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 As a child I remember being thrilled when I discovered the existence of this wonderful historical document, and then deeply disappointed to find that it contained mostly entries of the sort "Wet again.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.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Never the Twain

Some time ago I essentially gave up knitting for the boys. Handknits being what they are (not improved by frequent washing, prone to snags and pulls...), and small boys being what they are (perpetually covered in mud and/or food, prone to wrestling and running into bushes...) anything I made tended to get ruined depressingly quickly, or else the great cry went up "it itches", and it was never worn at all.

About Christmas, however, seeing me parcel up things I'd knitted for his new cousin in Australia, P came and asked me if I would knit him something for a change, so I asked him what he would like and he said a jumper with a train on it, and I relented and agreed.

My original plan was quite straightforward (so I thought). Two tank tops - one each - in the same colours, reversed, with a colourwork train around the bottom. I planned to knit them in something machine washable and not too warm, like bamboo, so that they could be worn over a t-shirt in the late spring when the weather was likely to be cool enough to need something, but perhaps not an actual jumper. I bought some yarn and set to work.

First I sketched out a train design on squared paper, then I worked out my gauge and did the maths and worked out the train design again to make it fit the size I needed. Then I swatched the train, and decided some of the coaches etc. were too long, and redesigned it again. Then I swatched again. Then I decided the fabric was too loose, changed needles, recalculated the number of stitches again, redesigned the train, and swatched again. Then P asked me if one of the carriages could be a crane, so I changed it again. Then I finally started knitting properly, but when I got to the train I found knitting in the round the carried thread showed through a lot where the yarn was carried round between the front of the engine and the end of the guard's van, so I spent some time experimenting with different ways of carrying and catching in the yarn, and swatched in the round about three times.

At this point I did what I should have done in the first place and did some reading about colourwork (and asked about a bit among the knitting cognoscenti) and realised that bamboo was a silly thing to chose and I really needed something that would stick together more, like wool. So I considered chucking the whole thing in the bin, but P kept asking "is my jumper finished yet", so I didn't. Then I considered just doing the whole thing in duplicate stitch, which would probably have been better on the whole, but I refused to be beaten. So I replanned everything yet again to leave the smallest possible number of stitches between the two ends of the train, and set myself to learn to hold the two colours one in each hand, and that seemed to work better. And I finally got going in earnest. For about 15 minutes three times a week, because that's about how much time I get to knit these days.

And now at long last, after more delays while I worked out how to shape the arm holes, and the neck, and how to do the ribbing on the neck, and how to unpick it and do it again differently because P couldn't get his head through, and whether or not I should sew buttons on for the wheels* - finally, they're finished. Just in time for the coolish autumn weather. And they must have, ooh, all of three weeks' wear left in them before they'll be too small. Still, gives them less time to rip, stain, and generally ruin them I suppose.

 * Consensus of opinion on Facebook was not.

Monday, 15 July 2013

And here's one I prepared earlier.

In May, while we were on holiday, P turned 4. He was desperate to have a party, and so, as his best friend also had a birthday exactly a week later, we agreed to have a joint one after we got back.

Spiderman 'a la Grec'.
This, it was finally decided was to be a Safari Dinosaur Hunt party. The theme was agreed only after much wrangling. P was adamant that he wanted a Spiderman party, although he felt that really it would need to be a Spiderman and Princesses party, to cater for the girls.* D wasn't that keen on Spiderman, and to be honest, neither were D's mum and I, so in the end we settled on dinosaurs as being something acceptable and broadly gender-neutral, and promised P that he could have a Spiderman birthday in Greece (covered by Yiayia and Papou buying him a conveniently light and easy-to-pack cheap nylon Spiderman suit as a present for his actual birthday) and a dinosaur birthday once we came home.

Since D and family have a bigger house, with a much bigger garden, and we were only coming back from holiday two days before the designated date, it seemed sensible for them to provide the venue and food, and my contribution was to be doing party bags, providing a picture for "pin the tail on the dinosaur", and making the cake.

Thanks to the huge variety of cheap dinosaur-themed rubbish available on Amazon, and to the fact that my youngest brother is generally happy to rustle up a picture of whatever you like to mention at short notice and free of charge, the first two of these proved no problem at all. The cake, however, was more of a challenge.

I am not the world's greatest baker. I can usually just about manage to make an edible sponge-cake, but when it comes to decorating I am definitely of the "less is more" school, not least because I don't actually like icing very much. Given that I needed to be able to produce an acceptable dinosaur the day after getting back from holiday I thought I'd better have a trial run. Accordingly I googled "dinosaur cake" and found an online video tutorial explaining how to cut up and re-arrange a rectangular cake to make a 2D dinosaur shape and then cover it with royal icing. It looked like a doddle. I made my bog-standard sponge, left it to cool, and waited to decorate it after the boys were in bed.

Four hours and a lot of stickiness later I had learned a lot about the properties of ready-rolled icing as an artistic medium. 

It does not, as I had assumed, behave like pastry. If you try to roll it really thin (thinner than it comes in the pack), it just sticks to the work surface and won't come off at all unless you scrape at it with a knife. If you try to lift it draped over a rolling pin (as you would with pastry) it immediately rips, sags, and falls apart. You cannot piece it back together like you can with pastry, at least not without the joins being very visible. Once you have got it onto a jam-covered cake, if it hasn't landed exactly right, you can't move it or adjust its position in any way, without it ripping and becoming riddled with cake crumbs. Most significantly it is virtually waterproof: painting white icing with green food colouring causes the colour to pool on the surface in sticky motley blotches in a manner which, while perhaps convincingly reptilian, is not especially appetising.

Doyouthinkesaurus (no. 1)
Suffice to say the first attempt looked more akin to taxidermy than confectionary. I spirited it away to work before P could see it, where my long suffering colleagues dispatched the poor creature, made encouraging comments about how nice it looked (in the face of all the evidence), and more importantly, gave me a lot of good advice about how to do it better next time.

Firstly, do not use ready-rolled icing. Get the stuff you have to roll yourself and allow at least twice as much as you think you'll need so you can roll it out plenty big enough to cover the whole thing and then just throw away the extra you cut off, which will inevitably be full of jam and cake crumbs and no use to man nor beast. Second, knead the food colour into it little by little, adding a few drops at a time and working it as if you were kneading dough. This takes hours, but it works. Third, don't attempt anything with fiddly corners. Pushing the icing into awkward places just causes it to rip - better to go for a big smooth shape as much as possible.

Doyouthinkesaurus (no.2)
Armed with this information the second attempt was much better. I abandoned the 2D shape and went for something along the lines of a stegosaurus. Making two round cakes, as if to make a victoria sandwich, I cut both in two slightly below halfway and stuck the larger halves together standing on their edge to form the back of the dinosaur. I then cut one of the smaller halves to form a curving tail and used the other to make a wedge-shaped head, sticking all the bits together with jam. This time I recruited C to help me get the icing onto the cake. I very carefully lifted the rolled out icing draped across the palms of both hands and he shoved the cake underneath as fast as he could. 

I originally tried to make cake feet as well, but this turned out to be just too fiddly, so I eventually resorted to modelling them out of leftover icing. This worked pretty well, even if the mere idea of biting into one made my teeth ache and my stomach churn. Chocolate buttons broken in half make pretty good claws. Attempt number two was a great improvement, and also disposed of by the OED so that P wouldn't see it and spoil the surprise.**

Having worked out broadly speaking how to make the main cake, I then started to wonder how on earth I was going to chop the thing into reasonably equitable chunks for the kids to take home. Finally I decided the best thing would be to make some cupcakes to go in the party bags instead. I originally intended to put plastic dinosaurs on these, but having bought a large quantity of brightly coloured fondant icing to decorate the final cake I discovered that a sort of icing "slug" for the body, four blobs for the legs, and a squashed sausage cut into peaks with a knife would produce a passable mini-dinosaur, so the guests each got one of those and we and D's family shared the main dinosaur. 

I must admit, I was rather pleased with the finished thing, and P was gratifyingly surprised and chuffed with it. 

Don't care if I never see another piece of icing, though.

*P's attitude to gender roles leaves a little to be desired as far as I'm concerned. He recently informed me that I should wear "clippy-cloppy shoes" and "that stuff like face paints" if I want to be a "proper grown-up mummy". On the other hand, he was right about the girls he invited to his party. None of them wanted to have their faces made up as dinosaurs: they all wanted to be princesses.

**It will be interesting to see in years to come whether the excess of green food colouring consumed by the dictionary staff will be identifiable as having an effect on the definitions produced during this period.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Summertime, and the living is...well, hectic as ever, really

Just over a month ago we went on a proper family holiday: two weeks at "The House". And it was fab, and just like holidays were when I was little (except rather shorter, since we don't get anything like as much leave as my parents - a teacher and an academic - did. And mercifully with less cement-making). And I went so far as to make notes, so as to be able to blog about it later. And then we came home, and there was a 4th birthday party to organise and dinosaur cakes to construct, and then it was back to work, and decorating, and potty training, and fixing the garage, and...well, you get the picture.

And then I spoke to someone who asked me about the holiday and reminded me that I was going to blog about it. So here - somewhat retrospectively - goes:

Day 1: Up at 4.30 to drive to Gatwick in plenty of time for the plane, having, on a previous occasion had to run the length of the airport and do without breakfast when the bus was late and we nearly missed our flight. The buggy has apparently been warned in advance of what awaits it on the rocky hillsides of Zakynthos, because it has sheered a bolt in the back of the car with the result that as soon as R sits in it it folds up on him and can only be steered by tipping it up so that the front wheels come off the floor. Arrive in plenty of time, but after nearly 2 hours of queueing, we miss breakfast and run the length of the airport again (this time with R sitting in a half-collapsed buggy doing a permanent wheelie) to make it to the gate just in time.

Within an hour of arriving at "The House" both boys have fallen down most of the stairs, identified how to get up onto the roof, and R has spotted where Papou stores all his tools, including the "Train-sword" [chainsaw]. Very glad my parents are here too and there are four pairs of eyes to spot what they're getting up to!

Day 2: Everyone covered from head to foot in grazes, mosquito-bites, and Merenda chocolate-spread. Just how holidays used to be, though not quite as hot as it's May not August. There are wildflowers, butterflies, and swallows everywhere and the lake is full of terrapins humping, and frogs exclaiming "Brekekekèx-koàx-koáx". Lovely.

R is very taken with "The House" but mystified by the fact that there is no washing-machine or oven, and that while there are lots of steps outside there are hardly any inside, which as he says, is the opposite of our house at home.

Day 3: Sitting in our favourite taverna watching my own son putting tomato-ketchup on souvlakia. The shame! It's a bit cool for swimming, so we paddle instead and build a sandcastle, starting a trend for the rest of the holiday.

Day 4: Pleasant though it is sitting in the sun watching the world go by, there are signs that times are hard for people here at the moment. Dad tells us he's been talking to an old friend - a taxi driver on the island. He was employed by the local government to take children to and from school, but has never been paid for his work. Having been fobbed off with governmental IOUs up to the value of 15000 Euro, he's now been informed, actually they won't ever be able to pay him more than 1000. His family have gone back to growing potatoes in the garden - just in case they need them this winter. 

Day 5: Up at 5.30 for the traditional bus trip into town and bougatsa custard-pastries for breakfast. First stop, find a hardwear shop and buy a bolt to fix the buggy. After four days of being expected to walk everywhere, R leaps back into his chariot with a cry of delight the minute it is mended and hardly moves from it all morning.

Mum and I dismiss the men to take the kids to the park and go on a fruit and vegetable-fondling expedition, coming back with oranges, strawberries, and cherries, as well as all sorts of green vegetables you don't get in the heat of the summer when we are usually here.

Having earlier in the morning walked past a shop I have stumbled across once or twice before, which sells beautiful jewel-coloured crochet thread, but which never seems to be where I remember it, we attempt to take this opportunity to return. But sadly when we go back, it has once again shuffled into its wormhole and vanished.

How many can I fit in my mouth at once?

Day 6: Rain. Since it's cooler we embark on the statutory five-mile hike in search of a pile of stones of potential archaeological significance. As with so many of these sites in the past, it appears to have changed location since my dad last saw it. We spend a happy couple of hours stumbling about in an olive grove, falling down terraces, but don't find the "wall". We do, however, encounter a bright green, metre-long grass snake engaged in eating a goldfinch.

Day 7: Wash day, this being the sort of holiday where you do all the same chores as usual, but by hand, and with only lukewarm water.

To the beach in the afternoon and bored with bog-standard sandcastles, decide to make a sand-ogre instead.

Day 8: Strangely cool and windy: no swimming today. P and Papou make toy boats and sail them in the pond (including one P names the "Zebra Moon"), and construct a sign giving directions to Didcot, the airport, and Australia.

Day 9: P's birthday. Still cool with strange pink skies and "Sirocco" wind covering everything in a fine layer of sand from the Libyan desert. Perfect weather for constructing and flying a leftover wrapping-paper kite.

P grudgingly agrees to make do with a massive ice-cream cake with sparklers for his birthday, instead of the crappy mass-produced Sainsbury's Spiderman one that he had his heart set on.

Day 10: Yiayia and Papou off to Athens to attend a christening. The rest of us take the huge inflatable crocodile they brought back from Australia down to the beach for the first time and have a great time squirting one another with the attached water-pistol.

Walking back P remarks "It's not a bit like Didcot, is it". He's not wrong.

Day 11: Spend morning with the boys painting pebbles with Yiayia's acrylic paints to embellish our daily sandcastle, and the afternoon on the beach constructing a sand-croc.

Yiayia and Papou back at 11pm with lots of presents from the rellies and someone else's suitcase containing someone else's car keys!

Day 12: Back to town with Papou to return the case to the poor man who had been left stranded at the bus station last night. He is very nice about it and insists on giving us a lift back into town afterwards.

Rest of day spent on the beach making a "troll hole".

Day 13: Return to the beach to find someone has taken the troll's eyes. R. very concerned by this.

Build a large fish instead, which takes most of the day.

Day 14: Boat trip out to the island in the bay and the caves round the headland. C and I enjoy swimming in turquoise water off the back of the boat, only slightly marred by the fact that the owner forgets to point out that he has recently repainted the ladder, so we all end up with sticky blue feet and spend the rest of the trip dabbing at ourselves with industrial grade nail-varnish remover. The boys are more impressed by the fact that the island is served, not by an ice-cream van, but an ice-cream boat.

Saturday, 27 April 2013


After the hedge, the next major item on my gardening to-do list was the ailing eucalyptus in the front garden. Slightly taller than the house, and not quite 3m away from it, the top third or so had been killed off by hard frosts over the last few years. Even aside from the fact that it kept most of the light out of the front of the house and provided a handy perch (right outside the bedroom window) for very loud birds at ungodly hours of the morning, it pretty definitely needed to come down. This, however, was definitely a job for the professionals* we decided, and resigned ourselves to having to part with a substantial amount of money to have it removed.

Then, unexpectedly, a man knocked on the door and said he had had a cancellation round the corner, and, since he was in the area and at a loose end, would we like to employ him to take it down for us if he gave us a really good price and got rid of the resulting timber. Rather inconveniently he arrived at the front door at exactly the same time as P's friend D, his mum, and his two little sisters arrived at the back, but the price was good enough that it seemed worth going ahead in spite of having a house full of guests, so off he went to get his equipment.

P and D gazing in wonderment at a man, halfway up a tree, chatting on the phone.

His equipment, it turned out, consisted of a wobbly ladder, a bijou chainsaw-ette, a length of blue nylon rope, and a sullen, chain-smoking sidekick in sunglasses. It soon became apparent that this was very much the "Eddie Grundy" school of garden landscaping: no safety ropes, no eye protection, no chainsaw-proof trousers, not even any gloves (he pulled his jumper down over his hands when he needed to pull on the rope!).** With us all watching from an upstairs window, he propped the ladder against the tree and wobbling precariously at the top of it (pausing only to chat on his mobile from time to time), hacked lumps off the tree with the chainsaw while his friend tugged on the rope to make sure they landed more-or-less in the right place. Meanwhile, in the relative safety of R's bedroom, five small people oohed and aaahed and D's mum and I speculated on the likelihood of having to call an ambulance, or go searching for a severed limb or two, if the ladder slipped. I did briefly consider offering to hold the ladder for him, but then realised that if the ladder slipped it might well be me that lost a limb...

However, terrifying though it was to watch, the tree came down (as did another smaller one in the back garden) and no limbs were forfeited (though a bit of the ladder did drop off as it toppled over when the tree fell). And there's nothing like a man up a tree with a chainsaw to keep five under-4s entertained all morning.

* A tree-surgeon, not Bodie and Doyle.
** Though at least he didn't try to flog us a novelty concrete gnome.

New Leaves: Part II

One of the few regrets we had about moving from our old house, was leaving the garden behind. While not large, the old garden had been well looked after for a good few years before we got there and was, as the estate agents say "well-established". It had a variety of attractive shrubs and perennials, a greenhouse, a shed, and a nice little pond full of frogs which set up a soothing chirping on warm summer days and kept the slugs down.

The garden at the new house is probably larger over all, but as with the rest of the house no one has looked after it in a very long time. When we arrived the whole thing (three sides of the house, since we're on the end) was dominated by one thing: a large, unkempt, badly-maintained conifer hedge.* The rest of the garden - apart from the paved area - was just grass, interspersed with the occasional dandelion, dock, and rather a large number of beer cans.

I knew this hedge of old, since, when we lived round the corner and I walked this way to the shops, I was always forced to walk in the road because I couldn't get the double buggy between The Hedge and the parked cars, so I was pretty determined to get rid of as much of the wretched thing as possible as soon as possible. A quote to have it taken out left us reeling, so we decided to have a go ourselves - or rather C and my brother did - and fortunately it proved not to be all that hard (the hardest thing being keeping the boys away from the big shiny axe!).

The demise of the horrible hedge: part I.

(The result of) the demise of the horrible hedge: part II.

So, in the course of the last year we have removed something in the region of 30 conifers, cut down two large trees**, substantially reduced the trees that remain, scraped a huge amount of ivy off the side of the house (allowing us to open two windows which were previously welded shut with vegetation), dug a gravel-filled trench to keep the soil away from the damp-course, dug and planted two flowerbeds at the front and three at the back, and made a start on improving the grass : dandelion/thistle/rubbish ratio in the so-called "lawns". There's still a long way to go, but now spring has just about sprung and a few things are starting to grow, it's beginning to feel a bit more like a garden. All I have to do now is find some way of deterring the cats from using every patch of bare earth as a lavatory, and stop the wretched postman walking through my new flowerbeds because he can't be bothered to go up the path!

*Just in case there wasn't enough of it, the previous owners had also left us a large pile of clippings outside the back gate.
** Of which more anon.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Nymphs and Leopards

Given that he is only two-and-a-bit, R is quite an articulate little beast, but he still often mis-analyses words or has trouble pronouncing them. For months, for instance, he has been demanding to put on his "dressing joan" over his pyjamas first thing in the morning. (A similar phenomenon led P to be convinced for some time that we had a "washing lion" in the garden for drying clothes).

Recently, however, I've started to think that maybe he's doing it on purpose. On Wednesday, for instance, he insisted that the seal we were looking at in a book had slippers rather than flippers, that I had presented him with a hot buttered trumpet to eat, and that his brother had attended the nursery nativity at Christmas dressed as a leopard.*

I suspect that this sudden streak of word-play is related to what his older brother has been doing at nursery, as they have been learning about rhymes. P has taken to rhyming like a duck to water, though he is perfectly happy to invent words where he can't think of a real one. Sadly, many of the words he invents do really exist, even if he has probably never come across them, which can be the cause of some embarrassment when he gets one of his periodic fits of rhyming in a public place. 'I know what rhymes with "muck", mummy! ...'

* Actually, there was a Gruffalo, but that's beside the point.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

New Leaves: part I.

It has been some time since my last post.

In the meantime lots of things have happened. For one thing, we've moved house. The new house is much larger, but decidedly dilapidated, and so between every day life with two small boys, and going back to work for the second time after maternity leave, and trying (largely unsuccessfully) to renovate the house in our spare (!) time, the old blog has become somewhat neglected.

Now however, I am determined to make a concerted effort to get back to blogging, even if only now and then and in tiny bite-sized chunks.

Given that in the time it has taken me to write this post I have had to break off three times to get more glasses of milk/cereal, once to clear up the resulting mess, again to change the tv programme (it is a measure of exactly how long it has taken me that that have been able to watch more than one television programme!), and finally to confiscate pens being used to draw on the sofa, this may be a forlorn hope. However, I can but try. Oh, there goes another cup of milk...must dash.