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?