Sometimes… Dads Can Be Right?

The other night, sometime around two am, I awoke to find my eldest boy (2) standing at my side of the bed. He was staring at me, his face smeared so liberally in blood that he resembled some half-mad jungle general who’d just taken a bath in the gore of his fallen enemies, or a demon sprung from the Cenobite’s mattress. His hands, too, were as red as pillar boxes, obvious even in the half-light conjured by the street lamps outside our bedroom window.

The uneasy, tentative ‘Jack?’ that escaped my lips belied the frenzied engine of my thoughts, which were screaming ‘AAARRGGHHHHHH! BLOOD! AAARGGHHH! BLOOD!’ inside my head. As he opened his mouth to speak I was sure he was going to say one of three things:

  • ‘Jack no need to have two legs so me took one off.’
  • ‘Which one of you rat bastards is next?’
  • ‘The cat’s sleeping now…Sleeping forever, Daddy…’

What he actually said was: ‘Hi Daddy,’ giving his biggest, goofiest smile in the process.

Mercifully, there was no sinister explanation for his appearance. He’d had a nose bleed. His mother’s prone to them: enjoy that little gift of genetic inheritance, my young friend. Psoriasis and depression runs on my side of the family, so look forward to an adolescence of scratching and crying as the blood streams as if you were some sort of Vatican-sanctioned miraculous statue.

We whisked him through to the bathroom and perched him on his little stool by the sink. His mum had to scrub him really, really hard. What began as an act of cleaning quickly turned into exfoliation, which in turn became a genuine attempt to scour the very skin from his face. It was late, very late, and Jack was tired. He moaned. He cried. He just wanted this brutal ritual to come to an end so that we all could be snuggled up in the cosy darkness of the parental bed like a family of fairy-tale bears. ‘Let the blood stay,’ his eyes seemed to implore, ‘Maybe I like resembling one of Captain America’s oldest and most significant enemies!’ He wailed and whimpered, simpered and sulked, even as I carried him back through to our bedroom and the warm, imminent promise of sweet dreams.

‘Hang on,’ I said to my partner. ‘I’ll need to take him for a piss; you know what he’s like if he doesn’t go for one through the night. Let’s not tempt fate.’

‘No,’ she said, decisively. ‘He’s really upset; you’ll just traumatise him if you cart him back through there, and then he’ll wake his little brother up.’ His little brother, Christopher, a young lad of not-quite-12-weeks old, sleeps in a stilted extension at his mother’s side of the bed, and is forever having his slumber disturbed by his lumbering big brother.

‘He’ll piss the bed.’ I said.

‘No he won’t,’ she asserted.

‘Jack, do you need to pee?’ I asked him.

‘Nope,’ he said.

For some reason I accepted his reply as definitive proof, even though most days if you ask him, ‘Are you a giant tarantula’, he’ll say yes without a second thought.

I awoke a few hours later feeling very lucky indeed, but only in the sense that while Nostradamus died without seeing any of his prophecies come true, I had woken up tinged with the wet and vindicating piss of a little boy.

I slipped Jack out of his sodden clothes, and carried him through to the bathroom. He stood under the shower, harried and half-asleep, his tears attempting to give the whooshing water a run for its money. He wasn’t happy with the situation, but if happiness is lying in a coating of your own warm piss, then happiness be damned. One quick towel down and change of jammies later, and we were in Jack’s room, crammed together in his tiny single-bed. He burrowed into me like a baby bear, while I lay sprawled and contorted like a giraffe in a toy hammock, desperately trying to stave off deep vein thrombosis.

Have you ever looked into the mirror and said ‘Candyman’ five times? Or crank-called 999? Do you ever just feel like playing chicken with fate? I guess I must’ve been feeling particularly brave or stupid that fateful morning, because I made the ill-advised decision (all decisions are ill-advised when I’m acting as my own advisor) to summon my partner: and when I say ‘summoned’, I can assure you that the context is demonic.

What I said to my son, loudly and clearly, to ensure that my voice carried to the next room, was: ‘Oh, son, don’t you worry about having a little accident. It’s easily fixed, Daddy doesn’t mind. It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have done anything about it… (at this point I sucked my teeth) IF ONLY THERE HAD BEEN SOME WAY WE COULD HAVE STOPPED THIS… IF ONLY… IF ONLY SOMEHOW, SOMEONE, SOME FORWARD-THINKING SOUL, HAD BEEN BOLD ENOUGH TO RECOMMEND STEPS THAT COULD’VE PREVENTED THIS; LIKE, I DON’T KNOW, TAKING YOU FOR A PEE WHEN YOU WOKE UP EARLIER, BUT, YOU KNOW, SON, HINDSIGHT’S TWENTY-TWEN…’

At this point a megaton bomb of thunder detonated in the skies above us, and a thousand jagged forks of lightning drove themselves into the ground, scorching and immolating trees, birds and even people, whose screams filled the air like air-raid sirens. Blood seeped through the walls. Ghosts appeared in a flash-flood of light, and swirled around the room like tornadoes. A raven smashed through the window, squawking its message of hell and damnation, each frantic beat of its wings shooting blood-covered shards of glass across the room towards us. I held my son to shield him from the rising chaos, when, before us, she emerged into the doorway through a pillar of foul-scented smoke, the hair dancing on her head like nests of snakes. Her body jerked and spasmed like a stop-motion animation demon jammed on fast-forward; an inhuman blur of boobs, limbs and underwear. We heard the bites and snaps of a mouth that in its fury was more shark, or Beelzebub, than human.

”WE’ DECIDED NOT TO TAKE HIM FOR A PEE BECAUSE IT WOULD HAVE MADE HIM UPSET, WHICH IT WOULD HAVE, SO EVEN THOUGH THIS HAS HAPPENED, WHICH WE COULDN’T HAVE KNOWN WOULD HAPPEN, IT WAS THE RIGHT DECISION AT THE TIME! AND THAT’S THE END OF IT JAMIE! SO ENOUGH OF YOUR BLOODY SARCASM!’

And with that, she was gone.

As I lay stroking Jack’s hair, a large smile barged its way across my face.

‘Totally worth it,’ I said to him, planting a kiss on his forehead.

I slept the sleep of the just. A dad may only get to experience one moment of pure, undiluted rightness like this once in a lifetime. It’s best to savour it.

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

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.

Existential nightmare at the soft-play warehouse

softplay

Last week we took our son to soft-play, or The Hunger Games with rubber-foam-ladders as I like to call it. We entered the reception area and were buzzed through a security door into a giant warehouse filled with bright primary colours and screams. It felt like we were visiting a criminally insane toddler on death row. Those screams. Those… screams. I closed my eyes and imagined the thudding din of helicopter blades alongside the cacophony of piercing shrieks. This could be a war movie, I thought; ‘Nam, only more brutal. Why was this happening to us?

It was mid-week. The schools in our area were all in session, which we thought would guarantee us a quiet afternoon with a low kid-count: silence of the bambinos. Unfortunately, we hadn’t known that a neighbouring town’s schools were closed for in-service days (or Teachers’ Gin Days if you like), and that, as a consequence, the soft-play would be the site of a full-scale osmotic invasion of hyperactive, psychopathic Stirling kids. Sartre was bang on when he said that ‘Hell is other people’, but his aphoristic aim should’ve been more precise: hell is other people’s kids.

I wasn’t alone in my pain. I could see it etched into the weather-beaten faces of the parents who fringed the perimeter of the play-area, their wearied flesh pressed and wedged into the cheap plastic seats. We walked past a succession of toothless, sunken-cheeked grannies, who were all wearing the same expression, one that silently screamed: ‘I WISH YOU COULD STILL FUCKING SMOKE IN PLACES LIKE THESE… YOUNG LUNGS BE DAMNED!’ Their dark, haunted eyes evoked the horror of a holocaust. I smiled faintly at them, and steeled myself for the nightmare to come.

Kids are crazy little bastards (apart from my kid, of course, who’s clearly an exceptional human being, and nothing at all like your shitty little disease-ridden mental cases), propelled by sugar and selfishness. They lack both the developmental capacity to credit other people with having selves distinct from their own, and the ability to show compassion and regard for the well-being of others. Helping our son safely navigate the tunnels, ladders, ball-pits and climbing platforms of each of the three mini-fortresses was a hazardous and stressful endeavour. Kids careened about with the frenetic zeal of angry dwarf Gladiators, as they pushed, shoved, kicked, and thudded their way through the mazes. Our son became a tiny Indiana Jones, dodging four-limbed-boulders here, ducking roof-bound punch-bags there, all the while cooing and smiling, oblivious to the great danger that threatened to engulf him from every direction.

My fear was focused at the microbial level, on the shiny surfaces that were slick with sweat and saliva and piss and Christ knows what else. I was sure that my hands carried the traces of the bogeys and bum-kernels of a thousand wet-nosed, shat-nappied children, and every disease, from swine-flu to AIDS, was busy gleefully replicating itself in my blood. Who cleans this place? Do they get down on their hands and knees and scrub every inch of every surface, or do they shrug their shoulders and think to themselves, ‘Screw it, kids are ill all the time anyway, and I only get paid £5 an hour, so fuck this, I’m going to spray some Febreeze over this ball-pit and then go out for a smoke.’

ballpit

Despite all that, the three of us soon found ourselves in the ball-pit, doing the back-stroke through the multi-coloured sea of circular-filth-nuggets. Our son was delighted with the ball tsunami his thrashing and splashing created. A few other kids jumped in just as we were beginning a ball-fight, and before long all fire was concentrated on my face. I retaliated, of course, because where else are you going to get the chance to throw things at children and get away with it? Once the blood-lust abated, I fished my son out of the balls, sat him upright and said, with a great deal of enthusiasm: “WHO WANTS TO GET OUT OF HERE AND GO DOWN THE CHUTE?” Three random kids thrust their arms into the air, shouting “ME!”

“Well, I wasn’t actually talking to you guys, but, what the hell, I guess you can come along.”

And so we dragged a comet’s tail of kids behind us as we clambered out of the ball-pit and began the long, slow journey to the top of the fortress. One little boy, slightly older than our son, went out of his way to help little Jack navigate the climbing platforms, pulling him up at each level and making sure he was safe and steady. Once we reached the higher levels, he stuck to Jack like glue, protecting him from the hordes of wayward children as they sped towards us on their savage and singular trajectories. I figured I would have to re-evaluate my stance on the inherent psychopathy of children. Here was a noble and nurturing boy, a credit to his sub-species. I guess I was wrong, I thought. Kids are sweet and caring and kind after all.

I quickly re-re-evaluated, though, and come to the conclusion that he was the fucking worst of the lot. Clearly he was responding to me as the alpha of the pack, and keeping Jack safe was his way of appeasing me and showing due deference. If I’d ordered him to pick up Jack and hurl him from the battlements, the sick little bastard would have done it without hesitation. I guess that’s why I felt completely justified when I kicked the little boy in the stomach and hurled him down the chute backwards.

When I told my partner I was going to write about our experience at the soft-play area, she said: “Just remember to write that we all had a nice, fun time, because we did. Don’t do what you usually do and make our perfectly normal, happy family times sound nightmarish and horrible. And for Christ’s sake, don’t say something sick like you kicked that nice little boy in the stomach and then hurled him down a chute backwards.”

“Oh, and please try to call it something nice like, ‘Family Fun Times’ or ‘Super Soft-play Day’. Don’t call it something awful like, oh, I dunno, ‘Existential Nightmare at the Soft-Play Warehouse.'”

Folks, I did have a really, really nice time, it’s just that ‘nice’ isn’t all that funny or interesting to anyone except us, and – most importantly – this is Jamie Andrew With Hands, not fucking Mumsnet.

A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Do. Not. Eat. The. Food. I waited an hour for Nachos that cost me a fiver, and when I say Nachos, I mean half a bag of Doritos that somebody had blown snot over and then shoved in a microwave for twelve seconds.
  • Do check your socks before leaving. I was lucky this time, having by chance selected the one pair of socks I own that doesn’t have a gaping hole in the toe. You don’t want to be prancing around a plastic fortress looking like Albert Steptoe.
  • Finding a parking place at these day-glo hell-holes is perhaps the most heart-busting part of the saga. You won’t find one. Even though these soft-plays are usually inside giant warehouses, there are only ever about six parking spaces. You’ll find yourself driving round and around like The Hulk on steroids, unleashing torrents of vile, paranoia-themed bile at your fellow space-seekers, shouting at families for not waddling back to their cars quickly enough, and trying to manoeuvre your car into a four-inch gap before finally screaming ‘FUCK IT’ and angrily mounting the kerb to park on the pavement.

More family-related articles for you to enjoy:

A celebration of public breastfeeding

Baby talk: Baby’s first workplace visit

Happy Fathers’ Day to me

Weighting it all up

 

The Best Shittest Films: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

s1The movie opens with a chorus of children singing the song-cum-mantra ‘Hooray for Santy Claus’, which is catchy in the same way that a song played over and over into a terrorist’s ear in Guantanamo Bay is catchy. Look out for the lyrics: ‘You spell it S-A-N-T-A C-L-A-U-S / Hooray for Santy Claus!’ These kids are made to look like spelling-spastics by the song’s rampant disregard for its own rules. Look out for my new song, ‘You spell it J-A-M-I-E A-N-D-R-E-W / Hooray for Jamue Androw!’ A minor quibble, perhaps, but in the end it’s the little things that’ll have you prising out your eyes with a rusty tea-spoon.

 

So what’s the plot of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians?

'I'll fucking conquer them alright!'

‘I’ll fucking conquer them alright!’

The movie title makes it sound kick-ass, doesn’t it? I wonder how he conquers them. Perhaps Santa gets his hands on an assault rifle and rips into the alien scumbags John McClane-style? Except he doesn’t. There’s no conquering at all. Not even a wee bit of subduing. The film should really be called: ‘Santa Claus is Really Nice to the Martians, Even Though They Kidnap Him, and Leaves Mars On Generally Good Terms With Its People Despite the Behaviour of a Tiny Minority of Baddy Martians Who Want to Kill Him.’ Not as catchy, but definitely more accurate.

The story begins on Earth. A news reporter is at Santa’s North Pole Workshop conducting a live interview with the bearded chuckler himself, a role actor John Call brings to life by channelling both the lion from The Wizard of Oz and a convicted paedophile.

VERY Bad Santa.

VERY Bad Santa.

As we meet him, Santa is overseeing the global production of all toys. Well, I say global. We can assume Santa doesn’t deliver to Muslim kids or Chinese nationals; just the Christians and capitalist western secularists. Even still, that’s a fuck-load of toys. How does Santa manage to hit his targets for such an epic order, considering that the work shop is about the size of a small potting shed and the workforce consists of only two dwarves? Two dwarves. That’s it. If magic isn‘t involved then Santa’s a more cruel and brutal slave-driver than all of the pharaohs put together, plus Hitler. The dwarves really should join a union.

'Whachoo talkin' about, Space-Willis?'

‘Whachoo talkin’ about, Space-Willis?’

One of the toys on the production line is a doll of a Martian, a wee piece of foreshadowing for our impending trip to Mars. Now, I don’t know if it was the poor lighting, the screen resolution on my laptop, or my own latent racism, but that Martian doll looked less Martian and more, well… black. It was essentially a sci-fi gollywog. The news reporter picked up the doll and said, with fear and disgust: ’I wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night.’ Of course you wouldn’t, you big Nazi. I double-checked the title of the film, just to make sure I wasn’t accidentally watching Santa Claus Conquers the N*****s. Sorry to jump to conclusions, 1960s, but you ARE the decade that struggled to let Kirk tongue Uhuru, never mind hitch up her mini-skirt and shag her over the comms console.

So, Anyway, the Martians…

I'd be sad, too, if my Dad dressed me up like a total helmet.

I’d be sad, too, if my Dad dressed me up like a total helmet.

Meanwhile, across the solar system, the live broadcast of this interview is being watched by a duo of dead-eyed Martian minstrel kids. They’ve been watching so much Earth television, and getting so little sleep, and enjoyment from life, that they’re becoming little serial-killers-in-training: robotic, listless, and monosyllabic. Their dad, Kimar, whose day-job is Martian supreme commander, is worried shitless about them. If he’d been an American dad he would have known what to do: dope the cunts up with beef burgers and Ritalin. Being Martian and ignorant of Earth ways, he has to plump for a more locally-based two-prong solution.

Step one: put them to bed and knock them out with a sleep ray, without warning or consent. Nice work, Dad of the Year. Final step: get a crowd of mates together and go out into the rocky wilderness to consult a creepy 800-year-old man. Who of course needs to be summoned. ‘Dave? Hey, Dave? DAVE, YOU THERE, MATE?!’ No, that would be too easy. In any case the 800-year-old guy is called Chochum. Not Dave. Apparently Dave isn’t a very common Martian name. We’re all learning something today.

Chochum. A magical space mystic on Mars. That makes sense.

Chochum. A magical space mystic on Mars. That makes sense.

So, Kimar and a bunch of Martian elders all chant ‘Chochum’ into the unforgiving darkness, until the old fucker appears in a puff of smoke, complete with Gandalf-beard, standard-issue-old-mystic-guy staff and pish-scented wisdom. Chochum delivers his lines like a man receiving a sloppy blow-job as he fends off a stroke, which is pretty fucking funny. And disturbing. Fusturbing, if you‘ll permit me the creation of a new and completely unnecessary word.

What does Chochum suggest as a way of releasing the children from their torpor? Kidnap Santa Claus, of course. It’s so logical and sensible it’s a wonder they didn’t think of it themselves. So off they fly in their little spaceship, the operation of which is no more complicated than pressing buttons on a child’s fake calculator. The ship itself is a curious piece of inter-stellar engineering; it looks like a burning condom whooshing through space.

The Search for Santa

s7The Martians reach Earth and begin their search for Santa – using a high-powered telescope, rather than any namby-pamby futuristic technology. To their horror they realise that there are thousands upon thousands of Santas in New York alone. With no way of determining which is the genuine article they do what any military group placed in a similar situation would do: they kidnap some kids. Bloody Martians. Always with the kidnapping! The kids tell the Martians where Santa Claus lives, and they all zoom off to the North Pole to get him.

The two kids, Billy and Betty, are incredibly annoying, and very shit at acting. It’s as if immediately prior to each take the director said to them: ‘The last one was good kids, but this time… NO EMOTION. Brilliant. And remember to deliver your lines in the style of a short-sighted, brain-damaged man struggling to read an autocue.’

Unfortunately, the kids learn not only that the Martians intend to whisk Santa across the solar system against his will, but also that they – being witnesses to the crime – must come, too, never to return to Earth. In fact, as if things couldn’t possibly be any worse, there’s an evil baddy Martian onboard who wants them all dead. His name’s Stevie. Yeah, alright, alright, I’m fucking with you. He’s called Voldar. Fortunately, there’s also a clumsy, clowny Martian simpleton onboard called Dropo, who succeeds in keeping the kids alive through a winning display of consistently retarded buffoonery.

About as scary as a tub of margarine.

About as scary as a tub of margarine.

The action at the North Pole is… shit. The kids escape the ship and run off to warn Santa of his impending kidnap. In the process they get chased by the most unconvincing polar bear in the history of existence. I know the director couldn’t unleash a real polar bear on the kids – some piffling Health and Safety law about not feeding children to large ursine predators – but as far as guys-wearing-shit-animal-costumes go, Barney the Dinosaur is more authentically terrifying than this sorry excuse for a polar bear. Anyway, having escaped one near-death experience the kids then fall into the clutches of Voldar’s killer robot, who looks like the robot from Lost in Space if he was built by a class of special needs kids using cereal boxes and the bin from Oor Wullie.

About as scary as... a second tub of margarine. And also made from tubs of margarine.

About as scary as… a second tub of margarine. And also made from tubs of margarine.

Don’t worry, though. Before the robot can crush the kids’ heads to dust like a couple of loaves of twelve-week-old bread, Kimar shows up to cool things down. The robot is then sent to retrieve Santa Claus, but is defeated when Santa Claus mistakes it for a giant toy, which inexplicably causes it to BECOME a toy, thereby rendering it harmless. Whoever programmed that robot shouldn‘t have been let loose on a microwave, much less a sophisticated cybernetic life-form.

‘Right, brilliant, my robot can kill a man with its bare hands, withstand gun, rocket and laser fire, smash its way through titanium and destroy whole cities with its nuclearised death beam. It’s pretty much unstoppable… oh, as long as an old man doesn’t at any point treat it like a toy. For some reason I programmed it this way and then when I realised the weakness I didn’t bother to correct it. I’m sure it’ll be fine, though… So, what do you want me to build you next? A fucking robot dog that explodes whenever somebody makes it think about Sesame Street?’

The End…

'Ho ho ho! No need for mental health professionals, I'll cure your schizophrenia through laughter!'

‘Ho ho ho! No need for mental health professionals, I’ll cure your schizophrenia through laughter!’

Because I’m quickly losing the will to live I’ll speed up this review. Onboard the USS Flaming Spunk Sac, Voldar tries to kill Santa Claus and the kids by trapping them in the airlock and ejecting them out into the cold, remorseless void of space; unfortunately for Voldar (and all of us) they manage to escape through… well, magic. Yep. Santa Claus defies physics, and when quizzed on the specifics of his escape simply tells a few shit jokes, throws back his head and laughs.

Santa Claus then arrives on Mars and cures the Martian kids by… hmmm mmm, you’ve guessed it: telling a few shit jokes, throwing back his head and laughing. Kimar still slings him in jail, though, because he needs Santa to set up a toy workshop for the Martian kids, which he’ll work in until the day he dies. The kids and the mongo guy help him.

Kimar (right) with his nemesis, Voldar, who looks like an evil Daley Thompson.

Kimar (right) with his nemesis, Voldar, who looks like an evil Daley Thompson.

Meanwhile, Voldar isn’t happy that everyone he twice tried to kill is still alive, and so forms an evil clique with a handful of the most stupid people on Mars. Why do baddies in kids’ films team up with complete idiots like this? They end up spending their valuable plotting-and-killing-time tip-toeing around like Panto villains, shooshing their bungling henchman as they do things like constantly trip over stuff and accidentally detonate bombs, always scratching their heads and saying, ’Uh, um, gee, sorreeee bosssss.’ Don’t hire them then, you fucking arsehole! There’s no equal opportunities directive dictating the make-up of your kid-murdering co-op. Employ real, ruthless killers and criminals; not the guys who turn up to the interview drooling with their jackets on back-to-front. Christ, your heinous plans deserve to get foiled.

This time, though, instead of murdering Santa and the kids, Voldar plans to discredit Santa by screwing around with his toy factory, causing it to spit out weird toy hybrids, like tennis racquets with doll bodies instead of handles. The plan doesn’t work; principally because it’s a shit plan. If he wanted to discredit Santa he really should have gone down the paedophile route. Cast-iron. Anyway, Voldar thinks, ‘Fuck it. I’ll just try to kill them all again.’

s12That plan doesn’t work either; because clearly one man with a death ray is no match for a bunch of kids with paper aeroplanes, water, bubbles and foam.

Santa, Billy and Betty then get to go home, but it’s OK, because Santa leaves the operation of the workshop in the hands of the mentally-deranged Martian, Dropo and a squad of under-age children. Congratulations! You’ve given the people of Mars the Christmas gift of an exploitative sweat shop. Now back to Earth with you, you fat cunt.

SPOILER ALERT: it turns out that Santa was dead all along and the children were the only ones who could see him. Oh, and he was Kaiser Szose.

The Legacy

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was a great stepping stone for the careers of its principal actors: a stepping stone into oblivion. After his role as Santa, John Call didn’t act for another seven years, appeared in one more movie, and then died. Still, we’ll always look back fondly at the iconic roles he played throughout his career, like Man With Bushy Hair and Ticket Taker.

Head Martian Kimar was Leonard Hicks’ only film role. He never even went on to work as a movie extra. He just must have thought to himself: ’Fuck movies.’

The two child actors, Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti, went on a drug-fuelled sex-killing rampage in the 70s, torturing their mostly elderly victims whilst dressed as polar bears. They didn’t really; I’m just getting bored writing this shit. They never acted again.

Uncle Wally/Dropo

Uncle Wally/Dropo

The only ’star’ to achieve any modicum of success was actor Bill McCutcheon, who played Martian mongo Dropo. Bill went on to have a distinguished career portraying many more on-screen mongos, and ended his days working on Sesame Street, alongside other respected luminaries of kids’ TV such as Chris Langham and the big black puppeteer guy who was accused of ass-fucking a boy.