Real girls fly helicopters: why gender really matters on children’s TV

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Kids have horrific taste in TV, but you don’t hold it against them. Back in the tender early days of their development, when they watched three carefully vetted programmes occasionally and on rotation, I thought this TV thing would be a doddle. Har. They just didn’t have trashy opinions yet, and trashy opinions always come. Twenty years ago we spent many hours watching Power Rangers and the Chuckle Brothers, so I try to remember that things made for five-year-olds are not necessarily made for me.

But there’s one thing I can’t get over. It’s in more of their programmes than I expected, and it’s like noticing the disturbingly cavorting fruit on Maoam wrappers: once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee. Let me take you through a brief summary.

Paw Patrol – a pre-teen boy miraculously owns six dogs that can use human language, operate machinery and have mastered individual trades. Rather than hot-dialling The Sun to make his fortune, he runs a rescue service, mostly saving cats and chickens from their own stupidity. Five of the six dogs are boys. One is a girl. She wears pink. She flies the helicopter. Her name is Skye.

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Dinotrux – in a strange, post-apocalyptic world, a race of dinosaur-machines have arisen: large, aggressive Dinotrux, and tiny, timid Reptools. It has occurred to no one that the Reptools might usefully run their economy by fixing the Dinotrux, until a group of Dinotrux and Reptools agree to live in bro-harmony in a clubcave. Four of the Dinotrux are male. One is female. She’s a long-necked dinosaur, and does the intricate high-up jobs. Her name is Skya.

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Transformers Rescue Bots – Four Transformers are sent to earth with a mission: impersonate rescue vehicles and integrate themselves with a police chief and his rescue-service family. I don’t know why. Reasons. All four of the Transformers are male. Of the five humans, four are male. One is female.  She flies the helicopter. She wears a skin-tight jumpsuit, and her head is bigger than her waist. Her name is Dani.

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Good luck if you can find her.

I know, I know it would be easy to say ‘so what?’. It’s a children’s programme. It doesn’t matter. Killjoy feminists, reading too much into everything. I would probably have said the same a few years ago.

Before I had sons. Before it was my job to raise them into men who truly respect women as their equals, and expect them to be so. The stories we hear turn into our expectations. They show us what looks normal, how things should be. Last time I checked, the male population didn’t outnumber the female by at least four to one, and we’re allowed to wear whatever colour we like (though you’d never know it, in your average children’s clothing aisle).

I want sons who enter a scientific field and aren’t surprised to find girls there too. I want sons who participate in group discussions and don’t feel, subconsciously, that their opinion counts for more because they can shout louder. I want sons who expect and encourage their partners to take whatever career path excites them. I want sons who can have a female superior at work and never resort to calling her ‘mouthy’ or ’emotional’ or ‘bitchy’. I want sons who know a woman’s body (and the way she dresses it) has absolutely nothing to do with her capabilities or her culpability.

I want all of this to feel like it’s not too much to ask.

How can they make space for the women around them, if their stories don’t? It’s not like it will get better by itself as they get older. Boys who don’t think women have a place in their stories become the men raising hell about a female remake of a janky eighties film. Or the men making Star Wars merchandise and excluding the main character because she’s a girl. Or the powers-that-be behind comedy panel shows, who exert themselves to book one female comic per six shouty males. Or the men covering the Olympics and writing headlines like this.

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We have conversations about Paw Patrol or Dinotrux at least once a day. They like to choose favourites, discuss their favourites, ask what mine are. They always assume my favourite will be the girl, and of course I only ever have one to choose from. Tough luck if I don’t like helicopters. Tough luck if she doesn’t appeal to me. There’s only one of her, and that’s an awful lot of representation to carry. I tend to choose another character and give different reasons, but there’s only one of me, too, and a lot of this.

It matters. It really matters. I can handle the terrible jokes and background music (it even becomes endearing after a while, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way). But oh, please, please: do this mother of sons a favour, and give me some real girls.

One thousand, eight hundred and twenty-six

 

Dear Henry,

Today is your birthday, and you are five. You are asleep, finally, after an exciting day where you have made all the important decisions: bacon and waffles for breakfast, a trip to London to visit the ‘dinosaur museum’, hot dogs and milkshakes for lunch, episodes of Transformers Rescue Bots for an evening treat. At every pause in the day you have told me how happy you are. ‘Isn’t this the best day we’ve ever had?’ ‘Mummy, I’m having such a nice time’. ‘I wish we could do this day forever and ever!’ If I’d have known that this kind of loveliness would be the reward for year three, I’d have kept my chin up rather better than I did.

Because you are lovely, Hen, quite unexpectedly. I don’t mean that to sound like an insult – I mean that you are such a stubborn, inquisitive, emotional boy that you have often brushed your way through the world like a porcupine with all its quills out. Interested in everything, refusing to back down if you feel you’re in the right, never moving with the crowd for the sake of moving. Honestly, it can be (has been) frustrating having a child who is so resolutely not a people-pleaser. You are yourself, always. You mean everything sincerely. You will not perform. At school we had to find other motivations for you to try hard other than ‘your teacher will be pleased’, which left you unmoved, as much as you loved your teachers. We settled on something like ‘getting better at things makes me feel good’. These days I feel like this total, self-contained integrity will be one of your greatest strengths.

(I don’t want ’emotional’ to sound like an insult either: another one of your superpowers is that you can always articulate exactly what you’re feeling and sense what others are feeling too. That’s pretty rare, and very valuable.)

But then yes, in the past year – loveliness too. More calm, more logic. More space for your natural sense of humour to hold sway. You have let your brother keep one of your new birthday toys in his sticky fist all day, without complaint. The other day he fell over in the park, and I looked up to find you guiding him tenderly down the stairs towards me, so I could help him. (You also bicker A LOT; I mean, we’re not in Utopia here.) You are still obsessed with dinosaurs, bikes, books, sausage pie – but now you prefer showers to baths, hoodies to jumpers, cereal to porridge, and those vaguely hideous dinosaur trainers to basically everything else on the planet.

And you talk. Constantly, hungrily, melodramatically. You pick up words and facts from obscure places and bring them out later, much to our surprise. One day you appear in the doorway holding your arm and screeching ‘Teddy! You did that on real big purpose!’ Or when I’m trying to convince you to wear a winter hat: ‘I’ll never be with you if you force me to wear things. YOU FORCER’. The next day you’re refusing to go to bed until we’ve read the encyclopaedia page on the Industrial Revolution (‘Ohhh. I’ve been thinking about that.’ ‘You’ve been thinking about…the Industrial Revolution?’ ‘Yes! All the time!’) and correctly identifying, after an internal rummage, a duck-billed platypus in the Natural History Museum (‘How did you know that?’ *shrug* ‘Oh, I dust picked it up somewhere.’).

Anyway, on you go. Back to school in September, and no longer the baby. Buying a bike tomorrow with your birthday money, with no stabilisers. I exclaim twice a minute how big you are – this must get annoying – but really, Hen, I’m not sad about it. You child of my heart; you beloved, vulnerable, fiercely defiant boy. You are growing into yourself all the time. And you’re making, oh, such a wonderful job of it. I am so proud. I look at you sometimes and I can barely breathe for it.

Happy fifth, with much love.

Your mother.

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Something to bake (with kids): strawberry cheesecake muffins

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Sometimes you bake with kids and it’s a dream. They get on well, they take turns, everyone’s laughing and just a little flour-smudged in a photogenic way, like you’re in a Cath Kidston advert and someone’s about to present you with a lifetime supply of floral patterns.

Then other times you bake with kids and they screech and elbow each other and drop eggs and poke dirty fingers into the mixture and throw flour around by the bucketload. Generally speaking, if I post something about baking and the boys are in the photos from the start, we’ve had the Cath Kidston scenario. If they’re only in the last photo, eating the cake, then…it was a crapocolypse.

You may draw your own conclusions from the photos below.

Still! Flour-flinging aside, these strawberry cheesecake muffins are great to make with little ones. Like most muffins, the method is simple enough; the assembly involves enough detail to be interesting but not so much that they can get it wrong. I will defend my lacklustre Muffin Feelings to the death: they give you a sky-high calorie hit for what is, let’s face it, a pretty uninteresting mouthful of crumbs. I’d rather have proper squishy cake or pie any old day of the week. But these are delicious, and less stodgy than they should be because of the surprise strawberry-and-cheesecake filling baked into the middle.

The recipe is here (weirdly, this sad little misspelled page is the only version of it I can find online, but it must be an official BBC Good Food bake, since it’s in my book). Mix your wet and dry ingredients separately, then combine. Apparently you should mix sparingly after that, because the less you touch it the lighter the muffins will be. I always find it difficult to overcome my fear of leaving lumps in things – a hangover from a lifetime of making Yorkshire puddings, I reckon – but in this case you have the universe’s permission to leave the lumps just chilling in there. Outrageous.

Then comes the assembly: fill half the case with batter, then get your willing children to push in strawberry halves with chubby fingers. Tell them every time not to push the strawberry to the bottom, then watch as they push the strawberry to the bottom. Add a spoonful of the cheesecake mixture, then top with more muffin batter.

They take fifteen minutes in a hot oven and come out as proud and glorious golden mounds. You’ll be tempted to eat them immediately, but remember that there’s a boiled strawberry lurking in the middle somewhere, and it’ll be like sticking your tongue into a volcano. Wait ten minutes. Then eat with caution, and many ‘mmm’ noises.

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All the Feelings I Had During Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in Order

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Jamie Parker as Harry Potter. Photo: Manuel Harlan

WARNING: this post contains the sort of mild, vague-detail spoilers that you can find in any of the newspaper reviews that came out this week. You may wish to be completely unspoiled till the script comes out on Sunday, and if so, you have my hearty permission to withdraw. 

It’s been three weeks since we went to London and saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and I still think about it once every other day, probably. Sat in the nosebleed seats at the crumbly-Victorian Palace Theatre, all gold leaf and red velvet, I listened to a group of students behind us having self-consciously arty conversation, and the couple in their mid-forties on our right talking about DIY, and thought how strange it was that Harry Potter had gathered us all here in one place. Had the lady next to me read Deathly Hallows on the Tube, in one of those subdued-cover adult editions so as to draw less attention? Had the kids in their early twenties followed Harry and Voldemort from the moment they were old enough to read? I wondered this because, as the lights went down and rose again on Platform 9 3/4, a great, collective gasp went up from the audience, whoever they were: a sort of yearning, joyful, bittersweet nostalgia. We were back, after years of being away.

It took only a few minutes for the old characters to reassert themselves. Jamie Parker was recognisably Harry, Harry with twenty years under his belt: still damaged, heroic, emotional, sometimes bullish to the point of being obnoxious. (There was a moment towards the end of Part One when he went Full Book Five Harry. And we all thought ‘Man. We don’t miss Book Five Harry’.) Noma Dumezweni made a calmly authoritative Hermione, clearly having spent a couple of decades Getting Stuff Done. Paul Thornley is a loose and hilarious Ron: still wise-cracking, still clumsily sincere. Ginny (Poppy Miller) and Draco (Alex Price) got a little less room to breathe, but still established their characters and gave a sense of growth and change.

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Paul Thornley as Ron Weasley and Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The new characters had a tougher sell, having to create a personality in a few strokes without a wave of audience goodwill to ride on. They were wonderful: Rose Weasley (Cherrelle Skeete) fiery and stubborn; Albus Potter (Sam Clemmett) totally convincing as a prickly, whiny fifteen-year-old resenting his famous father’s legacy; Scorpius Malfoy (Anthony Boyle) a sweet, nerdy goofball who got huge laughs every time he opened his mouth.

The plot (without giving any important details away) takes the form of a complex, time-travelling quest full of alternative realities, prophecies, hauntings and the return of friends and foes. There were enough revelations to power a million new Tumblr posts, and we all gasped in unison and clutched each other’s hands. There were several moments where beloved, long-lost characters walked back on stage and the entire audience let out cries of welcome and sadness. Characters resolved old issues and laid lingering demons to rest. I’m making it sound like an emotional orgy. Imagine thousands of Potterheads together, reading a new, eighth book aloud: it sort of was.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

What really made it, though, were the special effects. The movies let you see the magic, of course, but you’re always at a remove, on the other side of the screen. Watching magic in front of your eyes is something else. Actors changing instantly into wizard’s robes, taking Polyjuice potion, leaping up and down moving staircases, using the secret entrance to the Ministry of Magic, having a magic duel, complete with flying chairs, flashes and bangs: all so delightful that our mouths fell open. Other set pieces – a dreamy underwater scene, a fiery Patronus dancing in the dark, Dementors extending skeletal hands from fluttering cloaks – were so atmospherically beautiful we held our breaths until they were done.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

It was the very thing. The real thing. It did what books and theatre do better than any other medium, I think: it brought Harry Potter back to life around us, letting us back into a world we’d left years ago, returning to find that everything was different, but still, essentially and marvellously, just the same.

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2many feelings 2handle.

250 000 more seats are being released on 4th August (for shows in 2017). GET SOME, even if you have to pay in blood.

I prefer my summers in the key of Military Operation: don’t judge

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I am now physically incapable of saying ‘THSUMMER!’ without that Olaf-style lisp and intonation, which is a neat coincidence because we’ve also spent a lot of our time melting since H broke up for the holidays. Oof, July! Bring on the heat! Before August crashes in with thirty-one straight days of grey drizzle, that old dog!

I have poor memories of last summer, and I think it’s because I didn’t appreciate how long six weeks would feel without a plan. It rained a lot and we drifted too much. I am convinced that you need to spend your summer-with-children doing exactly what helps you maintain the most robust level of sanity. If that’s pyjamas till eleven every day, do that. If it’s TV time while you work, do that. For me, I need to get out. Plan trips, pack picnics. Plan rests, too. I want routine, even when it’s a slow and lazy one. Judging by how many times a day H asks me what we’re doing next, so does he. So this summer I have made one.

I wrote a giant list of local activities we could do in the sun or rain. I made reading charts for H (and PLEASE POO IN THE TOILET charts for T, but that’s by-the-by). I bought in pound-shop craft supplies. I coloured in my lists, because I am a nerrrrrd. Then I set up a little routine where, four days a week, we’d go on adventures in the morning, H would read with me while T had his nap, then spend late afternoons playing with toys and watching TV. On Friday we stay local, visit the library, bake if I’m feeling like a masochist, and hang around in pyjamas for a bit longer. I have been finding cushions of time to read, exercise and do bits of work (though mostly doing work in the evenings so far). We’ll probably end up switching it around when we find what works better, but that seemed like a good place to start.

I made an Instagram hashtag too, but that’s between me and my personal embarrassment.

Anyway, I’ll be posting some of what we do here, mostly so I can remember it and adjust it for next time, but if any of you are Royal County-dwellers, there might be some ideas here too.

Did I mention we now have a local IKEA, and now both boys are old enough to go into their soft play area? Not planning on abusing this AT ALL, but where’s my Kindle, no, I’m not asking for any reason, it’s cool.

On Thursday we spent the morning at Basildon Park. They set up a ball run every summer, and you can bring your own tennis ball to do it – though if you need a new one, TEDDY, it’s a frankly outrageous £3. There are a couple of stations hidden in the woodland walks, too, which persuaded them round one of the trails. We avoid the house, for now. Don’t set grubby boys loose in Netherfield, is the first rule of visiting Netherfield.

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This was strung up in the entrance hall. The lady at the desk thought I was the weirdest person ever for taking a photo, which, COME ON. This biz has Instagram all over it.

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Yes, milord.

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Hey gardeners, tell me the secret of not killing plants! TY, TY.

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Yeah, see above.

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Picnic dudes.

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Ahhhh. That’s better, isn’t it?

Keep up with us on Instagram, if you feel like it! (@makealongstoryshort) Next time, cakes. Masochism: I went there.

September. July.

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September. July.

It’s done. It’s all done. There I am, waiting at the school gate for the last time in his first year, next to women I have come to love. And here he comes in a queue of friends, crumpled book bag slung over his shoulder, shirt filthy and untucked, skinny legs tanned in the shorts he insisted on wearing every day in summer term.

We have had anxieties aplenty since September – weeks where he cried every morning at the school gate and raged every evening at home, where I worried about him getting dressed for PE and whether he had anyone to play with. Mostly he has grown. Always a fact-hoarder, he came home every day fizzing with them – ‘Mummy, did you know that cabbages have heads?’ ‘Mummy, did you know that a butterfly would drink your blood because there’s so much sugar in it?’ He is ploughing through reading books and counting to one hundred. He has done Sports Day, costume days, assemblies, school trips on coaches, and has sung his little heart out as a pirate in an end-of-term play.

On the way home from the performance, he asked me – wonder in his voice – whether I knew that he was quite good at singing, actually? His teachers have done that for him, this boy who daren’t draw attention to himself in a crowd: they’ve told him he can raise his voice.

I wonder if every year will be like this, whether I will be as grateful and as awed by his teachers as I have been so far, whether he will continue to make leaps that are beyond anything I have envisioned for him. His first year at school hasn’t been about me at all, but I’ve got something from it all the same: the understanding that he is far more capable than my fears have allowed me to believe; the dawning realisation, breathtaking and lovely, that he has higher, and further, and further still to go.

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Why Trump was the last straw that poked me off Facebook

 

Bless this Scottish legend. We were all with you in spirit.

Bless this Scottish balloon-wielder. We were all with you in spirit.

It was Donald Trump wot did it.

Did what? Oh, well, aside from bringing incendiary fascism into public discourse, cultivating a urine-flavoured candyfloss hairstyle, and delivering all his speeches in a voice that sounds like an old man farting into a set of bagpipes, which you’d think would be enough to be going on with – he was also the last straw that poked me off Facebook.

I don’t mean the Facebook ‘avoidance’ I’ve been practising for a year or so, where I delete the app from my phone and ten minutes later open the page in Safari. I mean that I use it for a couple of essential pages (this blog’s page being one of them) and have ceremoniously deleted everything else. Including my entire News Feed. Oh my giddy aunt, it actually feels good.

I’ve been a loyal Facebooker since its early days, where all your statuses had to begin with ‘Rachel is’ (there’s a grammatical tangle-in-waiting) and that was about all there was to do. It’s been a useful thing for me. For every auto-playing Russian video or SHARE IF YOU TOO HAVE A SON MADE OF RAINBOWS meme, there was a baby announcement from a friend I don’t see often enough. Or a photo album from family halfway across the world. Irreplaceable things. Real things. But then Facebook started putting posts your friends have liked on the News Feed. And that meant an unavoidable crapstorm of opinions.

Surely (I thought) it’s not true that I like people less when I know their take on current affairs? I don’t think it is. It’s just that normally, you find out people’s opinions in very small doses. Face-to-face, and if you happen to be talking about it. Even with your friends, that happens relatively rarely. ‘Oh dear’, you might think. ‘My friend is somewhere else on the political spectrum. Oh well, they have many delightful qualities and, since we’re in conversation, we can find some common ground’. You are both considering what you’re saying, and saying it deliberately. This is how it is meant to be. Unless your friend is a newspaper columnist, that’s how it’s always been.

Then once Facebook changed their algorithms, second-hand opinions were all over the place. At first, this is only mildly annoying: ‘Oh, my friend has a friend I’ve never heard of and that friend is having a baby shower, and my friend has marked this with a Love’, you think. ‘Unnecessary information for me. But good for them’.

Then someone that you knew in high school and didn’t like all that much to begin with has a spouse who went to a party and was photographed in various stages of ‘banter’. She has Liked all these photographs. You have not spoken to your acquaintance in fifteen years. You have never met their spouse. You did not go to the party, though if you had you would have been strongly tempted to whack the spouse in the chops with their own comedy inflatable. Why is this in your News Feed, you think. You have already spent too long thinking about this party. Was the party imaginary? What is the point of your life?

Then, heaven forbid, something controversial happens in the political sphere. Someone you know likes a ranty post that makes all the points you disagree with. You feel a bit nauseated. Do they really think like this, you wonder. All the time? People – myself included – will like a post that says things that are more strident or extreme than anything they’d put on their own wall. Sometimes the posts that are liked are racist. Sometimes they are offensive. Doesn’t matter whether your Facebook friend said them or not: all of them appear on your News Feed, with their name attached.

The time this was a bigoted rant by Donald Trump, liked by someone I like in real life, something deep inside snapped in half. YOU ARE A TRUMP SUPPORTER, FRIEND. AND NOW HE IS ON MY NEWS FEED. IT’S LIKE YOU CAME OVER TO MY HOUSE AND SMEARED DOG FAECES ON MY FRONT DOOR AND THEN MADE ME COME AND SMELL IT.

I took a good look at my feed and counted the last twenty posts. Five of them were actual things my friends had written. Fifteen were posts they had liked, that had nothing to do with them or me. So I checked that I was following enough people on Instagram, and decided to jump the blue ship.

I tell you, it’s made me feel so much better. (I didn’t even mention the fact that I have zero self-control when it comes to social media, so I also have a zillion hours more free time.) I thought it would be difficult – and I was lamentably behind on the new Reading IKEA news – but it’s honestly been more of a relief than I imagined.

I kind of miss the Russian dude making his dog lip-sync Happy Birthday. Remind me to look him up on YouTube.

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no I’m blooming well not

 

When a dinosaur comes to a party, it wears its best hat

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Birthday fortnight is over. Well, not really – H’s birthday is still to come next month, though because he’s blown out a glittery ‘5’ candle, he’s convinced he already is. And I say: fair enough. You can be five for a few sneaky weeks. Five is great.

It seemed like a good idea to move H’s party forward to before the end of term, to catch his friends before they went on holiday. He’d asked for a party, after all – unusual for this beloved people-wary child – and since we weren’t sure how many years he’d want one, we wanted to make this one good. Until we realised that we’d scheduled two consecutive party weekends for ourselves, which is the sort of way madness resides.

He chose a dinosaur theme. He wants to be a palaeontologist – he can pronounce this better than I can spell it – and most days I have a scheduled bare-feet run-in with a tiny rubber ceratosaurus and some muffled howling. So I went and drowned myself in Pinterest for a few days, spent a few more days whimpering at the extravaganzas on Pinterest, then chose a few decoration and game ideas I thought I might be able to do. I even made a spider diagram. This was getting SERIOUS.

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A word to the wise: even the simplest home-grown party is going to cost you some money. Party bags, my guys. Party bags. I know for a fact that when H comes home with a party bag full of small plastic bits, he is thrilled to his core while I’m only waiting a couple of days before I can quietly slide it all into the bin. It seems silly to spend money on them. But buy anything twenty times, let alone five or six things, and you’ll be weeping soft tears at the checkout regardless. In the end I was lucky, and found most of what I needed in pound shops and sales. You just have to suck it up.  I got these little paper bags from Party Pieces in red and green, and they were great: sturdy, and not so big that you felt the pressure to over-fill them.

So here we go. We’d hired our local village hall – inexpensive, roomy and with a good stock of child-sized tables and chairs – and arrived there with decorations to set up. I loved these balloon dinosaurs I found on the ole internet, and they really were easy enough to do: I wasn’t sure that sellotape would hold the arms and legs on, but it did. I hole-punched their heads in strategic places, and Tim strung them up in the air with sewing thread. Marvellous.

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I also spent a full hour of my adult life making tiny party hats for our larger dinosaurs. I did kiiind of feel like something had gone a bit wrong at this point – OR WAS IT VERY RIGHT – but hey. We got two helium balloons to tie onto their tiny claws, and they sat as centrepieces for the tables looking like they were terribly glad it was H’s birthday.

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I was lucky enough to find this set of dinosaur tableware – cups, napkins, and lovely straws – on sale a couple of days before. Why do kids get all the best party gear?! We’ve got some straws left over, and every now and again I use one so that my drink can feel ferocious.

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We played four games: a pin-the-horn-on-the-triceratops, a dinosaur egg-and-spoon race, a pass the parcel and a version of musical statues where they danced like dinosaurs and froze into fossils. It all sounded a bit cheeseball on paper, but with seventeen four- and five-year-olds leaping around, it was seriously adorable. Then we finished with a T-Rex pinata – a terrifying, crumpled beast we found on Amazon that was made, apparently and unfortunately, from strengthened steel. No matter. They had a whale of a time beating the heck out of it.

H's new photo face: look like someone's died. Think it'll catch on?

H’s new photo face: look like someone’s died. Think it’ll catch on?

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Making the cake was my favourite part. H has dedicated tastes when it comes to cake, and every year requests a chocolate cake as though he’s never eaten one before. So I used our old reliable standard, the Cake Hunter’s Ultimate Chocolate Cake, and put one of our behatted dinosaurs on top, holding a Happy Birthday sign. It cheered me up for days, honestly. Who knew that festive dinosaurs were such a tonic.

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By the time we got to the party, I’d been thinking about it for several weeks, and was starting to wonder if it was going to be more trouble than it was worth. But his face: surrounded by friends, feeling like the cool kid. I will never forget it. The next morning he woke up and said ‘I wish I could have slept at my party and had breakfast at my party and never left!’ When you’ve sat gluing spots onto party hats for toy dinosaurs and wondered how on earth you ended up here, those are the parts that remind you. Here you are, and here you should be. Pom-poms and all.

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A letter for three (for Teddy)

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Dear Teddy,

Today is your birthday, and you are three. You have just gone to sleep in fuzzy dinosaur pyjamas, so thoroughly squashed in by soft toys that you look like a pharaoh buried with treasure. You haven’t the heart to banish any of them to the toy box, so we come in later to dig you out. How you’ve escaped suffocation before now is, honestly, a mystery.

You’ve been the twoiest of two-year-olds, so it’s been strange watching Three steal over you, bit by bit. You’ve grown out of your rainbow wellies and nappies. You are pulling words from the air, spinning them into sentences that make you sound like a person. You make your toys talk to each other, acting out stories with dinosaurs and fire engines. You have – sorry – atrocious taste in television. You like to reminisce about things we did six months ago, and check whether I remember them too. What a peculiar and lovely thing, to have a memory for the first time, and only to remember the good things. It’s very like you. You love music, and when the song changes on the radio you pipe up from the back ‘hey, I like this one!’ Every time. That’s very like you too.

I can’t write about you without superlatives, Ted: you are the most joyous, most frustrating little thing. All fury and determination and happiness. Wild white-blonde hair, big eyes, a wide, easy smile. You talk and shout and screech and sing, so loudly I cringe for our neighbours. Some days we bash heads from morning till night, and I collapse at the end of it, exhausted. You are energetic, bursting with confidence that life is good and that people are glad to see you. You still burst into rooms shouting ‘I baaaaack!’, even if you’ve only been gone for thirty seconds. When I chat with passers-by on our way home, you grab Henry’s hand and interrupt ‘Um, excuse me, my name is Teddy and this is my brother, Henry’. The other day I looked up at the park to find that you were engaging a ten-year-old in conversation, introducing him to your brother, persuading him to push you on the swings. And I wasn’t surprised.

There’s nursery on the horizon in September. Uniforms, carpet time, new friends and new skills. So much change, so close, and you’ve no idea. I’m not afraid for you in the slightest. Making the best of new things is rather your strong point.

We can’t imagine what we did without you. Everything about us is better with you in it. You don’t let me sing your song to you very often anymore, but it turns out it was well chosen, after all.

You dream-maker,

you heart-breaker.

Wherever you’re going, we’re going your way.

Here’s to more of all of it (except, maybe, the tantrums and the Paw Patrol?). Happy birthday, little bear.

Much love,

your mother.

Photo 09-06-2016, 5 17 09 pm

 

If Brexit’s getting a bit much, here are three things you can watch instead

Oh, my loves. We’re all going to hell in a handcart, aren’t we? You could’ve been a junior writer in the tenth season of Lost, and you’d have rejected this weekend as a bit far-fetched. The pound gone off a cliff, the prime minister resigned, the opposition imploding, more money wiped from the markets than we would’ve paid in several decades of EU membership, every single ludicrous promise from the Leave side retracted by Friday lunchtime, and openly racist slurs being reported in their hundreds. I don’t know how it looks to you overseas readers but here, oh, we’re in so much pain. I watch the news, and hard, blind pain settles on my chest like a weight. I’ve remembered why grief is so often described as ‘suffocating’ (you’ll know this yourself, of course: everyone has a grief to call their own). It’s because it comes up suddenly from somewhere dark and deep, and presses on you so heavily that you can’t breathe.

We have to keep watching the news, because it won’t help to pretend this isn’t happening. In particular this ugly, ignorant strain of racism we’ve uncovered, this infestation of maggots we exposed when we kicked over the the old wood that hid them, needs stamping into oblivion. We owe them that, all the thousands of people who came here from other places and now prop up our health service, care for our elderly and generally get their hands dirty for our good.

But I am exhausted from rage and despair and fear. And sometimes you need a break from the news, somewhere to crawl into while your heart slows down. Here are three things to watch when Brexit gets a bit much.

Adele setting fire to Glastonbury

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It’s a difficult time to be proud of being British, but if anyone’s in our plus column, it’s Adele. Her 90-minute set at Glastonbury was total joy: she brought little girls out of the crowd to take selfies, interrupted herself to tell someone he looked just like Brian Harvey from East 17, and restarted a song after two bars because she wanted to sing it better. She’s like the best friend we all want who also happens to sing gorgeously emotional songs. I watched it this afternoon while working, and felt bathed in chummy solidarity. Make You Feel My Love was the bit where I cried. Where was yours?

It’s on iPlayer, here: Glastonbury part 3, and Adele comes on at about 74 minutes in.

A freaking wonderful documentary about the fall of Anne Boleyn

The hair, the HAIR.

The hair, the HAIR.

Give me poorly acted sepia reconstructions in period costume! Give me Fake Henry taking mass in slow motion and looking with dead fish eyes at Fake Anne Boleyn! Give me the Tudor Historians out in force! Alison Weir hates Cromwell with the fire of a thousand suns, so is here as usual going ‘IT WAS HIM, THE SNAKE’. Suzannah Lipscomb dripping with glorious hair and hand gestures. David Starkey rocking tiny yellow spectacles and dropping truth bombs about Henry all over. Hilary Mantel being Hilary Mantel, and the wisest and best creature on this earth. The machinations that went into bringing down Anne Boleyn were diabolical, and I LOVE them. I want to see a remake of the Avengers, only with Tudor historians bursting into buildings to examine old documents. David Starkey drop kicks the librarian while Alison Weir sets fire to Cromwell’s portrait. This treasure is on iPlayer, here.

Kilts and stubbly intrigue in Outlander

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I only knew one thing about Outlander before we started watching it on a whim on Friday night: that lots of people were out-of-their-heads obsessed with it. Now that we’re halfway through Season 1, I know why: it’s like X-chromosome crack. The first hour was a bit rambly and confusing, as gutsy nurse Claire and her husband Frank pootle around Inverness after the end of WW2. Then Claire touches some magic standing stones and they catapult her back to the 18th century, as standing stones do, the dogs! Trapped in a Scotland full of tartan, rolled r’s and misogyny, she ends up marrying a Highlander for Reasons. He’s called Jamie, but he might’s well be called This One’s For You, Female Viewers, with his kilt, canny combination of steel and adoration, and pecs that look like two hearty flesh basketballs jostling for position. He is like a tartan-clad puppy in human form. He is the 18th century’s answer to Channing Tatum. Poor old boring Frank wears mustard jumpers, and cannot compete. And then the vistas are sweeping, the relationships are more thoughtful than your average potboiler, and the costumes are gorgeous. There are rather too many histrionic sex scenes for this viewer – Outlander feels about nipples the way it feels about candles and mead: at least one in every other scene – and I spent the series middle with my finger on fast-forward as a result. But what will happen when we get to Culloden, eh? I CANNAE WAIT TO FIND OUT.

Outlander is on Amazon Prime, now, and also on DVD via Amazon.

Keep your chin up, dear ones. I don’t know how this is going to work out, but we’ll make the best of what we’ve got once we know where we’re going. And we’ve still got Adele. Don’t forget Adele.

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