Cake for breakfast

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And so we discover that time, that fickle mistress, halts for no man, and no matter how sunny your good looks are, EVEN YOU WILL BE TWENTY-NINE IN THE END.

Or, in other words, Tim had his birthday this week, which means I’m not the only one in this house officially on the short slide to thirty. HARDEE HAR HAR.

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We had a lovely day. We decided to keep Henry in nursery in the morning, because it would make it more likely that family naps could happen (and they did). But before that there were presents, bunting and cake for breakfast. I don’t know why we haven’t just done cake for breakfast every birthday morning before this, by the way. It makes everything better. Maybe it’s a special milestone in adulthood, being able to decide that cake is a meal without any regrets? If it is, we are there.

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I found this root beer float cake on Joy the Baker’s glorious site some time ago, and bookmarked it immediately for Tim’s birthday. He is the sort of chap who drinks his own weight in the stuff every time we head across the Atlantic. Last year my sister got him a boxful of different brands in murky brown bottles, and he sat us all down and conducted serious taste comparison tests. With a spreadsheet. Love him.

Anyway, it’s a fabulous cake – the root beer comes through quite beautifully, and not too strongly – and I am a convert to bundt tins, because no more ugly first slices. My version was a little rough and ready, mainly due to the fact that a) I made it at 11pm, and b) I can never be convinced that it’s worth the effort of sieving cocoa powder and icing sugar, until my frosting comes out in pimples, and then I remember that it is. To make it a proper root beer float cake I stacked Cornish vanilla ice cream into the hole in the middle, which I think is the best labour saving device invented since I gave up the sandwich and started just eating peanut butter and jam off the same spoon.

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We took the boys swimming in the afternoon, then around dinner time left them with Tim’s lovely mama to go on a birthday date. We tested out some digital radios for our kitchen in John Lewis, then went for obscenely good steak (mine came with beef dripping sauce. Hnnnnggghhhh) and watched Interstellar at the cinema, groaning from our overstuffed stomachs.

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Interstellar is astonishing. It almost tries to cram in too much, and has some usual Nolan problems (some clunky dialogue, a twist a minute). But the visuals, the themes, the scope of the thing, Matthew McConaughey’s beauteous craggy face…oh my. We were overwhelmed.

We have a happy day whenever this guy has a birthday. Like steak and root beer and the great McConaughey himself, he only gets better with age.

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The invisible soldier

I edited a book this summer and loved it. It was about the history of the LDS church in the St Albans area, but really it was about family history. I spent afternoon after afternoon looking at cracked and grainy photos of family groups, fascinated: Victorians in ruffled collars, navy men, women in fur coats with luminous eyes. And then there was Ernest.

There were two of Ernest, taken at the same time: one by himself, and the other with his wife and four tiny children. He is in his early thirties. He has a pencil moustache. His army uniform is so new you can almost see the starch. They took the photos, and then he left for the trenches. I imagine they took them in case that was the last piece of him they had.

It wasn’t, thankfully. He was lucky, or as lucky as you get when you’ve served at the Front. He came back, had another baby, resumed his life. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and sang in the choir. But his health was bad, now. Nine years after coming home from the mud and filth and gunfire, he was dead at 43. His oldest boy was fourteen, his baby only three. There are stories then about his son, forced to be the man of the house in his early teens. There are photos of them all as adults: the mother, the daughters, the son who had to take his father’s place before he was ready. The space where Ernest should be.

I read it, pushed away my computer, and sobbed, heartbroken. I won’t ever find Ernest’s name on a memorial, but the war came to find him just as surely as it found the boys in the fields. And so his wife, and his son, and his daughters were victims too. The war – this war, and all our wars – left fractures everywhere. So many of them were invisible, but no less painfully felt.

And so I find myself wearing a poppy this Remembrance Sunday because there are things I would say to Ernest if I could. I would tell him I was grateful. I would tell him that the life I lead is directly thanks to the choice he made to defend it. I would tell him they probably missed his voice like anything in the choir.

I would tell him that I remember.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
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We have a TV for the first time in seven years…but what on earth do we do with it?

Super good at proper screen distance.

Super good at maintaining proper screen distance.

I have had a very important evening. Mostly I have been Nodding Wisely While Tim Adjusts the TV Bracket. I am taking this task very seriously, because I have it on good authority that wonky TV brackets are the woooorst. And I have never had to think about TV brackets before, because we have never had a TV.

Ok, not never. We had a TV at home, growing up, and loved it like a fifth sibling. I know the Postman dance from SMTV Live, and on Thursdays I had special permission to stay up late so I could record episodes of Buffy onto VHS tapes, which we then watched until they were glitchy.

Tim really did never have a TV at home, a circumstance which has resulted in him knowing everything about everything, being able to play the drums in this incredibly hot fashion, and many exchanges like this:

Me: HAHAHA REMEMBER THAT EPISODE OF THUNDERCATS WHEN -

Tim: no

Me: oh, right.

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Lolololol

Anyway, by the time we got married I hadn’t had a TV since university, and so we just never bothered. We had a projector, lots of movies, and more catch-up TV than you could shake a stick at, and this made up for not being able to watch Embarrassing Bodies exactly when it aired. Once babies arrived, we had to work a bit harder to find programmes they might like – trying things out on iPlayer rather than stumbling across them by accident – but as baby problems go, that one rated way below keeping Henry in vests that didn’t smell of sick.

This house doesn’t have room for a projector, so for the first time in seven years, we have a TV, and a bracket, and CBeebies, and everything.

Kitted. Out.

But what is this thing called CBeebies? Why is it full of grown-ass people trying to show the camera every last one of their teeth? Why do they all talk like they’ve got an excited weasel bouncing on their diaphragms? What in the actual heck is going on with Grandpa in my Pocket?

There’s this thing called Swashbuckle, and I can’t decide whether I’m excited that the two lead pirate characters are both women, because women can run pirate crews and nick off with jewels too, yay, equality, or appalled at that hideously perky thing they’re all doing with their faces.

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oh my goodness STOP IT

The boys are enthralled, obviously. All this gurning is like toddler crack, and who am I to deny them a bit of harmless swashbuckling? I do, though, want some proper screen rules in place now that we need them. There’s a lot of good onscreen – not least an unlimited supply of Thundercats jokes – but I want them to use it, not have it use them.

At the moment they watch about an hour of TV while I make dinner – though that doesn’t include the emergency Sarah & Duck I put on for Teddy when he doesn’t want to nap, or the 5am Small Potatoes when he decides he’s had enough of sleeping, or the afternoons where I’ve got so behind we binge on Pixar instead of going to the park. I have a rule that we don’t watch anything that makes me feel ill (GRANDPA IN MY LUNATIC POCKET). I have another rule that there are no rules at all when anyone is cutting teeth or (when this was relevant) growing a foetus.

As with most things, I am tweaking and refashioning as we go, trying new strategies, keeping the ones that feel right and trying not to feel like I’m making things up as I go along. As with most things, this is not true.

What are the screen time rules in your house? Can your kids watch TV without having a gale-force meltdown when it’s time to turn it off? And can you get through Swashbuckle without wanting to throw up a bit in your mouth? 

PS, Sarah & Duck is gorgeous. Sarah & Duck can stay on this TV all day long if it wants. Do not mess with Sarah & Duck. 

Deathly Hallows (Eve)

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I’m not sure I can pinpoint when Halloween became a thing over here. We’ve always had trick-or-treaters at our house, but fifteen years ago they were hopeful teenagers wearing bin bags (and, in proper and respectful tribute to their dressing-up efforts, we gave them either a) 10p, b) a slice of bread, or c) the cold shoulder). Now the supermarkets have whole aisles devoted to blood-stained scythes, and our neighbour wished us ‘happy Halloween!’ when we passed her in the street. She’s middle-aged with no little kids, and it might be the first time we’ve spoken to her. Granted, we were wearing Harry Potter costumes at the time. But still. We’re into Halloween now! It’s a thing!

I don’t like the blood stains. But I do rather like the rest of it.

Costumes, though. Suddenly I need to think of two, and can’t get away with skeleton babygros or Spiderman pyjamas. I am not crafty and – sorry – can’t be bothered to get involved with needle and thread. Thankfully Henry requested a crocodile costume, and his father is the sort to say ‘hmm, I think I can do that’ and have a full-sized crocodile head made of cardboard on the kitchen floor when you get home.

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So, some green poster paint and white wood primer later (only the best materials in this house), and put together with green pyjama bottoms and a green t-shirt we’d found in the morning, Henry Rex was good to go. For Teddy I found a baby sailor suit at the bottom of his drawer, and for a while wondered whether Victorian Infant Triumphantly Surviving Cholera would be an acceptable entry. Thankfully we decided he looked a bit like a clown, and ran with that instead. Face paint and stripy tights, with helium balloons tied to his toddlebike, and this boy was ready to rock.

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Tim and I went as Harry and Hermione. I have a couple of sets of swishy robes left over from university (I will tell the indignant story about how we had to wear robes and a velvet tie to our exams some other time). And the tumbleweed hair I’m sporting at the moment kind of demands nothing else. Did you know Tim has a scar on his forehead in the exact place Harry has his? Tim’s might even have been put there by prophecy and a Dark Lord, I dunno. He says it was some French cellar steps, but we know the truth.

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I spent the afternoon making a cake for one of the costume prizes, tripping over small children demanding to lick out bowls, and having a nervous breakdown. Then it was costume time. And we ran into a bit of a disaster with the face paint. After all that grimacing at the fake blood in Tesco, it turns out that clown makeup + Teddy’s dribble = zombie clown with bloodstained bib. We were responsible for the tiny blonde boy staggering around the church hall looking like he’d eaten all his friends. And Halloween laughed and belly-laughed, because Halloween is a sucker for irony.

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By the way, the post-Halloween sugar crash? Something akin to rubbing sherbet all over a toddler’s face and sending him running face-first into a wall. By the next morning Henry was curled up on a bookshelf pretending to be a parcel. Do they make hallucinogenic Skittles, now? Because if so, count me in.

Jewels, grasses, chestnut shells

I am commemorating Autumn this year in the best way: by teaching the boys that ridiculous primary school song that pretends to be about autumn but is actually about jet planes and gratitude. You’re singing it already, aren’t you?

Autumn days when the grass is jewelled 

And the silk inside a chestnut shell

Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled (?!)

Oh the things I love so well

So I mustn’t forgeeeet (swaying)

No I mustn’t forgeeeeeeet (descant)

To say a GREAT BIG THANK YOU (fist pump)

I mustn’t forget

This is such an adorably dorkish song that everyone needs to learn it, so they can sing it while swishing their way through leaves on their way to nursery. I have never thought to be grateful for jet planes, personally, and didn’t know they refuel in midair (do they?), but it’s an autumn essential, so now you know. YouTube it!

Oh, and we went to pick a pumpkin on Saturday, which was brill.

You may remember, reader love, that we already had a pumpkin from Odds Farm Park. Two days after we got it home, I noticed a bit of spidery mould inside, and by the next morning it was pushing out of the eye holes like some grotesque fungal disease. Halloweenish, yes. Sanitary and toddler-appropriate, no. So that pumpkin ‘went on holiday’, and we went to Garsons Garden Centre with my brother- and sister-in-law to find a healthier one.

Garsons is a bit of a drive for us, but I really like it there. The pumpkin patch was much gloopier than last year, after the recent rains, but we’d come prepared with wellies so were totally devil-may-care about it. Teddy couldn’t decide whether he was more excited about the pumpkins or the free mud bath. Why choose, Teds? Pick both.

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We are the absolute winners of the family photo, though, aren’t we?

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Do you want to see something scary? This is us standing in the same spot, a year ago. I expect Teddy to have grown, since he’s leapt from baby to person this year, but Henry, oh, Henry. You are so much bigger now, and yet you’re still wearing that top. (Also, this photo looks like it was taken in the sixties. What kind of camera did I bring?!)

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Boy 1 loves his cousin. I tried hard to get a photo of the two of them, but they wouldn’t stand still long enough.
Finding a tree-star did the trick.

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After the pumpkin patch, there are two huge farm shops: one with fruit, veg and other food, and the other with everything else ever. There’s an expansive Christmas section where I got our special bauble for this year, and enough lovely toys and kitchenware to make your purse hurt.

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Don’t forget the mutant squash. I think that long chap is the one that can turn things to ice, and you know the two-headed monster is the one with the retractable claws.

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This sort of outing can only be rounded off with giant hot dogs and curly fries, and – luckily for us – it was.

Happy October! Wishing you jewelled grasses and jet planes in bulk.

Garsons Garden Centre, Esher, Surrey. I like Esher because Edward Seymour lived there once, but also because of the mutant squash. 

Three breakfasts

Friday

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Tim: Do you want any breakfast?
Me: [brushes hair]
[wangs Henry's shoes over shoulder]
[scrubs at Teddy's teeth]
[whips open pushchair]
No time no time no time
[door slam]

Saturday

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Tim: Do you want any breakfast?
Me: Ooh, yes please. Toast and a hot drink?
Thanks. I’ll eat it while I’m drying my hair.
[puts plate within easy reach]
What, Teddy? I’m just – just give me a – whattttt?
Come up here, then.
No, that’s my toast.
Alright, just a bit.
Noooo, you got jam on the carpet? Come here. It’s alright. Let’s get a wipe.
[puts uneaten toast on a high shelf, remembers it when running out of the door half an hour later]
Damn.

Sunday

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Tim: Do you want any breakfast?
Me: Ooh, yes please. Toast and a hot drink?
Yes, Hen, I can find your carriage.
Teddy, lovey, can we read this book once I’ve finished – ok. Quick then.
You need a wee? Good boy, let’s GO GO GO.
Well done. Let me finish my breakfast, and then I’ll go run your bath.
Are you being kind? HENRY GILES. ARE YOU BEING KIND.
What’s our rule, mm? If Teddy is crying, he…doesn’t like it. That’s right. Now do you have something to say?
Sorry for what?
Ok, great. Let me go and finish my…
[swigs cold hot chocolate]
Damn.

A baa-somely good day out

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I am sometimes guilty of trying to hurry my children into things they’re not ready for. (I don’t wish to point any fingers but, Roald Dahl Complete Works, I might just be looking at you.) We’ve visited so many farms and petting zoos since Henry was born, and all with the same result: animal terror, or animal indifference. No, I don’t want to feed them. No, I don’t want to stroke them. Let’s play in the playground instead.

This makes it all the sweeter when we realise he’s finally old enough to get excited about farm animals. We were lucky enough to be given a family day out to Odds Farm Park in High Wycombe this Saturday, and we all had a whale (sheep?) of a time. There were so many things to do that even Teddy, who isn’t keen on animals, was thrilled: a big barn with sheep, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs, animal shows, tractor rides, huge outdoor playgrounds, a big indoor soft play, go karts, mini electric tractors, and (during the weekends in October) pumpkin carving in time for Halloween. The best thing about all of this – as a person with tumbleweed hair – is that lots of it is indoors. Every time the rain appeared we retreated back inside to see the animals, or revisited the scary slides in the soft play area. This was bad for hair in another way, but it wasn’t wet.

Unless you had new wellies to try out. Then it was.

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Who do you think is enjoying themselves more here? It’s actually hard to say.

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SHEEP. We loved this. At other farms we’ve visited, the animals have been (understandably) skittish. These sheep are happy about everything: your camera, your face, the bag of food you’re holding, rainbows, kittens, brown paper packages, etc. Henry got right in there with hugs, and the sheep were all BRING IT ON, WE LOVE YOU.

Hiiiiiiiii.

Hiiiiiiiii.

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After the animals we had lunch in the cafe, and rioted in the soft play for a while. There were sections for bigger and smaller children, so both the boys had a lovely time. But the tractor ride was winner of the day. They were beside themselves.

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Even after all that, we had a lot of playground to cover. Sand! Water! Swings! Castles! Wouldn’t you love to be a playground designer? They have all the fun.

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I will be writing on the back of this photo ‘The Way You Were In 2014′, since it has them both to a T. Henry, wandering lonely as a cloud. Teddy, the beast.

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We visited the pumpkin tent just before going home. Jack Skellington says hello.

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There were lots of things we didn’t get to see, too. The place seems endless. Now, it’s not cheap, so I’d recommend planning a full day with packed lunch to get your money’s worth. And the loos could use a revamp. But the activities were so varied and so exciting that we’d love to go back again. Apart from anything else, we promised that sheep we’d let him know how his headshot turned out.

Odds Farm Park, Wooburn Green, High Wycombe. They were nice enough to give us a free family ticket, but our (enthusiastic) opinions are our own. I mean. Just look at that face.

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