Dear Dave

Friday 27 November 2009

When computer games go bad

Dear Dave,

The kids are all finally back at school. Hurrah! That only took a week. Doubtless one of them will come down with something else in a couple of days but, in the meantime, it makes a nice change not having anyone in the house lying around under a blanket, sighing deeply. Being stuck inside for so long as been a little much on occasion. At last there's no more bickering over whose turn it is to play the Wii and I can open a window and do something about the smell of stale children in the lounge.


Anyway, it's been a long week full of grumpiness, illness and TV involving annoying puppets. My patience is running low. I've also had to witness the kids play quite a number of computer games. Some of them have been good and some of them have been bad but the children have been too under the weather to care.

I haven't.

It's set me to pondering where bad games come from. Obviously, at a basic level, making a bad computer game is incredibly easy. You hire the cheapest team you can find, set them to work on an interactive version of an upcoming animated family movie and then insist they have it finished by a fortnight on Thursday. This technique never fails. That said, it's also a bit like creating a TV movie about three blokes digging a hole. The chances of it being anything but awful are so slim, no one will go near it. They might give it a quick shot if they're lying around under a blanket, sighing deeply on a weekday afternoon, but they'll soon switch over to something else.

Far worse are games that are good enough to want to finish but that contain easily fixed issues which cause the player to swear in frustration on a regular basis. Where do these games come from? It's stupefying. I so frequently play games with major flaws that could have been corrected with minimal effort, I can only assume that designers introduce the problems on purpose. Perhaps it's a clever trick to give them some straightforward improvements for the sequel.

In case you ever get the urge to design a bad computer game yourself, here's a list of stuff to include:

  • A final boss that's ten times harder than the rest of the game - Game too short? You could add extra levels, different game modes and some additional side challenges. Or you could just triple the length of the final enemy's life bar and force the player to do the last half hour of the game over and over again until they finally get lucky and kill the thing...

    ...only to discover it's not really dead and they have to fight it again. In the dark. Armed with only a carrot.

    Hey, if they get totally stuck, they can always go watch the ending on YouTube.

  • The whole game again... but backwards! - Not content with merely making the final boss too hard? Make the player traipse back through the entire game to find it.

  • And then forwards again - Even better, leave the boss at the end but put a door in the way. Make the player have to traipse back to find the key.

    Players will really love the extra value for money they're receiving. They may even like the idea so much that the next time they go to the cinema, they'll insist on watching the middle of the film three times before they get to see the last ten minutes.

  • An unhelpful save system - This is perhaps the simplest way to make a great game almost unplayable for normal people. Just don't put save points in the middle of long levels. That way, if there's a power cut or they have to stop (because a child is vomiting, for instance), it's right back to the start. To really rub it in, include mid-level checkpoints but no way to save them.

    For an extra element of surprise, make save points twenty minutes apart, except for a few that have an hour in between them. This will regularly catch out players attempting to sneak in a quick section before bed.

  • Excessive darkness - Make the game full of shadows and coal mines so players spend the whole time leaning forward and squinting at the screen to locate all the important small, black objects they need to find...

  • Excessive brightness - ...but then throw in the occasional jaunt to the surface of the sun so they're spending more time fighting with the brightness menu on their TV than playing.

  • Fiddly motion control - Why let players press a button to open a door when you can force them to reach out with the controller, turn it and pull it back? That's far more immersive. Particularly since it's uncomfortable when sitting down and doesn't work half the time.

    Making a quick shake in one direction perform a reload while also having a quick shake in a very similar direction perform a 180 degree turn is always good for a laugh.

    This is option is currently restricted to Wii but it's coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2010. Start coding now!

  • Meaningless difficulty selection - Designing something that's too easy or too hard is a slightly lazy way of creating a bad game. Add a touch of style by making it the player's fault. Let them choose a difficulty level from at least five options but without giving them any clue as to what difference the choice makes. Only allow them to choose before the game starts and don't let them change their mind without starting a new game. They're bound to get halfway through and wish they'd made a different choice.

    Of course, you could make the game do exactly the same thing whichever option they choose. But that would be evil...

  • A complicated, but dull, back story - So, you have a bald space marine who has to run through endless corridors fighting horrific creatures? That's kind of generic. Better make your game stand out by having it all to do with a war between the Volban and Arg'jan over the future of Hascan supplies left behind by the GRR/kan, as retold by fffffffFxxx units scattered throughout Losdan by the advance Saswan team consisting of the marine's ex-wife and best friends. Add some incomprehensible flashbacks and a touch of betrayal.


  • No plot recap - For best results, briefly mention several vital plot details at about half an hour into the game. Don't refer to them again for the next fifteen levels until they turn the whole story on its head. At this point, assume the player recalls the information perfectly. So what if it's been six weeks since they played that bit? They should have been paying attention.

    Bonus points if the info is in the original game but the big reveal isn't until the sequel...

  • A dodgy translation - Nothing makes a hackneyed plot and complicated back story more enjoyable than a stack of non sequiturs and some garbled grammar (apart from maybe plenty of atrocious voice acting and characters who spakest in pretendye Medieval parlance, forsoothe!).

    Watch out, though. Mess up and poor translation can become a bonus feature. I was playing a game the other day in which I kept having to open lots of 'difficult chests'. These were impressive and gaudy but, strangely, they all opened really easily. I only figured out what was going on when I was opening one of the plain, ordinary, 'simple chests' that were also lying around. I laughed quite hard.

  • Lots of alarms - If someone is breaking out of a prison or breaking into an alien stronghold or just plain breaking stuff almost anywhere, they should expect that some alarms are going to go off eventually. It's even a good indicator that they've been detected and it's time to run away. Alarms are great... in moderation.

    When a fire alarm goes off in real life, it should keep blaring until the fire brigade arrives or the building burns down. It's only sensible. In a game, however, ten seconds is plenty long enough to blast out a noise which is designed to be grating. This being the case, you should consider having the thing wail for at least fifteen minutes.

    For added irritation, make the section after the alarms go off really difficult so the player has to repeat it many times. Also throw in plenty of dialogue and verbal instructions so they can't turn the sound down.
And there we have it. A few suggestions to get you going. How they normally get past QA is a mystery, though. Many of these issues could be fixed in an afternoon. Maybe they're such a fundamental part of gaming culture that everyone simply puts up with them. No one thinks, 'Hey, it doesn't have to be this way...'


Hmmm... Maybe this sort of thing doesn't just happen with games. Perhaps I should go ask the kids what I do all the time that really drives them up the wall. You never know, I might be able to improve their customer experience without much effort.

First, however, I think I'll go test the batteries in the smoke alarms...

Yours in a woman's world,


Monday 23 November 2009

Always have a back-up plan

Dear Dave,

Last week was the week.

The week when I didn't have any school holidays to contend with. When my calendar was free of tradesmen and essential errands. When I didn't have parents staying, cleaning to do or school trips to help out on. Barring a quick visit to Iceland to pile a trolley with food and arrange a home delivery, last week was the first week in nine years when I was totally free to concentrate on getting some writing done and plan for the inevitable future in which I'm no longer a housedad.

With fear and trepidation, I sat down just after nine o'clock on Monday morning and began to type. Time was spread out before me, rich and fertile and filled with seemingly infinite possibility. At last! A chance to think and create, an opportunity to -

Whirr. Click.

At five past nine, my screen went suddenly blank.

It would be nice to say that this was due to some sort of epiphany on my part - that I realised I should really have a lie down and then go for a coffee somewhere in celebration of my freedom. There would be something almost inspiring about me switching the computer off and walking away to enjoy a well-deserved rest from all my housedad labour. It would be a simple lesson to all the crazy, over-stretched people out there run-ragged by the goading of self-imposed expectation. Just relax, take a deep breath, think about what you're doing, go eat a muffin...

Unfortunately, the reality was that the hard drive in my laptop died.

As you can probably imagine, this wasn't very relaxing. By the time I'd figured out the problem, replaced the drive, re-installed everything, recovered as much data as I could and sobbed into my coffee, it was Wednesday. On Thursday, Fraser woke up with symptoms which, when described to other parents in the playground, had them backing away, making little signs of warding and muttering about swine flu.

Then Sarah got it. Then I got it. Now Marie has it.

It's Monday again and Fraser is still off school. Lewis appeared slightly disappointed to be the only one fit and healthy and able to go. He cheered up, however, when I pointed out the alternative was to stay home with his brother and sister and listen to them grump and whine all day about not feeling very well. In fact, I suggested a swap - I offered to go to school for him if he stayed behind to look after the others.

He was out the door like a shot.

Ho well. Maybe I'll get some writing done next week. You never know, perhaps I'll even have a lie down or go for coffee instead.

(Assuming Lewis hasn't come down with this by then, of course...)

Yours in a woman's world,



To all the American Daves and non-Daves out there,

Ally at is looking to talk to housedads about their experiences in order to write an upbeat article about involved fathers. You can contact her via the site. (Her email address was one of the things which I didn't manage to save!) It's a nationwide directory of local businesses run by self-employed parents, so it's worth checking out.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

The cost of parenthood

Dear Dave,

That sounds expensive. The cinema tickets alone must have cost over twenty quid and then there was the popcorn and drinks. Figure in the trip to Pizza Hut, the bus fare and the balloons and it must all add up to more than you want to think about. That's before you even take into consideration the essential supplies you'll have picked up seeing as you were in town anyway - I don't know about you, but if I go to the shopping centre, I always seem to come back with several packs of wipes, a handful of toothbrushes and at least one pack of school socks. The total cost of a Saturday out of the house can be eye-watering.

And you probably had to leave the film at the best bit to change Daisy's nappy...

There are cheaper alternatives, certainly, such as going to the museum or for a walk in the rain, but my kids tend to complain if I try them too often. Also, if I'm not careful, they can end up costing more than I was expecting. Museums have over-priced cafés carefully placed to ensnare passing parents who really need cake after having spent half an hour extracting their offspring from the gift shop with only a bare minimum of souvenir pencil sharpeners and shiny stones highly-educational geological samples.

Walks in the rain always require snacks and extra laundry. Sometimes they require air-sea rescue.

Of course, you expect having children to be expensive, and there's an initial big hit to confirm things. The list of stuff to buy is almost endless. Expenditure does quieten down for a bit after that, though. Babies don't eat much. They don't need their own laptop. They don't care where they go on holiday. Day-to-day outlay on a toddler can be small (if you're looking after them yourself, that is... and blatantly ignore the lost income you could potentially be earning doing something else).

A second child is also relatively cheap. The cot is in place. There are clothes. It doesn't matter too much if not all the babygros are the right colour. Let's face it, most of them probably won't last an hour before needing soaked in a bucket anyway.

By Number 3, there's no longer a requirement to buy the best - any old tat will do. Sure, a few bits and bobs of equipment will need replaced and it's worth being picky about things like the height of buggy handles but worn bibs and battered toys are fine. It's all quite manageable.

Then they need shoes. Six weeks later they need more shoes. They start eating real food. They notice adverts. They grab stuff off store shelves. They begin to consume...

Before you know it, they're demanding to be dressed in a fashion that doesn't give the impression they've just been shot backwards from a cannon through the bargain rack at Oxfam.

Then they need MORE shoes - flashing ones with little toy cars hidden in the sole...

It's a costly slope which ends in university tuition fees and debtors' prison. It can be remarkably hard to notice the descent, though. When my parents came to stay the other week, I got them to buy a couple of loaves of bread while they were out for a walk one morning. I didn't think much about it but my mum was somewhat surprised that we were down to barely more than crusts by the next day. I shrugged it off. The kids are getting bigger and there were extra people in the house - bread was going to disappear quickly.

I may have been a bit complacent. Yesterday, I went to the shop at the end of the street with the kids. When we left the shop, I had an entire loaf of bread. By the time we got home, I had this:

The pathetic remains of a sliced loaf.

That's right. They ate half a loaf of bread on the way back from the shop. It was only a ten minute walk and quite a lot of that was down to stopping to get more bread out of the bag. Marie had three slices and she doesn't even like bread. (It apparently tasted better in the rain.)

We had lunch and then had to go to the shop to buy some bread. While we were there, I bought wipes, toothbrushes and socks, just to save another trip later and avoid wear and tear on their shoes.

Excuse me while I go eBay one of my kidneys...

Yours in a woman's world,


Friday 13 November 2009

Transferable skills

Dear Dave,

Useless Dad didn't waste time. "Do you have a suit?" he asked as soon as I opened the door.

"Er... Yes." I'd only just got the kids off to school and I was looking forward to settling down with a cup of coffee to check my email before getting on with chores. Having Steve turn up in a panic certainly hadn't been part of my plan for the morning.

"A smart suit?"

"It's not full of holes, if that's what you mean, and it's so old it's probably back in fashion."

"That will have to do," he said with a touch of desperation. "Do you want a job for the day? I can't find anyone else. You're not still tied up fixing computers at that private school are you?"

"No. The headmaster got a management consultancy firm like yours in over the summer to cut costs. They told him I'd got enough machines working already and I wasn't needed any more."

Steve nodded in quiet appreciation. "Sound business practice, of course." Then he remembered to be sympathetic. "But... er, unfortunate for you, I imagine."

"Not really. I could do with the break. Besides, with no regular maintenance and constant abuse by hundreds of teenage boys, their whole network will be coughing up diodes by February. They'll have to hire me back, on twice as many hours." I shrugged. "I suspect I won't be available unless they up my pay."

"Ah, I see..."

I doubted he did but I decided not to press the matter. "So what's this job then?"

"My colleague, Geoff, was called away to an unscheduled meeting with an important client and an early tee time. Unfortunately, we're due to be visiting a different client in half an hour. They're expecting two of us. I need someone to stand in."

"You want me to be a management consultant?"


I raised an eyebrow. "And the only qualification I need is a smart suit?"

"I'll do the smiling and talking. You take notes and look serious."

"I guess I can do that," I muttered, rubbing my forehead. I had a nasty feeling I was about to agree to something I was going to regret. "I presume you're going to pay me."

Steve blinked, as if this was a possibility he hadn't considered. "Well, I suppose we could..."

I sighed. "I'll go get changed."

* * *

The biggest part of the job seemed to be carrying things. I had a laptop, a briefcase, an armful of glossy brochures, a clipboard and, against my better judgement, Steve's overcoat. I struggled out of the lift on the top floor of the office building and stumbled after Steve as he strode off to shake hands with anyone he could find who looked important.

We were working for RSFI, a relatively small financial institution, in the centre of town. They're not that large but they've been around forever and their offices are an old-fashioned mess of wood-panelled corridors and thick carpet. The whole place was claustrophobic and overly warm. I felt uncomfortable in any number of different ways.

We were shown into a plush conference room complete with chandeliers and a polished mahogany table laid out with tea, coffee and posh chocolate biscuits. There were even doilies and silver teaspoons.

Steve had got ahead of me as I lumbered along trying not to drop anything and he was already chatting away to three middle-aged men in extremely smart suits. They looked very important indeed. Before I could put the stuff down, he signalled me over without pausing in his introductory spiel.

"...and then we'll take a look at the numbers and break it down into bottom-line savings. I'll be giving you an overview of some possibilities for increased productivity and suggesting areas for further investigation."

The men murmured in approval and then one of them said, "Everything's set up for the training and analysis session downstairs."

"Good," said Steve, nodding and smiling, despite clearly being confused by this remark. "Very good."

"It's due to start at ten," said the man, turning to me. "With the speed the lift has been going recently, I imagine you'll want to head down there straight away. Wouldn't want to be late. Time is money, after all." The man chortled as if this statement was somehow amusing and the two other men chortled along with him. He held out his hand. I tried my best to shake it but ended up giving him a brochure instead.

While I joined in the polite laughter, Steve pulled his appointment book from his jacket pocket and hurriedly scanned it. He jabbed a finger at a scribbled entry and his toadying grin became momentarily less fulsome. He went slightly grey. "Ah..." he murmured.

"Ah?" I queried.

"I... Er... Why didn't you mention that RSFI had booked some training this morning, Ed?"

There were so many truthful (yet inappropriate) answers to that question that I found myself momentarily at a loss for words. "Well..." I began.

"Let me take some of that stuff," said Steve hurriedly, grabbing his coat and the rest of the brochures, "so you can get down there and really BUILD A TEAM, then get them to BRAIN-STORM about improving EFFICIENCY." Just in case I hadn't quite picked up on the words he'd said twice as loud as the others, he beamed at me theatrically and attempted a wink.

I paused to consider my options and actually saw the sweat break out on his brow.

"How about I stay here and discuss organisation and preparedness with senior management over coffee while you lead the workshop?" I handed him the laptop.

It was Steve's turn to pause but then he chuckled and slapped me on the back. "Good one," he said. "You almost had me there." He chuckled some more and returned his attention to the three men, motioning at me in mock exasperation. They joined in the chuckling.

While I was still processing all the creepy merriment, Steve gave me back the laptop. "You'll be needing this. It's got the presentation on, after all." He took the briefcase, opened it and pulled out a document folder. "Don't forget the workshop notes."

* * *

The meeting room was unpleasant. Although there were windows, they were below street level, looking out onto three feet of patio and then a stone wall. Grey light and traffic noise filtered down from above, mixed with the steady patter of rain. Tables and chairs were scattered about in something approximating rows that faced a wall with a long stretch of whiteboard. I found a switch and sent ceiling panels flickering loudly into life, harshly illuminating the stark decor and threadbare carpet tiles.

About twenty people were sitting waiting for me. Over half were lounging around looking bored in a slightly unkempt fashion while joking with each other and idly attempting to get reception on their iPhones. The rest were desperately catching up on paperwork. The two groups were neatly (and somewhat pointedly) divided on opposite sides of the room. The first consisted entirely of men, the other was mostly women.

I introduced myself and then made a show of hooking up the laptop to the projector as I tried to work out what on Earth I was going to do for the rest of the morning. Needless to say, I wasn't hugely thrilled with the situation Steve had landed me in. Truth be told, however, I was more annoyed with myself than with him. I should have seen it coming.

Taking a deep breath, I attempted to calm my nerves. I didn't have a great deal to lose. I was never going to see these people again and it wasn't as if I could get sacked. Worst case scenario, I had a couple of hours of embarrassment ahead of me.

I booted up PowerPoint.

How bad could it be?

* * *

Very bad.

The slides were unintelligible. A few were written in words I didn't understand, the rest were incomplete notes. I skimmed through them as best I could, trying to sound confident as I spouted gobbledigook. It didn't work. The eyes of my audience rapidly glazed over. A few surreptitiously returned to their forms and iPhones.

At last something came up which looked familiar. The letters:


were written down the side of a page. Relief welled up inside me. I knew this! It was an acronym to help recall the essential criteria for setting objectives. All objectives should be... er... Something, Momething, Achievable and, er... Oh, drat...

I decided to throw it open to the floor. "Does anyone know the most important attributes of successful objectives?"

"They should be achievable," said a bald guy with a bushy beard, looking up from his phone.

"And they shouldn't change the moment you've achieved them," chipped in one of his colleagues, who was much younger and wearing a hideous green tie with a purple shirt.

The first guy snorted. "That counts as not being achievable."

"No, it doesn't."

"If you can't tick it off as an achieved objective even if you've achieved it, then surely it's unachievable by definition."

Green-tie-man became rather animated. "The objective has still been achieved even if the list of objectives has changed. You're confusing your local and global objectives."

"Well," said beardy bloke, rolling his eyes, "if you hadn't defined them with the same name..."

"I didn't do any such thing. I..."

I coughed loudly until they stopped arguing. "I take it you guys work in IT?"

They and their friends nodded. The younger one looked a bit sheepish.

"Great," I said. "How about you Google 'SMART objectives' on your phones?"

There was much shaking of beards. "Can't get a signal."

"OK. Objectives..." I was forced to improvise. "They shouldn't be STUPID. Moving on..."

* * *

The presentation was supposed to take an hour but I ran out of things to say in ten minutes. I attempted to buy some time to look over the workshop material by suggesting everyone go and get themselves a coffee.

Nobody moved.

"If you're paying for it," said green-tie-man, clearly emboldened by his previous contribution.


He clarified. "We have to pay for it and it's awful."

"That's scandalous. I..." My voice trailed off as I realised that there was nothing in the workshop folder but a used envelope. I flipped it over in panic. On the back were scrawled three questions:
  • What works?

  • What doesn't work?

  • How could things be done better?
I turned the envelope over again and then checked inside.

It was empty. I had three questions to last me until lunch-time and there was no coffee.

"Right," I said, doing my best to look professional and cheery. "You'll need to split up into small groups. Time for a discussion."

* * *

"This is getting a little heated. Perhaps it's time to step back a minute and..."

No one listened to me. Green-tie-man was toe-to-toe with one of the women from the other group (who I'd learnt were all involved with administration and human resources). "I put in my expenses claim six weeks ago," he snarled as his comrades whistled and jeered in support. "I still don't have the money!"

The admin lady was older, taller, better dressed and more fragrant. She looked over her glasses at him. "It's not my fault that unusual items have to be signed off by two heads of department."

"A light bulb is not an unusual item."

"It is when you buy it yourself," snapped the woman, cheered on by her colleagues. "Instead of requesting one from maintenance."

"My office doesn't have windows - I need a daylight bulb. I had one before."

She threw her arms up in the air. "I know that but I don't have authority to authorise repeat procurements." They were almost shouting at each other.

"You should have chased it up."

"It's not my job to badger your boss." She started pointing her finger around for emphasis.

He retaliated with another accusing digit. "It is your job to get expenses paid promptly."

The confrontation was heading towards a scuffle even before one of the other admin staff piped up with, "If your team ever got round to installing the new accounts software, it would do the chasing up automatically."

Beardy bloke leapt to his feet. "So that's what this is about!"

Suddenly it was a free-for-all. Everyone was pointing and shouting.

"We've installed it twice already."

"You didn't get it right."

"We did exactly what you said you wanted."


"ENOUGH!" I glared at them in a manner that comes naturally after spending several months working in a school full of teenage boys who don't respect electronic equipment. "Sit down and be quiet."

I waited until they were all seated again and then spoke firmly but quietly. "We clearly have a real problem here and something has to be done." I paused to let this sink in, giving them all a chance to reflect on their behaviour. A few averted their gaze in shame as I looked them in the eye.

Then I pulled a face and wretched, pointing to the cup in my hand. "I went to the vending machine. This coffee is atrocious. Seriously, people, we have to do something about this. I want solutions and I want them now. OK... Go..."

* * *

As a team building exercise, launching a daring raid on the executive canteen turned out be pretty effective. The admin staff used the system to distract, obfuscate and requisition. The techies hacked into the security cameras and did most of the actual creeping around. Within half an hour, we had some cafetieres, a couple of teapots, a supply of Earl Grey, assorted china crockery and a selection of chocolate biscuits. Thanks to wild over-enthusiasm, we also had a catering-sized box of condiment sachets, a laser printer, two armchairs, a roast chicken and three potted shrubs. More than that, sensing free food, a dozen extra people from Customer Relations had shown up to join us.

Everyone was mingling nicely.

"Are you sure we're going to get away with this?" asked green-tie-man with his mouth full. "What happens if management finds out?"

"It's OK," I said. "I'll let them know about it when I report back and I'll tell them I made you do it as part of the course. It's my problem, not yours."

The admin lady he'd been fighting with earlier sipped her tea and smiled. "Do you do this all the time?"

"Er..." I decided to come clean. "I'm just filling in for today."

"Oh..." The jovial mood in the room evaporated. Everyone looked worried. They'd all assumed my confidence came from getting away with similar things before and they hadn't yet grasped the bullet-proof nature of my position.

"Look at this as an opportunity," I reassured them. "If you have something you want the executives to hear, I don't mind saying it to them. Doesn't bother me if they don't like it. I'm gone by this afternoon anyway."

This calmed them all a little but then green-tie-man blew it. "What do you normally do?" he asked.

"I'm actually a housedad."

Admin lady's brow furrowed. "So you don't know anything about cooperation and productivity?"

"I wouldn't say that. What are the problems you have to deal with most often?"

"My manager doesn't listen. He ignores me and then does the opposite of what I say."

I nodded. "Does he talk gibberish and think he knows everything?"


"Funnily enough," I said, offering her another biscuit, "I might just have a few tips to help you get by..."

* * *

"How did it go?" asked Steve when I returned to the conference room. His startled look gave the impression he'd forgotten about me. He'd been deep in conversation with the same three men from earlier.

"Very well."

"Excellent would you like a cup of coffee and a..." He turned in his seat and reached for the plate of biscuits but it wasn't there. "Oh. That's strange."

"I'm fine. Here's my report." I slid my clipboard across the table to the man in the smartest suit.

The man chuckled. "Have you found us plenty of cost-cutting measures."

"I certainly have. I can save you thousands of pounds a year."

"Good. Good."

"Yes, all you need to do is replace the vending machines with better quality ones, make them free and hire two more people to work in Human Resources."

Steve choked on his drink. He flapped a bit in agitation but he was too busy dealing with the hot coffee coming out his nose to interrupt me.

"In return for the refreshments, the IT staff have agreed to spend less time dejectedly surfing the internet and more time making everyone else's lives easier. With extra people, admin staff will have the chance to find the most cost-effective solutions to problems. They'll also get to queries faster, reducing lost productivity throughout the company resulting from follow-up queries and general grumpiness. In addition, both teams are going to try harder to explain what they mean to each other, in an effort to minimise effort wasted due to misunderstandings."

The three men looked at each. They weren't chuckling anymore.

"Oh, and I need you to sign off on this." I slid another sheet of paper over. "It's a retrospective request form for a chicken..."

* * *

"You're speaking to me again then?" I said before covering the mouth-piece to shout upstairs. "Hey, children! I'm on the phone. Less thumping!" The thundering of rampaging elephants coming from Fraser's bedroom lessened to a minor degree.

Steve cut to the chase. "How's your golf?"

"Couldn't hit the broadside of a barn I was standing in. Why?"

"After consulting the workforce, the board at RSFI have decided to go with your recommendations," he said, pleased but baffled. "The Head of Personnel was wondering about talking through implementation with you over eighteen holes."

I contemplated this and wandered back into the kitchen to stir the kids' pasta. "Are you going to pay me?"

"To play golf?"

"To politely state the obvious while losing badly in the cold."

There was the distinct sound of reluctant swallowing at the other end of the line. "I suppose we could..."

"Great," I said. "Count me in." Then I covered the mouth-piece again and yelled, "Tea-time!"

Steve just managed to arrange the details and hang up before I was surrounded by my lovely herd of rampaging elephants. I served them their tea and listened to them all talk at once. Then Fraser switched on the telly and they ate their food quietly while watching Newsround. Our kitchen seemed even warmer and cosier than ever, and I gave each of them a hug.

They all complained but I didn't care.

Yours in a woman's world,


Thursday 12 November 2009

Edge of the Otherworld

Dear Dave,

I should be lying around enjoying the peace and quiet, revelling in the fact I've lived through the pre-school years and finally got all three of my kids out of the house on a regular basis.


Nine years of limited sleep and constantly running around like a headless chicken have acclimatised me to being busy. Half an hour of sitting about during the day, and I get this urge to be productive. Writing to you fills up plenty of time but, well, it's clearly not enough. I logged onto the internet recently and this:

just kind of happened.

If you're looking for some thoughts, reflections and humour involving much more spirituality and far fewer embellished anecdotes about children, then check it out.

Yours on the Edge,


Monday 9 November 2009

Home alone

Dear Dave,

Thursdays can be hectic. Marie has a friend round from school for an hour or so and then there's a mad scramble to do homework and eat tea before she and Lewis have to be along the road at church for Anchor Boys and Rainbows. Once they're delivered and I've got home again with Fraser, there's only a twenty minute gap until I have to take him in the other direction to Boys' Brigade. Then I've got a pretty brisk walk to get back in time to collect the first two and head home to prepare food for Sarah's arrival from work so we've had opportunity to wolf something down before Fraser has to be picked up again and Marie needs seen to bed.

It's all a mad rush.

Last week, as I was fighting my way down the street to church with three children who were squabbling with each other over whether we were going to be late or not, a thought occurred to me:

Why had I brought Fraser?

It was dark and raining and I was only going to be gone a quarter of an hour. All I was doing was dropping off Marie and Lewis and coming straight back. Was it really necessary to drag their nine-year-old brother out of the house in the name of safety and supervision? If I'd left him at home, there was a good chance he wouldn't have moved from the sofa. As it was, I was making him cross roads in the wet and gloom. How exactly was that safer and more responsible? I trust him not to play with matches or knives. He knows not to put magnets near memory cards. There wasn't time to organise a wild party.

In fact, I could only think of two plausible disaster scenarios. One involved him suddenly deciding he needed the toilet and then falling down the stairs in his hurry to get there. The other involved me getting hit by a car while crossing a road in the wet and gloom, thus leaving him to his own devices for longer than expected.

Since he's careless and falls down the stairs approximately once a year, the first possibility was a legitimate concern. Then again, he was wide awake, not distracted by siblings and could focus his attention on the task in hand without having to waste any on ignoring me. I calculated the actual risk as on a par with brushing his teeth unattended. Who knows what he does with that toothbrush before putting it in his mouth? And I probably don't want to find out what he does while it's in there. Wrestling with his brother? Arguing with his sister? Gargling the Harry Potter theme tune? All three at once? That's got to be a choking hazard... Nonetheless, I let him face minty-fresh catastrophe twice a day. Lying on the sofa while I'm away for a few minutes really can't be much worse than that.

But what if it had turned out to be more than a few minutes? What if I'd woken up six weeks later in hospital? How would he have coped?

Truth be told, he might not have noticed. He knows where the biscuits and spare toilet roll are kept. He can get himself a drink of water. He's able to change the batteries in a Wii remote. I suspect he'd have been fine until Sarah got home. He'd definitely have been a lot more comfortable than Lewis and Marie as they lurked outside the church halls in the drizzle, forlornly waiting for me to fetch them...

All in all, bringing Fraser with me seemed to be extra effort for no real gain. It was just one more source of stress in a tight schedule. I decided to take the plunge and leave him behind this coming Thursday.

The next day, another thought occurred to me:

Why wait till Thursday?

Lewis had a party to go to at a friend's house round the corner. Even dragging Marie along, I could drop him off AND nip to the shops for some bread before Fraser's bladder realised I was gone and began contemplating launching him down the stairs. There really was no reason to take Fraser along.

He was delighted with this plan, almost looking up from his computer game in enthusiasm. I, meanwhile, marvelled at the convenience of only having two children to get ready to go and to shove out the door. With a parting warning not to brush his teeth, I left Fraser on his own.

It was both liberating and nerve-racking. Getting along the road was easier but I kept expecting to be quizzed at any moment by the Parent Police, demanding to know where my other child was. Is nine an appropriate age to let children look after themselves? If so, then for how long?

As we were going up the tenement stairs to the party, Lewis noticed something was different. "Where's Fraser?" he asked in genuine confusion.

"Home alone," I replied and immediately wished I hadn't. I had visions of Fraser taking on intruders in a hideously messy combination of slapstick and nail-guns. Worse, I felt the desire to buy Christmas lights. I tried to laugh it off. "He's probably sprinkling the stairs with marbles as we speak," I chuckled unconvincingly, "and electrifying the handle of the front door."

As it turned out, however, Fraser was once again safer at home than with me. Having dropped Lewis off, I was so busy making sure Marie was being careful in the dimly-lit stairwell that I stumbled on the steps myself. Twice. I was more than a little thankful to eventually make it back to ground level in one piece. Fraser, meanwhile, barely stirred while I was gone and risked nothing more than mild eye strain.

It was maybe a healthy experiment for us both. He got some peace; I got to work on overcoming my over-protective paranoia. Sometimes he needs to get out of the house for fresh air and exercise but I'll try leaving him behind more often. It'll be good for everyone.

I should make the most of it, though. I'll have another dilemma in a couple of years. What am I going to do when Lewis is nine? He's a good kid. I can't see I'll have any problem with leaving him home alone then. In fact, alone seems to work quite well with Fraser.

It's leaving them home together that I'll be scared of.

Yours in a woman's world,


Wednesday 4 November 2009

Herding short Vikings

Dear Dave,

Getting twenty-three seven-year-old school children onto the top deck of a bus is... an interesting experience. Oddly, the kids who've been wandering off and causing trouble all the way along the street are fine at this point - it's the ones who've been dutifully following instructions since leaving the classroom who cause the issues. They insist on holding hands even while going up the stairs and then refuse to sit next to an adult they don't know despite there being nowhere else to go.

It's a conflict of programming worthy of Asimov.

They stand on the top step and argue about stranger danger while clenched in the vice-like grip of a heavier 'friend' who's been distracted by his own nose and has forgotten to hold on to the handrail. Meanwhile, another twenty kids are all lined up behind, ready to go down like nine-pins as soon as the driver has checked all the tickets and the bus lurches off along the road...

So, Dave, you may be having a few issues with Sam's teacher this year but, honestly, you should fob Daisy off on the in-laws and volunteer to help on a school trip. You'll find it a real eye-opener, I can tell you. If you feel Miss Green is giving Sam too much of the wrong kind of work and that she isn't entirely engaging with his educational needs, you ought to try a visit to the museum with his entire class. By the end, you'll have a new appreciation for Miss Green's ability merely to stay sane on an on-going basis. Forget the excessive colouring in - it's a miracle she gives you (and 20+ other parents) six hours of childcare a day and hasn't yet locked herself in the supply cupboard to have a mental breakdown and then play quietly with the finger-puppets.

Heck, if worst comes to worst, you can always teach Sam to read yourself. I doubt it'll come to that, though. Even if it does, having somewhere cheap and away from home for him to go to and be socialised with other kids while learning about papier-mâché is still something to be thankful for.

Of course, if you did manage to off-load Daisy on unsuspecting relatives for a few hours, I can see why you might want to lie around having a rest rather than accompanying a horde of children across town to learn about Vikings. Maybe I should just tell you what happened to me when I went with Lewis' class, his teacher and Kerry's mum (the solitary other parent helper). I certainly needed to lie around having a rest afterwards.

As I said, the bus journey had its moments. The walk at the other end wasn't so bad. A couple of kids picked a fight while crossing the road, most had forgotten where we were going and one was a little cold because he'd tried to put his coat on over his enormous backpack. He'd got into the sleeves up to his elbows but the rest of the coat was hanging round his waste as he wandered along with his upper arms pinned to his side and his forearms sticking out in front of him. When I offered to rescue him from this absent-minded escapology experiment, however, he didn't seem fussed. I left him to it and concentrated on keeping a watchful eye out for cars, kidnappers and open manhole covers.

When we finally reached the museum and the children had been given stern warnings by Mrs Rogers not to get too boisterous, we were greeted by a couple of guides dressed in animal skins and wearing helmets with horns on. Well, I say 'greet', they actually leapt out at us waving plastic axes and roaring. Half the children jumped out of their skin, the other half didn't really notice. Then we were all forced to wear horned hats too, and sit down ready for a talk.

The talk began with a long explanation of why real Vikings never wore horned hats. Sadly, that didn't mean we got to take our hats off. Instead, Erik the Goat-Slayer and Sven Bottom-Thunderer as the guides called themselves, gave us a quick and lively rundown on the standard Viking topics: the names of the days of the week, longboats, runes, Valhalla and lots of roaring. Essentially, it was everything I remembered learning about Vikings when I was seven. Next term I predict a project on Romans featuring gladiators, togas, eating dormice, Hadrian's Wall and catapults.

Once the kids had been suitably wound up with roaring and period-appropriate fart gags, we had a hands-on session with Viking artifacts. We were divided up and I got to tell my group of six boys about the items they were handling as I hastily skim read the info from a help sheet. Since the objects included knives, shears, needles, drinking horns and various other sharpened bits of dead animal, this activity turned out to be more life-threatening than I'd initially envisaged. Nonetheless, we all survived with only minor injuries.

After the kids had done some drawing and then been turned upside down and shaken a bit to empty their pockets of any lingering Viking weaponry, we went to eat our packed lunches.

First, though, I got to supervise a dozen boys going to the toilet (in groups of two and three, thankfully). A couple of them couldn't reach the taps and at least one got mesmerised by the running water halfway through washing his hands and had to be reminded to stop. One thought the best way to check if a stall was free was to peer underneath the door. (Because, although sitting next to an unfamiliar granny on the bus is clearly to be avoided, placing the side of one's face on the floor of a public lavatory is apparently perfectly OK...)

After lunch, we did a quick tour of the Viking exhibits but they didn't hold the kids' attention long. It wasn't time to head home, however, and seeing as we were at the museum already, we went to look at some robots. We got to press buttons, waggle levers and play with touchscreens. This was more on my level. The kids ran riot but I could cope. It was a contrast to when I went to the modern art gallery with the Primary 5s. On that occasion, my own bewilderment made it harder to keep the children in line. I really couldn't explain why someone had painted three orange squares and hung them on a wall. I muttered something about the explanation being as important as the actual art but I'm not sure I was hugely convincing. As for the stairwell lined with the names of all the people the artist had ever met, laid out like a war memorial, in some ways it was thought provoking, in others it seemed like nice work if you could get it...

(I'm from rural Norfolk. If it's not a landscape involving cows, I'm not interested.)

Once the Primary 3s had had a while to play with the exhibits, their excited chatter began to turn to whiny bickering. Mrs Rogers gave me and Kerry's mum a look and we knew instantly to start rounding everyone up to go. The kids were approaching a level of tiredness where they were liable to descend into complete meltdown. If we didn't get them on a bus soon, we might not be able to do it at all without the aid of cattle prods and the Territorial Army. We were suddenly on a time limit.

Within three minutes we had them lined up with their coats (mostly) on. After a couple of head counts we were away.

We still barely made it.

Getting them on the bus was manageable, getting them off the bus again was challenging but getting along the street to school was almost unending. I had to keep saying, 'Keep up!' and 'Pay attention!' to every child in turn. Like ageing lettuce, they were all past their sell-by date and looking extremely tired. Those in the group with anti-social tendencies were picking fights over nothing and the space cadets were stopping in their tracks at the sight of anything bright or shiny, including, somewhat unfortunately, the sky. Every step became a battle.

When we finally reached the school gate, I was mightily relieved. There was forty-five minutes before I had to be back to collect Marie and I hurried home for a strong coffee and a chocolate biscuit, glad I wasn't Mrs Rogers. She had another hour to keep the Primary 3s amused.


They may have long holidays and excellent pensions but teachers deserve sympathy and understanding all the same...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS Having now been on a trip with each of my children, I can verify that every age group presents its own difficulties to those in charge. When given instructions, Primary 5s argue, Primary 3s don't listen and Primary 1s sing and do a little dance.

I think I'll be getting all my kids' teachers bottles of wine for Christmas.