Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More autumn fun

Is there anything more fun for a young boy at this time of year than kicking rustling piles of leaves? Well, yes, there probably are, and it depends on the youth of the boy where he gets his kicks, but it has to be in the top five. Especially when dad sanctions throwing armfuls of them in the air too.
Ready, steady...


Saturday, November 20, 2010

How sad am I?

It's been a tough week. HackneyBaby is not sleeping very well so we've been up at all hours through the night. To make matter worse, just as his big brother is discovering the joy of a lie in, he has taken over the 6am - or earlier - shift.

I've been feeling a bit low recently. I've only just managed to shake off a cough that has been lingering for weeks. It didn't really develop into a full blown cold or flu, but just left me feeling a bit crap. Combined with my sore foot and the lack of sleep, I haven't been the happiest of bunnies.

This week has been especially wearing as we've been trying to get HB to stay in his cot when he kicks off. Up until now we've been walking him about, taking him downstairs to stop him waking his brother. Anyway, we've decided to stop that because:
a) it doesn't really work, and
b) he's getting too heavy to cart around in the middle of the night, and possibly...
c) because his brother scared the bejeezus out of me the other night by appearing silently by my side in the darkened front room and loudly asking "What are you doing?"

So this week we've been trying to keep him in our room and his cot. On one hand this has been easier for me as my wife has been dealing with him when he wakes up. However the unspoken quid pro quo has been that I've been getting up with him in the morning. We used to take it in turns to do this, so by the end of this week I was shattered.

My wife is not an unfeeling woman and she offered to take the kids out today and let me have some down time. (They went to the St Joseph's hospice Christmas bazaar, where Barbara Windsor was there to open things up and was, by all accounts a real sweetheart.)

This left me free to do whatever my heart desired - go back to bed, go to the cinema, head for the pub... whatever I fancied. In the event I found it really hard to think of anything to do. I eventually went for a walk and found myself looking at all the weekend dads out with their kids on bikes, playing and having fun. Although I was only divorced from mine for a couple of hours I felt an irrational envy, almost a separation anxiety, as I wondered what my two lads were doing.

It's crazy. I see them every day and for a lot longer than many fathers do. As much as I sometimes think that they have completely taken over my life, it is obvious that they now are my life.

And yes, I realise how icky that sounds.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Autumn gold

It's been a downpour today, but it was glorious yesterday. Even mucky old Hackney looks quite nice in the sunshine, especially when we're having such a glorious autumn for leaf colours.
Back in the day, before we had kids, we'd be heading out to Suffolk at about this time of year for an autumn break in the lovely seaside town of Southwold. Invariably we'd drive through beautiful golds, reds and yellows which would make me wonder why New England in the Fall is such a big deal when we have such wonderful scenes in our own country. 
Plus, I doubt you can get real ale like Adnams in New England. Nor find a boozer like the Lord Nelson.
These pictures aren't great, but I just wanted to capture how lovely the leaves look at the minute in case there are no more sunny days before they all drop.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Clay man

He sits... and waits... for a 38 bus

Not a great picture I know, but I had to climb on to somebody's wall and lean out to get this shot of the mysterious clay man. As he is looking away from me it is impossible to tell what look he has, or if he has any features at all. I'm thinking that he is perhaps Hackney's answer to Anthony Gormley's Event Horizon statues.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

More bus stop top art

Following on from the under the radar success of the space potatoes and the wooden clacker things, the guerrilla artists of Hackney are at it again. Last night I noticed a small clay figure on top of the bus stop at the top of Graham Road. From my vantage point on the top deck of the 277, through the rain and condensation smeared windows, I could just about make him out. He seems to be sitting on an armchair as if watching an invisible TV.
It reminded me that I'd spotted another miniature figure on Kingsland Road a few weeks back. He also seemed to be made from unpainted clay, like his chair bound brother. However he was standing atop a wall with a life belt round his midriff. Poignant it was!
Unfortunately lifebelt man he has now gone as I tried to find him later to get a picture. But I wonder where the next clay man or woman might crop up and what they'll be doing.

Friday, October 22, 2010

This hurts

I have just discovered I've got a bunion. I don't know if this is good news or bad as I thought I'd broken my foot somehow or maybe developed gout. Which is worst?

All I know is that it bloody hurts at  the moment - throb, throb, throb. I am currently self-medicating with Kronenbourg, which I don't think conflicts with the anti-inflammatories I'm on. For now though I'm a hobbling, limping fool and I don't like it. This really makes me feel like the old dad I am. I can't descend the stairs with any ease. I can't actually walk very far at the moment. It's a real pisser.

Our two boys are so physically demanding that I feel like a bit of a spare part at the moment. I'm only marginally more mobile than the six month old, who is already hauling himself up on things and standing gummily grinning at us: "Look what I've done."

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Advanced Police driving course - failed
We were sitting in the house yesterday when there was an almighty crash on what sounded like Graham Road. Being, like most people, nosey by nature, I halted what I was doing at the time - dressing down J over something or other - and rushed out to see what was going on.

A crowd of other rubber neckers had gathered on the corner of Graham Road and Navarino Road, where a couple of rather embarrassed PCs were surveying the scene. By all accounts they'd tried to undertake a car that was already turning into the side road, completely misjudged and kerrunch!

Although this tableau provided no little amusement, particularly for the guys who frequent the nearby bookies, it was extremely fortunate there was nobody on the pavement at the time as the results would have been terrible. Perhaps the police drivers wouldn't have been so foolhardy if there had been pedestrians, but this was the spot where Arina Romanova was knocked from her bike and killed a couple of months ago. Navarino Road is heavily used by parents and kids going to and from London Fields. On a lovely sunny, Saturday afternoon, it could have been much worse.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

They knead the bread

I yield to no one in my love of a nice spelt sourdough, but it's getting so you can't move around here for artisan bakers. Maybe they are the new plumbers. A couple of years back there was the idea that the middle classes were chucking their jobs in the City, accountancy and law to make their millions fitting U-bends and Armitage Shanks three pieces. Given the price of the average pain de campagne, perhaps dough is going that way.

The latest addition is the E5 Bakehouse, which is located in a railway arch just off London Fields. We stumbled upon it this morning, after stumbling upon it on Facebook. We bought some rather rich, but fantastically yummy muffins for £1.50-1.75 each, which although pricey is still cheaper than Violet. The USP seems to be the organic nature of the goods on sale. They are to be very into the provenance of the flour and such like. But ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the chocolate and cherry, and carrot cake muffins we tried were fantastic.

(Not E5's yummy muffins. These cakes are for display purposes only)
Bread is their big thing though and there was a baker hard at it on Sunday. Apparently they will be making bread every day, which opens up the fantastic opportunity of strolling up there of a morning and picking up a still steaming round of bread. Or going for a run and dropping in for a baguette on the way back. Jeez, I love Hackney!

They are also running baking classes, which sound like fun. For £65 you undergo a full day course which will show you how to make the perfect sourdough. As a bit of an amateur baker, this sounds very interesting. I kept a sourdough starter for four or five years, but recently gave up on it as I was making bread with it so infrequently. Partly this was due to the fact that I have so little time for indulgences like baking what with the kids' demands. But another was the fact that I could never get the same taste that I would buy on Broadway Market from Degustibus, whose Californian sourdough is the Holy Grail. Maybe I can perfect my crumb and crust with some tuition.

I worked in an industrial bakery when I was younger - summer holiday job. Oddly it never left me with a desire to make, or even eat bread. Probably because the process was so deskilled. You basically did one small part of the process - classic assembly line stuff - so you couldn't really feel much ownership of the final product, which wasn't much to write home about anyway.

Getting your hands into the dough is a completely different matter.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The 6.30 Club

In which Dad tries to do some surreptitious blogging while keeping an ear out for the almost crawling baby behind him.

Baby A is what you would call an early riser - 6.30 is a bit of a lie in. My wife and I tend to take it in turns to do the early shift with him. By rights I should probably get up with him every morning as she feeds him in the night, which is usually a drawn out affair. However, for the past week or so I've been getting up with him as well. He's been sleeping so badly that it's almost like a return to the baby boot camp of the early weeks. It seems as if he's been waking up every hour, although in my sleep deprived state I can't be sure of anything. Yesterday I mentioned to Mrs Holiday that he seemed to have slept well only to be met with a withering rebuke that I'd slept through the worst of it.

Not that it's usually possible to sleep through and most nights I end up pacing the living room with him. At the moment he's still in our room as we've only got a two-bed flat until we move to our Essex mansion. So, when he wakes, if he won't go back to sleep quickly we take him downstairs so he doesn't disturb his brother.

It's a funny thing. Even when he's bawling his eyes out, he is often asleep in my arms by the time we get down the stairs and into this room. Maybe he finds the peculiar odour relaxing. Here I will walk him or rock him, which can be for anything between 10 minutes (hooray!) and an hour (lots of inward swearing at this point). He seems to be thriving on it though - he's a happy little chap when he wakes up. For us, it's sleep deprivation torture and leaves us zombified for the rest of the day.

For now, we're waiting for the day when we can put him in his own room and not hear his every whimper, which is probably part of the problem at the minute. His brother was similarly restless, although in a different way. We used to have to lie beside his cot and hold his hand, but at least you got a rest. With Baby A it's a full body work out in the small hours with no warm up.

Reinforcements have now arrived in the shape of big brother who is currently keeping A occupied by distributing various toys to him. One thing to be thankful for is the fact that they generally get on well at the moment. I hope that remains the same as little brother's crawling progresses. J already finds it annoying when he wrecks his carefully constructed train layouts. Will I be an early morning peacekeeper in the months ahead?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Anxious times

As we get closer to moving to Essex, I'm getting steadily more nervous. Not just because of the usual worries about leaving the little corner of East London that has been home for the past 11 years.

I'm starting to worry about everything really. The buildings report on the house we are buying came in today. Overall there's not a lot to worry about - it's not going to fall down the week after we move in. However, seeing in black and white what you are buying, and seeing all of its little blemishes highlighted is quite sobering - we're buying THIS! Mind you, I'd hate to see the report on our current property.

A bigger concern is the school catchment we are in. We specifically bid on the new place, and dropped another property because of the school we thought it was nearest to. I consulted with the local education authority about this as finding out catchment areas is like trying to uncover the recipe for Coca-Cola - there are a lot of pretenders out there, but you're never sure what's the real deal. Surely the council would know.

Apparently not. In my original conversations with the LEA, I was talked through a map of where the boundaries were by a lady in the schools team - "Up this road, down that one...." It all seemed very thorough so we went ahead and put in our bid on the house which, fro her information was in the catchment of the school we wanted.

Weeks later, by which time we were up to our ears in costs of moving, the surveyor, of all people, mentioned that we might not be in the catchment we thought we were in. I checked again. This time the process seemed a little more robust. The guy I spoke to said he had to access a computer programme to get the definitive answer. Except it wasn't initially definitive. Firstly he said that we were in catchment - cue huge relief and air punching - then he added "Unless you are in Road X". Since this was our prospective road and the basis of our entire conversation to this  point, I felt a little like the beauty queen who was announced as winner only to have the crown pinched from her head seconds later due to the announcer giving the wrong name.

We've missed out by one street, which is rather galling. One of the reasons that we are moving is that some schools in Hackney are not great (although not the one that J would probably have gone to had we stayed - Gayhurst gets decent reviews). We're now in the odd position of escaping from inner city London, with all its perceived problems, to leafy Colchester, where it's possible our son will go to a worse school than he would have had we stayed here. As my wife pointed out, we are possibly the most crap, pointy elbowed parents.

We did think briefly about pulling the whole deal, but we're so far down the line that it was a bit too scary to more than contemplate. Maybe the sink school will have pulled its socks up in a couple of years time.

Another worry is work. Specifically will there be any? It's still very quiet in my line these days and I'll be at the end of a very long line should I need to get back into the Smoke. I haven't yet identified the media quarter of our new home. Surely there is one!

So really I've got to keep accentuating the positives: bigger house; garden; closer to the seaside; near to family; nice town... Phew, it's good to know there are still reasons to cheerful.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Easy rider

I finally got round to testing the Boris bikes today. The nearest ones to Hackney aren't actually that near so it meant a trip down Kingsland Road to the Geffrye Museum where there is a rack in nearby Falkirk Street.

First impressions were favourable. There were plenty of bikes to choose from and they all seemed to be in good condition. Rightly or wrongly I'd expected that they would already be showing the signs of unwanted attention from vandals and drunkards, but the docking station itself was well kept and the bikes looked very impressive in their serried ranks. These ones hadn't been stickered either.

The process of obtaining one was pretty straightforward too. You just insert your key into the docking station, wait for a green light and you're away. The bikes are pretty robust but not uncomfortable. The seat is easy to adjust to the required height, the chain is enclosed so your trousers won't get caught in it, and the seat is padded and sufficiently wide to accommodate most bottoms. They also have built in lights which flash funkily as you ride along, drum brakes which were efficient without throwing you over the handlebars, and a 'basket' at the front for strapping in a bag or coat. They also have a stand.

There are three gears which ranged from the hilariously frenzied - ideal for getting off at lights - to a decent third which made me feel I could actually get the beast moving at a decent pace. I was actually able to overtake a few people on their own bikes. They were probably in a more leisurely frame of mind than me as I raced to the next docking station to ensure I stayed within the 30 minute free window. It's actually remarkably easy to do as the stations are thick on the ground in central London. There were also plenty of bikes at all stations apart from Clerkenwell Road where only two were left. Maybe this is due to the difficulty of hiring the bikes. Unless you have a key (not that difficult to apply for and they only cost £3) you still can't use the bikes. I'm sure the casual use scheme will be up and running by summer and by then I can't imagine it will be so easy to get hold of a bike, on a sunny Sunday afternoon for example.

I did go a bit bananas on the first leg with the result that when I descended the bike my legs were as jellyish as Simon Pegg's character in Run Fat Boy Run (filmed partly in Dalston actually) after his first spinning class. I took it easier after that and cycled from Kingsland Road to Borough Market, then on to the Royal Festival Hall for lunch before heading back through the West End, Bloomsbury, Old Street and back to Falkirk Street.

The overriding sensation was how being on a bike really shrinks the city. It was Saturday so traffic was probably lighter, but I was getting around much quicker than I would have done on any other mode of transport. Also, although the bike is hardly a design classic, I didn't feel as much of a plonker as I thought I would, and saw lots of other people on Boris bikes.

Overall, I can't think of much negative to say, apart from the fact that they don't extend very far into East London. If Boris really does intend to be a mayor of the whole city and not just the West part, I hope that this changes very quickly. There should already be a stream of them leading up to the Olympic site to get people used to the idea of visiting what is for many a strange part of town. Let's be 'aving 'em!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Spurstowe in a former life

I came across this ad today, which I remember being shot at the Spurstowe on Wilton Way about five or six years ago. At the time it was still an old man's boozer, complete with the stripey wallpaper that you can just about make out in the picture.

Now, it's on its second incarnation as a trendy gastropub/cool hangout. So cool in fact that it doesn't even have a name. The current owners took down the name when they were redecorating and said that they were looking to rename it. I suggested they have a competition, but it looks as if nothing came of it.

My own suggestion is the Hotchip and Mumford, in celebration of the major sartorial influences for the drinkers... and the fact that they serve chips.

It is amazing how the fame of the this particular area has spread. First with Grazia dubbing London Fields the coolest park in London. Then the New York Times alighted on Wilton Way to number its charms. I did wonder if the backpacker parked outside our door yesterday had cabbed it straight from Heathrow to soak up the Wilton vibe.

But of course, what goes up, must inevitably come down, and it seems the backlash has already started. It has to be said that although there are a lot of dickheads about, they are mostly polite middle class youths who do add a certain vibrancy to the area and some comic appeal. There was a decidedly Nathan Barley-ish picnic going on outside the Lido on Saturday, complete with a DJ working a sound system from the back of a shopping trolley.


Saturday, August 28, 2010


It's not an original observation, but they really are a bunch of bankers aren't they?

I'm currently looking for a new mortgage as we're moving house so I've been surfing finance sites for longer than is healthy. My current mortgage is with Gnat West (the Frank Bank - Unemployed? No money? Then f--- off! Thank you Viz) and they recently sent me a reminder that my current deal is nearly over. I've just been rereading their kind offer and see that the two year fixed deal they have offered me - a customer of 10 years plus - is more than 2% higher than an offer open to any old Joe, on their website.

They can't even claim that the web offer is new as I spoke to one of their call centre staff yesterday and he said it had been around since the time that my reminder was sent. And my muggins offer comes with a £199 arrangement fee, compared with no fee for the one on the website.

The sad and bad thing is that there will be people out there who have taken them up on this and be overpaying by hundreds of pounds a month. Customer loyalty really does only cut one way it seems.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Advice for Dave

I was recently interviewed for an article on the BBC website about being a dad to tie in with the birth of David and Samantha Cameron's latest child. It came a bit earlier than expected, but luckily they managed to get it up in time.

As a journalist myself, I can't complain about being misquoted. I did pretty much say all of that stuff, but because of the brief, I didn't get much of a chance to talk about the joy of being a dad. And there are lots of joyous aspects to it.

However, it's fair to say that I found our second child tougher than our first. Partly this was because of the mismatch between expectation and reality. Despite being told by enough people that two or more kids were a lot tougher than one, it went in one ear and out the other. I thought that by the time number two was on the way, we had this parenting lark down pat. More fool me. Like lots of aspects of parenthood, you really have to experience things yourself and find your own way through.

I particularly struggled with drawing a boundary between family and work time. Because I work from home mainly, it was all too easy to be dragged into domestic crises - children crying, wife crying, poomageddon etc. Combined with the inevitable lack of sleep (well, not inevitable I suppose. Our second has proved not to be the placid balance to his energetic brother, but more of the same), the first few months turned out to be a not very productive time for me work wise. It was just as well that we were in a freelance recession!

I can't imagine what it will be like for the PM to try and stay on top of his workload while being a thoroughly modern dad at the same time. Of course he's already had three children, including one disabled child, so he's probably more disciplined than I'll ever be. With Samantha laid up after her section, there will be plenty for him to - and not just making tea and toast as he joked yesterday. It's lucky for him that he has Nick Clegg to hold the fort while he holds the baby.

It's going to be tough for them though with Sam having given up her job and the freezing of child benefit - thanks George! Family friendly government? We'll see.

Oh and the joyous bits. Well, the early days don't last for ever, do they?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

To do list

After a few weeks of frantic searching, we have found a house in Essex which, if everything goes according to plan, we should move into in a couple of months. Which means that our Hackney holiday may become a permanent vacation.

Now that the move is imminent, I'm mentally listing things that we'll have to try and do before we leave here. Some of them are things that I've always meant to do but haven't got round to. Others are favourite activities that we'll miss when we move home. In no particular order:

* a meal at Buen Ayre on Broadway Market for a proper Argentinian steak. Window table please, as frequented by David Byrne a couple of months back.
* an afternoon at the Museum of Childhood with the kids. It's been my home from home for the past couple of years and the saviour of many rainy days.
* a morning swim at London Fields Lido - apparently the US swim team are eyeing it up for the 'Lympics.
* a few cheeky pints at the Wenlock Tavern, one of the few spit and spit pubs that haven't been gastro-ed up. They do blinding doorstop sandwiches to soak up the ale.
* go for a run along the canal past Victoria Park.
* complete a few more legs of the London Loop. Kids have put a stop on our efforts as most of the legs are a fair few miles and not particularly buggy friendly. It's a great walk though.
* late night bagels from Brick Lane. Preferably eaten slightly squiffy on a nightbus home to Hackney.
* cycle across London for free on the Boris Bikes. Although I've registered I still haven't tried them.
* ask to busk alongside Mikey at Dalston shopping centre.
* visit the Horniman museum. (I'm putting this down mainly because there's a good chance that we'll do it this weekend.)
* go to a ukulele night, such as the one in Stoke Newington's Lion pub.
* take a trip along the Thames on a boat.

There are plenty of other things, but that's a good start.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


In some cultures it's thought that when you die you are presented with all the things you have lost 'on the other side'. That's a lifetime of single socks, dropped coins, mislaid keys and mobile phones collected in the great lost property office in the sky.

I'm expecting that moving house is somewhat similar and that we will start to unearth lost treasures from behind furniture and the foot of drawers that have been unopened for years. Since having children, the rate at which things go missing has increased exponentially. It's not just the obvious stuff like kids socks, although they do seem to have a life of their own, or hats and dummies (ditto). Stuff just seems to disappear into thin air to the extent that you begin to suspect a malevolent presence.

Toys are another candidate for missing in action status. This particularly infuriates me as I have something of the quartermaster about me - a place for everything and everything in its place. It drives me nuts when I can't find the last piece of a jigsaw, the final action figure for a particular toy, or the piece of track that completes the railway line. Where are they?

I suspect that some of them ended up posted in the bin when J was younger. Other items might possibly have been left at his nursery or tossed from his buggy. It's not even that this stuff is valuable. It's the not knowing where it is that annoys me.

At times of greatest exasperation my wife nods sagely and says, "I'm sure it will turn up." This drives me even more bonkers. Does she know where it is? Is it some kind of elaborate game that she has devised with the kids - "Let's watch daddy lose it, shall we. Hide his phone in the freezer." Mainly however it's because I suspect her of being the architect of many of our losses. She is very scatty, with a slack attitude to her own possessions which she is passing on to our offspring.*

The latest loss is a whole bucket full of toy dinosaurs. One or two of their number going missing is just about excusable, but the extinction of the whole pack (hmm, collective noun for dinosaurs?) is mind boggling. It's right up there with the mystery of the mini guitar amp. This isn't a particularly small item and we don't live in a particularly large flat, so where the flip can it be?

I'm beginning to think that there is only one solution to the problem - throw away half of everything you own. At least that way if something turns up later you will feel blessed.

* Sorry darling, but it's true!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why the long face?

The overriding memory I have of my mum when I was growing up is that she always seemed grumpy, usually with me. Our house was a whole world of 'no'.

Now, of course, the boot is on the other foot, and I can see that what I took for her unfair crabbiness was probably just plain exhaustion at bringing up two kids on her own. This combined with the ongoing repetition of house rules and regulations designed to prevent your offspring killing or maiming themselves or each other.

This is particularly brought home to me now we have two children. To a certain extent it was easy to be fun-loving, easy going dad when we just had Number One Son. Now with his four-month old brother in tow, I frequently find myself in the role of bad cop, relaying all the many ways he is letting us down with his inconsiderate behaviour.

He is two years old. I am 43.

I think he can see it coming now. His face creases up into a mask of misery and he implores me: "Don't be annoyed with me."

It is a mask of course. He's well sneaky and knows that I find it hard to be hard on him. Unless like last night I'd been up all night, due to brother's sniffles, including a 2am trip to Tesco for Calpol which he only succeeded in dribbling down his front anyway. When his elder brother started complaining that he couldn't sleep in his bed due to wasps, it really was the final straw!

"Get in that bed NOW, and go to sleep. If I hear one more word from you I'll... " (tries unsuccessfully to think of a suitable sanction for a two year old. I had started to remove his favourite toys when he misbehaved, but when he said, "What shall we take away next?" it was apparent that my punishment regime had been turned into a game by him. You can't win.)

Eventually he did go to sleep, although not before complaining of more wasps and telling me where I should sleep (on the landing, outside his door). It's suffice to say that none of us are fresh as a daisy today - well, he is, but his parents are looking more haggard than usual.

Meanwhile, my dear old mum has turned into a doting and fun grandma. Enjoy your rest mum. You've earned it.

Sunday, August 08, 2010


The shiny-suited ones have done us proud and managed to sell our humble abode for an anything but humble price. I'm almost ashamed at what we're getting for it (subject to contract) - almost but not quite.

It was all over relatively quickly - about five weeks to sell, during which time we were absent for many of the showings. This wasn't on purpose - we simply have the kind of fun-packed social lives that require us to vacate the Capital at weekends. I'm glad we weren't around though. If there is one thing more dispiriting than having someone do the tour of your house in about two minutes flat (that's a no then!), it's half-hearing the muted discussions as they tear apart what's still standing of your little castle.

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it's us who are the moneyed interlopers, traipsing through people's lives, guffawing at their taste in decor, and rubbishing their houses.  Actually, I'm not that rude. Not even about the one really horrible house we've seen recently. (A big clue should have been the requirement to remove shoes at the door). Even here I oohed and aahed and commented favourably on the room sizes - sometimes it's the only thing you have left in your armoury of compliments.

I haven't househunted for more than 11 years, and then it took me months and I probably saw about 30-40 properties before falling in love with the ample proportions of my current des res. Then it was a backwater street in a backwater part of town. Now it's a newly hip quarter of an Olympic borough, which is probably why it has done so well on the market. From a two-bed flat in Hackney, we're now looking at four-bed detatcheds in Essex. How does that work?

Not that our new-found paper wealth is making the process any easier. After sifting through properties on-line for ages, we had a shortlist of about ten properties, and surprise, surprise, none of them is quite right. Nice location but bedrooms are too small, loads of rooms but the garden is tiny, fantastic space, but it's in the middle of nowhere, amazing space, but it's right next to a car park... and so on. Then there's the different tastes and priorities of me and the missus.

I can't deny that househunting is great for the nosey though. It's a great insight into how other people live, and estate agents are such gossips. I love the way that they let slip with enough of the backstory to pull you in - "they've split up - such a shame. I think they'd take an offer!"

Hopefully everyone is open to an offer at the moment, as our initial plan of cutting our outgoings seems to be going to pot as we have exhausted the cheaper properties in our range and are now looking towards, and maybe beyond out notional maximum budget. Then again, this may be a once in a lifetime to get ourselves a pukka Essex mansion.


Friday, July 30, 2010

On my bike

I have just registered for the new London bike hire scheme, which launches today. I was spurred on as I noticed several docking points while driving (whoops! Not very green) through Islington yesterday. There seemed to be a mass last minute exercise going on to 'bike up' all the docking points with the rather clunky looking machines that we will soon be able to ride.

Style should be the least of your worries when riding a bike, however of late it has become an activity that you need to be seen doing round these parts, preferably on a modish single speed bike or retro granny model. No need for bicycle clips either as trousers as worn drainpipe tight this year.

I doubt the  Barclays machines will go down particularly well with the London Fields massive as you will look as cool as a Tory on a bike. However, I was excited enough to register at about 11 last night, and am now waiting anxiously for my access key to arrive.

The scheme works by allowing you to pick up one of thousands of bikes from docking stations around the capital. You pay £3 for the key, rather like your Oyster card and then pay as you go. The first 30 minutes are free, so it may be possible to cross London by planning your route carefully and swapping bikes as you go. However the scheme is cheap enough at £1 per day, although there is higher rate if you don't have credit in your account. A full year's membership costs £45, which you'd struggle to buy a bike for anywhere - even in the thief's market of Brick Lane.

It is as yet unclear where all of the docking stations are. The website promises to locate them on a map, but they weren't there last night when I looked - not even the ones I spotted off Pentonville Road and next to Islington Sainsbury's. It will be something of an own goal if we don't have them in the Olympic boroughs as part of the bid has been about a green transport policy for visitors - as long as you are not a member of the IOC, which seems intent on traffic free carriage to the Lea Valley in special lanes.

For me, it will be an opportunity to get back on two wheels. I haven't had a bike for ages as there is not really room to store it in the flat. The only problem is that I doubt they come with kids seats. Maybe some enterprising sort will develop a quick release version that can used with hire bikes.

These sorts of schemes have been in action for a while in many European cities, such as Paris and Frankfurt. The key to their success, according to my sources, is speedy reallocation of bikes so they don't simply disappear from high traffic sites, such as railway stations to the periphery of the scheme. That, and removal and repair of any duff machines. I suspect there will be plenty of need in the early days as cycling novices, such as me, and local vandals put them through their paces. Overall though, what's not to like?

In depth report coming soon.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sugar Sugar

Like many first time parents, we did a lot of things by the (smug middle class parent's) book: breast feeding for a year (not me, obviously); weaning on nutritious pulped food; avoiding exposure to TV; no sweets. Jeez, we were smug.

The no sweets thing was something that I was particularly keen on, having seen the havoc that the introduction of 'treats' can have on a healthy eating regime. Mainly to myself actually. As a Scottish child of the Seventies, I was raised on the newly available convenience foods and sweeties.

(My mum was, and remains a marketing man's dream. My sister and I used to be able to accurately guage what we'd be having for dinner by checking out what new ads were breaking that week. You could guarantee that mum would trial any new innovations as soon as they hit the shelves.)

So when it came to HackneyChild, I was determined that he should be given the best dietary start. In this I was helped by my wife, who had a completely different upbringing to mine, in that she was deprived of sweets to such an extent in the early days that the first time some kindly soul gave her jelly babies, she started playing with them, thinking they were dolls.

That story always stuck in my mind. To this day I have a massively sweet tooth, brought on in no small part by the kind of food my old Scottish grannie thought suitable for growing laddies - treacle and syrup sandwiches for example. White bread, natch! Or just a straight up sugar sandwich. I didn't stand a chance.

Anyway, I thought we'd done pretty well keeping J's exposure to the white stuff to a minimum. I used to weed out the nasties from the birthday bags he was given at his nursery, but really it seems to have been all in vain. After a delayed start, he has taken to all sorts of sweet things like a demon - cakes, ice cream, chocolate, biscuits, are his 'favourite thing' as he terms it.

I know there is some debate about how bad sugar is for kids and whether it really does turn them bonkers, but today's evidence look daming. After being particularly good, his mum bought him an ice cream which he liked lots thank you very much. After that, it seemed as if he had been swapped for an evil twin. He wanted to chop off his brother's head and kick him downstairs, he wanted to SHOOOUUUT, wouldn't have an afternoon nap despite being very tired, he was crying and stumbling about like a miniature drunk.

Being the good and consistent parents we are, we have told him that he is NEVER having ice cream again. That should sort him out.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thumbs up for Lollibop

Children and festivals don’t mix. It’s a fact that some parents choose to ignore in the relentless pursuit of those hazy, lazy, carefree pre-children days. Give it up guys – they’re never coming back.

Maybe the organisers of Lollibop are on to something. The event, which was held for the first time on 17-18 July in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington, offered a decent day’s entertainment that kept both ankle biters and their minders entertained.

Billed as the Big Bash for Little People, a telling addition might have been (and harassed parents). Yet the overall feeling of the event was that it was fun, lively and safe, and those attending looked pretty relaxed. It helped that Sunday was a glorious day, but the whole tone of the event was designed to put visitors at ease. Arriving just after noon I heard the security guys on the gate telling some curious onlookers that only adults with children could come in. The wrist bands for children and reminder to write on their name and phone number was a nice touch, and made it feel more like a school outing.

Indeed Lollibop had a pleasantly home made feel to it, which is not bad for a festival put together by a professional events company – I hope I’m not damning Continental Drifts with faint praise, it’s meant to be a compliment. The old Stoke Newington festival was gloriously uncommercial and a great example of community involvement. I’m sure it’s a touchstone for these kind of events.

The site was pretty big but pleasantly not too crowded. Not such good news for the organisers I’m sure, but great for parents and children who were able to take advantage of the activities without waiting for too long.

There was plenty to get excited about (if you were four years old) and to be thankful for if you were a bit older. A small petting zoo complete with pony, goats, sheep, stoat, and er goslings (help me here), was a big hit. As were the obligatory bouncy castles and craft activities. I loved the clean loos (complete with loo paper and a flower) and baby changing and feeding facilities.

Mums and dads could also enjoy a crafty pint from the ‘adult crèche’ located near to the music stage. My highlight of the day was the Bikini Beach Band, whose surf rock version of Popcorn is still playing in my head. Another nice touch was the opportunity to purchase ear defenders for youngsters. It wasn’t that loud, but it showed consideration for the audience.

Other highlights included walkabout entertainment such as a scrap yard challenge horse, stilted fairies, a troll and Alice in Wonderland characters. You could also head to the Miniscule of Sound, mini niteclub, watch some Babyoke (baby karaoke), see the bubble man, dance to a Latin beat, enjoy some comedy, dress up or take part in a sports day. And, as they say, much, much more.

As a paying event, the big question has to be, was it worth it? I didn’t pay for my ticket, and would probably have baulked at the £53 on the day cost of family entry. However, compared to an afternoon at the cinema, bowling or even swimming, it was competitively priced, and positively cheap compared to taking the kids to see Arsenal at the nearby Emirates.

The problem for the organisers is that Hackney is blessed with so many great free events during summer. I had seen elements of the show, such as the Albion pirate ship and soft play area at recent free events in London Fields for example. The nearest comparison with Lollibop is probably Paradise Gardens in Victoria Park, which was completely free. Of course, it was largely funded by the local authority and it may be that there as the council looks to make savings, it is less able to fund such feel good activities.

Will enough people pay for Lollibop to make it viable in future? Only time will tell. We certainly felt it was a great day and would welcome it back next year, even if we had to spring for the tickets this time.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Secret Garden

Actually, it's not that secret, but today I paid my first visit to the funkily named Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. This is a two-year project to create a community garden in a neglected urban space.

Despite sounding like a dance move of years gone by, the Dalston Eastern Curve was in fact a junction link for the recently reopened rail line at Dalston Junction.  For years, it's been a forgotten slice of land tucked away between derelict buildings, a faceless shopping complex and a congested thoroughfare.

That started to change last year with an arty project called Dalston Mill. It had quite lofty aims - I'm not really sure if I understood them, but it made a fascinating place to visit with an inquisitive toddler. Behind these anonymous black fence posts they are growing wheat - behold and marvel!

You couldn't actually eat the wheat due to contamination caused by fly tipping over the years, but it was an interesting project in many ways.

Leap forward a year and the DECG (could that catch on as an acronym?) is almost up and running. I popped in there this afternoon and found a group of lovely people who seemed very excited by the prospects. Speaking to one lady, she said how they hoped to get schools involved, wanted people to come along and plant things, to have semi outdoor events and solicited my advice on what toddlers might want to do in such a space.

J was in kid heaven just being let loose with the hosepipe. Can he do that every day? It was like our bedtime Magic Garden stories (copyright Dad) brought to life.

I hope it works out. It's such a great idea - and one that I hope is not seriously being linked to Cameron's vacuous Big Society notion, as here. My cynical side wonders if it will end up being nothing more than a nice hideaway for the local drunks. I'm sure that won't happen, especially if they get a little cafe in there - parents of Hackney will come flocking.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Maybe it's these austere times, but I've found myself entering a lot of competitions recently. I lack the dedication of the full time comper - the person with a house full of toasters and tea towels, three cars in the drive and the promise of four foreign holidays a year. All because they are on first name terms with lady luck and have a punning way with 10 words or less tiebreakers.

Having spoken to a few compers in my time, I realise that it's practically a full time job for some (the retired mainly). But I also know from past experience that many competitions don't attract that many entries. I worked on a magazine once that had a monthly prize draw for a travel prize. The prizes were pretty decent - spa weekends, hotel breaks, travel vouchers, tickets to sporting events - yet regularly failed to get into double figures of entries. At the same time, we had several regulars who would enter every month and sent in elaborate hand made postcards to increase their chance of being pulled from the presumably bulging postbag. My favourite was one entrant whose postcards were in the shape of teddy bear's heads, complete with fake fur, beady eyes and a sound chip in the nose that played the Teddy Bear's Picnic when squeezed. She never won!

But I have, thanks to my good friends at Hackney Hive. We will be attending this weekend's Lollibop, a big outdoor event for kids in lovely Clissold Park. I'm not quite sure what to expect, but the lineup looks good, so if the weather holds - Sunday looks the better bet - it should be great.

Now all I need is to find a local website that's running a competition for High Voltage.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Carry on regardless

In certain cultures it is customary that babies are not put on the ground for the first year of their life. Trust me on this - I'm a bit shaky on the details, but I have Metro-level knowledge it happens in Bali. Maybe it works in extended families, but three months into Hackney_Child 2.0's life, it is getting pretty wearing for the distinctly nuclear Holiday family.

He is a pretty massive wee thing and doesn't take that kindly to being put down. This can mean carrying his impressive bulk around for hours on end while he dribbles down your aching left arm (I favour that side). I fear I will end up like one of those lopsided crabs that develops a massive claw to compensate for the loss of the other one.

As well as refusing to be put down, he also doesn't see why you should sit down on duty. What difference it makes to him I cannot tell, but the moment bum touches seat, his back starts to arch and he squirms and squeaks until you resume the upright jiggling position. It's like handling a large and chubby eel. I remember when I was a kid my dad told me that the only way to stop an eel wriggling was to make a cross in the ground and lay it on the axis. As I recall it didn't really work that well on the elver we'd caught, but the thought remains.

It's beginning to affect me physically. Today I found myself jiggling involuntarily when he started crying even though I wasn't carrying him. People look. I'm also developing a rather splay footed dad walk that is partly designed to rock the bairn and partly aimed at slowing down my progress as Number One Son is usually dawdling some distance behind complaining of having 'empty legs'. This means swapping lumpen baby for his older sibling, who usually regains his energy levels once perched on my shoulders and commences to try and compress my neck into my chest by bouncing up and down on it. The only compensation is that they are both growing at such a rate that one day soon, they will be carrying me.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


On my way to the pub I noticed a lady picking fruit from a tree in the local playground. I stopped to chat. She was eating cherries, which seem to have arrived at a perfect state of ripeness today. They tasted lovely - sweet, yet slightly tart and smaller than the supermarket offerings

Returning home later, I noticed another tree heavy with fruit where some of the local kids were handing out scrumped cherries from a Tesco bag. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed at this shared bounty. It reminded me of the time I discovered some edible chestnut trees in Victoria Park. I was running along the canal side one evening and spotted a Chinese lady filling bags with something. The next day I revisited the spot with my son and we were given a bag of chessies by a fellow forager.

I had great plans for them - some sort of cake - but unfortunately I left them sitting in a bag in the lobby and they went mouldy.

It's nice to know that even in the heart of London, you can still get a bit Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I'm going back for more tomorrow. They'll be gone by the weekend.

If you don't want to know the score, look away now...

I watched my first World Cup game in a bar tonight. It's been nigh on impossible to sneak a visit to the boozer for 7.30 kick offs as it's smack in the middle of bath time. Tonight, thanks to the beneficence of Mrs Holiday, I was able to watch the Spain v Germany at one of my locals. She put both of the children to bed tonight, which was beyond kindness.

Back at the pub, it was standing room only. This didn't completely surprise me as I'd passed by during the Germany v Argentina quarter final on Saturday and it was hopping. Now Hackney is a very cosmopolitan area, but there was big love going out towards Deutschland - it was as if they were the home team. Which they may well have been - I suspect there are more Germans in the borough than Argentinians (although possibly not Brazilians, as we have a Brazilian butcher on Mare Street).

In fact there are some interesting Germanic links in Hackney. The German Hospital, just up the road from us is a reminder of an early wave of immigration to London. More recently, as Iain Sinclair's Hackney history reminds us, the borough has been a haven for political extremists such as Baader Meinhoff member Astrid Proll. She worked for a while at the Lesneys Matchbox factory in Homerton.

I'm not sure of Spanish links, but there seemed to be plenty of 'Viva Espana's' in the air tonight. Of course, many of these may have been coming from locals. There was a great atmosphere, which was probably because it was not an England game and there was no need to gnaw your fingernails to the bone. Not that I would - I'm Scottish. I've no fingernails left.

Anyway 1-0 to Spain seems to set up a cracking final on Sunday. Whether I'll be allowed out to play or not is another matter.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Splash it all over

This has been a fantastic week of weather although I've been fretting about work enough not to enjoy it. Yesterday however, Mrs Holiday and I went to Greenwich for the afternoon with the two kids and a friend and her two. The plan was to take in lovely Greenwich Park, let the boys stretch their legs and then have lunch in a bar in the grounds of the Naval College.

As it happened, we didn't get much beyond the first patch of grass. This was being watered with an array of sprinklers, which J's pal Other J (let's call him OJ for short) headed for like iron filings to a magnet. J swiftly followed and it quickly became apparent we wouldn't get much further for a while. The two of them stripped off and swooped and hollered around the sprinklers for the best part of the next hour before a reluctant break for lunch and then back for more running around in their pants and getting soaked. All to the soundtrack of soloists practising in the Trinity College of Music which overlooks the garden.

It reminded me a bit of the films we see of New York kids playing in water hydrant spray - the nearest they get to the seaside perhaps (although Coney Island isn't that far away). It also reminded me how good children are at coming up with their own entertainment and that perhaps parents are sometimes guilty of trying too hard to entertain them. Mind you, that was before they started to daub themselves with mud, at which point the laissez faire approach ceased.

Both J and OJ had smiles a mile wide playing in the spray, as did most of the people who wandered past. It was so hot I'm sure that a few of them wouldn't have minded a cooling drench themselves. When we get a garden I think I'll have to invest in a hose and sprinkler pretty quickly - here's hoping for hosepipe ban free summers.

Actually, I've just remembered another water feature that would be well worth a visit. This has been outside the Royal Festival Hall for the past few years. Wonder if it's there this year.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The new Space Potatoes

A couple of years ago there was a strange phenomenon of objects being left on the top of East London bus stops. Space Potatoes, as nobody but me called them were small objects d'art made from spuds wrapped in foil, cotton buds and wooden skewers. They seemed t have no discernible purpose other than to intrigue, and as far as I know, nobody was ever sure who produced them.

Now these objects seem to have street art successors, on a road near me at least. The new mystery objects are coloured blocks of wood with words such as 'POWER' 'TAX' and 'MONEY' printed on them. They are connected together with string and slung over telegraph wires. So far I have spotted a small clutch of them at the top of Eleanor Road, E8. What does it all mean?

Dad and lad day

Yesterday I had J for the day while his mum took the little one off to meet her work colleagues. It was a nice reminder of what it was like when I looked after him more often, and also an indicator of how much he has progressed.

We didn't really do anything that different to our old routine - London Fields playground, Museum of Childhood, Hackney Library - but at two and three quarters, he is so much more independent than he ever used to be. I have always been in the habit of asking him if he wants to do whatever it is I think we should do. Now, more often than not, the answer is, "No! I don't want to do that!" unless I have presented him with an illusion of choice to direct his response (even then, there's every chance he'll see through my flimsy plan.)

Before we left the Museum, he was playing on his scooter on the area outside. I took the opportunity for a sit down while he whizzed about - he is very adept on it - and after going up and down the slope a few times, he settled into a conversation with one of the staff.  I couldn't actually hear what was being said, but by the looks of his hand gestures and facial expressions, he was holding up his end of the conversation. I had this sudden pang of regret, recognising that he no longer needs me for everything and is on the way to developing his own life.

(Actually, after a while I did sidle up to the lady and muscle in on the conversation in the manner of Billy No Mates at a party. They were talking about the seaside as it happens and he was describing how the tide was in on a recent trip to the seaside, resulting in no beach. However when the tide turned, the beach was very big - well observed!)

An area where I'm quite thankful he needs me less is in the toilet department. As he's now potty trained (apart from a few night time accidents) I don't have to lug around the changing kit of old - nappies, wipes, mat, spare clothes, etc. My duties are now relegated to holding the potty for him, agreeing that, yes, it is a big wee, and helping out when he has to use big toilets. While doing this at the Museum, I had the misfortune of seeing my sunglasses fall into the toilet bowl as I positioned him. What's a dad to do? Well, they were £16 from Boots, so what do you think I did?

I'll need to remember not to nibble on the arms from now on.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The countdown starts

I could put it off no longer. More than two months after number two son's arrival I called in the estate agents this week. I really have been putting it off, partly due to a dislike of shiny-suited spivvery in all its forms, and also through reticence at the prospect of kicking off the process.

This week I've seen three estate agents, and although they are all... well, estate agents, they weren't as bad as the ones I remember from the last time. Especially the one who sold me my current gaff, who was a slimey creep. This lot were almost human. I admit that it's hard to feel a sense of loathing to someone who tells you your flat is worth more than four times what you paid for it - you want to kiss them actually.

Of course it's all paper money, and no sooner had I got used to my notional new wealth than it seemed to be slipping away. There's an issue with the lease - it's too short - so I have to go cap in hand to the bloke who owns the freehold and negotiate an extension. I say negotiate - it feels like he's got me over a barrel, so it may be a bit of a one sided conversation. Basically I'm going to get stiffed.

There are also issues with the various elements of the flat that I feel give it its character, but that others may think are a sign that it's about to collapse. I had a builder round today to give me a quote on some plastering and he started raising the possibility of subsidence. Gloom!

Luckily, this is where I'm hoping my new found friends the slimey east eight estate agents will come into their own. If they really think this place is worth what they say it is, then I don't doubt they can shift it. The number of tight-trousered trustafarians walking around these days gives me hope that I'm in the right place at the right time. Where we'll be in six months time, I couldn't say.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The kids World Cup

The last time the World Cup rolled round I was child free. Come to think of it, I wasn't married either - truly young, free and single (well two out or three, maybe). This time I have two kids and a lovely wife to consider before the quadrennial soccer fest kicks off.

Usually the World Cup period involves a certain level of selective social hibernation as I avoid fellow human beings, pour over the pre and post match build up, gossip and analysis, and only come out for the big matches. These are usually taken in at the pub, or at somebody's house with a crate of ale.

Hmm, it's not so simple this time. Pubs aren't the most welcoming place for kids full stop, and even if they were, the idea that a two year old will sit still for 90 minutes (realistically two and a half to three hours by the time you've blagged an early seat, stayed after to celebrate/commiserate... and don't even mention penalities!) is a fantasy.

So I've started wondering if there are child-friendly places to watch some of the games. I know that some pubs have areas you can hire, which might be suitable, and some cinemas are showing the matches on big screen, but are there are any events that fully cater for the harassed dad who wants to zone out for a few hours knowing that his offspring are being catered for?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

We will fight them on the cakestands...

I recently received an email about proposed cuts to Hackney nurseries. The website explains what is going on a lot more coherently than I could. It also seems to be a very fluid situation, so watch this (or that space).

We went to the park to find out more about how local people are trying to fight the cuts. In some ways, it seems a similar story to the recent cause celebre of the Hackney Arts Club. This is a very popular club run by volunteers with a small grant from the the local Sure Start. However because of a change in priorities, its funding was cut and money reallocated elsewhere.

It's hard to argue if scarce funds are being used for people who are in greater need than yourself. In the new era of Sure Start, I'm probably not a key target (although as a male, primary carer I did seem to tick a few boxes and staff got quite excited when I turned up). However the problem in both of these cases is that it's difficult to know if funds are being reallocated or simply becoming 'efficiency savings'.

It's a case often made that services designed for the poor are poor services. It's kind of ironic that middle class users of Sure Start can be characterised as undeserving spongers by a government predominantly elected by the middle classes. Hey ho!

One of the great things about Hackney is that there is a real sense of 'something must be done' activism when stuff like this happens. It was great to see at the Fun Day in the park that facepainting and cakemaking have a role to play in the fight ahead. There's a meeting tomorrow to determine the next steps.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A week is a long time in parenthood

I'm sitting in a quiet, still house for the first time in six weeks. Mrs Holiday took the kids to her mum's for the weekend so I could get some work done.

It has been a tough time for all of us since Baby A came along. I don't think we appreciated how taxing it was going to be. Unfortunately, our hopes of having a placid second child as a counterbalance to the screaming, non-sleeping, dervish that was number one son, were dashed. Number two may be a slightly better sleeper, but he can emit body shaking screeches for hours on end, and refuses to be put down to give his long-suffering parents a break. Consequently you end up with his screaming head closer to your ears than is strictly advisable. It's like psychological torture and I'm sure the top end of my hearing has gone. Ipods come with volume warnings now - what about bairns?

On Monday it all became a bit much for mum, who was reduced to tears by this state of affairs. I had to step in and give her a break, which meant I wasn't getting much work done. It's a real dilemma. On the one hand, I'm the bread winner and should be getting my head down whenever there is work to be done. On the other, it's nigh impossible to to ignore the situation downstairs when an extra pair of hands is called for. It has been really hard to work.

I find it difficult to collect my thoughts and there is always the possibility of J bursting into the room with a question when mummy is otherwise engaged, feeding his brother, and I'm on the phone to someone. It's not the worst thing in the world - lots of people understand the freelance set up and I've conducted many interviews at home to the soundtrack of babies crying, toddlers questioning and/or dogs barking - but it throws you off course at a time when you are trying to be professional and focused.

Anyway, Monday was really bad. The rest of the week was better, although there were a few nights of little sleep for either of us. Baby can be up for a while between feeds and his elder brother has regressed a little in staying in his own room, so there has been a lot of bed-hopping during the night. However, like the weather, things have improved slightly as the week went on. I knew Mrs H was going away for the weekend, so I was probably slightly demob happy at the prospect of some light relief. But Baby A has started to smile more, so by Friday or Saturday it was hard to connect the cutey beaming up at you with the screw-faced demon of a few days ago. Nature, doing it's work again and brainwashing us of the bad vibes.

So what did I do with my 24 hours of freedom? Well I worked until about eight last night, hoovered, did some laundry and some dishes. Basically tried to return my world to how I like it, in readiness for the madness to recommence.

We've reached the six week mark today, which is one of the mental milestones you look out for. After this, it gets better, we say. It's the end of baby boot camp. Although from what I recall, there is no step change so much as a gradual easing of the load. "Wait until three months/six months/the first year," we tell ourselves. Although the danger of focusing on the horizon is that we we miss the gems of experience at our feet along the way.

Ugh! That was yucky, but I can't help it. I am a naturally quite soppy, as my reaction to a series of pictures of Gordon Brown's last moments in Downing Street revealed. It wasn't so much the end of an era realisation as the little details that showed him as a fundamentally decent man.

The real killer was the shot of him and his previously sheltered sons. Suddenly you had a completely different image of the former PM as a doting dad, and one who feels great love for his boys. There was a great feature about this picture by Ian Jack which explained why the image was so touching. For me, it's an easy connection - dad + two sons equals waterworks.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Explaining politics to two year olds

It was the election on Thursday and a gorgeous sunny day. Having finished some work in the morning, I arranged to meet Mrs HH in the park where she had taken the kids. The plan was to vote and then visit the new cake shop for a treat. J was obviously more excited about the cupcakes than voting, but he showed an interest in the proceedings. "What is vote?" he asked.

Er, that's quite a tough one to answer I'm afraid. I waffled some nonsense about drawing an X in a box to choose the person you liked most. (In retrospect, this may have made more sense to him than I realised at the time, as he associates Xs with kisses. So you figuratively kiss the candidate of your choice. What a lovely/disturbing image. I 'vote' Caroline Flint, but David Blunkett's wispy beard does not appeal.). I then hurried him along before he could come up withe any supplementaries - "What is candidate? Where is government? What is hung parliament?"

On the last question I'm not the only one in the dark it seems. It's surprising that given the likelihood of a hung parliament, the country seems so surprised and befuddled by it. As we are now being told, they are common on the continent, and many councils have no overall control, but the prospect of handing over power to more than one political group seems to worry many people. Which is illogical in a way, as political parties are far from homogeneous. The Labour and Conservative Parties are both extremely broad churches containing a whole swathe of differing and conflicting opinions. These are largely held in check by party discipline, but not always - look at John Major's problems with Eurosceptics and Tony Blair's with opponents of tuition fees and the Iraq war.

Given the prospect of handing over the future of our country to David Cameron and his cabal, I think it's no bad thing than there might be someone to hold him in check. On the other option open to Nick Clegg, although I'm more naturally sympathetic to a progressive solution, the idea of a rainbow coalition of parties holding the Tories off doesn't seem right. Firstly it would be hugely unwieldy. I also fear that the price exacted by the more fringe parties in block grants would antagonise further the Tory heartlands of the South East who already show signs of feeling robbed. Finally, despite the fact that a coalition of the second and third placed parties is constitutionally acceptable, there is something about it that seems to go against natural justice. I know that first past the post is discredited, but it's the rulebook we play by at the minute.

On the other hand, and to use a tortuous sporting analogy, nobody complains (too much) when their team goes out on away goals in a cup competition, even though the aggregate result is really a draw.

Er, does that make sense? I'm not sure I really know, and I wouldn't want to be in Nick Clegg's shoes (or Cameron's or Brown's for that matter). Whatever the outcome, you really can't please all of the people all of the time. I could never be in politics - my skin is too thin. I get upset if my wife doesn't notice I've hoovered up, never mind berating me for the state I've left the country (or bathroom) in.

After making my electoral choice, the toughest decision I had to make was which of Violet's delicious cupcakes flavours to opt for. It was a close run thing, but the will of this person at least was satisfied.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let us eat cake

Sugar lovers will be delighted to learn that a new cake shop is due to open on Wilton Way. I say, a new one, as if the road is a concentration of patisserie. At the moment, you can pick up a Mr Kiplings from Costcutter, and that's about it. However, from this Saturday, Violet will be dispensing posh cup cakes, teas and coffees from the strange blocky building about half way along the street. This brings to two the number of cafes on the road, and if I remember rightly from Phil and Kirstie, the appearance of such outlets is a sure sign that the area is on the up. Mind you, it was starting from a low base. It's not so long ago that Wilton Way was the area's dumping ground for stolen cars - I wonder where they're left now. Currently Violet sells its cakes on Broadway Market, so it should be interesting to see if it can become a through the week destination for cake lovers. I shall certainly check them out, if only to see if I can pinch their icing recipe.

(Please note, the pictured cupcakes are for display purposes only and are not indicative of the merchandise that is likely to be sold at Violet. These were from a school fete and cost 30p each. Violet's are about £2.50 each, a price that would have Mrs Holiday's mum and dad needing a sit down. I think we'll be sticking to the Mr Kipling's with them.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

I'm a FOB

... father of boys that is. At least I think that's how I should now refer to myself as Mrs Holiday informs me that she is mother of boys or MOB in Mumsnet speak. (As an aside, who delegated Mumsnet to the role of spokessite for all parents? Lazy journos I'm guessing).

Our latest Hackney addition was born on Easter Sunday in Homerton Hospital's new birthing centre. This is a shiny, sparkly set up with lots of space and every conceivable (pardon the pun) mod con. Well, maybe that's stretching it a bit, but we were afforded a large room with a double bed, bouncy ball, ensuite bathroom and a strange labour chair/multigym. The midwife was really good, even though my heart sank slightly when she introduced herself as an agency worker. However Penny was encouraging, informative and just plain nice, even if she was a little scatterbrained.

Which may account for the loss of our labour notes. This was a big negative, firstly because of the obvious shabbiness of the processes that allowed it to happen - how the flip can you lose something like that? But also because it delayed us getting out and home, which is all anybody wants, especially a second time mum with another child plaintively asking for her to come home when he visits.

Anyway, it seems a long time ago now, even though it's less than three weeks. The time since then has been ups and downs. New Hackneybaby is sleeping better than his brother did, but has developed colic, which is never fun. Having an older brother adds a new layer of complexity to things as well. You don't want to neglect the older sibling, although he suddenly seems so much older and more able in comparison. Big brother is being pretty good so far, expressing his love for the baby constantly, although I suspect it is more to do with the fact that he's cottoned on to what we want to hear than any abiding sibling love.

Having said that, I think they will be great together. I'm conscious of not wishing the time away, but it will be great when us boys can do a bit more together. For now, inbetween the screams and projectile liquids (don't ask), it's nice, and the pace of everything has slowed right down. And as the spring beds in and we get a few nicer days, I think it's going to be a great summer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Play time in Hackney

One of the unexpected consequences of the demise of Woolworths just over a year ago has been the effect on independent toy shops.Woolies was once the biggest retailer of toys in the UK and that gap has to be filled somehow.

Luckily for those of us who like to see our high streets filled with something other than identikit chain stores, local toy shops seem to be flourishing in Hackney. Three in particular come to mind:

Buggies and Bikes in Broadway Market

The Toybox in Victoria Park

Three Potato Four in Newington Green

The great thing about these shops is that they all have a character of their own. Without wanting to sound too poncey about it, the owners seem to care about toys and almost curate their stock rather than simply ordering from a giant toy catalogue. The selection of toys is individual to each, so you don't get that sense of deja vu when you walk in the door.

I remember how magical I found toy shops when I was a child. There was a great sense of the importance of every purchase - carefully weighing up what you could afford, whether it was going to impress your friends, and whether your parents would let you buy it. (Mine had a thing against 'plastic rubbish' which was quite odd as my dad was foreman in a plastic injection moulding factory that made a lot of Fisher Price toys. These were not classed as rubbish, but the competition inevitably was.)

The Toybox is probably our favourite as it is the shop we visit most often. My son loves a little table of Wow trucks and lorries that is a honeypot for all the children who visit. Wow toys themselves are quite expensive, but the shop has lots of great pocket money purchases, including a range of collectable wooden fruit and vegetables that are displayed in a cute greengrocer's rack. Overall the shop appeals to children's imaginations with toys that will stand the test of time.

Another interesting aspect of these new toys shops is that they are not just toy shops. Partly out of economic necessity I suppose, they have added other aspects to their business models. With Toybox and Three Potato Four, it's children's hairdressing. Buggies and Bikes runs a range of classes and activities for parents and kids that makes it more of a destination for parents.

Another shop that is worth a visit is Merry Go Round in Clarence Road. Not strictly a toy shop, it stocks second hand children's items from clothes and buggies to books and toys. It's amazing to see how much you can save by picking up something nearly new. Somebody's trash can be your treasure.

Play is an important part of childhood and it's not all about buying stuff. A visit to a great toy shop can be a stimulating experience in its own right to a two year old.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

No coincidences in Sinclair world

Local author Iain Sinclair was signing the paperback copy of his book Hackney, That Red Rose Empire outside our local bookshop at the weekend. However I missed it due to an antenatal class at Homerton hospital. Well, my wife attended the class, while I walked the corridors of the spookily empty hospital explaining to our two year old the various things we saw.

(We're at the endless questions stage. "What's that daddy?"
"It's a chair."
"But what is it daddy?"
"Well, it's a chair actually."
"What does it do?"

Actually, come to think of it, the experience was quite Sinclairian.

It was a shame to miss it though. Firstly, I wanted to see if he actually made it, or was blocked from Broadway Market by the council's henchmen. Apparently they took offence at his dim view of the Olympics and barred him from speaking in council venues when the book came out in hardback. They took a dim view of a lengthy piece he'd written in the London Review of Books voicing his concerns about the 'Lympics.

Secondly, having read the book I feel like I'm sort of stalking Iain, or he's stalking me. It's an odd sensation to have your stomping ground mapped so assiduously. My history in Hackney is just over ten years, whereas Iain's dates back to the Sixties or Seventies. We've both seen changes.

This was brought home to me the other week when I was browsing a book of photos of Hackney from the early Eighties. One of the black and white shots was of the playground next to the Pub on the Park. This is a favourite of ours and somewhere I've seen Iain Sinclair a couple of times with his wife and grandchild (I told you this post was stalkerish. In my defence, he mentions his grandchildren in the book, and their birth in Homerton Hospital. He is also highly visible in Hackney as he walks constantly around the borough).

Anyway, the playground in the picture was a rather depressing and bare place with a slide and some swings on a patch of scruffy grass. See Iain, some things do get better over time.

I suppose the point I'm working towards is that there are no coincidences in Sinclair world, so it was probably just as well that I didn't make it to the book signing. Who knows what might have happened. The earth might have folded in on itself or something.

The book itself is fascinating, although being so familiar with the area, I found that his slightly dyspeptic view of the borough didn't chime with my own. This hasn't been the case when I've read his other books - it's his unique perspective that I enjoy. But if his philosophy is about anything, it's about how we relate to our surroundings, and I guess I'm a bit of a happy, clappy Hackney champion. Hell, I even think the Olympics will be great. Yes the Lea Valley will have lost an urban wilderness, but it would have been developed sometime and somehow. At least with 2012 there is something of a grand plan in place, and I'm a sucker for those.

Maybe I'm too literal in how I think of psychogeography, but I was surprised that he didn't mention the effect of the borough's murder rate on Hackneyites. In the relatively short time that I've lived here I'm struck by the number of places that I now associate with death. Within a few hundred yards of here in any direction there are places where, usually young men have died. In front of the town hall, London Fields, Dalston Shopping Centre, Amhurst Road...

As I walk the borough I find it hard to dissociate myself from this violence, and yet I remain a great fan of Hackney and its people. It's a complex place.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

How musical bumps saved me from the recession

I've been slightly distracted over the past 18 months, what with bringing up baby and being a semi-stay at home dad. In an earlier post, I'd predicted that it was maybe a good time to ease back on work commitments, as there wasn't much of it about anyway. Hmmm, that one's come back to bite me on the bum.

The thing I've found about trying to combine childcare and work is that you have to be careful that you don't end up shortchanging both. There have been times when I was crying out for somebody to take J off my hands for a little while (and I was lucky enough to have a friend who did just that on a few occasions - thanks Alecia. Unfortunately she's gone back to Australia).

You can end up rushing work, or not giving it the mythical 110 per cent. Sometimes that doesn't matter - good enough can be good enough. At other times, I wonder if I've put myself back in the pecking order, or completely dropped off people's radar. It's not a good time for that to happen.

Splitting your loyalties means that you sometimes end up resenting your child because you can't devote extra time to a project, but it has also been a great release valve. As work slowed down, I found that the days when I was full time dadding were very calming. I came to realise (and was told in no uncertain terms by my wife) that that was my priority. There's no point sitting around feeling sorry for yourself when you have a toddler to entertain. It's a lot easier for everyone if you just leave your work baggage at the door of musical bumps, or whatever class, playgroup or kiddie event you are attending and just get on with it.

It seems counter intuitive, but I'm sure that I would have been a lot more stressed if I didn't have a child as I watched work drain away during the recession. I've always felt that I was doing something worthwhile, even if the pay was lousy.

Now, however I'm back to being available five days a week, and my wife is on maternity leave with pay that will not last forever. I really have to pick up the slack. Luckily, I feel slightly tempered to the new reality of work. There's really no point getting uptight, especially with another one on the way. That will be stress enough.