Friday 19 December 2014

You silly old man

My elder son had a meltdown yesterday evening because I told him he was five-and-a-half.

“No, I’m not. I’m five-and-a-quarter.”

“Well, you were five-and-a-quarter. But today is exactly six months since your birthday, so that makes you five-and-a-half.”

“I’m not, I’m not, I’m NOT. Five-and-a-quarter is more than five-and-a-half, and I’m FIVE-AND-A-QUARTER!”

His mother chipped in to try and explain which number was bigger than the other, and I attempted to introduce the concept of five-and-three-quarters, but it was all to no avail. So we gave up, as we usually do. The boy is five-and-a-quarter and may well remain so until he turns six, or possibly 16. It’s much easier that way.

Meanwhile my younger son had a meltdown this morning because he doesn’t listen to a word I say. He’s endearingly small, so I have a tendency to call him things like “little chap” or sometimes “Babos”, a name devised for him by his elder brother.

He does not like these descriptions at all because: “I’m a big boy!”

This morning I remembered for once and addressed him as “big boy”, but I still got in response “You silly old man! I’m a big boy!”

To be fair, he’s much closer to the truth in the first part of his analysis than he is in the second.

I’m still waiting for an improvement on his memorable announcement of a couple of weeks ago: “You silly old man, you don’t know anything. I’m two. I know things!”

I certainly thought I knew everything when I was a child, but I don’t remember developing a sense of intellectual superiority quite so early. In fact, at two-and-three-quarters, I am pretty sure that I regarded my mother as the fount of all knowledge and was so terrified of my father that I hardly dared to speak to him at all.

Now I’m 60 and am increasingly conscious that I know almost nothing. It’s lucky that neither of my children read this blog, or they’d be almost certain to post comments eagerly agreeing with me.

Friday 17 October 2014

Daddy, you don't understand

I don’t know which idiot introduced my children to the world of Milkshake on Channel 5. Until recently they had seemed perfectly happy with CBeebies, which offers a similar mix of cartoons, interspersed with commentary from preternaturally cheerful young adults. I enjoyed observing these to see if there were any conceivable diversity box that the HR department had failed to tick when making their selection of the “talent”, but I never managed to catch them out.

Critically, being on the BBC, CBeebies also contains no advertising breaks.

Now my boys benefit from Peppa Pig and Thomas and Friends, the undoubted highlight of their morning viewing, which even a trainspotter like me has to admit captures many essential aspects of British steam railways very accurately. If one can overlook the fact that locomotives, carriages and wagons don’t actually speak.

However, they also get bombarded every fifteen minutes or so with an intense burst of advertising, from which I deduce that the campaign for gender neutral toys really does have a very long way to go.

This morning I noticed that the evil capitalist advertisers had already started sowing the seeds of what might constitute an ideal Christmas gift. So, as a distraction technique from something that looked likely to prove particularly expensive, I interrupted my elder boy’s consumption of his boiled egg to ask whether he had given any thought to what he might like for Christmas this year.

“Yes, I’ve made a wish,” I thought he replied.

“A wish, eh? Well, I hope your wish comes true.”

He gave me a penetrating look. “No, Daddy, I’ve made a LIST.”

“Well, the thing is, Charlie, Mummy and Daddy have just bought this house and we haven’t got any money, so you might not be able to get everything on your list this year.”

He had been sitting some way off on the pew we inherited when we bought our converted chapel, having left space for Mummy to sit down between us. Only she was too busy making his packed lunch to do so.

But now he moved along right next to me, and brought his face unusually close to mine. He was wearing the pitying look of someone addressing a very confused elderly person, and he spoke clearly and slowly.

“You don’t understand, Daddy,” he asserted. “You don’t NEED any money to buy Christmas presents.”

“Really. Why’s that?”

“Because Santa makes them.”

Having thoroughly depressed myself by taking a look at my bank balance this morning, I very much hope that he turns out to be right.

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Curls are for girls

Obviously the Hanns occupy a progressive household in which huge efforts are made to avoid sexual stereotyping. Nevertheless our boys manfully persist in playing with model trains, cars and farm animals rather than dolls. Though they do at least make an occasional stab at cooking, both with plastic ingredients and with the real thing.

Reports from families blessed with daughters suggest that they face far greater challenges in persuading their little charges to eschew pink and take an interest in things mechanical rather than furry and frilly. One of Mrs Hann’s contemporaries was reduced to mild despair last week when her five-year-old daughter announced, with the know-all air of everyone her age: “Don’t be silly, Mummy. I can’t be a doctor. I’m a girl. I have to be a nurse.”

Still, at least we continue to strike one outstanding blow for equality. Best described by the long-suffering Northumbrian who had the misfortune to follow my family around a series of shops in Rothbury a couple of weeks ago. As the circus created havoc in the queue for the till at the Co-op, he said to Mrs Hann sympathetically:

“Ye knaa, it could’ve been worse. Ye could have had two boys!”

“I have got two boys,” Mrs Hann replied rather coldly, at the same time making a mental note that it was probably time to do something about the younger boy’s hairstyle, which lies at the root of the recurring confusion.

Like his elder brother (and indeed his father at a similar age) young Jamie had at that time a full head of winsome blond curls. Charlie and I both had haircuts that did for ours when we were two or thereabouts. Up to now Jamie has resisted, clasping his hands to his head and crying “No my hair!” when anyone suggests applying some clippers to it.

The photograph that graced my last entry was actually taken as long ago as last September, and was chosen because it was the only photograph I had to hand of him with his chief comforter Ni-ni (pronounced to rhyme with pi or, for that matter, pie. He chose the name himself because his mother handed the thing to him last thing every evening with the words “Night night” and he reasonably assumed that this was the name of the toy.)

Until Saturday morning he looked like this, with curls so long that they could easily be made into a pigtail:

And then on Saturday Mrs Hann took him to the hairdresser, with her heart hardened to resist his protests and turn him into a stereotypically short-haired boy.

At this point I intended to follow the above “before” shot with an “after” photo. But as it turns out I don’t actually need to bother you with that, because only a real expert would be able to tell the difference.

This is because Jamie kicked up such a monumental fuss that it was decided by all concerned that it would be easier just to leave his hair long until he himself decides the time is right to make it otherwise.

Shoppers of Rothbury and Malpas please be warned that the pretty little blonde girl in the dungarees may actually be a boy, particularly if he is holding hands with a white-haired Operation Yewtree suspect who is pretending to be his father.

Friday 25 April 2014

The rest of you are all rubbish

Time is no longer gently trickling away, like sand through an hourglass. It is going in a roaring gush, like a lavatory supplied by a Thomas Crapper high level cistern with a knackered ballcock.

In little more than a month I shall be 60, and drawing my pension. Admittedly only the occupational pension of £728 per annum I apparently earned in five years’ hard labour at a City stockbroking firm between 1978-83. The partners’ Antipodean heirs and successors sportingly went to some considerable trouble to track me down and advise me of this windfall, which was very decent of them. It must, I suppose, have been a non-contributory pension scheme as I certainly wouldn’t have volunteered to set aside any of my meagre income to provide for an old age I was convinced I would never live to enjoy.

At that time nuclear war still seemed a very real possibility. One of the incidental attractions of relocating from central London to north Northumberland in 1986 was that it seemed to afford a slightly greater chance of surviving the inevitable holocaust. Shortly after I moved The Guardian published a map showing the USSR’s nuclear targets in the UK, in order of priority. Number one was Heathrow airport, from whose shadow I had just escaped. Number two was RAF Boulmer, linchpin of the UK’s air defence system, located on the Northumberland coast about ten miles from my cottage. I realised then that I was doomed.

But life is full of surprises and so I now find myself approaching the happy day when I can get my hands on a Senior Citizen’s railcard, yet with two children under the age of five.

They delight me much more than I delight them, on the evidence of recent conversations.

A couple of weeks ago the elder boy announced that he loved Mummy and my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to explore whether such sentiments were more widely shared. So I asked two-year-old Jamie whether he loved Mummy and received an unequivocal “no”.

Pursuing the theme, I asked for his view on Daddy, his brother, grandparents and the family pets, all with the same result.

“So who does Jamie love?”

There followed a long pause.

Eventually, after much thought, he ventured. “My love Ni-ni.” (His name for the Jellycat toy leopard from which he has been inseparable almost since birth.)

“My love Iggle Piggle.” (Another soft toy.)

“My love Old Piggle.” (Iggle Piggle contains some electronic gizmo that means it can’t be machine washed and it is, in consequence, absolutely filthy. So I took him to Toys ‘R’ Us and bought a new one with a view to putting the original in the bin. Predictably, we now have two filthy Iggle Piggles which have to be carted around with him at all times.)

“My love Peter Rabbit.” (A fourth soft toy borrowed from his brother.)

“My love Becca.” (One of his key workers at nursery.)

Then silence.

“Anyone else?” I asked, hopefully.

“No. The rest of you are all rubbish.”

A view confirmed when I went to collect him from nursery the other evening (something I rarely do) and was greeted by tears and a thrust-out lower lip.

“Not you! Mummy!”

“Come on Jamie,” said an emollient nursery worker. “It’s Daddy! You love Daddy!”

“No my don’t! Daddy’s stupid rubbish!”

I had to bribe him with two miniature Milky Bars to get him into the car.

So if you see a suspicious elderly man in a three piece suit with a watch chain laying a trail of sweets to tempt a sweet, curly-headed child into the back of his car, please don’t call the police straight away. At least not until you have checked that it isn’t me.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Depression? What do I know?

I have just filed my first newspaper column in four weeks. I could not produce one for 18 December because I was too depressed to think, let alone write. Then 25 December was out, for obvious reasons, and on 1 January I was still pretty depressed (it’s enough to get anyone down, New Year) and fundamentally couldn’t be arsed.

I alluded to my depression in my last column of 11 December. I have suffered from it for more than 40 years and during that time I have tried pretty much every therapy available apart from electric shock treatment and a frontal lobotomy. I have seen psychiatrists, psychotherapists, cognitive behavioural therapists and counsellors; taken Prozac and at least two other anti-depressant drugs; read countless articles and books on the subject; and tried a wide range of self-help measures from teetotalism and a tightly controlled diet to binge eating and getting monumentally pissed. So I think I know a fair bit about depression by now.

And yet, every single time I write a word on the subject, up pops at least one angry letter to the editor asserting that I am not taking the subject seriously enough, and have no idea what I am talking about. 

To me, frankly, this is like some slurring bloke in a Cambridge pub telling Stephen Hawking that he knows fuck all about cosmology.

This time the letter to the paper came from a Newcastle city councillor, lumping together my column with something written a few days later by the self-styled poet Kate Fox: “Both writers I felt seriously under-estimated the impact that this condition has on the individual, their family, friends and employer. Eating a bar of chocolate is no solution to this devastating illness as Kate implies.”

Well, he’s right there. Eating a bar of chocolate won’t cure your depression, but it may well raise your spirits temporarily – as the trip to London I described on 11 December did for me, before the dark clouds descended once more.

On the whole I have found that a complete change of scene is one of the more effective specifics against depression. The difficulty is the complete unpredictability of the condition. There have been times when drinking a couple of pints of beer with a friend has lifted me out of the deepest pit of gloom; many more when I simply could not face drinking with anyone; and others when I have accepted the drink and the well-intentioned company and left the pub far more miserable than when I went in. And done nothing at all for the mood of the person or persons I was with.

I THINK, after all these years, that I discern some patterns. I am much more likely to succumb to depression in the winter months, when daylight and sunshine are in short supply. The prospect of events I loathe, like conferences and parties, always induces gloom (so the combination of winter and the festive season is invariably bad news).

I have also formulated the following simple self-help rules, which I have shared with others and know that they have proved positive for them, too:

1. Get up early. Don’t lie in bed feeling sorry for yourself. It only makes things worse.

2. Take exercise. The single most positive thing anyone can do to drive away depression is to take a long, brisk walk – ideally in the hills.

3. Don’t overeat. (Says the 16 stone porker with a lifetime’s supply of chocolates stacked up by the sofa at home.)

4. Don’t drink – though, as noted earlier, moderate tactical intakes of alcohol may help to shift a stubbornly low mood.

5. Read a good book: it’s got harder and harder to find the time, as we all become more and more addicted to social media, but getting really involved in a genuinely “unputdownable” book has proven itself time and again as a wonderful way to raise morale.

Now, I know all that from long and bitter experience, but it did not stop me from spending the best part of December lying around feeling miserable, unable to kick-start myself out of my torpor. As a fellow sufferer remarked to me over Christmas, it’s like walking in treacle. You can’t think straight, you can’t work, you don’t want to socialise, you know you’re going to be lousy company and it seems fairest all round to stay at home alone.

Getting out of the house for a walk seems like torture. The first half mile or so is almost unbearable. But persevere and I guarantee that you will start to feel better.

Similarly, going back to work is hell. I did it yesterday morning, and every single task I attempted took at least twice as long as it should have done, and left me convinced that I had made a complete hash of it. In the days when I worked as part of a team I would shout and scream at people on the slightest provocation on first days back like this, and reduce them or me (or both) to tears.

Yet the reality is that the quality of my written work does not suffer if I can just force myself to produce it. Bizarrely, I have come up with some of my best humorous material at times when I have been almost prostrate with depression.

And, as with the walking, perseverance brings its rewards. It is now the afternoon of Day 2 and I am feeling better, able to answer the phone without dread, engage in a spot of banter and work my way through many of the tasks that I have now been putting off for a month because I could not face them.

I may come across in print as being unsympathetic about depression, because I am quite unsympathetic to myself. Fundamentally, I know that I am a lazy sod who hates parties, so saying “I can’t go: I’m depressed” is almost too convenient an excuse. But like the bloke who set out to get himself repatriated from Colditz by pretending to be mad, and duly ended up in a British loony bin, the symptoms are no less real and painful for perhaps, to some extent at least, having wished them upon myself.

Why am I writing this? Because I do know about depression, and I thought it might be useful to set out why, and some of the lessons I have learned. If you are feeling as miserable today as I was a few weeks ago, try getting up and going for a walk. And if you really can’t face it, maybe think about trying it tomorrow.

The other reason is that far too many people are too embarrassed to acknowledge their condition. I used to be that way myself, blaming my absences from work on stomach upsets or flu (with the inevitable result that I would be stricken with a genuine stomach upset or flu shortly thereafter, and would be bereft of a convincing explanation). It is so much better to be honest and upfront. You’ll be amazed how many people respond by saying that they have suffered from depression themselves, or have first hand experience of it in their families.

At any rate, I have never encountered anything but sympathy and have somehow managed to hold down a reasonably pressured and well-rewarded job for 35 years despite my periodic bouts of misery. 

But then, as my wife likes to remind me at least once every day, I am a very lucky man.