Tuesday 30 December 2008

Calpol Christmas

We once went to stay with some friends who rather sheepishly showed us an entire draw stuffed with Calpol spoons. It was an impressive number; clearly their two small children had consumed vast quantities of the pink stuff in their short lifetimes (and these parents were both doctors - go figure).

Anyway, it reminded me of a famous quotation from TS Eliot's Prufrock: 'I have measured out my life in coffee spoons'. Well, this year, we have measured out our Christmas with Calpol spoons. We have got through more bottles in the past week than we have in the past 12 months. Even The Doctor, whose usual opinion about these things is that less is more, was doling it out liberally. Meanwhile we ourselves have been high on Lemsip for the past couple of days.

We somehow all managed to share out our ailments onto alternate days of the festive period; Littleboy 1 all quiet and floppy and hot on Christmas Eve; Littleboy 2 full of snot, fever and wretchedness on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The morning of the 27th seemed to provide a brief lull - or perhaps it was the eye of the storm? - before I went down with an evil cold in the evening. Then yesterday I was swiftly followed by The Doctor, who got so cold watching Superman Returns last night that he wrapped himself in our buggy's fleece cover. Meanwhile the boys were still supremely snotty and waking up at all hours of the night. And, in other news, both my father and father-in-law seem to have succumbed too......

Anyway, that's enough moaning. We did enjoy some of Christmas, despite the coughs and splutters. Highlights included getting pleasantly, but not indecently, drunk on sparkling wine on Christmas Eve with our neighbours; eating a fantastic turkey from Moen, the Clapham Old Town butcher, cooked to perfection by The Doctor; listening to the Littleboys and their cousins roar with laughter at Tom and Jerry on Christmas evening; watching their delight at unwrapping lots of Lego and Playmobil (although my heart did sink on registering the number of individual pieces in each set); sitting down by a roaring fire to watch the film Stardust with lots of family; cuddling up with Littleboy 1 to watch Madagascar (which I enjoyed as much as he did) and, this morning, as I ventured out of the house armed with Kleenex for the first time in days, the beauty of a sunny, frozen Clapham Common, with Littleboy 1's pure glee at being able to skim chunks of solid ice across a pond.

And, perhaps the greatest achievement of all, we managed to spend three days in a house with eight children under the age of eight, six of whom are boys, and not go completely insane.

Monday 22 December 2008

Party on?

Christmas party season is in full swing. In other words, you can't pass a pub or restaurant without seeing large groups of people wearing party hats and looking slightly worse for wear, the Tubes are heaving with drunk people and the streets, even in the more sedate areas of Nappy Valley, are adorned with pleasant little offerings of vomit in the mornings.

Five years ago, when I was immersed in the glamorous world of media and advertising, these pre-Christmas days would have passed by in a champagne-fuelled whirl. And this morning, as I was thinking back to those heady days, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare my festive season then and now....

Then: Look forward all day to the office Christmas party.
Now: Look forward all day to the moment when the Littleboys are asleep in bed.

Then: Get glammed up in little black number and knee boots for Christmas do
Now: Ask husband what you should wear to his work party. Receive the reply: "Well, remember that you are a consultant's wife."

Then: Start drinking at lunchtime in the pub; finish at 3am at a seedy bar
Now: Start drinking at 8pm watching Eastenders. Cork up bottle after 2 restrained glasses and hit the mineral water as you don't want to cope with two small children AND hangover.

Then: Spend evening throwing shapes on the dancefloor
Now: Spend evening throwing Lego back into Lego box

Then: Singing along to Robbie Williams, Kylie or whatever cheesy music playing at office Christmas do
Now: Singing along to the Cbeebies Christmas song (sadly becoming rather addictive)....

Then: Stumble in at 4am and hunt for nurofen in the vain hope of warding off hangover
Now: Stumble downstairs at 4am and hunt for Calpol in the vain hope of placating crying child

Then: Spend morning after a party gossiping in feverish, hungover fashion with workmates about who snogged who, or who had been totally indiscreet about an important office-politics related matter (although annoyingly, you could never recall what this was the next day).
Now: Spend morning after a party arguing with recalcitrant small boy about what pair of pants he's going to wear.

Then: spend family gatherings in a boozy haze of over-indulgence and occasional arguing
Now: spend family gatherings trying in vain to control children, clearing up after them and fetching them stuff to eat and drink, while staying stone cold sober in order to drive them home.

So have I turned into a boring, sensible parent? Would I still be ABLE to go out and party - even if I wanted to?

Or does the fact that the highlight of my Christmas season so far has been seeing the (brilliant) play of The Gruffalo with Littleboy 1 show that, in the immortal words of Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star, (which I was singing along to in the car this morning, much to the Littleboys' bemusement) 'we can't rewind..we've gone too far'.....?

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Tis the season...to go to the DHL depot

Oh, the joys of Christmas shopping online. It's just great. No fighting the crowds, queuing at the till or being pressurised by pushy salespeople into buying something totally unsuitable. With just a click of the mouse and a flex of the credit card, you are ready to go. Bliss.

Until, of course, it comes to delivery. And when you are out of the house half the week at work, and have to get out of it for at least a couple of hours on other days in order to maintain your sanity with two small children, you will inevitably miss the all-important arrival of the parcels.

So instead of queuing at the shops, you get to queue at the delightful Royal Mail sorting office. My local one is a benighted place that moves at snail's pace and is only open between 8 and 12 in the morning. I swear they must go off, make tea, do the crossword and phone their grannies during the time it takes them to find most packages. And the other customers don't exactly help - forgetting to bring any ID and then arguing about it, or turning up, as one woman did the other day, and saying 'I'm expecting a parcel from my sister,' without having any notion of from whence or when said parcel had been sent. All great fun when you have two bored Littleboys in tow....

Then, you return from picking up one item, only to find that in your absence, another one will have been delivered. And a card left, telling you to collect it between 8 and 12....it's like postal groundhog day.

Now, Royal Mail's problems are well-documented, but I have to say that this year my worst experience was at the DHL depot. Having missed a delivery twice, I decided to go and collect it myself from their depot on a South London industrial estate. I found the place easily enough, as there were literally scores of yellow vans emerging from its entrance, no doubt laden with presents (so does that make DHL vans the modern-day reindeer?). But once inside, there was no sign to indicate where to go and I drove around in vain, avoiding forklift trucks, until a guy in overalls took pity and pointed me in the right direction. I then stumbled around in the freezing cold looking for 'customer reception', which turned out to be a dingy office behind a barbed wire fence.

By the time I had queued and was handing my slip over, I was desperate for the loo, so stupidly enquired whether there was a customer toilet....

Much consternation. Endless discussions behind the counter. Er, no, actually - well, there might be, but it was being painted. I started to tell them not to worry, but it was too late; they genuinely wanted to help, so a female member of staff was fetched from the bowels of the building and ordered to show me to the staff loos.

We went through a series of locked doors with combination codes to reach it (apparently the male staff weren't allowed to know the combination to the female loos; I'd rather not start to think about why). When we finally reached it, the resigned-looking DHL lady was very apologetic, and no wonder. It was squalid: water leaking all over the floor, no soap or paper towels, broken loo seat. And this was her workplace, poor thing. I was pretty shocked - sure, I wasn't meant to have seen it, but surely DHL, a multinational corporation, could afford a decent loo for its staff?

And so this Christmas, perhaps we should remember the unfortunate ones. While we sit at home gleefully ordering presents online, an army of downtrodden Santa's DH-elves sit in dingy offices with sub-standard loos, sorting parcels, so that global corporations can cream off the profits. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday 15 December 2008

Rockin' around the Christmas Tree

A new discovery: the Littleboys have terrible taste in music. Although it's probably all my fault...

To get them into the Christmas spirit and entertain them while The Doctor was away, I bought them a CD of Christmas songs aimed at kiddies called 'Rockin' around the Christmas Tree'. I must admit I didn't look very hard at it in the shop (Trotters in the Northcote Road, since you ask), as I never have time for such luxuries when the Littleboys are with me, but I assumed it would probably have old favourites like Jingle bells and Rudolph the red nosed reindeer on it. But no. It turns out to be a compilation of all the naffest Christmas pop songs ever, from Slade's Here is is, Merry Christmas to I wish it could be Christmas every day, with a really cheesed up version of Santa Claus is coming to Town and a massacre of White Christmas thrown in.

And guess what - they LOVE it. Littleboy 1 has stopped demanding to watch the DVD of The Jungle Book after their bath, but instead wants me to put on 'Christmas songs'. Whereupon he dances around the room energetically, wanting me to twirl him around and around and laughing hysterically. Littleboy 2 tries gamely to join in (although I note that he often has his rather censorious look on his face, so maybe he secretly disapproves).

So this weekend, we took the Littleboys to a carol service, in the rural Berkshire village where The Doctor's family have a cottage. It was rather magical; the walk up the pitch black lane, hearing the church bell and wrapped in our winter woollies, to the tiny, candelit church decorated beautifully with holly, poinsettias and berries; the traditional carols, which I remember so well practising in the school choir (I could still sing the descant even now); and the fact that the Littleboys were pretty well-behaved ( I know - again - what's going on?).

Littleboy 2, who was recovering from a nasty cold, fell asleep in his pushchair as soon as we entered the church, which was convenient for us at any rate. Littleboy 1, after an initial bout of liveliness, calmed down and sat on my lap and sucked his thumb for most of it, so he had the pleasure of me warbling carols in his ear. He played up a bit later, trying to slide on his stomach like a seal when we went up to look at the nativity crib, but luckily there were some much worse-behaved kids around (little girls of about seven sniggering and getting told off when the trendy vicar talked at length about how we should consider the poor unfortunates who 'don't even have a duvet'.).

Anyway, I thought he had enjoyed it but when we got home, I asked him if he had enjoyed the singing. He considered for a moment and then shook his head.

"No?" I pleaded. "Not even Away in a Manger?"

"No," he said. "Need more reindeer songs."

So, that's it then. My children prefer Slade to Away in a Manger. And I am to blame....

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Man of the House

The Doctor has been away in Calfornia for a few days at a conference (he claims it's terribly hard work and he has awful jetlag: boo hoo). And, incredibly, my Littleboys have been on their best behaviour.

It's as if Littleboy 1 has decided that while Daddy is away he has to be the man of the house and take care of Mummy. For example, he became very concerned for me the other day when we were trying to find a parking space by a playground, and couldn't, as for some reason all the local white vans seemed to have parked in the precious 'no meter' spots to have their mid-morning fag break. "Oh dear, Mummy, don't worry, let's find another one," he kept chipping in from the back seat in a consoling voice as I fumed about the lack of spaces.

There have been very few tantrums, both boys have eaten all their meals with minimum fuss and this morning they even agreed to wait until they got to nursery to have their breakfast, as I was going to work and we were in a hurry. (Usually, this argument cuts no ice and they have two breakfasts, one at home in the midst of the chaotic rush to get ready and one when they arrive.) They both sat dutifully through their haircuts yesterday like little angels, prompting the hairdresser to comment on how good they were (music to my ears, as it is not a refrain I often hear). Littleboy 2 has enjoyed his birthday and Littleboy 1 hasn't even stolen all his presents. Yet.

But Littleboy 1 has also taken advantage of the situation by creeping into my bed constantly in the early hours. This is not in itself unusual, but my usual rule is that if it's earlier than 6am, I put him back in his own bed. (I do this partly because I don't want him getting ideas, partly because I find it hard to sleep when he lies there wriggling and kicking until it's time to get up).

The last few nights, he has snuck in quietly, hardly making enough noise to wake me. He then cuddles up without his usual kicking. And if he hears me stir, knowing that the situation is delicately poised, he has taken to softly whispering in my ear: "I love you, Mummy". And how could I possibly put him back after that?

Men. They always know when to say the right things.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Two years on

About two years ago today, I was lying in an operating theatre, wondering if my new baby was going to be OK.

It was an emergency c-section at 35 weeks, following four grim weeks of incarceration in hospital with bleeding due to placenta praevia. I had been warned that the baby might have to be born early, and I had been told that by about 36 weeks the chances of the baby having to go to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) would be much reduced. So we were nearly there. But, to add to the fun, I had also been warned that there was a small chance that the c-section would result in a serious haemorrhage – which would mean an immediate hysterectomy for me.

So, as you can imagine, my thoughts as I lay there were not of the marvellous joy of giving birth.

But it was all over quickly. And there was Littleboy 2 – tiny, but perfectly formed, beside me and staring hard up at me with eyes I could already tell were going to be blue and stay blue. He seemed fine, and the relief was indescribable.

A couple of hours later, the fun started again. Just as we were sitting there phoning friends and relatives, the midwife decided that his breathing sounded a little odd. A neotnatal doctor was called, and wheeled my baby off to do some tests.

Ten minutes later The Doctor stormed back in. “Our luck’s just not in,” he said miserably. Littleboy 2 had a suspected chest infection and had been admitted to the NICU. He had been stripped of his nice little babygro, put in an incubator in his nappy (oh, the indignity) and wired up to lots of machines. Someone brought me a photo of him, but I couldn’t go and see him until the next day.

Littleboy 2 was prescribed strong antibiotics and was the next day downgraded to the ‘special care’ unit (and we never really got to the bottom of whether he really had a chest infection or not). There, although tiny, he looked enormous compared to most of his ward-fellows, who were so small that some of them could really have been mistaken for dolls. He lay there sweetly sleeping, wrapped in blankets, with his little thick shock of black hair sticking up. He reminded me of a baby hedgehog. (He was so cute that one of the NICU doctors, a 20 something girl, said that she hadn’t never felt broody before until she saw this one).

He was fed my expressed breastmilk through a tube; I spent my days trekking back and forth between the postnatal ward and the NICU with pumps and tubes and sterilising equipment. But it was difficult to begin breastfeeding him properly, not because he didn’t want to do it, but because he was so hard to wake up. Premature babies can be incredibly sleepy, and to wake him, we had to strip him of his clothes, tickle his feet and basically make him bloody furious enough to scream.

Because of this, Littleboy 2 lost more than 10% of his body weight, and after a week the NICU doctors were still reluctant to let him go home. By this point I had spent more than a month in the hospital and was beginning to feel like I’d never see the light of day again. (Luckily, because it was December, it was dark most of the time anyway).

But, we begged and pleaded, and I fed him like crazy, and eventually we were allowed to take him home. I was told sternly that I must feed him every three hours for at least 20 minutes, and warned that he would be weighed a few days later and if he hadn’t gained weight, it would be back to hospital for the poor mite.

Luckily, Littleboy 2 passed his test, and never had to return to the NICU. He went on to develop a voracious appetite (maybe due to the mammoth three hourly feeds?) and is now a bouncy, lively two year old chatting away (he said ‘spaghetti bolognese’ yesterday – how impressive is that?)

Although he still has those same determined blue eyes (he has a repertoire of serious stares and has been predicted to become a judge) and thick shock of (now blond) hair, it’s hard to believe he was ever that tiny thing in the incubator.

But I try not to lose sight of it; it reminds me just how wonderful it is that he’s here.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Seven up

First things first, I must pass on the lovely award so kindly given to me by Bush Mummy. I'd like to award it to Mom/Mum who writes hilariously about living in the US, as well as Tara at Sticky Fingers, who has effortlessly made the transition from blogging for a newspaper to blogging for herself recently. Both are definitely superior scribblers.

Secondly, the plucky Hadriana, from Hadriana's Treasures, has tagged me to write some lists of sevens. So, after a little deliberation, here they are.

7 things I plan to do before I die

1. Buy a villa in a warm, Mediteranean country
2. Write a book that I am actually proud of
3. Speak another language (preferably Italian) fluently
4. Get into the dress that I wore on my 30th birthday again
5. Interview someone really, really famous
6. Cook like Nigella
7. Ski a black run without being scared

7 things I do now

1. Worry needlessly about the practicalities of moving to the US
2. Spend time blogging when I should be looking after my children/finding freelance work
3. Speak only half arsed French and have very basic smatterings of Italian and Spanish
4. Get into my dressing gown and watch tv
5. Interview marketing directors and ad agency people - if they deign to call me back
Cook the same meals every week in rotation
7. Ski nervously

7 things I can't do

1. Blow up balloons. I don't know why not - I just can't do it.
2. Wire a plug (I know. The shame).
3. Change a car tyre (ditto)
4. Any DIY, to be quite frank.
5. Bring myself to go on a Mark Warner holiday
6. Take people who are using 'corporate speak' at all seriously.
7. Waterski. Maybe one day I'll learn...

7 things that attract me in the opposite sex

1. A wicked sense of humour
2. Self-confidence (but NOT arrogance)
3. Appreciation of good food (and ideally, ability to cook it)
4. Generosity
5. Ability to do the things I can't (like DIY, car stuff: see above)
6. Appreciation of a good book
7. A sexy smile

7 things I say most often

1. Just stop it now.
2. No, you're not having wrap and hummous again. You had that for lunch.
3. Come ON.
4. No, that's Mummy's hot tea
5. Why have you taken your shoes off, again?
6. No, Beebies is finished now. It's bedtime. It's dark. It's NIGHT time.
7. Thank god: they're in bed.

7 celebrities I admire
(hard one this: admire for their looks, work, politics? and do they have to be alive or dead? I've gone for a random selection..)

1. Oscar Wilde - witty and talented
2. Louis Theroux - witty and rather gorgeous
3. Judi Dench - great British actress
4. Meryl Streep - great American actress
5. Hugh Laurie - good actor, funny and sexy
6. David Tennant - ditto
7. Barack Obama - most promising politician

7 favourite foods

1. Roast chicken
2. Fish and chips
3. Toast, butter and marmite
4. Spaghetti bolognese
5. Anything cooked at The River Cafe
6. Green & Black's white chocolate
7. Japanese dumplings from my favourite local restaurant

7 other bloggers who can do this too if they so wish (but please don't feel obliged)

3. Susanna from A Modern Mother
4. Tara

Friday 28 November 2008

Reality check

Being married to The Doctor, who has no idea who any celebrity is (I often wonder if he would recognise Madonna if she danced past him in Waitrose singing 'Like a Virgin'), I sometimes feel like a bit of an airhead for having a fairly good working knowledge of trashy celebrity culture. OK, so I know who Jordan and Peter are, know all the who said what to whoms of the Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston saga, and read articles in magazines about Gywneth Paltrow's collection of high heels. I may have an English degree, and have read Little Dorrit, but my head is full of trivia, which makes me good at pub quizzes but is otherwise pretty useless.

I also have a guilty liking for two reality TV shows; The Apprentice, which is my absolute favourite, and I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here, which is currently brightening up the cold November evenings. This is odd, because in general I don't like them; I avoided Big Brother after the first series, ditto X Factor and couldn't give a stuff about John Seargant on Stricly Come Dancing.

But the other day, at the hairdressers, I realised that my celebrity knowledge is not as encyclopaedic as I thought.....

It was 4pm and there were no other customers, just me, my hairdresser, the receptionist and another stylist from the salon. We got onto the subject of local celebrities, by way of discussing Gordon Ramsay and his alleged affair which has been all over the tabloids this week. ( "ooh, how could he. Those beautiful children..."etc etc)

I reeled off a few of my local celebrity sightings, which consist of Vivienne Westwood at my yoga class and Neil Pearson, ex Drop the Dead Donkey, at the gym. We shared a bit of local urban legend, such as Mark Owen from Take That living off the Northcote Road (he looks REALLY SCRUFFY, said the hairdressers disapprovingly). I thought that was pretty good. But no. They then launched into a whole stream of 'celeb spots' , consisting of people I had never even heard of, let alone would recognise.

"We had her, from Celebrity Come Dine with me, in here to do her highlights. You know the one." (I didn't)
"I saw Chico from X Factor on Lewisham station," (cue gales of laughter from the others - whether because it was a celebrity in Lewisham I don't know...)
"Y'know Brian from Big Brother, he lives right above the post office round here."
And (my favourite) "I saw Jerry from last year's Big Brother in Tesco's. Just, like, sitting there. Sitting there!"
At this point I had to opt out of the conversation. Oh dear. I clearly haven't kept up. It is a slippery slope and sooner or later I will turn into the kind of fogey who asks who the Beatles are.......

*The lovely Bush Mummy has awarded me a 'superior scribbler' award, so thank you very much. I will pass it on, but just not now because I have builders in my house and should not really be blogging at all......

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Carnival of the mummies

There is a carnival of British mummy bloggers over at the lovely Potty Mummy's site. I'm proud to be included in this erudite bunch, which includes some of my favourite bloggers - really talented writers, and far better than most of what you can read on parenthood in print.

So, if you have a spare moment today, get yourself down there, put some steel band music on and take a look:


Sunday 23 November 2008

Sink or swim

Signing Littleboy 1 up for swimming lessons recently, I believed I had found the perfect solution to the darkening winter afternoons, when going out to the playground is no longer an option and restless Littleboys maraud around my house hell-bent on destruction. Little did I know that this would turn out to be my most fraught half hour of the week.

The problem is not so much Littleboy 1 - who loves swimming - but his brother, who has to come with us - or, rather, the combination of the two.

Timing our arrival at the changing room is the first hurdle. Get there too early, say more than 10 minutes before the lesson starts, and the Littleboys get bored and start disrupting the previous lesson. But get there too late, and there will be no changing room in which to store our stuff.

The first week, I totally misjudged changing room etiquette. We got there early and changed, but it seemed selfish to leave our bags in the changing rooms, knowing that during the lesson the next lot of people would be turning up. I therefore removed all our stuff and took it with us to the poolside. When the lesson was finished, we arrived back at the changing rooms to find that all our fellow pupils – who had arrived later than us - had taken them over with piles of stuff and I ended up changing two wriggling, shivering children in the corridor, with our people tripping over our bags on the way in and out. Now, my strategy is to get there early enough to nab a booth, and leave our bags piled neatly in the corner so as to stake our claim without preventing anyone else from using it after us.

Although Littleboy 2 is not having a lesson, I have realised that to all intents and purposes, he needs to change into a swimsuit too – otherwise, as I discovered the first week, his clothes end up soaked and stinking of chlorine from the wet poolside.

Once by the pool, he refuses any form of entertainment that I might provide during the half hour lesson– I’ve tried numerous books and toys. Instead, he prefers to grab whatever he can find on the side of the pool and chuck it into the water. This can range from the semi-legitimate – little plastic toys provided by the swim school – to the not so legitimate (the swimming floats and teacher’s towel).

I spend the entire half hour chasing him up and down the poolside, trying to ensure that he avoids either falling in the pool or majorly pissing off the instructors by distracting both his brother and the other pupils. Not like the other Nappy Valley mummies, of which there seem to be two types. One type sits there serenely reading Grazia and not taking any notice of their offspring in the pool. (On reflection, I think some of these are nannies). The other kind act as if their kids are Mark Phelps competing for Olympic Gold – roaring “Well done, Harry” every time the child so much as splashes. Only one other person brings a small sibling, and they are incredibly well-behaved. Nevertheless, I try to give Littleboy 1 as much encouragement as I can muster, given that half the time I am hauling his brother away from the edge.

Once the lesson’s over, it’s back to the crowded changing room to dress, a point at which, for some reason, the Littleboys become incredibly manic – running off around the room half dressed, shouting loudly and bumping into other people’s mummies while soaking wet. It's like trying to control a pair of small, wet, wriggly, overexcited seal pups. Most of the fellow pupils in contrast are good little girls (whose mummies, I can tell, are looking at me in horror and thinking ‘thank God I don’t have boys’).

By the time we reach the car again, I am haggard, exhausted, red-faced from the overheated poolside, stinking of chlorine and usually screeching at my children. I know that only real answer to my woes would be to leave Littleboy 2 behind – and indeed, I have a kind friend who has offered to take him when she can, but I can’t impose on her every week. Or alternatively, start taking Valium.....

Friday 14 November 2008

Rich kid, poor kid

I realise most people will not have seen it, but I feel rather compelled to post about the documentary Rich Kid, Poor Kid, that was shown on Channel 4 last week. It was set in Clapham North/Stockwell - ie on our doorstep - so I was interested to watch something that contrasted the South London lives of two teenage girls; Alice, a private schoolgirl living in a large house, and Natalie, who had left school at 15 and lived in a two bedroom council flat with a mum on benefits and her little brother.

It made such an impression, because Alice really was the worst advert for a private education I have ever seen. She talked about state school kids as if they were the scum of the earth, bitched about 'chavs' and said the worst thing she could think of in the world would be to send her own kids to a state school. Yet -until she met Natalie in the programme - she had never met any. Instead she boasted about her friends being in the Sunday Times Rich List. Natalie, meanwhile, was great - feisty, fiercely defensive of her mum (who suffered from mental health problems) and the great champion of her little brother, whom the family had somehow failed to register for primary school. When she visited the rich house, she was most overawed by the fact that they had a piano. She was by far the more-open minded of the two.

To be fair, when the two girls met, they got on quite well, and by the end, Alice was saying that perhaps she regretted some of the comments she'd made. And yes, they clearly did spring from ignorance and to some extent, fear (she had been mugged several times).

But by the end of the programme, it was the 'posh' parents I couldn't believe. Alice was only 15. First of all, why on earth did they let her be filmed in this way, spouting prejudice and ignorance - were they unaware that it was likely to be edited unfavourably (as these things always are) and that it would expose not only their daughter's attitude but their own? Her comments will surely haunt her for years and they should at the very least have demanded some editorial control of the final cut.

Secondly, if my children ended up speaking like Alice did about other people, I would be mortified. One suspected that at no point had they told her anything other than what she believed. In fact, you could tell from the few comments by the mother in the film that they probably stemmed directly from her. I know people like this exist - in fact, quite a few of them went to my school - but the mind boggles, it really does.

So what does anyone think - would you let your child be filmed for a documentary?

Monday 10 November 2008

Crap mummy

Ever have one of those surreal 'how did I get here' moments? I had one at 10am last Sunday morning; standing shivering outside my front door singing 'Old Macdonald' through the letterbox, with a toddler wearing an oversized fleece.

How had it happened? Read on and learn....

I forgot one of the golden rules of having small children; never, ever go outside without a key. And I wouldn't, normally, but in this case I thought I was just nipping out for a few seconds, to wipe some offending bird poo off our front window. However, once outside, I noticed (well, OK, remembered - I had been noticing for months) that the short pathway between the street and our front door was a disgrace; it seemed to have become the receptacle for not only about three years' worth of autumn leaves, but a tonne of random rubbish; crisp packets, old takeaway boxes knawed by foxes and weird bits of plastic piping (detritus from the Thames Water trench diggers, who have now thankfully departed).

So I went to get a broom, threw on an old fleece of The Doctor's, and started sweeping. Littleboy 1, who loves brooms, then rushed out holding another brush, and wanted to help.

It was at this point that Littleboy 2 came along and helpfully slammed the door shut on us.

The Doctor was out - he was on call and had gone briefly to the hospital - and I had no key, no mobile phone nor any suitable clothes to protect Littleboy1 (who was wearing jeans, t-shirt and socks) against the brisk November chill. The sky threatened rain. What to do?

I peered around our street. It was spookily silent, with most of the curtains closed. As mentioned previously, we live on the unfashionable edges of the real Nappy Valley, so most of our neighbours are not other families with small children who would have been up for hours at 10am on a Sunday. These days, the majority seem to be cheerful twentysomething Aussies who work in the City and party hard at weekends, and who are definitely going to be in bed on a Sunday morning. Even the handful of neighbours that we know quite well didn't appear to be around. And stupidly, we had not got around to giving anyone a spare key since the good friends we had in the street moved away three years ago.

Now, I knew that soon, The Doctor would be on his way home - but how long could we wait outside for? I began weighing up various scenarios - could I be prosecuted for leaving a nearly-two year old alone in the house - even if I could see him through the letterbox?

It was OK at first. Littleboy 2 was quite pleased with himself for slamming the door, and the two boys took great delight in passing stuff (bricks, lego, even the TV remote) to each other through the letterbox. But then he got bored, and started whimpering. He wanted a cuddle from Mummy. And, although he could see me through the letterbox, he could not understand why I was unable to get in. Meanwhile, Littleboy 1 (who kept excitedly repeating, 'we can't get in the house, Mummy') was getting cold, so I wrapped him in his dad's fleece.

Ten minutes now and no sign of the Doctor. Littleboy 2's whimpering escalated into full blown hysterical crying.

Eventually I picked up the shoe-less Littleboy 1 and marched up to one of the neighbouring Aussie houses - the only one that had a light on. A genial young Aussie bloke wearing shorts (or were they pyjamas?) and munching on a bowl of ceareal opened up and kindly let me use the phone. The Doctor assured me that he would be home within 15 minutes.

Littleboy 1 was offered the option of sitting and watching TV in the Aussie house, but became uncharacteristically shy and refused. So, we spent the next quarter of an hour standing on the doorstep, trying desperately to keep Littleboy 2 happy by singing songs through the letterbox. All I could see was his distressed little face peering up at me, and the moment I stopped singing it would crumple. So we went through Twinkle twinkle little star, Baa baa black sheep, Row, row row the boat - and all the farm animals I could think of in Old McDonald. By the time we were on 'monkey', The Doctor arrived home.

Littleboy 1 was most impressed by this adventure and spent the rest of the day explaining to people: "Mummy not got her key. I can't get in MY house. DADDY done it."

He has clearly got the measure of me. Yet again, crap mummy.

Friday 7 November 2008

Doula dilemma

Having dinner at a friend’s house the other night – let’s call her High Flying City Girl - she revealed that after several years of trying, she’s finally pregnant. I was naturally delighted for her.

There will, of course, have to be a few changes to HFCG’s life when baby is born. She already knows that her fabulous Docklands townhouse, with its minimalist décor, acres of glass and long, dramatically steep staircase, will be hopelessly unsuitable for children. And that her five-star spa holidays in the Maldives with her Hedge Fund Hubby will inevitably be curtailed for a little bit, as will their regular dinners at Nobu and weekends at little designer hotels in the country.

But there is one thing HFCG won’t have to cut down on – her beauty sleep.

“Of course, I’m going to hire a doula for after the baby’s born,” she announced, sounding as if no woman in their right mind would not – and in her world, this is probably true. Hedge Fund Hubby was all for it (well, he wouldn’t want to be getting up in the night for moral support, would he? Let alone have to put up with a frazzled and knackered wife.)

Now I might well have been naïve, but when I had Littleboy 1, I hadn’t even heard of maternity nurses, doulas or whatever else you choose to call them. I was therefore amazed when, after the first few befuddled weeks of looking after a new baby, learning to breastfeed, recovering from a C-section and getting by on virtually zero sleep, I bumped into a neighbour, who had also just given birth. Her husband’s work (another hedge fund, funnily enough) had actually paid for her to have a maternity nurse for the first few weeks, to help with breastfeeding, getting up in the night and general baby care.

I was both incredulous and unbelievably envious – although I definitely wanted to feed Littleboy 1 myself, I did find it hard at first and at that point would have killed for some nice, experienced maternal-looking person to give me some advice and support.

A few years later, and it seems half of Nappy Valley employs some kind of maternity nurse after giving birth. I once bumped into an acquaintance from the playground, who had recently had a second child, and she looked dreadful. I asked her whether she was OK. “Oh, I’m having an awful time,” she said. “The maternity nurse is off on holiday this week, so I’m having to get up in the night AND look after the baby all day.”

Sounds familiar to me, I thought – after all wasn’t that what I did for the seven months or so until Littleboy 1 slept through? Isn’t that what most normal mothers do? After all, Littleboy 1 and I got through the sleepless nights (albeit with me ending up with severe insomnia, panic attacks and a health visitor convinced I had postnatal depression). And the second time round, it wasn’t nearly so difficult.

But at the same time, I was thinking: well, if I had the cash, maybe I would have done the same? So I wonder; are we just shielding ourselves from the reality of motherhood by outsourcing the hard work to someone else? Or perhaps, in these days when mothers, maiden aunts and other helpful matronly types aren’t living round the corner (or in my case, aren’t around at all) paying out for someone to help with a newborn is a no-brainer?

Wednesday 5 November 2008

Feelgood factor

So we woke up this morning and the world felt like a better place.

Yesterday was a day of frustrations and niggles- the ongoing saga of our flooding washing machine pipe; the mice that have inexplicably returned to our kitchen; the plumber that charged me £104 for doing sod all; the dentist that is going to charge me £200 for doing not very much (I think I may retrain as a plumber or dentist); the online bank account application that took me hours and then didn't appear to have worked. Not to mention the impossible freelance feature I have taken on that requires getting comment from people who are never in a million years going to speak to me; the fact that Littleboy 1 seems to be getting up twice a night at the moment and that both Littleboys have decided that jumping on the sofa is the most productive way to spend the half-hour between bath and bedtime.

But all was forgotten on hearing the US election result. He has a hell of a lot to live up to, but Obama seems like one of the good guys. OK, so telling his kids he'd bought them a puppy in the middle of his victory speech was straight out of a cheesy Hollywood script. But then again, Hollywood hasn't come up with many good scripts recently (we went to see Quantum of Solace last weekend - I rest my case). Right now, we need a bit of feelgood. The decision of the American voters definitely provides it.

And, as our trip to the US looks more and more likely, I'm personally glad we're not going to be living in a land where the majority of people voted for a crazed hockey mom.

Friday 31 October 2008

Seven random things

The lovely Jaywalker at Belgian Waffle, who is one of my favourite bloggers, has tagged me to write seven random things about myself. It’s actually rather helpful as, for once, I was feeling rather uninspired about what to write this week. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the whole week being bored to death by the Jonathan Ross /Russell Brand saga (although, for the record, Wossy is a smug git and deserves to be taken down a peg or two). So here goes:

1. I am, technically speaking, an Essex Girl. I may not sport fake tan and white stilettos, dance round my handbag or hang out at Lakeside, but I was born near Romford and my mum and dad hailed from Southend and Basildon respectively. I spent the first three years of my life in the county, before my parents upped sticks and headed to the Far East, but have never really returned, except to visit relatives. One day, I expect I will revert to type and embrace my inner Jodie Marsh.

2. I met my first two boyfriends on an aeroplane. Not at the same time, I hasten to add - I am not that kinky. No, there were two separate occasions, but both occurred on journeys from boarding school to Hong Kong for the Christmas holidays. The first ex-boyfriend and I bonded over an illicit can of lager and laughing like drains at The Naked Gun. The second time, we were brought together by Jason Donovan. Yes, you read that right. It was 1989 and Donovan was at the height of his post-Neighbours, pre-Joseph fame. He was seated in first class. For some reason, my ex-boyfriend had got wind of this, and as way of a chat-up line, asked me if I would like to go up and get JD’s autograph with him. Sadly, the stewardess would not let us through the curtain from Economy.

3. One of my uncles is a Christian rock star. Well, he used to be, anyway, and is now a DJ at a Christian radio station. If you were into rock gospel (and I am not - although my Uncle is a lovely man) I believe you would have heard of him.

4. When I was a student, I won a competition to be on the Cosmopolitan 'student advisory board’. There were about 15 of us, from universities all round the country. The ‘advising’ consisted of lunch at the Groucho club twice a year with the then-editor of Cosmo, the wonderful and very glamorous Marcelle d’Argy Smith, whose main question to us was 'So, what do you really think about men?'

5. I am a secret Eastenders watcher. The Doctor is incredibly scornful of this filthy habit, but I can’t help it; I feel a sort of loyalty to the soap, having watched the first ever episode aged 11 and grown up with Ian Beale, Sharon etc. There was a long period when I didn’t watch it – those post-Uni, pre-kids years when I was working full time and never back by 7.30. (I missed out, for example, on the first time Dirty Den died and the whole Kat/Alfie saga). But now I like nothing better than having put both children to bed by 7.30pm and sitting down to catch up on mindless soap, preferably accompanied by a nice glass of wine. My current favourite character is Sean Slater – a ginger, Neanderthal psychopath but weirdly attractive….

6. There is only one food I really don’t like – cucumber. Many people are surprised by this, because it seems like a fairly innocuous thing to dislike. But I maintain my stance. It’s slimy.

7. I met The Doctor when I was 18 (he was The Medical Student then). That sounds terribly young, now, but it didn’t at the time. I think we must be one of the few couples that survived from the student hall of residence where we met. It sometimes feels as if we have grown up together and when I see pictures of us first together, I think we look like a couple of kids.

I will now tag A Confused Take That fan, Gone Back South and Wife in Hong Kong.

Monday 27 October 2008

Toys on trial

Recently I posted here about Cousin H, who has landed the rather plum job of designing toys for In the Night Garden.

The other week he enquired whether he could ‘borrow’ the Littleboys one morning – as a kind of mini toddler focus group for some of the toys that are currently in development. We jumped at the chance – well, why turn down free entertainment?

He subsequently turned up on Saturday in a taxi laden with a mind-boggling number of ITNG toys all of all descriptions: Upsy Daisy-themed ride on cars; Pontypine stacking blocks, and an Iggle Piggle etchasketch among them.

Some of the other exciting products I am not even allowed to reveal because they are still at the ‘drawing board’ stage – these had to be smuggled back to the Beeb in the taxi, but suffice to say that they are the cutting edge of toddler-facing design.

But the Littleboys did get to keep a rather astonishing number, and for them it was as if Christmas came early (even if Santa was a thirtysomething curly-haired guy in trainers rather than the traditional merry gent). And Cousin H got his research done, looking on earnestly as they played manically with the toys, helpfully tested their sturdiness with their usual throw-fest and fought over the ones they liked best.

Our house is now stuffed with toys that could well be next year’s Christmas bestsellers (it did make me laugh last year when the ‘In the Night Garden Little Library’ constantly appeared in the top 10 books charts alongside the latest Booker winners and celebrity memoirs).

This is, after all, big business for kids’ telly. Work-wise, I’ve just been writing an article on kids’ TV (for once, an appropriate subject for me to write about, since I sit through so much of the stuff). I had to look at how children’s programming is faring following the junk food advertising ban, the entry of multiple digital kids’ channels to the UK and so forth. The answer is not well – over the past few years broadcasters have drastically cut their budgets for original programming (ie., the stuff that’s not US imports or repeats). But, as one broadcasting pundit pointed out to me, create a hit show from which you can create toys under licence – ITNG being a classic example – and you’ve struck children’s TV gold, recouping the cash that goes into funding quality shows.

So if all these TV-themed toys are funding the next Night Garden or Charlie and Lola, rather than promoting the cause of rubbishy cartoons, I guess that it can only be a good thing.

Monday 20 October 2008

Boarding call

“So,” said a well-meaning, upper class Italian friend of the Doctor’s family to me recently, “You’ll be sending them to boarding school, then?”

I laughed back gently. “Oh no,” I said. “That is one decision we will never have to deliberate over.”

Because, even if they succumb to the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and beg to go, even if we could ever afford it, even if we lived on the moon, I will never, ever send my Littleboys to boarding school.

Reluctant Memsahib, out in the bush, has been reflecting beautifully on how empty her house feels now that her children have gone back to school. And it made me think: how lonely my own parents must have felt, but how strongly they must have felt they were doing the right thing.

We lived in Hong Kong, and my parents were convinced that the schools out there were Not Good Enough. So, aged 11, I was packed off to a girls’ school on the windswept East Coast of England. I was actually excited about going. I had read the entire collection of Malory Towers, St Clare’s and Trebizon boarding school stories, and I couldn’t wait for the midnight feasts, the swimming galas, and the practical jokes played on unsuspecting French Mam’zelles.

What I didn’t expect was the reality; the rules, such as only being allowed to speak to your parents on the phone once a week because too often ‘might upset you’; the hateful rotas of bath and hairwashing; the sadistic housemistress who had no sympathy for homesickness; the ghastly food.

Then there was the total lack of privacy, which, coupled with the bitchiness of adolescent girls, meant that you reached puberty in the full public glare of thirty two commentators, scrutinising everything from bra size to starting your periods. If anything awful happened, my parents were two airmail letters away (there and back) so I wouldn’t hear back from them for about a week. Friendships become ultra important in this environment, so the usual cliques of teenage girl-ery are intensified and bullying is rife. My school was littered with privileged, snobbish girls who took delight in picking out anyone who didn’t quite belong. (I qualified in two areas – coming from Abroad and doing well academically.) And when you’re a boarder, bullying doesn’t stop at 4pm when you go home.

I can still conjure up the sick, nervous feeling in my stomach that lingered throughout the second half of the holidays, knowing that I would have to go back. And the envy I felt for anyone, anywhere in the country that wasn’t at boarding school – I remember looking into the cosy lighted windows of people’s homes in the local town and thinking miserably of the harsh strip lighting and hospital beds in my badly-heated ‘dorm’.

When I had to go into hospital for a month before the birth of Littleboy 2, everyone asked me how I could possibly endure living on a hellish maternity ward in such proximity to total strangers? Only my friend from Boarding School understood. Rather as Old Etonians say they adjust well to prison life, it was a grim experience, but one that reminded me that I had been here before.

Were my parents really doing the right thing? When I ended up at the same University with several friends from Hong Kong who had attended the local school, I think the answer was pretty obvious. I don’t blame my parents, but what a shame things couldn’t have been different for all of us.

Now, I know that boarding schools have probably improved immeasurably since the 1980s. And I know that some people have a wonderful time at boarding school. I know it’s not all bad.

But, looking down at my innocent blond Littleboys, the answer to the question about boarding school is one I don’t even have to think about.

Friday 17 October 2008

In the trenches with Thames Water

We've known it’s going to happen for a while, but we’ve been in denial. And no, I’m not talking about Littleboy 2 hitting the terrible twos (although, all the evidence suggests that he has).

Every week over the past few months the ominous signs have come closer, encroaching onto our neighbouring streets. There were diggers, men in fluorescent jackets with clipboards and white vans. Finally, sinister chalk marks appeared on our pavement and we knew the day of reckoning was upon us.

Yes, Thames Water are digging up our road.

Anyone who lives in London will know what I’m talking about, as it is happening all over the capital. They are replacing London’s Victorian water mains with new pipes (These appear to be made of bright blue plastic; The Doctor says he is sceptical that they are going to last another hundred years.)

Now if you’d told me four years ago I’d be bothered about this, or indeed writing a blog about it, I would probably have laughed in your face. Back then, parking outside our house was not an issue as we hardly ever drove.

But today, this equals a huge disruption to our daily lives. The whole of our side of the street is now basically a trench; parking has been suspended and we can’t bring the car anywhere near the house. This makes the three day a week nursery run something of a challenge. Getting the two Littleboys in and out of the car along with their various bags, coats and the selected toys that have to come with us is tricky enough as it is, without the added fun of having to trek to the car along a narrow muddy corridor and negotiate crossing roads with them.

Our road is quite small, and naturally all the nearest parking spaces have been nabbed by people who never, ever have to move their cars, so finding a spot anywhere convenient is impossible. This situation is set to carry on for the next month – after which, the Men cheerfully informed me, they will dig up the other side of the road.

On the plus side, the gang of workmen employed to dig the trenches have provided some diversions. The Littleboys have spent many a happy hour staring out of the windows at the mechanical digger and love to say hello to the workmen and inspect the equipment (far more exciting than their own plastic tractor collection) as we go by.

Even I have had my entertainment. One morning, a jet of water shot up into the air about 20 feet high, directly outside our house. This was obviously not part of the plan. Two men were furiously scrabbling around in the muddy trench with their bare hands trying to put the lid back on the source of this fountain, and there was much shouting and swearing.

A little concerned that we were about to lose our water supply, I shot out there and enquired: “Er…everything OK?”

“Don’t you worry darling,” they said. “Thames Water are coming out to sort it.”

Well, that’s a relief then.

Saturday 11 October 2008

Not berry amusing

So there we were in the supermarket this morning, supposedly sharing a delightful family shopping expedition before heading off to the playground in the autumn sunshine.

Recently, Littleboy 1 has been allowed to walk around in the supermarket; he is a) really too big for the trolley, b) highly likely to fight with Littleboy 2 if sitting in a ‘2 seater’ trolley and c) at three and a half could, we thought, be trusted not to cause too much damage in the aisles.

To keep him entertained, I let him help to pick out the food, name it and put it into the trolley. I once read in some book on fussy eating that one should encourage them to take as much interest in food as possible, to get them used to the idea of different ingredients. I was impressed that he knew broccoli (God knows he’ll never eat it, but it’s a start) and he was most excited at being allowed to pick out a pumpkin (result: we are having roasted pumpkin tonight. Mmm). It worked well at first. OK, he did throw a mini-tantrum at not being allowed to put ‘red milk’ in the trolley (skimmed seemed unnecessary in addition to the 16 pints a week of full fat and semi-skimmed we seem to get through anyway) but all was fairly harmonious until we reached the fruit aisle.

Littleboy 1 insisted that we buy blackberries (inspired by a recent country walk on which he virtually ate his weight in juicy berries) so I gave him the punnet to hold. Whereupon he hurled it, with great force, into the trolley. Blackberries exploded all over the floor, the trolley and the copy of FT Weekend that the Doctor had meaningfully placed there (ominously lying in wait to tell us about the horrors of this week and how stupid we were, along with half the world and his wife, to have an Icesave ISA.) Both the Littleboys roared with laughter.

The Doctor was uncharacteristically furious – whether because of the laughter, the reckless throwing of soft fruit, the wastage of horrendously overpriced blackberries, because everything was covered in sticky black juice or because his precious copy of the FT was soiled, I am not entirely sure. Anyway, Littleboy 1 got a real dressing down from both of us – cue surprised stares from all the other parents shopping nearby. We then had a rather bad-tempered debate over whether we should own up and pay for the berries and newspaper, or go and get replacements and leave the soiled ones surreptitiously at the checkout? (Reader, we left them at the checkout.)

Well, it’s been a strange old week all round, quite frankly. Perhaps blackberries exploding on the FT in Waitrose are a metaphor…..

Monday 6 October 2008

In the brand garden

A local friend once lamented that what Nappy Valley lacks is a really good quality children’s clothes shop. At which I was puzzled, because surely there are plenty? Apart from the branches of Asda and Primark that I myself frequent, there is JoJo Maman Bebe on the Northcote road, or numerous little boutiquey places where you could easily spend a month’s salary on a woollen hat and gloves combo.

Then I realised; my friend has two girls. And little girls actually care about what they wear. The Littleboys, like most men, are indifferent to fashion. They might occasionally have a yen for a particular colour, but mainly, clothes for them are about keeping warm and spilling food on. And putting them on in the morning is often the last thing they want to do; much more exciting to carry on building a Lego castle, watching Lazytown or throwing Shreddies around the kitchen. They have to be bribed and cajoled into putting on their clothing (the threat of ‘well, if you don’t want to get dressed, we won’t be able to go to the park’ usually does the trick.) Only this morning, Littleboy 1 ran into the kitchen stark naked at 9am and confronted the Ocado man with a cry of 'What are you doing, Man?

But then I discovered the scary power of branding. And guess what? If it’s a Bob the Builder jacket, or a Mr Men shirt, whaddya know? They want to wear it.

I was initially loathed, however, to go too far down this route. Although I’m not one of those mothers who dresses up little boys in old-fashioned brogues and stripy shirts like mini country squires (although I do have a weakness for stripy pyjamas from The Little White Company), I don’t want to see them kitted out in branded gear all the time.

And then the Doctor’s cousin, H, got a new job. When we first heard where, we couldn’t actually believe it. He is a product designer, and has worked at numerous cosmetics-type places over the years including The Body Shop and Revlon. But now…well, he managed to wangle himself a job at the BBC working on In the Night Garden. (Expat mummies, if you don’t know what this is, get yourself over here, and watch in wonder at the weirdness).

It sounds either like a dream job or the job from hell, (depending on how much Iggle Piggle you can take). For ‘research’, he walks around toy shops or watches episodes of ITNG. He got to meet the famed creator of ITNG and Teletubbies, Andrew Davenport. I imagine there are a few editorial meetings he has to attend regarding plot and character development. But how difficult can this be, considering that 95% of the show is the same every day? I mean it’s not going to be, OK this is ‘the one where Makka Pakka sleeps with Upsy Daisy because she and Iggle Piggle were on a break’, is it? Or ‘let’s have the Pinky Ponk crash, leaving the characters on a desert island inhabited by polar bears?’

In fact, Cousin H takes it all very seriously. The last time we met, he accosted me with a copy of Charlie and Lola magazine and started quizzing me about the Littleboys’ favourite TV programmes. (This seemed particularly surreal coming from a 35 year old single guy-about-town who has no kids and previously used to devote himself to Arsenal matches.)

But best of all, he gets access to all the gear. Last time he came to supper, he turned up with a great armful of Makka Pakka sweatshirts and Iggle Piggle tops. The Littleboys, who are big fans of ITNG, were delighted.

So getting them dressed when they are not in the mood for it is no longer a chore. If I ask them what they want to wear, they think for a minute and then declare ‘Pakka!’. Not only that, but they attract attention from other kids in the playground, who take delight in pointing out the characters. Instant popularity.

So I might just have to give in to the power of branding….and meanwhile Cousin H will be getting plenty more supper invitations.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Crunch-y living

Stock markets are in turmoil all over the world, Wall St crashes and burns, and we all appear to be drowning in a sea of debt. Here in Nappy Valley, the ripples are being felt.

I am queuing up with the Littleboys for our usual – a latte and two apple juice cartons - at one of the local park cafes, when the following scene occurs:

The middle-class looking woman in front of me in the queue is buying breakfast for her brood of children, when suddenly all hell breaks loose. “I’m sorry, but I can’t believe,” she thunders, “that you are charging FIVE POUNDS for scrambled egg and toast. I simply cannot believe it.” She puts down her tray, and storms out, leaving the Italian waiter blinking in astonishment.

Now, my friends and I have often moaned about the extortionate prices charged in this, and other, local cafes – those with a captive audience of mothers with hungry children in pushchairs seem particularly good at it. But NEVER before have I seen anyone actually complain.

Clearly, the tide is turning. Later, in the playground, I meet one of the mums from our erstwhile toddler music class, Rabbit Rhymes (from which we were ‘constructively dismissed’, as I described here) in the playground. The class we attended used to be so popular that it had a waiting list; according to her, it is now so empty that her son has had to be reassigned to another one.

So it got me thinking (apologies if I sound like Carrie Bradshaw here); perhaps we have been living through a rarefied age here in middle-class London, over the last few years, the likes of which we will not see again. An age where people are prepared to pay over £70 a term for crappy half-hour toddler music classes; an age where £500 for a buggy is the norm; where you happily part with a quid for a babycino (a tiny cup of frothy milk with chocolate sprinkles); where parents spend hundreds of pounds on cutesy kiddy clothing that their children will soon grow out of. Where tired parents in need of a little R&R book weekends in boutique country house hotels; where taking several holidays a year is a right, not a privilege; where a bog-standard house in a fairly grotty part of south London can cost over a million pounds.

And I’m not just talking about rich bankers’ families; wealth is infectious, and some of the least rich people I know have spent ludicrous money on luxurious but unnecessary items. We have all been living in a bubble of prosperity, fuelled by City salaries, ridiculous house prices and crazy mortgages. And the backlash begins here; five quid for scrambled egg on toast.

I don’t want to be flippant in any way about the credit crunch (who knows where it will end? and is anyone safe?) but I do wonder this; will we look back at this era in a decade’s time, and think, how mad was that?

Thursday 25 September 2008

Back in the saddle

“Two bikes!” shouted Littleboy 1 excitedly when he came home from nursery the other day. He was right – my own is now in the hallway leaning up next to The Doctor’s. It is a momentous occasion in the household: the bike, virtually unridden since Littleboy 1 was born, has been resurrected from the cellar and Mummy is cycling to work.

The Littleboys are used to seeing their father donning his yellow jacket and helmet and going off to work on his bike. (In fact, although I have tried to explain to Littleboy 1 recently that Daddy works in a hospital, I have a sneaking suspicion that he thinks The Doctor just rides around on his bike all day….)

But now Mummy has rejoined the cycling fraternity, this time with oh-so-sexy nylon leggings and fluorescent gilet that makes her look like a cycle courier. A few Nappy Valley mothers have looked at me askance when I mentioned that I was cycling up to London Bridge twice a week – is this a responsible thing for a thirtysomething mother of two to be doing?

Well, these are my reasons. Two days a week I work in an office, and this involves a commute up the dreaded Northern Line. Our local Underground station must be one of the worst in London at this time of day. There are many stations before it, and no interchange to another line till the station after it. The train is therefore so rammed by the time it gets there that, especially if you leave after the witching hour of 8am, you may have to wait for several packed trains to go by before you can even squeeze yourself in under somebody’s sweaty armpit. (All the smug people from further down the line meanwhile carry on reading their papers with arms outstretched; well, I guess they're thinking that living in Tooting or Morden must have some compensations).

The second reason is fitness. A year ago, the Doctor and I chucked in our gym memberships. With two children, we hardly ever went, so were effectively paying £70 a month for about one hour’s swim. In the past, I’ve been lucky and never had to worry too much about my weight, but two pregnancies and lack of exercise has meant that recently I’ve been feeling less than svelte, and I refuse to resign myself to chucking away an entire wardrobe full of size 10 clothes. I hate running, and my weekly yoga classes, while relaxing, are not exactly a calorie burner. In contrast, The Doctor’s long cycle rides were keeping him trim.

So cycling is good for both the sanity and the waistline, not to mention the environment. Plus, I don’t get sucked into reading the trashy free evening papers on the Tube coming home. (This is a good thing; at one point, I felt I could have entered Mastermind on the specialist subject of the antics of Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen). But what about the danger? I am a nervous cyclist at the best of times, so The Doctor has ingeniously worked out a route for me that involves few main roads and avoids the horrors of the Elephant & Castle roundabout-from-hell. I have managed to customise this route further by including a couple of pedestrian crossings that I can use, which means I never have to turn right off a main road, or negotiate a major junction.

So I am no gung-ho London cyclist, and I'm sure I don't get to my destination as quickly as I could if I simply ploughed up the A3 pedalling like Chris Hoy. However, the twists and turns of my little journey mean I get to see glorious little London parks and squares all at their sleepy, early morning best. But best of all, when I arrive at my office (where there is helpfully a nice hot shower), I can tuck into my pain au chocolat and steaming latte with guilt-free gusto.

Monday 22 September 2008

Open season

I have posted before about the excitement that surrounds schooling in Nappy Valley, explaining how, because we look set to escape to the US next year, I have been rather immune to the stress and bother of worrying about schools for Littleboy 1.

That’s still true, but in the back of my mind was a little niggling concern about having no back up plan – particularly as school Open Day season arrives and friends' children start to go off to 'interviews' and the like. I started to wonder what would happen if it all fell through, and we don’t go abroad. Having failed to move house to be nearer to good state primaries, we would potentially be resigned to sending Littleboy 1 to our nearest school (a place whose Ofsted report is not, shall we say, exactly glowing.) So I decided on a whim to send off for the application form of a local private school - one of the few that doesn’t require you to sign up while they’re still a foetus.

The form itself is a fairly straightforward, until it comes to the section in which you’re asked to describe your child’s ‘hobbies…interests….musical instruments played and grades achieved’.

Littleboy 1 is 3 and a quarter. How, I asked The Doctor, do we describe the hobbies of a 3 year old?“Hitting his little brother over the head?” he helpfully suggests. “Riding his scooter like a maniac around Clapham Common?”

Reading the prospectus through, we ascertain that not only is the school academically selective, but it receives at least 10 applications for each place. What, then, would make him stand out? We begin fantasising about what we could write on the form…. “Littleboy 1 is familiar with the early sonatas of Beethoven, although has not quite grasped the complexities of the later works.” “He has recently shown a strong interest in the Large Hadron Collider”. “His prowess at building Lego towers suggests a future Norman Foster....”.

In the end we decide that I should go along to the Open Day in order to decide whether this was really for us. We thought it best not to take the Littleboys (knowing they would just run around screaming) so instead, The Doctor took them to the park while I went along by myself. However, as I followed the considerable crowd to the school gate, it quickly dawned on me that I was the ONLY parent to have pitched up alone. Everyone else was there en famille, many with small babies in prams, as well as the toddlers angling for next year’s entry (who were no doubt already on Grade 4 violin). As a result, the place was mayhem – when the Head Teacher gave a talk, you could hardly hear a word above the din of small children wailing.

After that, I walked around alone like Mrs No-Mates, tagging along on other people's guided tours and feeling as if everyone else was staring and wondering where my children and partner were. (There's something about schools that makes me nervous, as if you might get sent to stand outside the Head's office if you say the wrong thing.)

I wanted to buttonhole a teacher and ask about the ‘hobbies’, but other parents kept getting in there before me. “How much do they use computers?” asked one woman fiercely. “Because I really, really don’t approve of children in junior school using computers all the time.” (The teacher’s eyes flickered warily to the two large Apple Macs in the corner before she fudged the answer diplomatically). Another Dad wanted to know why some parents chose to send their kids at 4 and others and 7. What was the reasoning behind such a decision? (Hmm, could it be something to do with the fees? I was wondering).

Afterwards, I went to join The Doctor and Littleboys in the park. What was my verdict? he asked. “Lovely school, nice pupils,” I said: “But not sure I could put up with the other parents...”

The form is still sitting on my desk......