Monthly Archives: January 2014

Word of the Week: Strum

A word that sums up the week that was…

I’ve been trying to find something that would capture Arthur’s fascination with his Dad’s guitars and decided on:

strum

He discovered the guitars a couple of weeks ago – an acoustic and a bass – and whenever he could would take himself off into Leigh’s study to strum away at the strings, a look of pure delight on his face. It was the first place he headed when we came downstairs in the morning, and if the door was closed he’d pull himself up and bang on it until I let him in.

Not wanting to discourage this musical enthusiasm (but hoping to protect Leigh’s guitars from too much of it!), this week we managed to acquire a ukelele, which is decidedly more Arthur-sized and so far impressively resilient. And he loves it! He has spent hours seeing what different sounds he can produce from it, looking quite the little rock star.

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It is without a doubt his current favourite toy. I think he’s generally developing a bit of a guitar obsession – we were walking back from his baby music class yesterday and he almost climbed out of his sling with excitement when we passed a charity shop window display of guitars and ukes, not quite understanding why I wouldn’t let him go and play with them.

It’s so lovely to watch him with his Dad – listening intently and looking adoringly as Leigh picks out a tune and trying to mimic him the best he can.

arthur & leigh guitars

I mean, he’s still got a way to go as far as actually strumming a tune goes. But he’s getting so much pleasure from trying. I hope we can continue to develop his interest and inspire him to make making music a part of his life as he gets older. Though the way he’s going so far he doesn’t need much more encouragement!

The Reading Residence

 

A writer’s apology

I’m pleased to be able to report that the novel is going pretty well. After three weeks of writing I’m six chapters and nearly 20,000 words in, and my loosely sketched out ideas are beginning to pad out rather nicely.

There is however one thing that’s been bothering me a little, playing on my mind as the plot unfolds. And that’s the impact it’s all going to have on my main character. I’ve spent the first few chapters getting to know her a bit better. She’s a bit annoying (more than I’d anticipated actually, but then I’ve probably got my own foibles to blame for that), but she definitely means well, and she’s not unkind.  She’s in a good place right now – better than she’s been for years. But that’s all about to change now she’s met him.

It’s still early days, but I can sense her anticipation building. She’s totally seduced by him already even if she hasn’t quite admitted it to herself yet. He has her just where he wants her – and his manipulation of her every emotion has only just begun.

I know where this all ends of course. The general gist of it if not quite all the detail. And she totally doesn’t deserve what’s coming. She has no idea, and won’t have until she’s been sucked in way too deep. I mean, I could warn her – but like the director having a sneaky aside with the blonde girl as she heads off alone into the horror movie forest it really wouldn’t do much for the story.

So I’m just going to have to hold my nerve and suppress my protective instincts, continuing to weave the web of words that will trap her in the end. Things are going to get better for a while anyway, so I can comfort myself with the romance of it all. But I know what’s coming, where his true intentions lie. And for that, Grace, I am sorry.

Reasons to be cheerful

So we’re starting the week in rather more of a tired and grumpy place than I’d like: Arthur-bear is still not well after a croup attack two weeks ago. He has a nasty cold which just won’t relinquish its grip on him – rivers of snot, a hacking cough, d & v, an infected tear duct – and if that wasn’t enough I’m pretty sure his molars are coming through too! The doctor’s confirmed it’s nothing serious, but it’s enough that no-one’s really sleeping much and I’m getting worried that he’s forgotten what it’s like to not feel a bit rubbish all of the time.

Fortunately we have something special in our anti-grumpiness arsenal since I brushed up my video editing skills in December: a 20 minute film celebrating Arthur’s first year which is so full of gorgeousness that none of us can watch it without feeling considerably better about the world. Arthur giggles and chats and points at himself whilst Leigh and I have a little cry about how much our baby has grown and we all end up with a warm and fuzzy glow and lots of reminders of why we should be smiling, however tough things might seem right now.

And whilst I’m not about to suggest you watch the whole film, there’s a little clip of Arthur attempting to drink from a sippy cup (before discovering that there are way more exciting things to do with the water than drink it) that I find curiously life-affirming.

Incidentally, if anyone’s got any tips about how to get Arthur to actually drink from a cup rather than conducting physics experiments with it then I’d be eternally grateful! Apart from of course to not encourage him by taking videos of his exploits and posting them on the internet…

spread a little happiness

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Baby-led weaning ears

Despite being pretty convinced before we got there that I’d be embracing the world of purees, Arthur’s explorations of food beyond breast milk have ended up being very much baby-led. And we’ve loved it! I’ve loved watching the expression on his face change as he tentatively brings new tastes to his mouth, I’ve loved the delight he’s taken in a variety of textures as he squidges food through his fingers, I’ve loved how his dexterity has slowly improved so he can now pick up even single grains of rice, I’ve loved having him as a companion at the dinner table with his giggles and expanding conversation. But what I haven’t loved is the mess.

I was ready for the carpet of discarded morsels on the floor, for the smears of carefully smushed food on anything he could get his hands on, but (perhaps naively) I hadn’t quite anticipated the effect on his hair. Arthur has a lot of hair, beautiful hair, and there is nothing he loves more at the end of a good meal (and at various points during it) than running his fingers through that hair. Cute, but oh my gosh so messy.

We tried various headbands, but all the ones that fitted were invariably and unmistakably made for baby girls. I’m all up for avoiding gender stereotyping, but as the collection of photos grew and our friends and family raised a huge collective eyebrow I decided we maybe needed to find another solution. And so baby-led weaning ears were born.

I started back in the craft burst of December, creating bear ears, mouse ears and fox ears from old pairs of tights and scraps of felt.

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They came out rather well, and certainly did the job of keeping the hair well away from offending foodstuffs. So much so that I’ve decided to add to the collection, beginning with a pair of dragon ears that I will talk you through here.

First, amass your materials. These ears are brilliant for using up bits you might have lying around, just taking a bit of creativity to fit what you find to an appropriate creature. For the dragon I used a palette of green and yellow. You’ll need part of a pair of old tights, two colours of felt, and thread to match.

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The first step in the actual making is to create the band itself. I tend to loosely test this on myself first, cutting a section of tights that fits snugly on my head so it will have a bit of give for Arthur. Then you simply need to sew a line along the two cut edges, turning the band inside out ready for the next stage. I use a back stitch for this which seems to hold, but feel free to bring your own sewing expertise to the details!

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Before you go any further you might want to just check the headband fits your little darling. As you can see Arthur was thrilled to have me interrupt his play time to test this out:

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Next it’s time to start work on the ears themselves. You’ll need four larger pieces for the main part of the ears, leaving an extra bit of felt at the base of the ear shape for attaching to the headband. These pieces should all be pretty much identical – I drew the first one freehand with tailor’s chalk then used it as a template for the others but a paper template would work well too. You’ll also need two matching  ‘inner ears’ in an appropriate colour.

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Before you begin attaching the ears I’d sew the inner ears on to their base like so:

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Then with a bit of pinning to get the ears in place, attaching the ear shaped parts to each other and separating the flaps to pin to the headband, you can sew it all together so it looks something like this:

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I played around with the stitching a bit with these ones to give the ears a more three dimensional quality, but the other ones worked out fine just staying flat.

And that’s it! The finished ears will go through the washing machine on a 30 degree cycle, though I haven’t tested them in the drier yet. Their potential is of course not restricted to the dinner table – after chatting to a mummy friend over coffee yesterday I’m thinking that tails might be the next step to take them to a whole other level…

But as you can see they do a very good job of holding back that beautiful hair whilst Arthur tucks into his food. And all whilst looking totally adorable in the process.

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Holiday time

Last week, driven by the bleakness of January weather and the fog of sleep deprivation brought on by an attack of croup, we booked a week in Cyprus over Easter. We had to suck it up and book during the school holidays in order to fit in with Leigh’s term times. Not ideal, but I’m used to it.

You may have noticed that the issue of school holidays has been in the news a lot recently. More specifically, the issue of whether or not it’s reasonable for parents to take their children out of school for holidays in term time. The Sutherlands would argue that it absolutely is, and they have growing support from another one of those petitions that seem to be dominating popular involvement in politics nowadays.

There’s a part of me (the future parent of a school age child part of me) that has a lot of sympathy with them. Why shouldn’t I be able to take my son out of school for a couple of weeks if I so choose? He’s my son after all. And as a parent I know I’m going to provide all sorts of exciting learning experiences beyond the confines of the classroom – family holidays being a perfect springboard for these either by design or by happy accident. Holidays outside of term time are expensive (believe me, after ten years of teaching, I know), and who knows whether my future doctor husband will be able to take his leave when it suits the school anyway? Having had those ten years of being constrained by the school timetable – and particularly with Gove’s plans to cut holiday time for teachers and young people – I’m really not looking forward to the inflexibility of my son’s schooling dictating the experiences we can have as a family.

But then the pondering begins. Ignoring uncharitable thoughts about other parents not necessarily prioritising educational experiences when planning a holiday, I simply cannot let go of how important it is for schools and young people that we don’t sanction a free for all in families taking a holiday whenever it suits.

Thinking that two weeks out of the classroom won’t really have an impact on a child’s education essentially shows a total lack of understanding of what goes on in schools these days. Project work, inquiry based learning, development of thinking skills – hardly the sort of stuff that can be covered by a few hastily photocopied worksheets even if they ever were to make their way out of the bottom of the suitcase. Teachers spend hours planning schemes of work that will take their charges on a learning journey. Ten days of holiday is fifty hours of that journey spread across many different subjects – an awful lot to catch up on, and I’d argue pretty much impossible for even the most diligent of learners.

I’m not saying that fifty hours of learning in school is worth more than the two weeks of family time. In fact I’d agree that two weeks spent in Rome, say, with the right experiences offered and the right questions asked, could be infinitely more valuable in isolation. But the thing is that’s not really the point. Once you’ve decided to buy into the state education system, to take what a school has to offer and to trust them to educate your child, you kinda have to follow their rules.

Attendance is a key factor by which schools are judged – and rightly so when you consider the impact attendance has on young people’s achievement. I won’t go into the figures here, but they’re pretty stark. Schools and teachers are held to account for how well young people do in schools on a whole variety of measures, but they simply cannot do their job if pupils aren’t there.

And pupils do miss out too – whether it’s not being there to help their group complete a project, not getting to give a presentation they’ve been working towards for weeks, or just having less time to spend on a topic they’ve developed an interest in. I find it bizarre that parents can believe that nothing of value is missed in two whole weeks of lesson time. Doesn’t say much about their faith in the school – why bother to send their kids there at all?

Rather than expecting young people to cope with the disruption to their school experience, and teachers to juggle the knock on effects of pupils randomly missing a week or two here and there, I think we, as a society, have to look at the reasons why parents are looking beyond the thirteen weeks of school holiday time already provided. It’s pretty outrageous that those involved in the holiday industry think it’s ok to hike their prices up at the only time when families are able to travel. And it’s pretty unreasonable for employers not to demonstrate flexibility to enable their workers to spend time with their children. After all, it’s those children who are going to grow up to be the work force of the future, so they need their education!

Back to where I stand on this personally, as a parent, and one who loves travelling at that. To be honest, for a multitude of reasons I’m starting to think I might home school Arthur, for the first few years at least. I won’t go into the whys and wherefores right now – that’s the subject for another post. But if or when he joins a local school I hope it will be with my full support for the teachers and what they are striving to achieve. To expect a flexible two week window of your choice where you can remove your child from the school community – not just once, but every year of their education – is I think to miss the point of choosing to be part of that community in the first place. It’s just a shame that the wider society can’t put its money where its mouth is and demonstrate its support for education by removing the barriers that are driving parents to take such drastic measures in pursuit of a holiday they can enjoy with their family.

Adventures in train travel

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One of the flip sides of escaping to live on the South Coast is that keeping in touch with friends and family involves a lot more travel. People come to see us too of course – and there’s something very special about getting to spend a whole weekend catching up with a backdrop of sea air and glorious views – but we need to do our bit too. So at least one weekend a month we seem to find ourselves juggling baby and travel cot and way too much luggage to head up to the big smoke.

We made sure we got Arthur in ‘train’ing early – when he was three months old we took a trip to Paris on the Eurostar, and over last summer we adventured further afield to visit friends and family in the US and Canada, travelling by rail from New York to Halifax via Toronto. All that was before he started crawling though, something which definitely adds another dimension to babies and trains.

I’d still way rather do a long journey by train than in the car. Quite aside from the slightly embarrassing fact that I have yet to learn to drive so Leigh has to be permanently on duty I like the fact that on the train we can move around and do cuddles: Arthur’s isolation in a car seat threshold is about two hours, and then he’s only really happy if he’s asleep.

Several hours sat mainly in one place definitely calls for a growing arsenal of equipment though, and that is the subject of this post. In no particular order, these are the things that no Arthur train journey can be without.

*Disclaimer: none of this is rocket science. It has, however, taken my baby-addled brain a good few months to work it all out, and I’d like to believe I’m not the only one who might benefit from a bit of stating the obvious from time to time.*

1) A Baby Carrier
Ok, so I lied when I said this was in no particular order. The rest might be, but anyone who knows me knows that a baby carrier is my number one piece of baby kit for pretty much any situation. On a train journey, it means no wrestling with a pram on top of all the other luggage; somewhere for the baby to sleep so that you don’t need to hold them and can have your hands free for other things (writing blog posts for example) or in fact catch up on some sleep yourself; and finally something to support them as you wander up and down the carriages to keep them entertained or sing and dance in the vestibule when things really get bad, all the while being able to hold on to the grab rails to stop yourself from going flying. My favourite baby carrier has to be the Connecta. Comfy enough to wear for long periods of time, yet small enough to throw into the change bag or easily slip on under a jacket. And gorgeous fabrics too, which is always nice.

2) An Upgrade
Now this is clearly a luxury rather than a necessity, but an upgrade to first class makes journeys with a baby so much smoother. We only do it on the weekends, when for our route from Totnes to London it costs £20, and offset it by booking as far in advance as we can for the cheapest ticket. When you bear in mind that the baby is otherwise travelling for free, and that the upgrade almost always guarantees you a couple of extra seats and a table, it really starts to make sense.
(For non-parent-first-class travellers reading this in uproar about a potential influx of babies to your sanctuary, we tend to choose the carriage with the fewest reservations, and never the quiet carriage so you can always escape there if you need to).

3) Food
Since Arthur’s been eating solids, food has always been a great way to pass the time. Not so useful at home when you want to have a quick snack before heading out the door but pretty handy when you’ve got a couple of hours to kill. The key thing to remember here is nothing too messy, something I learnt the hard way after a particularly spectacular houmous explosion at a motorway service station on one of our rare car journeys. I say learnt, but I still found myself mashing banana on rice cakes for an in-transit breakfast on the way to London last weekend before taking one look at them and eating them myself. But dry rice cakes, hard cheese, fruit and veg sticks, raisins – all these things make for pretty good snacks and pass a bit of time in the process.

4) Boobs
I might be cheating a bit with this one, as I know I’m very much in the minority to still be breastfeeding Arthur now he’s past a year, but a major reason for keeping going (there are lots, but that’s a different post) is how much easier it makes things on the move. If all else fails, stick him on the boob. He’s happy, and with any luck he’ll take the opportunity to have a nap.

5) Toys
Now this definitely falls into the stating the obvious territory, but it’s more the choice of toys that I feel is worth mentioning. Before I was a parent I always winced slightly when I saw children being kept ‘quiet’ by some device that was actually making more noise than they could’ve done if they tried. I may change my mind on this as Arthur gets older, but for now I’m definitely in the camp of not becoming massively anti-social in the pursuit of keeping my child entertained. See point 6 for reasons why this can definitely work to your advantage…
There are a few things that we’ve found particularly useful in keeping the journey fun for a wriggly baby:
– Small soft toys are great – initially I used to make them sing and dance for Arthur, and recently he’s started making them do that himself. His current favourite is a fox, but anything small enough to carry easily will do.
– Those toys with suction cups for sticking onto highchairs are also pretty handy. I bought this one to keep Arthur entertained on the flight to New York, and he’s still fascinated by it.
– And of course books – for reading, and in their board book format great for chewing, or stacking, or wearing. The potential’s endless.
I always have to remind myself to resist the temptation to get everything out the minute Arthur starts to get restless. One thing at a time, and then repeat until you arrive at your destination…

6) Other People
It can’t be denied that one or more travelling companions (besides the baby) is a pretty helpful addition to the journey. But if you play your cards right then other passengers can quickly become your best friends! I’m always extremely self-conscious about getting on a train with Arthur, inventing an internal monologue for everyone sat nearby which is chastising us for daring to leave the house with our baby, let alone bring him into the train carriage where they have to sit for the next few hours. It always gives me flashbacks of getting on packed tube trains for school trips, ready to defend the perfectly affable teenagers in my charge from accusations of loutishness levelled at them purely because of their age… But I digress.
When travelling on trains with Arthur, I have generally found him to be extremely good at making friends if I let him. On more than one occassion people who have raised their eyebrows when they first see us are proclaiming what a lovely baby he is by the end of the journey. And if people really don’t want to travel with a baby – well, they can always move to another carriage. Their loss I say.

With all of these things to support us, I have to say that travelling with Arthur is almost always a delight. Watching his excitement as the train begins to move, looking out of the window with him and pointing out all the things we see along the way, feeling him lean into me when we arrive at our destination and he gazes around taking in his new surroundings. It is these things and more that make me love travelling in general – not just to see friends and family, but to see the world – and I can’t wait for all the future adventures we have in store with our baby.

 

Mums' Days

Researching realism

I almost didn’t start writing novel number two last week because I was worried I hadn’t done enough research. Then I decided that sounded like a really good route to extended procrastination so jumped in regardless with the intention of filling in any gaps as they opened up. Now that I’m delving deeper into the world of the novel, I’m actually suspecting that there might be much less research that needs doing than I originally thought. At least I hope so…

There are some areas that I’m definitely still planning on reading around to avoid any glaring errors. Sleep science and dream theory for example: I imagine I’ll be taking a bit of artistic license with both, but I’d like to have a bit of a better grounding in the realities before I start to play. Then there’s the different aspects of mental health that affect my two main characters. That’s something I don’t want to mess up, and despite having a degree of personal experience to work with I’d like to make sure I don’t misrepresent this sensitive and important issue.

The area though that I’ve decided I can probably chill out about is my protagonist’s career. She works in the media, and I was getting all hung up on wanting that part of her world to be ‘right’. I think mainly so that if any of my media-type friends ever read it I wouldn’t end up feeling embarrassed about my lack of insider knowledge. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that what is considered ‘right’ might vary quite a lot from one perspective to another. And anyway, perhaps I was chasing something that wasn’t that important after all.

Ultimately, in the pursuit of verisimilitude, surely what we’re looking for as novelists is something that rings true rather than something that necessarily is true? Whilst obviously I don’t want to paint a picture that’s a million miles from reality, it’s more important that the majority of my non-media-type readers believe it to be true than any experts know it to be true. And with that in mind my relatively well informed layperson’s perspective might just be a better place to come from than one that will cut down my imagination every time it meanders too far from the real world.

I realise this is in danger of sounding like a protracted excuse to do less research. Be that as it may I’ve decided that trusting myself is going to be okay – and might just make the reality I’m creating that little bit more convincing.