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......

Wednesday 17 September 2008


The September sun has finally returned to Nappy Valley, so it's time for us to revisit our favourite pastime - hanging out in the local parks.

Friends who don’t live in London often express sympathy for us during the summer, thinking that we don’t get a chance to go out and enjoy the greenery. But in fact the opposite is true. We live within striking distance of no less than two Commons and three parks. All of these are within walking distance or involve a 10 minute drive. Having two energetic Littleboys and a tiny paved backyard, on a typical day at home with them we can cram in two parks (although, as another friend with two small kids once said to me, a three park day means things are really getting bad at home).

Luckily for us, each park has its own character, and its own particular clientele. So not only can you choose a parkscape to suit your mood or how energetic you are feeling; you can also morph into the surroundings and fit in with the prevailing tribe. (Hmm, do I feel like a Yummy Mummy today? Or is it a jeans, fleece and unwashed hair day?)

Here's the lowdown on a few of them:

Clapham Common

Our nearest, and our most regular haunt. I am a big fan of the Common. It might be encircled by the A3; it might have a reputation as a gay cruising ground by night; and it might get horribly crowded at weekends. But during the week it’s relatively empty, has two good playgrounds, lots of green space, a beautifully restored bandstand that makes a perfect scootering ramp for kids. As well as the Bugaboo brigade, and a fair number of yummy mummies with their Boden-clad kids, you get all the local dogwalkers and the ordinary folk of Clapham going about their business.

Typical kids' names called out in playground: Harry, Mia

Typical pram: Phil & Teds

Conversation topic: House prices in Abbeville road

Coffee: Good Italian stuff at the bandstand café, which also (if you’re feeling more daring or have had enough of your screaming kids) serves prosecco.

Dress code: Anything goes, but jeans and fleece are fine.

Brockwell Park

This has an edgier and multicultural vibe, probably down to its proximity to Brixton, but is all the more refreshing for it. Even the middle-class crowd definitely look more bohemian. I've seen Dads sit smoking joints on the edge of the playground or, at weekends, young couples sitting swigging bottles of wine while their children play on the swings – things that would definitely be a no-no in other local parks, but somehow here it's OK. Somehow, even the ducks look a bit cooler here. And it's beautiful, with a fabulous vista over London.

Typical kids’ names: Noah or Ariel

Typical pram: Maclaren

Conversation topic: the local veggie cafe or latest arthouse film at the Brixton Ritzy

Coffee: Disappointly watery stuff at stunningly located cafe in old manor house.

Dress code: Hoodies and trainers / flowing ethnic tops, berets and ponchos

Wandsworth Common

Home to black Labradors, green wellies and Cath Kidston bags, Wandsworth Common really is the one to march around pretending you’re in Gloucestershire. Not only that, but it has a railway cutting through the middle for little boys who like trains. If you get bored, you can pop down to Bellevue Road and blow several months’ salaries at the boutiques or a meal at Chez Bruce.

Typical kids’ names: Hugo or Isabella

Typical pram: Bugaboo Bee

Conversation topic: Cornish beaches; Mark Warner

Coffee: have it with yummy cake at Common Ground- but you’ll fight to get a table inside in the winter.

Dress code: rugby shirts, Boden, green wellies.

This is what I love about London. You can choose who you want to be, even if it's just for a few hours. And best of all, you can people-watch and then write scurrilous blogs about it....

Wednesday 10 September 2008

The breakfast club

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the only morning that your children will ever have a lie-in is the one morning they really need to get up.

Now, I am not really a morning person. I do not, I confess, usually feel a surge of maternal love when I hear the pitter patter of little feet heading towards my bed in the early hours. Rather, there is a familiar sinking feeling as I wonder what the hell the time is, struggling to open my eyes and peer at the illuminated clock radio in the darkness. On the rare occasions when Littleboy 1 climbs in and then goes back to sleep, he's deliciously warm and cute, but usually, he will lie there kicking and wriggling until daybreak, when he will suddenly demand Shreddies.

Littleboy 2 is better, but dreadful when put to sleep in a travel cot, so last Sunday was particularly painful. We had stayed at Brother-in-law's house, ostensibly to watch Blade Runner on their posh new blu-ray player, (although in actual fact we all fell asleep after the first half hour. That's what parenthood does to you). But we went to bed after midnight (oh, the horror) and were all four sleeping in the same room. So when Littleboy 2 awoke with a roar at 5.45am in the hated travel cot, there was no way we could ignore him and go back to sleep. Soon they were both dancing excitedly around the room, despite the fact that it was still dark outside.

Monday was a fairly typical day. Although The Doctor had to go to work, I look after the Littleboys on Mondays, and could have done with a little extra time under the duvet before facing a day as cook, cleaner and child entertainer. However, Littleboy 1 crept into our bed around 6am and lay there, wriggling and snuffling. Littleboy 2 awoke around 6.30am, screaming for his milk and soon they were both chanting 'breakfast'. By 8.30am, I felt as if I had been up for hours.

Tuesday dawns: a day when we all need to be out of the house by 8am....

7am: I awake to the melodious sound of John Humphreys on Radio 4. I feel confused, disoriented - did someone leave the light on? Ah no, it is actually daylight - I haven't, for once, awoken in the hours of darkness. There is no sound from the Littleboys.
7.10am. The Doctor and I agree that this is 'typical'. Neither of us makes a move to get up.
7.15 am - Finally we hear Littleboy 2. Not screaming for milk as normal, but chatting sweetly in his cot. Still Littleboy 1 fails to appear.
7.20 am - I decide that if I get up and have a shower (next door to Littleboy1's bedroom), he will probably wake up.
7.30 am - I finish shower. Littleboy 1 stumbles out of bed, looking half asleep and furious, like a small animal awoken from hibernation. He goes and lies down in our bed, where he pronounces, sulkily, 'no want to get up'. He takes about 10 minutes to drink his beaker of milk, which he would normally guzzle in about 60 seconds, and generally looks as if he would be happy to stay in bed all morning.
7.50am - After crazed rush to get Littleboys ready for nursery and ourselves for work, we bundle them into the car (with a bowl of Shreddies each, to keep them happy).

Today normal service resumed, with the added excitement of Littleboy 1 having woken up at 1am and decided to play with his Lego rather than go back to bed. Their lie-ins are a rare phenomenon, but when they do come, it is always on the worst possible day. The whole of August, when The Doctor was off work, they were awake, without fail, at the crack of dawn. Come the 1st of September - their first nursery day in about 3 weeks - they both slept soundly until 7.30 am.

It's as if they KNOW......

Monday 8 September 2008


The delightful Mum/Mom (from whom I’m eagerly picking up tips on life as an Englishwoman Stateside, prior to our possible move next year) has given me a lovely blogging award.

Before I add my bling to the trophy shelf, I need to pass the award on; last time around, I took my pick of the local blogs so this time I’m going to nominate a few that have an international flavour. It’s always fun to read about expats (especially as I spent my childhood as one) and the following (in no particular order) are just brilliant at summing up the Brit Abroad…..

  1. Belgian Waffle
  2. Not Wrong, Just Different
  3. Reluctant Memsahib
  4. Expat Mum

The ‘rules’ (which I am sure are made to be broken) are:

  1. Link to the giver
  2. Link to the blogs you enjoy (up to 7; I just did 4 though- lazy)
  3. Leave a message on their blogs, letting them know the good news.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Doctor in the House - if only he could get a security pass...

It's September, and children are going back to school all over Nappy Valley. Thankfully we are spared that for another year, but we do have another novelty to grapple with: the Doctor has started a new job. And not just any new job; he has finally become a Consultant. After years of training, countless gruelling exams, and eleven years after graduating from medical school, he has reached the point where he is, technically, no longer a ‘junior doctor’.

Off he went on Monday morning, all smart in his suit and tie and new, shiny shoes, like a little boy to a new school. He didn't take his usual sandwiches, unsure whether he would have to be sociable and have lunch with his new colleagues. At home with the Littleboys, I had my own visions of what his first day might be like. Would he be striding about the hospital, asking his minions to reel off hundreds of potential diagnoses which he’d scribble down on a whiteboard, only to then cross out and come up with the real answer himself? Would he be followed around by a scurrying bunch of keen young medical students all too ready to form a crush on him? (As you can see, my knowledge of my husband's job stems, not from reality, but from US medical dramas…)

“It might be very busy," he had warned me in the morning. "I'm not sure what time I'll be back." But, at 5.30 sharp, the door opened - Daddy was home. My own Dad, who happened to be there, wondered whether this was because, as a consultant, The Doctor could just ‘sweep in and out, like James Robertson Justice in the Doctor in the House films’. But no. The Doctor was in fact rather monosyllabic and all I could get out of him was ‘not much happened’, before the chaos of the Littleboys’ bath and bedtime began.

Later, our conversation at supper went thus:

“So, did you see lots of patients?

“Well, no. I spent the whole day trying to get a security pass so that I could actually get into my department and do simple things like access the loos.”

“Oh.....So why was that?”

“Well, security told me I needed an official 8 digit number for an identity card before I could get in. So I went up to Medical Staffing and asked for one, but they said they were too busy and I should come back tomorrow.”

“And were they busy?”

“They appeared to be handing round pieces of chocolate cake…”

[At this point we could not help but dissolve into giggles...]

“So what did you do?”

“I had to go and see someone else and get them to email Security, then get the email printed off so I could show Security it had been sent. And it then took them another hour to get my pass done.”

“Oh. Well never mind (trying to sound cheerful). At least you do have your own office now, don’t you?”

“Well, yes.”

“What’s that like?”


“What, more horrible than that horrible lab you used to work in?”

“Yes. Well, they did show me a really nice office at first, but apparently it belongs to another consultant who’s on long term sick leave but might return at any moment - no-one seems to know what's happened to him - so they kicked me out into another one, which hasn’t got a computer except in the corridor."

"I see."

"But I do have a secretary."

“Oh really, that’s exciting.”

“Yes, but she doesn’t do any dictation because that all has to be outsourced to another company which is apparently cheaper.”

“Really? So what does she have to do then?”

“Not sure.….Play Solitaire?”

“Oh… what did you have for lunch then?"

"A Diet Coke and a packet of crisps, by myself..[pause] I'll be taking sandwiches tomorrow."

[Long pause]

"Another glass of wine then?”

“Why not…”

He may be a highly trained NHS consultant, but I felt like putting a little card in his school satchel to cheer him up. Some things never change.