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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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

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

Tesco has vowed to start fining people who make improper use of disabled, and parent-and-child parking bays (improper in the sense of categorical appropriateness, rather than improper in the sense of setting up tombola stalls in the vacant spaces). Whether or not Tesco has the authority to enforce such fines remains to be seen; however, what I find most interesting about this news story is the reaction to it from certain quarters of the great unwashed via the ever-malevolent medium of the comment threads underneath online articles, especially on Facebook.

To my mind, responsibility for the regulation of car-parking behaviour shouldn’t fall under the auspices of local government or corporate might. We should self-regulate; the impulse should come naturally to us. It certainly seems like a slam-dunk to me: don’t park in a disabled bay if you aren’t disabled; don’t park in a parent-and-child bay if you don’t have children in the car with you, or if the child you have with you is 43 years old. The clear focus of the issue here is basic respect and decency, not some imagined Stalinist nannyism against which we should all be rallying. Even still, in the vacant spaces beneath articles, via the empty spaces between some people’s ears, the bile-bomb has gone off with a bang. Ignorance drips from the fingers of a thousand angry eejits. Drip drip drip. Into our eyes, and into our brains, water-boarding us with a steady flood of selfishness and un-reason.

I’m going to keep my focus on the parent-and-child spaces, because even the worst of the world’s keyboard warriors – troll and non-troll alike – would clearly find it hard to sustain a charge of laziness against the disabled. What follows is a flavour of the comments I’ve witnessed on my journeys through cyberspace. I’m going to be paraphrasing here, but only ever-so-slightly:

“OMG, just because they have children suddenly they can’t walk??? Their r sum lazy good-for-nothing people out there!”

 

“I’m sick of people thinking they deserve special privelle…privvill… treetment just becoz there husband didn’t pull out in time. WALK you scrounging assholes.”

 

“WHY DO THEY NEED WIDER SPACES? IS IT BCOS THEY’RE FAT AS WELL AS LAZY? MAYBE IF YOU AND UR FAT KIDS WALKED FURTHER TO THE DOOR YOU ALL WOULDN’T BE SO FAT AND YOU WOULDN’T NEED WIDER SPACES YOU LAZY FATTIES??!”

 

“Now THIS is why I voted for BREXIT!!!”

You get the idea.

Just to clear some things up: parent-and-child spaces are wider to allow parents extra room to load and unload things like push-chairs and car seats. Where the parent has many children with them – but even if they’ve only got one – the extra space makes said children’s entry and exit from the car a lot less of a logistical nightmare, and a whole hell of a lot safer.

Yes, it’s true, parent-and-child spaces are often – but certainly not always – positioned near the front-door of a store. Where the bays are not located right at the front door, they are always connected to a path or walkway that will lead parents and their children along a safe route to the front door that doesn’t necessitate a mad, dangerous dash through a gauntlet of reversing cars and fast-moving traffic. Safety is the concern here: not proximity.

Now, isn’t that simple? I like simple. And this next bit is even more simple: if you park in a parent-and-child space when you’ve no right to be there, you aren’t some ballsy Robin-Hood-style folk hero sticking it to the man. You are indeed, and without exception, a cunt. And cunts don’t get their own special parking spaces.

Unless you count Waitrose.

Me looking like a total bellend, circa 2005

I used to work for a press and marketing company in Norfolk that produced its own in-house equestrian trade magazine. When the time came for us to review various types of country/equestrian wear, we decided to save money and model them ourselves. With… interesting results in my case. Enjoy… ESPECIALLY the second page, where I look like a right cu…country gentleman. Think of me as a sort-of third-rate Zoolander meets Emmerdale meets the greatest fashion abomination of all time.

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Young Jamie: Portrait of the Artist as a Wee Bastard – Part 2: Culloden

Have a read at this very short story I wrote when I was nine-years-old, and then wallow in the pointlessness of it all as my 36-year-old self tries to provide some context.

Part 1

Part 1

Part 2

Part 2

Part 3

Part 3

THE GREAT BATTLE OF CULLODEN

If this little story proves anything, it’s that I was just as bloodthirsty in 1989 as I am today. “We stabbed people who were trying to kill us.” Most nine-year-olds are writing about scoring the winning goal at the World Cup, or meeting Bruce Willis, or being the King or Queen of Lovelyland, yet here I am neck-deep in blood and corpses, gleefully stabbing folk to death with my pals.

I didn’t enjoy my teacher’s smug tone when she pointed out there were no aeroplanes in 1746. How does it feel to attempt to shame a nine-year-old, woman? I’m sure there must have been many more inexcusable gaps in my knowledge that you could’ve exposed, so why stop there?

“Honestly, Jamie, it’s like you’ve got no grasp at all of the wider political and economic turmoil that held Scotland in its grip throughout most of the eighteenth century.”

I know there were no planes, you soulless daughter of a chartered accountant called Alan! You derisory dick-bag of a woman! You Lovejoy-loving, gentle fucking facist! Have you never heard of a little something called, oh I don’t know, IMAGINATION?! You know, the thing that kids are allowed to possess before it’s beaten out of them by the snooker-ball-in-a-sock of the real world?

THIS is why mass death is brill, teach. BECAUSE OF PEOPLE LIKE YOU.

PS: This story in no way reflects my current status as a card-carrying member of the SNP.

Young Jamie: Portrait of the Artist as a Wee Bastard – Part 1: MERLIN

Co-sleeping Kids 2: The Sleepquel

That's a really cute picture, but either those two people have the tallest baby in the world, or that child's going to suffocate!

That’s a really cute picture, but either those two people have the tallest baby in the world, or that child’s going to suffocate!

Baby number two is on its way this November. Many of you may remember that my partner and I were poised to embark on a mission to encourage our two-year-old son, with whom we co-sleep, to sleep in his own room ahead of his brother’s arrival. You can read all about that, and how we felt about it, here.

Well, it’s taken many months of patience, tenacity and tough-love, but I can report – with just over a month to go – that our mission has been… a complete and utter failure. We still wake up, each and every morning, with that smiling, tuft-headed little creature lying right there next to us, smiling over at us and issuing a few foul-breathed good mornings before ordering us out of bed. We tried, people, we really, really tried.

Prior to, and during, the transition, we played it perfectly, doing everything by the unofficial child-rearing handbook: we bought him bedsheets and duvet covers emblazoned with things that he loved (in this case Thomas the Tank Engine), and made a big deal of how awesome his room was, and how lucky he was to be snoozing in his very own big-boy bed. We became like a couple of drug-addled children’s TV presenters – the Krankies on crack, the Chuckle Brothers on ching, the Singing Kettle on ketamine – with eyes as wide as our maniac fixed smiles, a pair of howling lunatics striding and emoting our way around his bedroom.

“OH, THIS IS A BUH-RILL-IANT BEDROOM, MUMMY, I WISH I COULD SLEEP IN A BEDROOM LIKE THIS.”

“OH, YES, DADDY, ISN’T IT FAN-TASTIC? IS THAT… IT CAN’T BE… IS THAT THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE?”

“OH YES, YES I THINK IT IS! THIS IS A-MAZING! THIS IS LITERALLY THE BEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME!”

“I’M SO BLOODY JEALOUS! SHALL WE SING A SONG ABOUT IT NOW, DADDY?” “OH CAN WE, MUMMY? CAN WE?”

I’d just like to add, for the avoidance of doubt, that our son was present at the time.

chuckle

That first night, his mum crammed her pumpkin-esque pregnant belly into that tiny single-bed alongside him, and lay stroking his hair until he drifted off to sleep. Minutes later, she tip-toed through to our bedroom and whispered a cry of victory. I’m certain there was also a high-five involved.

Well that was easy, we thought. Maybe he’s going to be cool with this after all.

Sometime around 1am, the door to our bedroom swung open with the force of a fearsome gunslinger bursting into a wild-west saloon. Our son stood blinking in the beam of light cast from the hallway behind him, his hair standing up in nutty-professorial clumps. He wore a puzzled frown as he surveyed the half-dark around him, sooking sternly on his water cup. We sat up and watched him. He seemed certain there’d been an admin cock-up in the bedtime arrangements. “You surely didn’t mean to leave me behind, mum and dad. I’m not mad, just… disappointed.”

He staggered to the foot of our bed, tossed up his water cup, and quickly clambered after it, shuffling and snuggling himself into the crook of his mum’s arm. What could we do? We knew we should have picked him up and plonked him back down upon Thomas the Tank’s ever-smiling face, repeating the process hour after hour, night after night, for as long as was necessary until he’d adjusted to the new reality. But what the hell. It was a transition. This was only the first night. Let him sleep, dammit. Let him have one more night… Weekend. Just one more weekend. Okay, a week. A fortnight! Just a fortnight, mind. Oh, hell, let’s just let him have a clean month, goddamit.

And so now, every night – any time between the hours of midnight and four – that stern little face, with its crown of bed-head, struts or slinks into our room, and jumps into our bed.

future

The future??

Sometimes we hear him crying from his room, and one of us goes through to console him. Now and again we can placate him with a bonus bed-time story, during which he’ll happily drift back to sleep, but hours later he’ll always be back, creeping into our room like a tiny foggy-eyed ninja.

Sometimes a story just won’t do. More often than not, when I respond to his cries and whimpers in the late evening or dead of night, I’ll extend my arms to give him a comforting cuddle, only to find his little arms locking around my neck like clicked-in seatbelts, his legs propelled upwards by his full strength and weight to perform a similar fastening trick around my torso. “Mumma,” he’ll say, nodding and sniffing back a tear. “Okay, wee guy,” I’ll say, carting him back off to our bedroom – because I’m a big soft shite and I hate being apart from him anyway.

Because we’re enablers of the worst kind, we always leave on a dim night-light in his bedroom, and the light in the hallway; like lights on a runway guiding him to a soft landing on our bed. His stealth tactics have improved to the point where we don’t often realise he’s with us until we wake up in the morning. Either that, or our brains have adjusted to the new reality… which wasn’t really the way this was supposed to work: he was supposed to adjust to our new reality, wasn’t he?

Four weeks to go…

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

Pandas and Pokemon

zooIt was panda breeding season when we visited the zoo a few weeks ago, so access to the panda enclosure was limited. We could only get a glimpse of the male panda through a big Perspex window as he kicked back in his pad munching down on a carrot.

Because these creatures are notoriously devoid of sexual energy zoo staff ordered us to be deathly quiet: one bit of over-exuberant human hoo hah could spoil three months of carefully planned panda foreplay and set back the course of their hanky panky indefinitely. Now that’s performance anxiety. “Sorry, sweetheart, the sound of a human coughing faintly in the distance appears to have killed my dick, so could we just do the Netflix without the chill for the next eighteen months or so?” Get them some earmuffs, for Christ’s sake! Seriously, though, what a squad of true losers comprise this doomed species of fuck-shy, Sooty-faced nuns. Most of us human males would still be able to get it up during an earthquake on a battlefield littered with the half-dead bodies of wailing, dismembered orphan soldiers. A few of us would even insist upon these conditions. You know who you are…

We couldn’t even get a good look at the panda, not only because of the scores of fellow panda-peekers huddled into the viewing area with us, but also because our collective lines of sight were obscured by a mass of trees and foliage that had been planted and positioned to shield the panda from the sight of our disgusting inter-species lechery. So there we both were, my partner and I, craning our necks to get a glimpse of a panda eating a snack through a gap in a thicket of trees the size of a postage stamp, as a crowd of people all shushed each other and swished their phones and cameras in the air above their heads. It was like being at a deaf rock concert in a Chinese monastery. I envied my toddler son, who didn’t even have to pretend to give a shit about the pandas, and was quite content to spin around in circles making helicopter noises.

monalisaThe whole sorry panda extravaganza reminded me of a visit to the Louvre ten years ago, during which I found myself distinctly underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa. There it was – this tiny picture of a long-dead woman wearing a thin smile suggestive of a recently secreted silent fart – encased in Perspex and half-hidden by the heads of a hundred people or more. I’d already seen her enigmatic fizzog hundreds of times throughout my life, as have we all, considering that the Mona Lisa is literally the most famous portrait on earth. Why should I fight through a crowd to get a fuzzy picture of something I could see in any one of a million books or reproductions? Clearly my main – and perhaps only – motivation would be to immortalise my sophistication on Facebook for all the world to see. I don’t need pictures for that. I can just wait ten years and then write an obscure blog post about it that will be read by six Albanians and my second-cousin. Did I mention I visited the Louvre? I may make a lot of jokes about poos and tits, ladies and gentlemen, but by God I’m  sophisticated and urbane.

Watching those people blankly snapping pics and flicks of the panda as it nonchalantly chewed on a carrot brought home to me how ridiculous humans are as a species. Perhaps it’s we who deserve an extinction-level reduction of our libidos. This is fucking madness. Say you recorded footage of the panda on your phone. Who’s going to watch the video? Your friends and family? They’ll be bored shitless. Seriously. They will. Trust me. You? What’s the point? You know you were there. Do you really want to watch that footage again? Of a panda doing ostensibly fuck all? Is your camera a gun-substitute? Are you hunting these creatures and collecting clickable trophies as a testament to your digit-based prowess? By all means take a few snaps at the zoo to act as memory joggers of days gone by for those moments in the years to come when you find yourself frail and insensible and drooling at a window pane, but for God’s sake leave the wildlife programming to David Attenborough.

The only circumstances in which you should be filming pandas are if: a) you come across one unexpectedly whilst doing the weekly shop in Tescos, b) you’re breaking into its zoo cage dressed as another panda and attempting to fuck it.

We left the zoo at closing time, and as we moved down towards the main gate we walked through a huge throng of people of all different stripes. They were all chatting excitedly and immersed in their phones. There was a queue of thousands outside the building, clamouring to join the advanced guard. They were ‘hunting’ Pokemon. The zoo was hosting a private after-hours event. Thousands of people, ignoring the real animals in favour of taking pictures of imaginary ones.

Come on, asteroid. We’re in dire need of our extinction-level event! Make haste!

More zoo-based nonsense: The Hero of Edinburgh Zoo

The Unspeakable Evil of Children’s Television

Whenever I watch contemporary kids’ TV with my young son I find myself yearning for the simplicity and innocence of my own, long-ago youth: back in the halcyon days when there were only four tightly regulated TV channels, and no mobile phones or internet to hold our attentions hostage with a cavalcade of frivolity, violence, and disquieting pictures of strangers’ genitalia.

Back in my day (as I hurtle towards the grave, I suspect that this is a phrase I’ll be uttering with ever more depressing frequency), kids’ shows were good, clean fun. Systems were in place to ensure it. Shows that fell foul of the era’s high standards of morality would answer to the Mean Queen of Clean herself, the ferocious Mary Whitehouse. If Whitehouse thought you were peddling filth to our nation’s kids, she wouldn’t muck about. She’d send hitmen to your door. Naturally, in-keeping with her credo, the severity of the assassinations would be commensurate with the time of day, with more violent murders being saved for after the watershed. Neck-breaking was okay at 9pm, just as long as both hitman and victim remembered that swearing was never permissible. A family-friendly lunch-time kill would typically involve a hitman passing a note to their target which read: “PLEASE DIE OF NATURAL CAUSES, BUT ONLY IF YOU WANT TO. LOVE, YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD HITMAN.”

In kids’ shows back then, there were no missiles loaded with sexual references – or clever deconstructions of TV itself – aimed above young heads. Instead, there were only the serene sounds of surf and seagulls down at Cockleshell Bay, the mesmeric chirping of birds in Postman Pat’s sleepy glen, and the gentle tones of Tony Hart as he tried to find nice things to say about the abominable artwork hanging in his gallery. “Oh, this one of a dog is really nice. I love the deep slash mark down one of its cheeks, suggestive of a recent knife fight. And just look at the sexual death threat the artist has scrawled at the bottom of the picture in his own faecal residue. Lovely work there from Harry in Glasgow, aged 4.”

My two-year-old son’s current favourite is the unspeakably hellish In the Night Garden: a garishly bright Nightbreed-ian nightmare that appears to be set in the Hungarian afterlife, as imagined by David Lynch. The show stars David Cameron as Iggle Piggle, a hideous, lop-sided blue peanut with a penchant for sailing on kids’ hands and making weird farting noises. Piggle’s best friends are a little girl with half-Peloquin/half-Predator hydraulic hair; an obsessive-compulsive zombie Teletubby who lives in a rock; tiny beings dressed as the Spanish Inquisition who continually abandon their 8000 children; and a trio of creatures that have crawled straight from a disturbed serial killer’s acid flashbacks. The characters travel around in something called the Ninky Nonk, which sounds like the sort of unhelpful slur once favoured by my racist grandfather. In the Night Garden is bizarre and terrifying, like waking up next to your dead grandmother who’s inexplicably dressed as a clown.

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I resolved to expose my son only to the healthy and wholesome kids’ shows of old, which I tracked down on-line and on DVD for the betterment of his tiny soul.

But then I actually re-watched some of them.  I quickly discovered – to paraphrase Herman Munster – that sometimes dead is better. Certainly my televisual era had been no oasis in the brain-deadening desert.There was horror and betrayal around every corner. He-Man had lied to me: told me that I could remove my clothes and go on a sword rampage without fear of being recognised. Bertha, lovely Bertha, had coaxed me into a life of low-paid drudgery by convincing me that factories were magical places with futuristic robots and vast sentient machines. Uncle Rolf had been exposed as the worst kind of crook. Goodbye wobble-board, goodbye didgeridoo, goodbye Rolf-a-roo. Off to maximum security memory prison with the lot of you (flicks through Rolodex of possible jokes based upon Rolf’s pantheon of catchphrases, and rejects most of them on grounds of obviousness and poor taste). How could the man whose famous catchphrase was a prolonged sexual pant have gone so completely wrong?

God damn you, TV childhood: you were a sham! What follows are the highlights (perhaps lowlights) of my journey through the chilling subtexts and undisguised horror of the shows that formed my youth. It’s certainly easy to see why my adult mind is such a labyrinth of depravity.

Let’s get izzy wizzy busy living, or let’s get izzy wizzy busy dying

sooty1Civil War rages in the Marvel Movieverse. Heroes – humans and Gods, mutants and monsters – clash over issues of moral authority. To whom are these heroes accountable? Does any government have the right to control or command them? Who will protect society from the excesses of our so-called saviours?

Whether you find yourself siding with House Stark or planting your feet firmly in Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood, there’s one thing on which we all can agree: at least the Marvel lot know how to put a shift in. At least they’re actually doing something about the horrors of the world, unlike some lazy magical bastards I could mention.

Yes, I’m talking about Sooty. Here is a bear more powerful than all of the Avengers combined, and who holds in his tiny, wand-packed paw the power to end world hunger, reverse global warming and bring the dead back to life, but who seems content to spend his days using his magic to splat pies into Matthew Corbett’s face. ‘Screw you, Africa,’ his little bear face seems to say, ‘I’m too busy continually assaulting a beleagured middle-aged man to tackle drought.’

Sooty is so callous he won’t even grant his best friend Sweep the power of intelligible speech, condemning the sad-faced little dog to a lifetime of squeaking like a bloody imbecile. And Matthew, poor Matthew, who is supposed to be Sooty’s closest friend, mentor and confidante, is forced – like his father Harry before him – to act as Sooty’s intermediary on earth, a relationship that’s clearly conducted in the same spirit as the one between Kilgrave and Jessica Jones. The little rat could speak if he wanted to; that Sooty never lowers himself to engage directly with the human race makes his disdain for us – and for Corbett – painfully apparent. Come on, Corbett, stick your hand up my little arse, you slag!

sooty2

MATTHEW: “What’s that Sooty? [whisperwhisper] You want to use your magic powers to make me a helpless vessel for your wickedness? I don’t think that’s very nice, Sooty, I… [whisperwhisper] What’s that, Sooty? [whisperwhisper] If I don’t do it the next pie will have hydrofluoric acid in it? [Sooty taps desk with wand].”

Sooty never even used his magic to cure Matthew Corbett’s cancer. Now THAT’S a cunt.

I’d also be interested to know exactly where Sooty was on the day Rod Hull took his tumble. I think it’s time to re-open the case.

The terrible truth about chipmunks

alvin-and-the-chipmunks1In the 1940s, Disney perpetuated the stork myth in its movies. It showed babies arriving by parachute rather than by the more conventional, and ickier, womb-based route. I guess the puritans of the time didn’t want children imagining animals – or, by extension, their own parents – rutting like beasts. In the late 1960s, Hannah Barbera gave Scooby Doo a nephew instead of a son, presumably for similar reasons. Scooby was a friendly, goofy, asexual pal to his young fans. This was no time or place for the birds and the bees. Kids couldn’t be made to imagine our hero hammering away at some horny street-bitch like a four-legged sexual machine-gun.

Unfortunately, by the time the 1990s rolled around it seemed that these varieties of restraint were already a relic of a by-gone era. I recall an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks that showed one of the chipmunks getting all goggle-eyed over a beautiful blonde woman with a big bust. The chipmunk’s eyebrows jumped up and down in that old-timey hubba-hubba way that cartoons used to sell as cute, but which we now recognise as the unspeakably licentious gesture of a burgeoning sex offender. CHIPMUNK HAS HOTS FOR HUMAN WOMAN. I think I could’ve lived with that headline, had that been the end of it. But it wasn’t. Because the human woman flirted back: giving a saucy little wiggle and blowing a kiss at the sex-struck rodent. Yes, people. You have interpreted the subtext correctly: I had just watched a woman signalling her sexual availability to a chipmunk.

Thanks, Alvin, Simon and Theodore, you depraved little assholes.Every time I wake from a fugue state in the living room with a David Attenborough documentary playing on the TV and my pants round my ankles, I’ll think of you and your terrible sexual guidance.

One more rankle about the chipmunks. This was a show about a dude who lived with a trio of talking animals in a world where there doesn’t appear to be any other talking animals… and at no point did the government bust his door down to take these creatures away to be cut open and studied? What a load of rubbish.

Open Sesame: now please close it again

sesame_1973I ordered a copy of Sesame Street Old School on DVD to introduce my young son to the bygone era of Sesame Street I grew up with, and which I still remember fondly. I was taken aback to find a warning attached to the purchase: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grownups and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” What? But Sesame Street is just The Muppets with an educational remit. Then as now, there are fluffy creatures teaching kids to count, and adults dispensing pearls of wisdom about sharing your toys, not being mean, and loving your neighbour. How could any of that fail to benefit my son, whatever decade of Sesame Street it’s sampled from?

So I watched a few episodes. The title sequence shows a gang of kids making their way through an industrial wasteland that’s bedecked with gang graffiti. Next they bound over an incredibly unsafe construction site. To compound the danger, they take to the streets on their bikes minus safety helmets. Just when I thought I was maybe being a bit woolly and overcautious, the first episode started proper and a grown man took a little girl’s hand he’d never met before and invited her back to his house for milk and cookies. Cookie Monster was up next, eating crockery and… smoking? Cookie Monster’s smoking? He’s actually smoking. And now he’s eaten the pipe too. As if that wasn’t hellish enough, in the next episode The Count takes out a Latino gang with an RPG, and laughs loudly at their delicious screams (OK, maybe that last thing never happened, but you get the point).

It looks like everything that’s ever been said about the 60s, 70s and 80s is true. What a bunch of savages we were (Please also see ‘The Muppet Show’, a viewing of which moved my partner to comment: “Why are you letting our impressionable young son watch a grown woman dressed as a slutty schoolgirl sing a song about kidnapping and murdering people as she locks puppets in cellars?”) Still, at least Sesame Street of old can’t be faulted for its promotion of an inclusive society where kids and grown-ups of all different ethnicities can co-exist naturally, peacefully and happily. That’s something that was sorely lacking in other televisual neighbourhoods of the time…

There’ll be knock, ring, BNP pamphlets through your door

patHow are you enjoying your 1980s Aryan paradise, Obergruppenführer Pat? Why not just fully commit and get yourself a white-and-white cat? Maybe take the kids on a Jew-hunt across field and dale?

I used to watch Postman Pat with my racist grandfather. The show’s hark-back to a less integrated time only served to reinforce his prejudices of white supremacy. Maybe if Pat’s creators had smuggled a little diversity into the mix we could’ve saved my grandfather, or at the very least modified his world-view a little. I wasn’t looking for a miracle. A tiny concession would’ve done. As it stands my grandfather went to his grave without ever uttering the words I had so longed to hear: “I guess Sidney Poitier’s alright.” And that’s on you, Pat.

Why are there so many wrongs about Rainbow?

rainbowitvLet’s talk about Geoffrey, a grown man who lives with a menagerie of bizarre and terrifying creatures in a house that’s been decorated like a children’s nursery. Geoffrey’s bunk-mates are Bungle, a seven-foot ursine version of Norman Bates; George, a sexually precocious passive-aggressive pink hippo; and Zippy, the kind of ‘whatever’ that even Gonzo would shun. How did Geoffrey come to live with these creatures? Did he abduct them? Did he create them with a needle and thread, a bucket of DNA and a set of jump leads? Doesn’t he have a wife, or an ex-wife? A family? Someone in his life to raise an eyebrow at this rather unorthodox living arrangement? Doesn’t the gas man ever come round to read the meter?

“Hello, sir, I’m just here to check your… AARRGGHH, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING WITH THE ZIP FACE?!! HELP ME! OH GOD HELP ME! THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU! THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!”

I’d be very interested to see how Geoffrey fills out his census.

Anyway, let’s talk Zippy. What is he? Was he born with that zip across his mouth, or was he cruelly disfigured in the course of some vile experiment? At this point, I’m imagining a Human Centizippy-style origin story, in which the poor creature was forced to spend long, hideous weeks with his mouth secured by zip to Big Bird’s quaking bumhole. Perhaps as Mopatop sobbed into Zippy’s back-end through a wet strap of velcro.

However it was that Zippy’s zip came to be, why would any sane and compassionate man ever use it to silence him? Hey, Geoffrey, why not just break a chair over Zippy’s head or shoot him in the shoulder if he starts mouthing off, you total psycho? And if somebody did that to Zippy – if some sick, pseudo-Nazi surgeon added a zip to his face without his consent – why would you compound his misery by continuing to call him Zippy? Surely you’d change his name at the earliest opportunity, call him James or Timothy or Geoffrey Junior or something. If I adopted a mute kid who’d been rendered paraplegic following a hit and run incident, I wouldn’t greet him each morning with a cheery: “Hey Chairy, what do you want for breakfast?” before wheeling him down a hill for not answering quickly enough.

zipNever mind just changing his name; we have one of the greatest healthcare systems in the world. Why has Geoffrey never referred Zippy to the hospital for surgery? That, I’m sure, is what any one of us would do if Zippy ever landed in our care. We’d help him. We’d fix his face and help him to reclaim his dignity. We probably wouldn’t look at him and say: “Cool zip you’ve got stitched through your face there, Zippy. That’ll be great for the times when I want you to shut the fuck up.”

The only scenario that makes sense is that the world of Rainbow exists only inside the mind of Geoffrey, who is in reality an unemployed alcoholic and heavy drug-user. He sits all day long in a dowdy, ply-panelled bedsit, with lank, greasy hair and no teeth, waiting for his social workers Rod, Jane and Freddy to visit, rubbing his arms raw and rocking and crying in the corner chanting: “Naughty Geoffrey, going to zip you up. Don’t zip me up momma, don’t zip ol’ Geoffrey up. Oh, I’m gonna zip you up, Geoffrey, no son of mine be lisping like some pink hippo. Gonna speak proper or momma gonna skin you like a bear and zip you up, zip you right up in the mouth. OH NO, MOMMA, DON’T ZIP OL’ GEOFFREY UP, I LOVES YOU MORE’N THE RAINBOW, MOMMA! MORE’N THE RAINBOW!”

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And with that, I’m off to buy the complete box-set of In the Night Garden.

When people take pictures of your kids

snapWe went on a family trip to Glasgow last week to visit the Glasgow Transport Museum (now housed within the Riverside Museum at Pointhouse Quay) and the Tall Ship (which is moored behind the museum).

The Transport Museum is great if you love having exactly sixteen seconds to admire each display before being surrounded by a crowd of feral, elbowing families, who envelop you like something out of World War Z. Probably best to avoid the museum unless you happen to be a nostalgic, history-loving giraffe. Especially since a large proportion of the exhibits are displayed on shelves fifty feet in the air (I mean, I know Glasgow has a few issues with car theft, but surely that’s excessive).

car3The Transport Museum has a penny-pressing machine. We can never pass one without taking home a souvenir. You place a pound coin and a penny into the slot, and turn a wheel to press the penny into a flat oval embossed with a little picture, and description, of the place you’re visiting. Yes, they’re tacky little pier-side trinkets, but time’s fast march will transform them into priceless treasures, especially once my partner and I are in the ground being pressed into flat ovals of dust and gloop by the inescapable might of bio-chemistry. Depending on how good a job we do raising our children to be sensitive, sentimental beings, there’s every chance they might try to flog them on Ebay the second we’re dead.

I sat in an old tram with my young son as my partner busied off to the machine. As she stood fishing in her purse for coins, a jolly German giant approached her and asked if he could trouble her for a penny. He was a stout, rotund fella with a perma-smile and a big beard, whose giganticness was more horizontal than vertical. Imagine a Tolkein dwarf who’s red-cheeked and merry after his first four vodkas of the night.

I didn’t know the gent was German at the time, you understand. He wasn’t kitted out in lederhosen and loudly apologising for the war or anything like that. I inferred his nationality later in the timeline of this story, information I could’ve imparted to you in a more natural and fluid manner, but doing so would’ve robbed me of the use of the deliciously alliterative phrase ‘jolly German giant’.

tramsThe jolly German giant took the wheel of the machine straight after my partner had picked up her flattened knickknack. Before placing his money in the slot he spent a full two minutes staring into the mechanism with wide-eyed wonder, spinning the wheel around and around, and acting for all the world like a child who’d been turned into a man by a haunted speak-your-future machine at a Coney Island fairground.

“What the hell is wrong with that guy?” I asked my partner as she joined us on the old tram.

“He’s happy.”

I shook my head. “Fucking lunatic.”

I noticed he had a high-tech camera fastened to a strap around his neck. He lifted it up and snapped a picture of the machine, before peppering the wall-of-high-shelved cars with a barrage of clicks.

maxresdefaultWe walked outside and boarded the tall ship. On the decks there were four little barrels filled with water, each with a tiny brush sticking out of them. As my son seems to have inherited my partner’s mild OCD and love of cleaning, he was more than happy to lift out a brush and start swabbing the decks pirate-style, a task he would’ve doubtless spent the whole day engaged in had we let him. I could feel my partner’s eyes boring into me and sending me a stern, unspoken message: ‘See? That’s how you pick up a brush, you big swine.’

The wee guy looked adorable in his shorts, sandals and jaunty bunnet, as he attacked the grime of the deck with a single-minded zeal. I was felled by his cuteness. “We’ve got to get a picture of this,” I said. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The jolly German giant appeared at our side, his camera raised like a rifle. Before we knew what was happening he’d snipered off a shot. Click! He gave us a wide, beaming grin. “He looks like a little sailor,” he said, shaking his head at the adorableness of it all before bounding off down the deck. He wasn’t whistling, but he was walking like he should have been.

I stood frozen to the spot, certain that something awful had happened but unable for the moment to articulate it.

“Did he…?”

My partner nodded.

“I mean, should we be bothered by that?” I asked.

“I don’t know…” she said.

“He should’ve asked our permission,” I said, the sound of my son’s swishing adding a staccato rhythm to my thoughts. “Which we wouldn’t have given.”

My partner winced. Then tilted her head back and forth. Then shrugged. “I guess it’s okay. I mean, I don’t think he meant any harm.”

I felt uneasy. At worst, I’d failed to act to protect my son’s safety and interests. At best, I’d allowed my authority as a parent to be usurped by a stranger. My own social conditioning had rendered me static and mute: wanting to preserve the status quo, not wanting to cause a fuss, always aiming to be cordial and polite.  Irritation twitched in my toes, sparking a chain-reaction of nerve-signals that rocketed up my leg and culminated in a controlled explosion of anger in my belly. My chest tightened. A lump formed in my throat. My brain had bees dancing across it. My lip curled into a snarl, and before I could make a rational and considered assessment of the situation and calmly decide my next course of action, I was already striding down the ship in the direction of the departed German.

“I’m going to find that guy,” I called back.

“Oh, Christ, Jamie, not again!”

“Keep the wee guy safe,” I said, suddenly wishing I’d had a pair of shades to hand. It felt somehow very cinematic, despite the fact that I was a red-faced, disgruntled, pot-bellied lanky-pants, and not Arnold Schwarzenegger.

decksWe don’t put pictures of our son on-line. Obviously, there’s a stranger-danger element. Once a photo hits cyberspace, even if it’s only shared with people you know on Facebook, you lose custody of it. Facebook is like a many-tentacled space octopus, its connections and degrees-of-separation almost impossible to chart or quantify. You never really know who’s watching, or why.

And then there’s the old-fashioned argument: that if tens, hundreds or thousands of people have ready access to your memories then those memories cease to feel as special. Better to have complete ownership of, and the exclusive distribution rights to, the unfolding storybook of your children’s lives. Better to have sets of physical photobooks to flick through as a family in the years to come, in the knowledge that only the people closest to you have been privileged enough to see them (‘But wait, Jamie, aren’t you ceaselessly blogging about your son’s life as it unfolds, I mean, isn’t that even more of an intimate thing to share than a set of photographs; don’t you think that makes you a bit of a hypocr…[imaginary opponent struggles against the onset of a chloroform knock-out, as I press the soaked rag to their mouth]’ “Shhhhh, shhhhh. Sleep now, shhhhhhh.”).

Lastly, look at how celebrity impacts on celebrities: the paparazzi, the flash photography, the front-page scoops and four-page spreads. It turns a lot of them into arrogant, conceited assholes. Facebook is doing a good job of donating a big box of celebrity-lite crowns to the masses; it’s like an on-line Hello magazine for the less significant, allowing people to become pseudo-stars in their own social circles, if not society at large. Look how narcissistic we’ve become. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! What challenge? The challenge to post even more pictures of yourself on-line than you did yesterday? Yeah, but SOCIAL ISSUES, SOCIAL AWARENESS, SOCIAL JUSTICE, stop pooing on our parades, you meanie, we’re trying to save the world with these pictures of ourselves… and if we happen to look kind and successful – and smoking hot, incidentally, if we do say so ourselves – while doing it, then all the better!

trumanThere’s no way to know exactly what effect being displayed to the world from the moment of birth will have on our kids. In any case, I’m pretty sure The Truman Show was meant as a cautionary tale. We’re out. When he’s old enough to consent to having his picture disseminated to the world at large, then he can make that decision for himself. Although if some movie producer were to offer us £1m for our son to have a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster, we might have to re-evaluate our stance on the matter.

Back to the boat.

I scoured every inch of it: my nostrils flared out, my swagger in full swing. Up stairs, down stairs, through dark and noisy lower decks, behind this, in front of that, here, there and everywhere.

Just as I was about to give up and resign myself to failure, I spied the jolly German giant sitting upon a bench on the shore, just about to tuck into a sandwich. I crossed the gang-plank and strode towards him, all of the possible scenarios of our imminent meeting playing out in my mind: me calling the police, me punching him, me throwing his expensive camera into the sea, me throwing the German into the sea.

imagesI sat down next to him, and stared ahead, like a spymaster about to pass details of a top-secret mission to his agent.

“I know you’re an amateur photographer, and you didn’t mean any harm, but I’m going to have to ask you to delete the picture you took of my son.”

I turned and looked him in the eyes. His jolly grin was gone. “Of course, of course,” he said, setting down his sandwich and groping for his camera. My anger was gone. I was reasonably certain that the sandwich-gobbling snapper wasn’t a nonce, but at this point it didn’t matter. Still, even with right on my side, it was an immensely awkward conversation. I had to reassure this guy that I didn’t think he was a paedophile while at the same time making it clear that I thought he might just be a paedophile. Schrodinger’s paedophile?

“You understand, we don’t even post pictures of our own son on Facebook.”

“It’s your choice, I’m sorry, I should have asked you first. I did not mean to cause distress. I will of course delete it,” he said, fiddling with the buttons on the camera.

He was cordial, sincere and deferent. All the same…

“I don’t want to sound like an asshole here, but could I watch you do it? Could you show me?”

He showed me. I had sounded like an asshole. Buto nly because I was a Scottish guy using the word ‘asshole’ and not the more colloquially appropriate ‘arsehole’ or even ‘bawbag’.

“Thank you,” I said as I got up and walked off towards the boat again. I patted my pockets. Still no shades.

As I re-boarded the boat, I realised something important: I’d spent so long scouring the decks for the jolly German giant that I had no idea where my partner and young son were.

What a fine job I did of protecting them.

PS: The picture the German took wasn’t very good. It was snapped at a weird diagonal angle. That proves one of two things: 1) he really was a paedophile, or 2) he was just a really shite photographer.

Or both I suppose.

MORE ARTICLES ON PARENTHOOD

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

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Why I’d love to live under a dictatorship

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I sometimes watch the news and find myself unable to process and interpret the dizzying, conflicting array of agendas, voices, wants, desires, schemes, half-truths, un-truths, exaggerations and lies. How I long for a simpler existence. Unless you’re in the 1 per cent – or one of those lizard people that David Icke’s always banging on about – nothing you say, think or do matters anyway. Free thought and moral relativism are exhausting. So I’ve been dreaming about a different world. A better world… Imagine it with me.

Instead of humming and hawing, and deliberating, and debating, and compensating, and weighing consequences, and wondering who’s telling the truth, and trying to work out whose image is being manipulated by which media outlet and why, and reading articles, and journals, and manifestos, and pamphlets by the library-load in a vain, ever-futile attempt to work out why you should care, what you should do, how you should think, who you should trust, and why, why, why, a thousand times why… wouldn’t it be refreshing just to wake up in a world where a man went on television, stood on a flag-draped podium and shouted, ‘DO WHAT I SAY OR I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU.’

Yes, of course it would be horrible. But wouldn’t it also be, you know, awesome?

dic2

The more I think about it, the more I’m certain that I would have thrived under a dictatorship. School would’ve been an absolute doddle. When you live in a totalitarian state you usually find that the most important book in the school syllabus is a book of poetry that the dictator has written to commemorate Squiggles, his dead guinea pig. I would’ve been an A+ student.

“When our dear leader wrote that he ‘loved ickle wittle Squiggles little face’, and then went on to say that ‘he missed that fuwwy, fwuffy, cuddwee wittle face’ I cried for six days. And rhyming ‘face’ with ‘face’? Such a strikingly bold choice, but then our dear leader is nothing if not strikingly bold, may he reign for another ten million years, and may his enemies drown in hot gallons of their own blood. PS: On that note, Little Jimmy Graham in class 2B said that guinea pigs are vermin and eat their own poo, so I wonder if perhaps he needs a spell of ‘mandatory re-education’ in the Airdrie gulag? PPS: I wonder if he’ll be needing his new Nike Airs in the gulag. I’d be more than happy to look after them.”

And there’s another awesome aspect of living life under the iron fist: the ability to have your rivals – or even just people who happen to blow their nose in a rather irritating way – carted off to prison or the afterlife with the minimum of effort.

“Dear State Bureau of Citizen Improvement for the Glory of Our Mighty Leader,

Last night, just after my Dad confiscated the Xbox controllers from me for giving him cheek, he went into his bedroom and said to my mum, ‘Dictator? Dick…taker more like!’ He also quite clearly and audibly insinuated that he had a bigger penis than our great leader.

PS: any chance you could ask him where he’s stashed the controllers as you lead him crying and screaming from the house? ”

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REPORT CARD SUMMARY – Jamie Andrew

School: The Merciful and Munificent Leader’s Institution for the Inculcation and Responsibilisation of Our Great Republic’s Pre-Citizens Junior High

MATHS – A+

  1. 2 + 2 = whatever our Dear Leader tells me it equals.
  2. If x + y(2) – c(a) / 245.76 X yy2(cos24), is it the fault of the Jews? = Yes.
  3. Describe Pythagoras’ theorem = No. Pythagoras was a reactionary intellectual separatist whose belief in angles is a threat to the mighty secular perfection of the Great republic. Also, almost definitely a black Jewish homosexual.

ENGLISH – A+

“Animal Farm, by the treacherous bastard Eric Blair, is a piece of pernicious capitalist propaganda that says more about the author’s barely concealed sexual attraction to pigs than it does about life in our glorious republic. All copies of this book should be burned, and its author’s bones disinterred and pooed upon. Besides, if it’s a good book about pigs you’re after, you can’t beat ‘Without Rhyme or Reason: The Tragic Death of Squiggles.’”

MUSIC – A+

Essay: “Our Dear Leader’s fingers do not stretch over the fret of a guitar, therefore guitars are flawed, and possibly a plot by our enemies to humiliate our Dear Leader, which is why I spent a semester confiscating 7000 guitars from the local community, recording the noise of me smashing each of them to pieces with a hammer, and releasing the finished edit as the number 1 hit single, ‘Guitar Ownership is a Capital Offence by Decree of our Benevolent and Magnificent Leader, May All his Wanks be Uninterrupted and Unhurried.’”

evil

With school finished – and aced – I’d be straight on to a long, successful career in the Ministry of Propaganda where I’d be writing school text books, newspaper reports and government missives. Like:

“Americans: do they really bathe their young in Coca Cola, and have sex with hawks? Yes. Yes they do.”

“The French speak of freedom and revolution. They also use cheese as a deodarant and play with their uncles’ dicks. Don’t listen to them.”

“Why the Spanish are almost certainly a nation of transsexuals who enjoy sex with dead whales that they dress up like giant flamenco dancers.”

“Forcing the Germans to build a wall to help us keep the Germans out of our country: the importance of sniper turrets.”

Work is often a place of stagnation, a repetitive, soul-sucking dirge that booms in your brain until you shuffle off to the grave with a carriage clock tucked under your oxster. Imagine how much more exciting it would be if your working week was a hot-bed of attempted assassinations and high-stakes mud-slinging, where Friday would quickly inherit the acronym TFISA (Thank fuck I’m still alive). Retirement wouldn’t just be a relief. It would be a real achievement. Like completing Halo on Legendary without getting shot once.

At this point, please feel free to imagine me letting out a wistful sigh. (pause for wistful sigh) Ah, those were… well, not those were the days, I suppose, because they never happened. But those should’ve been the days. Those could still be the days.

Do they advertise dictator vacancies at the Job Centre?

A few words on death

dead1

I think about death. A lot. I was thinking about it today. Thinking about how all of us, no matter our views on nudity, modesty or the sanctity of the body, will inevitably find ourselves lying dead and naked on a slab with some poe-faced mortuary attendant hunched over us with a clip-board. That’s the best case scenario. Worst case, some psychopathic medical student will be playing keepy-uppy with our severed balls or tits. On the bright side, we’ll be dead and we won’t give a shit either way. Regardless, I want them to know, these ghouls. I want them to know that I’ve lived my life accepting the allignment of my destiny with theirs. I want to communicate with them from beyond the grave. I was thinking a stomach tattoo. I’m torn between I KNOW A NECROPHILIAC WHEN I SEE ONE and YOU’RE NEXT. I’m open to suggestions.

That led me to thinking about people who work in funeral parlours. Do undertakers and mortuary assistants have appraisals at work? What form do they take?

Funeral director: probably the most hilarious of all the professions

Funeral director: probably the most hilarious of all the professions

Well, Colin, thank you for attending your annual review today. For starters, can you tell me anything that you think you’ve done well in the mortuary over the last twelve months, anything you’re particularly proud of?”

Hmmmm… well, of all the bodies I’ve tended to this year, less than thirty per cent of them ended up looking like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.”

A real improvement on last year, Colin. Now, can you think of any way that you could make your processes more efficient?”

We could… put the make-up on people while they’re still alive in the hospice, get them in and out faster on the day?”

“Oh, that’s brilliant, I’ll make a note of that.”

Face-painting?”

I’m not sure I follow…”

Well, I’m always at a loose-end during the funeral itself, but if people brought their kids I could set up in a side-room and do their faces up like cats and wizards and that. Charge five pound a face.”

(nodding vigorously) And then, if any of the adults are particularly upset as they file out of the service, they’ll come out, turn a corner and…”

BAM. Wee guy with a tiger face.”

Wee guy with a tiger face!”

I know a tiger face would cheer me up.”

Oh, me too, Colin, that’s….BRILLIANT! You’d just have to make sure to wash the brushes out before you used them on the kids’ faces.”

I could just use different brushes.”

(claps hands together, frantically scrawls in notepad) This must be how Mr Miagi felt in the Karate Kid! Any other initiatives?”

(ponders) You know, when people think funeral procession, they think sssllllow. But why does it have to be slow? If the drivers absolutely caned it, we could squeeze in a few extra funerals every day, plus the mourners would be too distracted to be depressed.”

Make it more fun!”

Make it more fun. Give the hearses a siren like Ecto-1 from the Ghostbusters. People would go crazy for that shit. Give the guy with the big top hat who traditionally walks in front of the procession a quad bike.”

Jesus Christ, Colin, you’re taking me to funeral director school today, son!”

Maybe this is a little too radical, but how do you feel about group discounts for bonfires?”

hearse

I would hate to be a mortician or an undertaker. Imagine coming home frisky and angling for sex. I imagine there’d be an insistent, unshooshable voice in my partner’s head saying to her: “How the hell can he be horny after looking at dead bodies all day? Unless… oh God, he isn’t horny BECAUSE of the dead bodies, is he? I swear to Christ, if he tells me to stop moving around so much I’ll snip his dick off…”

How could you ever feel horny ever again? I know there are some strange aphrodisiacs in this world, but recently-deceased 87-year-old Gladys McLintoch surely isn’t one of them. Sex and death are inextricably linked, and sometimes proximity to death, and fear of mortality, can trigger the reproductive instinct; that being said, most normal guys wouldn’t gaze down at the face of a dearly departed old granny, allow a lop-sided leer to slip across their lips, and think to themselves: ‘The wife’s going to be walking like John Wayne when I’m done with her tonight.’ 

One final thought: do hearse drivers get to take their work vehicles home and use them recreationally, like taxi drivers do? “Well, it’s an absolute bastard to reverse park the thing, but it’s so good for the weekly shop. I can fit in the bog paper, washing powder, everything.” 

When your kid goes from angel… to Hell’s Angel

behaveangelImagine the scene. Your kid is on the cusp of becoming a toddler. They spend their days teetering around, swishing behind them a rainbow of babbles, innocence and light. They seem to tip-toe across rooms like a lady at an etiquette school balancing books on her bonce, their little head wobbling gently in the manner of an acquiescent Indian’s, but holding firm and steady, their gaze fixed on some far-off and unseen horizon.

There are, however, no books resting atop that diminutive dome, only a single, solitary halo, round and bright and smooth and solid, a perfect crown for a perfect kid. The halo will stay, of that you’re certain, permanent proof of your supremacy as parents. The concept of sharing? Tick. A sweet, happy and loving disposition? Tick. Absence of tantrums? Tick. You’ve done everything right, in fact you’ve re-written the rule book, and made right look positively, prehistorically left. Hundreds of thousands of years of child-rearing distilled and crystalised into the body of that zen-like little creature you’ve gifted to the world. If you had a mic you’d drop it, walk past a billion-strong crowd of parents with a sneer on your lips and a swagger in your step: “Suck our block-rocking cocks, Doctor Spock! Mum and dad out! ”

I remember the days well. When our little boy was very small, my partner and I would find ourselves in restaurants, or soft-plays, or attending children’s parties, surveying the raft of shrieking, wailing, kicking, screaming, biting, slapping demon spawn around us; we’d observe the scarlet-faced, coarse-voiced frustration of their parents, and we’d each raise a silent furry eyebrow in the other’s direction. Our eyebrows would receive such regular and herculian workouts that it’s a wonder the juts of our brows weren’t rendered cro-magnan with the extra layers of muscle.

Afterwards, in the car or safely back home, we’d dissect the scenes, two Glasgow tenament women gossiping over a fence, arrogance and self-righteousness flooding from our mouths like bile-flavoured milkshakes: “Did you see it when that kid hit that other kid? Oh, I know, and then when he… yeah, and then that little girl, you know the one, the one with the messy big face, when she kicked that boy in the… oh, I know, I know. And when that kid stole that sandwich from the smaller kid and shoved it in his mouth, and the mother just… well, she just sat there… I mean, our kid would never do that, never, and even if he did, well, I mean, we simply wouldn’t stand for it, would we?” No, of course that wouldn’t happen to us. Impossible. I mean, that’s a halo on his head, not a hoopla. It’s fixed. It’s everlasting. We’ve won at parenting, that’s what that halo means.

It’s the age-old tale. Just as you’re busy awarding yourself with a machine-gun volley of self-congratulatory slaps on the back, a funny thing happens…

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Your kid turns into a fucking asshole.

That’s right, people. A beautiful, wonderful, magnificent asshole, sure, but an asshole none-the-less. They push kids. They snatch toys. They hurtle down the aisles of the supermarket whooping and laughing, their ears closed to your hollers of protestation. They lob their dinner at the cat. They lob the cat at their dinner. They start ritually sacrificing goats and glugging the blood like wine.

The transformation doesn’t happen overnight. At least it didn’t for us. I still remember the day when the bubble of our hubris was loudly and decisively popped, in public, during a trip to the safari park. The lion’s share of the day (forgive me) had passed without incident; our darling boy had cooed at the elephants, stood enthralled by the giraffes, and laughed his little ass off at the meerkats. It was a time of great joy, and peace, just like all the rest of our times. Why should this day be any different? In retrospect, it was the most apposite time for the universe to send this particular piano of truth crashing down atop our heads.

My son, as we learned that day – and have never forgotten – is highly skilled at perfectly timing his tantrums and manic episodes to coincide with those moments where we find ourselves trapped and unable to pull free from the orbit of his naughtiness. Like, for example, when we’re crammed into a small boat with twenty-five strangers en route to Chimp Island.

chimp boat

I had been excited. “I wonder what those chimps are going to get up to,” I said to my partner. “The reason these boats have cages around them isn’t simply to protect us from an audacious chimp attack or prevent us from falling overboard. They’re there to protect us from the rocks and sticks the chimps like to hurl at the boats. Not to mention clumps of their own shite. God, I’ll bet they’re going to go absolutely mental, and jump around and throw shite at us. Oh please say that they’ll do all that, please, I can’t wait to see them go crazy!”

Disappointingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they did nothing. They just stood there on the shore, staring mutely at us, bored and weary looks weighing down their ancient hairy faces. My son instantly siezed the opportunity to show his lesser cousins how boisterousness was done, homo sapien-style, claiming centre stage for himself. He writhed and flailed in my arms, shrieking like a banshee in a house-fire, his little limbs pumping like pistons oiled by evil. He occasionally ceased his shrieks to sink his tiny little teeth into the soft flesh of my shoulder. I had to hold him back, and aloft, like he was some psychopathically recalcitrant zombie Scrappy Doo. All eyes on the boat turned to us: the hairless missing links that were infinitely more interesting to behold than the sluggish, half-arsed primates across the water.

Water, I thought. I’ll give him a drink of his water; that’ll distract him. Well, it did, and it didn’t. He started loading it into his mouth like liquid ammunition and spitting it everywhere, raining down globs of watery child saliva upon the shoulders of those poor souls  unfortunate enough to find themselves in our immediate vicinity. Never have so many sorries been uttered in such a short a space of time to so many by so few. I could already hear the judgements and condemnations forming in their minds, as they prepared to engage in the same sorts of conversations that we’d always enjoyed having about other people’s naughty children. It’s funny how you find yourself playing to the gallery during those moments, loudly spelling out the extenuating circumstances behind your child’s behaviour for all to hear. “He’s not normally like this… I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS, CAN YOU HEAR ME AT THE BACK UP THERE?! I’LL SAY IT MORE LOUDLY, I SAID HE’S NOT NORMALLY LIKE THIS!”

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A few weeks ago we attended an American friend’s fourth of July barbecue. Naturally, we dressed Jack in a Captain America costume, complete with superhero shield. I had been very close to ordering my partner and I Uncle Sam hats and Obama masks for the occasion. Thank Christ I didn’t, because when we arrived there was nothing identifiably American about the occasion, save for the host herself. I blame my misconceptions on Rocky IV, which I’ve obviously interpreted as some sort of cultural documentary. I dread to think how we would have dressed our kid had we been invited to a Hindu celebration.

Anyway, our wee guy was five to eight months older than most of the kids at the barbecue, and was long overdue a nap. As a consequence, his ‘well-developed concept of sharing’ was buried deep within a fog of pissiness. He snatched books and toys from the smaller kids, and knocked them over like pins at a bowling arcade. You feel paralysed at times like this. People who have no frame of reference for your kid’s behaviour will naturally assume that you’ve raised an asshole. You want to chide your kid, to show that you’re not a passive parent who tolerates unruly behaviour, but at the same time you feel you have to hold back your sterner inclinations because you also don’t want to come across as the boom-voiced, authoritarian dick you are at home. I just ended up sounding like Hooks from Police Academy, with an apologetic, wobbly whisper escaping from my mouth in the mould of ‘Don’t move… dirtbag,’ followed by a muttered string of, ‘He’s not normally like this-es’ and ‘He’s a wee sweetheart at home-s.’

Don’t misunderstand. Our boy isn’t the devil. He’s still a sweet, bright, caring and loving little person, and thoroughly well-behaved the vast majority of the time, which is one way of saying that the beatings are working. He’s never surly or aggressive or violent, he just occasionally likes to flaunt his moxy, and wear a look on his face that says: ‘There hasn’t been a naughty step built that can hold me, motherfuckers.’

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I guess the occasional bout of bad behaviour is par for the course at certain stages of a child’s development. And sometimes what we class as bad behaviour is a by-product of limits being tested or the flexing some new found muscle of freedom or experience. It’s our job to introduce him to consequences and responsiblity, certainly, and to socialise him, and protect him from the unfiltered excesses of his own ego and the punishments he might face from those outside the family with a less forgiving eye, but it’s also our job to understand what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling, and ask ourselves why he might be behaving in a certain way. We owe him that. Sometimes he’s hungry, sometimes he’s tired, sometimes he lacks the language skills to convey his feelings and communicate his desires, which can lead to frustration. Sometimes, when we make an effort to trace the genesis of a particular action or behaviour, we’ll discover that we, the parents, are the unwitting Kaiser Szozes.

For instance, we’ll chase him around the house telling him we’re going to eat his legs off, and then react with shock and anger when he later runs up to us and sinks his teeth into our leg. Or we’ll make the experience of teeth-brushing more fun by preceding it with a round-the-house, laughter-filled chase, and then lose our shit when he decides it would be funny to replicate the chase in a busy supermarket when we’re lugging heavy baskets of fresh produce. This is one reason we’ll never smack or strike him. What will you then do if your child hits someone? Hit them harder? To teach them about the abuse of power and hypocrisy?

We’re learning that the toddler years, especially as we prepare to enter the infamous ‘terrible twos’, are a period of constant adjustment and correction, of our behaviour as much as his.

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It’s reasonably easy to predict what a baby will do. But as a baby becomes a toddler becomes a child becomes a teenager becomes an adult, the range of possibilities stretched before them – of thought, of action, of mood, of mind, of experience – increases a million-fold, transforming the relationship between cause and effect into a dizzying, ever-multiplying web of connections. They’re exposed to other kids, other family members, other adults in your friend circle, strangers, the TV, a multitude of new sounds and smells and toys and concepts. Life is complex, and complicated, and so’s your kid.

What I’m saying is, should ever see our little boy dashing around a supermarket with a mischevious glint in his eye as we lumber after him like angry dog-catchers, or hear me roaring in pain because my darling son has just sprinted towards me and sunk his teeth into my crotch, please reserve your judgement. I promise to do the same for you. And keep your eyes trained on the empty space above his skull. If you screw up your eyes and strain really hard, you’ll still be able to see the faint outline of a halo. Not quite as bright as it once was. Maybe not as perfectly round. But it’s there.

I promise you it’s still there.

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The CW’s Arrow: one in the eye for logic

arrow1Enjoyment of the superhero series Arrow requires a steel-reinforced suspension of disbelief. Don’t come to Arrow expecting the gritty, heightened reality of a Christopher Nolan project, or the air-tight, all-bases-covered, intricate plotting of the likes of your Wires and Breaking Bads, and especially don’t come to it expecting rich and subtle dialogue a la Better Call Saul, Transparent or The Sopranos. Your only choice is to wholeheartedly embrace Arrow’s two-fingered salute to sense, logic and reality, and simply revel in its slick ridiculousness. Switch off your reason-circuits and enjoy the glamorous, steroidal throat-punches that punctuate its cartoonish narrative.

This is a CW show, after all (apologies to the hyper-popular Supernatural and the exquisitely compulsive iZombie for the derogatory sneer). You know the basic template. All of the characters are ‘beautiful’, chiselled and dazzle-toothed, even those supposedly from the wrong side of the tracks, and living on the proceeds of crime and welfare in the unforgiving murk of the ghetto. People seem to spend their days trading clumsy snippets of exposition with each other. That’s when they’re not busy spelling out exactly how they’re feeling and why they’re feeling that way, at all times. Themes are hammered into your eyes like nails. Plots are always wrapped up with healthy helpings of coincidence, contrivance or deux ex machina. Or sex. If someone dies, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be back in an episode or five with a barely believable explanation for their survival.  

Furthermore, Oliver Queen is a ‘superhero’ who is rendered wholly invisible by a baggy hood pulled loosely over his face. No one ever tries to whip the hood off, even when they’re standing a half a centimetre away from him. And John Barrowman’s… a bad ass?

John Barrowman as 'The Black Arrow' in the CW's 'Arrow'.

John Barrowman as ‘The Black Arrow’ in the CW’s ‘Arrow’.

You see? That little voice – the one that watches TV and delights in shouting out, ‘Wait a minute, that could never happen, because x, y, z’ – must be silenced when watching Arrow. I’ve always done a pretty good job of suppressing that little voice. Until this week, when the fourth episode of season two turned my little voice into a crazed drill sergeant turned auctioneer.

I’ll set the scene. A black gangland boss calling himself ‘The Mayor’ rolls up to an army of cops in an armored personnel carrier. Flanked by a series of machine-gun-toting goons, The Mayor proceeds to give an angry and impassioned speech about guns, and how he’s going to use them to rule the city, ostensibly by killing lots of people with them. The violence is heavily sign-posted, to the other characters as well as to the audience. In fact, The Mayor couldn’t have less subtly foreshadowed the violence had he ended his speech by saying, ‘And now, without any further ado, and thanking you for your patience during my angry waffle about killing you, I am very pleased to announce the beginning of our bloodbath.’

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All the while the cops hunch uncertainly behind their squad cars, their guns drawn, just waiting for a cue to act, a cue to say something, a cue to do something, a concrete cue, an indisputable, cast-iron cue, but blast it, they can’t, because that cunning gang hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary, other than stand on a public street armed with automatic weapons threatening to kill everyone. Then The Mayor and his guys open fire. People dive for cover. Bullets pepper the squad cars. The cops wait a full six seconds before half-heartedly returning fire. By which point a significant proportion of the cops are dead.

Hmmm. Arrow expertly somersaulting through a horde of bullets and emerging unscathed? Women always having perfect hair even when imprisoned on a nightmarish island? John Barrowman being tougher than Chuck Norris? I can just about buy all of that. But to believe that American cops would hesitate to respond when faced with a heavily armed gang of black males in a deprived urban area – and not just hesitate, but allow themselves to be picked off like teen sluts in a 90s slasher flick? I’m sorry. In a world – in an all too real world – in which a well-heeled, unarmed black boy brandishing a hotdog is liable to end his day on a mortuary slab with fifty-six bullets ploughed into his chest, that’s just too much unreality for me.

I’m off to watch something a little more authentic, like Ben McKenzie’s acting on Gotham…

PS: I still love Arrow, even though every fibre of my being tells me that I shouldn’t.

Co-sleeping kids: banished from the bed

cosleep1A benchmark is looming in our lives, one I’d guess most parents have already reached by this stage in their children’s development. My little boy is nearly two, and since birth he’s shared our bedroom with us. For the first couple of months he slept in a Moses basket by our bed. After that, he graduated to a special stilted extension that clamps on to our double-bed on his mother’s side. Most nights he’s to be found spread-eagled across three-quarters of the total available area, forsaking his own little jutted corner and pushing his mum and me to the outer fringes of bed-space and beyond. Often my knees dangle over the spongy precipice of my side of the mattress, a faint sliver of duvet tugged sparingly to my body, an arrangement that brings warmth to a mere one shoulder and half a leg.

And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Except now we have to.

Baby number two is arriving this November, and the bright torch of cosy snuggledom will have to be passed down from the eldest sibling to the newest. This makes it sound like a noble act in which my son is a willing participant. My language masks the fact that our son will probably interpret his relocation to his actual bedroom – or ‘the toy room’ as he surely thinks of it – as banishment; his position at the maternal breast usurped by a shrieking, snivelling little upstart with nothing in the way of special skills beyond the amazing ability to shit, sneeze, piss and cry all at the same time.

A random toddler, somewhere in the world, exhibiting that famous toddler scowl.

A random toddler, somewhere in the world, exhibiting that famous toddler scowl.

My son no longer breastfeeds. I guess his mum’s pregnancy hormones and a concomitant change in the composition of her milk convinced his taste buds that it was time to move on. He still stares at his mum’s breasts from time to time, with the same look on his face that you or I would wear if we spotted someone in the street with whom we were positive we’d once passed an evening, many years ago. Sometimes, when we’re all lying in bed for story time, he slips a hand down his mum’s top, buries it in her cleavage and says, ‘Comfy in there.’ (That’s my boy!) Then he’ll fall asleep, a fond look written across his tender little features somewhere between peace and triumph.

Breastfeeding was the main reason we decided to co-sleep, to make night feeds easier for mother and child (and, let’s face it, for Daddy too). I say ‘we’ decided. That’s not strictly accurate. My partner outlined the kind of mother she wanted to be, and I gladly and wholeheartedly supported it. I’m thankful every day that I was blessed to have children with a woman whose methods, which I’m sure will earn her the label of ‘new age mother’ or ‘hippy chick’ in some people’s eyes, hark back to a more mother-centric time. Had she decided to bottle feed and move our baby to his own room within a few months, I’m sure I would’ve supported that, too, but I’m grateful that she was able to open my eyes to the alternative; an alternative that I fast accepted as the definitive. That being said, I recognise that all mothers and couples have different stresses, commitments and priorities in their lives that don’t always easily accommodate the ways in which we’ve chosen to approach parenthood. I’m just glad we were able to find a way that works for us, and makes us all happy.

Even though my son’s suckling days – for both sustenance and comfort – are over, his continued presence in our room is about so much more than nurturing or convenience. It’s a gift. Each morning I wake up to find a little face smiling at me across his mother’s tummy. He’ll shout ‘Morning time’ and clamber over her legs to nuzzle in between us, cradling my face and giving me a big wet kiss on the lips. More and more frequently, as my fear of rolling over in my sleep and crushing him to death has subsided, I’ve woken to find him nestled in to the crook of my arm, and get to watch his tiny, delicate chest rising and falling, a series of soft little susurrations issuing from his lips. When I wake up, he wakes up, grabbing my hand and telling me, ‘Mon, Daddy, mon, morning time’, before sliding himself off the bed and demanding I follow him. The thought of not seeing his face in the fresh seconds of each new day, of not knowing he’s safe and with us – I mean with us, right with us – fills me with a suffocating sense of dread. I know he’ll only be a few feet away in another room, just along the smallest hallway in the world. I know we’ll all adapt and adjust as a family and nothing will be lost or broken. But still. My boy. My team. We should be together. Always. Even when we’re all snoring and farting in bed.

Whenever I do this, my last thought before drifting off is always 'Please don't let me kill the baby.'

Whenever I do this, my last thought before drifting off is always ‘Please don’t let me kill the baby.’

Because the vast majority of people in the Western world don’t co-sleep with their children – having the luxury of space and surplus bedrooms – our decision to do so is often greeted as if it were some weird new-age aberration. It amuses me when baby boomers and their elders scoff at co-sleeping, or somehow think it’s an unhealthy form of coddling, given that most of them grew up in one-bedroom tenements where they had to share a bed with eighty members of their extended family.

I know what you’re thinking, though. Conjugals, right? I guess there are a lot of husbands and partners who would baulk at the idea of co-sleeping with their kids for that very reason. Isn’t sharing your bed with a tiny human an impediment to sex with your partner? Well of course it is. But so is having kids in the first place. Besides, not having a bed to rely on forces you to make better use of things like walls, tables and washing machines. I’m conscious that the previous sentence makes it sound as though my life is an uninterrupted cavalcade of adventurous humping, when that may be over-egging the pudding somewhat. A child is a living reminder of death: your actual death, and the steady death of your recreational sex life. A lot of the time we’re too tired after long hours absorbing and deflecting the time-hungry hyperactivity of our unbowedly kinetic little human. Or else find that our supplies of sexiness and reservoirs of randiness have been depleted by the wiping up of one too many jobbies, or the fifty-sixth recitation in a row of Jack and the Beanstalk. Now that’s a passion killer. Especially when you later find yourself shouting out ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ at the point of ejaculation.

The next few months are going to tough for the three (soon to be four) of us, but we have to do what’s best for Jack and the new baby. We can’t risk the safety of our newest arrival if Jack decides to  object to the sharing of his domain, and we can’t subject Jack to a screaming wake-up call every two to three hours when his little brother or sister wakes up to feed. We’re going to have to help Jack adjust to the new reality in stages; make it seem like the bold, empowering and exciting journey towards independence that I guess, in many ways, it is.

Perhaps I’m worrying in the wrong direction here. For me, the only thing worse than the thought of my son being upset by his impending move is the thought that he won’t really give a shit about it one way or the other. And it’ll be me waking up at four in the morning with a heavy heart and a halted tear, creeping through to his room with a blanket and a pillow, begging to be close to him.

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Flies, Lies and Crime-fighting Dogs

 

Flies, Lies and Crime Fighting Dogs

fliesI hate flies. They repulse me. If there are too many of them occupying a room in which I’m planning to eat, then I can’t eat. Not until I’ve blasted each and every one of them from the sky with a precision towel flick, or taken the fight directly to them on every wall, ceiling and light-shade upon which they’re bold or stupid enough to land.

My 22-month-old son has observed the ritual many times. I settle down to eat, and before I’ve even ingested so much as a morsel one of the poo-eating ninjas whooshes out from behind a curtain and tries to 9/11 my mashed potatoes. I have to kill it. My jaws lock with disgust, my appetite drops dead. Before I can eat another forkful, I have to kill it, else I’ll spend the remainder of my meal-time imagining its filthy little body crunching between my teeth. So I jump and curse and flail and rage, mad-eyed and spitting, demanding that every human eye in the room become part of my fly-detecting CCTV network.

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It’s rubbed off on the wee guy. He’s become my most trusted fly-spotter. “Daddy… FLY!” he’ll shout any time he sees one, lifting a finger aloft to mark its final resting place. Sometimes it’s a spider, or a fleck of paint, but what he lacks in accuracy he makes up for in vigour. If you ask him, “What do we do with flies?”, he’ll smack his palms together in an almighty cymbal motion and start shouting ‘FLY! FLY DIE!’ And my heart will swell, and I’ll think, “That’s my boy!” I’m surely witnessing the first delicate shoots of his first verifiable inter-generational neuroses, handed down from father to son. It’s truly a landmark moment. So he probably won’t be a Buddhist… but if keeping flies alive is the cost of admission to Buddhism, then I’m glad to have priced my son out of that disease-saturated market. Death to Fly-SIS!

You’ve got to really think about the way your kids see the world at this age, and consider the things they’ll cut and paste from you and the world around them to compile their own personalities. We went to a funday at the weekend and watched a police dog display. Hitherto he’s considered dogs to be plodding, docile beasts that put up with his shit and occasionally lick his face. The police dog display taught him that these furry fuckers he looks upon so fondly are also capable of taking down a fully grown man with a bounding gallop and a single arm-snarling leap. As he watched the dog savage the downed policeman’s arm, I had to make it clear to him that this wasn’t the norm. I framed it for him thusly: “This dog is a special dog. It helps the police. It helps the police fight the baddies.” His face bunched up into a frown before breaking out into a smile. “Fight baddies!” he said, nodding to himself, before shouting out “BATMAN!”

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“Yes, that’s right,” we told him, “the dog fights the baddies like Batman.” (He’s a big fan of the cartoon.) He then proceeded to spend the next five minutes pointing at the dog and shouting BATMAN over and over again. BATMAN! BATMAN! BATMAN! Rather than remark on how clever he was, bystanders unaware of the context in which he’d processed the dog’s actions might’ve thought we’d raised a fucking idiot.

I always want my son to see the mechanism behind things. I’ll probably clue him in on the whole Santa Claus cover-up when he’s a little bit older, so he can use the knowledge to hoodwink and manipulate his daft-ass school friends. Perhaps he’ll tell them that Santa’s a ferocious half-rat, half-alien killing machine that’ll kill them in their beds unless they leave a pile of their mum’s panties on the living room floor. Or that unless they all pay him a fiver each Santa won’t be able to afford enough magic dust to fly on Christmas Eve. The possibilities are endless. In my imagination, that is. Something tells me that my missus isn’t going to allow me to take our little boy’s dreams in my fist and crush them like rice cakes. Spoilsport!

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Just before I left the house last night I slipped a fake rubber hand up the sleeve of my jacket, and held my ‘hand’ out for my son to shake. At the climax of the handshake he found himself holding a disembodied human hand and staring at a bloodless stump on his dad’s arm. His world-shaking shock lasted only a second, before my real hand spat out of the stump accompanied by a happy TA-DA! “Pretend hand!” I smiled. “…tend hand,” he nodded. I then repeated the trick from the beginning a few times, showing him the whole process from start to finish. His mum did it for him too. He’s now cool and happy with the rubber hand, and I fully expect him to be using it to put the shits up his grandparents by Christmas. Unfortunately, I think part of him now believes two contradictory things at once: that I have two real hands, but also that one of my hands is fake. As I left the house and waved him goodbye with my real hand, he shouted: “Bye pretend hand!”

Is it possible to fuck someone up in a good way?

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Where have you been all my lives?

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Linlithgow: driving through its heavily congested high street makes you feel like you’re stuck behind the funeral cortege of somebody you’ve always fucking hated.

A few years ago a friend and I visited a shop in Linlithgow that specialised in religious and spiritual bric-a-brac. It was a weird little place: the sort of place where the Bible and the Koran shared space on the bookshelf alongside titles like ‘How to Exorcise Satanic Monopoly Pieces’ and ‘Making Your Cursed Monkey Foot Work For You.’

I wish you could’ve seen it. It’s not there any more. I’d like to think it just vanished in a puff of smoke one day, or that it never actually existed and my whole experience of the place was an hallucination triggered by the proximity of some ancient and evil artefact. But there’s probably a more humdrum explanation: the place was just too bat-shit mental to turn a profit. A Needful Things where none of the things were needful, and the devil running the place wasn’t a very good salesman.

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When you first walked into Needless Things there was a giant Jesus on a crucifix hanging on the wall; a Native American dream-catcher bounced from the ceiling above a wooden statue of an axe-wielding Native American chief in full ceremonial head-dress; Buddha squatted on a little side-table in a corner of the room, and a stone Virgin Mary stood on the floor next to him. It made me smile. I’d seen Night at the Museum. I sincerely hoped that the religious figurines would come to life at night for a scrap and a raucous party, and the shop-keeper would open the shop the next day to find Jesus scalped, and Mary no longer a virgin.

The lady who owned the shop was a tiny, shrivelled raisin with a limp. A quick visual sweep of her wrinkle-etched face convinced me that she was at least 6000 years old. I was surprised she could still walk owing to the tonne of jewellery that bedecked her bird-like frame, the weight of which gave her the gait of a half-wrecked skinless Terminator. I’m sure she was created in a laboratory as part of some weird genetic experiment to splice Yoda with Mr T.

She was also – and I’m struggling to be charitable here – absolutely fucking mental. Pitied the fool, I did.

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The old woman teetered and clinked her way across the shop-floor towards us, fixing us with a calm, predatory stare from her lifeless shark eyes. My friend was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks at the time (a condition  that could only have been exacerbated by the sight of this mystic dinky toy with a waxwork face moving in for the kill), information she shared with the old woman after they entered into a discussion about protective amulets or some such shit. The words ‘panic attack’ appeared to be one of the old woman’s triggers; she adopted a look somewhere between possession and constipation. I guess she was thinking.

‘Panic attacks,’ she said, her ancient lips hardly moving, lending her the appearance of a poorly-painted, haunted ventriloquist’s dummy. ‘Some people think that panic attacks are to do with your brain. Others think they’re to do with bad things in your childhood. But did you ever consider… [wait for it, I thought] that they might be caused by something that happened to you… in a past life?’

Em, no. No, we hadn’t considered that. Mainly because we’re not absolutely insane. I was relieved that this crazy old coot hadn’t entered the medical profession.

“I’ve checked you over, and your panic attacks appear to have been caused by that time you were chased through the garden of Eden by a T-Rex. I’m prescribing an enchanted emerald and a bag of magic frog dicks.”

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The best was yet to come. She went on to claim that one of her pals – undoubtedly called Mags or Betty – had given her a past-life regression, during which she’d discovered that she’d been a black slave, transported on a galley from Africa to America. I bit my lip so hard I almost ate my face. She stared back at us. This woman was entirely serious. She believed it without question. She further claimed that this revelation finally explained why she had always felt such an affinity with black people. It’s a testament to the entrenched racism of most elderly people in Central Scotland that the only sensible explanation this woman could find for liking black people is that she used to be one two hundred years ago.

I wonder what wee Yoda is doing with herself these days, now that her business has folded. I’d like to think she’s returned to Brooklyn to be with her people. I can just see her now, limping up to a gaggle of guys on a front step somewhere, throwing her arms wide and hollering: “It’s me! It’s Acqwon! I’ve lost a bit of weight since the 18th century, and granted I’m now a tiny white Scottish pensioner, but don’t you recognise me? Come on, homeys, let’s roll up a trouser leg and shoot some hoops!”

FURTHER READING

Jesus Loves You: that’s the problem

Jesus is a jerk

Jesus comes to Stirling