Sunday 31 August 2008

Beach boys

Our annual Anglesey trip is over for another year. This year featured the worst weather I can remember there – two sunny afternoons in six days - yet we were on the beach every day. Well, what else do you do when the house party includes eight small cousins, seven of whom are under the age of five?

The cousin ‘zoo’ as I came to think of it, started around 6am, when the first of the children would invariably be up, pattering around the echoey corridors of the huge, rambling Victorian mansion (it belongs to some of the Doctor’s wealthier relations, and he has been there almost every summer since he was a tiny child himself). Often, it would be one of the Littleboys – one morning, Littleboy 1 escaped from our bedroom at ten to six and dashed downstairs. After much half-asleep searching, I discovered him hiding in the kitchen whereupon he refused to go back upstairs until he was given breakfast. If by some miracle the Littleboys slept in, it would be another cousin, bellowing his tiny lungs out in the early hours. But whoever it was, the whole house would soon be resounding to the noise of children running, shouting and playing (plus the odd ‘thump…waa’ as someone fell over).

After several hours of everyone sitting around and wondering if the weather would clear up, we would pile all the kids into the back of a four wheel drive truck (one of the highlights of their day) and drive the mile or so down the rough track, lined by blackberry hedges, past fields of sheep and cows to the beach.

Each child then grabbed as many buckets and spades as they could find and happily stripped off (despite the inclement weather), while the adults sat on the stones in fleeces and jeans.

Most fascinating was how each child occupied him or herself in a different way on the beach – whether collecting seawater in buckets, throwing sticks for the dog, climbing rocks, making castles, digging holes or eating seaweed. As someone remarked, it was a bit like an illustration from a Richard Scarry book, with a child everywhere you looked performing their own little activity.

And they seem to known instinctively what to do: Littleboy 2, having never really been to a beach except as a baby, picked up a spade and started digging away as if that was what he did every day.

Eventually all were piled, sandy, salty and shivering, back into the truck and taken up to the house for supper, bath and bed. This activity took several hours, and usually involved lots more mayhem, with excited little figures in pyjamas bombing around the house well past their normal bedtime.

Adult supper became later and later, taking place at nearly 10pm on the penultimate night, with the eldest cousin, scared by the house (not unreasonably, as bats have been known to roam the corridors and there are few electric lights) put to sleep on chairs by the fire as we ate.

Conclusions: kids don’t give a monkey’s about the weather, as long as there are plenty of children around and a beach to entertain them. And they don’t need TV – not one of them asked for it during our stay in a Beebies-free household. It might have been a dismal August bank holiday, but not for them – and I hope that in their just-forming memories the last few days will be a blissfully happy time steeped in sunshine, sand and water.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Littleboys on tour

The Doctor, for reasons too complicated to explain here (short version – changing jobs) has taken the whole of August off work. Well, not quite ‘off work’ – he has spent a good part of it glued to his computer, in an attempt to finish writing up his thesis – but not committed to going in to a job.

This has allowed us the opportunity to take the Littleboys on a grand tour of the country. Over the last few days, we have descended on three sets of friends in the West Country, all of whom also have two little boys each of their own.

In our pre-kids days, this kind of jaunt would have been fairly simple. Sling a few clothes in a rucksack, turn up, drink far too much over meal with friends, stay up chatting mindlessly till the early hours, then have a long lie in before staggering, hung-over, to a greasy spoon for breakfast with the papers.

No longer. These days, it consists of the following:

  1. Monumental pre-trip preparation, which involves rigorous packing (including the writing of many lists) and multiple visits to the supermarket (God forbid we should run out of nappies, hummus or petit filous in the wilds of Exmoor).
  2. A picnic en route. We have learnt from sore experience that the Littleboys are not the most welcome visitors at quiet country pubs, so this is the safest option. Luckily, this time we were travelling on one of the few dry days this August. We ended up in an odd, but strangely pleasant spot. Well, OK, we were on a beach overlooking a nuclear power station (I am trying not to think too hard about the shells Littleboy 2 picked up off the beach and put in his mouth) and it was so muddy that the car looked as if it had taken part in a rally, but it was eerily peaceful, with a stunning view of the Bristol Channel.
  3. Arrival chez friends in a maelstrom of luggage, screaming children etc. Littleboys then proceed to trash house by spreading friends’ children's toys throughout; we clog up friends’ fridge with random bits of food; Littleboy 1 refuses to eat his supper; they both make a huge mess, generating mountains of washing up; and become more and more manic as bedtime looms.
  4. After what seems like hours settling overexcited children (Littleboy 1 has now worked out how to climb out of a travel cot), they finally go to sleep. By this time we are all whacked. We snatch a couple of hours of peace – wine, food and chat – before everyone collapses to bed.
  5. Littleboys wake at about 6am and immediately want to go downstairs and have breakfast. Friends, looking shattered, are also up with their kids. Luckily, Olympics are on so we can all slump in front of TV as we try to load ourselves up with caffeine in preparation for the day ahead.
  6. Littleboys & Friends' Littleboys must be entertained, so some child-friendly activity must be laid on. And Friends come up trumps; in Exmoor, with Friends A, we go on a steam train trip, then later on let them all run around a village green. In Somerset, with Friends B we have a country walk and then find them a playground. And in Bristol, with Friend C, we decamp to the zoo. None of these activities really seem to tire them out; with friends B, despite longish walk, the Littleboys run round and round the house pushing plastic lawnmowers until bedtime.
  7. Finally we depart from friends, leaving a trail of destruction in our wake; strewn toys, broken crockery and the rest. Littleboys recover from the excitement by sleeping in the car. We are just exhausted.

We now have a brief respite before the next stage of the tour (a week in Anglesey). And I’ll be taking a break from the blog for a couple of weeks – back in September.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Of buses, buggies and Olympic sport

Outrageous story in today’s papers: a woman has been given a criminal record for not swiping her Oyster card as she boarded a bus with her two-week-old baby. She reportedly offered to pay the £20 fine once she realised her mistake, but was not allowed to, and was forced to attend court, where some less-than-sympathetic magistrates found her guilty.

Do these people have any concept of what it’s like to travel on a London bus with children? I think not. Having endured several bus journeys recently with the Littleboys plus double buggy, perhaps I can helpfully inform them.

In the spirit of the current Games in Beijing, I’d like to compare it to competing in a difficult and dangerous Olympic event; one for which every parent should receive a medal. First of all, we have the tense, nailbiting wait at the bus stop, where the competitor (let’s make her a she, although it could easily apply to a Dad) is unsure whether or not the bus driver will let her on with the pram. As the bus draws up, she might experience butterflies somewhere akin to an Olympic diver, standing on the top board about to perform a complicated somersault. The ‘rule’ is two pushchairs only, but this does not take into account the size and shape of buggies, and you will get some drivers that cast looks of horror at a double buggy and simply shake their heads.

Once our plucky heroine is given the green light to get on, it’s a race, with a bit of weight-lifting thrown in: heaving the buggy onto the platform (usually with no help from fellow passengers); squeezing down the narrow galley and into the space allotted for buggies (invariably running over someone’s foot, which they will have failed to move, en route), and trying to apply the buggy’s brakes before the bus sets off at a cracking pace.

That’s if you have just one child. Add to this trying to hold onto an excited toddler, who will fall over if not anchored down, and it’s starting to resemble the three day Eventing.

Once safely on board and hopefully, seated, the journey itself is relatively easy – just a matter of trying to keep everyone happy. (This is not a problem for Littleboy 1, who sits there shouting out ‘another bus, Mummy!’ every time we see one - which, thanks to the heroic efforts of poor, departed Mayor Ken Livingstone, is about every two seconds.)

Finally, we have the dismount. Our contender sits there, primed, like a sprinter waiting for the start gun. Unlike other passengers, she cannot take up her position before the bus stops (because she will career into other passengers with the pram). At the same time, a speedy descent is necessary to ensure disembarkation before the doors close.

All in all, remembering to swipe an Oyster card is the least of her worries, so my sympathies are all with this poor new mother (who was presumably sleep-deprived as well). Personally I think the magistrates in question should be forced to spend two weeks on three hours’ kip a night, armed with a double buggy and two screaming kids, and made to travel on a 35 through Brixton in the rush hour.

Or perhaps Boris Johnson should come to the woman’s rescue. After all, he has kids. I still don’t think he deserves to be Mayor of London, but if he sorted this out, even I might come to respect him.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

On location

Exciting times for the less glamorous fringes of Nappy Valley. A letter popped through our door the other day informing us that some scenes for a new Channel 5 series of Minder were to be filmed just around the corner from our house this week. Apparently, it’s an updated version featuring Shane Richie as Arthur Daley’s nephew.

So I took a break from work and sneaked out earlier to have a look. I caught a glimpse of Shane - looking cheery, if a little rain-sodden, in a pinstripe suit - and had a chat to the location scout, who tells me that it’s all to do with the interior of one of the cottages in that street being 'perfect' for the series. (Apparently, people can hire out their houses to film units for £1500 a day - nice little earner, as Arthur Daley might have said.)

Actually, I never really watched the original Minder much but remember my mother being something of a fan. (I think maybe she fancied Dennis Waterman. Well it was the eighties). But I am aware that it was supposed to be set in ‘Sarf’ London.

It’s always fun to watch something filmed in a place you're familiar with – I particularly enjoyed the recent BBC series Mistresses, which was filmed in Bristol, a city I lived in for several years and love (quite apart from the fact that it starred one of my favourite actresses, Sarah Parish, and some seriously sexy blokes).

But sadly South London doesn’t feature in many glossy dramas – anything filmed here tends to focus on the grittier side of life. Aside from stuff about loveable con-men, like Minder or Only Fools and Horses (Peckham) all I can think of was an unpleasant, brutish Channel 4 drama last year called Clapham Junction, which featured gay men being beaten up or murdered on Clapham Common – a place where I take the Littleboys to play at least twice a week. At least one local mummy friend has confessed that it seriously put her going to the Common, despite the fact that, during the day, you could not find a safer and more child-friendly place.

Occasionally, EastEnders ventures ‘south of the river’ - and usually manages to make it look even more deadbeat and drab than Walford. But, aside from the forthcoming John O’Farrell adaptation mentioned in my previous post, there’s a serious dearth of shows that demonstrate the nicer parts of South London. In contrast, any ‘posh’ drama set in London usually takes place north of the river - in the Docklands, Notting Hill or Hampstead.

So come on TV drama commissioners, pull your fingers out. South London isn’t all cottaging on the Common and hoodies shooting each other up in McDonalds (well, OK, yes these things do happen, but not all the time….). We have lovely green parks, trendy cafes and some top-class restaurants, like Chez Bruce and Trinity. We have celebrity residents like Vivienne Westwood, Gordon Ramsay and, apparently, Mark Owen from Take That. We can do glamour.

So: I’d like a combination of This Life and Sex and the City please, ideally starring Sarah Parish and some seriously sexy blokes. In other words, something that’ll do for Clapham what Notting Hill did for house prices in W11.