Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Today I crashed vans, fought fires and got a kicking

"Daddy, what do you do at work?"
"Well...I send some emails. I talk on the phone. I go to meetings, which is where we all talk about what we should do."
(Sigh) "Tell me about the exciting things you do at work!"

Explaining the way we work in the 21st century to a four year old tends to put it all in a bit of perspective. What do we actually do? In literal terms, it is sending emails, talking on the phone and sitting together in meetings, talking about what we should do. And then doing it, which tends to mean more emails, phone calls and meetings. This clearly does not sound very exciting to Little C. Her view of a job is being a ballet dancer, a postman, a cafe worker or, most preferably, a princess. All of these, with the possible exception of the last one, have clearly defined things to do which actually look productive, even to a four year old.

When did it all change? Sure, there were always offices and office workers, but when did the world seem to become one big office, one series of emails, phone calls and meetings? I don't think it ever did for my father, who was a fireman, though I've no idea whether today's fire service spend more time emailing, making calls and meeting people than they do fighting fires.

Fighting fires, you say? That's what I was doing last week apparently, when the organisation I work for got some bad press. See, we've even appropriated the language of more manual, clearly defined jobs in an effort to make ours sound more interesting and glamorous. If I had said to Little C, "Well, I put a few fires out, did some deep diving, then went into my workshop and built a straw man" I might still be having the conversation now.

So around this worldwide office develops a worldwide language which you ignore at your peril. It tends to be a macho language in which we drill down, get a kicking and use crap football analogies like injury time, shoo in and the dreaded thinking outside the box. Though of course thinking outside the box, like blue sky thinking, has now become such a tired and derided cliche that it meets with cringes and head slapping all round. Management speak moves on and using last year's bullshit is a bit like wearing last year's shirt.

In a previous job, a colleague and I got so tired of this drivel that we started inventing our own management terms. "What happened with that idea we discussed last time?" said Boring Colleague. "Ah, we crashed the van on that one. Way too complicated," we replied. I suspect 'crashing the van' became parlance in that office afterwards, though I haven't seen it emerge elsewhere yet. Perhaps there is some sort of management speak regulator, like NICE, that has to approve every new piece of nonsense? It's certainly not clear where it comes from, it seems to emerge instantaneously in several places at once and suddenly everyone is saying it, like it's been implanted in their brains overnight. I still occasionally try to invent new ones, but they never seem to take off.

So how to explain this strange world we now inhabit to Little C? "Well darling, a few years ago, we stopped making things anymore and started just managing them. So most of us adults spend our days in very big rooms, talking to each other, sending emails and answering the phone (or not). We are busier than we ever have been since work began, because the talking and messages and phone calls essentially lead to more talking, messages and phone calls, which in turn lead to more. This is how most of us now spend most of our lives."

When you put it like that, you can see why management terms were invented. If we can make our work sound like a football match, a punch up or a forest fire, we might stop thinking about how dreadfully meaningless and dull it often is. Something none of us wants to talk about in our next water cooler moment.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Postman Pat is a twat but kids' TV is better than ever

"Roaaaarrrry, the ejit Dad!"

That's my daughter's charming, self-composed version of the theme music to Roary the Racing Car. It is hard for me to complain about her use of the term 'ejit' as she has inherited it from me and in particular my jibes at that stalwart of kids' TV, Postman Pat.

I am perhaps watching too much children's TV, but I despise that tosspot with rather too much venom. Aside from his annoying 'cleverest man in the village' act, his stupid big nose and his almost disturbing attachment to his cat, there is a scene in the opening credits in which he posts mail through a letterbox, turns to the camera and laughs. What sort of normal postman does that? What's he put through that door that's so fucking hilarious ... junk mail? Dogshit? Porn?

My irritation with Pat -especially when he peaked as the programme of choice for what seemed an eternity in Little C's ratings - is such that I would not only loudly denounce him as an ejit, I had even secretly rewritten the theme song...'Postman Pat is a complete and utter twat...everybody knows that he's a cock, All his friends will hide as he waves to greet them...' Obviously I didn't repeat this to Little C, but I have sunk to a whole new level, haven't I? I am insulting characters from children's TV and actively enjoying doing so.

While we are on the subject, I wouldn't have a builder who talks to his machines doing a job for me and I think Peppa Pig's Dad is a fat, bumptious arsehole. Andy Pandy? Patronising little shit. Angelina Ballerina? Spoilt little brat who we once banned Little C from watching to see if she'd stop flouncing off to her room in dramatic tears. And it worked.

But having got all that off my chest, I must say there is a lot to celebrate about kids' programmes these days. CBeebies is the best of course, partly because it isn't trying to market plastic things to your kids every two minutes (though the BBC Merchandising Department do that later). But consider the brilliance of Charlie and Lola, Mister Maker or Something Special and you have to say the Beeb is doing a great job in producing imaginative, educational TV for kids. To be fair, it's not alone - Nick Junior has some superb programmes, like Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom, which combines sharp humour with real invention. And Dora the Explorer has encouraged Little C to take an interest in nature and climbing trees. If the real cost of subscribing to such channels wasn't amplified by the Pester Power Tax, it would be good value.

Not that Little C sits in front of the telly all day. Like us, she gets bored of it and wants to go and do something else. But she does like to recount her favourite moments and she likes programmes that remind her of family life - hence Peppa Pig (annoyingly middle class, strangely popular, grunting family) and Humf (furry purple thing living in a block of flats) have both been big hits. She also likes getting to know characters by their behaviour - the first show to really grab her was the BBC's delightful programme for smaller kids, In the Night Garden. Above all now, she likes programmes that make her laugh - she continually recounts scenes that she finds funny, most recently a band of marching ants gatecrashing a picnic in Maggie & the Ferocious Beast.

TV for children is better than it was when I was young and I have become more knowledgeable about it than I really want to be. But - as with books, made up stories and the way she plays games - what I enjoy most is watching Little C's imagination, sense of humour and understanding of the world being fired up. Ok, the adverts are bad and Postman Pat is a wanker, but TV can play a good part in kids' lives as well as a corrosive one. You just have to get the balance right and switch it off now and then.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Important things are boring

"I only want beautiful things. Not scary or important things. Important things are boring."

As a philosophy of life, it is worthy of Oscar Wilde, even if it is only Little C's defence of the fact that she responds to almost every advert on Nickelodeon Junior by saying "I want that." The horrible, insidious way in which advertising targets children as young as three is depressing, but Little C's response is surely further evidence that she is a genius.

Every parent, they say, thinks their child is a genius. Actually, they are wrong. I have never seriously thought any such thing. I'm sure every parent is at some point amazed at aspects of their child's development, seeing them grasp something fundamental or exceed expectations mentally or physically. But I have never been one of those parents who views every such occasion as evidence of his child's obvious brilliance.

Still, independent feedback on your child's development is fascinating, so it was with some excitement that we collected Little C's first report from the nursery she attends four afternoons a week. Excitement, but also surprise - I didn't know they got school reports at three, I joked - then I read it and realised that was exactly what we had been given. Except it was a bit more hardcore than the reports I'd got at secondary school.

The report is actually called an 'Early Years Foundations Stage transfer summary' and it is laid out like a job description, assessing Little C against a series of expected competencies. Under headings such as personal, emotional and social development, she is assessed on her ability to get dressed, interact with others, take turns and express her needs and feelings 'appropriately'. For the record, she comes out very well, though apparently the target around communicating freely in a group discussion is one she is still 'working towards'.

For crying out loud, she is three! Has she joined the rat race already? Does she need a course of media training? Are we going to be admonishing her at five because her public speaking skills are still not quite up to scratch?

And while it's sooner than I thought, it seems this is only the beginning. I have heard horror stories of competitive parents at the school gates, mums and dads who do their kids' homework, snipe at others' SATS results and demand ever more homework so their kids get 'every chance' to 'succeed'. Their definition of success doesn't seem to include having a happy, rounded, funny or spirited child. No, the modern parent wants their kid to grow up and become Prime Minister, at very least. We have entered an era in which the whole world is a league table and being a 'responsible' parent means wanting your kid to be top. Coaching has replaced parenting.

I don't blame Little C's nursery, which is a lovely, caring and happy place, for working to national requirements. I blame the arsed up, target-obsessed, crazily competitive modern world we have somehow managed to create over the last 30 years. Thatcher built the league table, New Labour provided the points system. We seem to be determined to take the personality and fun out of everything, to boil everything in life - whether it's a job interview, a holiday, a house sale or a three year old's daily activities in a nursery - down to a series of pre-ordained standards which must be met. 'Success' is defined by these standards alone and success is all that matters. It's like the whole world has turned into a Citizen's fucking Charter.

How do we protect Little C from this madness? We can only do so by telling her just to try her best, be herself, be kind to others and have fun. We will try to explain that the adult world is increasingly insane. We will make it clear that we don't want her to be the Prime Minister, or even the new Oscar Wilde, unless that's what she wants to be. And if she only wants beautiful things in her life, not scary or important ones, then who are to argue?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Red team, yellow cards and blue air

"Daddy, why don't you like the Blues?"
"Well...they've got too much money."
"Why don't you like them because they've got too much money?"
"It means they can get all the best players."
"Why don't you like them if they've got the best players?"

H'mm. This is much tougher than a post-match interview with Guy Mowbray. 'Too much money' could define much of what I don't like about modern football. But a lecture on the essentially anti-competitive nature of the Premier League is perhaps too complex for a three-year old.

The league kicked off again this weekend and despite my aversion to certain elements of post-1992 football, there is still little to beat the beautiful game. And for all the bitter reverse snobbery from fans in lower leagues who talk about their football being somehow more authentic, it is the Premier League - yes, powered by Skyperbole, inflated salaries, ludicrously pampered egos and leech-like agents - that is at the heart of the excitement. The World Cup is an occasional treat, but it's the weekly football calendar that we really love.

I use the Royal 'we' to a degree there - Little C's mum resents its tanks on our (still non existent) lawn - but actually, Little C is something of a fan. Ok, she won't usually sit through 90 minutes of me swearing, but she does take an interest along the lines of "I want Reds to win, like Daddy."

Much of her interest is colour-related. During the World Cup, she insisted on having a Brazil shirt as "yellow and green are my favourite colours". And yesterday, she was interested in yellow cards.

"Well, if a player cheats, the referee shows him a yellow card and writes his name in his little book. And if he cheats again, the referee shows him a red card. That means he's not allowed to play any more and has to go home."
"But what if he lives very far away?"
"Well...he shouldn't cheat, should he?"
"Daddy, that Blue cheated and the referee didn't show him a yellow card!"
Welcome to my world, Little C...we will talk about referees when you are old enough to understand those words that keep escaping when the football is on.

Watching football with Daddy is not always a relaxed experience. Well it is if you're watching the millionaires of Manchester City and their line-up of defensive midfielders playing for a draw at last season's over-achievers, Tottenham. But involve Liverpool and the air can contain a certain tension, with the risk of it turning blue ever-present. Little C was only 18 months when she sat through her first rollercoaster footie match, as Liverpool knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League, beating them 4-2 at Anfield with two late goals. The second of these was scored right at the death by Ryan Babel and it saw me charging down our hallway in celebration. As I turned to complete my lap of honour, I found a hysterical Little C hot on my tail. She ran round and round in circles like a puppy, laughing her little head off. An hour after the game, she was still throwing herself jubilantly at walls. Her Mum had given up all attempts to get her into bed. Actually, she looked ready to give up altogether at the idea there were now two of us.

Aside from the colours and tensions which seem to have made her an armchair fan (like I am, sadly, these days), Little C also likes to play the game. The rules are simple - we both have to wear our football shirts, we make a net out of a blanket hung over a chair and then we "have lots of fun" - which basically seems to mean we chase the ball round the living room very fast and try to kick it in the net. Perhaps the ego-maniacs we spend too much time watching could learn something from us.

So, my predictions for the season? Liverpool to be better than last year, but probably still not as good as they ought to be. One of the overspending Blue teams to win the Premier League - anyone but Manchester United overtaking our haul of titles. And Little C to continue to put the tiresome pundits to shame with logical questions which make me wonder why we all bother so much about it.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Are you sitting comfortably?

"Why are the ugly sisters mean to Cinderella?"
"Oh, I think maybe they're jealous because she is prettier than them."
"But I'm pretty and no-one is mean to me."

Ah, the innocence of childhood...I am torn between thinking it is lovely that no-one is mean to Little C and feeling sad that at some point, someone will be. It is also inevitable, I suppose, that if you continually tell a child how pretty they are, they will accept it just as they accept that trees are green. There is no hint of vanity here, just as there isn't when she says "Let me look in the mirror so I can see how sweet I look." Or maybe there is, but it doesn't matter in the slightest at her age - such pride in her own loveliness will soon be ground down by the harsh rules of how we live. Let her enjoy being the most gorgeous thing in the world for the time being.

Little C so rejected the concept of people being nasty as a result of jealousy that Cinderella now sits at the bottom of her very large pile of books. It may well make a recovery in years to come, but as things stand, it could turn into a pumpkin for all she cared. And this is not just because she finds the subject matter hard to believe - she is happy to read The Gruffalo ad infinitum or to accept that the three pigs built houses to live in. Gritty social realism is not essential to her. No, there was something about the concept of the ugly sisters' cruelty that made her uncomfortable...maybe I am naive and she has already encountered unkindness for its own sake or maybe she just finds the whole idea beyond the pale.

On occasion, she actually asks me to remonstrate with characters in books. "Tell the snake off," she insisted during The Gruffalo recently. It's nice to speculate that she still likes to believe that reason will always win the day and make people behave better - though such a perception is nullified by those occasions when reason is the one thing she won't listen to.

If Little C has such a thing as a favourite writer, it would have to be Julia Donaldson, author of the afore-mentioned Gruffalo books and other fabulous stories such as Room on the Broom, Stick Man and Monkey Puzzle, which Little C currently considers the most hilarious story in the history of time.

It tells the story of a monkey which has lost its Mum and enlists the help of a frankly useless butterfly to find her. Having already suggested snakes, parrots, spiders, frogs and others might be the missing parent, the butterfly finally brought our house down when it took the frustrated monkey to an elephant for the second time. The book's explanation that the hapless butterfly's children bear no resemblance to it cut little ice - the butterfly is firmly denounced as an "ejit" (if she's picking up my putdowns, I will have to watch my language). The following day, we are walking down the street when she starts giggling. "I'm still thinking about that butterfly," she explains.

It is fascinating to see Little C so engrossed in fiction, especially books. She reflects later on what we have read and usually manages to fit in a few 'why' questions - like why Goldilocks runs away - I mean, what would you do if you woke up to find three furious bears looming over you? I can also recall discussing the various personalities of Peppa Pig's family in Carluccio's in Richmond, much to the amusement of other lunchers.

The things we value in ourselves we love to see in our children. I love the fact that Little C has an imagination and a sense of humour. Few traits matter as much as those two - not in terms of 'going far' whatever that means - just in terms of having the capacity to enjoy yourself. At the moment, she has that in spades and it's fabulous.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Why oh why oh why?

Daddy, why does water wash things away?
Because it's wet...
But why does wet wash things away?

The 'why' stage. All parents are warned about it, none are quite ready for the staggering extent of it - or scientifically knowledgeable enough to answer most of the questions. Whenever Little C runs out of things to say, you can bet a very basic question about the world and how it works will be winging your way. And the questions are much more basic than you expect. They are not of the "why are boys different to girls?" variety (yet), but are more along the lines of why cuts hurt, why motorbikes make a noise or why babies can't talk. All of these have been fielded over the last couple of weeks with considerable ineptitude. And she's a bit of a Paxman. A simple answer that babies cannot talk because they haven't learned yet gets short shrift. "But why?" is the most common supplementary, repeated until I feel like Michael Howard (and only slightly less mad).

There is a fascination to watching Little C find out about the world, her thirst to understand how it all works. It goes beyond physical things too. A few weeks ago, she reacted very badly when a little friend came down the slide in a park before her for the first time in several attempts. "I wanted to win," she sulked, and could not even begin to understand that the other little girl might have too. The same phrase was repeated ad infinitum when she lost a round of her 'shopping list game' which we play several times a day- the aim being to collect all the items on your list first. "I wanted to win,"she said again and again, until I told her to give it a rest. Then I was informed by her Mum that the resemblance to me after a football match was uncanny. (It was a bad season last year.)

Losing with grace is anathema to a toddler. They simply do not have the empathy to recognise that other people wanting the same thing as them - i.e to win - is remotely valid. "But I wanted to win" - that is a clinching argument as far as Little C is concerned. We have also had tears over games of 'Pairs' when one of us has made the unfortunate mistake of picking up her favoured cards. "But I wanted Pedro Pony!" she wails, as the game ends in bitter acrimony. The tantrum is followed by an attempt at reason: "When someone wants a card, it's not nice for you to pick it up." Explaining you did so in ignorance ends the emerging age of reason. "It's. Not. FAIR!"

It would be harsh to suggest that she doesn't learn from any of this. She does. My thoughtful attempts to teach her that everyone has a degree of competitive spirit through her cuddly toy dog Henry were instructive. His constant boasts that he was going to win made her laugh and his constant failure to do so elicited increasing sympathy. Then he won two games in a row and has since been sensationally banned from the shopping list game, amid rather dubious accusations of cheating.

Every day, she learns something new and every day, she asks twenty or thirty more questions. I feel I should be spending my life on Google finding out answers to the many very simple things I now realise I have never known, but even my rare full, scientific answers get another round of "whys". As fascinating as her quest to understand everything is, it's also bloody exhausting.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Miserable gits should be seen and not heard

A restaurant, early evening:
Little C (loudly): I think that lady's gone for a poo, Daddy."
Me: "Sssh..." (changes subject)
(Ten minutes later)
"That lady's a long time...told you!"

Fortunately, the family in the story above saw the funny side. This is not always the case when dining with a child. More often than not, you are treated to at least one scowl as you walk in, if not to people sighing loudly and moving tables. The other night, over a (very early) dinner with friends, their three kids and our one, you would have thought we had crapped in the food of the miserable couple at the next table. (Next time, we will.).

Now I know it's sort of fashionable to whine about children. We even had one columnist in a London paper a few months ago suggesting only half-jokingly that they should be banned from the capital. They get in the way you see, they make noise, they run about and stop you having your oh-so-interesting conversation. How horrid for you.

I've noticed a huge difference between getting on a tube with Little C at the weekend and doing so in rush hour. Now, being a considerate sort - to her, as much as the furious and bitter sods who inhabit London 'commuter' trains - I rarely travel with her at peak times. On the odd occasion when I have had to, for perfectly valid reasons which I don't have to explain to moaning gits, I can feel the righteous irritation of the masses rising at her clearly offensive behaviour in actually boarding the same train as them - to say nothing of then playing I Spy or asking how many stops till we get off. You can almost feel them indignantly counting the stops down with us.

Let's get something straight here. There is no such thing as a commuter train. There are trains which tend to have more commuters on them because of the time they set off - is all. If they were only for commuters, I wouldn't be able to buy a ticket and Little C wouldn't be able to get on for nothing (yes, whingers, it's all free for her, doesn't cost her or me a penny to ruin your miserable journey). The simple fact is that whether you like it or not, we have as much right to be there as you, we have the right to talk and laugh and if one of us is only three years old, there is every chance we might do so quite a lot. You don't have any right whatsoever to expect deathly silence and dumb glares all the way to work or home again. If it makes you that unhappy, then walk - or get another job.

Similarly, if we go out for dinner - on the rare occasions we do these days - we have as much right to do so as everybody else. If you don't like it, go somewhere that doesn't allow kids or only allows miserable bastards - you will have a great time. If my daughter happens to chatter, or walk away from the table, or sing, or get upset because the pasta sauce is 'yukky' - then that is probably because she is only fucking three. It is arguably more understandable than your loud conversation about your new job, your sordid groping under the table or your outright, all year-round misery - so get a life. The thing about restaurants - and the world in general - is that other people might be there. And some of them might be children.

The British attitude to children stinks. Ok, I have only realised this since I had one - I too have been a joyless, complaining, sour-faced git about them. And now I want to slap the old, curmudgeonly me about the chops and say "You know what? You could learn something from these little people. When did you become such a moaning, selfish loser? Let me help you get that head out of your arse."

I go abroad and see people in Italy or France welcoming children with open arms, fussing them, indulging them, smiling at them. Social and family life revolves around them. It's only in Britain that you consistently encounter the grimaces and scowls. Did the saying "children should be seen and not heard" originate here? I bet it did. I once sat in a restaurant and overheard people at the next table commending Little C's behaviour and saying "I don't mind children in restaurants when they behave like her." Frankly, she was having a good day and they got lucky. It was also about 2pm - so lunch, as well as dinner, is a restricted area for families with children? And I should bite my tongue while others somehow manage to click theirs while talking out of their nether regions?

If anyone should be seen and not heard, it is the moaning morons who have so little joy in their lives, so little indulgence in their souls, that they spend all their time bitching and tutting about children. I know, because I was once such a moron myself. There is nothing worse than a convert, is there? Take it from me, because I've been on both sides. Get a grip, crack a smile
and stop bloody whining.