Category Archives: fatherhood

Ulpia, 8 years and 11 months

I’m reading Guy De La Bedoyere’s “Gods With Thunderbolts: Religion In Roman Britain” (2002). It’s a clear-eyed, rigorously unspeculative text but it’s hard not to “humanise” some of the items from the archaeological record it examines.

Ulpia, whose ashes were buried at York 1800 or so years ago, was clearly loved by her parents. “8 years and 11 months” – each one of those years counted. Her other name “Felicissima”, means “Most Happy”. I wonder how many hopes and dreams were wrapped around this child.

We do our ancestors quite a mis-justice when we assume that they cared for their children less than we do. And, looking at the levels of abuse and mistreatment of children in the “modern” world, we flatter ourselves if we think we’re any better.

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When I was nearly nine, we called it second year

I don’t remember much about being nine at my primary school in a sleepy seaside town in the North West of England. There was light, generally low buildings and wide roads and an aunt and uncle around the corner. There’s a picture of me in a cowboy taken in their garden. I could ride my bike around the block and visit my best friend D who lived around the corner (I remember that his father was an electrician. My mother had three sisters and a brother and there always seemed to be relatives and cousins cousins to visit. There was a botanical garden with aviaries and maze -like rose gardens. When the tide went out, the sands ran on for miles and miles. You could see Blackpool Tower across the bay.

At school, another aunt (actually, a cousin) was my teacher but she was stricter with me than anyone else as a consequence. Everyone in the class noticed it. There were children’s parties and another girl, K, whom I had an enormous crush on. I read and read and made up my own comic books. All my pocket money went on books. Eventually, I agitated for a weekly comic like the other boys and whilst they vetoed the Beano or the Dandy (except as an occasional degenerate holiday treat) my parents approved Look And Learn. Look And Learn featured the marvelous “The Trigan Empire“, a science fiction story set in a distant galaxy of imperial intrigue and warfare.

Eventually, my father got a new job and we moved down near Liverpool.

I suspect everyone has some sort of before and after moment in their lives demarcating the border between innocence and experience and mine would be the moment of that move. The house was smaller, the accents were harder (I was branded as a ‘poof’ on my first day at my new school) and our relatives were far away. There’s more but that’s enough.

The time since that change seems recorded in high-definition video. The time before, in sunset-kissed Technicolor.

Dudelet starts year four today. He’ll be nine in January. I’m so, so glad we failed to move house outside of London, despite all of my efforts to the contrary, and that he’s still in his school, with his classmates and friends whom I know he loves. I hope he lives his life in Technicolor a little longer than I did and transitions to all the harsh, bright high contrast of HD a little more gently.


Smoking

Dudelet and I are walking to the Underground on the way to pick up supplies from the Japan Centre.

“Look, those girls are smoking!” he says, clearly disapproving but also fishing for my reaction.

“Not good for them, is it?” I offer feebly.

“How did they get the cigarettes? I thought shops weren’t allowed to sell them to children?”

“Well, maybe they got an older kid to buy them. Some shopkeepers don’t pay as much attention as they should/“

“Did you ever smoke?”

Oh dear. Here it comes.

“Yes,” I say, wondering if I should lie.

“When did you stop?”

“January 1st, 1998. Wish I’d done it sooner. Hope it wasn’t too late.”

“When did you start?”

“When I was thirteen or fourteen.”

“Why?”

Why indeed? I’m stuck with being honest now so I plough on.

“I suppose I was trying to impress other, slightly older or cooler boys – at least I thought they were cooler at the time.” I decide to leave out the fact that I actually started smoking in Scouts.

“Oh. Were they a bit thuggish, then?”

“Er…possibly.”

“Mummy says she never started because she tried one cigarette and it was so disgusting, she never went near them again.”

“She was very sensible, then,” I say, half-wishing I’d given the same answer.

“Yes. Did I tell you I’ve started writing a script?”


School, Little Elf, Change

Always different and always the same.

Four years ago, I had a turn at delivering dudelet to nursery. Supermum had actually taken him to his first day so by the time I walked him to school he’d already been ‘socialised’ into the norms of the nursery experience. Back then, parents could lead their children right into the large, awkwardly-shaped open-plan space with its 19th century hall.  Dudelet held on to my hand and showed me the hamster, the place where he put his bag, the sand tray and the funny-things-hanging-from-the-ceiling until the teacher clapped her hands and he toddled off obediently to sit on the carpet with his nearly-four-year old peers. He still sneaked me a quick “look-at-me” wave, though and a wide-eyed grin, amazed to be sitting there in the midst of a newly independent, mysterious world, at once circumscribed and vast.

I went outside, overwhelmed by the sense of gateways opening and closing and, to be honest, my own memories of more than forty years previously. It wasn’t the scent or taste of a madeline so much as the high angle of the ceiling and the low sticky-back plastic covered tables and…and…

Well, I cried a bit.

Little elf was different. Supermum and I took her together for her first day after we’d persuaded to put some clothes on (she’s very prone to naked protests). First we dropped dudelet off at the ‘big’ playground with the other Year Threes then  headed across the school to the nursery classrooms. Little elf showed me her hook with her name on but (different building, new head teacher, change in policy) I had to stop at the classroom door and watch her scamper off to join the other children on the assembly mat. She was already chatting and didn’t even look at me.

Earlier, she’d shared a few anxieties, mostly about lunch.

“I won’t be able to eat.”

“You’ll be able to choose something you like.”

“But how will they know?”

“You can tell them what you want to eat.”

“But what if I can’t tell them?”

“You can point.”

“BUT I CAN’T POINT!”

This time, I didn’t cry. I don’t know why. Perhaps we suspect there’s something more resilient about our daughter? Or perhaps we’ve just grown thicker skins? There are so many transitions, so may never-to-be-turned-back motions of the clock and we can’t cry about them all. There aren’t enough tears in the world.


Gateways

Dudelet is digging into his bowl of Hoops and humming to himself. I have the same habit.

“How do you feel about Year 3?” I ask him. He’s only got a week and a bit of Year 2 left.

“Well, I’m a bit worried because we’ll be the smallest in the playground.”

He’s not joking. All this year he’s been one of the biggest – the Year 2s tower over the Reception class and amiably lord it over the Year 1s. But next year, he’ll literally pass through two gateways into the Big Playground where the mysteries of Years 3 to 6 lurk, tooled up and ready to rumble. Also, how typical of my son to say ‘smallest’ instead of ‘littlest’.

“How do you mean?”

“The Year 6s are really big! Even bigger than you!”

“Well, some of them. People are sorts of sizes at that age.”

“I’m a bit nervous.”

“Hmm. I know it’s scary but there are always going to be those gateways. Like when you went to Reception or when you go to High School. I can’t remember my first day at primary school – your Year 3 but I still remember when I went to High School.”

“That’s funny! I was just going to ask you that!”

I look at him. He’s actually interested.

“Well, you know how teachers at your school, when you squabble…”

“Squabble?”

“Kind of argue or push or shove each other for some reason. You know how teachers tell you to be friends and perhaps make you sit in the thinking corner for a bit?”

“Yes. I suppose that happens. Sometimes.”

“Okay. Well, on my first day at High School, I got into one of those squabbles with another boy in a craft class and we got sent out. And the craft teacher – a really huge man who looked like he should have long fangs like a goblin – grabbed us and threw us out of the classroom. So we were a bit nervous and we decided that we’d explain to him that we’d made it up and sorted things out and so on. And…”

“And what happened?”

“He came out, whacked us both on the side of the head – it really stung my ear – and told us not to do it again or we’d be up before Brother X, the Headmaster and he’d give us six.”

“Six?”

“Look, you know they used to hit children in schools? And how they aren’t allowed to do it anymore?”

“Yes I know. Phew.” He shakes his head solemnly.

“So, anyway,” I finish up, a bit lamely. “Year 3 is nothing to worry about.”

“Okay. Can I watch telly now?”

“Okay.”

I sit down for two minutes to eat my toast (I can hear that little elf, who is a complete grump in the mornings, just like her mother, is in-bound). I don’t want him to pass those gates any sooner than he has to. But here they come.