Kids’ Birthday Parties: This is Your Life Now

What can I say about birthday parties for the under-5s?

Well, it’s nice for them to get a chance to let their hair down and hang out with their friends. After all, they spend the majority of their time within the bosoms of their families, and what time they don’t is spent trapped within institutions; institutions that will carry them to their graves.

I’m talking about the parents, of course. Poor bastards: walking about with baby puke patches on their best jumpers, sporting big black panda eyes and stress lines like seismographs on their foreheads, and grinning at each other like frightened chimps as they desperately fight to stave off the twin horrors of sleep and full mental breakdown, all while trying to pretend that somehow it was all worth it.I guess the old saying’s true: a moment on the hips, a lifetime of IKEA trips.

Remember when your social calendar was measured in weekly increments rather than bi-annually? Remember when you used to gaze across the horizon of your life and see nothing but unfettered fun and wine-tinged sunsets? Remember when you used to hit the town in a loudly-laughing posse of posers, and then stay out drinking and dancing till dawn, leaping the next day’s hangovers like they were half-foot-high hurdles? If you hit the town with your posse these days,try to herd you into some dingy old men’s pub with a vaguely nautical name, where even the women have anchor tattoos on their biceps. But you don’t have to worry about any of that, because nobody asks you to go ‘out out’ anymore anyway.

They ask you to kids’ birthday parties instead. This multi-coloured nightmare is your social life now: coffee and cake at the soft play surrounded by a thousand screaming kids. You’ve all got so much to talk about and catch up on, you and your friends, but good luck talking about anything other than your kids. Your brain may cycle through a database of potential topics – politics, entertainment, nutrition, religion – but whatever it is you think you’re going to talk about, you can’t open your mouth without saying something like: ‘Apparently Skye’s in the ninetieth centile for weight’ or ‘What Jason lacks in language skills he certainly makes up for in spatial awareness.’

If you do manage to kick-start a non-parenting related conversation it will inevitably be cut short by one of your children running up to you screaming with a blood-covered face (‘Daddy, I tried to put my head through the wall like a ghost but it hurt me!’), or loudly agitating for a shit.

Mind you, I find that kids are handy to have around in these sorts of situations, especially since I discovered just how bad I am at mingling. There’s nothing like quitting drinking to reveal how socially awkward you are at root. I’m really ferociously bad at shooting the breeze or shooting the shit, or whatever shooting-based analogy you care to use. I’m bloody awful at it. After a few minutes dribbling out the kind of small talk an old tramp at a bus-stop would be ashamed to profer, it’s nice to be able to go:

‘WHAT’S THAT, JACK? YOU WANT ME TO GO DOWN THE CHUTE WITH YOU?’

‘Jamie, I don’t think he said anyth…’

‘I’LL BE RIGHT THERE, SON! Hold my miniature box of Smarties, will you.’

I usually swagger into these parties desperately sucking in my stomach muscles (what exists of them) to retract my bulk in case I encounter old acquaintances who haven’t borne witness to my gradual slide into jelly-bellied oblivion, and who might yet still be fooled into thinking that I play squash every now and again, or occasionally eat lettuce. It’s a fragile illusion, usually broken simply because it’s really hard to hold a fat torso in the shape of a capital ‘C’ for more than twenty minutes without getting stomach cramps.

Towards the end of these soft-play parties the kids are typically ushered into a side-compartment of the main hall to have a spot of grub. Invariably, their eating-space is fenced in and cordoned off like the canteen in a maximum-security prison, an association only lent more substance by the fact that they can get tattoos done after their snacks. Seeing my eldest son standing in his vest later that night looking like an old lifer always makes me regret not having asked the resident face-painter to daub a little blue tear-drop beneath one of his eyes. In preparation for the next party I’m teaching him to say: ‘Hey esse! Do we got a fuckin’ problem here?’

Whether the party is held at a soft-play or in a house it always ends with gifts being handed out to the attendees; wee bags of ‘fuck off’ as I like to call them. What an ingeniously polite way to get rid of people. Treat them as you entreat them to leave and it doesn’t seem so harsh. ‘It’s been a fun two hours, but please take your toy helicopters and little whistles, and get the fuck out of my house.’ Adult parties often drag on without any clear or definite end, so I think we would benefit enormously from introducing some sort of gift bag system:

‘So my Sally’s language skills may not be the best, but, I’ll tell you, her spatial awaren… oh, what’s this?’

‘It’s a bag of marshmallows and vodka miniatures. Now fuck off.’

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READ MORE ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF SOFT-PLAYS BY CLICKING HERE

Scotland’s Smacking Ban: a Hit?

‘Smacking’ sounds really nice, doesn’t it? The word, I mean. If you’re hungry for a snack, your lips might smack; if your gran comes to visit she might ask you to pucker up and give her a big old smacker on the kisser. Onomatopeiacally, a smack is rather like a crack, but much less forceful: sharper, cleaner, kinder.

It’s the sort of sound that makes you nostalgic for the good old days, when men were men, women were women, and botties were smacked. By golly we miss those halcyon, smoke-hazed days, before the cultural assassins in the Stalinist SNP tried to rob us of our right to smack: a right that is as sacred to us Scots as is the right to bear arms to the Americans, by God! And we will fight to defend that right!

I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll organise a protest outside of the Scottish parliament: six-thousand angry parents and their six-thousand passive, blank-faced children. We’ll march them up to the front door, whip their trousers down, bend them over our knees and show Nicola Sturgeon that we mean business with the world’s biggest six-hour-long, six-thousand-bum synchronised smacking, the sound of which will fill the air like revolutionary gun-fire! Smack, smack, smack! Read our bums, Nicola! We won’t be turning the other cheek on this one. Well, we will be, as a matter of fact, but only so we can bloody well smack it, too!

…Language is a funny old thing, isn’t it? Time and again we bend and smash and smush and twist our words as though they were putty and paste, making paper machier towers that we let ourselves believe are permanent, solid, unbreakable. We build words around us like ramparts, and take up sniper positions behind them; we try on words like we’re shopping for clothes, seeking out dazzling combinations that accentuate our wealth, power, sex appeal, or contrition – does my guilt look thinner in this sentence? – or else use them to reinvent ourselves entirely; sometimes we use words as shields to protect us from the force of the truth: the truth of who we are and what we do: enemy combatant; extraordinary rendition; my honourable friend; friendly fire; constructive dismissal; it’s not you it’s me; McDonalds Happy Meal.

‘Smacking’ isn’t really smacking, you see: it’s hitting. Why don’t you try saying that instead? ‘Smacking’ is hitting a small, defenceless child, and that’s true regardless of the strength of the hit, or whether the point of impact is a bottie, a thigh, an arm, a face or a chest.

If you’re defending what you perceive as your universal human right to smack a child, then at least be honest about it. Rip the mask from the face of that word to reveal its true identity, and lay bare your own sub-Lecter-ish lust for pain and power. Spell out your intentions both to yourself and to the world at large. Shout it from the rooftops: ‘I demand the right to hit and inflict pain on the fruits of my loin without consequence or interference, whenever I see fit and however spurious the reason.’

In terms of self-delusion there’s very little difference between ‘I don’t beat my children, for goodness sake, I just give them a light corrective smack’ and ‘I’m not an alcoholic, for goodness sake, I wait until at least lunchtime before having my first drink!’

‘Yea, yea, yeah, you ponce!’ you might cry. ‘But I got smacked, and it never did me any harm!’

Ah, that familiar cry, countered so many times by the now-equally familiar cry, ‘Yes it did, because you believe that it’s okay to hit children.’ I’ve noticed that the most ardent supporters of ‘smacking’ are usually those upon whose faces you can see the tragic consequences of a life lived through shortcuts in a permanent present tense: crumbling teeth; unkempt hair; blotched and bloodshot eyes that show the world a map of impulse forever left unchecked.

Probably best to eschew parenting advice from someone who’s lazy and blinkered enough to hit first and ask questions later.

Plus, if smacking is your go-to punishment of choice, how do you punish your child for hitting somebody? By hitting them? What message does that send? Especially since they may be hitting other people precisely because you’ve taught them that hitting is permissible.

‘But how else will children learn right from wrong?’

Take violence from our toolbox, and we’re powerless! It’s true. That’s why we still beat children in schools, and our boss is legally entitled to smash us in the face with a tyre iron. That’s why when the judge is about to pronounce sentence in the courtroom he might say something like: ‘The defendant has been found guilty on all counts of his robbery charges. Now bring him here so I can kick the fuck out of him.’

I can understand the impulse to hit. Of course I can, I’m a human being, and I live in a world that contains Piers Morgan. I can even understand the impulse to hit a child. No creature on earth can inspire such anger, and scream-inducing helplessness and frustration as your own child. But I would never – and could never – do it. I don’t think I could ever look my kids in the eye again, and I’d feel like an irredeemable failure as a father.

In no other sphere of life do we condone hitting as a solution. Even savagely violent, hopelessly recidivistic killers are spared violence as a behaviour modification tool. Looking for another reason not to hit your child? Let reason itself be your reason. Behold the maxim below that’s been floating around cyberspace in meme form for quite some time now:

Now that our eldest son, Jack, is approaching the age of reason, we’ve started using a sticker-based behaviour-modification system, through which good behaviour can be recognised, rewarded and reinforced, and bad behaviour can be circumnavigated. It’s not a perfect system, granted, but it seems to achieve its aims without causing major psychological damage. The other week, Jack was trying to pilfer a biscuit before bedtime; he had a hand inside the bag with a biscuit held between his fingers in a vice-like pincer grip. When I calmly advised that his current course of action would result in the immediate loss of a sticker, he couldn’t have dropped that biscuit any quicker if I’d been an armed New York cop shouting ‘Freeze, dirtbag!’

On a few occasions, thanks to the child’s method of learning and evolving through mimicry, he put on his best faux-cross-face and told me he was going to take a sticker away from ME.

Replay that scene again, mimicry and all, but this time imagine that I’d hit him.

‘Kids will run wild if you don’t show them who’s boss.’

It’s hard to believe that we once allowed teachers to belt our children up and down the schoolyard, making our own flesh-and-blood handy scapegoats for everything wrong in a teacher’s life from sexual frustration to really bad hangovers.

But there are still those who would give a wildly disingenuous defence of smacking, both private and corporal. They’ll tell you that there’s a direct correlation between the ban on corporal punishment, and a decline of discipline, order and respect in today’s society. That somehow if we were to take the next logical step and ban smacking entirely then discipline would cease to exist. Instead of there being negative consequences for misbehaviour, kids would instead be disproportionately rewarded for their breaches: “Ah, I see you’ve thrown a television through the window of the old folks’ home, Timmy. What would you say to a lovely new Playstation 4, slugger?” (PS: If anyone should be beaten for their transgressions, it should be me for splitting an infinitive in the previous sentence)

You want to be disingenuous? I can be disingenuous too. My friends, there’s a direct link between corporal punishment and child beatings, and the advent of both world wars. Violence begets violence, you see.

We can’t live in the past. We have to move forward. Learn from our mistakes. As has become abundantly clear in recent months and years, there are many among us content to hark back to the good old days, which weren’t really all that good anyway. They wish they still lived in a world where they could be thirty-thousand feet in the air in an aeroplane piloted by a shit-faced captain, knocking back whiskeys, maniacally chain-smoking, free to punch their child in the face should they have the temerity to cough, and occasionally stopping to hurl sexually-charged racial abuse at one of the stewardesses: ‘Phwoar, you’re alright for a darkie, sweetheart!’

I don’t think the smacking ban has a realistic chance of being properly policed or enforced, but it might just open up the issue to public scrutiny – as it’s doing right now – and perhaps dissuade parents from adding smacking to their parental repertoire. The ban, however symbolic its application, will at least amplify the message, loud and clear, that we don’t live in that world anymore.

Kids say the funniest *@!#ing things

We were all in the living room. My partner, Chelsea, and I were sitting on the couch alongside our eldest son, Jack, 3. Meanwhile, baby Christopher, 1 today (Happy birthday, Chris!), was loping around the floor somewhere, scanning for toys. Yes, he lopes. He can’t walk; he doesn’t crawl: he simply lopes, balancing on one arm and swinging his body around as he weaves and circles towards his target, his movement styles a mix between a disabled French bell-ringer and Golum from Lord of the Rings.

Today’s topic of discussion was language.

‘Jack,’ said his mum. ‘Tell daddy that new word you invented today.’

Kids love to invent words, don’t they? We were on a family holiday earlier this year, in the exotic Scottish seaside resort of Girvan, and while Jack and I were out for a walk Jack we passed two stone lions positioned either side of a set of stairs. I pointed to them and asked, ‘What do you think their names are?’

‘Entie and Fooamie,’ he asserted, without any hesitation.

I nodded. ‘The one on the left is definitely a Fooamie.’

Back on the couch, Jack looked confused.

‘You know, Jack, that word you told me earlier today,’ his mother said again. ‘You remember.’

He thought for a moment, and then his face lit up with the force of his recognition. I smiled. This was going to be adorable. What was he going to say? Flubbalumptious? Labbabbachook? Skoonsh?

‘Arsehole!’ he shouted.

I laughed. Or rather a laugh shot through my lips like a bullet. My laugh emboldened Jack,  spurring him on to fill the room with arseholes. My laughs responded by upgrading into sub-machine-gun fire. This spurred Jack on even more. He was a demon drawing power through an inter-dimensional portal: the power to say ‘arsehole’. By now we were all laughing. Even baby Chris, who’d loped towards the din of our laughter, and hauled himself to his feet at the base of the couch, and proceeded to moo-hah-hah like the world’s tinies evil genius. Chris was just mimicking, of course, like a mini-Predator playing back Billy’s laugh at the end of the original film, but his laugh, our laugh, and the multitude of arseholes, all combined to create a laughter vortex/timeloop from which none of us could escape.

We eventually had to do some damage control.

‘Bet you weren’t expecting him to say that,’ said my partner, rubbing a tear from her eye.

‘Where did he hear that?’ I asked. ‘Neither of us use the word ‘arsehole’.’

‘Arsehole!’ shouted Jack.

‘Jack!’ we both shouted back. But we couldn’t really give him a row. After all, this Pandora’s Box with nothing but arseholes inside had been opened by his mother.

My partner explained that Jack had heard the word weeks ago from, as he described it, a ‘big fat lady’ who was coming out of the toilets in our favourite ice-cream parlor. Chelsea had tried to convince Jack that he’d misheard, and that arsehole wasn’t even a real word: a hard sell in a world that contains Piers Morgan.

‘What are some real words?’, we asked him, in a bid to distract him and lead him away from profanity. The three of us shouted out random words, the only link between them their innocuousness.

‘Paper!’

‘Leg!’

‘Submarine!’

‘Toothbrush!’

‘Goldfish!’

‘Carrot!’

‘Hedgehod!’

I couldn’t resist it.

‘Arsehole!’

‘ARSEHOLE!’ Jack screamed with delight.

We fell about laughing again. Chelsea had no choice but to punish me, banishing me from the room just as we would banish Jack if his behaviour ever crossed the line.

‘Daddy, you go and stand outside in the hall for a couple of minutes and think about what you’ve done,’ she said with a smirk that she hid from Jack.

Off I went, head bowed, feet shuffling.

‘I want to go with Daddy!’ shouted Jack.

‘You can’t, Jack, you’re a good boy, only naughty boys get sent out of the room.’

I opened the living room door just as Jack’s brilliant little brain found a solution to the problem of not being naughty enough to accompany me on my exile.

‘Arsehole!’ I heard him shout.

Fifteen seconds later he was standing next to me in the hall, a proud smile on his face. We high-fived.

He’s a clever wee arsehole.

Twelve things I’ve learned being a Dad to two under four (PART 1)

1.) Buggies suck.

You know the old proverb. “Fold or unfold a buggy for a man, and he’ll be able to push the baby for a day. But teach him how to fold or unfold the buggy, and you’ll still have to do it for him every fucking day.”

The operation of most modern buggies is remarkably simple. Click, clunk, push. Press, pull, fold. So why then do I find myself, every single time – and I do mean every  single time – jumping up and down in a car park, my arms flailing like a possessed, pissed semaphorist trying to marshal an airplane, loudly threatening an inanimate hunk of cloth and plastic with death and destruction? I’ve been shown how to operate the infernal contraption time and again, on an almost daily basis, and each time I say, ‘Ah, of course, now I remember. Next time will be easy’. But next time isn’t easy. Next time is another angry wrestling match betwixt man and plastic. It’s like Groundhog Day, but by the end of the movie Phil can’t play the piano and he’s still having eighty doughnuts for breakfast. Why aren’t kids born with wheels?

2.) Never use the ‘Bad Man’ to deter your kids from disobeying, or running off.

He’s a demonic boogey-man routinely conjured by lazy parents to strike an easy jolt of fear into their children, when the same result could easily be achieved through gentler, less traumatising means, namely by employing the twin powers of reason and imagination.

(Starts with a snicker, builds to a convulsing laugh, ends with me in hysterics, hardly able to breathe and slapping my thigh like a coke-fueled cowboy) Yeah, right. Fuck that. The ‘Bad Man’ practically has his own room in our house, en-suite and everything. He gets breakfast in bed, and even gets to leave the toilet seat up after a piss. At first we used him sparingly. ‘Don’t run off round that corner. The bad man might be there.’ Then we started riffing, really having fun fleshing out the character:

‘He’s got an electrified glove that will burn you like toast,’

‘He’s got a time-grenade that’ll blow you back to the prehistoric era and your head will be crunched off by a T-Rex,’

‘He likes to melt children down and make them into candles, and then he farts on the candles, and then he pees them out.’

We started pretend-calling him for the most minor of infractions. ‘Hello, is that the bad man? Yeah, he won’t blow his nose. You’ll what? You’ll skin him alive?’ (lowering phone and whispering to son) ‘I can’t negotiate with this guy, he’s a fucking lunatic, you’d better just do what he says.’

Reason doesn’t work on young children. That’s why you need to get yourself your very own on-call behavioural terrorist. Long live the bad man.

3.) A bacon sandwich tastes so much sweeter after you’ve suffered through 3,000 episodes of Peppa Pig.

Not 3000 new episodes of Peppa Pig. The same episode 3000 times. Each staccato plink of that risible theme song starts to feel like a knife to the spine. I hate that my three-year-old loves it so much. It’s horrible. Not only does it make you feel like you’re watching TV through a spy-hole, but the kids are insolent, disobedient little shits and the father is a marginalised moron who’d be more use to the world inside a BLT. I’ve largely cut meat from my diet and don’t eat pork anymore, but I’d make an exception for Daddy, the snorting imbecile.

Don’t let your kids watch it. If none of that convinces you then never forget that the pigs are clearly walking, talking big balls-and-cocks. Look at them! It’s undeniable. Peppa Pig? Peppa BIG Nutsack more like.

4.) Toilets will never be the same again.

A week or so ago I had to make a hurried journey to the bathroom, with just enough time for a brisk detour to pick up a book. I perched in comfort, readying myself to begin the expulsion not just of my internal waste, but also of the day’s worries and frustrations. I was happy. I was safe. Nothing out there in that noisy, calamitous universe could touch me, at least for the next five minutes.

I was perched on the toilet, enjoying my brief reprieve from life, when from downstairs came the screams of my second-born, Christopher. He’d been placed atop a soft blanket of toys by his mother as she bravely attempted to start cooking dinner. Christopher’s not a kid usually prone to screaming, but when he feels the need he makes sure to broadcast those screams at just the right frequency to pierce steel, skull and concrete. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ came the cries from my eldest boy, Jack, accompanying his baby brother’s fervent WAH WAH WAHs.

Jack kept wailing as he staggered and trudged up the stairs like a mustard-gassed soldier: ‘DADDY, DADDY, MY EYES!!! MY EYES!!!’

He’d found a bottle of his mother’s perfume and naturally had decided to spray himself directly in the eyes with it, the bold little scientist that he is. ‘MY EYEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!’

That’s what most trips to the toilet are like these days. Remember that old Dad-centric cliché about a bathroom being a man’s last bastion of peace in a chaotic household? It’s full of shit. The bathroom door may as well be spun from spider-silk or constructed by a mime artist. If your kid needs to get through that door, locked or not, and no matter what you’re doing in there, then you’re opening up. They’ll rap and tap and chap and bang until you’re forced to waddle towards it like an all-penguin John Wayne. They’ll then make you stand there by the sink in hellish, bowed-leg silence, like a naughty dog – squidgy poo-parcel half-nipped and glistening – as they take the longest piss in the world. Or even a particularly savage shit, just to rub some salt into the wound.

It’s toilet Top Trumps, and your kid will always win, principally because it reflects rather badly on you as a parent if you force your kid to stand outside in the hall and shit themselves.

THANK YOU FOR READING, YOU ADORABLE BASTARDS.

ANOTHER FOUR NEXT WEEK.

Tailgaters: The scum of the Earth

Tailgating’s such a self-evidently selfish and dangerous thing to do that I shouldn’t ever find myself in the position of having to craft a rant about it. But here I am. And here I go. Because not a day goes by when I don’t find myself connected to my fellow road-users by a six-inch length of invisible tow-rope.

If you’re a tailgater it’s my fond hope that one day you too will find yourself tailgated: by a hungry gator. You are a menace. An abomination. An attempted murderer of children. It’s fair to say that even Mary Whitehouse and Jesus think you’re a cunt.

Don’t microwave kittens. Don’t drown kids.

Don’t. Fucking. Tailgate.

Yes, attempted murdered of children. You read that right a few paragraphs ago. That’s how I perceive tailgating when I’ve got my kids in the car, especially since law decrees that those two wee guys have to be strapped into perhaps the most vulnerable part of the car. That’s why I go so absolutely bat-shit bananas crazy when I’m being tailgated. That’s why my 2-year-old son, half-sponge half-parrot, once shouted ‘FUCKING ASSHOLES’ following a particularly heated exchange with a tailgater, after which I decided to modify my in-car language and call people ‘dozy pillocks’ and ‘silly billies’ instead; and a little less vigourously, too. I’ve tried everything to dissuade tailgaters, from angrily Capaldi-ing the mirror, to thumping the horn, to gesticulating violently out of the window. The latter sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. I once repeatedly struck the side of my car with my fist, alternated with a shooing motion, a subtle bit of sign language that  convinced the hogger behind to fall back a few car lengths. Another time I shook my fist out of the window, and instead of falling back the wee dim-wit douche-bag behind me started happily and enthusiastically waving and flashing their lights, thinking I was their pal.

When I haven’t had my kids in the car with me I’ve often responded to tailgaters with the old emergency-stop/urgent-accelerate manoeuvre to scare them out of their stupidity, a move that I’m willing to concede is potentially just as dip-shitted as tailgating itself, but… you know. Anger. Ditto finding a roundabout, going 360 and doing some revenge tailgating.

While the biggest tailgating culprits are, perhaps unsurprisingly, adolescent males – those image-conscious, testosterone-packed pustules of preened bravado – the roster of roasters is incredibly demographically diverse: the old, the young, the rich, the poor, of every gender and ethnicity you’d care to imagine (with the exception of Australian Aborigines and transgender Inuits, who aren’t terribly well represented in Central Scotland). I especially despise jewellery-bedecked, big-haired women in gigantic jeeps and 4X4s who tailgate with the insouciance of a psychopathic tank driver who’s gone rogue in an urban combat zone. And old men in high-end cars, who seem to think they’re driving inside a car advert along an empty mountain road.

The collective arrogance and indifference of these bastards disgusts me. We live in a world of illusion. Our place in the ever-connected cosmos is predicated upon hope, fear and self-deception. We wear ties, we go to school, we work, we shop, we shit, we sleep, we fuck, we drink, we watch TV, wash rinse and repeat, and we do this under the eternally indifferent gaze of a gazillion galaxies. We salve ourselves against  insignificance by embracing ritual, and blot out the truth of our tenuous grasp on existence with a cavalcade of hugs, drugs and distractions. We’re never more than a missed meal, a terrorist bomb, an unexpected diagnosis or a measly momentary lapse in concentration away from a descent into agony and anarchy, a whip back of the Wizard of Oz’s curtain to find the grinning spectre of Death, scythe sharpened and ready to slice.

Chaos, then, is the force that truly governs our lives. Ipso facto, what you’re saying when you tailgate is that you are above the laws of chaos; that you’ve extrapolated from the atoms around you a full account of the future, its every twist and turn, and have granted yourself immunity from the billions of chaotic surprises that break and bond our species with every passing microsecond of existence. You’re a God, no less. You can hug my bumper and be absolutely sure that a sheep, a bird or a child isn’t going to appear across the road in front of me causing me to hammer my foot on the brakes, that my front tyres aren’t going to blow out, that I’m not going to suffer a heart-attack behind the wheel, that any number of unexpected catastrophes aren’t going to propel the speeding bulk of your car through the crumpled backs of my children.

You absolute fucking asshole.

One last appeal to you, young men: I know you like to drive your car in an almost horizontal position, but please don’t cause me, or my partner and children, to end up in a permanently horizontal position in a hole six feet below the ground just because you’re desperate to get your hole. “Man, the birds are gonnae be fightin’ for a sook of ma boaby once they see me recklessly endangering the lives of the children in this car.”

I’ll always be more inclined to express leniency towards people found guilty of fist-to-face murder or serious assault than towards a single one of those blase, bumper-riding sons of bitches. The only time it’s ever permissible to tailgate is when you’re a cop trying to force a fleeing lunatic off the road. At all other times: don’t.

You tailgaters can bite me.

PS: Tailgating is a crime of which I’m sure I was occasionally guilty in my impetuous, arse-headed youth, and so, in the interests of spreading my disapprobation evenly, rest assured that I’m retrospectively cunting myself.

Want to read more motoring-based anger? Click here for a mild rant on Parent and Child parking spaces.

The Muppets and Beyond: The infuriating ways our kids absorb TV

When I was a toddler my mum said the only thing guaranteed to bring me – and by extension her – a modicum of peace was The Muppet Show. For half an hour each week, the Muppets and their unique brand of noisy, vaudevillian anarchy turned my eyes into swirling portals of obedience.

When my son Jack came along I wanted to forge a common tie between our childhoods. With that goal in mind I set about Muppetifying his existence with the fiery-eyed zeal of a bat-shit Baptist preacher. I was a maniacal man of the cloth, a felt-obsessed fundamentalist with a Henson-sent mission to introduce our son to the all-consuming love of frog almighty.

Muppet DVDs flooded into our flat, all manner of movies and TV specials. Manah Manah became the official nonsensical anthem of our little kingdom of three. As Jack grew older, and gained the ability to toddle and teeter, the Muppet Show’s theme song became a siren’s call, a piece of music with the power to draw him from wherever he happened to be in the house straight to the feet of the TV, where he’d stand bent-kneed and bopping, beaming with born-again-glee and clapping his hands.

It was around this time that his maternal grandmother bought him a Gonzo stuffed toy, which instantly became an extension of his little hand. Jack guarded it like a junk-yard dog, not permitting even so much as a brief separation to allow his mummy to wash the grimy, big-snootered blighter. Piggy, Kermit, Animal and Fozzy soon followed, forming a full Muppet menagerie, but Gonzo steadfastly remained his favourite. He had a book chronicling all of the Muppets from the 1950s to present day, and he could identify the vast majority of them if you said their name.

I bought the Muppet Movie sound-track on CD so we could listen to the gang during car journeys. If ever wee Jack was grumpy and tired, even wailing and screaming from his car seat, it only ever took a few strums of Kermit’s banjo (careful, there) to snap him into contented silence. I swear that the Rainbow Connection was like a dose of aural ketamine.

I’d often sit next to Jack in his room bringing his Muppets to life: doing the voices, making them interact with him. This proved so popular that he’d frequently insist, on pain of tantrum, that those five fellows accompany us everywhere we went in the house, narrating everything as they went. My throat started to feel like a cat’s scratching post. It got to the point where I couldn’t even make a cup of tea without having to engineer a squabble between Piggy and Kermit, or make Gonzo do a death-defying leap from the top of the biscuit cupboard, Jack standing there silently scrutinising the performance, ready to chime in with a Waldorf and Statler-style putdown should things take a dip in quality. I was eventually held so thoroughly hostage by my kid’s imagination that I feared I wouldn’t even be able to go for a shit without Kermit announcing it as an act.


Jack’s mum hated The Muppets. Not straight away, but familiarity very quickly bred contempt. What was nirvana for our son for her felt like being Guantanamoed inside a giant clockwork orange. “You did this to us,” her haunted eyes seemed to say each time they met mine. “You’re the reason that I have to watch puppet pigs singing Copa Cabana eighty times a day, you bastard.” It wasn’t long before she was pig-sick of Miss Piggy, couldn’t bear Fozzy bear, wanted Beaker to beat it, Gonzo to begone, Scooter to scoot, and Kermit to fuck off.

She soon got her wish.

Jack began to refuse or reject items from The Muppets’ TV canon time and again to the point where I stopped offering them as an option. They receded from his day-to-day life, and then started to fade from his memory. Eventually, if the muppets appeared incidentally on some random TV show, or he caught sight of them in a book or magazine, he’d narrow his eyes and scrunch his face up, in the manner of a middle-aged man passing someone on the street they thought they kind of half-remembered from their school days. “Muzzy… Gruzzy… em… Fruzzy! That was his name. Fruzzy Hair. I think he used to sit behind me in English class.”

I’d like to think that in the months and years that followed the waning of Jack’s love for the muppets – as his obsessions evolved and expanded – that his mum actually came to retrospectively appreciate those felty little fuckers, and even kind of miss them. After all, if you’re going to be forced to watch something over and over and over and over again, ad infinitum, then you at least want that something to provide a dung-tonne of variety. And you can’t get much more varied or multifarious than a TV and cinema universe with so many crazy creatures that it makes Game of Thrones look like a two-character Alan Bennett play.

Still. Toy Story was Jack’s next great love. His mum was happier with this. Great movies, right? All three of them. Brilliant movies. You ever watched three movies twenty-five-thousand times? I don’t care if those three movies are home-movies of your own kids being born. After a few consecutive cycles you’re going to be reaching for the baby thermometer and stabbing your eyes out with it. “There’s a snake in my boots! Yes indeed there is. I’m going to use it to fucking strangle myself!”

A little bit of desperate IMDBing heralded the happy news that there were three five-minute shorts and two half-hour specials featuring Bonnie’s (nee Andy’s) gang that we could add into the movie rotation, but even then the novelty quickly wore off (although that scene in the Halloween special where the Pez dispenser pukes in disgust at the sight of the iguana boaking up a toy arm makes me laugh every single time). I even considered sending Disney a begging letter. “Please, please, please, please, for the love of God, hurry up and make Toy Story 4 so we can have one day, JUST ONE DAY, of watching those son-of-a-bitch toys doing something unexpected.”

If you’ve got, or ever had, young kids you’ll know how futile it is to try to counteract their brief but all-consuming obsessions.

“What do you want to watch today? Postman Pat, Ice Age, Count Duckula?”

“Woody and Buzz.”

“Madagascar 1, Madagascar 2, Madagasca…?”

“Woody and Buzz.”

“Oooh, how about How to Train Your Dragon?”

“Woody and Buzz.”

“I’ll give you a million pounds to watch nothing.”

“Woody and Buzz.”

… “The Muppets???”

The worst was yet to come. YouTube is both a blessing and a curse. I credit it with teaching Jack the alphabet – or at least expanding, reinforcing and cementing what his mum and I taught him – and making him more proficient with numbers, but there was a time when he fell in love with a series of videos by a kids’ content-provider called Chu Chu. As in, “I think I’d rather Chu Chu my own arm off than watch another second of these asshole videos.”

Chu Chu is an Indian company that produces Pigeon-Street-style animations of cherubic, rosy-cheeked white kids singing in stilted, weirdly-emphasised English with an Indian twang. Jack watched it so much I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d gone to school sounding like Apu from The Simpsons. Chu Chu bring all of your favourite nursery rhyme classics back to life, just like this one, you know, the one about your Dad chasing his son through the house in the dead of night because he’s going to eat all of the sugar raw… I mean, what the hell IS this shit?

To be fair to Chu Chu, 18-months to 2 years after Jack’s first exposure to their inimitable brand of transatlantic nursery-rhyme stylings we still sing the Johnny Johnny song, and the semi-bhangra version of ‘No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed’ is still our favourite.

While Jack enjoyed a series of micro-obsessions with Thomas the Tank Engine, Puss in Boots, Peppa Pig (that plinky-plonk theme tune is my Manchurian Candidate-style trigger for mass murder), Paw Patrol (one day I will kill you, Rubble, you big jawed arsehole. And why do the people in that town call on dogs for help instead of the fire brigade or the actual bloody police?) and various others, he’s now got a broad and sophisticated palate of televisual tastes. Which is code for ‘we probably let him watch too much television’.

But still no Muppets.

I picked up his little brother Christopher the other day, who’s too young to watch TV but certainly old enough to appreciate its bright and noisy charms.

“I think it’s nearly time we had a chat about the frogs and the pigs, young man.”

The Doctor Falls: A Haunting Look at Love, Loss, Death and Hope

Doctor Who is, and always has been, a family drama, so in theory it should be palatable and accessible to all points of the age spectrum at all times; in practice it’s always oscillated wildly between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. There are some episodes a little too silly or garish for my tastes, but which my son adores. Equally, there are episodes I consider mature, thought-provoking and insightful that my son considers confusing, boring or terrifying, or sometimes all three at once.

The show’s tone can change between and within seasons, and sometimes even within episodes themselves. From its inception the show’s been on a tone rollercoaster: from the stern and semi-educational stylings of William Hartnell’s grandfatherly doctor, to the karate-chop hijinks of Jon Pertwee, to the Mary Whitehouse-bating body horror and gothic grizzliness of Tom Baker’s early years, to the girny slapstick buffoonery  of Sylvester McCoy’s maiden season, to the multi-layered, sometimes senselessly intricate and confusing pseudo-nonsense of Steven Moffat’s stewardship.

Season 10 of Doctor Who (or season 37 if you’re that way inclined), its most recent, has grappled so ferociously and frequently with love, loss and the haunting spectre of death that it’s hard to imagine the gooey cuteness of the Adipose, Pex of Paradise Towers or the farty menace of the Slitheen existing in the same universe. While the show has also never been funnier – the impromptu appearance of the Pope in Bill’s living room being an especial highlight this season – Capaldi’s impending departure has cast a death-shaped shadow over the season that’s introduced a heavy, inescapable note of sadness to the show. If this sounds like a criticism, it most definitely isn’t. The marriage of mirth and melancholy has been a godsend for the show, as has the marriage of Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, who have been uniformly excellent together. And let’s not forget Matt Lucas, who was an incredibly pleasant surprise – almost a revelation – as Nardole.

Steven Moffat is occasionally guilty of over-loading his narrative, throwing more elements and novelties into a story than its structure can bear, until the episode collapses in on itself, or disappears through a wormhole up its own arse. ‘The Doctor Falls’, however, was pretty much perfect in terms of pacing, mood, dialogue, plot, emotion, the loops and links within the double-episode finale and to the series’ own past, and the deft handling of some of Doctor Who’s most iconic monsters and villains. The Doctor Falls – haunting and affecting; immersed in hope, horror, sadness and goodbyes, and all draped in the cold white of death – was a fitting swan-song for Bill and Nardole, and a somberly satisfying sort-of send-off for both the twelfth doctor and Steven Moffat himself.

David Tennant’s pre-regenerative parting plea – ‘I don’t want to go’ – is regarded with a sneer by a vocal minority of fans, who consider it a particularly egregious example of Russell T Davies’ over-fondness for schmaltz and sentimentality. The Doctor would never behave like that, they snipe. He never greeted any of his previous regenerations in such a spirit of whiny arrogance before.  It’s not death, just change.

But it is a death. How could it be anything other? When we move towns, countries or houses, when we leave school, get divorced, become parents or start a new job, our changing brains and circles (of both friends and influence) and circumstances and stances and outlooks change so drastically – albeit slowly over time and not finger-click quick like a regeneration – that the new people we become are almost entirely disparate entities, with perhaps only a tangential connection to our ‘true’ or ‘original’ self. We break with our pasts, our youths, our lives, in a dance of perpetual reinvention. Imagine how we would feel if we routinely changed our entire body: face, physiology, biochemistry, height, weight, age (gender?), everything. Who would ‘we’ be?

Moffat managed to make the Doctor’s impending regeneration feel like the most final of goodbyes, despite the fact that we all know it isn’t. His handling of both the Doctor and the Master/Missy really hammered home the point that each new version of these characters is so distinct from the others as to be wholly separate beings. The Twelfth Doctor has moved away from the exquisite alienness of his first few years to embrace a deeply earnest sense of humanity and kindness. Missy found redemption, of sorts, through death at the hands of her previous incarnation. With that in mind, it makes sense to arrive at the conclusion that if Time Lords can counter their core instincts, if regeneration can favour revolution over evolution, then each regeneration is certainly a death. But the final message needn’t be fatalistic. Perhaps the feeling we should take away from the finale is that the power, and hope, of change resides in all of us.

The Doctor Falls lends legitimacy to Tennant’s farewell, and adds a greater poignancy and sadness to Capaldi’s upcoming exit, an exit I’m already very, very sad about. On the strength of this incredible episode (both of its parts) I may even miss Moffat, too.

Jamie’s Digest (2): Cool Bits From Books

Whenever I’m reading I always like to highlight phrases and passages that strike a chord with me, either because they’re emotionally or intellectually resonant, or because they’re exceptionally relevant to something that’s happening in the world today. I’d like to continue to share some of the these excerpts with you.

Catholic Tastes

In light of both the ascension of the DUP to the role of king-makers, and Germany’s recent parliamentary vote in favour of legalising gay marriage, I thought the below was exceptionally relevant. It’s an extract from a piece published in a gay newsletter in Southampton the late 1970s by a man named Paul, a volunteer for the Solent Gay switchboard. A copy of the full text (which speaks of his sorrow at the extent of anti-gay discrimination in the country), as well as appearing in the newsletter, was also sent to the Rev. Ian Paisley, Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse, a trio he felt had lent credence to those who would level violence and abuse at gay people.

Many heterosexuals like to remark that if everyone were homosexual, the human race would come to an end. (The human race would suffer the same fate if the entire male population became Roman Catholic priests, but God in his infinite and unfailing wisdom ensures that only about 5% of us are homosexual and that even fewer are Roman Catholic priests.) In view of the acknowledged importance of sex in perpetuating the human race, it is strange that there are still those who regard it as something shameful, embarrassing or rather awkwardly special.”

Amazon link: Ban This Filth by Ben Thompson (p.347 – 349)

The Bondage of Work

The below extract is for those of us (most of us) who are unlucky enough to work for ‘da man’ in any of his multifarious guises.

Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship. Nowhere else is freedom of speech for the citizens of free societies so curtailed. They can abuse their political leaders in print or on radio, television and the Web as outrageously as they wish, and the secret service will never come for them. They can say that their country’s leader is a lunatic, their police force is composed of sadists and their judiciary is corrupt. Nothing happens, even on those occasions when their allegations are gibberish. The leniency of free societies is only proper. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to spout clap-trap, as regular surfers of the Web know. If employees criticise their employers in public, however, they will face a punishment as hard as a prison sentence, maybe harder: the loss of their career, their pension, and perhaps their means of making a livelihood.”

Amazon link: You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen (p.149)

Mo’ Men, Mo’ Problems

As a humanist an atheist and a secularist (sometimes we all walk into a bar) I’m appalled at the prejudice frequently levelled at my fellow human beings on account of their skin-colour, country of origin or set of beliefs; I’m further appalled by the foreign policy measures and media hyperbole that has inflamed hatred in this country and abroad. However, I’m also appalled at the way in which our freedom to criticise religion, in all of its forms, is slowly being eroded, mostly – it has to be said – through fear: fear of violent reprisals, and also fear of being on the same side of the argument – albeit for vastly different reasons – as the nation’s execrable clan of right-wing racists. That being said, however incompatible I consider organised religion to be with a measured, rational view of the world, and however strongly I may wish mankind to move beyond the infantile and supernatural, it’s always a good idea to seek out differing and (especially) opposing views; to be as well-informed and educated as possible on the history, structure and practice of religions.

Below is an extract about the history of Islam that you may find surprising (or perhaps not).

The emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet’s heart. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce centuries before Western women were afforded such status. The Quran prescribes some degree of segregation and veiling for the Prophet’s wives, but there is nothing in the Quran that requires the veiling of all women or their seclusion in a separate part of the house. These customs were adopted some three or four generations after the Prophet’s death. Muslims at the time were copying the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had ong veiled and segregated their women in this manner; they also appropriated some of their Christian misogyny. The Quran makes men and women partners before God, with identical duties and responsibilities. The Quran also came to permit polygamy; at a time when Muslims were being killed in the wars against Mecca, and women were left without protectors, men were permitted to have up to four wives provided that they treat them all with absolute equality and show no signs of favouring one rather than the others. The women of the first ummah in Medina took full part in its public life, and some, according to Arab custom, fought alongside the men in battle. They did not seem to have experienced Islam as an oppressive religion , though later, as happened in Christianity, men would hijack the faith and bring it into line with the prevailing patriarchy.”

Amazon Link: Islam – A Short History by Karen Armstrong (p.14)

Brazil Nut

Nemesis – an account of the rise of an ordinary man in one of Rio’s most infamous favelas and his rise to the rank of don of the criminal under(and over)world – is a wonderful book: fast-paced, exciting, shocking, thoughtful, well-written and meticulously researched.

The extracts below give shape to the idea that tackling poverty and inequality through state and welfare policies/spending is not only an essential component of our common humanity, but also makes sound long-term economic sense. Effective social policies and less poverty equals a society that has greater stability, greater contentment, less crime, less unrest and less violence across the board.

After decades of dictatorship and chaotic transition, renewal and optimism were surging out from the federal capital, Brasilia, towards the furthest reaches of the country’s body politic. Whole regions and classes were reviving after a long period of neglect and deprivation. The sudden arrival of a period of prosperity that saw unemployment fall to record levels and personal spending increase significantly is crucial in explaining why Rio was becoming less violent. Young men in the favelas were turning away from weapons and drugs in favour of education and settled employment.”

While China was lauded for pulling some 100 million citizens out of poverty from the mid 1980s, fewer noticed Brazil’s more monumental achievement flowing from [socially democratic political moves and social policies designed to eradicate the chronic, crushing poverty experienced by a significant proportion of Brazil’s citizens). In Brazil, 30-40 million people managed to cross the poverty line. Given the much smaller population of Brazil, this was an even greater feat than the Sino equivalent.

The consequences of this golden era for Brazil’s political personalities were immense. The primary beneficiaries were the poor, not least those who lived in the favelas of the south. This was especially true of Rochina. Its isolation from other favelas and its now well-established tradition as a large market, both for the residents and for those coming from outside looking for a bargain, enabled it to ride the wave of economic confidence with a swagger. This growth spurt offered alternative employment to its younger men and women, and so the drugs trade became a somewhat less attractive career path.”

What was the biggest obstacle to political reform? Well, surprise, surprise: “The vested interests of Brazil’s powerful, if numerically small, economic elite proved deft in constructing numerous barriers.”

Amazon Link: Nemesis by Mischa Glenny

Read books, motherfuckers. Read books.

WTF #1 – A Cock and Ball Story

I took my almost-three-year-old son to the library a few weeks ago, asked him to flick through the rack and pick one out for us to read. He chose a gentle, harmless, lovely little tale about a… my blood ran cold. “Jack,” I thought to myself, “you appear to have eschewed the ‘children’s’ section in favour of the ‘books about gigantic cocks and bollocks’ section. I scanned through the pages. Originally French, eh? Christ, it had to be.

“Ah, let us raise a glass to arr new friend, who een no way looks like a reedeeculous beeg cock and balls.”

Barbapapa is a children’s book about a band of French folk and their good pal Billy Big Baws the Walk-n-Talk Cock. I would’ve made allowances for taste and decency had this been a cautionary tale about the dangers of intra-organal friendships or a warning about the dangers posed by male genitalia (especially the mutant variety), but a cursory examination of the text revealed that not a single human character in that story was moved to scream: “SACRE BLEU, WHYYY ARE WE WALKING DOWN ZE STREET WEETH THEES ENORMOUS NUTSACK, INSTEAD OF RUNNING FOR OUR LIVES’?” This book was unashamedly pro-baws.

I don’t know exactly what the hell is going on here, but I’m on the phone to le social services.

I’ve scoured the internet, too, and all I’ve found is a handful of people all reminiscing fondly about this book. Not one of them has pointed out the striking resemblance Barbapapa bears to a bouncy big boaby. It would be like us picking up a copy of Spot and discovering that the dog we loved as a child was actually a four-legged, hairy vagina.

“Fire! Fire! Queek, call ze fire brigade!” “Are you mad? Thees ees clearly a job for a giant spurting cock!” One wee guy’s even rubbing Barbapapa’s dirty blow-hole, for heaven’s sake!

CASE CLOSED

BARBAPAPA? BARBABIGCOCKANDBALLS, MORE LIKE!

F*** The Walking Dead Season 3: The Return of the Un-Fun-Dead

How can I describe Fear The Walking Dead for the benefit of those who haven’t yet sampled its delights? Here goes.

Imagine writing a list of all the things you love about The Walking Dead. Now imagine pulling your pants down and taking a long, slimy shit all over that list, working and twisting your hips so you actually spell the word ‘shit’ with your own shit as you shit it out, like piping the icing on the world’s most abominable cake. Imagine stomping your bare feet into all that shit, really spreading and squishing it around, and then getting a lamb to lick the mess from between your toes.

Well, I’d rather watch you do that than watch another season of Fear The Walking Dead.

So I guess that makes me a sicko as well as both an unhinged completist and a self-flagellating masochist, because I am going to watch another season of Fear The Walking Dead. Why don’t you join me? Or jump back in? Catch up. Take the plunge. Misery likes company, after all.

Here’s a re-cap of the action so far, presented in the sort-of style of a sort-of recipe.

Ingredients you’ll need to make:

A series which purports to show the fall of civilisation

The fall of civilisation (4 episodes)

Getting to a boat (2 episodes)

Being on a boat (4 episodes)

I wish that they were still on that boat (3 episodes)

What happened to that boat anyway? (2 episodes)

A hotel? A Mexican death cult? This could get interesting (4 episodes)

I was promised way more boat than this (2 episodes)

I suppose Fear The Walking Dead itself is a little bit like a boat, a broken boat; cast adrift on a rolling sea of plot as the tides of tired tropes and waves of cringe-worthy contrivances hurl and tug it hither and thither. It’s doomed to sail on uncertainly and aimlessly, at least until the day it’s dashed on the rocks of viewer apathy.

Despite garnering higher ratings than Better Call Saul (What the hell is wrong with Americans? No wonder you voted for Trump!) that day surely can’t be too far away. The only thing stopping me from jumping overboard with this show – “ABANDON SHIT!” – is the faint, infinitesimally small glimmer of hope that things might get better; that I might actually start to care about the characters.

Earlier this year The Walking Dead – FTWD’s zombie daddy – wrapped up what was arguably its weakest season yet. Even in its better days The Walking Dead was never likely to earn itself a place in Television Valhalla, standing shoulder to shoulder with the mighty classics of our age. It’s often clunky, schmaltzy and over-padded. Who cares though, right? Not every painter can be Van Gogh. Not every TV show can be Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or Rectify. But at least The Walking Dead is capable of turning out exciting, haunting, affecting and powerful episodes, and I actually care about most of its characters. Especially Carol. And except for Carl.

Fear The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is objectively – on the evidence of its episodes to date – a bad show, as I’m sure the subtle analogy I deployed at the beginning of this piece, involving lambs and human feces, made clear. The tag-line for Fear the Walking Dead’s upcoming season might as well be: “YOU ACTUALLY THINK THIS SHIT’S GOING TO GET BETTER, DON’T YOU?”

I hope it gets a lot better. I really do… Or at least marginally better.

Anyway, here’s a re-cap of the characters:

Madison Clark

Hi. I’m Madison. I’m an archetypal strong female character in the kick-ass-mom mould. Good, right? Well, no, because I’m poorly written and portrayed as if I’m a Vulcan at a funeral, walking around with a jaw like a steel-trap, frowning and moaning the whole time. Seriously, I’m so unlikeable I can’t even stand myself. I was in Deadwood. Remember that? Man, that was a good show. And now I’m in Un-Deadwood. Fuck. I wish I’d taken that part in The Strain. At least I’m not a total pussy like my boyfriend… whatever this name is.

Travis… thingy. Or am I?

Hi, I’m Travis. Or am I Curtis? I think I’m Curtis. Am I? Or is that the name of my actor? One’s Travis, the other’s Curtis. No, I’m Travis. I am Travis, definitely. Or am I Curtis? Fuck, is my name Cliff? Christ, I’m so boring and devoid of a concrete identity it’s no wonder I’ve no idea who I am. Dull, dull, dull. I’m desperately trying to survive a fledgling apocalypse here: how the Hell do I manage to be so utterly boring in the process? I just mope around all day looking like Tully from Sesame Street, and pissing on people’s parades. But don’t worry. I beat two punks to death at the end of last season. That was a wee bit interesting and people seemed to dig it, so they’re going to ‘Rick’ me up for season three. WE’RE GOING OVER THE CLIFF EDGE, BABY! Hmmm. That doesn’t work if my name’s not Cliff though. Travis… Travis… Travis… A-HA! WHY DOES IT ALWAYS BRAIN ON ME?!

Or am I Curtis?

Alicia Clark

Hi there, (bats eyelashes) boys are like soooo gross, shutup I love boys, oh God I love my iPod, but oh God I’d die for my boyfriend, he’s like my bff, oh my God, gross that is like SO unfair, oh my God I hate you guys, I’m such a girl, I’m so ditzy, oh I’m on a boat, OMG, boys, I can talk to boys out here, uh-oh I almost got us all killed, FML, I wish I wasn’t so naïve and blindly trusting and … (CHUNG CHICK) Hi there, that was the sound of me loading a fresh cartridge into my shotgun, that’s the kind of thing I do now, because I’ve just inexplicably woken up in possession of the wise, noble soul and tactical combat knowledge of a 900-year-old warrior-general, and the inner-calm of a Lara Croft android. I’ve gone from ‘Damn, she MOAN’ to ‘Michonne. DAMN’ in less time than it takes a man to check IMDB to see if I’m safe to wank over.

Nick Clark

OK, let’s get all of the Johnny Depp and heroin addict gags out of the way first, shall we? What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Zombies, that’s what! I’ll also give you Edward Needle-hands, Willy Wonky and Crack Sparrow. There. All out of your system now. Hi, I’m Nick. I worked out how to walk safely through hordes of zombies pretty early on in the apocalypse. You just smear yourself with zombie guts. I tend to do it every single time I’m out amongst the zombies, because I quite like being alive, unlike those fucking idiots on The Walking Dead. Anyway, give or take my recent spell in a Mexican death cult, I’m probably the best character on the show, which is a bit like being awarded best in show at Crufts when you aren’t actually a dog. Or maybe it isn’t. I’ve taken a lot of heroin.

Victor Strand

I’m mysterious. Christ, I’m mysterious. Look at me lounging against the bars of this cage in my dapper clothes, offering gruff nuggets of cod-philosophy and intrigue to my jonesing new friend, Nick. It’s like my old dad used to say: if you find yourself imprisoned under martial law during a zombie apocalypse, make sure you’ve got a junkie as your right hand man. Junkies are indispensable survivalists, and not a liability at all; everybody knows that. I’m Strand, by the way. Or am I? Who am I? Who are you? Who’s Abigail? Ah, forgive the mystery, it’s my boat, you see. And I’m going somewhere. Where? Well, aren’t we all going somewhere? Christ, there’s that mystery again. I’m also dangerous. Did I mention that? Can’t you see it? Dapper and dangerous. Positively stranger-ous. I’ll cut you and you won’t even know you’ve been cut. I’ll cut the rope on your dinghy. I’ll shoot you. I’M IN LOVE WITH DOUGRAY SCOTT. He was great in Love Actually. He wasn’t in it? Well, what was the one… Kathy Burke was in it. He had the long hair and that? Anyway, I love him, and we’re all going to Mexico so we can… Oh. He’s dead. Fuck. Erm… eh. Yeah. (sigh) I’m boring now.

Chris Manawa

Hi, I’m Chris, which is short for ‘Christ, I’m an awful character.’ Remember how you thought Carl Grimes was the most awful boy in existence? Well allow me to introduce you (points at self) to this cunt.

You watched me at the end of last season and thought to yourself, ‘Oh, thank goodness he’s dead, I hate that fucking guy’, and then when the guy who plays me appeared in Agents of SHIELD – as Ghostrider’s brother – you thought, ‘Phew, well that seals it then, he’s absolutely, definitely, incontrovertibly dead,’ and then the character was only in the show for about three episodes, and you thought, ‘Oh, fuck, maybe Chris ISN’T dead’. And then you couldn’t quite remember if my death had only been hinted at or if it had been shown on screen, and you thought to yourself, ‘Actually, now I’m thinking Curtis killed him… or did Curtis kill the guys who killed him? Wait, is it Travis or Curtis… but… shit, I can’t remember’, and then you didn’t even care enough to Google it.

Oh, and Ofelia, too. I guess she’s a thing?

F*** the Walking Dead returns to US screens on Sunday 4th June with a host of new characters, and hopefully the tragic death of a few old ones.

Scotland’s Hot-Spots and Pot-Holes: A Wee Tour

What self-respecting whistle-stop tour of Scotland could begin with anything other than a picture of the Bronx?

It pretty much goes without saying – except for the fact that I’m currently saying it – that we’re all different. People are different; places are different. People are different because of places, and places are different because of people. Some places are good, some places are bad; some are happy, some are sad; some are absolutely beautiful, some are Kilmarnock. Vive la difference! Taking a stroll through the posher portions of Corstorphine doesn’t feel quite the same as a wee jog through the Bronx, for the simple reason that there are far, far fewer cunts in the Bronx.

You needn’t travel half-way around the world to see such stark contrasts between places. Look in the next city over, or the next town, or the next street. Small steps can reveal seismic shifts in mood, architecture, diversity and affluence.

Case in point. Grangemouth and Bridge of Allan. Two towns nary twenty miles apart, but strikingly different, I’m sure we’ll all agree. I live in the former, and couldn’t afford a house in the latter even if Bridge of Allan were to be razed to cinders by a 700-megaton nuclear strike.

Yes, Mr Andrew, I can see that this property’s caught your eye. At offers over £500,000, this cosy impact crater filled with thousands of irradiated skulls is something of a steal. A lot of people would give their eye-teeth to live here and, believe me, thanks to the fallout, a lot of people now literally have them.”

Grangemouth at night: Bladerunner meets Dante’s Inferno, via The Wire

Grangemouth is famous for sky-cancer, violence, drugs, drinking, destitution, pollution, prostitution, deprivation, and Kay Adams. Bridge of Allan is famous for being twinned with ‘Raised Walkway of Colin’, New Hampshire, USA.

Grangemouth’s town centre comprises mainly fast-food outlets and betting shops. Bridge of Allan’s high street boasts a rich blend of bespoke brands, shops and outlets, that only a cousin of the queen could afford to shop in. Both of the towns have charity shops. There’s a slight difference in number. Bridge of Allan has one; Grangemouth has 19,658. Each and every one of Grangemouth’s charity shops smells like the soup-splattered bloomers of an incontinent octogenarian grandmother (‘Today’s special is broccoli soup with a soupcon of piss”); they sell things like nicotine-stained doillies; microwave instruction manuals from 1983 (that have all been vandalised with crayon-drawn pictures of penises); and MC Hammer albums on cassette (that somebody’s taped over with the game ‘Horace Goes Skiing’ for the ZX Spectrum).

Bridge of Allan’s charity shop, on the other hand, is actually a boutique, darling. It’s called ‘Mrs Periwinkle’s Benevolence-themed Haberdashery for Those of High Breeding’, and it sells pre-loved harps and tiaras made from unicorn teeth.

There’s the bridge. Allan’s just behind that tree. No, not that tree, the one next to it.

Just in case you’re not getting the picture here, I’d like to draw your attention to Bridge of Allan’s chip shop, which has a sign in the window declaring it ‘Gluten Free’. Not even kicks to the head are gluten-free in Grangemouth. Last time I was in Bridge of Allan, I found  only one example of street-littering. The litter? A handful of mussel shells. Bridge of Allan couldn’t be any more genteel and middle-class if somebody knitted it a giant Pringle sweater, and drove it away in a fucking Volvo. Even the graffiti on the bus shelter is in Latin (I believe the bus shelter’s just been purchased for £500k by a Saudi sheik).

Still, one man’s palace is another man’s hovel. People from Dollar and Dunblane think of Bridge of Allan’s residents as ‘schemies’.

“Well, McKenzie, I heard that in Bridge of Allan they drive their children to cello recital… (whispers) in BMWs.”

“Oh, Florence, those fucking savages.”

Linlithgow: a traffic jam with some bunting.

Just along the road from Grangemouth is the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow. It’s a town that’s steeped in history, prestige and affluence, sure, but it’s also a town that is, paradoxically, something of a shite-hole. Linlithgow’s worst feature is the architectural atrocity known as The Vennel, a retail and housing development that I guess developers and council officials fifty-plus years ago thought would give a modern, even futuristic, sheen to the town, but which now, in the cold light of day, makes it look like the 1960s have thrown up over the 1750s. The single road that cuts through the middle of Linlithgow’s high-end high-street is permanently clogged with traffic, which makes a trip through the town feel like being stuck behind the funeral procession of the person you hated most in the world whilst running late for the first day in your new job as a ‘Punctuality Co-ordinator’ for Linlithgow Council.

The name Linlithgow means ‘place in the lake by the damp hollow.’ Historians believe that the ‘damp hollow’ being referred to here is Bo’ness, a town that was built to serve as Mary Queen of Scots’ toilet. Bo’ness is in the process of being regenerated, but, regrettably, it’s being regenerated into Colin Baker. To be fair to Bo’ness, despite the fact that its town centre has all the vibrancy and razzmatazz of 1930s Albania, and its annual children’s festival is an alcoholic apocalypse, Bo’ness is actually a perfectly fine place to find oneself (as long as you don’t use words like ‘oneself’ in the open, or they’ll kill you). It will probably never find its name included in Scotland’s unofficial roster of shame, alongside less-than-salubrious towns such as Methil, New Cumnock, Cumbernauld, parts of Paisley and, of course,…  

Cowdenbeath’s hottest tourist attraction

Cowdenbeath? Cowdenbeath? What sort of a name is Cowdenbeath? It sounds like the act of explaining a slaughterhouse to a stupid person.

“Cow… den wheelbarrow?”

“Nope.”

“Cow den horse?”

“Try again.”

“Cow den beef?”

“You got it, smarty-pants!”

On the evidence of my one short trip there, filtered through the focal point of its local Co-op supermarket, Cowdenbeath IS a slaughterhouse; a slaughterhouse of the soul. It’s Slaughterhouse 1, 2, 3, 4 AND 5. Take the ‘laughter’ out of the ‘slaughterhouse’, and what are you left with? S-house. And that’s short for shit-house. Cow-incidence? I think not. Walking through the Cowdenbeath Co-op was like walking through the final level of a zombie FPS. Driving down its high street led me to believe that someone, somewhere is making an awful lot of money from the sale of plywood window-boards.

Still. There are worse places…

Imagine if Irvine Welsh made a film set amongst the Orcs of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, starring Jeremy Kyle as himself. You’ve just imagined Alloa. The tagline of Clackmannanshire, the town’s parent district, is ‘More Than You Imagine’; Alloa’s tagline is ‘It Really Is Just As Shit As It Looks, I’m Afraid.’ In fact, it’s even shitter than it looks. The bleakness and hopelessness of the place is somehow bigger on the inside, and the deeper you plod towards its centre, the more pronounced the effects become, like some haunted TARDIS controlled by the ghosts of Nazis. God seems to have taken great care when creating most of the places on earth; when he made Alloa he just poured a bucket of tattoos and limps over Central Scotland. I’ve never been so depressed and afraid walking through a town, and I’m from Grangemouth, remember? The last – and only time – I visited I took my son to a Manhattan-themed cafe for lunch. The Manhattan theme was an ill-fit, like lingerie on a corpse. If it resembled Manhattan at all, it was a Manhattan that King Kong had thumped and shat over. 

That’s not Alloa’s only incongruous (or Kingkonggruous, if you like) association. I find it cruel indeed that Alloa’s name is only one altered emphasis away from being a Hawaiian greeting, when Alloa is to Hawaii what Donald Trump’s ballsack is to … well, Hawaii. The impression conjured by that assocation with the South Pacific makes Alloa seem even worse by comparison. If you do receive a garland around your neck to mark your arrival in Alloa it’s more likely to be made of a burning tyre than lei. Please feel free to make your own joke about the wisdom of looking for a lei in Alloa.  

Throughout the course of this piece of writing I’ve catalogued a smattering of towns and highlighted some of the differences between them; all filtered, of course, through my own biases and prejudices, and written very much with tongue planted firmly in cheek (except for the bits about each of the towns I’ve mentioned – I meant every word). But do you know who else holds ideas about the differences that exist between places? Who not only knows about these differences, but can quantify them to the billionth decimal place, and will almost certainly use this data to take over the entire universe?

Asda.

That’s right. Asda. If you’re ever on the road and find yourself pin-balling between motorway service stations and retail parks, visit a broad sample of Asdas and have a good look at the things they sell. There are standards and staples, sure, products you’ll find in every Asda up and down the country, but sometimes the goods on the shelves – or the absence of particular goods – can speak volumes about the town in which you find yourself. Sometimes the look and feel of an Asda – the features it has – lets you know just what the retail giant’s evil overlords think of your town, or the town you’re in.    

The picture above is of Asda in Robroyston, and shows the police clearing up after the daily 11:30 murder. This Asda is bigger and boasts more mod-cons than its Grangemouth cousin, but inside it’s a green-and-grey carnival of lumpy people, whose faces have been morphed into masks of despair by the onslaught of life. This Asda makes the one in Grangemouth seem like a Monte Carlo Mardi Gras. Asda Robroyston does special deals on packs of razor blades, spades, body bags, and allows you to buy as much fucking paracetemol as you like.

Never mind the Office of National Statistics. There’s no better way to take the socio-economic pulse of the local area than a stroll through your local Asda. What’s that you’ve picked up there? Ah, a cumin and broccoli risotto sprinkled with shredded hundred-pound notes. I don’t know exactly where you are, but it’s probably not Fauldhouse, right? Have a look around the George department, why don’t you, try on some of the clothes. Are you wearing a £1.99 T-shirt with a picture of Tweety Pie on it, and cow-print leggings? Goooooooooood morning, Cambuslang!    

A trip round Asda in Bearsden will make you feel like a pauper, even if you’re a chartered accountant from Queensferry called Gerald. The place is big, and fresh, and clean. The cafe has mood lighting, for Christ’s sake. It looks like a trendy Scandinavian vodka bar. The check-out staff are all part-time astrophysicists. The people who shop there are unfailingly beautiful, and those who aren’t are at least immaculately turned out. No small wonder, since the clothes on sale in the George department wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Milan.

See below for a picture of Asda Bearsden.

Asda Bearsden

These big supermarkets hold data that could swing elections, and help governments address such over-arching global and societal problems as inequality, poverty and hunger. That they use their power to sell me £3 jeans and Pepperamis is almost unconscionable. Anyway, I can’t hang around here all day.

I’m off to Asda in Ayr to get myself a chocolate-flavoured brick of lard sandwich and a sub-machine gun.

More Sugar, Sweetie?

If you’re a parent, the following scene should be achingly familiar to you: a grandparent (or aunt or uncle or surrogate family member) arrives at your front door clutching a big bag of sweets for your children. You shake your head and sigh. A whole bag? The odd sweet now and again, that’s what you told them. How many times do you have to say it? Trust is shattered. There’s only one thing for it: you frisk them. You find another twelve bags of sweets… an easter egg under a false wig… and a string of Bounty bars stuffed around their waistband like a bomb-belt. You also realise that everything they’re wearing – every adornment and accoutrement – is edible: candy necklace and bracelet; candy watch; hell, even their specs consist of lollypops for legs, a liquorice frame and sugar-paper lenses.

Nice try,” you say as you confiscate the delicious specs. “Now, is that everything?”

You hear the beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep of a large truck reversing down the street towards your house.

Please tell me that truck isn’t anything to do with you,” you say.

They shrug. “I just ordered a couple of… hundred-thousand tonnes of hundreds and thousands….”

You shoot them a panicked look laced with incredulity.

…and… a million millionaire shortcakes.”


Becoming a grandparent, or being promoted to any rank of relative with ‘great’ in the title, appears to transform a person into a kid-seeking sugar missile, ever-ready to detonate payloads of sherbert over the pancreases of your little pride-and-joys. Trying to stop a grandparent giving a grandchild a megaton of chocolate has the same difficulty rating as trying to save John Connor from a Terminator. What makes it harder still is the fact that we as a society seem to have accepted this behaviour as if it were some sort of sacred rite. Some grandparents even see it as an ancient and inalienable right. Clearly it’s utter madness, and must be stopped. But how? And what arguments can we employ to dissuade these Mary and Marty Poppinses from encouraging our kids to use a spoonful of sugar to help the sugar go down?

I love you, sweetie: A brief history of grandparents

When I was a lad my maternal grandmother berated me for eating too many chocolates and glugging too many fizzy drinks: substances she considered more hazardous to my hyperactive brain than the purest Columbian cocaine.

Pinned to her fridge was a large list detailing all of the artificial E-flavourings present in junk food, each item accompanied by a brief summary of its evil: a diabetes-themed Da Vinci Code, if you will. Gran was convinced that those dreaded E-numbers were the invisible demons responsible for my back-catalogue of ungodly behaviour (crimes like smiling, laughing, and saying things), and only she and her sacred list clipped from a special double-page spread in The Daily Record had the power to exorcise them.

She treated that fridge like the Oracle of Thebes, always stroking it and talking to it in rhyme like some old crone from a Shakespearian play –

The young lad’s had a Double-Decker,

He’s speaking Greek, the crazy fecker.

What happens if he grabs his pecker???

Oh, sage old fridge, so full of Es,

Should I phone social services?”

But… on the other hand, my gran’s stance on my nutritional intake was rather inconsistent, evidenced by the fact that her anti-sugar militancy only seemed to apply to sugar consumed outside of her walls. Inside her house, it was Sugar City. I can’t remember a single visit to my grandparents’ house where I wasn’t greeted at the door by a leaning tower of biscuits the size of a Cape Canaveral space rocket; a tower composed of every creed and breed of biscuit known to human civilisation, all teetering together on a tiny china plate.

There were Bourbons, Kit Kats, Nice biscuits, coconut creams, Digestives, Blue Ribands, Yo-Yos, custard creams, Jammie Dodgers, Jaffa Cakes: the celebrities of the biscuit world all happily hob-nobbing with the hoi polloi. Even Rich Teas – those bland, un-biscuity discs of half-communion-wafer, half-polystyrene-frisbee; the Ned Flanders’s of the snack world – were invited to the party. A billion biscuits (give or take), and I was expected to devour them. All of them. Every single one.

I don’t know if my grandparents’ desire to see me eat somewhere in the vicinity of ninety-six biscuits each time I visited existed because a) they’d lived through war-time rationing and as a consequence had vowed never to be frugal with food again, or b) they just didn’t like me very much, and wanted me to get fat and die.

In a weird way, I thought of my grandparents as a couple of crumb-based Christs: biscuit, body and soul each inseparable from one another. You hurt one, you hurt them all. Diss the bis, you take the piss. Leave fat-stacked plate?: yer gran ye hate.

Are you going to eat that 28th bourbon, son,” my papa would ask me, a haunted look in his eyes, “Or would you prefer it if I just stood at the top of the stairs with a butcher knife gripped in each hand and hurled myself to an agonising end?”

That’s the way the biscuit situation made me feel sometimes. The expectation, the gratitude, blown out of all proportion inside my head. I’ll be honest with you, though: it was my papa who prepared the biscuit plates, and I think he just liked being as generous as possible with them because he was a nice old guy. Plus, to some extent, he knew not what he did. My gran’s obsession with E-numbers aside, anti-sugar sentiments weren’t as strong or as prevalent then as they are today. In this age of information, however, it’s almost impossible to plead ignorance over the fact that sugar is pretty much the devil’s dandruff…

…especially when I call this section: Sugar is pretty much the devil’s dandruff

Sugar is now such an undisputed evil of our age that the US military has added plantations to its approved list of overseas bombing targets, alongside schools, orphanages and hospitals. The criminal underworld has started welcoming its first black-market sugar barons, a veritable legion of Tate & Lyle Tony Montanas. Pharmacies are already dispensing Canderel to help wean addicts off the hard stuff, and politicians have promised that each town in Britain will have its own sugar rehabilitation centre by 2020. Sweet-toothed junkies line our streets, accosting citizens at all hours of the day and night: “Come oan, man, ah just need a few quid for a packet ae sugar, man, jist enough sugar fur one wee bowl ae Rice Krispies, man, then ah’m clean again, ah swear it.” Parents yell at their kids: “Are you INSANE, going out with a Twix stashed in your pocket with all of those vigilante anti-sugar Death Squads patrolling the streets??”

Sugar is the new salt. It’s the new smoking. We now know – after a few careless and carefree centuries of garnishing our kids’ vegetables with chocolate; encouraging them to brush their teeth with lollypops; and syringing hot sugar directly into their eyeballs – that too much sugar can turn a reasonably normal, well-adjusted, healthy child into a spotty, toothless meth-head with the strength of a polar bear and the life-expectancy of a mouse; the sort of kid who lists their hobbies as cat-strangling, booting old ladies in the face, and dying of a massive heart attack. Kids so riddled with diabetes that they’re nothing more than armless heads bouncing around on a single big toe; kids whose brains have been so short-circuited that they regularly mistake themselves for hawks; kids so fat that their parents have to roll them around like over-inflated tractor tyres.

Man with diabetes holding a stack of chocolate chip cookies

Grandparents may well offer sweeties and chocolates and fizzy drinks in the spirit of love, but how many ‘thank-you’ cuddles do they think they’re going to get once their grandchild has had their sugar-ruined arms amputated? Or have become so fat that you’d need a team of sherpas to circumnavigate the cuddle? Come on, grandparents. Don’t be a Donald Trump on the sugar issue: an old fuck who doesn’t care if the world gets nuked or choked, because he’s probably going to be dead next week – just so long as the people love him until then (admittedly, that latter part of the plan isn’t working out too well for Trump).

Yes, sugar will make tiny people love you. They’ll come to associate the endorphin rush they get from treats with the sight of your face: a Pavlova-ian response, if you will. Kids love sugar like coke-heads love coke, and, boy, do coke-heads really, really love coke. Don’t be your grandchildrens’ drug-dealer. Be their celery dealer. Give them a packet of stickers and a stick of mother-fucking carrot. Give them a command to drop and give you twenty, then reward them with some kale. PLANT CRESS IN THEIR MOUTHS?! 

“This sugar thing stretches WAY back – just like your gran used to. HIGH FIVE.”

You might encounter the following pro-sweetie argument – that I skirted over earlier in this piece – from older relatives: “I had to put up with this kind of thing from my parents, feeding my kids sugary shit all of the time, so you’ll just have to suck it up and put up with it, too, now that I’m a grandparent. This is just what grandparents do.”

Given that we as a species have only very recently started living beyond the age of twelve, grandparents – in the sense that we understand them now in our particular corner of the developed world – are a very recent invention, as are teenagers, and the very concept of childhood itself. Older relatives filling kids’ faces with sugar is not an idea that’s been passed down from generation to generation since the first caveman grandpa handed the firstborn of his firstborn a finger of Fudge, shortly before having his own distinctly un-fudgey fingers bitten off by a hungry sabre tooth tiger. In the grand scheme of the near-infinite universe, this practice is about as ancient as Eastenders.

Jesus did not break Kit Kats with his disciples instead of bread at The Last Supper, as he glugged the finest fizzy Cola Jerusalem had to offer. Nailed to the cross in agony, he didn’t wail out to the heavens above: ‘The absolute worst thing about this situation is the woeful lack of Yorkies.’ There weren’t groups of supporters crowded around Jesus as he slowly perished on the cross all trying to chuck Fun Size Mars Bars into his open mouth.

Biscuits themselves have only existed for about two hundred years, and even then for much of their existence they were probably made out of goat bladder and dog cheese. The first milk chocolate bar arrived in 1875. Jaffa Cakes came along in 1927. Penguins waddled onto the scene in 1932. See? We’ve had guns longer than we’ve had chocolate bars.

We could erase this madness from our behavioural repertoire overnight if we really wanted to, and our descendants would thank us (once they’d stopped laughing at how bloody stupid we were). There’s nothing time-honoured or sacred about the way grandparents dole out sweets and sugar; in much the same way that there’s nothing time-honoured or sacred about a modern day gypsy’s wedding dress (on the grounds that ancient traditions tend not to feature multi-coloured luminous neon dresses with bridal trains the length of a blue whale’s cock). We invented it. We can un-invent it.

But don’t get too preachy. We’re all addicted to sugar. We all eat too much crap. Let’s just try our hardest to stop the hearts of future generations exploding like stress-balls under the tracks of a tank.


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The Blunder Years: Toddlers and Friendship

06 Oct 2005 — Babies Crying — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

“I miss my friends.”

I felt a thud in the lumpy mattress of my heart. I looked at my son, Jack, in the car’s rear-view mirror, and saw that his little features were being weighed down by an achingly adult expression.

At that point he wasn’t much older than two, but here was a face already conveying levels of pain, regret and sadness seldom seen outwith the confines of the video for Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt. Surely toddlers can’t wear faces like that, I thought to myself. It was the sort of face you would imagine could only appear after the brain had been bombarded with nuclear-strength nostalgia: images of long ago summers spent running through the cornfields and dancing over lawn sprinklers, smiling and laughing and holding hands with friends, perhaps in slow motion as a wistful soundtrack scored the action, or an elderly Fred Savage added his pseudo-philosophical tuppence-worth. “We were happy. We were toddlers. We were the best of friends. Somehow we knew that this was it. That after this we were going to be on the long road to becoming the people we weren’t; the people that we didn’t know how to be. Our lives would never be this carefree again. So what else could we do? We joined hands, counted to ten… and violently shat ourselves.”

[Incidentally, in the commission of this throw-away gag that won’t be appreciated by anyone under the age of too-fucking-old I visited The Wonder Years’ IMDB page and discovered something cool. Do you know who provided the disembodied voice of future-Kevin? Only bloody Marv the burglar from Home Alone!]

I was driving Jack to a park and woodland above which loomed an old building that had as its centre-piece a giant stone pineapple, figuring the incongruity would give a pleasant jolt to the ever-knitting neurons of his burgeoning brain. Given his sudden shift in mood, I figured he could do with a jolt.

“I’m sorry, little buddy. You’ll see your friends again real soon, I promise.” It had been a great many weeks since he’d last seen his best pal – a little kid called Noah who shares a birthday with Jack, whose mothers met and became close friends after fate placed them in adjacent hospital beds post-partum – or any of his other toddler chums.

Jack’s sadness was total. Complete. We’re talking ‘Van Gogh running after the bus in the rain when he’s already late for his appointment to sign-on at the job centre’ sad. But much like the sadness of every other toddler on earth, it lasted for about three seconds before morphing into inexplicable euphoria; in fact, the only feeling to endure beyond the confines of the car that day was my sadness about his sadness – a sadness so fleeting that it wouldn’t even have outlasted your average mayfly’s awkward teenage phase.

Questions abounded. What could I do to make my son feel better? How on earth could he possess such a deep sense of the concept of friendship at this stage of his development? Especially since most of the time he was with his friends he either a) completely ignored them, or b) threw things at their heads. The questions kept coming – not all of them Jack-related. For instance: why is there a giant stone pineapple perched above a long-dead rich man’s house in a woodland in Central Scotland? Is there a reciprocal sculpture of a humungous alabaster square sausage above a cathedral somewhere in Costa Rica? Why do we Scots consider a square to be the best shape into which to chop our dead pigs? Do other countries venerate the man-made geometry of their foodstuffs? “Ah, Tecwin, pass me another slice of our world-famous triangular lamb, boyo.”

I discussed the ‘friend’ situation with my partner at home later on that day. It was heart-breaking for us to discover just how hard he was pining for his friends. At that point he hadn’t started attending playgroup, so we fretted that he wasn’t getting enough interaction with his peers and pals.

A week or so later, Jack and I were walking past the local play-park on our way to the shop when Jack suddenly got super-excited and started gesticulating in the direction of the park.

“My friends, my friends!” he cried, pointing at the gaggle of kids beyond the maximum-security cage that encircled the play-park. I peered in, expecting to see a familiar face or two. There wasn’t one to be found. They were all strangers. Every single one of them. Plus, they were all around twelve. “I want to play with my friends, daddy!” he hollered, as that same sadness from the Pineapple trip sank into his eyes, quickly joined by a hefty dollop of indignation. He started crying: “My friends, my friends!” he said, “Oh, father, I beseech you, my friends, I must have leave to speak with my friends! Monster! Gaoler! Oh heaven save me from this tyranny!”

I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly.

And so, the penny had dropped. In Jack’s brain the word ‘friend’ was synonymous with ‘other kid’. Or maybe he preferred his friendship Mayfly-style: e.g., “I like my friends like I like my coffee: instant.”

I love watching kids who’ve never met before interacting with each other. It’s refreshing. There’s no awkwardness, preamble, or ‘getting-to-know-you’ period. “So, are you from around here?” “What do you do for a living?” “Adjusting for inflation, how much do you reckon your toys are worth in the current economic climate?” Blah blah blah. Kids don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or what you do, so long as you know your way around a chute.

“Hi boy!” one of them shouts. “Hi girl!” the other one shouts back. And then they’re off: holding hands, bossing each other about, and running into the sunset in a birdsong of shrieks and giggles. One time at our local country park I and another dad – with whom I’d exchanged the grand total of one word – had to pursue our respective sons across a field, because the two of them had formed such an intense bond in the four minutes since they’d met that we oldies had ceased to exist, and presumably they were off to start a new life together in the forest.

“JACK! JAAAACCCCKKKKK! STOOPPPP!”

“JACK IS DEAD, DADDY, MY NEW NAME IS TREE McPLANTINGTON!”

I envy that. Single people will moan about how hard it is to meet a viable partner, but it’s even more difficult to find and make new friends – especially following the advent of parenthood when you discover that your social-life has choked and died like a fat, asthmatic pit-canary. It would be wonderful if we adults could emulate our young kids’ social interactions. Making friends would be a cinch. I could walk down the street and pass some guy who was wearing a ‘Sopranos’ T-shirt, and think to myself, ‘I bloody love The Sopranos; I’ll bet that guy’s on my wavelength’, and feel emboldened to grab his hand, swish it to and fro like a skipping rope, and say, ‘Hey, man, wanna go bowling with me?’ before pulling him down the street like a reluctant cow on market day. What do you think would happen next? Do you think we would giggle and skip down the street together, or do you think I would find myself sitting on the pavement coughing up my own teeth?

Jack – now a little over two-and-a-half – possesses an enviable, fearless confidence. He’ll talk to any kid, but he’ll also talk to any adult stranger. He has a deep and boundless curiosity about people in general, and it’s my sworn duty, my solemn responsibility as a father, to snuff that out of him immediately. Here there be monsters. The world isn’t safe. He doesn’t yet know that most people who walk the face of the earth are, to use the accepted psychological term, absolute fucking cunts.

It is cute, though: how he’ll introduce himself to literally any adult he encounters, usually with a weird bow, in the manner of some 17th century courtesan; how he’ll wordlessly insinuate himself into the middle of whatever activity an adult or a whole family happens to be engaged. I wish I could change the world… but I can’t, so I’ve got to change him (and his younger brother, Christopher, once he’s old enough to do anything other than laugh and shite himself). I need to guide Jack’s behaviour so that he’s aware of the potential dangers of strangers, but not so sternly or over-the-top that he becomes some jaded, fearful, feral dog of a boy, or loses his sense of wonder and self-confidence. I find that subtlety is always the key. For instance, if I’m out with Jack for a walk in the park, and he walks over to a man he’s never met before and starts blabbering about cartoon characters, showing off his new shoes or telling the man his name, I might just casually funnel my hands over my mouth and shout, ‘LOOK OUT, JACK, HE’S A PAEODOPHILE!’

We, as parents, will remain the be-all-and-end-all (Or Baaea, as the youth of today would probably call it) in our kids’ lives until our dying days… just so long as they don’t find out our secret. The secret that we’re shit. Laughably shit. Shit people, and even worse parents. We’re winging it. Completely and totally winging it. We don’t have a bloody clue. Half of our life has been spent getting it all wrong. And the other half has been spent lying about getting it all wrong, which we’ll continue to do, especially once our kids become teenagers and start calling us out on our hypocrisy, at which point we can open the emergency envelopes and draw out the sacred argument-winning cards that say things like: ‘WHILE YOU’RE LIVING UNDER MY ROOF, YOUNG LADY…’; ‘WHEN YOU MAKE YOUR OWN MONEY YOU CAN SPEND IT ON WHAT YOU LIKE’, and ‘YOU CAN JUDGE ME WHEN YOU WASH THE SKIDS FROM YOUR OWN PANTS, BOY.’  

I guess that life is a slow and constant retreat from the people who gave you life, into the bosom of your peer group, into the arms (and other parts) of a significant other, until finally you’re ready to repeat the pattern, and you too can raise children who will one day leave you in a corner to die: salivating and beshitted, half-mental and muttering about mayflies, giant pineapples and square sausage.

“Yep, that’s right, Dad, there was a giant pineapple. Could you see that through the window of the UFO you were abducted by? … Yes, doctor, if he shits himself one more time, just pull the plug.”

Donald Trump: The Apocalypse’s Casus Bellend

I have to keep reminding myself that Donald Trump has held office for a little over a month. It feels like his cartoon duck mouth has been issuing terrifyingly hilarious proclamations since before America was even discovered; as if the vortex of evil that propelled him to prominence is so powerful that it has bent not just reality, but also time and space to its will. “I was there at the creation of the universe. The ‘let there be light’ thing. That was my idea. And God was very appreciative, said my idea was the greatest. And when that light went on? No dinosaurs, people. FAKE. You know I’m right.”

I can’t envisage a single day in the next four years when I won’t see or hear the onomatopoeiac fart of his name. Being president must be doing wonders to stoke the fires of his pomposity, paranoia and narcissism: the entire world really is talking about him. Incessantly. Every hour of every day. Trump would have you believe that our obsession with him is due to a giant, media-fuelled conspiracy, or sour grapes on the part of the losing side, but it’s clear that Trump is a megalomaniacal ratings chaser who will stop at nothing to keep himself in the limelight, even if that means inventing terrorist attacks, banning journalists from his briefings, or labelling reality ‘fake’. We shouldn’t be too concerned about our attentions being hijacked by Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric: what should concern us is what would happen if we all chose to ignore him. He’d probably nuke Belgium, or declare war on Lidl.

Many people have been quick to point out the societal similarities between modern-day America and Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. There’s definitely some weight to that comparison, however there is one crucial, towering difference between Donald Trump and Hitler: Hitler was a good orator. If evil must have a face and a voice, then it’s a pity that this time around it’s got the face and voice of a malfunctioning android stuck in a six-phrase feedback loop, or a racist, half-mad taxi driver who’s been ripped from his cab, pushed behind a presidential podium and handed a scrap of paper that’s got ‘Everyone except you is an asshole’ scrawled on it in blood. When Trump talks he sounds like a man who’s being continually interrupted and fed lines by an invisible hologram only he can see, who’s also a complete fucking idiot. “Ziggy says there’s a 40 per cent chance that wall, wall, muslim, muslim, wall, wall, America, great, America, dude, wall, bad guys, bad dudes, enemies, bad dudes, wall.” “…What the fuck?” “Just say it, Sam! Just say it!”

Feel free to insert your own crude mustache.

Each day the world wakes up, switches on the TV and stares at the orange man with the nest of half-dissolved, beshitted candy-floss on his head, and thinks: how the fuck did this happen? The man has all the grace and articulacy of the giant man-baby who’s forced to fight Mel Gibson in Mad Max 3. His face vacillates between that of a man who’s sneering with disgust at the whiff of a particularly foul fart, and then smirking a little cause he realises it’s his own, and he likes it. He possesses all the charm of a bogey-soaked tissue bobbing in a warm flute of piss, and all the compassion of a malnourished tiger let loose in an orphanage. You wouldn’t trust him to be in charge of a tombola stall at the church fete, much less place a nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Seriously. How did this happen? Let’s rewind the tape, because somebody’s very clearly edited out a crucial sequence from this movie. Where’s the arc here? There’s no arc. It’s just: world is sane: world is crazy. Someone’s deleted the middle: the bit that explains this clusterfuck.

Within the space of a few short weeks, Trump has put a climate-change denier in charge of protecting the environment; placed a brain-damaged billionaire who struggles to comprehend basic facts in charge of education; classified dissenting (for dissenting read ‘truth-seeking’) journalists as enemies of the state; tried to erect an invisible wall to ban Muslims from entering his country; proposed to erect an actual wall around the border of another country; signaled that he’s ready to accept Vladimir Putin as his best-bro and role model; re-branded a smorgasbord of bare-faced lies as ‘alternative truths’; and harried, bullied, threatened, cajoled and alienated just about every section of society, with the exception of prickly white billionaires and the sort of alt-right, flag-waving, gun-toting tit-wanks that share both his disdain for reality and hatred for ‘the other’, whoever that ‘other’ happens to be in any given week. Never before has Orwell’s ‘1984’ been so successfully re-appropriated as a manifesto.

If you evaluate success in terms of capitalist excess, then Trump’s been a winner all his life. This is something, true or not, that seems to have struck a chord with many Americans, for whom Trump is the living embodiment of the American dream. If you’re rich and powerful, you must have worked for it, earned it. You must be smart, strong. You must deserve it, else you wouldn’t have got it. His supporters don’t necessarily think that Trump’s just like them, but believe that one day, with a little bit of graft and a lot less foreigners, blacks and socialists running around, they could be just like him. They admire his directness, his toughness, the way that his world-view hasn’t been corrupted by science, truth, nuance or articulacy. I’d maintain that just because you enjoy watching fictional sociopaths like Tony Soprano and Cersei Lannister ruling their empires with an iron fist, doesn’t mean that it’s a particularly good idea to elect a real-life sociopath to the most powerful office on Earth.

He looks like Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

You probably haven’t heard anything in the media about Trump’s financial successes. He tends to hide his light under a bushel, but if you listen really, really carefully to his speeches, you may occasionally, every so often, once in a blue moon, hear him mention it. Who am I kidding? No one’s better at telling people he’s better than people than Trump. His self-categorisation is, however, something of a hollow boast, given that he was born into his fortune. Look at it this way: if you happened to be born with a 6000cc engine in your back, and high-performance wheels instead of legs, then it would be rather churlish to berate your fellow competitors in the 100m sprint for failing to beat you with their shitty normal legs. Trump’s inherited wealth has always insulated him from failure, and gone a long way towards helping him construct and maintain the Death-star of his ego. The Art of the Deal, the most famous book Trump’s ever not-actually-written, only really needed one page, with the following written on it in big, bold letters: Be born a billionaire.

Given his arrogance and privilege it’s little wonder that Trump’s such a stranger to reality; his life must be like a virtual-reality tycoon simulator with cheat mode enabled. Trump was free to run his businesseses with a cold heart and an iron fist, pushing his employees around, conning his customers, eliminating competitors with the dead-eyed zeal of a Nazi death-camp commandant, and generally treating people like dog-dirt quesadillas, and people would applaud him for his tough-talking, get-results-damn-it, business acumen; and if they didn’t, or if one business or a thousand businesses imploded in a shock-wave of lawsuits, bad PR and bankruptcy, then who cared, right? Blame the government, blame the media, blame the Chinese, lie, lie, and thrice lie, pick up another bundle of dollars, clean the slate, and start again. Unfortunately, if you take the same set of principles necessary to succeed as a ruthless CEO with an infinite supply of inheritance behind you, and apply these to government, then what you are is a dictator.

Trump is reminiscent of a vengeful Scientologist, or the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who famously appeared on camera with a fleet of American tanks behind him to claim that there wasn’t a fleet of American tanks behind him. Lying is such an integral part of Trump’s strategy and defence mechanism that it’s difficult to believe anything that he says. Even his fortune is up for debate, given the amount of businesses he’s allegedly sent to the grave. But it doesn’t matter. Some evil supercomputer has calculated Trump’s ground-base of support down to a man, and told him what TV stations they watch, which news outlets they read in print and on-line, and what size of shoe they take. All he has to do is keep preaching to the converted, telling as many outrageous and egregious lies as he likes, and they’ll always be lapped up, and never cross-referenced. “Ostriches are green. Japanese TVs electrocute people. Barack Obama once killed a penguin with a hole-punch. I’ve never met Vladimir Putin… who is he again? I’m so smart. My hands are the size of frying pans. Mexicans are responsible for ISIS. I cured AIDS.”

If Trump really believed his rhetoric, then his best weapon against his critics would be the steady, patient unveiling of his vision to Make America Great Again, piece by piece, encouraging transparent democratic debate every step along the way. After all, if a man was lying bleeding on the street, and I could help him, but between me and that man was another man, who was shouting out vicious slurs about my motivation and intentions, then I’d still move forward and help the bleeding man. I wouldn’t thunder off in a fit of rage, and proceed to hold scores of press conferences in which I angrily discredited the shouting man, as the other man – the one I was supposed to be saving – died in the street.

I guess it begs the question: who, or what, does Donald Trump want to make great? Because it sure as shit doesn’t seem to be America.

My awesome Ghostbusters prank

The little Ghostbusters wheeze you’re about to enjoy has been two years in the making. It started with this article in the local paper in March 2014, when paranormal writer Brian Allan made this plea to the people of Falkirk to get in touch with him about spooky goings on at the old Bellsdyke hospital in Larbert.

Well, of course I couldn’t resist. I wondered if by assuming the mantle of an elderly gentleman by the name of William Murray (I hit the ground running with the Ghostbusters references, folks) I could convince Mr Allan to print a paranormal account that was ostensibly a scene from Ghostbusters, padded with plausible background details and a liberal sprinkling of veiled Ghostbusters’ references.

The answer? Yes. Yes I could.

Unfortunately, Mr Allan didn’t manage to amass enough relevant material to publish a book on the subject; however, my account was finally published as part of an article that appeared in the September 2016 edition of Phenomena Magazine – a monthly, on-line E-publication dealing with the paranormal that enjoys a far-flung readership.

Read the account of (ahem) William Murray below by clicking – and then clicking again to make it full size:

Page 1 – The account of William Murray

Page 2 – The account of William Murray

I guess Brian Allan was ready to believe me.

Four days after the piece appeared on-line, I received this email from Brian – who, remember had been corresponding with my invented alter-ego on-and-off for about two years.

Hello William,
Just to let you know that your contribution to the Bellsdyke Hospital article went into the magazine this month and I did enjoy the reference to Ghostbusters along with the rather good anagram on ‘Pers Enggleson’ for Egon Spengler one of the actors, not forgetting Bill Murray.  I thought about it and decided to run with it anyway, because I wondered if any of the readers would pick up on it, so far none have.
Brian Allan,
Editor, Phenomena magazine

 

Clearly Brian was caught with his pants down a little here, but I’d like to take this opportunity to salute him as an impassioned, inquisitive, earnest and sweet human being, who’s clearly able to laugh at himself. He’s an all-round good sport and a good egg. I didn’t enjoy the necessary deception involved in this wheeze, and certainly didn’t anticipate the whole thing would be such a drawn out affair, from initial approach to publication. This was supposed to be a gag to tie in with Ghostbusters’ 30th anniversary.

And, remember, if you ever come across things that go bump in the night…

Who you gonna call?

Brian Allan.

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Link to the website of Phenomena Magazine

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Why it’s time to bid farewell to Santa (or: Why Santa is bad for your kids’ elf)

I could sit in a circle of peers and announce that I don’t believe in Yahweh, God, Vishnu, Allah or a giant turtle that holds the known world atop its back as it crawls through the cosmos, and most of them would probably accept this declaration with a silent nod or a shrug of the shoulders. Never mind that in certain countries, among certain people and cultures, such a vow would earn me a spell in prison, a steak knife to the stomach or death. Here in the modern, secular west, I can profess belief, or its lack, in whatsoever I choose and be almost certain of a tolerant reception. But try to tell people that I don’t want to play along with the Santa myth we force upon our kids, and I’m treated like a scar-faced leper with a vest of grenades and a public masturbation problem.

The sprawling Santa conspiracy, global in its reach, in which we entangle our children raises a multitude of uncomfortable questions, and comes at a terrible price: not least of which is the spirit of shattered trust in which it’s perpetuated.

All other western cultural norms are fluid, it seems, except for this one. Never this one. The only things that will grant you an exemption from Santa are deeply-held fundamentalist Christian beliefs or adherence to a non-Christian faith, and even then you’ll probably still be regarded as a destroyer of children’s dreams.

It’s clear that there’s something about this little red-and-white lie that’s seen as integral to and inextricable from a hearty and wholesome childhood. There’s a concomitant notion that somehow the act of debunking Santa holds the potential to obliterate a child’s capacity for innocence and imagination, and quite possibly leave them with the dull, jaded outlook of a middle-aged chartered accountant on the eve of his second divorce. Or else turn them into a fleet of joyless androids each with the face of Richard Dawkins.

Santa is but one fictional character in a cast of thousands. Why should he get special dispensation when it comes to the laws of reality? I regularly read my son stories about alien encounters, magical beanstalks, sentient robots and talking horses, without ever feeling the need to perpetuate the entertaining fallacies inherent in the source material. No-one would consider it heresy for me to explain to my son that horses can’t really talk; knowing this fact doesn’t in any way limit his imagination or detract from his very real enjoyment of the story. Penguins don’t have jobs, dogs can’t moonlight as policemen, there’s no such thing as ghosts, people can’t turn green and smash buildings when they’re angry. He knows that, or at least these things have been explained to him. He doesn’t care. He still mimics these characters and scenarios, and riffs on them in his own unique, imaginative way when he’s running about the house or play-acting with his toys.

The power of Santa compels him… to do very little

Here’s a question for you: why does Santa deliver unequal amounts of toys to the children of the world? Why does he deliver more toys to affluent families than he does to poor families? Clearly, on the great sliding scale of political ideology, the red-jacketed sleigh-racer is more tightly aligned to conservative notions of capitalism than he is to communism, or socialism. If your kid goes back to school after the winter break with a new pair of cheap shoes and a toy laser gun, and has to listen to another kid bragging about his £1000 home entertainment system and surprise trip to Disneyland, what is he to infer about his worth in Santa’s eyes? Should he castigate himself for being too naughty, placing the blame for his poor festive haul upon his own tiny shoulders? Or should he just conclude that Santa doesn’t really like him all that much?

Remove Santa from this equation, and you’ve still got a problem with unequal distribution of wealth and resources in society, married to an unslakable thirst for goods and gadgets that’s only heightened and reinforced by our media, but that’s an argument for another time (besides, there are more learned, original and eloquent thinkers out there with better and more important things to say on the topic than little old me).

Consider also this point: Santa is an omniscient being who has mastered time itself, can travel around the globe and back in one evening, and can apparently conjure an endless supply of toys from thin air, much as another bearded magician once did with water, wine, loaves and fish. Santa uses these powers not to alleviate suffering, lift people out of hunger and poverty, cure the sick and the lame or to usher in a new era of world peace, but to drop toy robots down chimneys. What a role model. He’s no better than Sooty, or Jesus.

You can emphasise the magical, imagination-stretching benefits of a child’s belief in Santa as a rationale for deceiving your children, but when I hear Santa’s name mentioned by parents, more often than not his name is evoked as a correctional tool rather than as an instrument of wonder. Be nice, behave, go to bed, tidy your room, eat your dinner, or Santa will cross you off his list, and you won’t get any toys. By weaponising Santa in this way, parents have created a bearded boogeyman to scare or bribe their children into behaving the way they want them to. This may be an instantly effective, no-nonsense behavioural control technique, but then so is smashing them in the face with a cricket bat.

The sad truth is that parents are conditioning their children to be good not for goodness’ sake – as the old snowman song goes – but to be good so they can get a new TV. They’re being encouraged to equate virtue with financial reward. Part of being a happy, successful and fully-socialised human being necessitates a degree of sacrifice, negotiation, humility and deference. These are qualities – and modes of conflict resolution – that shouldn’t need a chuckling demigod, or the dangled carrot of a PlayStation 4, to be fully realised.

My family and I were in a shopping mall at the weekend, and passed by a Santa’s grotto. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something deeply sinister and ritualistic about the line of dead-eyed kids shuffling up to receive their gifts. They were like a cult. Ho ho ho. Here’s your new church, kids, here’s your new Jesus: roll up, roll up, as we inculcate you into the wholesale religion of consumer greed.

We experience rather enough problems with the religions we already have, thank you very much, without adding Santaism to the list. While belief in Santa may be the ‘Temporary Profile Picture’ of quasi-religious micro-faiths, it worries me tremendously that a belief in the supernaturalness of Santa might serve as a gateway drug to harder fictional beings, like Jesus or Moroni.

Imagine the scene in a household where a child who has been raised in a pro-Santa Christian family finally discovers that Santa isn’t real.

CHILD: “Ah, so Santa was all a big lie, was he? That’s hilarious. You had me, you did, you really had me, you got me hook, line and sinker with that one. So, come on, put me out of my misery. Jesus, right? Come on, the cat’s out of the bag. You made him up too, right? Miracles, walking on water, rising from the dead. I knew there was something iffy about that. I’ve got to hand it to you, though, you’ve created a genius fictional character there.”

PARENT: “Em… nope. Nope. That’s all true. Em… Jesus is real.”

CHILD: “…”

(Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Santa – employed properly – could be the antidote to Jesus: the great flicking wrist to bring down the whole house of cards.)

Parents and guardians are the people that children listen to and look up to above all others, whose word is gospel for a significant proportion of their young lives. For them to distort a child’s understanding of the laws of time, physics and the universe is an unforgivable crime. Nothing should be done to inhibit a child’s burgeoning critical faculties, or to corrupt their very sense of the world as an observable, rational and comprehensible place.

Don’t get me wrong. I myself used to believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus. I used to get letters from him, in this very ornate handwriting. I thought, this could only be the work of a magical being, he writes like a bloody pro. This guy’s the real deal. I also used to get plenty of Valentine’s cards. I don’t think I can properly express the horror I felt on the day I was old enough to realise that the letters from Santa and the Valentine’s cards were all in the same handwriting. That was a shock to me. “Well, Santa. I see last year’s presents have come with a few strings attached. I’m not that sort of boy. But maybe throw in a few easter eggs and we’ll talk.”

The truth was even more horrible. I cross-referenced the Santa letters and the valentine’s cards with the handwriting on my birthday cards. They were from my gran. “Roses are red, I’m your mum’s mummy, I am going to put you, back up in my tummy.” I know she was just trying to boost my fragile little-boy ego, but I really bought in to the whole romantic fantasy. And all that time the unrequited love of my young life was a bloated septugenarian who smelled of cabbage. I was cat-fished by own gran before it was even a thing.

I guess what really irks me about this time of year is the fact that Santa is a secret I’ve had no say in. You don’t need Santa to make Christmas magical, but you do require his absence to maintain an honest and healthy stance on both our society and the universe itself. My silence is being demanded, not to preserve the mystery and magic of the festive season, but to stop me from blowing the whistle on the millions of other families who have chosen to deceive their children. Families who want to keep using Santa as a four-month-long carrot-and-stick combo. This only makes me want to blow the whistle all the more; to send my sons into their future schools with information bombs strapped to their brains, ready to blast your children in their faces with the bright light of truth.

I always want to be truthful with my children.

“Daddy… what happens to grandma and grandpa now that they’re dead? Have they just disappeared? Will I ever see them again?”

“…”

“Daddy?”

“TWO MONTHS UNTIL SANTA COMES, WEE GUY, ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS I AM??!!”

I think I do, anyway.

Negan: The Walking Dead’s Saviour? Emmm…

Negan in the comic books is physically imposing and plausibly psychotic. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a fine actor, but he somehow doesn’t feel like the right man for the role. Negan needed to be part Henry Rollins, part Tony Soprano, and part Wilson Fisk. For his interpretation of Negan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan seems to be channelling Ian McShane’s mid-life crisis. I’m convinced by neither his physicality nor his charm. He spends the bulk of his time on screen slinking about in his ‘geez a gobble’ leather-jacket, cradling a barbed cock-proxy and blathering about pussies. He’s little more than a post-apocalyptic, post-watershed Del Boy; a washed-up Fonzie after a long spell in AA.

TV Negan doesn’t seem especially cunning and, crucially, he doesn’t inspire dread, tension or terror like the Governor or the crazy cannibals before him. When he raises his voice to shout, employing his weirdly over-emphasised, sub-Shatner shtick, it’s not a mercurial, megalomaniacal, homicidal demigod that’s brought to mind, but a hitherto mild-mannered deputy head teacher losing his shit at the school assembly. TV Negan is simply a smug, sleazy, cheeky asshole, who just happens to have insinuated himself into a position of supreme authority while everyone was looking the other way. Not only does he not feel like a real and credible threat, he doesn’t even feel like a real guy; just a composite of hammy panto villains, a wicked step-mother that occasionally gets to stove people’s heads in with a baseball bat.

The Saviours themselves are an odd phenomenon, too. Here’s a band of maniacs hundreds strong, spread out across a wide geographical area, with outposts and spotters and tentacles everywhere, and yet the group from Alexandria never encountered them once. Not until Rick and his crew turned up dragging death and bad-luck behind them like a plough. These days, no-one can sneak out for a piss without a man with an AK47 jumping out from the bushes and demanding half. Negan himself was introduced as a near mythical figure, always spoken of in hushed tones; a living legend that was as elusive as a smile on Michonne’s face; a man who never revealed himself, and kept to the shadows, his people even employing the old ‘I Am Spartacus’ technique to keep his identity hidden from the masses… what happened to all that? Now the gobby fucker pops round for tea about six times a week, usually without back-up. He’s an enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an illuminous jacket with a GPS tracker in the top pocket. He’ll be doing a fucking book tour next.

I can’t wrap my head around the mechanics of how TV Negan managed to amass such a cowed and loyal, multifarious following of normals and nutcases alike; deeply puzzled as to why he hasn’t been assassinated. He doesn’t seem to have an especially sympathetic or trustworthy high command around him to act as his buffer, and any carroty behaviour he exhibits is rendered pretty much void by his vast preference for the stick. I get that other people’s greed and fear, and the carte blanche he gives them to unleash their ids while in his company keep them enjoying (or submitting to) Negan’s reign of terror, but that again begs the question: why hasn’t one of the innumerable violent psychopaths in his crew assassinated him?

All Negan seems to do is talk. And talk. And talk. And talk. Punctuating every other line with a triple knee-collapse, like he’s just finished a particularly tricky tap dance: ta-da! Or perhaps auditioning for a new, post-apocalyptic boy-band (sometimes I think he’s going to launch into that thing people do where they pretend to be walking down a set of stairs). And talk. And talk. And talk. And talk some more. Man, does that guy talk. Every episode in which he’s yet featured has consisted of five per cent Daryl scowling, five per cent Rick’s cry face, ten per cent Carl’s atrocious attempts at emoting, forty per cent people wandering in the forest, twenty per cent miserable people whispering in dark rooms, twenty per cent cheeky ‘I’m yer pal but I’m no really yer pal’ winsome grins, and six thousand per cent Negan talking.

In the comics, Negan’s talking is a joy to behold, principally because he’s allowed to talk as a real murderous dictator would, and not in a watered-down, neutered way to make his stylings appropriate for American network television. Negan does the ‘poopy pants’ line he utters upon first meeting Rick in the comics, too, but because he also peppers his sentences with a barrage of fucks, the discordance of the ‘poopy pants’ line renders it – and his entire subsequent speech – both scarier and funnier.

Here are some choice excerpts of comic-book Negan getting his swear on:

“So now I’m going to beat the holy fuck fucking fuckedy fuck out of one of you with my bat.”

“And here I am. Friendly as a fuckless fuck on a fuck free day.”

“You think I got all these little communities at my feet because I roam the countryside bashing in Asian-American skulls? That’s no fucking way to make friends. Everyone toes the line because I provide them a service. I keep them safe. We’re the saviours, not the kill your friends so you don’t fucking like us at alls.”

“I assure you, m’am, he’s dead as fuck.”

“So now our big swinging dick is going to swing harder…and faster, until we take off like a motherfucking helicopter and blow all these motherfuckers away.”

Isn’t it odd that the network and its advertisers aren’t too concerned about things like a man being literally torn apart in a set of revolving doors, or rotten corpses chasing after children, but absolutely will not tolerate the use of the word ‘fuck’? That’s the word I use when I stub my toe. I can only imagine what I’d say if a zombie tried to rip my cheek off with its stinking, contaminated teeth. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be ‘Cor blimey, guv’nor, this is a pickle and no mistake.’

I often wish that HBO had picked up ‘The Walking Dead,’ thrown a bigger budget and a more authentic cavalcade of sex, swearing and violence at the screen. More and more, I’m coming to prefer the insane inventiveness and all-round bat-shit craziness of SyFy’s Z Nation, which – while clearly ridiculous – always leaves me with a grin on my face. The arrival of Negan in The Walking Dead comics heralded an upswing in risk, excitement, tension, horror, hope and humour. I can’t say the same for the TV show, which appears to have slipped into a coma in its seventh season, awaiting a final and merciful headshot. Season six wasn’t perfect, but it at least had a smattering of excellent episodes to balance out the dreck and the crass manipulations. Season seven has Negan. That should’ve been enough. Sadly – at this stage at least – it isn’t.

Come on, Negan, Mr Poopy Pants. There’s still time for you to save the show by fulfilling your destiny as Mr Motherfucking Shitty Fuck Pants.

Admit it: you prefer one child over the other

birthy1When my son Jack was born, I was filled with an almost cosmic feeling. I took to the keyboard and rattled off an effusive essay that encapsulated my feelings of fatherly pride and love, factoring in a rejection of God and religion along the way. I saw myself in Jack. He was me, I was him. I understood something of the universe, and my place within it. I poured all of my hopes and dreams into the tiny vessel of his wailing, reddened body. He was my world. He was the world. He was everything.

We were a family.

The problem I now find myself facing, following the birth of my second son, Christopher, is how can I write such a thing twice? How can I feel all of that twice? Look at it this way, through the prism of another variety of human love: if you write a book of poetry for your first wife, what the hell do you give your second wife? Two books of poetry? A Ferrari? A dismembered ear? And given how passionately you articulated your undying love the first time around, how can you convince your second wife that your present feelings are to be believed without cheapening the memory of the just-as-genuine feelings you experienced with your first wife?

It goes without saying that I felt a great rush of relief and happiness when Christopher emerged alive and intact from his maternal cocoon; an explosion of love and affection and an urge to safeguard and protect that was only amplified when I held his fluttering, mewling, helpless little body against my skin for the first time. But I also have this guilty, soul-curdling feeling that, this time around, I didn’t feel as much, or as strongly.

Some of it’s the novelty factor (but imagine that I’ve used a word other than ‘novelty’, which usually conjures up images of an electronic singing fish you’re given for Christmas, laugh at once and then throw in the bin). What I mean is, the whole event and its after-shocks the first time around were unmapped, mysterious and terrifying. Now we know what we’re doing, and we know what to expect. For instance, during the first two weeks of Jack’s existence there wasn’t a single moment where both my partner and I were asleep at the same time. We took it in shifts to sit awake with him, all through the day, all through the night, in a bid to ward off surprise attacks from all manner of unwelcome scenarios. A watched kettle never boils, we reasoned: a watched child never dies.

It’s a gruelling time, as all first-time parents know. Each and every sound Jack made acted upon our nervous systems like a fire alarm. Dangers lurked around every corner, and between each of his miniscule breaths. That fear, which can never fully be exorcised, has now been dampened, and with it, I’m sure, some of the spikes of over-powering relief and devotion that follow in fear’s wake. Christopher can now enjoy a set of new, improved and fully desensitised parents. He could scream like a banshee as a giant mutant hawk splintered in through the living room window, and our response would most likely be some species of Parisian shrug.

I guess some of my more subdued feelings can be attributed to my partner’s style of mothering. She breast-feeds and co-sleeps, meaning that my part in proceedings is necessarily limited. Yes, it’s important that I form a bond with Christopher; it’s important that he knows who I am and comes to recognise me as one of the core people sworn to love and protect him, but nothing is more vital – in these early stages at least – than his bond with his mother. If he’s hungry, she feeds him. If he’s frightened, she soothes him. If he soils himself, she… well, okay, I should probably be doing that, too.

birthy3My partner and I decided that the best use of my time during my absence from work would be to concentrate my attentions on Jack; help out the team by occupying its most vocal and demanding member. Take him places and busy him to soften the blow of his mother’s attention being refocused on his little brother. There’s an element of strategy at play, but it’s certainly not an imposition. Jack, at his present stage of development, is endlessly fascinating: his capacity for joy, jokes and affection grows visibly each day; likewise his intelligence, vocabulary and curiosity, the outer-limits of which are increasing exponentially, like a universe expanding. I love being around him, seeing what he does, seeing how he thinks, watching him laugh, coo, cry and dash about, all the while helping to give his critical and emotional faculties a leg-up. He’s fully-formed and ready made, and I can see the difference I make to his life in real-time.

Of course we’ve also been careful to ensure that Jack spends as much time as possible with his mother, both within the wider family and one-on-one; to remind him that although his little brother requires the lion’s share of his mother’s time, he’s not any less important, loved or valued. It’s important for my partner, too, who dearly misses the closeness of the bond she once shared with Jack. In some sense, the baton’s been passed to me. I’ve been privileged these past few weeks to share the bulk of my time with him, and for a long time now I’ve been the one who’s there with him at bed-and-bath times; the one he crawls next to in bed when he toddles through from his bedroom in the dead of night, wrapping his arms around my neck, burrowing into my chest as his body resigns peacefully to sleep.

birthy2You’re not allowed to prefer one child over the other. But how can you avoid it? At least initially. How can I feel equal affection for a living toddler and a cluster of cells in my partner’s womb? (Should I feel love for my nutsack, being as it is a site of potential future Jamie and Jemima Juniors?) Or even a living toddler and a screaming, half-blind purple baby who does nothing but gurn, yelp and poo? Imagine you had two mates: one you could sit and watch Ghostbusters with, and then take on an imaginary ghost hunt around your house; and one who just sat there saying nothing and shitting himself all day? Be honest with yourself.

Who you gonna call?

It’s a taboo thought. You’re not supposed to express a preference for one child over the other, under any circumstances. Before I was a parent, I’d hear people talk about sibling rivalries and jealousies, and the parental imbalances that fuelled them, and I’d say, ‘That’s horrendous. A parent should love their kids equally, no matter how many they have, or how different they are. I think it goes without saying.’ And now, as I get older, and especially since becoming a parent, I’ve found myself thinking… hmmmmmm. I’m looking at other people’s families, at their brothers and sisters, and aunties and uncles, and mums and dads, and I’m thinking, ‘Actually, I can see why they might prefer the other one…’

What worries me most is what will happen in a year or two when Jack is much more self-reliant, and his little brother is hitting the same bench-marks that he’s hitting now; when Jack begins his long, slow journey to becoming a responsible and free-thinking boy, shedding his adorableness along the way as the air rings out with a chorus of ‘nos’, ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’, all accompanied by the percussive beat of stamping, tantrum-tapping feet? Will I find myself secretly, perhaps even subconsciously, preferring Christopher? How do I stop myself from feeling this stuff, and if I can’t stop myself from feeling it, then how do I counter the effects of these feelings – how they manifest in my behaviour – to ensure that I screw my kids up as little as humanly possible? Because some element of screwing them up is inevitable. Over to Philip Larkin, who can offer us some concise, brutal and eloquent words on the subject:

This Be The Verse

   By Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
                            ~
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
                            ~
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.
                            ~

familyAll of this has got me to thinking about my grandparents, who came from broods ten and twelve strong. If we accept the proposition that the continuation of our genes is the only real point of existence – biologically-speaking of course – then it figures that the bigger the family, the more perfect the expression of this point. But how are we to square this in-built desire to sire with our modern Western notion of parenthood? A notion that holds at its core the idea that we should be able and willing to devote not just time but ‘quality time’ to our children; to be able to guide them and closely oversee their development as loved and loving, free-thinking individuals? After all, smaller class sizes are better, right? Or, in the context of the family unit, will having multiple siblings actually help promote intelligence and language skills? Anyway, never mind the question ‘How can you love twelve children equally?’: how can you even remember their bloody names?

I genuinely believe that much of Osama bin Laden’s thirst for chaos, death and domination was a direct result of having to share his parents’ presence and affections with literally scores of siblings. Forget ‘middle-child syndrome’. What the hell would you have to do to get noticed in that family? I wonder if young Osama began his mission for attention in the traditional manner, perhaps by riding his bike up the street shouting, ‘Look, papa, look at me, no hands!’ (Although that’s probably a phrase you’d be more likely to hear from a Saudi kid after they’ve stolen a bike) Look, Papa, look, I’ve got an ear-ring! I’ve got a tattoo! I’m living in a cave, a real-ass cave, Dad, look, look at me, look at my beard, it’s so long, and my minions, I’ve got minions, Dad, thousands of minions!!! Do any of my other brothers have minions, hmmmm? Hmmmm? I’m even on TV. Dad!! Dad!!!?? Dad!!!!!? Won’t you look at me? Can’t you see what… Oh, fuck it. [launches terrorist attack on the US mainland]. NOW YOU’LL NOTICE ME, DAD!

Osama’s Dad: [sighs] Why couldn’t you have just been a painter and decorator like your brother, Barry bin Laden?

birthy4

It seems that I’m so loathe to engage with my feelings on this subject that I’ve taken us down a highway of distraction to 9/11 itself. Sorry about that. Here’s both an update and a coda, though. While I’ve been writing this article, Christopher has been changing and growing. Yes, he still lists his favourite hobbies as pooing and drinking milk, but the more he’s in my life, and the more times I hold him in my arms and see my reflection in the milky black of his tiny feral eyes, the greater the power he exerts over my heart. I was cradling him in my arms a few days ago, and caught sight of us both in the mirror. I know he’s tiny, and helplessly delicate, but something about that moment, about seeing it and feeling it, caused a sharp surge, like a shock of electricity, to zap down my spine. My little boy.

Yesterday, as I lay Christopher down to change his nappy, he looked up at me, little limbs flailing like a penguin who’s really bad at dancing, and his face contorted into a smile. I know he’s too young for real smiles, and this was just a wind-sponsored facsimile. Try telling that to my heart. He made a wee cooing noise too. We’re a bit far from ‘Daddy’ at this stage of his linguistic development, but never-the-less: I heard Daddy anyway.

I think we’re going to be okay.

[But, just to be clear, Jack’s still in the lead so far!]

[PS: Hi, Christopher-of-the-future. Thanks for reading this. This is the reason you’re a heroin addict today. Love you!]

READ MORE ARTICLES ABOUT PARENTING BELOW

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Being at the birth

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Parent and child parking spaces: the dos and don’ts of not being a dick

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

The (not-so) hidden horror of your children’s fairy tales

Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

When people take pictures of your kids

The (not so) hidden horror of your children’s fairy-tales

Jack and the Beanstalk

jack1OK, so little Jack’s supposed to be the hero of this story. Unfortunately, he’s an absolute bell-end of a boy, whose reckless behaviour and kleptomania should have handed him a death sentence, or at the very least a bloody good grounding. Instead, by the end of the story, he and his mother are rewarded with untold riches. His unethical actions are only rendered good in retrospect by a dose of deux ex machina at the tale’s end, when a supernatural entity reveals that she’s been influencing Jack’s actions all along. Influencing, not controlling. Jack was more than willing to let his id run rampant and shake shit up in fairytale town, with nary a thought to the consequences.

First, he sells his mother’s only cow to some dodgy butcher at the market for a measly bag of beans, bankrupting his little family for the ye olde fairytale equivalent of a Euro Millions lotto ticket. He then climbs the beanstalk that sprouts in the beans’ wake and inveigles his way into the giant’s home not once, but three times, robbing the giant of a hen that lays golden eggs, a bag of gold coins and a golden harp respectively. Now, the giant certainly deserves to have his stuff nicked, being as he is a foul brute who constantly prattles on about sniffing people’s blood and making bread out of little boys’ bones, but the giant’s wife is an innocent victim – a hostage, really – whose victimhood is only compounded by Jack’s callously shitty behaviour. Each time Jack arrives at the giant’s manor he hoodwinks the poor woman into letting him through the door. He pretends to be a different boy, each time armed with a fresh sob story. Three times he makes this frightened little woman look like a proper mug, and three times he places her at the mercy of her husband’s violent temper. What’s the moral here?

Who cares if an old housewife gets her head punched off by an abusive giant: check out these golden eggs, motherfuckersssss! I’m going to get me a golden milking stool and a jaunty hat! Yay boy!

jack2But really, poor ethics aside, the most despicable element of this story lies in its blood-curdling sexual subtext. The giant is about sixty feet tall: his wife is about five-foot five. The giant’s walloper alone must be a good couple of feet long, as big and as thick as a rolled-up carpet. Imagine getting slapped across the face with that monstrosity! Now, there’s no way that this husband and wife are able to enjoy carnal relations in the conventional way, unless she’s got a TARDIS for a vagina, so this lesson in sexual physics leaves us with a catalogue of increasingly outlandish and humiliating alternatives to consider. Pity this poor woman as she’s forced to scale the giant’s hard-on, shoogling up and down its length like a koala with bone disease trying to climb a tree. Recoil in horror as the giant lies down on his back and bids the exhausted little woman to dash back and forth along his shaft like a footballer doing pre-match warm-up exercises. “Fe Fi Fo Fum, another few pivots and I’m ready to cum!” The story should really be renamed ‘Jack Off the Beanstalk.’

The giant doesn’t seem like he’d be the world’s most sensitive and giving lover, but if he was inclined to reciprocate and get her rocks off too, his only option would be to jam her onto his pinky like a fleshy finger-puppet and bob her up and down until she either cums or splits open like a pea-pod. And imagine if he decided to ‘finish’ on her? Jesus Christ, she’d be shot across the room like an exploding man-hole cover. She’d spend the rest of the day looking like Walter Peck at the end of Ghostbusters.

‘He… slimed me.’

Disgusting.

Hansel and Gretel

gretel2As I was reading this story to my son, I had to pause a few times to process my incredulity, and offer a few whispered expletives to the cosmos. How the hell does Hansel and Gretel’s father manage to come out of this story not only unscathed, but celebrated as a hero? He’s the most horrible, spineless man who (n)ever existed. Yes, the step-mother is irredeemably wicked in the extreme, as most step-mothers are in both life and fiction. But this guy is supposed to be Hansel and Gretel’s protector, so for him to sell them down the river (or down the forest path, if you prefer) is as unconscionable as it is unforgivable.

First, the moping sad-sack goes along with his wife’s plan to leave his children to starve or get eaten in the forest not once, but twice. Hansel and Gretel then have to endure a terrifying ordeal at the hands of an elderly cannibalistic paedophile who inexplicably lives in a house made of Swiss Rolls and Twixes. When they escape and find their way back home, they reward their father with a whirlwind of hugs and kisses. Their wicked step-mother is dead by this point, perished off-camera and without explanation, and so their father is able to reassure them that, with her out of the picture, he probably won’t try to have them killed again. Probably. Although there is that nice widow with the come-to-bed-hips and the big diddies who lives in that cabin down by the river… phwoar… she looks like she’d be able to shift a few sides of ham. But… you know… Yay! My kids are alive, let’s celebrate!

gretel3And they all lived happily ever after….

No, no, no, no, no AND NO. What sort of a message is that to send to my sons? This fairy-tale universe is in dire need of some gingerbread social workers. I’m going to re-write the ending of Hansel and Gretel so that my sons’ bed-time contains a little more in the way of cosmic justice. Here’s my stab at it:

The kids return home having vanquished the evil witch, with armfuls of Battenburg Cake and Maltesers and everyone’s favourite chocolates from the Quality Street tins bulging against their chests, and all manner of sugary treats stuffed into their pockets. Their Dad throws open his arms and says, ‘My children, you’re home. I am so happy. Your evil step-mother is no more. Come, let us celebrate by feasting on the bounty you’ve brought for us, and live a happy life of plenty.’

‘Fuck off,’ says Hansel, through a glob of Mars Bar.

‘Yeah’, says Gretel, peeling the wrapper from her fifth Double Decker of the hour. ‘Hope you enjoyed getting your hole from that murderous whore wife of yours. Now you’re going to get your hole from us: a hole in the ground.’

Hansel laughs, and downs a tube of sherbert Dib Dab. ‘Yep. We’re pretty much going to stand here eating sweets and chocolate and watch as you slowly die from hunger.’

‘You think he’ll die from lack of food?’

‘Well… he’s bounty!’

The two kids laugh maniacally as they stuff handfuls of Fun Size Bountys into each other’s mouths.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier

tinsoldierMy partner read this boundlessly cheery story to my son one bedtime, and later shared with me her horror upon reaching its less-than Disney-ish climax. Allow me to summarise the plot:

A little tin soldier with one leg falls in love with a little paper ballerina who also has one leg. Aw, sweet, it’s just like Toy Story. Looking forward to an absolutely heart-warming ending to this one, and no mistake, guvnor. An evil Jack-in-the-Box tells the tin soldier to forget about seeking happiness with the ballerina, or there’ll be dire consequences for them both. Excellent, a little bit of adversity and tension in the mix, which should only make their eventual union all the sweeter… So the tin soldier is placed on a little boat by the kids who own him, and pushed out to sea, whereupon he falls in the water and finds himself accosted by a rat. Just like Ratatouille, right? Classic! Eventually, after a further series of mishaps, the tin soldier finds himself back home, and by the side of his beloved ballerina. Now, just wait until I grab my hankies, I can feel the tears starting to jerk, God this is going to be beautiful, I can feel it, I can feel it…

Then a little boy throws the tin soldier into a fire, a gust of wind blows the ballerina in with him, and the pair of them burn to death.

They burn to death.

Yeah, but in the morning, they’re fused together in the shape of a heart, and… No. NO. Let’s stick with ‘They burn to death’. At the end of a fucking kids’ story, the main characters literally burn to death. This ‘burning to death scenario’ almost played itself out in Toy Story 3, but the bods at Pixar quite wisely opted to have the three little aliens rescue the toys at the last moment. Where are the three little aliens in this story, Hans Christian Andersen, you gloomy Danish bastard?

This is what Wikipedia has to say about The Steadfast Tin Soldier:

Joan G. Haahr writes in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: “The story is unusual among Andersen’s early tales, both in its emphasis on sensual desire and in its ambiguities. Blind fate, not intention, determines all events. Moreover, the narrative questions the very decorum it praises. The tin soldier’s passive acceptance of whatever happens to him, while exemplifying pietistic ideals of self-denial, also contributes to his doom. Were he to speak and act, the soldier might gain both life and love. Restrained, however, by inhibition and convention, he finds only tragedy and death. The tale is often read autobiographically, with the soldier viewed as symbolizing Andersen’s feelings of inadequacy with women, his passive acceptance of bourgeois class attitudes, or his sense of alienation as an artist and an outsider, from full participation in everyday life.”

The fuck? So my sons have got to suffer the onset of clinical depression just because Christian Andersen struggled to get his hole? I look forward to reading them a version of the Three Little Pigs in which the protagonists are butchered and made into BLTs.

The Little Match Girl

matchgirlI’d never heard of this fairy-tale before I read it to my son for the first time. As with the previous entry in this list, The Tin Soldier Who Literally Burns to Death, I was fooled into thinking that because this was a fairy-tale in a book for children that it would have a nice, happy ending. It doesn’t. But at least nobody burned to death this time.

Instead they froze to death. Yep. The little match girl freezes to death. On the street. In the gutter. On New Years’ Eve. A group of revellers find her smiling corpse the next morning. She’d been unable to sell any of her matches that night, and thus couldn’t raise enough money for food and shelter, so that’s that. Capitalism: 1 – Little Girl: 0. I kept turning the page to see if there was additional text, perchance a surprise happy ending. Nope. There wasn’t. That was it. A dead wee girl. Bambi eat your heart out.

Jesus Christ, Victorians, what the fuck was wrong with you? I know your life was all top-hats, fog and misery, and you mercilessly beat your children with cummerbunds if they so much as sniffed at the dinner table, but couldn’t you let them escape the horror of their pre-TV lives for the duration of just one measly story? You were basically writing episodes of Eastenders for the toddler market.

I had to read my son Silence of the Lambs after this gloomy death-fest just to cheer him up.

Wait a minute… I’ve just noticed that this one’s another Hans Christian Andersen effort… I might have guessed (shakes fist at the heavens). Annnnddeerrrsseeennnnnnnnn! Could somebody please travel back through time and screw this guy before he gets a chance to pick up a quill?

The First Day of the Holidays

And the less said about this one the better!

penguins

READ MORE ARTICLES ABOUT PARENTING BELOW

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Being at the birth

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

Reflections on school days, bullying and the bad bus

When people take pictures of your kids

Being at the birth

ouchMy second son was born last week, a healthy, whopping laddie of 8 pounds and twelve-and-a-half ounces. It goes without saying that I’m pleased as punch, happy as a sandboy, and a billion other over-used cliches besides, but I’m not here to discuss those feelings. Little Christopher deserves his own blog-post, which he’ll get in due course. For now, I’d like to talk to you about my experiences of witnessing and assisting in live births.

I’ve been at the births of both of my boys, which I guess technically makes me a birthing partner, although I think the term ‘partner’ somewhat oversells my usefulness during proceedings. I gather that in days gone by the majority of men holed themselves up in the pub as their wives gave birth, blind drunk and desperately trying to decipher a gambling Da Vinci Code within the pages of the Racing Post. They’d then hurry home – usually two to three days later – still melted out of their soot-blackened faces and reeking of a thousand filterless rollies, mildly startled to find a human baby clamped to their wife’s tit. “Shit, the baby was this week? Sorry, love… you got the tea on yet?”

But, hell folks, this is a different world, and my cock-and-ball-owning contemporaries and I are sons of a new age. We want to be there. We need to be there. All the tea in China couldn’t keep us away (unless it was stacked up against the front door of the hospital: then we might have problems). It’s just that… Well. I really don’t know who is the most helpless in that delivery room: the fathers, or their freshly-born offspring. Women – quite rightly so – have the monopoly on the pain, respect and wonder of birth. Men are there to… well, men are there, certainly.

My duties can be broken down under the following sub-headings:

Words of encouragement: Mid-wives, and women in general, tend to excel at saying the right thing, in the right way, during labour, and the woman giving birth – in my experience anyway – tends to respond to their words with gratitude and deference. For all the positive effects my words had over the two births, I may as well have been hollering abuse from the other side of the room. “You call that a push?” “I’m on the clock here, can you hurry it along, please?” “Hey, I can see its head, can you believe that it’s actually fucking uglier than you!”

During the second birth, I got locked into a bit of one-man-up-manship with the midwife.

She’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing good.”

I’d say: “You’re doing well, you’re doing GREAT.”

She’d say: “You’re being brave, you’re doing okay.”

I’d say: “You’re being SO brave, you’re doing absolutely bloody BRILLIANTLY.”

She’d say: “Come on, you can do it.”

I’d say: “Can?? You ARE doing it, you ARE doing it.”

At one point, my partner opened her eyes through her fog of agony and locked me with a stare seldom seen this side of Hades. I shut up for a bit, and silently resolved to settle the matter with a fight in the hospital car-park later in the day.

My main issue is, what the hell are you supposed to say to your partner? And how the hell are you supposed to keep saying it for hours upon hours? There are only so many generic phrases of encouragement you can utter before you start to feel like a jockey whispering in the ear of a prize racehorse. I caught myself a few times during the first birth stroking the bridge of her nose and saying things like, ‘Shhhhh, girl, shhhhh, calm, calm, shhhh, you’re doing great, that’s my girl, I’ve never seen your coat looking so shiny.”

Going for a shit at inappropriate times: Whoops, right? I gather my partner cursed my name to the midwife as I disappeared out of the room with a newspaper tucked under my arm. I missed the opening salvos of her most painful pre-birth contractions. I was along the corridor, pushing out an entity of my own. Luckily, I returned in time. I don’t think our repertoire of family memories would’ve been enriched by the tale of, ‘You remember that time you missed the birth of your second child cause you went for a shit?’

birth3Reading the paper: At one point during birth two, my partner’s sister was holding one of her hands, and the mid-wife was holding the other, which left me sitting a few feet away in a comfy armchair with nothing to contribute. My partner was in a great deal of pain, which I caught a glimpse of from time to time as I bobbed my head up from behind the newspaper to say encouraging things like, ‘Oh, you’re doing well, SO well. Fancy giving me a hand with this crossword?’

This is a wo-man’s world…

A childbirth simulator? Come on, men, did we really need that? "We've spent millions on this thing, and what do you know? It really IS fucking sore."

A childbirth simulator? Come on, men, did we really need that? “We’ve spent millions on this thing, and what do you know? It really IS fucking sore.”

In most women’s eyes, men are a gaggle of pussies who would never be able to bear the pain of childbirth should medical science ever make that process available to them. I think they’re on to something. I know we men tend to jokingly underplay the agony of childbirth, comparing it to a toe-stubbing or the pushing out of a particularly gnarly poo, but, really, I defy any man to watch a woman grunting and screaming a human being out of her nether-regions, and feel anything other than admiration, empathy and a great, burning sense of relief that they were lucky enough to be born with a cock.

bbbGiven the enormity of birth, it’s surprising that women don’t talk about it more often than they do. Can you imagine if men gave birth? We’d never shut the fuck up about it. You see what we’re like after we’ve lifted a reasonably heavy box, or recovered from a bad head-cold. Childbirth would be incorporated into our testosterone-tastic rituals of puff-chested dick-swinging; our conversations with other men would become like tweaked versions of the scene in Jaws where the guys sit around on a boat and compare war-wounds. Or the Yorkshiremen sketch from Monty Python.

You think that’s bad? I was in labour for eight weeks without sleeping or eating, gave birth to a baby the size of a rhino, in fact it was a rhino, pushed so hard that it ripped my arse and balls off, lost fifty litres of blood, three of my limbs actually exploded, and just prior to delivery a squad of terrorists broke into the room and started stabbing me with kitchen knives. And I never felt one bit of pain.”

And you try telling the women of today that… they won’t believe you.”

The two questions most often levelled at a man who has attended the birth of his child are ‘Did you cry?’ and ‘Did you puke?’, the latter because women don’t merely think that men would be incapable of handling childbirth: they deem them incapable of handling even the sight. I understand why some men find childbirth unpalatable; why it might engage their gag reflexes. It’s gross. It really is. The word ‘beautiful’ is banded about a lot in this context, but I’d just like to disavow any prospective fathers out there of that notion. A sunset is beautiful; a rainbow is beautiful; morning dew glistening on the grass as birds chirp from the trees is beautiful. But a roar of feral agony and an explosive squelch of blood and human tissue? That’s resolutely not beautiful. Unless you happen to be Ted Bundy with a cricket bat.

birth2In the run-up to birth number 1, my partner gorged herself on episodes of One Born Every Minute (or Jeremy Kyle for Slightly More Respectable Poor People, as I like to call it), an activity from which I abstained on the grounds that I only want to bear witness to pain and horror if I absolutely have to. Because of this, I went into the birth ignorant of its mechanics and intricacies. In particular, I was woefully unprepared for the first glimpse of my son’s blue, gunk-covered cone-head as it pushed through my partner’s vagina like something out of HR Geiger’s nightmares. I remember expressing concern that I appeared to have sired one of the X Men.

I couldn’t watch heart surgery without reaching for the barf bag or a big bag of valium, but live birth doesn’t seem to revolt or frighten me. It may not be beautiful, but the process is undeniably fascinating and filled with wonder (an easier sentiment to express if you happen to be watching it instead of doing it, I’m sure!). That being said, our second child was born in a birthing pool, and I did describe the moment of birth as looking like someone had thrown the mattress from Hellraiser II into the bathtub at the end of Fatal Attraction.

Mere minutes after Christopher’s birth, my partner was poised to receive an injection that would hasten the appearance of the afterbirth. It wasn’t required. As she stepped down from the birthing pool, the placenta performed a spectacular dive for freedom, only halted by her quick reflexes, and the help of the midwife, who grappled with the umbilical cord like a magician doing a difficult trick. I got to look at the placenta, long and hard, as it sat wholly intact on a table. I always imagined it to be some sort of thin, almost-ephemeral, jelly-fish-like substance. It isn’t. It’s like a T-Bone steak, almost as big as some babies. Fred Flintstone’s dinner. Women, I salute you again. You have to give birth twice, you brave sons of bitches. And a shout out to my partner in particular: just gas and air the second time? Hardcore. I’m sure you’ll never throw that fact in my face the next time I’m a wee bit tired or feeling under the weather…

The tears of a clown

gazzaBirths are one of the few times in a man’s life when he’s permitted to cry (football being the other) without being judged an insufferable weakling or some sort of emotionally-unstable, nascent spree killer. Having a good sob at a birth is now mandatory; indeed, my partner considers my lack of post-partum tears a weird, almost unforgivable omission, and possibly evidence that I’m a psychopathic half-Vulcan robot. This judgement has left me feeling a little like the protagonist in Camus’s The Stranger, whose inability to cry at his own mother’s funeral indirectly leads him to the gallows (apologies for the slightly pretentious literary reference; at least I didn’t use its French title, L’Estranger). To make matters worse, I feel like I’ve sold my sons short, given that I didn’t cry at their births, but I did cry at Ghost and Watership Down.

I did cry that day, though. My toddler, Jack, was brought to the hospital in the afternoon by his grandpa and grandma to see his newly born little brother. Afterwards, as I was staying with mum and baby for the next few hours and didn’t know exactly when I’d be home, Jack was going back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for a sleep-over. As he was being carried down the corridor in his Grandpa’s arms on their way out of the ward, I locked eyes with him, and he seemed to give me a sad, wistful little smile that doubtless I imbued with my own feelings of separation anxiety. My eyes started to glaze over with a thin film of tears. I’d never slept under a different roof from him since his birth.

I still haven’t. When I got home he was in the house with his grandma and grandpa, in the process of having a story read to him. He just couldn’t settle without his Dad. Well, he name-checked the cat, too, but I’d like to think I was the greater part of his motivation… he does love that bloody cat though. When I heard his little voice drifting down from the top of the stairs, I actually punched the air with happiness. And even though his unexpected presence in the house deprived me of the rare treat of pornography with the sound turned up, I couldn’t have been more glad. See? I do have a heart.

MORE PARENTING/PARENTHOOD ARTICLES

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

Happy Father’s Day… to me?

On the horror of taking your child to hospital

A Celebration of Public Breastfeeding

Existential Nightmare at the Soft-play Warehouse

Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

When people take pictures of your kids