Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A journey into hell, with a party bag at the end of it

I am writing this in a state of shock unlikely to be matched unless I witness my own house burn down, or my new car disappear over a cliff without my mother-in-law inside it.

It all started innocently enough at 6.30 last Tuesday morning, when my son Charlie joined me at the breakfast table. I wished him a happy birthday, but he apparently felt no interest in that.

“Daddy,” he announced, “I need to tidy up the conservatory and I need you to help me.”

I was astonished. Hitherto, Charlie’s commitment to doing the reverse of tidying up any room he enters has been pretty much total.

I finally persuaded him to open his cards and presents instead, but then he started banging on about the conservatory again.

So his mother and I naturally asked him the reasons for his sudden conversion. “So it’s tidy for when all my friends come round for my party.”

“But that’s not until Sunday,” we pointed out.

Cue floods of tears. Charlie’s not ours.

The party continued to dominate conversation for the remainder of last week, during which it grew in my mind from a vague and distant warning in the long-range weather forecast to an imminent destructive tornado.

We had decided, foolishly, to operate on the assumption of decent weather and rely on the kids to make their own entertainment running around the garden. To assist, I laid out an old battery-powered ride-on train, kindly donated by a cousin, which proved no longer to work. We also hired a small bouncy castle, delivered by a large man in a Citroen Picasso who insisted on taking his instructions from my wife and referred to me dismissively as “Granddad”.

As if by magic ...
"Charlie, do you want to have first go on the bouncy castle, then?"

Usually this not uncommon faux pas at least secures me an apology and discount from the trader concerned, though on this occasion only the former proved to be forthcoming.

When my contemporaries started breeding 30 or more years ago I often remarked that I had no plans to follow their example as I did not like children. This invariably elicited the shiny-eyed response, “Ah, but your own are different!”

I will now concede that this is true, up to a point. I can just about bear to take my two out in public together, and I do not glare and tut anything like as much as I used to do when I find myself next to other people’s noisy brats on a train or in a pub.

However, I can also report that a room full of four-year-olds is, without doubt, completely unbearable. Give me a chanting mob of bloodthirsty fanatics any day.

After numerous cancellations I think that only about eight of them actually turned up, but it might as well have been 800. And they were in my house for less than three hours, but it seemed more like three months.

I had been enjoined to put Charlie’s Hornby train set into full working order for their entertainment and they descended on it like a plague of locusts, snapping signals, ripping off couplings and testing the track to literal destruction.

Worst of all, their own parents just beamed indulgently throughout. By the time they had sung “Happy birthday”, eaten their cake and sloped off with their party bags, I was a broken man. I slept for a solid 12 hours afterwards.

On the home straight: birthday candle successfully extinguished

I recalled my elderly mother’s reaction when a nephew came round to show off his new son. She seemed distracted throughout, and after my cousin left I asked what had been on her mind. “All I could think,” she replied, “was that if that child broke something, I would scream!”

I found that amusing at the time. Now I know just how she felt.

We are supposed to be looking for a new home nearer Charlie’s first school, but I am beginning to think that we should actually look for two of them, including a nice little flat in sheltered accommodation for me.

Failing that, perhaps we could run to something with a granny annexe. Given stout locks, soundproofing and an ample supply of bookshelves, that might just about do for “Granddad” until the men in white coats come to take me away once and for all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

What a way to spend a birthday: my son's first taste of school

It is a rum business, getting old. I cannot for the life of me remember whether I took my pills this morning, yet I can still vividly recall the interview that clinched me a place at my first school.

It was with Jack Russell Perry, the former naval person who had become proprietor and headmaster of Akhurst Boys’ Preparatory School in Jesmond Cottage: a substantial Victorian pile that thoroughly skewed my perception of what constituted a cottage for many years.

He gently asked me why pillar boxes were red. I gave the wrong answer (“to match the mail vans”) but he generously let me in anyway, perhaps because my parents could just about afford his fees (though my father, were he still alive, might wish to take issue with that).

There might have been an element of familial keeping up in the decision to grant me a private education, given that I had two older cousins who had already been sent to Akhurst. Though my mother always swore that the clincher was that I was a June baby and the local state school at Benton would not accept me for another year, when I would have been five and a quarter, and she simply could not endure the pleasure of my company that long.

Luckily there are no such issues with my own June-born son, who celebrates his fourth birthday today with his first “settling in session” at the local authority primary school where he will begin in earnest in September.

I have already been to two parents’ evenings at the place, which is two more than my parents ever spent at Akhurst. The regime seems markedly gentler than it did in my day, with more of an emphasis on learning through play and less on sitting in straight lines staring at a blackboard.

There is no stuffed lion’s head in the stairwell to frighten the infants, and no map of the British Empire on the walls. I also very much doubt that the children will be invited into the headmaster’s sitting room to watch the launch of our latest mighty warship, as I did when the pioneering nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought came down the slipway in 1960.

On the plus side, they do still expect their male pupils to wear ties, which was naturally a key factor in making the place my first choice in the great primary school lottery.

I shall wait with interest to see what they make of Charlie and what he makes of them, given that his response to my own efforts to educate him about anything tends to be “Stop talking rubbish, Daddy” or “The thing is, I already know all about [insert subject of your choice].”

I took him to Hampton Court, Buckingham Palace, the Natural History Museum and the kitchen garden at Meldon Park last week, and he was adamant that he knew more than me about the Tudors, horses, carriages, soldiers, gun salutes, the monarchy, dinosaurs and horticulture.

Though I did gain a small tactical advantage when I briefly managed to convince him that the dragon in Meldon Park’s woods was a real one that chiefly ate small boys.

I have advised him that the right answer to the pillar box question, if it ever comes his way, is that red makes them stand out so the public can spot them.

I was all poised to say that some years later when I was interviewed for a place by the senior tutor of a Cambridge college, but he sneakily changed the question to what was unusual about the then newish 50p piece.

I replied that it had seven sides, which is true, but this was not the answer he was looking for: it is an equilaterally curved heptagon. Mind you, he also let me in despite my ignorance so clearly a consistent failure to shine in interviews is no bar to educational advancement.

Even so, I consider it fortunate that no one actually spoke to Charlie before granting him his school place. I strongly suspect that the next interview will be mine with his form teacher, and my betting is that her killer question will be “Is he always like this?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Sorry, Prof: it may well be fatal, but mine is still another pint

I yawned on Sunday when I glanced at the story in the press digest I receive each morning, After all, it was hardly a surprise to learn that I am more likely to die of cancer if I drink more than two pints of beer a day.

But then I looked at the piece more closely. It was actually suggesting that the safe limit, for those of us who do not actively fancy a horrible death, is two pints of beer A YEAR.

Death. This is what it looks like.

Actually, it said “drinks”. So it might have meant halves. Let’s not get carried away.

This joyless appraisal, according to the Sunday Express, came from one Professor Peter Anderson of Newcastle University, whose dinner party guests are presumably not encouraged to bring a bottle.

His prescription is for the European Commission to step up the marvellous work it has already done on cigarette labelling, and plaster all drinks bottles with warnings that they cause cancer.

As if rapacious pub companies, cut-price supermarkets, the drink-driving crackdown and smoking ban were not enough, the few remaining rural pubs would presumably be forced to display on their pump clips: “Old Badger Ale, 4.0% ABV. Oh, and it will GIVE YOU CANCER.”

Somehow, I cannot see this providing a boost to sales.

Now, life is a continuous process of risk assessment and it is important never to lose sight of the important fact that even those who never drink or smoke, and subsist entirely on organically grown lettuce leaves, still die eventually. Quite possibly of boredom.

I also write as one who has consumed significantly more than two pints of beer a year for the last 44 years. In fact, I would still be in serious trouble if the suggested limit had been two pints per day, as I originally imagined.

But if we all took to heart every bit of the health advice with which we are bombarded by science each day, we would surely be afraid to eat or drink pretty much anything at all.

Even breakfast is a minefield. Bacon and eggs? Don’t be ridiculous: cured meat is a proven carcinogen, cholesterol blocks your arteries. Cereal with milk? A great cue to worry about “Frankenstein” GM maize and all that fat in dairy products.

I have little doubt that if alcohol were a newly invented product, it would struggle to make it past the regulators and onto the market. But since it has been around for many hundreds of years, it is perhaps more appropriate to accept that it is going to remain part of our life and assess how much serious harm it really does.

Oh yes, it now fills our city centres with the revolting spectacle of mass drunkenness almost every night of the week, and keeps our overstretched A&E departments busy dealing with the fallout.

A typical night in the Bigg Market

Will slapping health warning labels onto bottles of lager have any impact whatsoever on this? What do you think?

It would surely be more productive to focus on recreating the sort of sensible licensing laws that were designed to deal with this sort of problem in the first place, and which our politicians have bafflingly spent the last 15 years or so dismantling.

As for Professor Anderson’s report, I have been giving it a great deal of thought as I have spent the last two nights in small hotel rooms in Berkshire and London with two over-excited small boys making their first visit to the capital for a packed programme of royalty, dinosaurs and toy emporia.

Hampton Court
Changing of the Guard
Duke of Edinburgh's 92nd birthday gun salute
Natural History Museum

I have considered, on the one hand, the fact that they are both under four and I am pushing 60, and really ought to make an effort to stay alive as long as possible to fulfil my paternal responsibilities.

On the other hand, there is the stress associated with taking the two of them out anywhere in public, particularly now that the older boy has taken to pretending that he does not know me when we are left alone together, and I look so much like a silver-haired candidate for an Operation Yewtree investigation.

And the firm conclusion I have reached, with my sincere apologies to the Professor, is that mine is most definitely another pint.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The perfect birthday present I can never have: life in the past

In my experience, the people who live longest are those who relentlessly focus on living in the present and thinking about the future.

The only one of my grandparents I ever met was born in 1881. Her parents had taken her to North America as a child, and they crossed the continent by wagon train before deciding it wasn’t a patch on South Shields and coming home again.

Being keenly interested in history from an early age, I tried every way I knew to persuade her to talk about her experiences, but all to no avail. One sample conversation went:

“Grandma, do you remember going to see King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra when they came to Newcastle?”

“Yes. But - eeh! Have you seen the price of Daz these days?”

Always dressed in shabby black and bearing a striking resemblance to the granny in Giles’s cartoons, she lived in an upstairs Tyneside flat in a West End street that has long since disappeared to slum clearance.

Hers must have been one of the last dwellings in the toon still to have gas lighting. Because, with characteristic Hann optimism, she had dismissed her landlord’s offer to install “the electric” at the end of the war because she wasn’t planning to live long enough to make it worth the bother.

She died in 1973. Ironically after a stroke caused by repeatedly running up and down stairs to let in a thoroughly bemused man from the gas board.

Not too long before that she survived being run down on a zebra crossing on her way home from a whist drive. The General Hospital set her broken arm in plaster and tried to tackle her obesity with a crash diet. When denied the ice cream served to everyone else on the ward I am reliably informed that her cries of “I’m 90 years old, for God’s sake! What difference does it make?” could be heard on the other side of Westgate Road.

I started thinking about my grandmother because I entered my own 60th year yesterday, and I wondered whether I could identify the secret of how she came to be the only one of my ancestors to make old bones.

Her total lack of interest in the past creates a bit of a challenge because I feel an ever-increasing desire to go back and live in the Newcastle of the late 1950s or early 1960s. That fondly remembered time when Harold Macmillan was in office, a young and beautiful Queen was on the throne, and we had never had it so good.

When trolleybuses sailed along the main roads, electric trains clattered to the coast and steam locomotives shuttled up and down the East Coast main line, where the shunting of coal wagons at Little Benton sidings made a noise hard to distinguish from thunder.

At home, a good fire of Shilbottle coal warmed the one room we could afford to heat, and a small black and white television with a dodgy vertical hold commanded our attention from the corner. A selection of Dinky cars and a Hornby Dublo 3-rail train set provided fine indoor entertainment for the young, while a bicycle was squeezed alongside the Ford Consul in the garage for outdoor excursions. Yes, to savour all that again would be true bliss.

Mrs Hann, bless her, spent weeks Googling “1950s experiences” for my birthday present, but sadly drew a blank.

A blank, to be completely fair, apart from this

I naturally gloss over such less attractive features of the period as blunt hypodermic needles, evil-tasting medicines, the Windscale fire of 1957 or the Cuban missile crisis that nearly blew us all to kingdom come.

I am sure that my grandmother would never have made the schoolgirl error of taking up mental residence in the 1890s. But other shared features give me more encouragement. There is obviously our tendency to stoutness, for a start.

Plus the key fact that she was, if I’m honest, a notably self-centred individual that nobody much liked. On that analogy, I should be a shoo-in for whatever they may send instead of telegrams from Buckingham Palace in 41 years’ time. Just so long as I steer well clear of whist drives and British Gas.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.