Saturday, 31 January 2015

Knight time

Last May, for his fifth birthday, P had a big Viking party, for which we hired a hall and made cardboard Viking ships as props, and made the boys shields and Viking costumes, and gave the guests Danegeld to go away at the end, and generally got into the spirit of the thing, which was all enormous fun for people who like making daft things out of cardboard and don't have much of a social life to encumber their evenings anyway.

But then we realised we'd set a precedent. Ever since R has been saying, "For my birthday...this, for my birthday...that", and planning what he was going to have. However R's birthday falls immediately after Christmas and time, energy, and enthusiasm for throwing a big bash tend to be in shorter supply at that time of year. Nevertheless it seemed a bit unfair to say he couldn't have a big party just because his birthday is when it is (a fact which is, after all, more our fault than his), so we eventually pulled ourselves together and booked the hall for a belated birthday party at the end of the month, sent out the invitations, and set about making things for a "knights" party.

First there were the pipe-lagging horses, and their insulation-tape bridles. The ears were tricky, since changing the size and angle by only a few millimetres could make what was clearly a horse immediately change into a donkey or even worse a cow, but once we we got the general pattern sorted these were fairly straight-forward to construct.

Then there were the party bags. I looked online and found some castle-shaped party bags but a glance at the price convinced us that paying that amount for a paper bag was a sure sign of idiocy, so we resolved to make them ourselves. Little Dorrit turned out to be pretty much exactly the right size to be half-wrapped in silver paper for the bags, but the doors and windows were fiddly to cut and we spent several nights after work in the week before the party cutting and sticking. They worked out fairly well in the end, though, and we found some pencils which gave them all a flag to fly from the crenellations in a pleasing sort of way.

Finally there was the "dragon" pinata. R was determined that he was going to have a dragon to vanquish as P had had one the year before and clearly the idea of being invited to beat the **** out of something and getting showered with sweets as a reward is every little boy's dream. This time, though, we undertook to build one from scratch having attempted, with only moderate success, to convert a shop-bought donkey pinata last time. The donkey-dragon looked ok to begin with, but although its add-on wings and tail were dislodged after the first few blows, the donkey itself proved to be infinitely sturdier. Even with ten or more 5-year-old Vikings hacking at it with plastic swords and axes for a full fifteen minutes it refused so much as to dent. Even had they been fully grown Vikings with real axes I reckon it might have taken a while. Ultimately it had to be disembowelled by hand.

For our version we used a water bottle cut in half and wedged back together in the hope that a good whack in the right place would cause it to spring apart. In this respect it worked fairly well, but building a dragon round a water-bottle is no mean feat. After four hours of faffing and fiddling with bits of foam, double-sided sticky tape and tissue paper, I managed to produce something which, while possibly a "wyrm", certainly wouldn't have given St George, Beowulf, or even Bilbo Baggins a sleepless night. Far from a fearsome fire-breathing serpent it looked like a cheerful, yappy little sausage-dragon. Over night its head fell off and had to be done again in a tearing rush on the morning of the party. The boys named it Errol Greengrass and took it off to watch Scooby-Doo. Didn't stop them hacking it to pieces with great glee in the end, though.

Still, in spite of having had to stay up until 1am baking and icing cakes, stuffing party bags, and putting together cardboard shields and paper crowns for small people to decorate, the party went off well in the end. And now I get to spend my first non-cardboard infested evening in a week drinking wine and wondering what P is planning for his next birthday, and whether three and a half months is long enough to prepare.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Boxed in

Our house is full of toys and I'm sure the boys already have twice as many as my three siblings and I had throughout our whole combined childhoods. But despite this both children seem to adhere firmly to the belief that no toy, however expensive, can compare with a really good cardboard box. And the bigger the box, the better.

Over the last five or so years we have seen quite a few cardboard boxes come and go. Some of them we have gone to some lengths to customise while others have been left as nature intended.

All have given untold pleasure to the children (a fair amount to us too, if only by keeping them occupied).

We recently reached something of a box zenith with the arrival of a particularly large, complex, and robust example, designed in its original incarnation to transport a small tree.

Even while it still had the plant in it the boys had earmarked it as a rocket, and so it was duly transformed with a coat of silver paint and a few other bits and pieces. Admittedly, it was a somewhat unconventional rocket in that it apparently had the engine in the nose, but this allowed for a great many games in which one person was the stranded astronaut, and the other the interstellar equivalent of the RAC, so we let that pass.

Eventually particularly difficult re-entry caused irreparable damage to the nose-cone which had to be relegated to its former occupation of plant pot. But in removing the offending object a remarkable feature of the box became apparent: namely that it was not one, but two boxes, one inside the other.

A short while later all space travel had been abandoned in favour of a brief jaunt to the Middle Ages. The box had become a castle and the boys were happily besieging one another in the corner of the living room while I rushed about removing anything breakable from the range of their rubber swords and cushion-flinging siege engines. And, for a while, a good time was had by all. Well, by them, at any rate.

Then there was a hiatus. As with so many Norman castles the structure was abandoned and started to fall into disrepair. Parts of it were pillaged and carried off to make other things or became buried under the paraphernalia of day-to-day living and got forgotten.

Until one day R, happening upon the one remaining tower, picked it up and put it on his head upside down, and so Boxbot was born. Owing to the unfortunate placing of an arched window from its previous incarnation, Boxbot originally appeared to be the only robot ever created with pubic hair, but the application of a bit of masking tape and some coloured foam took care of that. And so for a while the box once more assumed its rightful place as favourite toy.

Now, however, I think its reign is well and truly over and come Friday Boxbot will be going to the great green recycling bin where so many have gone before. But we can't claim we haven't had our money's worth.

And anyway, it's nearly Christmas. I expect there'll be a new box along any day.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Pussy cat, pussy cat.

This year we decided we would bite the bullet and sacrifice our summer holiday in favour of a fully-functioning bathroom. However, we were not condemned to spend the whole of the summer holidays at home after all, because my brother handily suggested that we go and house-sit for them in August while he and his family were away visiting my sister in Australia.

My brother's house is in a tiny and extremely picturesque Leicestershire village, and is all the things ours isn't. It must have started life as a fairly standard two-up/two-down Edwardian farm cottage, but an extensive refurb and extension-cum-loft-conversion shortly before he and his wife bought it has turned what was no doubt originally the second bedroom into a palatial en suite, while also providing two more good-size bedrooms and a box-room, and downstairs creating the sort of open-plan kitchen-dining room I generally only see while browsing longingly through expensive tile catalogues. All in all, going to stay there for a week is rather like booking a very expensive country holiday cottage, the main difference being that it isn't expensive, and that unlike the majority of the holiday cottages I've stayed in, it has a well equipped kitchen with useful things like stock-cubes and oil in the cupboards.

Unlike a holiday cottage, where you might find a chocolate on your pillow when you arrive, or a box of speciality tea in the kitchen, our welcome gift turned out to be a dead field-mouse, because the house also has a resident cat, that being the main reason we were asked to go and stay in the first place. Ada (whose name, I think, is in honour of Ada Lovelace, the computer pioneer, rather than being, as the boys insist, an abbreviated version of Darth Vader) is a Siberian Forest Cat. Apart from the mice* she is not particularly hard work and the boys loved her. Unlike my mum's cat Heidi (who lives up to her name), Ada is very affectionate, loves to be stroked, and is still young enough also to enjoy tearing about the place chasing bits of string.

So we had a thoroughly enjoyable time going for day trips and keeping Ada company. But the trip has now left me with something of a dilemma, because the boys are now even more desperate than before to have a pet, and I am still really not sure I want one.

Growing up we always had pets - cats in particular - and I know I loved them dearly and they were part of a very happy childhood. Childhood nostalgia reminds me of the times I and my siblings spent playing with our cat, and stroking him while he purred like a band-saw, and the feeling of waking up with him curled up on the end of the bed in the winter when it was cold (we didn't have central heating, so a warm furry hot-water bottle was always welcome). Or the fun we had bathing the guinea pigs and watching them run about in the garden. And I wonder whether it's fair to deprive the boys of that.

Then I remember all the times that the cat brought in a rabbit or a bird or a mouse, disemboweled it in the back room and then regurgitated the semi-digested remains under the sofa. And the fleas, and the midnight fighting with other cats, and the endless cleaning out of litter-trays and guinea-pig cages. And the time the guinea pigs got scabies. And the fact that having started with two guinea-pigs who were both definitely female, we eventually ended up with twenty-seven...and I think, no, not just now. In a few years, when the boys are a bit older. But perhaps I am being mean...

*We did have one three-mouse evening. On that occasion all the "presents" were well and truly alive and we spent a good while shifting furniture trying to recapture them and throwing them out the front door, only to have Ada go straight round and bring them back in through the cat-flap.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Seeing red.

Around the end of term I was chatting with the mums of some of P's school friends and two of them expressed a passing interest in perhaps having an allotment like ours. So, given that I was going to be passing by the council offices the following day, I offered to pop in and see whether there were any free. This I duly did, and discovered that there was indeed one up for grabs, and in fact it was in a prime location right next to the water trough. There are only two water troughs on our site, and no hosepipes allowed, so unless you really enjoy lugging watering cans about the place, this is a definite plus. However, I also discovered that neither of the ladies in question was entitled to rent it, since both live just the wrong side of the parish boundary.

So, now we have two allotments... Well, it seemed a shame to pass up the chance of such a prime piece of real estate.

The new one not only "benefits" (as the estate agents say) from a superior watering location (especially useful from the point of view of keeping an eye on small boys, since they inevitably gravitate straight to the water trough whenever we spend any time at the allotment and it's better if we can see what they're up to), it was also in cultivation until relatively recently, so the soil is pretty workable, and along with various ornamental plants it has a number of well-established fruit bushes. So far we have identified about 6 blackcurrant bushes, 3 or 4 raspberry canes, a gooseberry, a whitecurrant and a redcurrant.

We were already too late for the majority of these since, being in a sunnier position than the bushes on our original allotment, they had ripened earlier and were mostly past their best by the time we took over. All except that is for the redcurrant which was in full flush. Redcurrants are a bit of a new one on me - I've never really had much to do with them before - but we could hardly just ignore them sitting there glowing in the sun, so we picked a kg or so and took them home. I never really have much use for redcurrant jelly, but a bit of googling turned up a recipe for Swedish Vinbärssaft or redcurrant cordial, so we used some to make that and bunged the rest in the freezer. And very nice it is too - I've only tried it with water so far, but I can't help thinking that it might be even more palatable with something like Prosecco. And it is an absolutely stunning colour.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


When my brother and sister-in-law announced they were expecting last year I decided to make them the Owl Obsession blanket, by Marken, but because they didn't plan to find out the sex of the baby, and didn't have any set nursery colour-scheme or anything, I planned to go for a fairly neutral theme. 

However, I drew a blank finding the sort of thing I had in mind in the local knitting shops. The original pattern uses a self-striping yarn for the owls, but I couldn't find anything suitable in the sort of colours I had in mind (soft browns and greys). Eventually I opted to go with Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran in a fairly neutral palette of brown, yellow, blue, and cream. I bought what I imagined would be enough yarn, and set to work, putting my new project up on Ravelry and, originally enough, calling it It's a Hoot.

I was wrong on all counts. There wasn't nearly enough yarn and it certainly wasn't a hoot. Chapter of Disasters would have been nearer the mark.

It became apparent as soon as I swatched that I was going to have to use a smaller needle than stated. The 5.5mm in the pattern produced an unacceptably holey fabric, but with a 5mm my gauge was way off so the motifs came out a lot smaller than expected. Other than starting again with a thicker yarn I had no choice but to introduce more motifs to get a decent size blanket, and that was going to mean I needed more yarn. 

Having made the fatal mistake of buying it on a special day out I couldn’t easily get back to the shop I bought the original yarn from in order to match dyelots,  so I ended up introducing more colours instead. My mother-in-law kindly allowed me to raid her stash for anything suitable, but though the navy blue she gave me harmonised well with the other colours, the result was less "subtle" than "drab". A deep brown (Dream in Colour rather than Debbie Bliss) worked a lot better, but then I started looking at reviews of the yarn on Ravelry and noticed how much everyone said it ran when washed. And since the main colour I was using was cream, I quickly chickened out, frogged a lot of it and went back to the drawing-board. 

Next I introduced the "silver" pale blue colour, which was nice, but it started to look fairly masculine (which as it turns out would have been fine) but I didn't want to appear partizan, so finally I put in the brick red colour, which brightened the whole thing up quite nicely, but completely put an end to any idea of it's being subtle.

The pattern itself is very well written with excellent illustrations, and I had no trouble at all following but, but my god there are a lot of ends to sew in! I tried and tried to find some way of joining as I went, but the tessellation made it difficult to do and anyway I needed to finish all the motifs and lay them out to be sure my colour-scheme worked (it didn't - I had to re-do the central octagon). To be fair, I had seen comments to this effect on Ravelry before I started, but the reality of the situation didn't really hit me until I started joining the motifs. I'd also made a rod for my own back in this respect by not using self-striping yarn, and having several colours in each motif. At a conservative estimate I reckon I sewed in 500 ends, and that's even bearing in mind I worked the partial octagons back and forth, contrary to the pattern, so as to avoid having even more!
Having finally joined all the motifs and sewed in all the ends, and done the edging (for which I had to order yet another ball of yarn - this thing eats it!) I then had to do the owl faces which involved guess what, 10 ends, per owl. I made a bit of a mess of the first one in that the stitching showed through in the back which looked a bit messy, but after that I devised a way of hiding the stitches in the fabric. By this time, however, the whole undertaking had become a race to the finish, despite my nephew obligingly contriving to be nearly two weeks late. And ultimately, when I'd finished, I wasn’t sure that the addition of various boss-eyed avians really improved it. I think on the whole I would have liked it better with just the circles!

Still, its done and I am not unhappy with it. I hope its recipients will like it and find it useful. It is certainly very warm and I will quite miss snuggling under it sewing away at my ends in the evenings. However, it does mean, at long last we will be able to catch up with all those subtitled dramas we've been missing out on in the evenings for the last 2 months. Try as I might I have to look what I'm doing with crochet, in a way I really don't when I'm knitting. So, the blanket is all set to head off to its new home in the morning, and I'm off for a bit of bog-standard stocking stitch and some "Scandi Noir".

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Dear Diary

At various points in my life I decided it might be nice to keep a diary, but this never lasted very long. I never really liked the idea of recording every moment of teenage angst, and I'm far too lazy to spend time on a regular basis recording the dull minutiae of everyday life. Besides which I can't imagine that, in years to come either I or anyone else would be interested in reading that stuff. My mum has a diary that was kept by her grandfather while he was working as a "firewatcher" during the 2nd World War. As a child I remember being thrilled when I discovered the existence of this wonderful historical document, and then deeply disappointed to find that it contained mostly entries of the sort "Wet again. Spam and sprouts for dinner".

For a while I kept what I suppose could be called a commonplace book, in which I noted down things I came across that appealed to me, or anything else I happened to want to remember. But goodness knows what happened to that - I haven't seen it in about 30 years.

These days I have even less time and energy for diary-keeping than ever before, but in many ways this blog now serves the same purpose. Although it is gratifying if anyone reads it, at least in part I write it so that I have some sort of record of the things that happen to us. It is a cliché, but the kids are growing up very fast, and I think it'll be nice for us to have a few reminders in the future of how life was when they were little (though possibly they won't agree).

And in the same way my "commonplace book" has effectively become Facebook. Recently someone asked me if I was keeping a record for posterity of things I post there, since they mostly consist of amusing things the boys have done or said which it might be fun to look back on in future, and it occurred to me that it might be an idea to include "selected highlights" in the blog, so as to keep everything together. So I've created another tab for this purpose. We'll see how it works.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

A bicycle made for two...or sometimes three.

About four weeks ago P got his first pedal bike. He had had a balance bike for some time so we were fairly confident that he'd get the hang of it fairly quickly, and indeed, it took him precisely 30 minutes to learn to ride (compared to the several years I seem to remember it taking me). We bought it on the Saturday and went for a brief 15 minute wobble, then the following day set off to let him have a longer go by walking to the "big swings", just over a mile away. By the time we went under the railway bridge he was away and C was just running alongside watching. So that was that, up to a point: he still hasn't quite grasped that you can't just sit on the seat, take both feet off the floor, and then start pedalling, so starting off can be a little hit and miss.

However, given that he will be tired, and the weather is likely to be increasingly miserable, and the evenings increasingly dark, and he has the road-sense of a suicidal pheasant at the best of times, he's probably still not quite ready to cycle home from school when he starts in a couple of weeks. So we thought that some sort of device to enable him to cycle safely, attached to my bike, was in order.

The majority of tag-along bikes seem to attach to the seat-post, which is a problem for me, as I am not really tall enough to have any seat-post to speak of, but then we came across something called a Follow-me Tandem, and that seemed to fit the bill quite nicely. It attaches to the rear wheel of an adult bike and allows you to connect and tow an ordinary child's bike. This means that when the child grows, you just replace their bike as you would anyway. Since it is easily detachable, it also has the advantage that you can tow them along the road, and then when you get somewhere safe, detach their bike, clip the "Follow-me" up out of the way, and all ride independently. What's more, if you're brave (and strong) enough, you can even have a childseat on the adult bike too, and transport two kids at the same time. We placed the order.

The contraption when it arrived took a little bit of setting up, but now it's on and we're having fun getting the hang of using it. Or at least, I am, since it is me that will be riding it most often. Although for many years I cycled several times a day, that came to an end when we moved out of Oxford and I started commuting in by train, and since I became pregnant with P, 5 years ago, I haven't really cycled at all.

After such a gap, getting the hang of riding my bike again with P's on the back is proving something of a challenge (especially when P unexpectedly wobbles because he's craning round to look at something). Hills are particularly interesting as I am so out of practice and there's quite a lot of extra weight on the back, but on the plus side, when P pedals, it definitely helps. To be honest, the main difficulty is wheeling the thing, rather than riding it. It really is quite a long vehicle, and rather heavy, with a very large turning circle. Trying to push it out of the garden, negotiating the garden table and chairs, and all the plants is a bit of a tricky manoeuvre, and trying to stand it up against a wall or something is nigh on impossible, unless there are two of you. However, we're gradually getting the hang of it, and practice, as they say makes perfect, so time for some more nice bike rides en famille while the good weather lasts.