Category Archives: The Culture Desk

Five books…to help with starting school

Five books to help with starting school

Thanks to commenter Rachel for this suggestion!

Right, we’re on the countdown now, aren’t we? Two weeks left to buy all of H’s uniform, get his feet measured for shoes, practice writing his name and cry a bit into my pillow at night. We’ve talked a lot about starting school, and he’s been for a practice morning, but we’ve still got a whole avalanche of newness coming towards us.

I think there’s nothing like a picture book to help a preschooler visualise change. It means that when the first day comes, even the new things are a little familiar. Reading about it has helped both of us to get used to – and excited about – the idea. Here are our five best books about starting school.

Lucy and Tom Go to School, by Shirley Hughes

Lucy and Tom

We got this one from the library just the other week. Honestly, is there any better comfort-author than the lovely Hughes? We love the Alfie books, and one of my favourite poem-and-story books of all time is her Out and About. Lucy and Tom Go to School is a brilliant introduction to the change when one sibling is old enough to start school, and the other isn’t. The classroom in the illustrations looks just like the one I remember from my own primary school: peg, ‘home corner’ and all. Gorgeous.

 

Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School, by Ian Whybrow

harry and the dinosaurs

The Harry and the Dinosaurs series is always a favourite here: the illustrations are colourful and fun, the stories tend to have an undercurrent of sly family humour, and of course anything with dinosaurs in it gets an automatic stamp of approval. We enjoyed this one very much: Harry isn’t sure about his first day at school, especially when he has to go into his classroom without the dinosaurs. But then he makes a new friend, the dinosaurs come to the rescue, and everyone has a jolly old time. I’m impressed by Harry’s four-year-old drawing at the end, by the way. In this house we’re lucky if we get semi-coherent scribbles.

 

Charlie and Lola: I am Too Absolutely Small for School, by Lauren Child

Chalie and Lola

In this book, Lola is finally ready to start school – phew, thinks Charlie, a bit less underage childcare for me – but she’s not convinced she’s big enough. As ever, while she raises objection after objection, good old Charlie talks her out of them with wit and patience. And Lola has a marvellous first day. The usual creative illustrations, fabulous wallpaper, and true-to-life toddler speak from Lauren Child. It’s beautifully produced. Can Charlie come and live at my house?

 

Starting School, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Starting schoolIf you really want to get inside a school-aged child’s head, go to the Ahlbergs. Please Mrs Butler – still on my shelf, and just about in one piece! – was one of the first books that showed me poems can be relevant and fun for children. Some of the first poetry I memorised, too. This one is great too, particularly if you have a detail-oriented child who wants to know the specifics of absolutely everything (*raises hand*). It’s quite methodical and not the most dynamic of reads. But it takes in just about everything a child will encounter in that first year, and is invaluable for that. Lovely illustrations too.

 

First Day, by Andrew Daddo

First Day

I have been trying hard to get hold of this one after it was recommended to me, and so I recommend it to you in turn: if you find a second-hand one on Amazon or eBay, snap it up! From what I’ve been able to see, it’s a book about first day nerves written with humour and warmth, and the illustrations are distinctive and beautiful. And apparently there’s a twist at the end. What is it?! I must know. I’ll keep looking.

 

 

 

Happy reading! And hey, good luck to all of us with new starters this September. Our kids will be fine. And with the judicious application of cake and hot chocolate, so will we.

 

Five books…with jaw-dropping illustrations

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I always think books for preschoolers have an extremely sensible ratio of words to pictures. And the pictures are everything to the under-five crowd. Have a look at their faces the next time you’re reading one with striking, colourful illustrations. Their jaw drops. They can’t resist touching the page with their fingers, like they want to jump inside (confession: I do this too). Lovely artwork can make up for a lacklustre story, but when the words are good and the pictures transporting, the whole thing comes alive.

I make a habit of hunting out books with gorgeous pictures. I can’t help it. They’re a thing of beauty, and I like having beautiful things on our shelves.

Here are five books with jaw-dropping illustrations we love extra-hard:

Lion and Mouse, by Catalina Echeverri

Lion and Mouse

Lion thought he was much better than Mouse in every way. 

And he said so. 

All day. Every day.’

This is a funny, wise story about an impressive Lion who can’t stop going on about himself, until he needs help from his small friend Mouse. But the pictures! The animals are drawn in a quirky, humorous style, with tons of pattern and colour. The back page is the best, trust me. I always say ‘ooohhhh’. I haven’t seen this book out and about much; we brought it back for H from Paris a couple of years ago. The first-time author-illustrator deserves to be better known.

 

The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers

Heart in the Bottle ‘Once there was a girl, much like any other,

whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.’

I couldn’t write a list of illustration books without including one from the mighty Jeffers. His ‘Once there was a boy’ series (How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, Up and Down, The Way Back Home) is probably the best place to start for younger listeners, and those illustrations are out of this world. But The Heart and the Bottle is just stunning. It tells the story of a little girl interested in everything, until she experiences a deep loss and shuts herself away. The way Jeffers draws what’s happening in her head is touching and lovely. I dare you not to cry. Double dare you.

 

London ABC, by Ben Hawkes

London ABC

We love London. Our boys love going there too, so this is a delight. Fantastic for very young readers, it’s the illustrations that make it. You can follow the penguin as he escapes from the Zoo and tours the city, trying his hand at a bit of Shakespeare (G is for Globe!) and waving a flag at the Olympics (S is for Stadium!) as well as hitting the usual tourist spots like B-is-for-Big-Ben and N-is-for-Nelson’s-Column. On each page there are other things beginning with the same letter, and at the end there’s a long list of London landmarks to visit.

 

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark

‘You might be afraid of the dark,

but the dark is not afraid of you.’

If you were a teenage Lemony Snicket fan like I was, the discovery that he’s moved into picture books might make you a bit dizzy with happiness. This is a cracker: poetic, unusual, and totally unlike anything else I’ve seen on preschooler shelves. Lazlo is afraid of the dark, and one night it comes to find him. The illustrations convey dark and light – angular torch light, the particular orange light at sunset – perfectly. Honestly, the boys can’t keep their eyes off it. GET IT. GET IT NOW.

 

Augustus and His Smile, by Catherine Rayner

Augustus and His Smile

‘He swam to the bottom of the deepest oceans

And splished and splashed with shoals of tiny fish.’

This book won Best New Illustrator in the Booktrust Early Years awards, and you can see why: it’s beautiful. Oh, just so beautiful. Augustus the tiger wakes up and has lost his smile, so he goes exploring all over the world to find it again. Seas, jungles, deserts and rainstorms are depicted in vivid colour, and Augustus himself is a whiskery orange marvel. I can’t really do justice to how lovely this is, but you can put it into Google Images and see for yourself.

 

Go forth and read, book-hunters!

Previous ‘Five Books…’ posts are here.

From Hay Festival, with love and venison

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Greetings from the sick bay! Honestly, small children get bugs so often that it’s a good job we’re not Tudors, because we’d always be hanging up herbs over the door. Since they eat a reasonable amount of fruit and veg and spend a lot of time outdoors, I have to conclude that their immune systems are going through an experimental phase. Trying out every new virus that floats by, in addition to getting a nose piercing that doesn’t suit them and listening to grunge.

Silver linings, though: poor H is no longer throwing up and is at the ‘lying dolefully in bed watching Netflix’ stage of things, which means I’m sat next to him, monitoring his temperature and (CRUCIALLY) not having to move much. In fact I’m reminiscing about the weekend at Hay Festival we just had. Which was, as is tradition, wonderful.

Have you ever been somewhere that feels so much like it was made for you, you never want to leave? I feel that way about Hay-on-Wye. Who decided to build a little town up the slopes of green Welsh hills, all warm stone, pretty cottage doors, and views of the lazy river moving sluggishly through the valley below? Who thought that what this little town really needed was an abundance of book and antique shops, with the occasional ice cream parlour to break up the nerdery? Who decided to hold an arts festival there, and invite all the people you love violently to talk books at you for hours? Who put an old-timey Ferris wheel by the river and lit it up at night? It wasn’t me, but it could have been. I love it so much it’s embarrassing.

This year our fantastic boy-watchers, days off work, finances and lack of foetuses all combined to let us do what we’ve been planning for ages, and camp overnight. We booked a little campsite halfway up the opposite side of the valley, and arrived to find they were waiting for us.

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Even a three-hour car journey is brilliant when you’re pretending to be young and free and unwrinkled, and no one is filling nappies or having a meltdown, and you’re listening to an old radio adaptation of the Narnia books and feeling all these twenty-year-old feelings, and you also can’t move for sugary snacks. TOOTH DECAY, WE OPEN OUR ARMS TO YOU.

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There’s Hay, on the other side. And the only rainstorm we saw the whole two days, which coincidentally happened to be the only half hour in which we were trying to put up a tent. #soggypants

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I do like a town with a mission statement. And a proper appreciation for bunting.

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The festival site is right at the other end of Hay, which handily means you end up walking miles and burning off your sugary snacks. Our first talk this year was David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas author, not comedian). He talked very thoughtfully and beautifully about writing complex plots at your kitchen table, and how joyful the process of writing is: put one phrase against another, a surprise here and a evocative word there, and add in some punctuation and pow, see what you’ve made! ‘Semicolons are like bow-ties’, he said. ‘Lots of them are overwhelming, but just one in the right place makes the whole thing pop’. YES. So now I want him to be my literary uncle, and ply him with cups of tea so we can sit in comfortable jumpers and talk for hours about adjectives. Can someone arrange this please, y/n.

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In between, we stopped in at the food tent (venison burgers or BUST), read newspapers in deck chairs, and literally could not stop ourselves doing this:

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Next came Marcus Brigstocke and Steve Punt talking about climate change – hilarious – and a quick wander into town for ice cream and hot chocolate.

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YES PLEASE *weeps*

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On the way back we found a path by the river, got a tiny bit lost but not too much, and surprised some sheep in a golden-green field, which was smashing.

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By this time it was getting dark, and the lights were all lit. Just the right sort of atmosphere to listen to Neil Gaiman talking affectionately about Terry Pratchett, and to cry a little into your sleeve, and to resolve to reread ‘Mort’ and be a better human as soon as possible.

We walked up the hill in the dark with the Ferris wheel lit up behind us, and a firework display just starting over the river. We rolled up into our airbed knowing that no one but the birds would wake us up the next day. And I remembered, as I always do at Hay Festival time of year, that we are people still, and we can talk about things other than potty-training, and that of all the boys I love with every part of me, I loved the one I married first and best.

Thanks, Hay. See you next year.

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Five books to…make your preschoolers happier

Five books to make your preschoolers happier

One of the best things about having kids is being able to hang out in the children’s section of Waterstones, oohing and ahhing at the picture books, without looking like an idiot. Assuming you’ve remembered to bring your kids with you, which I don’t always.

To parents that are reading the same five-page horror seventeen times a day, fist bumps to you, my friend. I’ve been there. Some children’s books are boring. Some are badly written, and you’d better hope your little loves don’t get attached to a book that’s both.

But just occasionally we find one that’s not only exciting and well plotted, but actively happy-making. A book that shows your preschooler things that will make them a better, more well-adjusted person. Whenever we find one of these I make a note, and buy them in for birthdays and Christmas.

Here are five of the best.

My Many Coloured Days, by Dr Seuss

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‘You’d be surprised how many ways I change
on different coloured days’.

The best of the Seusses, the very best. It’s a gorgeously-illustrated ramble about how different days come with different feelings…which feel like animals and colours too. So on green days you feel cool and quiet like a fish, purple days are like a sad and lonely dinosaur, and on black days you howl and scream like an angry wolf.

Why it’s great:

Is there a better message for the volatile, volcano-ish under-fives than ‘hey, emotions are ok’? They’re like that kid from Mean Girls who ‘just has a lot of feelings‘. I think a lot about raising emotionally literate boys in particular. This book makes them feel like it’s not the end of the world to have a wolf day.

 

Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds

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‘And Ramon lived ish-fully ever after’.

Ramon has a problem: he’s an artist, but he’s so worried about drawing everything perfectly that he can no longer draw at all. It takes a word from his little sister to make him realise that drawing ‘something – ish’ is more than good enough…and all of his ideas come flying out again.

Why it’s great: 

This is a beautifully relatable story about creativity and sibling support…with an extra message about imperfect, messy things being the best of all. The illustrations are lovely, too.

 

Picasso’s Trousers, by Nicholas Allan

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‘He liked BLUE so he decided to paint pictures all blue. “You can’t paint ALL BLUE pictures”, they said’.

I flipping love this book. We just got it from the library, and I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to give it back. A story about Picasso, who did all sorts of brilliant things, because when everyone said ‘no, no, NO, Picasso!’ he said ‘yes!’ and did them anyway. Even when it came to his fashion choices.

Why it’s great:

A hilarious introduction to Picasso, Cubism and painting, plus some good stuff about following your bonkers dreams? Where do I sign up? H laughs all the way through, and he can now pick a Picasso painting out of a line up (‘look, Mummy, they are facing front and side at the same time!’).

 

Tadpole’s Promise, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

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‘Where the willow meets the water, a tadpole met a caterpillar’.

At the beginning of this dark and hysterically funny book, a tadpole falls in love with a caterpillar. The caterpillar makes him promise never to change…but, being a tadpole, that’s not so easy. An unusual love story with a jaw-dropping twist at the end. Tony Ross and Jeanne Willis are husband and wife, I hear, and they must have had many a belly laugh cooking this one up late at night.

Why it’s great: 

Seems a bit odd, perhaps, to include a black humour book on a list to make kids happier. Maybe it’s not for the very young or sensitive, but I think it’s great for them to hear stories occasionally where not everything works out at the end. And watching them find out that stories can take them to genuinely surprising places is a delight.

Aside: this couple also wrote ‘Grill Pan Eddy’, which was our best find of last year. Amazing rhymes. 

 

The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water, by Gemma Merino

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‘What he really liked was climbing trees! But nobody else did’. 

This one is a joy from start to finish. A little crocodile tries desperately to fit in with his swim-club-loving siblings, even saving up his money to buy himself a rubber ring, but he just doesn’t like water. Then comes the day when he finds out who he really is. The illustrations work as well as the words: the whole thing is funny and beautiful.

Why it’s great:

I’m about to out myself as a big loser, but when I get to the line ‘And this little crocodile wasn’t born to SWIM…’, and put all the discovery and wonder in my voice I want them to hear, I get a little tear. How many times might they feel like their talents don’t match everyone else’s? What kind of incredible thing might they be born to do instead? Gemma Merino is the writer and illustrator, and it’s her first book – on this evidence I’ll be looking for her second. She dedicates the book to ‘all those who still haven’t found their hidden talents’. AND THE TEAR IS BACK.

I’m planning to make ‘Five books…’ into a new series this year. Hope you like it, and look out for the next one! 

Also, if you liked this (or you just want me to stop going on about it), I’d be mega thrilled if you’d vote for me in the BiB awards Writer category! Click below and look for Make a Long Story Short!

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Fiction crushes I have had, in order of appropriateness

Mildly odd: Adam Dalgliesh

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(via BBC)

I LIKE A MAN WHO KNOWS HIS WAY AROUND A MURDER SCENE. Dalgliesh doesn’t have my heart like Hercule Poirot does, but he cuts a much more dashing figure in forensic overalls. He’s tall. He’s private. He writes tortured poetry. He drives a Jag. He is so clever it hurts and he lives in a fancy flat above the Thames where he never invites anyone except for me.

Pros: We would solve murders together in between tours of rural England, looking at medieval churches (this is his hobby but I want it to be mine too).

Cons: Like many literary detectives, he doesn’t age: between 1962 (Cover Her Face) and 2008 (The Private Patient, both amazing OH MY GOSH) he’s in permanent, unspecified early-forties. Immortal life partner relationships end in heartbreak or one-sided wrinkles, don’t they Buffy Summers?

 

Wouldn’t really work: Prince Caspian

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SWISH (via Buena Vista)

Stand back: this is where I confess to the INTERNET AT LARGE that I spent every night for about five or six years getting myself to sleep by making up new Voyage of the Dawn Treader stories. Prince Caspian! His ship and his armour and his bravery and his touching vulnerability! Tell me he’d still go after the star maiden if I was his adventuress-in-crime. TELL ME.

Pros: Sweet royal lifestyle in what is an essentially feudal society. Dresses, jewels, horses to ride and chat to, castle, surfeit of heroism.

Cons: Since I’d have lived through my teenage years twice (C.S. Lewis never goes into detail about how messed up the Pevensie children must have been, but he should have), we’d have to work through some issues. He’d be constantly trying to prove himself, I’d be dropping in pass-agg commentary about how I used to run Narnia in the golden age.

 

Destined for tragedy: Remus Lupin

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via Harry Potter wikia

I know, I know, he’s a werewolf. Also older, emotionally scarred, with a corrosive vein of self-loathing underneath the mild-mannered surface. And there’s also the thing where he marries Tonks, has a baby and then dies in the Battle of Hogwarts. So I think we’d probably just be long-standing friends that knew each other’s in-jokes, and I’d make his Wolfsbane potion without whinging every single month, and he’d drink it without gagging just to save my feelings.

Pros: Good Defence Against the Dark Arts skills. At weekends we’d go hunting Death Eaters and make our Patronuses run races against each other across fields of flowers.

Cons: Werewolf. Issues. Death. We covered this.

 

Historically implausible: Thomas Cromwell

via BBC

via BBC

Yes, I know he can be a cold-blooded power-player. He’s just so good at it. And funny, and sceptical, and he believes in teasing his wife and educating his daughters, and he plays Henry VIII like a fiddle for years, HENRY THE BLIMMING EIGHTH of all people, egotistical vibrant monster that he was, and Cromwell owns him and uses him to make England better. I am attracted to super-human competence (witness: my marriage) and Cromwell makes competence into a gorgeous symphony of getting crap done.

Pros: ability to take simmering revenge on anyone who had slighted me in the past. When Cromwell said, in the TV adaptation that I adored, ‘There’s no need to trouble God, George. I’ll take it in hand’. Did you get a feeling? I got a feeling.

Cons: I’m relying, of course, on Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell. In real life the sending-people-blithely-to-their-deaths thing might have got a bit much. Also, as much as I love history, the paucity of baths and abundance of plagues would have been a serious pain.

 

Special mention of awfulness: Will Parry

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via Knopf

I read The Subtle Knife when it was released, at twelve. Will Parry (the stoicism! The tender care for his mother! The oft-mentioned jutting chin!) was an obvious dreamboat. Of course, when you are twelve and Will Parry is twelve, it’s alright to have a crush on him. It becomes less alright when you are thirteen and he is twelve, and then you are fourteen and fifteen and he is – gag, horror – still twelve.

But why twelve, anyway? The entire readership only got through the love scene at the end by vigorously suppressing the fact that both protagonists were barely out of the H&M Kids section. I’m hoping the long-awaited Dark Materials sequel will have allowed him to get older, because LOVE SCENES BETWEEN TWELVE-YEAR-OLDS ARE WEIRD, PHILIP, NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS TO THE DUST AFTERWARDS.

 

Alright, you guys, this is a safe space. Any embarrassing fiction crushes you’ve had over the years? Roll ’em on out. Any Snape lovers in the audience? You can tell me, I won’t judge.

 

BritMums

How to listen to Elton John’s Greatest Hits, in ten easy steps

1. You might want to start with Your Song, or you might not. Your Song is as much Elton John as he is pudding-basin haircuts and insane eyewear; it is the only Elton you learned to play and you sing it in your mother’s voice and Your Song is in your veins. If you do start here, it’s quite normal to slide nicely into Tiny Dancer, which you do not understand. You imagine Tinkerbell, which is an abomination.

2. What the Sam Hill is Honky Cat. Skip. You are ambivalent about Rocket Man, and this life is too short for ambivalence. Skip. Crocodile Rock sounds like it was made for a toddler’s dance party. You have often used it for this purpose. It’s not a casual listening song. Skip.

3. Ah, here we are at Daniel, which is where you start if you don’t fancy starting with Your Song. You sing ‘Daaaaaniel you’re a staaaaaar’ in a pleasant lilt. You imagine Seventies Elton, sky-rocketing to the top of the music business so quickly he’s burning, all glam and glitter and concealed gayness, thinking that catching a flight to Spain is exotic. I mean. The seventies, right?

All birds were afraid in the seventies.

4. Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting gives you a headache. Skip. DO NOT EVER SKIP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, because you skipped it for years until you realised how brilliant it was, and you have made an oath never to make this mistake again. There’s a line about hunting a horny back toad. You do not really think Elton has ever hunted any kind of amphibian in his spare time, but you give him some dramatic licence.

5. Sometimes you bypass Candle in the Wind, because – sorry – you feel it has been forever candy-flossed by association with Princess Di. When you don’t skip it, imagine teenage Elton wanting to love Marilyn Monroe as a real person, and feel some feelings. Then shut those feelings down. Benny and the Jets is next. Repeat. BENNY AND THE JETS IS NEXT. You have a special dance for this one, and you don’t know whether the dance or the stuttering consonants or the mohair boots make it, but you are as cool as ICE when you sing this song.

6. You prefer the version of Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me with George Michael, as all right-thinking people do. Skip. Then keep on skipping till Someone Saved My Life Tonight. It’s a slow-burner, this one, and you start with low-key piano mime to the octave chords and end with air-drums, butterfly actions and anguished faces. This is living. Do not forget it.

7. Island Girl is meh. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is peppy. You watched the video for Don’t Go Breaking My Heart once, and all you can remember is their frantic, peppy faces and so much brown flared trouser you could have used Elton’s leg as a sleeping bag. You think for a minute about using Elton’s leg as a sleeping bag, and then feel weird. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word is only to be left on if you have ice cream to hand and the death of a pet to mourn. (EDIT: this was later cannibalised by Blue, I find. Of course it was.) 

8. This point exists only to remind you that we are still only six years after Your Song. SIX YEARS. Damn.

9. Disc Two is patchy. The eighties, a place of both shoulder pads and Thatcherism: highs and lows came with the territory. Stop quickly in countryville with Blue Eyes, then hop onto I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues. You are only allowed to sing this song if you do the line ‘rollllin’ like thunderrrr/ under the coooovers’ with special growly voice and slightly salacious face. One time you will catch a glimpse of this face in the mirror, and realise it’s the same face you use when presented with a really good, sharp cheese. The rest of the songs are optional till you get to Something About the Way You Look Tonight. In an ideal world this song would be played at your funeral, and all the mourners would cast themselves down and pound the flagstones in memory of your radiance. Then be served crackers and a good sharp cheese. You have left instructions to this effect.

Skagerak Arena June 2009

10.  The best is here, at the end, with the late songs. This is older Elton, weary Elton, ready-to-cut-the-crap-and-say-it-like-it-is Elton. Never forget that the video for I Want Love stars Robert Downey Jr before he was supernova-famous, lip syncing these poignant things all biceps and hollow cheeks, and it is hotter than the sun’s core. This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore is your favourite, and you love it for his exhaustion and his brutal honesty. You wish for nothing more in life than to sing the heck out of this song on a car journey and time it so the last notes play just as you pull in to your drive. Because this means you can ignore Song for Guy, all weird instrumentals and Elton creepily whispering ‘life’ over and over.

You find out it was written for a dead boy. Feel guilty. Skip.

Museums I have known and sprinted in, by Henry Jeffcoat

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I am a huge believer in kids and museums. Firstly, because I love museums, and if you can’t impose your likes and dislikes on your children while they’re too young to roll their eyes, well, when can you, eh? Secondly, because most of them are free, so I can buy us cake on the way out instead if we’ve got any spare change. And thirdly, because they’re only going to learn appropriate public behaviour if they get a chance to practice. I am as big a fan of soft play as the next rained-indoors mother, but let’s face it: all they learn there is survival of the fittest. It’s like a germy Lord of the Flies.

We do museums in London whenever we get chance – the ‘dinosaur you-seeum’ being our personal favourite, of course – but it’s not quite close enough to go often. But Reading has two jewels in its crown for pre-schoolers, and they’re only a short walkdrive away. The Museum of English Rural Life is a dream come true for transport-obsessed toddlers, and I’ve written about that one here. Today, we went to the other: Reading Museum, in the town hall, a gorgeous old redbrick building near the station.

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Every time we come here, I want to text everyone I know with children afterwards. It’s fantastic. The collection is quite small, and as random as anything: Reading historical artefacts on the ground floor, from the medieval abbey onwards; then a complete, full-sized replica of the Bayeux Tapestry on the first floor (more about this later); then art, stuffed animals and a Victorian schoolroom at the top. The best part, though, is the backpacks. Toddler-sized and colour-coded, you choose one you haven’t used before and take out the treasures inside one by one. Then there’s a question or quest attached to each item. Since Henry’s hobbies include backpack wearing and getting new toys, you can imagine how he feels about it.

Today we started with a brick, and found a wall of magnetic bricks to make patterns (like several redbrick buildings in Reading). We looked at tiny medieval people in glass cases, and listened to some plainsong from the monks.

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Then we had a toy horse – oh, the joy! – and looked over the BayFaux Tapestry to find horses in battle, and horses riding in boats. Can we just take a minute to talk about this? A determined Victorian embroiderer, Elizabeth Wardle, decided that Britain should have its own copy, and engaged her Leek Embroidery Society (yes!) to make an exact copy. It was completed by thirty-five women in just over a year, and they worked from Elizabeth’s memory and from colour photographs at the V&A. This is a brilliantly batty thing to do. Did you need any further proof that the Victorians were happily bonkers? It’s here.

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After that we had a squirrel to find in the stuffed animal room – which also comes with puzzles and colouring pencils – a set of jingle bells leading us to a thumb piano, and finally some binoculars to look at some art on high shelves.

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Henry was so engaged in finding things, rummaging in his bag for the next toy, and zipping up and down in the lift, that he didn’t have time to misbehave. Maybe excitement about Old Stuff will carry through into his adult life, and he’ll enjoy history as much as I do. Or maybe he won’t, and he’s just learning to look and ask questions and be excited about the world around him. I’ll take either option, to be honest, especially if it comes with a backpack.

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He always cries when we leave, and I think this is recommendation enough.

 

The secret to choosing the perfect holiday reading

Tomorrow I fly to the States for my little brother’s wedding. Leaving aside how weird it is that tiny sticky-handed brothers can grow up to become nice people and get married to other nice people anyway, like what business is it of theirs getting older, I have a fair few things to ponder over this morning. Not least: narrowing down the book pile that will go into my carry-on.

(No, I don’t have a Kindle. Yes, I can finally see the value in it and probably will succumb at some point, but today is not that day.)

I have a fail-safe rule when it comes to holiday books, and this applies even if you do have a schmancy e-reader and are wondering what to download. It goes:

something old

something new

something funny

something true

If you’re thinking that this holiday is the chance you’ll get to finally get through the Booker shortlist, I’m here to tell you that’s probably not going to happen. Holiday brain is real. By the time you’ve got over the dribbling relief of being away from your normal routine and in a pretty place by a pool, you can forget the Serious Novel.

Here’s my pile for the Arizona desert:

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old: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By ‘old’ I mean an old favourite – one you’ve read and reread till you can quote the opening sentence on the first dog-eared page.  Agatha is my go-to comfort read, as you probably know. And Then There Were None is so forties it hurts, and fiendishly, blood-curdlingly clever. I know exactly whodunnit and I still can’t leave it alone. 

new: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

By which I mean, again, new to you. There’s nothing like discovering something magnificent in a new place. The two become forever linked in your head, and thinking about one will remind you, beautifully, of the other. I am ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read Mansfield Park, and a seventeen-hour travelling day will probably leave me enough time to get stuck in. Besides, wouldn’t a dash of Regency manners be a perfect antidote to sitting in economy like a trussed-up chicken?

funny: Terry Pratchett’s Mort* 

You don’t want to be hammering through some literary theory when you hit turbulence or are waiting for your third delayed flight. You want something quick and hilarious. Terry Pratchett might not be your laugh-magnet of choice – choose whoever is –  but Mort is one of my oldest and most beloved of funny books.

*NOTE: ‘funny’ can here be replaced with ‘trashy’, and the effect is the same. If you go with ‘trashy’ I would recommend some good corset-and-codpiece historical fiction, or else a magazine, if you can find one that doesn’t make you want to stab your eyes out.

true:  Nine Stibbe’s Love Nina

I do like a bit of holiday non-fiction. This book has been the most joyous thing I’ve discovered this year – the journal of a resolutely unimpressed nanny in a houseful of literary celebrities and precocious children. I wanted to start it again the minute I finished, and this weekend I’ll finally have time. (Warning: bohemian households containing Alan Bennett swear a lot.)

Now all I have to do is work out what to do when it’s FORTY DEGREES CELCIUS AT FIVE PM. Apart from weep tears that immediately evaporate into steam. I’m excited! (I’ll also be away from here for the next week. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, lovers.)

Even the rain loves Hay Festival

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If you are looking for a tweed jacket or trilby hat, go to Hay Festival. It’s not that there are very many tweed-and-trilby shops, but almost everyone there is wearing them. So you’ll get lots of ideas, and can go home and make a Pinterest board.

There are other reasons to love Hay Festival than trilbies, and I’ve written about them in enthusiastic detail here and here. Short version: books and talks and old stuff. This didn’t feel like our year for Hay: we are on absolute spending lockdown till all our house-moving bills are paid, I was full – nose-drippingly, smoker’s-coughingly full – of cold, and as I’m away in the States next week we’ve already used up all our babysitting favours for a lifetime. Still. It’s a tradition, and we love it with a passion: when a Jeffcoat is tired of Hay, s/he is tired of life, etc. We already had tickets for Steven Fry and Tony Fadell. We went.

(On the subject of colds, may we all, as a human race, take an unbroken vow of silence about the fact that I looked up to find Teddy eating one of my nose-soaked tissues today. Eating. I am shuddering as I type. HE MUST NEVER KNOW (until he’s old enough to read this blog. In which case, sorry Teds; and heck yes to your immune system).)

In sad contrast to last year’s enamelled blue sky, a raincloud descended somewhere around Bristol and didn’t lift all day. So no sunning ourselves in the quad over newspapers this time. But that left plenty of time for wandering round the little stands, taking photos and breaking our sugar fast with a hot chocolate so sweet we were buzzing for hours afterwards. I also ate an almond croissant, filled with almond-flavoured custard, that was seriously as large as my face. I might as well stop eating now, because nothing will ever be as good again. We sat in the food court making little whimpering sounds of joy, opposite two Germans making serious work of a ploughman’s lunch. They sat down with plates of salad and chutney, and I thought ‘this lunch seems a little slight’, and then they took out an enormous venison Scotch egg from a paper bag. Our eyes met across the table, and I hope I managed to communicate my respect for you is as the vastness of the universe, good madams with a look. Because, a venison Scotch egg as big as an adult fist? That is the business.

We love Stephen Fry, although we did think that when you’re interviewing someone, they’re probably supposed to speak more than you. Tony Fadell invented the iPod, Stephen. Let him finish a sentence.

‘I had a question for him that was much better than any of those’, lamented Timothy, as we filed out at the end of the Q&A session. It was, too. Isn’t that always the way. Perhaps he can write a fan letter.

We didn’t have time to go into Hay itself this year, alas – though touring twenty book and antique shops with an empty purse would probably have been more painful than otherwise – but we got the Hay 2014 bag and utilised the photo booth, so left feeling like it was a job very well done. And our car reversed first time out of the soggy field we’d parked in.

Even a rained-out Hay day comes up trumps.

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The best game in the world: Friday night edition

What did you think was the nicest thing about being in your late twenties? I’ll tell you mine: no longer having to pretend that I liked being out late on a Friday night. I never enjoyed it, and felt like everyone else did, thus making me a loser all the way through high school and university.

Here is the Friday night of my dreams: I’ve finished work, have shut the door on two sleeping boys (I’m still ludicrously charmed by the fact that they sleep in the same room now), and have a well of quiet in which to drink this hot chocolate and make a start on a fat book. I have a blanket and a footstool. My socks are thicker than my feet. Tim is not here this evening, alas, so it’s not perfect. But everything else is pretty damn good.

If you’re reading this from under a blanket rather than while jumping in a dark, loud room, you may just be the sort of person who enjoys a stack of new books. Want to see? Here’s what I got from the library today, and why:

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First, The Search for Richard III: The King’s Grave. Last year I decided to try to broaden my historical fascinations beyond the Reformation, so reached all the way back to…the Plantagenets, one dynasty earlier. I know – at this rate, I’ll only just have reached the Stone Age by the time I’m in my fifties. I have a soft spot for poor, maligned Richard, mythical hunchback and all, so was delighted when it was announced he’d been uncovered in a car park last February. This book alternates the story of his life, by a historian, and the story of his discovery, by the woman who instigated the search. And I CANNOT WAIT.

Then hurrah, the fantasy section yielded Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch – another in the Peter Grant series that started with Rivers of London. I enjoyed the first one the most – where a down-to-earth London copper got himself accidentally inducted into the wizarding branch of the Metropolitan Police – but Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground were both excellent too. Aaronovitch writes about London so well that your bogies turn black when you read it.

Then Zadie Smith’s newest offering, NW. I so want to love Zadie Smith, but have given up on both her previous novels about halfway through. Her writing – vivid and bloody – hooks me in, and then the plot and/or prickly characters spit me back out. Third one’s the charm, right?

The last is actually mine, rather than the library’s – and I’m delighted about it: Life After Life just won the Costa prize, but I’ve also had several people recommend it to me. And I had a £10 gift voucher for Waterstones, so those seemed like two things just made to make me happy. I’m only 30 pages in, but it’s about a girl who gets the chance to be born over and over again to alter her destiny and that of the world at large. Och, I tell you what: it’s good. I’m reading it with my breath held.

Now Tim is home with the ingredients for Oreo milkshake, so Friday night just got catapulted into FABULOUS.

Here’s to staying in.

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