Category Archives: parenting

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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Skullduggery Pleasant and the problem of violence

Dudelet (who’s nine) has recently got into Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant in a big way. He’s devoured the first one in about two days and is currently storming through the second. There are, of course, various things about the books I’ve forgotten. Like the swearing, for example.

“You know how I’m not supposed to swear?”

“Yes.”

“So how come this children’s book has so much swearing in it?”

“No it hasn’t.”

“This character says ‘Damned key!’”

“Ah. Well. That isn’t really swearing.”

“Can I say Damn? Damn!”

“No you can’t.”

“What about ‘bloody’?”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“It’s not my fault – you gave me the book!”

“Yes – but…”

Yes, but what?

Actually, the swearing in the Skulduggery books doesn’t go any further than the occasional ‘bloody’ and only ever by the bad guys. Mostly. The violence, though, is another thing entirely. My God, but Skulduggery Pleasant and his friends are pretty bloody violent individuals. But according to the discreet little note on the back, the novels are suitable for children of “9+”.

One swipe of the sword took the fingers on his left hand and he howled in pain and staggered back and she jumped. She planted her feet on his chest and swung, the blade flashing in the bridge’s lights as it took his head.

Eek. Or is it different because it’s happening to a troll? And am I a hypocrite because I’ll let him watch this or Avengers Assemble but I won’t let him see Skyfall? Supermum’s puzzled about the last one. She thinks the Marvel films are too violent (but I’d argue her tolerance of little elf’s Barbie fixation ceded the moral high ground long ago) and she used to worry about Doctor Who. So what’s the difference? Why is Skullduggery acceptable? Why are The Hulk and Thor positive role models? And why does the idea of my nine year old watching James Bond make me queasy?

Supermum asked me this in the car once, with dudelet listening attentively (we’re pretty open about these discussions).

“It’s because it’s too sexy, isn’t it?” dudelet said.

“What’s ‘sexy’?” asked little elf.

As it happens, I do have an answer (though not about what sexy is) and it’s to do with that old fashioned fall guy, the Moral Compass. Skulduggery Pleasant has one. The Mighty Thor has one. Even Ironman has one.

James Bond doesn’t.

Bond might as well be Loki. He likes killing. He enjoys watching his enemies suffer. He treats women with contempt and uses them as toys. He stumbles through the kind of ambiguously grey moral universe that only adults should be asked to navigate. For all of the cartoon dismemberments, beheadings, eviscerations, zombifications and sundry other horrors, there is never any doubt about right and wrong in Skullduggery’s universe, even if the characters themselves struggle to orientate themselves along the compass points they know they ought to follow. And, compared to The Hunger Games or the horrors of Garner’s Red Shift, it’s fairly knockabout stuff.

Barbie, though. That’s plain unforgivable.

Do you draw the line at particular books or films? I suppose we all have a limit. What’s yours?


The Return of Listen With Dudelet

It’s felt like it’s been ages since dudelet listened, really listened, to a record with me. At some point, the toddler who’d boogie in his seat to Aphex Twin or the five year old whose favourite record was Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible became the eight year Harry Potter fanatic who only wanted to listen to the John Williams soundtrack and build towers in Minecraft.*

Attempts at “What do you think of this?” or “Do you want to choose anything?” met with a shrug or a “Whatever.” Meanwhile, Minecraft seemed to be colonising most of the conversations we were having.

Don’t get me wrong – we were talking a lot. But it was 40% Bin Weevils, 40% Minecraft and 10% whining about being required to get off whichever screen he was accessing either of them through. (The remaining 10% tended to be me commiserating with him about the latest bout of appallingness from his little sister. But that’s another story).

Anyway, there seems to have been a sea change. Possibly he’s humouring his rapidly aging father but he caught me the day before yesterday listening to Led Zepellin 2. He paused, then sat, nodding along to the first few bars of ‘Ramble On’.

“I really like that,” he said.

“Uh huh,” I said. I felt like a caveman (well, we were listening to Led Zep) keeping a hungry wild dog in my peripheral vision as it edged cautiously towards the firelight and a scrap of left-over reindeer meat.

“It’s really…it’s got a good tune.”

“I’ve had that record for 32 years.”

“And it still plays?”

Little elf bounced in and sat down to listen too. A few minutes later, supermum stuck her head into the lounge, probably to find out what all the lack of noise was about (apart from the very loud music) and found little elf on my lap, dudelet leaning on my shoulder and John Bonham pounding through a slightly surplus-to-requirements drum solo (‘Moby Dick’ hasn’t aged well). She backed out again, quite quickly.

Yesterday, dudelet asked me to put on “that pretty song” again and gave us a full-on demonstration of virtuoso air guitar. Then I played him the guitar solo in ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and he wanted me to start the record again so he could hear it twice.

Perhaps tomorrow, I’ll see how he gets on with Baroness…

*I feel I should add that there are a million and one things he could be doing that are less worthwhile than the admittedly creative pursuit of Minecraft. But there’s only so many brick-by-brick descriptions a dad can take.


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.


Bad parenting and TO THE LIGHT: Yoko Ono and Ai Wei Wei at the Serpentine

Somehow, supermum had managed to convince herself that the Princess Diana Memorial Playground was in Hyde Park as opposed to the best part of a mile’s trudge across Kensington Gardens. I was grumpy and still weirded out by various work-related miseries. Dudelet was on a mission to annoy everyone and little elf was taking full advantage of this with a sickening display of decent behaviour. Sarcasm is instinctively written in her bones. I just wanted utter silence and to contemplate the abyss of my working life. Supermum was probably quite happy to be where we were but no doubt devoutly wished the whole crew of us on Pluto.

Then we realised that we’d accidentally parked outside the Serpentine. So we wandered over to look at the Ai Wei Wei/Herzog & de Meuron pavilion. It was twenty metres away and I managed to squeeze in two more instances of appallingly bad parenting along the way. Dudelet burst into tears. I burst into tears and simmered at the same time. Little elf skipped obliviously into the pavillion’s shady depths and I followed her, hoping it would swallow me up.

In a way, it did, a little. The photographs available don’t really do its odd presence, at once chthonic and airy, justice. A flat round roof overlays a partly below ground-level space full of curved walls and gently stepped levels heading in different directions and rather ugly IKEA lights. It’s like a deconstructed amphitheatre. Cork stools shaped like giant button mushrooms or champagne corks – champagne being something at once rooted in earth, permeated with air and emblematic of all things playful and extravagant – are scattered here and there. Little elf and dudelet ran back and forth and dudelet ran over and hugged me. I hugged him back. We all peered over the edge of the pavilion’s flat roof. It was covered in water and mosquito larva but one sense of it was clear. Earth, sea and sky.

Then we went in to see the Yoko Ono exhibition. First, dudelet and little elf had their pictures taken to join her #smile project then they attacked the all-white chess set which was attracting a large quantity of equally puzzled young people. I asked dudelet why he thought it was white.

“So that people don’t know if they’re winning,” he decided. Little elf, showing a flicker of little goblin, then tried to win by knocking all the other pieces over and we made a hasty exit for the galleries.

In there, we queued to walk around a perspex maze after watching other visitors wander around it, arms outstretched like blind men or women. It’s a simple maze and (I think) a simple point – how easy it is to see how others are on a wrong path and taking the wrong turn, not so easy for oneself – but one that’s made quite powerfully. Dudelet and I went in together and we found our way to the centre. Once inside, you forget that other people are watching you. We reached the centre, a simple square plinth, hollow, with a still pool of water at the bottom. It was inside a small, private enclosure. I told him I was sorry and kissed the top of his head. Then he led the way out and we watched little elf lead supermum around the small labyrinth looking absolutely delighted with herself.

There were other pieces (“Look! Bums!”) but the maze meant the right thing at the right time, as did the Ai Wei Wei pavilion. Later, we were all grouchy with each other once more – it’s been a long summer with too much change – but at least we all know how to make up when we need to.