Wednesday, 30 December 2009

It's Christmas Time, there's no need to be afraid...

Rachel and Zack had a fine Christmas. Thanks for asking.

I'll be honest, we do have a bit of a problem trying to close the gap between the expectations that Rachel and Zack have about Christmas and the reality of the day. So hyped is the big day in their minds that when December 25th rolls around they seem to be struck by a deflated "Is that it?" feeling. In fact, Zack was heard to say "I can't believe that this is really Christmas Day". He said it with a slightly bemused tone, as if he expected every moment of the day to be infused with some glittery wonder. Which, of course, it wasn't.

I can recall myself being about the age that Zack is now (7, by the way, for the inattentive reader) and sitting by my bedroom window looking out at a grey Bedfordshire day thinking something like "this is weird - it's Christmas Day but everything outside looks like it always does on a cold, grey Bedfordshire day". I've no idea what I expected to be different but I recall being filled with this idea that there should be something Christmas-like about the scene on Southcourt Road.

Someone once said that everything looks more enticing wrapped up (and, yes, please feel free to extend that analysis in whichever direction you choose) and it certainly seems to apply to Christmas presents. Like everyone else with children, on the morning of the 25th, we had the experience of each present ripped open with glee, given a cursory assessment, sometimes (but not always) accompanied with suitably effusive comments, and then put aside for the next one. Most of the gifts were not returned to and had to be collected in some kind of orderly fashion by a parent.

We stayed with Hannah's family this particular Christmas and the game that was played the most was not any one of the much wanted gifts but a game between Rachel and Zack and their cousins Thomas (9) and William (11) called something like Hide-the-Walnut-in-your-Underpants. This appeared to involve William hiding a walnut in his (wait for it) underpants, and then trying to stop the others from extracting the nut from its hiding place. Nice. Zack seemed to delight in being the ringmaster in organising the debagging of William to get the walnut out. Of course, it all ended in tears (Zack's principally). Maybe we should have foregone the Hornby train set and the Meccano that suddenly looks way too complicated for its recommended age range (this 42 year old was certainly baffled by the language free instructions) and instead bought a bag of walnuts. I've always wondered why my parents put a walnut in my stocking and now I know why.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Sarcophagus, Sarschmophagus

Zack's class is studying Ancient Egypt at the moment and he brought home his 'project' homework on the subject this week. Now, I do think it's a nice idea if kids gets the chance to do more than book learning on such a thing. I applaud the school for its imaginative efforts to bring the subject to life for Zack and his compadres. Where my applause starts to taper off into more of a slow hand clap is when they send him home with a list of things to "research and make" that would give even Rolf Harris pause for thought. Oh, and this is no voluntary exercise. The homework sheet states that Zack has to create his own model sarcophagus (apparently a shoe box might come in handy), an amulet and a painting suitable for an Egyptian tomb. Oh, and they threw in a few other suggestions of things that could be made if we felt the urge. Yeah, right.

These things are patently beyond the reach of even the most resourceful Year 3 child. There is no way that Zack can be expected to construct such items to anything like a presentable standard. And so the duty of doing this falls to the parent least unartistically inclined - which happens to be me, in this family.

Hannah has overheard other parents at the school gate discussing tips on how best to achieve that much sought after authentic Ancient Egyptian look to this project. It's madness.

And it's not even as though we can give up on this and let Zack fend for himself since we know that many parents will go to difficult-to-comprehend lengths to create an impressive array of Egyptological artefacts from nothing more than a bit of papier mache and a strip of sticky backed plastic. At the end of this project last year, the Year 3 children had a day when they dressed 'like an Egyptian' and poor Rachel was despatched wearing an attempt at some sort of ancient-like robe gown (which looked suspiciously like a ripped up sheet) and a necklace arrangement hastily constructed from a piece of cardboard from a cornflake box, some silver paint and a selection of glued on beads. When we got to school that morning we discovered that other children from her class looked as though they'd just stepped off the set of a particularly lavish production of Anthony and Cleopatra.

We're not going to try to compete with those parents who seem to see these projects as a form of one-upmanship but the pressure is there to send Zack in on his dress-like-an-Egyptian day with something a bit more convincing. Rachel's old necklace found its way into the dressing up box and I fear 12 months of being jostled around in there has not improved its authenticity.

But, and I have to ask this, why, why, why are the school doing this to us? And where is the educational value in it? It's hard to imagine what good the school believe will come of the whole exercise.

But Zack is enjoying these activities and is now the proud owner of a cardboard and glue amulet, even if he has no idea what exactly an amulet is.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Mobile phones, an' all that

When I told Rachel that I wasn't allowed a Facebook account until I was 8 years old, she of course no more believed me than when I told her the same thing about mobile phones. Actuallly, she may have believed me the first time I said it, but I embrace the stereotype of the father who perpetuates gags long after they were funny (if indeed they ever were) possibly until the child has left home and started a family of their own.

I think Rachel and Zack just about get the fact that there was no internet or mobile communications revolution back when I was a child (they may even have used those words). I think they believe it in the same way that I believe that rationing existed for my parents some time around the Boer War - they accept the truth of the statement, but they have no proper conception of what a thing all this technology has created.

And what this means for me and every other parent of a Junior School aged child is that we now have to make judgments about when we permit such a technological intervention into their lives. Just when do you let a child have their first mobile phone? I have absolutely no context against which to judge this from my own experience as a child. I was on safe ground with watches. Mum and Dad would not allow me, or any of my brothers, a watch until I was eight years old. OK, so it was a crappy little wind up Timex and I soon hankered after a digital watch (note to any Hart family members reading this who still believe the story that I flung that watch under the wheels of a passing lorry on Wing Road in order to hasten the moment I would own my very own digital watch: it ain't so. I just lost it. Now move on.) But at least this gave me some idea about what age to get Rachel or Zack a watch. But a mobile phone? It hardly bears saying that, of course, some of Rachel's classmates have mobile phones, and, I suspect, some of them have had them for a while now. To be fair, Rachel apparently does not want a phone, almost disdains them - she's said so quite a few times. But Rachel is no dimwit and is highly attuned to her beloved parents' views on such matters. She knows that we think she's too young for a phone and so she reflects that back to us, quite convincingly, as it happens. I do not believe she yearns for a mobile phone, but I'm not entirely persuaded that she would not like one for herself.

So, on the one hand I have to recognise that I am a dinosaur about understanding the requirements of an 8 year old for a mobile phone, but, on the other, this does not absolve me from making a proper decision about her need for one, based both on the possible benefits of a such a thing and her need not to be the most uncool child in her year (again).

Have you noticed that even calling it a "mobile" phone, as opposed to just a "phone" marks me out as a dinosaur. My point of reference for phones is, and ever will be, a thing attached to a wire attached to a box on the wall marked GPO. This is not the point of reference for Rachel, or anyone born in the last couple of decades or so. Ever since I noticed this, I've tried to stop using the word "mobile", but I sound like a phoney, even to myself.

I really have no idea when we'll get a phone for either Rachel or Zack. I expect they'll be in the last 10% or so of their peer group to have one and they will quietly despise Hannah and me for being one of the last holdout parents. But right now I do not know if it will be 1 year or 5 before we make that move. No idea at all.

Saturday, 5 September 2009


We've been camping four times this summer, travelling to the depths of Wiltshire, the Forest of Dean, the Gower peninsula and (honestly) suburban Essex. And now Rachel and Zack have had their first full night's camping (almost) in the back garden. It seems as though they have got a taste for it.

Now, call me an old worry-mutton, but at 7 and 8, I think that they're a bit young for solo camping, even in the wilds of our back garden. This means that I either forbid back garden camping, or join them in the expedition. In this I'm torn between understanding the joys that adventures like this can hold for the 7 year olds of this world, and knowing that if I join them then I will be lying in a cool, possibly damp, garden in a sleeping bag on the scantest of mats (Rachel and Zack declaring primacy over the super comfy air beds) with the luxuriously comfortable mattress of our bed a few short, but unreachable, steps away.

And so, like a fool, I agreed to this plan. Last time we attempted a camping trip to the back garden was the day we purchased our magnificent Vango Colorado 600 DLX tent and all of us were eager to try it out. Once we figured out that we could just about fit the tent into our back garden, we found that any chance of a decent night's sleep was not possible thanks to Holly the rabbit's habit of whacking her back feet on the floor of the hutch at regular intervals. Whether she did this because she was bothered by the tent or not was unclear. But it made sleep impossible.

So why did we do it again? Hopeless naivety, in part, but mainly because the argument that the rabbits kept us up last time would not quell the eagerness of Rachel and Zack to camp.

All in all, it went a little better this time, although the rabbits' continual banging around of their water bottle woke me on about eighteen occasions. At 5:30am, Zack and I took a loo trip, whereupon the lad declared that, all things considered, his bed was a more welcome prospect for the remainder of the night than returning to the tent, and so off he trotted upstairs. Fantastic. I, on the other hand, ventured out, once more, to the garden to rejoin Rachel.

The tent has now definitively gone away up to the loft, not to descend until we're comfortably the other side of spring. And the rabbits can have their garden back.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Luton vs Forest Green Rovers. What a great game.

You might think that this was a twisted way of introducing Rachel and Zack to the world of live football - this wasn't even League Football for heavens sake - but I think it's fair to say that all that is live footy was represented there. We had uncomfortable seating, people who stood up in front of you at moments of high drama (actually, there weren't too many of those), and full (and voluble) abuse of the referee. It also had the added advantage over, say, a Premier League fixture of being cheap.

What was absent was much by way of bad language. On our departure from home, Hannah warned Rachel and Zack that they might overhear words that it would be best not to repeat. But there was hardly any. My impression was that the general absence of profanity was mostly down to people moderating their language in the presence of two youngsters. Forest Green Rovers' ground could be described as somewhat intimate and few in the away fans' end could have missed the arrival of Rachel and Zack bobbing behind me as we hunted for a seat.

All of that did not prevent the cascade of abuse poured forth at the referee during the game. The visceral anger of some supporters against this poor fellow from Shropshire was almost grotesque. I can't say if Rachel and Zack picked up much on this, but I think I would have preferred some light-hearted swearing and cursing over the (admittedly clean-mouthed) virulent hatred directed at the man.

And so Luton thrashed Forest Green 1-0 in a display of boot-it-around-midfield-for-few-minutes-and-see-what-happens football. Classy it was not. Dramatic? Well, not really, excepting Luton's missed penalty. Boring? Well, Zack was fidgeting quite a bit towards the end of the first half, but saw things through to the end with a smile on his face (possibly enhancing his enjoyment of the spectacle with a half-time portion of chips).

In advance of the game, Rachel and Zack had painted some banners to be waved at moments of emotional intensity. In the days preceding the game I had been quizzed by Zack on multiple occasions as to the team colours of Luton Town FC (that'll be orange, white and blue, livery lovers). And so, on the day of the game, they got out their paint brushes (and a little glitter) and painted 'Go Hatters!' and 'Go Luton' signs. In green and yellow.

Well, as Rachel pointed out, the Luton keeper was wearing a green shirt so they weren't too far out. And so I happily waved mine with vigour as Luton popped in their winning goal, the only man in the stadium clutching their child's home made banner. It was marvellous.

Monday, 17 August 2009

We're all going to a football match this evening. Luton Town (my home team - sort of) are playing the titans of the Blue Square Premier League, Forest Green Rovers. Luton should whop them. Don't mistake me for a real fan though - this is only about the fifth time I've ever seen them play and I can't even name a single player.

Rachel and Zack have never seen a live football match played from start to finish. They've both been seduced by the leviathan that is the Premier League and have eschewed thoughts of following a team that they have the remotest geographical connection to.

Rachel is a Chelsea fan (and cannot be parted from her newly purchased - and long awaited - new season shirt) and Zack follows Liverpool. They view my support of a team recently relegated from the Football League as something of a quaint curiosity, a relic from a bygone age.

I'm very happy that they have embraced with such vigour Premier League football. But a dose of 90 minutes of Conference footy should put some realism back into their view of the game. For me, I have to stifle my feelings of disquiet at the bloated salaries and egos than bob around what I still want to call Division 1. And I'm happy to grit my teeth through the barbarity that will be Luton vs Forest Green Rovers (just so long as Luton win promotion back to the League at the end of the season).

Just a start

This is about life a father in all its dreadful glory. I have a 7 year old son and 8 year old daughter and I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. More soon.