Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas tree time

I dug the Christmas decorations out of the loft and we spent last night putting the tree up. I'm not sure whether this is a bit early - there are surprisingly few homes in our neck of Colchester with decorations yet. In Hackney they used to appear from mid-November.

Still, I'm thoroughly Christmas seasoned already. I've had three encounters with Father Christmas, been to two kids parties, and been on the Thomas Santa special at the nearby East Anglian Railway Museum. It's all kicking off.

Putting up the tree is one of those things that we're trying to turn into a bit of a tradition. I can't remember ever really helping put up the tree when I was a kid. Maybe I just wasn't interested. Mind you, we had a fairly uninspiring small, silvery fake tree that was wheeled out once a year.

Ever since I've had a place of my own, we've always opted for a real tree. Most years I find myself wondering why I bother. Transporting them in pre-car London was always a pain. You either had to carry it on your shoulder for a couple of miles, or risk the wrath of bus-users as you scratched past them. At least with a walk there was always the option of stopping for a livener at the local - I wonder how many trees are orphaned in pubs by over-festive owners.

Getting them home is only the start of things though as the annual fight to get it in the house, remove the netting and get the damn thing to fit into the holder and stand upright. Cue saw, lots of sweating and bad language at unaccustomed labour as you trim the trunk to fit.

Anyway, that done, said tree - £35 of Homebase Norwegian spruce, thanks for asking - wobbled atop a coffee table in our bay window.

The kids love dressing the tree, although their exuberance does tend to leave it looking a bit like the box of decorations has been thrown at it. Elder brother is also notoriously bossy, so within minutes the veto that no one would be decorating the tree if behaviour didn't improve, was brandished. This seemed to have the desired effect, and our tree was garishly clad. The promise of a tree party picnic of many 'bad' treats, also helped speed us along.

The final result - after mummy has redistributed some of the tinsel, baubles and bells - is surprisingly tasteful. Our accumulated decorations are anything but coordinated, but somehow it works. My wife tells me that she now understands how her mum was driven to distraction by not being allowed to throw away any of the old decorations by her and her siblings. But I think that's better than a designer, colour coordinated offering which lacks the personal touch.

Family life is all about small, and not so small compromises. Every year I want to sling out our old decorations and start afresh, but I know I never will. Some day I will pass on the baubles bearing the teeth marks made by younger son, along with the threadbare tinsel and distressed fairy. And then they can throw them out!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Parental bonding second time round

We've been in Colchester for almost exactly a year now. In many ways we've settled in really well. We all like the town. Our neighbours have been really welcoming. And we've met lots of new people. More than I anticipated we would actually.

Coming from London where everyone is a lot more insular, it has been a breath of fresh air how open Colchester folk seem to be.

However in recent weeks I've felt myself a bit of an outsider again. I've been looking after our second born for a day a week now that Mrs Holiday is working a couple of days a week. As such, I've been back on the parenting circuit. Having looked after Number One Son for a good part of his early days, it's not an unusual experience, but it is definitely different this time around.

With our eldest I really threw myself into the whole 'stay at home dad' role. (This is actually a bit of a misnomer as most of the stay at home dads I knew were anything but. There was a well beaten track around Children Centres, stay and plays, singing clubs and child friendly cafes, so we were mostly everywhere but at home). As most of the people I met were first time parents like me, there was a puppyish level of enthusiasm and a sense of all being in it together.

What I'm finding with my second time as a caring dad is that it's a bit harder to break into the established groups and cliques. As soon as people have more than one child, they are a bit more set in their ways, and I plead guilty to this myself.

At any rate in recent weeks, I've noticed a bit more that everybody seems to know everybody else, and I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself as Billy No Mates. Well, not quite no mates, but very few, so that when they disappear to chat to one of their other acquaintances, there is that an awkward sense of being alone in a crowd.

Maybe I'm just not trying hard enough. Maybe I'm not around enough - one day a week isn't really enough to get yourself known. Maybe I'm going to the wrong places in the first place. Maybe I'm imagining the whole thing.

Whatever it is, I think I need a plan B to try and get over this feeling that I'm missing out. As J gets nearer to school age, there is a mild, yet creeping panic concerning the power of the school gate Mafia. We're already damned by geography to be banished from the sharp-elbowed parent's local school of choice. And with that I fear a whole round of birthday parties, play dates, and Masonic preferential treatment from the Colchestratti. (Not to mention dad's nights out - yeah, what about me!)

I'd hate to think that I've blighted the lives of our two young innocents by not getting my A into G. One thing is for sure, it's only going to get tougher from here onwards.

Monday, October 31, 2011


... or Happy Hallowe'en as you might say in the beautiful South.

When I was a kid in Scotland, Hallowe'en was a big deal for kids, but it was slightly harder work than Trick or Treaters have today. The idea was that you had to sort of sing for your supper, or tell a joke, do an impression, or a dance. Basically you had to do a turn before  being gifted a handful of monkey nuts or an apple. I can't remember much in the way of sweeties. Nuts were definitely the makeweight in my day in exchange for the ritual humiliation of our performances.

I'm struggling to think what my star turn was, and am blushing slightly that it may well have been a Frank Spencer, by way of Mike Yarwood impression - doggy doing a whoopsy on the carpet and all.

The balance has definitely shifted in favour of the Guisers (it comes from 'disguise') these days, but to be fair to them, the amount of effort and expense that they go to is a lot more than in my day when a bin bag over your snorkel parka was often as inventive as it got. Today's costumes, wigs, masks and make-up are in a different league.

This year is the first time we've done anything for Hallowe'en. The kids were a bit younger when we lived in Hackney, and if truth be told, the prospect of opening your door at a godforsaken hour 'round our old manor did not appeal that much. Luckily our doorbell worked only intermittently and the kids were not patient enough for us to descend from the first floor flat to the front door having decided that, yes, there was somebody at the door.

Round here there is more of a system. If you have a lantern on show then you are open to a knock on the door.

We had our rudimentary pumpkin lantern flickering on the window sill for a a couple of hours after the lights went down. It was put to shame by the altogether more artistic efforts of the guy a few doors down - point noted for next year. The Essex massive definitely take Hallowe'en seriously.

We had a bowl of sweeties for the kids who came to the door, who were very polite and well behaved with no surly behaviour or demands for cash, that you hear about. Our two initially came to the door to see the assorted ghouls and ghosties, but were soon freaked out by some of the more realistic costumes.

They were definitely up for Hallowe'en this year though, with the eldest demanding 'spooky toast' for breakfast. Cue quickly carved piece of bread in the shape of a pumpkin - I couldn't do a vampire.

After that they had a Hallowe'en themed stay and play session at another child's house and then back here for some apple bobbing and donut munching. I'm not sure how traditional that is, but it went down very well.

Hallowe'en is now done. Bring on bonfire night.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dipdap at Firstsite

I know there was a massive fuss about the new Colchester arts centre, Firstsite. It cost too much, it took too long to build, it shouldn't be in Colchester... er it cost too much. Well, I love it.

Addressing the cost issue first, I think that £26m for such an iconic building, which will put Colchester on the map, is a snip. That wouldn't have got you the wet changing area at the Olympics site, and most of the facilities there will be mothballed for a couple of years pending works required for their post-Games function. I actually think the Olympics is a great thing for London, and indeed Britain anyway, but in comparison Firstsite is great value.

I've been there a few times since it opened. Amid all the things I like about it: the design, the cafe, the way it has opened up the bottom end of the town, and the way the people of Colchester seem to be warming to it, I particularly like its child-centricity.

Today I attended a half-term event in the theatre where the animator and producer of a children's TV programme called Dipdap were showing the kids some films, demonstrating how Dipdap is drawn (basically he's a stick man, so that didn't take long) and then letting the kids loose with a load of felt tip pens on a massive sheet of white paper taped to the floor.
Floored genius: let the kid art commence

This was the best bit for the kids, obviously, and for the parents, who could sit back and let their offspring get on with it. I particularly liked how unprescriptive it was. I was at the opening of Firstsite and had a bit of a giggle at the expense of one of the artists who must have been brought in to create an immersive artistic experience for children. There were a few too many rules and the kids had basically just grabbed it and created their own game with it. The poor, harassed man was being comforted by a colleague who was assuring him that it would all be a bit better on subsequent days when the kids were less excitable.

As if that ever happens.

Anyway, back to Dipdap. It was a great show -  a few cartoons, a quick bit of 'what would you like Steve to draw?' and then unleash the mayhem.

Well done Firstsite. Keep it coming.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hackney in the Fall

London Fields: looking golden
Yesterday I had cause to pass through Hackney, for possibly the first time since I left and certainly the first time since the disturbances.

I had to come into 'Town' (as we country mice call it) for work. Usually I let the train take the strain, but there were one hour delays reported, so I was forced to jump in the car and hammer down the A12.

My mental map of the capital is so hard-wired around Hackney that I almost had to come through there to get to where I was heading - Hammersmith. I know how to get to Hammersmith from Hackney having driven the route many times. I just couldn't picture another route - I am a satnav-less driver by choice and like to think that I can get anywhere by innate road sense and judicious use of a map.

Anyway, my chosen route took my right past the end of our old road. What would you do? I couldn't resist driving past our former flat, feeling guilty in case anybody spotted me in the car.

Despite reports that it is now London's, or possibly the world's coolest street, Wilton Way was reassuringly scruffy, and had parking issues that I don't remember from when I lived there. So it's not just our street in Colchester where you move your vehicle at peril of ever regaining a parking slot.

The street, and Hackney did look lovely in the autumn sunlight. And I was particularly pleased that the buyers of our flat hadn't done much to the exterior. It's not that it was a monument to our exemplary taste or renovation skills, more the fact that after living there for more than 10 years, I was slightly embarrassed that I'd never got round to fixing the dodgy doorstep or replacing the battered front door.

And neither have they.

Given that they seemed to be young, trendy things, with a design background, I was also delighted to see that they had rather ugly Venetian blinds hanging in the front windows. I know it's sad that I noticed these things. At least I got round to hanging curtains, and put up the curtain rails that would have allowed them to do the same. Maybe curtains, like carpet, are a sign of getting old man!

On the way back I also popped along to London Field to use the facilities - it's a long drive back to Essex. Navigating by public loos is quite a skill too - call it satlav if you like.

The park, as always, looked lovely, and was full of the usual mix of dog walkers, late lunchers, parents with kids, and fixed wheel cyclists. I don't know what I expected really. It was the same old Hackney. Maybe I was anticipating some scars following the riots, but there were no obvious dents in the borough. It's so careworn generally, that it is hard to notice any. Plate glass has been replaced, bus stops rebuilt, paving slabs replaced and life goes on.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Scooter power

Hackney Holiday doesn't do sponsored advertorial, but if it did, it would go something like this...

Although I'm a journalist, I've never been a great blagger. There are people who see absolutely no shame in it. I remember a colleague telling me once how she'd been bought a leather coat on one lavish press trip after expressing an interest in it.

"Oh, I couldn't accept it."

"Go on. We'll put it on the client's bill anyway."

"Alright then. Hmmm, nice fit."

I'm really not in that league, and frankly find the whole thing a bit embarrassing, not to say rather compromising. It's particularly cloying in the blog arena where there is a whole school of uncritical authors of PR puff, happy to receive stuff for free and witter on about how great the products are.

So, cards on the table. My son has a Micro scooter, which we bought, and have subsequently bought spares and accessories for. Recently it started to get a bit shuddery and I noticed that the back wheel was actually square through excessive braking over the two years he's had it.

The square wheel: once they were all like this
As I'd recently written about the company for a small piece, I'd been in contact with the PR, so I did something I don't usually do. I dropped her a line and asked if the company would send me a spare wheel. I admitted that I knew this was a bit cheeky and that she could tell me to sling my hook, but hey, there was no harm in asking.

She said it was no problem and that she'd get them to pop one in the post, which duely arrived this morning and is now on the scooter.

Here comes the puff part.

I wouldn't have done this if I didn't think that the scooter was a great product. I'm actually amazed that a company that sells a product some would see as 'disposable' actually sells spare parts anyway. It costs around £50, which isn't cheap, but compared to the price of some kids toys that don't stand being tested to destruction, the Micro is good value I think. You can basically replace every part and reconstruct them in different colour combinations, plus add lots of funky accessories. I ony wish they did an adult version - oh, they do!

HackneyBoy's scooter has been a real boon since he got it. Not only is it great fun for him to zip about, but it saves us from having to lug him around. They are supposed to be for three year olds and upwards, but he's been on his since he was two after another Hackney parent let him have a go on his daughter's. He is really quite adept on his scooter and I think it has given him a bit of an insight into dealing with traffic as well as a bit of independence.

I also love the fact that Micro are so near here, in Mersea. We've popped into the office/warehouse for spares in the past, so there is a local connection.

On one such visit I noticed they had a letter from No 10 on display. The PM and his wife were thanking the company for the scooters - the kids loved them.

Hmmm! I'm betting Dave didn't pay for them. I hope they were declared. Suddenly I'm not feeling so bad for being a blagger.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I wish I was a better dad

God, it's exhausting sometimes.

I love my two boys, but there are times when my patience and my ability to reason are exhausted. I'm talking here about our eldest, who is almost four. He's our first child, so I probably love him more than the younger one at the moment, because we have more history.

Not that this cuts any ice when it comes to one of the day's most stressful points - bath time.

Every night it becomes a battle of wills. He doesn't want a bath, he doesn't want one with his brother, he only wants to wash his hands, face and teeth, he doesn't want his hair washed... every night. We're all tired and fractious by this point, so it's not a great advert for happy families.

Tonight he was being particularly irksome. Kids get more manic the more tired they are and at this stage J gets hitty, bitey and a bit verbally abusive. It sounds awful typing this, because he's still only three, but it's still not very pleasant to be called stupid daddy constantly and told that you're hated and that there is a special lotion he will rub on you that will kill you (where did that come from?)

Anyway tonight I snapped. Not in a 'feel the back of my hand' way, but I was a bit rough, dragging him to the bathroom and dumping him in the bath where he received a thorough wash including a hair wash, which he wasn't due for tonight. Strangely he was a subdued after this - maybe he was in shock. He came out of the bath chatty. I combed his hair into a blonde quiff, which he thought was funny. It was like he was a different boy.

This now makes me feel awful for reacting in such an over the top way. He's already forgotten what went on and tomorrow is another day. (Except that at some point he will lay a little morality line on me about how we shouldn't be rough with each other, which is what I tell him and is what I should practise.)

And he's right. I knew this while I was grabbing him and being rough with him. I knew it was wrong and that it was self defeating because it's just showing him that might is right - not a message I want to convey when he has a younger brother.

It's hard to be consistent with children. There are times when you feel a complete failure no matter what you do. And there are times when you just want them to obey you... just once, without it turning into a junior version of the debating society. "Why? Because I say so."

I dread to think what he'll be like when he's older because at times he seems beyond my limited powers of rationalisation already. Again, I realise how ludicrous this sounds when levelled at a three year old, but he's a smart child and I'm already wondering how he's going to make me feel when he's a cocky, sneering teenager.

Maybe I should just disinherit him now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's a zoo in there

Since moving to Essex, one of the kids' favourite places to hang has become Colchester Zoo. It's so expensive to go once that most parents who live locally seem to opt for the annual ticket deal which allows unlimited visits. It pays for itself in about three visits.

Meerkats: resisting a caption that uses 'Simples'

My wife has taken our two monkeys there on lots of occasions since she got membership back in March. It's about five to ten minutes drive from our house, and you can also get a bus there (although due to the ubiquity of Dad Cabs, they haven't tested that one yet).

I hadn't been myself until last week, when she was off for a spa day and I was looking after the boys. The elder one J has been going on about when I'm going to take them to the zoo, so it seemed like a good time to do it.

To be honest, like anyone who's seen too many animals in distress documentaries, I'm a bit ambivalent about zoos. I appreciate that they do a lot of work in studying animals, as well as breeding them and reintroducing them to the wild. Some animals are now so rare, that zoos may well be their last hope of survival.

However, there is something infinitely sad about seeing any living creature behind bars, especially when it's passed off as entertainment. I remember going to zoos as a child and being struck by the dichotomy of the animals I saw on nature documentaries like Survival - running free on the savannah, and killing and eating their neighbours - and those I saw in places like Calderpark Zoo in Glasgow, which was a slightly depressing place, and is now closed.

I have visited zoos since, with nephews and the like, but they've never really intrigued me. But I have to say that I was quite impressed by Colchester Zoo.

Zoos have definitely changed. One of the things that struck me was the size of the enclosures that the animals were in. Not only were they a decent size, but there has obviously been an attempt to provide stimulation for animals as much as possible, and to replicate something of the routine in the wild.This extends to 'starvation days' for many of them, mimicking the fact that in nature food isn't delivered daily on a plate.

This, and quite a few other facts I learned from the staff who were knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I don't know how many local kids work at the zoo, but I reckon our two would love to have part time jobs there one day, if we're still living here.

Other highlights were the flying displays where large predatory birds pluck large chunks of meat from just above the heads of aghast spectators, the impressively huge tigers, and the ever popular meerkats. Truth be told though, there was a lot we didn't see as, in true Radio Times fashion, there's so much in it.

Which is just as well as I've got 15 months' worth of membership (due to a promotion when I bought my Gold card) and visiting ahead. In an ideal world, I suppose the best place for these animals would be in the wild, but it's not an ideal world, and with that in mind I'm giving Colchester Zoo a qualified thumbs up.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Tears for Hackney

We moved from London in December and I periodically find myself getting wistful about our previous life in lovely London Fields. The seemingly endless pieces about how our old road, Wilton Way, is an increasingly hip hangout, combined with the excitement of the coming Olympics, and the sheer variety and dynamism of Hackney, make me pine for what we had there.

The pictures from yesterday are so shocking, it's almost as if they were from another country. Yet it's one that I'm strangely familiar with after 11 years of living there. Mare Street was a stone's throw away - probably not the most appropriate description in the circumstances.

Clarence Road, where the evening's standoff took place, was near my son's nursery. We'd often come walking back from Pembury Nursery down that road to go to the shops in the Narrow Way. It was one of the poorest shopping streets in a poor borough - mainly second hand and cheap stores. The grocers that was looted was probably the biggest business along there. There was also a second hand book shop run by a local lady who supplied the nursery with any children's books that came her way.

Did many of these businesses have insurance? I doubt it. If the book lady's shop window was put in, I can't see how she'll get up and running again.

Ironically, given its image as an underprivileged area, the Pembury Estate, which seemed to be the centre of things yesterday, has benefitted from a great deal of investment in recent years. It is by no means a sink estate, and consists of tidy and quite appealing looking flats. It is also round the corner from Mossbourne Academy, one of the most successful academy initiatives in the country, and a non-selective school that many hard working local children attend. A large swathe of un-used land is slated for a major housing and retail developent - Pembury Circus.

Of course, that's not the whole picture. Pembury Estate was raided by drugs police a few weeks ago as part of a major swoop on dealers in the area. The surrounding streets have also seen the deaths of too many young men in recent years.

Hackney has always enjoyed an edgy reputation, but in all the time I lived there, I don't think I ever felt as if I was living in a scary area. I doubt I'd feel that now, especially with two young children. How must parents in the area be explaining to their children what's going on, and when it's all going to stop.

If all of this makes me sound like one of those people who suddenly 'disses' London as soon as they leave, that's not the intention. I loved living in the capital and might do again one day. It really is one of the most exciting cities in the world, and it is full of the people of the world. And Hackney, in some ways, is like a miniature version of London.

What has happened seems to sad and pointless. I don't know why it happened, and I don't know what will make it stop. There are plenty of theories flying around - it's the bankers, it's the cuts, they're just criminals, it's family breakdown, it's all down to the police ... I'm sure we've all got our own pet favourites, but do any of us really know?

Answers on a postcard please.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Look at my Dinky

Sweeney mobile: Corgi Jaguar Mark X Saloon
A visit to my mum's this weekend produced a bag of treasure and nostalgia aplenty.

"Do you want these?" she asked, handing me a sack that she'd ferreted from the garage.

Inside were about 20 old Dinky, Corgi and Matchbox toy cars and trucks. I could only dimly remember most of them from my childhood. I suspect this is because they were second-hand even then, having been passed on by older cousins. As kids are more impressed by new stuff (well, I was), I suspect that I didn't actually play with them that much.

What impresses me now about them now is how well made they are. All are proudly stamped 'Made in Britain' or 'Made in England'. I suspect some will have been produced at the Lesney factory which was located in Hackney for many years and was only recently levelled for a housing development.

The cars and trucks are solid diecast pieces, which is probably why they've survived three or four generations of rough play by a host of young boys. The scuff marks tell a tale and show their age, but I think they are scars that add to their character. Given the weight of them, I'm sure that they could have produced a few scars of their own when hurled at annoying friends or younger brothers.

They also possess a host of lovely details such as opening doors, boots and bonnets, and a tipping trailer in the case of the ERF truck. They really are lovely things, with so much more character than the plastic tat that so many modern toys seem to be (old git alert).

Strangely they are not as valuable as I thought they might be. A quick check on Ebay reveals that you can pick up many of these for a fiver plus postage, often in mint condition and with a box to match. It almost makes you feel sorrow for a toy that's never been played with, especially as it hasn't turned out to be an alternative pension plan. These things were produced in their thousands, and they are so indestructible that there must be thousands of them left, even if they are a little worn.

Postscript: I am now beginning to understand the desire to conserve. Having survived more than 40 years of rough play, our youngest has managed to eat the tyres off one of the cars within a day. They are now being packed away until our two turn 40 and then they might be entrusted with them.

Keep on truckin': ERF tipper

Flat ERF: look at that detail

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Welcome back Lollibop... but not to Hackney

It looks as if last year's Lollibop Festival was enough of a success to run it for a second year. This time however it will shift from Stoke Newington's Clissold Park to the more high profile Regents Park.
I'm interested to hear that Lollibop has 'outgrown' its old home, as one of the things I liked about it last year was the fact that it was pleasantly uncrowded. There would have been scope to grow the event in Hackney. Rather, I suspect that the push this year will be for the organisers to scale things up a bit to get closer to break even or even into profit, which they probably didn't do in 2010. I'm guessing here, but it was the first year, so set up costs would have been high. It wasn't particularly well marketed, hence the low attendance. However it must have been enough of a success to take a punt at putting on a bigger version this time round.
The website indicates bigger acts and more potential for TV tie ins this year with mentions of Dick and Dom, Cerrie from Cbeebies, and the all conquering Rastamouse. Ticket prices are up accordingly. Last year, a family ticket for four on the day was £53. This year it is more than double at £108, and the early bird tickets are reportedly already sold out.
We recently went to a country fayre in Colchester Castle Park where it was a £6 for adults and under fives free. It's an unfair (pardon the pun) comparison in some ways as the target audiences, content and location were so different. However the bottom line is that we had great fun there ferret racing, shire horses, real ale tasting and all.
If this seems like so much carping, I have to 'fess up that I didn't even pay for my tickets last year, having won entry through a local website, for which I supplied a review. The tickets seem a bit pricey this time, but the organiser's costs must be up considerably this year.
Last year's event was lots of fun and a great day out. I hope it works for them this year and that they haven't miscalculated on pricing.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Two wheels good

Mr Halford gives Colchester the thumbs up
Last night the Tour of Britain came to town. In my youth this was known as the Milk Race as it was sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board. However, this was abolished in  2002 and the Tour is currently sponsored by Halfords, the bike people.
Milk or no milk, it was the most exciting thing to hit Colchester since the severe winter snap. The town centre was closed to traffic to create a circular route up the High Street, down Head Street, along St John Street and up Queen Street.
The riders headed off at 7pm for an hour of cycling. Usually this timing would have ruled out my seeing it, but our young 'un had a massive unscheduled kip just before bed time, so there was no way he was going to sleep on time. His brother, by contrast, was shattered and practically crawled to bed.
This coincidence meant I was able to walk the five minutes to town with Baby A in his buggy. There was a decent crowd lining the streets on a beautiful, T-shirt wearing evening. (It has to be said that after a crap winter, the summer is shaping up to be lovely - end of long range forecast).
While the ToB as I believe it's called by fans, doesn't quite match the Tour de France as a spectacle, it wasn't half bad. The fact that the 40-50 cyclists were racing round a tight, street circuit, helped. They were whooshing past about every minute once the leaders had lost the peloton, so there was plenty to see.
Mr Halford was there for photo opportunities and various cheerleaders were handing out flags promoting prostate cancer awareness, and inflatable Halfords' hands (I didn't get one of these unfortunately).
There was a cracking sound system on the high street, keeping the crowd buzzed with fast beats (not sure if that is the proper term for the toons. Young people, please help!), and a helpful MC informing us who was doing well. I can't remember any names, apart from one chap from Holland, who was almost obligatorily labelled the Flying Dutchman. Not to be confused with mobile chippy that frequents my old home town - the Frying Dutchman.
Little 'un loved it and was spontaneously applauding the riders as they whizzed by. And after all that excitement, I'd like to say that he was as shattered as his brother and slept like a log.
I'd like to say it, but unfortunately he was his usual screamy, wakeful self, and had me up by 5.30am.
Beside that, a good evening was had by all. Come back to Colchester soon ToB!
Strictly come cycling

Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Royal Wedding Mercy Dash

I was really looking forward to the Royal Wedding. Not as an event or even as the multimedia spectacular that it was. No, my interest in it was as a theme for kids activities - a way to keep eldest son's fertile imagination fed. Unfortunately for me, I was beaten to the punch by his nursery, which had royal puppet shows, crown making and the like, and my wife, who got on with the bunting making first.

Maybe I overestimated the ability of the events of yesterday to hold his attention anyway. Come the day, he was as wriggly and bored by the whole affair as I suspect any other three year was. I can't blame him really. You've seen one Philip Treacy fascinator, you've seen them all. Which was a bit annoying for my wife in particular as she wanted to see the wedding through without a whiny, running commentary - HackneyBoy, not me. "Where is the carriage with the window? Will the Queen be on the balcony? Why is this so long? Turn it off. Play with me. No one is looking after me!"

When he started complaining about sore legs, it seemed at first just another attempt to steal Wills' and Kate's day by the Attention Fynder General. However after a while, my wife became concerned so I took him to the local walk in centre at Colchester Hospital. I have to admit, I thought he was laying it on a bit thick and that I'd be send home with the usual Calpol and fluids advice.

The doctor will see you

As it was the congregation of symptoms he had made them refer us straight to the Paediatric Assessment Unit. This proved to be quite a long drawn out affair and it quickly become apparent to me that we would possibly be there for the night or the wee, small hours at least. He had to had an X-ray and blood tests, and although all of the people we saw stressed that there was only a small chance that he might have the worst case scenario, they wanted to be absolutely sure he was okay. 

It was quite sobering - and I hadn't even been drinking. With health matters, my default assumption is that there's nothing to worry about. Which is fine when it's me - I usually get better from most things with minimum intervention, which is my favoured, doctor-phobic male way of dealing with health stuff. Hey, it hasn't failed me yet - I'm still here.

With kids it is different, and my wife is much better than I am at spotting when there's something to worry about. She's more likely to call the doctor and make the appointment, or reach for the meds than I am. Last night taught me that I have to be a bit more alert about these things, and more prepared to get them checked out.

As it happens, J is fine, although he was kept in overnight for observation. I'm glad I was there with him. In a strange way, it was a bonding experience. We're close anyway, but I'm glad it was me who had to distract him while he was getting stuck with a needle for blood samples, and having his knee X-rayed, and just being there with him in a strange place. Those are the kinds of things that dads are for after all. My wife gave me some good advice before we went. "Make it an adventure for him," which was genius. As uncomfortable as some of it was for him, it's amazing how quickly fear and pain get overridden by the desire to go on and explore a strange building in the middle of the night. Boys love it. Hell, I loved it!

As usual, when dealing with the NHS, the experience left me grateful that we have access to such a great institution. It's not perfect - what is - but imagine what it must be like in countries like the States where every health decision is conflicted by the ability, or non-ability to pay. Would I have had a check up for something that I was sure was nothing? What if I was on minimum wage?

Here, we were seen by paediatricians, bone doctors (what are they called?), haematologists and X-ray professionals, as well as being looked after by caring staff who are really good with kids - they brought us books and toys and had a great manner with children. They even found a bed for me.

The next time I moan about hospital parking fees... well, I won't!

(Although £10 was a bit steep.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Not squeamish

Flexible friend
This morning while watering a house plant we found this little fella asleep in the mulch. Well, he was asleep until I drenched him in ice cold water. Can caterpillars suffer from shock?
This one seems to have faired okay and was equally unbothered to be handed to J who delighted in the beastie crawling over his hand and up his sleeve.
I don't know if I'd have been as cool as him at his age. I was a bit of a feartie when it came to creepy crawlies - still am if truth be told. J on the other hand thought his little friend was great fun and was thoughtful enough to keep him at arm's length from baby brother, who he correctly surmised would probably squish him.
After this great adventure we took Mr Caterpillar out into the garden where, after dropping him on the slabs a few times we managed to release him on to a tulip. I don't know if caterpillars are fond of tulips. Unfortunately for him we had no apples, plums, pears, strawberries or oranges to hand. Let alone slices of chocolate cake, Swiss cheese, cherry pie, watermelon etc.
Given the looks he was attracting from the local birds, I'm dubious of his chances of making butterfly.
Still, it will have made for a great tale at nursery this morning.
Just a nice green leaf for me please

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Long time, no blog...

I hate those entries that start something like "Sorry it's been so long since I last blogged, the house burned/I've had a breakdown/the dog ate my laptop..." like some penitent pleading for forgiveness from the great digital god. I'm under no illusions that people are waiting for my words of wisdom, but I do feel bad at not having been very diligent with my entries.

It has been really busy recently what with work and the incessant demands of our two boys, plus there are so many things around the new house that I feel I should do. I wish my head was bluetoothed up some times and I could simply transfer my thoughts straight to page without hammering away on the keyboard. I expect this will arrive at some point in the next five years, although by then we will simply bypass Blogger and Wordpress for the new B2B blogging tool - that's brain to brain blogging. No sooner have you had a thought, than it will drop into the inbox of your subscribed brains. It should do wonders for road traffic accidents.

The other thing I hate on catch up blogs is when people try and recount everything that has happened in the last month, year, decade since their last entry. This quickly becomes tiresome for all concerned, so the tendency is to resort to a list, especially if you are a man. Actually, I quite like lists, and as blog entries they probably have quite a lot going for them. Let's give it a try:

- baby brother has started to walk
- had first birthday party for baby brother
- local cat has taken up residence in our front garden
- assembled a Homebase barbecue and had first BBQ of the Spring
- went to the seaside (Frinton)
- thoughtless neighbour has scratched the bumper of the car
- mate visited from so we enjoyed a night out in Colchester (mate is now convinced that The Only Way is Essex is factual)
- work is piling up
- visited Guernsey and Ireland with work
- off to Amsterdam in a few weeks with work
- wife and I enjoyed our third or fourth night out of the past year
- kids nipping my head
- still only have four TV channels
- mustn't grumble...

What a fascinating insight into my life. I must do this more often.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

About a Boy

After the last entry's exercise in navel gazing, normalish service is resumed.

We've just got back from a visit to that London to see a lovely production based on Oliver Jeffers Boy books.

Bandits at 11 o'clock
It was the first time that we'd taken J to see anything like this and I wasn't sure that his patience would last the course, even though he's a fan of the books.

How wrong could I be. He, and his friends, were rapt. As were the three babies, who are all under a year. Well done Big Wooden Horse.

Afterwards we had a mostly pleasant lunch at a nearby Italian, where J had a meltdown which I didn't handle especially well. However, all was well that ended well, after ice cream all round. Then we headed for a local adventure playground, which seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen. It's not a good idea for two guys, slightly the better of a good Italian lunch to try and shepherd three full of beans kids around a splinter infested deathtrap. Still, we didn't lose too many fingers.

Then it was home again, home again, on the not very fast InterCity service and straight to bed for two very tired, but hopefully happy kids.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Being a dad

I was recently asked to contribute to a feature on what it's like to be a dad in these modern times.  The feature itself isn't due to be printed for several months, and as a journalist myself, I doubt they'll use much of what I provided. Hardly surprising as I got a bit over-excited and came up with a screed of self righteous copy about what a great father I am. It was particularly ironic as the day after submitting it I proved my fathering skills by letting our three year old tip over on his scooter on to his face resulting in a fat lip, grazed nose and lots of blood.

Anyway, I was asked to comment on a few areas, and on the basis that I don't necessarily practice what I preach, this is what I said.


Luckily for me I didn't experience anything that I would call depression, although I know somebody who did.
I think it is something that many dads are not even aware of. We're all primed to look out for symptoms in our wives and partners, but don't really consider it among ourselves.
Becoming a parent is harder than many of us imagine. Nothing you are told can really prepare you for the lack of sleep, worry about doing things properly, and frustration when things don't go right (the baby won't feed, won't sleep, won't stop crying). The first few weeks in particular are like baby boot camp.
It's a real eye opener and the wonder is that more men don't crack up. You're trying to be the strong, capable male role model you've read about and seen on TV, and often combining this with work. It's like having two jobs at once.
I got through it the first time by just getting on with it. I expected it to be a challenge and it definitely was, but it does get better eventually. And because it's all new, there is a sense of discovery and joy as the child develops which overcomes the bad times. The slightest thing, like a smile, can turn a really crappy morning around.
Funnily enough I found the birth of our second son tougher, because I underestimated how hard it would be with two kids. I thought that having done it once before, it would be a walk in the park, which is definitely wasn't.
Kid A was a worse sleeper than his brother, and suffered really bad colic when he was very young. Both my wife and I had this rose tinted idea that as our first son had been such a bad sleeper, we would be blessed with a sleeping scond son, and it was almost like a slap in the face when it didn't work out like that. There was almost a sense, of "Here we go again!" this time round. You've also got the other child demanding your attention, so it's a real plate spinning challenge.
I've definitely been less stoical this time round, and more grumpy at times. It probably made it a bit harder to bond with A  if I'm honest, although that has passed and I love him to bits now. It does strain your relationship unless you talk about it. Both parties inevitably think that they are getting the rougher end of the deal and that neither understands the other. Just being open about how you feel is a great release, as is humour. There are times when it gets so bad that it's hard not to laugh - perhaps a bit hysterically.


I always assumed that I'd have a central role in bringing up our children. As much as things break down along gender lines to a certain extent, we try and have equal roles. Obviously I can't breast feed and my wife can't assemble flat pack furniture, but we try and do the same things for the boys, whether it's cooking, playing, reading bedtime stories or bathing them (although this is something that I've found that I do, mainly because my wife was nervous about doing it when they were young).
I've never been a man that thinks it's beneath him to change a nappy. As far as I'm concerned, if you want a full role in your child's upbringing, then you need the full range of skills.
And they are skills. Very little we do with our children is completely innate. You have to pick stuff up by trial and error. You need to be able to soothe your child when they are upset and not just think that mummy will do it. She's not always there!
My dad died when I was 13, but my memories of him are of a family man, and that's what I wanted to be.
So, right from the start I've thrown myself in and got involved. In the early days I would even wake up in the night when my wife was breastfeeding as I felt I should be doing something. It seems like madness now, but at the time I think I felt I was being supportive by not getting any sleep as well - duh!
I don't think I've ever felt excluded, even when the boys have preferred to go to mum. It's understandable that they have a closer relationship with her in the early days, and I've never felt threatened by that. They quickly become individuals and you realise that even quite early on you will have your own relationship with them. As they get older (ours are 3 and 11 months at the moment), I'm probably the go to guy for boisterous play, which I absolutely adore.
My relationship with my wife has changed because we have less time for each other. We can both be irritable with each other because of tiredness and perceived lack of empathy from the other person. It can get like the Monty Python four Yorkshiremen sketch in the "I'm more tired than you" stakes. But at the same time we're closer than ever because of what we have in common. I don't think either of us truly wishes for our pre-children lives back. (Although a bit more time for personal interests would be lovely).
I didn't join any dad's groups as there wasn't one where I used to live in East London. However I did spend about 18 months working part time and looking after our first son, when my wife went back to work. During that time I gravitated to a number of dads that were doing the same thing. As much as the mums I met were lovely, I think there is something about the dad experience that makes you want to share it with other blokes. It was fun to hang out with them. Dads groups definitely have a role though. I'm quite confident about my role as a dad and wouldn't have a problem going to a class or group where I was the only man there. But I know that some men don't feel that and value an exclusively male group. It probably makes it easier to ask some of the many dumb questions that occur to us all. We're probably less worried about feeling silly in front of other men. And how can you feel intimidated by a hulking bloke who is carrying round a pink dolly and pastel shades changing bag.


I'm a freelancer, so I didn't have any paternity rights. At the same time, I have more flexible time, so I knew I would be able to spend as much time as required or desired at home.
Having said that, the nature of my work is feast or famine, and some work came up about a week after J's birth that I felt I had to take. It was just beginning to sink in how hard it was all going to be, so at the time I was a bit guilty about leaving the house knowing I was making my escape from the crying fury that was our baby. Then I'd come back to a wife in floods of tears who would thrust him into my arms and disappear upstairs for a break. Tough times.
I'm used to being around, so I think I would have found it hard to be content with just a couple of weeks paid paternity leave. My temptation would have been to set aside some money and sound out my employer about the possibility of taking a sabbatical from work to spend more time with the child. The benefits are obvious: you're a help at home, you can bond with your child, and it gives you a bit of perspective on your career - what are you working for in the first place?
Would I like to see better paternity rights? Probably I would, although I can appreciate the concerns of small companies especially who worry about all the new fathers suddenly wanting six months to spend with their child. Not everybody wants this, but I think the option should be there.
In a wider sense I hope that Sure Start doesn't get broken up. Both my wife and I found the Sure Start groups in our area a great resource and a great way of meeting other parents. It would be a real shame if they suddenly became unavailable to a few parents. 

As I said, it's pretty self righteous stuff, but it's a snapshot of how I feel that in a few years time may be a handy reminder.

More light-hearted posts to follow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forever friends

Formerly HackneyBoy is very excited today as his friend, LondonBoy is paying a visit to us in Colchester. They are both just over three years old and as the only boys in our small group of NCT-accredited parents, they bond quite quickly as youngsters.

This manifest itself in the rumbustious nature of their play. Whether it's nature or nurture, boy's playtime is definitely more physical, in my experience. Admittedly, my experience is of having two boys, and all of their cousins are boys too. 

Anyway, both also share a boys' love of trains and Thomas the Tank Engine. (Before becoming a parent, I don't think I had any appreciation of how big a franchise T the T is. I doubt I've met a parent of boys whose son wasn't obsessed with trains from about two onwards. Sod the pension, plough your savings into HiT Entertainments. It's hard to see how it's a passing fad after 65 years. Incidentally, it seems that the uber-commercialisation of T the T is relatively recent. My elderly uncle [and another model train nut] visited us a few months back and was telling me how it was more of a cottage industry in his day. The Rev Awdry, who wrote the books, was quite a feature at train preservation societies in his time, but it was far from the global brand it has become.)

Trains: not just for boys

Anyway, I digress...

HackneyBoy and LondonBoy both disappeared upstairs as soon as they arrived at the house. They are playing HB's newest game, Deliveries. This involves trains (of course) and the delivery of sundry items, and in a new twist invented by mummy last night, messages. He has some Brio wooden track and a battery powered engine to pull the carriages. The track is laid out along the floor and shuttles backwards and forwards with the deliveries. This can go on for hours, so I am particularly glad at LB's appearance today.

But I'm more glad that they still seem to be friends. They are only young and friendships are fragile things, so it wouldn't be surprising if their camaraderie gradually whithered over time. For now though, it seems strong. HB gave LB a big hug when they got into the house, and LB reciprocated by helping HB remove his shoes.

And I haven't heard crashes or crying yet!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Night out

Last night my wife and I wandered into town for a night out - the first we've had together since HackneyBaby was born ten months ago. Praise be to nanny and grandad for babysitting, especially as the little fella is teething at the moment, so was a bit of a handful.

It's quite a strange sensation being childless, even if it is for only a few hours. Mind you, as the main topic of conversation was kids - ours and other people's - we were never truly alone.

The Missus delighted in dragging me round the pubs of her youth, particularly the Hole in the Wall, which was the Goth pub of Colchester she informs me. Not that she was a Goth. In fact,she says that she used to get stared at for being too shiny and not wearing regulation black. Last night we probably got looked at for looking old or because I looked rather like an off duty policeman.

The other pubs we tried were:
- the Hospital Arms, which was rammed and is definitely one to revisit - nice ales, and the homemade bar snacks sounded good
- the Kings Arms - also very busy, but with a more officey crowd, so we didn't stop. Probably nicer for a relaxing daytime pint
- the Fat Cat, which is ostensibly my local. It has a very impressive ale selection, although the locals seem a little cliquey on the evidence of my few visits (apart from my very first visit, when the barman regaled with "Hello, I haven't seen you for a while!" Or ever in fact). I have a suspicion that the Cat is the Coppers local as it is very near the Police station, so I'm a  bit surprised I wasn't greeted more warmly this time. Perhaps I failed to give the proper Masonic greeting as I palmed my change.

Anyway, the morning after I am slightly paying for this debauched evening as it was my turn to get up with the kids. However I was rewarded by seeing HackneyBaby's (or should he be ColchesterBaby now?) first steps. Onwards and upwards.

Friday, February 11, 2011


When we lived in Hackney, it was sadly not uncommon to come across moving, makeshift floral tributes on the streets. Often these were for the victims of violent crime, such as Jahmal Mason-Blair, stabbed in a fight he was trying to break up, Edward Thompson, shot by mistake, and Shaquille Smith, stabbed by a gang as he played outside his home.

When Jahmal died there was an incredible shrine that sprung up under a railway bridge that I used to pass when dropping my son at nursery. Like many young boys, he had aspirations of being a footballer, and was considered by Tottenham Hotspur. His shrine was made up of flowers, pictures, candles, football shirts, poems and pictures from friends and people who probably didn't even know him. It was a touching sight, and I remember the care that local road sweepers used to take in tidying around it.

Yesterday I came across something similar in Colchester. It was to commemorate Cassie McCord, a 16 year old schoolgirl who was killed when a car mounted the pavement on Monday. Again, the flowers were piled up on the pavement. Schoolchildren stood around crying and comforting each other. Another tragic waste of life.

It's easy to see these sorts of tributes as a bit mawkish and another example of how our famed stiff upper lip has given way to Diana-ish public displays of emotion, but I think that they serve a useful purpose. They remind us of the inevitability and the sometimes arbitrary nature of death. As we live longer, death is something that we don't encounter very often, and we don't always know how to react to it. 

The first funeral I ever attended was my father's when I was 13. The formality of the occasion and the ceremony was something I didn't know how to react to. I can still recall the shock of being pushed forward at the graveside to be one of the first to throw some soil on the coffin lid. The finality of the gesture hit me like a hammer. I've never really liked visiting his grave since then. It just doesn't feel like the best place to remember him.

An interesting take on the role of the grave was shown on Channel 4's Big Fat Gypsy Wedding programme this week. A father, Paddy, was shown visiting the grave of his first son, who had died in a car crash. Rather than being an overly sombre occasion, it was a time for remembrance and celebration of the boy's short life. CDs were played loudly and beer was drunk by the assembled crowd, who came every year on the anniversary of his death. In a programme that has been labelled as rather voyeuristic and mocking, it was extremely touching and a demonstration of the different ways we have of remembering those we love.

Another non-conventional tribute is the 'ghost bike'. These painted white bicycles appear to mark the spot where a cyclist has been killed in traffic. In Hackney, they are becoming almost as common as floral tributes to young people. The latest is for Dan Cox, who was knocked over at Dalston Junction. The bikes are a reminder of the individual and a somewhat chilling warning of accident black spots.

One uplifting element to the sad story of Cassie McCord is that she carried a donor card and her family agreed that her organs could be used. In this way, she will be remembered by many more people in future.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Cooking with kids

First catch your child...

I do most of the cooking in our house. It's something I really enjoy and I think I'm not bad at it, but this evening's effort brought home to me how degraded my skills have become.

The thing about cooking for children is that there is little appreciation for your efforts and little discernment. A carefully crafted, nutritious, homemade meal could inevitably be trumped by a turkey twizzler and chips. Kids don't really care about provenance or how long it took to make. They care about having something that they recognise and having it now, or five minutes ago.

This relentless drive to get food on the table at an allotted time is what makes cooking drudgery, and it's why women of my mother's generation turned to convenience foods as their saviours. I can well remember as a child the close correlation between what was advertised on TV one week and what appeared on your plate the next. Crispy pancakes, chicken nuggets, and my particular favourite crispy batter fish fingers. I loved these so much that I'm sure I had them every day for a week until I was completely sick of them.

Anyway, I'm enough of guilty Jamie and Hugh disciple  to try and go down a different route (as well as being a hypocrite for denying my children the tasty treats I so enjoyed). By and large we cook meals from scratch, try and use fresh vegetables as much as possible. However this can take so long that inevitably you end up eating the same as the kids. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It's good for the family to eat together. The problem is that I don't always feel like eating at 5.30 when the kids do. And the lack of seasoning and adult flavourings like chili, does result in slightly bland fare.

The upshot is that I'm falling, ever so slightly out of love with cooking. I don't get many chances to indulge my love of cheffy touches these days. It's a bit more of a bish, bash, bosh approach. Hence tonight's meal, which was a hurried Annabel Karmel salmon tagliatelle, albeit with a few ingredients missing. It just looked a bit of a mess to me, and I cooked it.

Of course, the kids loved it!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Today we drink!

Reaches the parts other gassy liquids can't
Or at least we could if there was a reason beyond the sheer love of alcohol. For today is the first of February and the end of January's self imposed no drinking rule.

And yet it seems such an anti-climax. Probably because it is a doddle for me these days. I've been doing no-drink Januaries for years and it definitely gets easier with practice. Last year I went for a couple of months without drinking in (enforced) solidarity with my wife after the birth of our second son. It was only supposed to be two weeks, but I felt a little aggrieved about being reminded of the promise I'd made to not booze in those tough early days. I grumpily took this to be a slur, so to speak, on by fathering abilities. Surely I could switch seamlessly from glass in hand to wipes and nappy. So, to demonstrate to my wife what an uncaring woman she was, and how lucky she was to have such a self-sacrificing other half, I stayed dry for eight weeks or so.

That showed her!

Actually, it was probably a good thing that I did lay off the ale, as HackneyBaby was not, and indeed, is not, a good sleeper. There is nothing that erases the pleasure had from a few convivial evening drinks quite like a screaming baby. Early morning soothing sessions are better faced with a clear head. Firstly, you're less likely to drop the child. Secondly, any relaxing effect those drinks will have had, are now gone.

So, here I am again, ready to reenter the world of drink. In the past, this has been a day I have been counting down to, whereas this year it's a bit of a 'so what' moment. As I say, it's too easy these days. I feel like an old lag keeping his head down and doing his time quietly.

So, in the spirit of disruption and personal challenge, I'm setting out to do something that will be infinitely tougher for me.

February is designated sugar free. Apart from fruit and unavoidable added sugar, I'm going to try and avoid the sweet stuff. No chocolate, no biscuits, no cakes, no soft drinks, no fruit juice, no jam on toast. I have a massive sweet tooth and am starting to worry that my predilection will be passed on to my boys. It's hard to deny HackneyChild a chocolate digestive when I'm happily ploughing through half a packet with a cup of tea. If they are not around - or perhaps replaced with something more child friendly for the odd treat - then that has to be a good thing.

It's a good job there are only 28 days though as I'm rattling already. And I might need a few drinks to complete it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rubbish entry

It's been ages since I posted, and the longer you leave it, the harder it gets - ooer!

I keep coming up with ideas for posts and then not writing them, or playing around with them in my mind until the fancy has gone. So I'm not promising any great shakes with this post. It's just to get me back into the habit.

One of the reasons I haven't posted for so long is that we finally moved house just before Christmas. We've swapped Hackney for Colchester and a two-bed flat for a three to five bed Victorian semi with garden. I'm just coming to the realisation that a house this size is almost like having another child in terms of the demands it places on your time. Never mind keeping it clean - we haven't even got it clean yet after the state the previous owners left it in - everywhere I look I see a job to be done. Painting, decorating, shelving, carpeting, gardening... the list just goes on an on. Now I know what people mean by a project.

Although we've only been here a month, it does seem like home already. This despite the fact that the house is absolutely freezing and holds heat like a sieve does water. The kids love it and as well as having their own bizarrely decorated rooms, they have a play room for all their toys and lots of other rooms to spread their toys about in. They don't understand compartmentalisation.

It's nice though. We can see lots of possibilities here for the future and the neighbours seem nice, if a little less exotic than our Hackney neighbours. We miss our London friends, but they're just down the line, and in the next week or so we will have a guest room for their - hopefully frequent - visits. Just remember to bring long johns.

Oh, and Happy New Year.