrine to them in his room... Ho well, doubtless he'll become equally attached to new leg-wear in a few days and I can sneak the old pair to the recycling centre. I'll tell him they've gone to live on a farm.

Marie is still excited about starting school. I made the mistake of reading the reassuring pamphlet for parents of new pupils that we were sent, though. It lists all the concerns I might have about my daughter's primary school experience, describes them in detail and then briefly attempts to quell them. Somehow, it wasn't entirely soothing. Despite having had no qualms about shoving my boys through the playground gate on their first days, I'm now a bit nervous about how Marie may fare during her introduction to formal education. What if she gets bullied or forgets to go to the toilet or gets mistaken for being English? What if she joins a gang or is allergic to the class hamster? The stress is beginning to get to me.

Deep breaths.



I'm sure she'll be fine, really. She's bright and she's good at making friends. She'll only have problems if when she argues with her teacher:

Teacher: Look at this picture of a dog.
Marie: Don't be silly. That's not a dog, it's a puppy.

Fortunately, thanks to her two brothers, the majority of the teachers in the school are all too familiar with this kind of behaviour by now and should be able to counteract it quickly and efficiently without the surreptitious use of blunt instruments.

Yep, she'll be OK. I suspect I'm merely channeling some of my own angst in her direction. She has five weeks of half days before she's in full-time and then I'll have reached another housedad milestone. With all my kids at school, I'll have to re-evaluate my purpose and my position in society. Given the grief it's possible to get sometimes for being a housedad, I'm kind of wondering what becoming a part-time housedad will be like.

We had a salesman round the other day to give us a quote for a new front door. As he talked at length about security hinges and neoprene seals, Marie sat quietly at the kitchen table, threading beads and smiling sweetly. Then the man needed all our details for some reason. (I suspect he may have been gathering ammunition for a later attempt to sell us windows as well.) When he learnt that I'm a housedad, he seemed quite taken with the concept, affirming me with the apparently genuine assertion that he wouldn't mind being a housedad too. Sadly, his grin suggested that he was envisioning a tranquil life of supervising some gentle bead-threading while his wife was banished down a coal pit.

I felt the need to summon the boys to view the guy's product samples at that point. A quick whistle brought the sound of stampeding elephants from upstairs, closely followed by a tangled blur of flailing limbs surrounded by a cloud of dust and body odour. There was some arguing and hinge juggling and then they were gone again.

The man went a slightly odd colour and his grin wavered somewhat. I'm not sure if he got the full picture of my life but the conversation rapidly returned to the subject of nine-point locking mechanisms. I felt I'd won another small victory for our housedad revolution.

Just as well really. Housedads have had more bad press recently. The Daily Mail ran an article about how lots of career women are dumping their stay-at-home partners. Mixed in with the dubious statistics, there are even quotes from an expert to explain that it's all down to a loss of respect brought about by the wives feeling a lack of support because their men aren't pulling their weight financially. The essence of the piece is summed up by the line, "In short, having a man whose primary function is not as alpha male breadwinner, but domestic drudge, just ain't sexy."

Cheers for that.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing simply on the basis that, rather than being a psychologist, the expert in question is a divorce lawyer but... erm... No, actually, that's a pretty compelling reason.

The only really valid point in the article is that, when it comes to custody, divorce courts in the UK are weighted heavily in favour of the mum - even if the dad has been the primary carer for years, it can have no bearing on how often he has access to his children after a break up. Apart from that, there's nothing much to the article but scare-mongering. In reality, relationships where the man looks after the kids aren't under any kind of unique stress. The accusation of being a financial lightweight could be levelled in any situation where one partner is earning less, whether they stay home or not. Loss of respect can (and does) happen in families where the roles are 'normal'.

Being dropped on from a great height is nothing new for stay-at-home parents. It's just that in the past they've all been female. Housedads aren't particularly asking for trouble by defying the perceived natural order, it's simply that when any relationship goes south, the partner with control of the money is bound to be at an advantage. It turns out that given the security of being the one with the income, women can be as sneaky, underhand, self-centred and ungrateful as men.

I suppose this is equality but it's not a very happy situation. The Daily Mail may not approve of housedads but I'm fairly sure they're in favour of mothers spending more time with their kids and, oddly, the only way for things to improve for stay-at-home mums is for there to be more stay-at-home dads. The Mail really should be on our side. You see, sexual equality is usually portrayed as being achievable by getting plenty of females into high-powered jobs. Traditionally female roles will only gain the respect they truly deserve, however, when they're also seen as perfectly legitimate avenues for men. We don't just need women in board rooms, we need men at toddler group and the school gate.

Then there's... Oh, hang on, that reminds me - I need to go and collect the navy pinafores and knee-length socks I ordered for Marie. She looks so sweet in her uniform. I can't believe she's going to be in Primary 1 already! I... I...

I'd better go. Remember: Being a housedad - it's a public service.

(For my part, I'll try and remember not to cry when my baby skips into the playground on Wednesday.)

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 12 August 2009

For posterity

Dear Dave,

I mentioned something about time capsules to Fraser the other week and he didn't know what I was talking about. This made me despair slightly.

"Remember when you were three and you forced me to read that story about Bob the Builder and a time capsule every night for several months?" I asked.

Fraser looked blank. "No."

"Really?" I was incredulous. "The posh teacher woman puts in a school cap and Mr Bentley makes a matchstick model of the town hall."

"A what?"


Seeing I wasn't getting anywhere, Sarah chipped in. "A time capsule is something people put interesting objects into so people in the future can dig it up and find out what life used to be like."

"Oh, OK," said Fraser.

"Farmer Pickles puts in a welly," I muttered, still miffed he didn't remember. A little more gratitude would be nice. It's almost worth having another a child just to show him how much effort he was when he was small.

Er, actually, on second thoughts...

Anyway, he probably still wouldn't get the picture. Perhaps in twenty-five years time, when he has kids of his own, he'll appreciate all the effort that's gone into raising him. Then again, maybe he won't have kids. If that's the case, convincing him of my Herculean ordeal will be difficult. I'll doubtless still be regularly recounting various tales of when he and his siblings were spectacularly sick over me on public transport but he'll have learnt to ignore my bitter, broken ramblings long before then. I'll need some hard evidence of my parenting endeavours.

Hey, perhaps I should make a housedad time capsule - that way I can disguise a blatant attempt to wangle myself a place in a better nursing home as a selfless effort to inform the people of tomorrow about being a father in the early twenty-first century. Excellent.

Let's see, what do I need to put in?
  • A homemade greetings card. Nothing says 'Welcome to your fun-filled slice of yester-year!' better than a folded bit of paper plastered with a hundred scraps of wool, fifteen feathers, some dry pasta, half a roll of sticky tape, three shells and a pebble. Of course, the card will also need plenty of glitter in a variety of colours stuck on using a glue stick. Since the half-life of such adhesive is around three months, I'll need to use an awful lot of glitter to make certain any is left attached in two and a half decades. I'm thinking about three buckets of the stuff should do it...
  • A pile of VHS cassettes featuring the Teletubbies. Sure, there won't be any functioning VHS machines left to play them on, but that's the point. Housedads of the future will be used to downloading exactly what their children want to watch at the touch of a button. They won't have had the experience of a small child demanding digital channels on an analogue telly or a DVD in a room that only has a video player. It will be educational. Besides, I really, really want to get rid of the tapes.
  • Detailed photo documentation of my housedad life. This would come recorded on an array of unmarked memory cards of varying formats, all put in a small bag and gently shaken together.
  • A selection of fridge magnets. Also in a bag. Possibly the same bag.
  • Cheap nick-nacks. I can't move through the house without standing on a spinning top or a comedy moustache that came from a Christmas cracker. If I open a cupboard, I get showered in whistles and tooters and sliding-tile puzzles from party bags. My sock drawer is full of yo-yos. The tumble-dryer is packed with souvenir key rings from a hundred different trips. I can't even have a bath without being attacked by a dozen empty bottles and a wind-up shark. The people of tomorrow should see the big heap of plastic tat that seems to naturally accumulate around children...


    Oh, hang on...
  • Some letters from school, demanding money. These turn up all the time, asking me to fill a little envelope with coins to pay for milk or snacks or excursions. My favourite ones request cash in return for a supply of little envelopes. Between the three children, it's very easy for an occasional letter to go missing in my filing system, thus forcing the school to send round a crack team of ninjas to inform me at sword point that, if I don't cough up £1.20, Lewis will be left at the zoo and Marie will be eBayed to cover legal expenses.

    If I put the letters in the time capsule, at least I'll know where they are.
  • A packet of baby wipes. Despite my youngest child being nearly five, I still try to remember to carry wipes with me. I never know when another parent is going to start handing out jam doughnuts at the swing park or at what point in a family holiday one of my offspring is going to be quietly, and yet copiously, sick all over the luggage. You can never have too many wipes.
  • A Wii. Just in case any good games have come out for it by then.
  • Some sunflower seeds. Every year, at least one of my kids brings a sunflower plant home from school. I don't know why. By including seeds in the capsule, I can share the fun of desperately trying to keep the unlucky specimens alive for more than a few days. Also, if the heap of plastic tat outside the capsule has got really big, WALL-E might be needing them...
  • A packed lunch and three changes of clothes for my entire family. Force of habit.
  • Coffee. It's a housedad essential. I would put in some beer as well but I'm keeping that.
I could probably find plenty of other stuff to include too. I suspect it would be wasted effort, though. At the grand opening of the capsule, my kids would simply shrug and historians would smile politely at my collection of junk and remember a really important seminar elsewhere. I, meanwhile, would play with the wind-up shark and sift fondly through the key-rings, reminiscing about exploring castles and climbing dinosaurs. I'd dig the tapes out of the glitter, wipe them down and figure out some way to get them working. Then I'd compost the letters, plant the seeds and make myself a coffee before settling down to watch Teletubbies while investigating the sandwiches. It'll be just like old times...

Hmmm... Maybe I should put the beer in after all.

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 7 August 2009

Tales from the countryside

Dear Dave,

I've lamented before about what complete townies my children are. True, I'm not much of a fan of the country life myself and I was only too keen to move to the city at the earliest opportunity, but I always imagined that they'd have some kind of genetic memory of all the generations of farmers before me that stretch right back to the roots of our family tree.

As always, however, a trip to visit my folks in rural Norfolk disillusioned me once again.

It started when Marie complained about her tea. "What's this green stuff on my garlic bread?" she asked.

"It's garlic," I replied.

She pulled a face, as if this information had spoiled her day. "Awwww! I like garlic bread - I don't want to have garlic on it..."

Since logical reasoning really had nowhere to go from there, I just told her to eat it anyway. Nonetheless, I was reminded of my previous efforts to educate the boys as to the source of common food items. Curious as to her understanding of such things, I asked her where sausages come from.

She giggled. "From sausage bushes."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm just joking," she said, clearly sincere. "They don't come from bushes really."

"Uh-huh," I nodded. "Good." I was about to continue my own meal, when I suddenly had a suspicion that I didn't have the whole picture. I still had to check something. "Er... So where do sausages come from?"

"Sausage trees, of course."

This time she wasn't joking. I was forced to explain where sausages actually come from and Marie was somewhat put out by the answer. She denied it all and then took her mind off the whole issue by concentrating on eating her tea.

It was sausages.

After she'd had second helpings, we went out to play in the garden. The kids decided to see how many ladybirds they could find and collect. Lewis sat on the lawn and made a small pen for the creatures with his legs. He had a couple of dozen of the things crawling on and around him in the end.

"One flew off," said Fraser. "It went over that grassy fence."

I looked where he was gesturing and shook my head. "That would be a hedge." I realised then that the genetic memory would need a helping hand. I was going to have to educate them. "Come over here and see this beetle."

"What's a beetle?" they all asked at once.

I kept pointing but they were quite happy not to look and to have me explain instead. To be honest, I didn't know where to start. Fortunately, Sarah was there to help.

"It's like a ladybird with worse PR," she said.

At this, the kids all nodded sagely and went back to hunting for red, spotted insects. I was left still pointing at the beetle. After a while, it looked me in the eye, shrugged and scuttled off.

I gave up and lay down on the grass to dream about sausage trees...

Ho well. Maybe I'm not the right person to teach the children about nature and the country anyway. They're unlikely to listen to me. They did learn two important lessons themselves a couple of days later, though, when they tried the same collecting game with different bugs. They learnt that with ants, it's not getting them to crawl all over you that's the hard part - it's getting them off again where the problem lies.

Then they learnt to dance around while shrieking...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 3 August 2009

Delayed transmission

Dear Dave,

Greetings from 1996!

By the time you read this, I'll be safely back home, enjoying all kinds of modern conveniences, like broadband internet, cable TV and mobile phone coverage. For now, having barely recovered from my holiday in the 1980s, I find myself taking another temporal excursion, stuck at my parents' house in an area of rural Norfolk where indoor toilets are still a marvel of modern science.

Sarah is away on business again. It's in London this time so we all travelled down together and then she continued on. Theoretically, staying with my parents means I have extra help looking after the children while she's busy networking. In practice, the time I gain from not having to cook and clean is merely channeled into keeping the kids entertained now they've been separated from their usual amusements. I've spent most of the last week alternating between playing hide-and-seek in the garden and card games around the kitchen table. The first couple of days of it were fairly idyllic but after a while I began to understand why Lewis cried when he discovered we weren't bringing the Wii with us...

Still, it's nice seeing my folks again and I'm not entirely bereft of the trappings of the digital age. My parents do have a computer. I'm fairly sure the company who made it went bust over ten years ago so the thing's pretty ancient but it mostly works, even if the monitor is somewhat agnostic about the colour green. (Giving it a thump usually fixes it.)

I found the machine up in their loft. It wasn't there because they'd packed it away or anything - bizarrely, that's where they had it set up beneath a Velux window covered in spiderwebs. It was covered in dust and small, dead flies. I fought my way past piles of winter coats and out-of-date paperwork, and then shifted a tower of old catalogues to get to it. A stack of cardboard boxes nearby teetered worryingly. I think my dad switched it off in 1998 and then forgot how to switch it back on. My mum never went near it for fear of catching the Y2K bug.

I blew off the worst of the gunk, reconnected a few loose cables and booted the thing up. I was somewhat surprised when it sprang staggered into life. I was more surprised a few minutes later when I went to press the full-stop button and discovered that one of the dead flies had chosen a particularly camouflaged place to drop dead.


Nevertheless, I can check my email... slowly... and I've rediscovered the joys of surfing the information super highway using dial-up. Perhaps if I press 'Send' now, this will upload in less time than it would take a postcard to reach you.

I'm not going to hold my breath...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Do you suppose the kids will have realised I've sneaked inside yet or do you think they're still trying to find me?