Monday 15 May 2017

Child's play

The Beavers Beaver
It’s always difficult to remember your own childhood with any genuine objectivity, mine seemed to be one of eternal Summers spent building dens, scrumping apples and pears from the nearby orchard, collecting sticklebacks and frogspawn in jam jars, fishing from halfway up a tree or deep within reed beds because you didn’t have a fishing licence and playing football and marbles in the street from dawn till dusk. It probably wasn’t idyllic but it certainly feels that way looking back on it now.

Playing in the street and just messing about with your friends with little or no adult supervision seems to be frowned upon these days but in the ‘60s that was the way children grew up. I hear people saying, “but things were safer in those days!” Which is of course complete rubbish. When I was a child the number of evil nutcases in the world was pretty much the same as it is now - the Moors murders were taking place just up the road!

No, all that has really changed is our attitude. My parents knew there was a risk involved with me playing in the street but they also knew that that risk was quite low and, most importantly, that every other parent accepted it. That said, I got hit by a motorbike and a mate got run over by a car. Fortunately, I also had a season ticket for the local A&E, so my latest bang and scratch would be cleaned up and I’d be on my way again, just in time to fall out of a tree. In the 60s this was regarded as “growing up” but I dare say that these days it would be regarded as negligent parenting that puts undue pressure on the NHS and the Daily Mail would be running a campaign calling for all parents who indulge in this madness to be put behind bars and all tree-related injuries to be exempt from NHS care.

To make up for ‘messing about with their mates’ children today join clubs, lots of clubs, lots and lots of clubs. This year alone Marty has joined the village Taekwondo club, the village football club, and our local Beavers. During his day off he’s learning to swim and he’s already talking about starting rugby and maybe cricket, this is despite not having a clue what rugby or cricket actually are. Don’t get me wrong, this is all great stuff and he thoroughly enjoys himself but I can’t help feeling that he is missing out, just because everything he does is ‘supervised’.

When I was young, in the summer holidays all the kids on our street would meet up in the early morning and we would all play together until the mums came out and started shouting that dinner was ready. Our ages would range from about 5 to 10, so the 10-year-olds were effectively our adults. They would say something was true and the rest of us would believe them and, with no adults around to pass judgement, comment or contradict, we were left to live in a world of our own imagination. The fantasies fed off each other. One of the bigger boys would say he saw a wood elf in the woods yesterday, some of us would scoff but then another boy would say he saw it too. A wide-ranging conversation about Wood elves would ensue - 90% of which was just made up at the time - and by the end of the day every one of us would be absolutely convinced that not only did they exist but they existed in the woods just down the road, and if we found one they might tell us were their gold was hidden, if we were really nice to them and looked after the wood. This would then set the theme for the rest of the summer. We would meet up in the early morning, all of us kitted out in various shades of green, with our bows and arrows on our backs and head off into the ‘Seven Woods’ to track down elves, fight off poachers and save all the woodland creatures and sundry fairy folk from certain doom. At 2 minutes to dinnertime I’d screech into the house, covered in mud and twigs, happy that our merry gang had saved the day, yet again, and convinced that we’d be awash with Elven gold before the new school term started!

Okay, anyone who’s read ‘Lord of the flies’ will be able to tell you that leaving children to their own devices for any prolonged period of time is not necessarily a good thing but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and it saddens me a bit to think that the world has changed so much that Marty might never get this opportunity.

On the plus side, we live in an area that seems to be blessed with good and affordable activities, most of them are within walking distance of our home and, because everything is organised by parents these days, I get to watch and be involved, which is good fun.

Because Marty is my only child it’s very difficult to gauge quite where he is; is he bright for his age, is he short for his age, is he fast, is he slow? It’s very difficult to tell until you see him with his peers, and in this respect watching him play football is not only very entertaining but very informative.

For example, with the season almost finished I’m fairly certain that the chances of Marty building a career in football are slim, in much the same way as my chances of waking up tomorrow morning and discovering Elvis mowing my lawn whilst Che Guevara trims the hedge are ‘slim’. However, what he lacks in raw talent he makes up for in enthusiasm and, whilst he might be much smaller than many of the other boys, he is incredibly fast!

Sadly, I’m pretty much housebound at the moment after neck surgery so I missed his 1st goal of the season. Fortunately, Marty has mentioned it once or twice and is happy to describe his goal prowess at great length with little or no provocation, so much so that it now feels as if I was there at the time after all.

It’s probably a reflection on modern football but whilst most of the boys still struggle to kick a ball properly they have all practised and practised their goal celebrations. So, whilst half the lads are crying their eyes out because they’re a goal down, the other lot are sliding gracefully along the grass on their knees, arms raised to greet the imaginary crowd before starting a series of elaborate handshakes with their teammates. 

Much to my surprise taekwondo has been considerably more sedate than football. I must admit that I was a bit reticent about teaching Marty how to fight. As great ideas go I suspected it was right up there with trying to put out a small fire by smothering it with petrol, but so far my fears have been unfounded; he enjoys showing off his latest ‘moves’, he looks cute in his little uniform and, despite his greatest efforts, he still carries the sort of threat level more commonly associated with hamsters.

We bumped into his taekwondo instructor this weekend as he was wandering around town, which confused Marty no end:

Marty: “Is that you Malcolm?”
Malcolm: “Yes Marty.”
Marty: “Are you sure?”

The other club he really enjoys at the moment is ‘Beavers’, which is Cubs for the under eights. Again, it was surprisingly cheap to join but all these uniforms can eat away at your finances. For some very odd reason Beavers opted for a bright turquoise uniform, which makes the kids look like they belong to some sort of Barclays bank youth programme or have joined a cult created by David Icke. It’s most odd!

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Now I am six

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about fatherhood, not because it hasn’t been interesting and full on, but because it’s been too interesting and too full on. 

Okay that’s a bit of an excuse, I can’t blame Marty for taking up all my time but it’s amazing how a small child can nibble away at the edges of your spare time until it pretty much disappears altogether.

The shame is that this blog is really a diary for me, to remind me of all those little moments that made me laugh at the time and then, 20 minutes later, are forgotten. Parenthood is heavily sprinkled with these moments, a classic example was last Christmas when Marty’s phrase of the day was “I definitely, weffinately, weffinately want that!”, which he shouted loudly at the telly every 10 minutes or so.

All parents will be familiar with this scenario, you sit your child down in front of the television hoping they’ll be entertained by some innocuous cartoon, forgetting that every five minutes the programme will be interrupted by advertisers trying to flog your child everything from sugar to Transformers and back to sugar again, it really is bloody annoying!

On the run-up to Christmas it gets particularly arduous, we tried to moderate it by using the idea of a wish list; rather than fight out the pros and cons of a particular toy or a particularly sugar infested confection at the time, we would write everything down in a list and then we’d pick what he wanted for Christmas from this list. The big advantage of this approach is that most five-year-olds can’t read or write well enough to contest the list and its accuracy, so not only do you avoid a meltdown at the time but, given long enough, your child forgets that he wanted a life-size gorilla made entirely from corn syrup and licorice and the fact that it has mysteriously vanished from his wish list is no longer a cause for concern.

Anyway, the point was that “definitely weffinately” was a brief moment. He occasionally says it now but very rarely. I guess this is the way it is from here on in, there are no major milestones any more, it’s just a series of gentle transitions that make you laugh, then fade away and are replaced by new ones.

At the moment Transformers are the big thing in Marty’s life. Tigger and Pooh lie in the corner of his play room gathering dust, Thomas the Tank Engine has had his railway lines privatised, his sheds sold off, his steam-driven drivel forgotten. Meanwhile, Octopus-Prime fights it out with Gridlock and Bumblebee. Who will win? Who will wrest control of the conservatory? It’s a fascinating question that keeps Marty occupied for much of the day.

I can’t say I’m too distressed, yes I still miss the Winnie the Pooh movie, yes I still sing along with Zoe Deschanel given half the chance but I was never overly fond of Thomas. Can I understand the Transformers cartoons? I have tried, really I have. It seems to be based on “wizz, bang, whoosh, rat a tat” then they talk a little in portentous American accents and then it’s back to “wizz, bang, whoosh, rat a tat.” To me at least, it makes as much sense as Theresa May, although not much more. 

The films are a bit better but they are a bit much for a six-year-old. I’m really not sure about them, people talk about them being violent but in reality it’s the sort of violence you’d see if a scrapyard got dropped into a very large blender; less blood and guts and more brake fluid and wiring. Then, when the violence gets too much, they bring on Megan Fox to run around a bit in short shorts and a little T-shirt, which improves the plot and dialogue no end.

The universal thread with children growing up is that they always grow up much faster than their parents would like. It’s not that I want Marty to remain stunted, naive and cute forever but children seem to move on from things much quicker than their parents, and children never seem to look back. On the plus side, every new phase (once you have got used to it) seems to be better than the last. I might miss Winnie the Pooh and I might get bored playing Transformers - which just involves banging plastic toys together until one falls apart completely - but Marty himself just gets better and better.

Like every age that has gone before it, five was wonderful and six will no doubt be better. I think I’d define five as ‘a sparkling intellect floating on a sea of complete naivete and wild imagination. A sea ruled by the all-embracing concept of ‘goodies and baddies’.

Everything but everything in Marty’s life is either good or bad and the people involved either goodies or baddies. We could be watching an advert for dog food and Marty’s first question will be “who’s the baddie?” I have been trying to teach him that life is slightly more nuanced than that but it’s a steep hill to climb and, judging by the number of UKippers and Tories out there, some people will always live in a world that that is either black or white, I just hope Marty is not going to be one of them.

School has been the other great change. I must admit that I was a bit worried by how much pressure they seem to want to put on small children these days. In my day you started school at five and you pretty much painted and sang until you were about seven. I dare say this was regarded as a traumatic period by those children who were tone deaf and allergic to paint but for the rest of us it was a halcyon time.

These days they’re thrown into the deep-end pretty much from day one. This is fine if they can keep up, but all children are different and assuming they can all embrace maths and writing at an early age strikes me as naive at best and possibly destructive at worst. Thankfully, Marty is really enjoying it and doing well, and he is not the least bit afraid to share the joy of his education.

Marty: “Daddy, what is 10+10+10+3?”
Me: “33”
Marty: “Noooo! You say it’s 24”
Me: “okay, it’s 24”
Marty: “ha ha! No it isn’t it’s 33!”

Believe me, he can keep this up for hours!

His language has also come on leaps and bounds in the last year, although now he is surrounded by schoolmates the words he comes out with aren’t necessarily the ones you’d hoped for.

An example of this is the word ‘pop’. For some strange reason my wife decided that a sudden release of air from the nether regions should be called ‘a pop’. Personally, I felt that the word ‘Fart’ was perfectly adequate but apparently this is deemed a bit rude - who knew!

So of course, after years of popping his way through life Marty learned from his friends that the better word was ‘Trump’ and then, after talking to the older boys, they all decided to opt for the word fart. Obviously, the fact that the word is slightly risque adds to its appeal; you don’t say fart, you whisper it, and in Marty’s case ‘perform’ it regularly, very regularly. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the amount of grief our poor dog gets whilst Marty sits there, a picture of innocence ensconced within a faintly green fog.

The best part of all this learning in school, from both teachers and friends, is that you have absolutely no clue what is going to come out with next.

Marty: “Daddy, we don’t hit people in the winkie at school.”
Me: “I should think not!”
Marty: “No, we kick them in the nuts!”

You can change the world but little boys will still be little boys.