Saturday, 24 November 2018

Am I the only scooter Dad?

And for my next trick, I'm going to fall off - to the left, my left, not your left.

Downhill racing on two wheels. Kick start. Push off. Downhill surge. Wind in my face.

Two wheels. No, it's not my mid-life crisis Harley. It's not my mid-life crisis carbon-fibre racer.

It's, um, a kick scooter.

The man for all parties

This is the fun part, sailing downhill over smooth pavement until I hit the potholes at the bottom. Rattle, rattle. Over the road, past the chippie and the fire station and then the long slog upwards past the secondary school, possibly watched by a gang of youths supping surreptitious fags in between (or during?) lessons.
I try to look appropriately youthful as I slither in the mud-slick past them. "Yeah, bro, this ain't what it looks. This receding hairline isn't middle-age: it's the pressure of A-Levels and the only reason I've heard of the Spice Girls is because they recently announced a reunion tour - without Victoria Beckham apparently. Isn't she the one married to that old ex-footballer? The man whose professional career so-obviously-did-not-run-concurrently-with-my-(later)-childhood?"

I don't think they're convinced.

Then it isn't long before I'm rolling (or bumping - those flagstones aren't very smooth) into town and my outlook abruptly changes. Suddenly I'm trying to appear as grown up and responsible as possible. I give elderly ladies a respectfully wide berth and slow down to a crawl at footpath junctions, zig-zagging at snail's pace between pedestrians and smiling what I hope (but probably isn't) a reassuring smile.

"Yes, madam. I am so much more mature than I look. I've simply borrowed my teenage son's scooter to go to the bank because my wife is using the spare Range Rover. Good morning, sir. Lovely day for a walk, isn't it? Really, I'm not trying to hustle you. Please, take your time."

I imagine that everyone is giving me disapproving looks. They probably aren't. Who knows? They might be wishing they had a scooter to.

No cred to lose

I grew up in a world far away from paved streets and tarmac footpaths. Well, a good mile away  anyway. I had a scooter to play with as an infant, and never got another until I was past thirty. Skate parks and stunt scooters were a great unknown. I'd never been on a half pipe: my eldest son had, at the tender age of seven, already got the march on me there.

It's like time and opportunity passed me by. Scooting and skating are not considered 'cool' once you've reached adulthood. Okay for the teenagers, not so for their balding, beer-bellied elders. To be seen chugging along on a scooter is, apparently, to immediately invite sniggers and a catastrophic loss of street-cred.

Except that I never had any street-cred to lose. You can't go backwards from zero so perhaps my late attachment to a fairly unremarkable push scooter may actually work in a kind of reverse. I'm the one who dares where others fear to tread, who rides where others walk, who carries his wheels around town rather than paying for the privilege of leaving them in a car park. Maybe other people secretly feel the same? Because let's face it:

It's fun

Come on, hands up who hasn't watched a kid on a scooter and thought "I wish I could do that!"

It's practical

It's quicker than walking - you can be there and back in the same time it would take you to get there on foot.
Cheaper than driving - no parking fees, no petrol, no wear on the tyres.
It's handy - can't be bothered to lug the bike out of the shed for a ten-minute ride? Take the scooter out from under the stairs instead.
You can take it with you - in the car boot, and keep up with the kids without having to run and look ridiculous.
You might win the World Cup - okay, a bit unlikely, but it's well-known that French Premier League and World Cup winner N'Golo Kante used to turn up to training on a scooter in his early days as a professional.

A note of caution though:

You will fall off

I have been asked whether I do tricks. I do one: it's called falling off. Several times. Can be quite spectacular, but I'm not sure it really qualifies as a 'trick'.

Pavements can be bumpy and fallen leaves are slippery. Many scooters have brakes that don't work too well in the wet, so you need to be aware of terrain and weather.
But having said that, people still say:

"[Someone adult I know] would love one of those!"

It's official, everyone else wants one too! But I've yet to see anyone actually get one. There are myriad reasons for this, many of them exceptionally logical and sensible and which I have chosen to ignore.

And back to the beginning

If there isn't any foot-traffic (smokers, loafers, dog-walkers) on my homeward journey I can get all the way from the second school gate down past the chip shop without putting my foot to the ground.  It's payback for the annoying slog uphill on the way out and the time gained there means I don't feel so bad about walking up the hill beyond. It's something I've worked out carefully over time. Alone.
Always alone.

The only Dad on a scooter. There and back. Up and down. Wind in my face. Alone.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Getting Cold Camping? Night's Worth It!

Night remains an evasive beauty.

"Evasive?" I hear you splutter. "Comes around once a day! Or night..."
Evasive, yes. Also enigmatic and unfathomable.

Let me elucidate a little. Night and Man have existed together for thousands of years, but how well do we actually understand her? How do we perceive her? Gloomily - night is the deathlike shroud that casts a blackness over the living earth. Fearfully - night is the haunt of creatures and dangers unknown and unheralded. Thankfully - night is usher of sleep that knits the tattered threads of life and makes them new.


It had been raining. In a tent, rain makes itself known to a quite extraordinary - and sometimes misleading - extent. To the unaccustomed ear a shower of rain on fabric sounds rather as though the clouds above were unleashing the Victoria Falls - a notion that persists until you fearfully poke your hooded head out of the doorway and are presented with a downpour more in line with one of those ornamental solar fountains you might have in your garden than Earth's mightiest cataract. It's noisy, but it's unlikely that you'll need your inflatable mattress to double as a life raft.

Now, as I woke from my light slumbers (deep slumbers when camping are often a precious rarity), it was apparently still raining, for there was the sound of heavy drops thudding onto the tent above my head. The sky outside seemed to have grown lighter so I assumed that dawn was approaching. And it was cold, shiveringly cold. The sort of cold that makes you wish your sleeping bag was thicker and that you hadn't left your spare blankets in the car.

Not quite wide awake, I scrambled out of bed and stumbled towards the exit, crackling as quietly as possible across the sewn-in groundsheet  (why can't they sound-proof those things) and un-zzzzipped the front door twice: one zzzz for the anti-bug door and zzzz one for the outer door.

Then I peered out into a scene so sublime, so silently sensational, that I gasped in delight. A 'Wow!' of wonder escaped me. My face cracked open in an enraptured grin. This wasn't dawn. This was (I found out later) not even one o'clock in the morning. The raindrops on my tent were drops from the trees, the clouds had rolled away and Night had cast aside her mantle.

Night makes us think of many things: darkness, danger, tiredness, cold. In our tents we might listen to the hoot of an owl (possible), the song of the nightingale (unlikely), the churr of the nightjar (who are you kidding?) or more prosaically the roar of a passing motorbike and the rumble of a passing articulated lorry. But what do we see? Dimness, vague shadows in the gloom.

Nothing prepares us, not even hope, for a land laced with silver, a realm of liquid shadows and silence, where even hushed speech is like a spreading stain. The moon drifted above the inky trees, white and full. A full moon is a friend, a tangible thing, whereas a full sun is a devouring ball of fire who blinds.

And Night is a wonder we cannot capture. I tried. In the silver light, I hurried back into the tent for my phone and tried to take a picture for posterity. Here it is... Pretty good, right?

That was our last night of camping this summer. My wife will remember it because it was "freezing". My children may (emphasis: 'may') remember it because we went blackberry-picking the next morning. And I will remember it because of Night in a dress that I can never see again, evasive as ever.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Childhood's Wonderland may not be where you expect.

April '18: Waiting for the train outta Sherborne, expectations defied...

The Child's Wonderland?

Let's go back in history a bit...
Last Summer, whilst holidaying near Manchester, we paid a visit to Eureka! The National Children's Museum in Halifax. It came highly recommended - at a price - and we arrived to find a queue so long we had enough time to pre-book tickets on the phone while waiting so that we could be fast-tracked. Inside it was like something from a kid's dream: play shops, buttons to press, pretend houses with real staircases, flaps and noises, flashing lights and apparently everything else that a child could possibly want, with a fair amount of education thrown in.

And yet, after a couple of hours of this wonderland Graham was ready to leave. He'd whizzed up and down the staircases, pushed all the buttons he wanted to push and was only interested in going elsewhere. After an expensive and high-tech morning we wound up the day watching the ducks and barges at Hebden Bridge.

The Child's Boredom-ain? 

The next day we headed for the Peak District National Park.
Now the Peak District has been around for a long time. In basic terms it contains lots of grass, water, hills and a goodly amount of rock. Marketing materials for the Park contain very few (if any) references to video games or electronics. The emphasis is on the great outdoors rather than man's mastery over fibre optics. On the face of it, not a day for the kids then...

But you'd be wrong. Our children loved it. They loved hopping on stepping-stones over a racing stream on the Snake Pass, clambering over rocks and climbing the massive steps up to Mam Tor, bracing themselves against the blustery wind at the top. We wound up eating chips in the public gardens in Bakewell and returned home, full of rich country air, as dark fell and lights lit up in glittering skeins in the valleys.

A one off? Maybe... Or maybe not.

There's not much to do in Sherborne

Spring 2018. There's not much for children in Sherborne, we were told. Nice for the adults, all that old-fashioned architecture, but pretty dull for the kiddies.

Well, dullness is what you make it.

Going on a train is pretty dull for a seasoned commuter. They take a book to while away the time. But for a three-year-old boy even the humblest, most ordinary, dirt-streaked commuter train is a wonder. Isaac shrieked with excitement as our grimy, London-bound transport ground into Axminster station. Not that we were going to London. We were only going to Sherborne, that dull jumble of stone where kids fall asleep standing up for tedium.

Our two, strangely, didn't fall asleep - which is probably because they were too busy enjoying themselves. After all, it isn't every day that you get to have a meal out in a backstreet cafe, where the chefs cook your pizza in front of your eyes. It isn't often that you get to race around in the grounds of an ancient abbey, balance on fallen trees in a riverside meadow, stalk grey herons in the shallows or sit on the ramparts of a ruined castle after nearly a mile's walk out of town. 

Perhaps our children are just unusual. Or perhaps it is us all-knowing adults who simply underestimate the simple pleasure that can be obtained from a short train ride through green countryside and unfettered adventure in the open air. As one burly dog-walker pointed out, passing by as Isaac teetered uncertainly but triumphantly on a fallen tree-trunk, "It's free entertainment innit!"

The Summer holidays aren't over. There's still time for a bit of non-electronic 'free entertainment' yet. Even in Sherborne...     

Monday, 11 June 2018

Is There a [Child] Doctor in the House?

The modern system of education accepts that children are not mere empty vessels, patiently waiting to be filled but are capable of distributing and analysing information as well as receiving it. They are, in fine, Givers as well as Receivers.

This is amply demonstrated in our house. Should I require (for example) a description of the Red-backed Shrike*, I would not go to an adult for help, but to Graham, secure in the knowledge that he will have the information at his fingertips. Data regarding the world's best colour (blue), the world's worst football team (Tottenham Hotspur) and the shortcomings of broccoli are available from the same source. That's Graham.

If it's medical assistance you want, however, you ask Isaac.

A few months ago I wrote a blog entitled 'Is Calpol the answer?' coming to the conclusion that, so far as infant ideology went, it probably is. I have since revised that view. Isaac has shown me that juvenile physicians are no one-trick-ponies; the medical field is wide and they are prepared to use every part of it at their disposal.

On Saturday afternoon I was suffering from a slight headache, a result of spending two-and-a-half hours labouring in the midday sun which, you will recall, is the sole preserve of mad dogs and Englishmen. As a born and bred member of the latter (if not the former?) class I was obviously obliged to mow the grass at a time when most sensible people are taking a nap. The results were uncomfortable and I retired to the sofa to relax and ease my throbbing temples while Isaac played with Duplo, regretfully declining his invitation to join him and explaining that I needed to rest my eyes a little as I had a bad head.

A look of quite professional sympathy came over his face: Doctor Isaac was Concerned and this Concern did not find him Inactive.

So it was that Gilly came in a few minutes later - self having dozed off - to find Isaac carefully daubing my unconscious scalp with copious dollops of aqueous cream - 'for dry or chapped skin conditions' - in an attempt to alleviate my sufferings. The instructions on the bottle state that the formula is FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY and Isaac is a conscientious practitioner. The good Doctor had refrained from making me drink the solution but this did not prevent him from smearing it generously into my hair, working it well in with the palms.

Gilly, as previous readers of this blog will know, is not absolutely sympathetic in such situations and immediately dissolved into giggles. Isaac, slightly perplexed, was relieved of his self-imposed responsibilities and I was summarily dispatched to have a shower with instructions to lay the shampoo on nice and thick in the affected area. And it is worth noting that I emerged from the shower feeling considerably better so it may be that Isaac's prescription was effective, although the soothing waters and two paracetamol caplets I took could also have had something to do with it.

And so Isaac's little store of medical knowledge and expertise increases and one feels that it can't be very long before he is confidently applying bandages to grazed knees and distributing throat lozenges to anyone with a tickly cough. He is already advising Gilly to lie down when she has back-ache and was actually engaged in eating an apple - every Doctor's Daily Dose - shortly before applying the cream to my poor, aching head.

Even so, I think I'll leave the catch on the medicine cupboard for a while longer. I don't think he's quite up to mixing Dioralyte just yet.

*Migratory, carnivorous passerine bird and member of the Lanius (from the Latin - 'butcher') genus and Laniidae family. Male has reddish upper parts. Now you know.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

2018: The Tale of The Temporary Spring

Two weeks ago, with the suddenness of the sun coming out from behind a cloud, Spring arrived upon our shores. I say Spring but actually it felt more like Summer. The sun gleamed down from a blue, blue sky and temperatures skyrocketed. Overnight, people flung off their bulky winter clothes and reappeared the next morning with all their chalky-white limbs exposed. I can't claim complete authority, but I imagine that up and down the country there was a sudden hysterical babble as everyone made a mad dash for the garden, laden down with deckchairs and tripping over the snow-boots and sledges that they had left handy by the back door 'just in case'.

2018 being 2018 this state of affairs obviously didn't last. As I write this, I look out upon a world of lead-grey skies with an all-pervading atmosphere of unseasonal chilliness, which is pretty much par for the course this year. Online, forecasters are happily predicting heavy rain, snow and potential flooding in a possibly (hopefully) last-ditch attempt to sustain Winter's vanishing aura.

So much for the present, what of the recent past? For a few glorious days we exulted in a welcome dose of sun and shine and watched as the world visibly expanded before our eyes. Skeletal trees have ceased to form Wintry friezes against a Wintry sky and are abruptly bursting into leaf, puffing up as though someone in the roots was hard at work with a bicycle pump. Flowers and blossom fill the countryside in a shower of whites and pinks.

And the change has not gone unmarked in our house either. For a few joyful days the Dolittle household went all al fresco. Lunch and dinner were consumed in the open air as we re-discovered what that biggish green space behind the family home (commonly called a garden) was really like. The children remembered the trampoline, the cover was ripped off the sand pit and we even managed to get a few loads of washing out on the washing line. The only downside, from my point of view, is that I will, at some stage, be obliged to mow the grass, which has commenced growing at an unacceptably rapid rate.

In this first careless flush of Spring I walked into town wearing a broad-brimmed bush hat, clipped up at the sides. It is the type of headgear that would be met with howls of derision twelves miles away in Ashford but in Tenterden, where there is a Waitrose just off the high street and elderly men wear maroon-coloured trousers, I doubt whether it even merited a second glance. My former Biology teacher, who cultivated a carefully maintained eccentricity, used to call Tenterden dwellers 'Spacemen' (or something similar), inferring that they were somehow a little way-out, out-of-touch and generally loopy. Living eight miles away at the time - and being more of an Ashford-native than otherwise - I found nothing to resent in the description. I still don't, even now that I have joined their ranks. Any society that can embrace maroon-coloured trousers and patterned leggings and treat both abusers of fashion just the same is a society that is unlikely to laugh at my bush hat, which can only be a good thing for me.

Wild weather may well be heading our way over the next few days. Those people who have purchased blow-up paddling pools in the first optimistic surge of sunshine may find that they are having to use them as rafts when they put the bins out on Tuesday morning but at least, as we draw our armchairs closer to the fire and reluctantly unpack the recently-packed long-johns, we can all have the comfort of memories of sunny days gone by; those few brief hours of warmth that may - who knows? - come again.

Until then, stay warm fellas.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Mud, mess, boys and bikes

There is a theory that Spring is on its way. Like many theories it doesn't always stand up to close examination.
We have, admittedly, passed the date for the Spring equinox and gradually-expanding splashes of yellow primrose adorn the banks and hedgerows - but one wonders whether they should be blue instead of yellow. The deathly blue of intense cold.

We've had several false starts already this year. An occasional day of sunshine has warmed us into enthusiasm only to be immediately replaced by a week of clouds and rain. The countryside labours beneath a weight of turgid water. February fill-dyke, the old saying used to be. Well, we've had March fill-dyke too - and plenty of it.

Which is all good news, of course.

Not only does it delay the inevitable water shortages resultant from planting excess homes in the South East (where the majority of people apparently get most of their H2O from one single reservoir) but it also allows crazy kids to run mud-splatter-wild. Provided you have children who are happy to wallow in dirt - and pack a spare change of clothes - this type of weather can provide some of the greatest fun of the entire year.

A couple of months ago our family paid a visit to Hinchingbrooke Country Park, near Huntingdon. It consists of 170 acres of woods, marshes, lakes and open grassland. Paths of varying quality snake their way around, some clean, some squelchy. Muddy puddles abound. On the off-chance, we packed the kids' bikes but it wasn't a promising start. The road through the woods was soggy, cycling was a chore - but then...

It was after we found the custom-made mountain-bike course that the boys suddenly realised the possibilities of the place. A few skiddy downhill runs later and they were hooked. Suddenly, the rutty terrain became something to be embraced rather than endured - a two-wheel assault course, conveniently laid-out to maximise personal daring.

Isaac, being Isaac, managed to retain his sanity. Graham threw prudence to the winds. Tyres roared in the puddles, sediment-laden slush arcing into the air, splashing to earth and clothes. Brown stains saturated bike and rider and seeped to the skin. It was a riot of uncontrollable mud-moisture-mayhem.

Graham is a boy who sometimes changes his socks because he stands in a drop of tap-water. Now he was dripping, filthy and riding a bike that had once been silver and was now the colour of badly-filtered coffee.

And he laughed and turned to go again. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Monthly Photo, Feb '18: The Beast from the East!

It came at last! The day I've been awaiting for so, so long. It finally came!
OK, so it's about twenty years too late for my personal schedule but, hey, I guess I was able to enjoy it vicariously with the kids. One of them anyway.
Now, until last week this post was going to be about mud, bikes and a whole lot of mess but then came...


Actually, let's do that again - a bit bigger this time...

Oh yes...
Frankly, looking at a green and Spring-like land in the days before its arrival all these tales about a raging, blizzard-encrusted 'Beast from the East' sounded like nothing more than hysterically overhyped hyperbole. If you live in Russia, they probably still do - but it was enough for us.

The icy blast from Siberia swept over the country, smashed into another wall of wild weather from the Atlantic and turned the nation white. The UK trembled, tottered and fell. An extreme 'snow-mode' enveloped us in its juddering grip. Roads ground to a standstill, trains stopped running and schools were closed. And Graham was presented with an unexpected bonus of three days' holiday.

Now in all the however-many-years-it-was that I was at school I never recall having a day off due to bad weather. Graham has managed three days less than two years in! Oh well, that's parenting for you: sharing in the joy of your children when you've never experienced that joy yourself. After all, why else would you see parents going down the slides in 'soft play' areas?

So, duty bound, I set out to do as much snowy 'joy-sharing' as Graham required. And, boy, was it good fun, even if our rookie sledging prowess is unlikely to land either of us a spot in GB's Winter Olympics squad.

The snow in our corner of the country lasted from the evening of Monday February 26 until (for all useful purposes) the morning of Saturday March 3. The Beast snarled, snow swirled, temperatures plummeted - the thermometer outside out kitchen went down to -11C - but in between all the growling there were some periods of calm and blue skies. The picture at the top was taken on Wednesday, when the fresh, powdery snow had hardened and the sledge runs had become quicker and more defined. Bleak, cold and yet sparkling with brightness and movement, this is a picture of contrasts: the church tower in the distance adding a quintessentially English touch.

Friday afternoon saw the last of our snow showers and by Saturday morning the Beast was in retreat. I took a walk through the melting countryside. There was warmth in the air, the breeze blew mild and although the sledge runs were still faintly discernible the snow was slipping away from the hills, oozing into a gritty slush between the tufts of grass.

Snow is not good news for everyone, however fun it may be for the many but even so there was a distinct wistfulness in my walk as I slogged through the squelchy mud. It was as though with the disappearance of the snow a part of my life was being wiped away like chalk from a blackboard; an existence hanging in the balance between the savage beauty of a vanishing Winter and the as-yet unheralded Spring.

Below the town a few children were still racing sledges on a brittle film of ice and slush - but they were racing against time. The Beast from the East was gone.