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.