Family Matters

The thoughts of a husband, father, brother and son

Archive for the category “Small Boy Wonder”

24 Hours in Cambridge

King's College from the river

One of the many things my wife’s new career has done has been to throw me and my youngest son (the Small Boy Wonder) closer together. I’m close to his elder siblings as well, but in different ways – in their cases adversity has often been the mother of connection. The SBW and I are much more like each other in terms of personality than any other two members of our family.  And as a result of the sometimes intense distraction of the Beautiful Armenian’s course, we’ve spent a lot of time together over the last few years.

This week he and I have been in Cambridge. His mother is writing an essay, I had a few days’ leave to use up, he has half-term, and I said we were going to do something vaguely improving.  He turned down walking in the Yorkshire Dales, on the basis of it involving both walking and the Yorkshire Dales.  He also declined a trip to Chester, having apparently developed an inexplicable aversion for anything too far north.  So, having informed the BA that in a man’s world “what goes on on tour, stays on tour,” we set course for the city of my student days.

Trinity College

St John's College from the river

A week ago, if you had believed the weather forecasts, you might have been a little nervous about the possible incursion of polar bears into these normally tranquil parts.  Yesterday morning we were punting along the River Cam in almost spring like conditions. And we managed to avoid falling in. In between times we got upgraded at the hotel, had a walk round some of the Colleges, rejected the ubiquitous chain restaurants for a great little cafe/bistro (with the added attraction of a waitress who the SBW said was at least an eight out of ten – bless him, he had about as much chance with her as I did), went to the cinema to see Chronicle (bad news for the waitress, this got a straight ten out of ten) and looked at paintings and porcelain in the Fitzwilliam Museum. I also pretended that the whole trip was calorie-neutral by spending an hour in the fitness centre (can you lose weight in the sauna?).

I would be misleading you if I said that my student days at Cambridge were uniformly happy. The Beautiful Armenian and I had decided even at that young age that we intended to spend the rest of our lives together, although we might not have been quite bold enough to say it to each other, and being apart wasn’t always easy. I also found the place so very, very different from the small-town grammar school from which I had emerged – there were a lot of unbelievably pretentious and capricious people there (and still are from what I could see this week).

Courtyard at Pembroke College

But in time I found my feet and made good friends, and overall the experience was very positive. Not least because I had an understanding of how lucky I was. I had access to fabulous facilities, I had many of the normal hassles of student life looked after for me, and I lived for three years in one of the most beautiful of places. And as far as I can work out, I ended up there for no other reason than that I had a knack for doing well in exams. Believe me, I am no great intellect.

Each time I go back, that sense of good fortune strengthens. I wasn’t lucky to have gone there. It was an incredible privilege.  And I think I’ve taken away from it a confidence in my own abilities, which counters my natural shyness, and has served me well.

I think any of my children could have followed me to Cambridge, but nobody has to date and I think it unlikely that the SBW will.  It hasn’t seemed the right place for them.  Their talents all lie in areas which Cambridge doesn’t serve.  But it’s still a wonderful place in which to spend a couple of days.

Another view of St John's

 

Queen's College from the river

Do Our Children Need to Watch More Sex and Violence on TV?

We had a letter home from school this week about the Small Boy Wonder’s (SBW) behaviour.  It’s always with some trepidation that I open an envelope with the school’s postmark on it.

It’s probably been a tough week for teachers.  The last week before the half-term break, and the weather doesn’t help – we’re still in the grips of a prolonged bout of harsh winter weather (even if the Arctic Armageddon and related breakdown of society forecast for Thursday night actually manifested itself as a light dusting of snow and a moderately hard frost – we do like our over-reactions to these things).  This may allow the lovely area where we live to shimmy up the cat-walk in a rarely-seen white gown of beauty (done no real justice by my third-rate photography).  But it doesn’t make things easy in school.

However, I’m not sure the teachers make life easy for themselves.  We’ve now had serious winter conditions three years in a row, but this time we seem to have avoided extensive school closures, airports shutting down, the imposition of martial law etc.  Even the head of the SBW’s school – who in previous years has shown a hair-trigger tendency to close the place completely and put his feet up in front of a roaring log fire at the merest suggestion from that lovely Carol Kirkwood on breakfast TV that it might be getting a bit nippy – has managed to keep the show on the road.  But this created the situation last week in which hundreds of boisterous teenagers were itching to get out and mess around in the snow, but a staff of teachers fully inducted into the zealous cult of health and safety were trying to stop them.  Apparently it culminated in a full-blown, but generally good-natured, rebellion as students and teachers clashed head-on in a struggle for control of the means of production of snowballs.

If I were in charge I would simply say, yes, you can play in the snow, but if anyone does anything stupid, expect big trouble.  Maybe that’s just too sensible?

More about the SBW and his behaviour letter shortly.  What about the sex and violence promised in the title?

That lovely Carol Kirkwood

It’s got nothing to do with Carol.  I just thought that seeing as we’ve mentioned her, we should have a picture of her as well. (Welcome at this stage to anyone who’s arrived here by searching for Carol Kirkwood and sex on Google – sorry if this isn’t quite what you were hoping for, but why not read on anyway).

One of the things we’ve noticed as parents is that since the Very Precious Daughter left home a couple of years ago, the Small Boy Wonder has in effect become an only child.  This has required quite an adjustment by myself and the Beautiful Armenian.  I’m very conscious that we have to be careful that we don’t subject him to too much scrutiny and over-bearing attention, but it also leaves him with a lot of time by himself, with no siblings around to provide any form of distraction.  He’s got lots of interests and lots of friends, but there are still many hours to fill.

The SBW is a teenager living in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century and so his first inclination is to spend that time interacting with a screen.  So is his second inclination, his third inclination and many subsequent inclinations as well.  We also have to contend with the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out) which afflicts most teens today.  All this means that given time to himself the SBW will in all likelihood spend it on a computer, a games console, an iPOD or glued to his Blackberry.

As I’ve said before, I worry about this sometimes, but I’m not entirely sure what to do.  But I do think that trying to offer him something more interesting to do is a better tactic than instigating bans or harsh time restrictions.  And something that has proved fairly successful in our house in this regard is watching DVDs together.

We’re quite big on gangsters (the Mob variety rather than urban rappers).  Last week we watched Carlito’s Way  in 30 minute instalments.  The SBW particularly liked this, identifying with the small-time criminal trying to go straight.  We’ve also watched all the Godfather films, Scarface and The Untouchables.  And last year we worked our way through every single episode of The Sopranos. That’s something like 75 hours of television. If you had told me before I came across The Sopranos that not only was it one of the best shows ever made, it was also a mixture of gangland action, family inter-play and psychotherapy, I would have thought that you were just trying to be nice to me.  As far as this family is concerned, there could be no better combination.

We do other things as well: the Rocky films, some spaghetti westerns, the occasional Dickens adaptation or low-budget movie.

But the content isn’t really that important. What matters is that we watch these things together. And that means that we talk about what we’ve watched. And it also means that the SBW is with us and not engaged in solitary screen activity, although he does have a remarkable capacity to keep up with whatever’s  new and interesting in the local teenage world via his Blackberry (although I can’t for the life of me imagine what that might be) and to watch with us at the same time and take in more detail than I do.

Now my worry is that sometimes I’ve let the SBW watch more sex, violence and swearing than I should. We’ve got friends who wouldn’t dream of watching some of these things with their kids.

But then I tell myself that I shouldn’t worry. Most of these things are high quality productions that deal with real life issues. And in this day and age, you simply can’t shield your children from X-rated content. Even if you do manage to control what they see in your own house, you never know what they’re doing when they’re round at their friends. The one thing which the SBW found distressing about the Godfather films was when old man Corleone keeled over and died of a heart attack amongst the tomatoes. Because it happened in front of the little kid. The SBW actually told me I was a bad parent for letting him see that bit!  Silly me.  There I was worrying about harmless things like a severed horse’s head, Michael’s wife getting blown up, and somebody getting shot through the eye.

It’s ironic – but a sign of the times – that I should regard the television, which everyone feared was going to ruin my generation when I was growing up, as something which can help hold a family together.

OK then, Superdad, you may be thinking. You’re trying to suggest that all this adult content is actually good for young people, but aren’t you the one with the letter home from school about your son’s behavior?

Indeed I am. It arrived on Saturday morning. Once I’d read it, I called the SBW away from his computer (fittingly enough), asked his mother to join us and and told them what had happened. The SBW looked dreadful – he was clearly very worried. I then handed him the letter and asked him to read it.

Dear Mr and Mrs Toby,

We are writing to thank the Small Boy Wonder for his cooperation and good behavior on our recent trip to Belgium and France. His mature attitude and sensitivity during the visit was intrinsic to its success.

It went on in a similar vein for several more paragraphs.

So maybe all that exposure to Tony Soprano isn’t such a bad thing. Who know?

But I can’t help wondering what it was that made the young lad look so worried when he thought the letter was bad. What have I missed?  Any ideas, Tony?

Tony Soprano

School Trip

The Small Boy Wonder (SBW) went on a school trip this week.  A rapid visit to the First World War battlefields in Belgium.  He’d been looking forward to it, and it was clear just what effect studying the horrors and tragedy of that most awful and misguided of conflicts has had on him.  Because for him it all boiled down to one simple question.  Just one thing he needed to know before he left on this potentially very moving journey.

Do they have nightclubs in Ypres?

Good luck with this lot, we thought as we handed him over to his teachers, along with two coach loads of his peers at half past four on a bitterly cold morning.  Yes, you did read that right: half past four in the freakin’  morning!  We were at least pleased to see that it wasn’t just our darling heading off to the big freeze of continental Europe with feet protected by nothing more than a pair of light, canvas shoes and an aversion to wearing anything remotely uncool (like a couple of extra layers).

More on this later.  In the meantime, the Beautiful Armenian and I headed off to Norfolk for a couple of days of rest and relaxation.

Now I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that we live on what has been described as the most beautiful island in the world.  The kids always look at me as if this is final proof, if any such proof were needed, that I am completely demented when I say this.  I suppose most people hear the phrase “beautiful island” and imagine some tropical paradise with coral beaches and clear blue sea.  But what makes the British Isles stand out so much is its sheer variety.  Yes, the weather may be lousy at times, the infrastructure creaking, and many urban areas drab and over-crowded.  But the countryside is diverse and often spectacular. Particularly if you know where to go.

North Norfolk is one of those places.  It’s an area of very typical English villages, where rolling countryside meets a coastline of vast marshlands, sandy beaches and big, big skies.  It’s become very fashionable in the last 20 years, a little too dominated perhaps by banker bonus money.  But you soon leave the bankers behind if you head for the wilder beaches and the more remote countryside.

“Why do you two always go away when I do?”  the SBW asked the day before we all left.  “Oh I know why.”

I pointed out that with the house to ourselves we didn’t need to go away for “sexy time” (his words).  He didn’t look convinced.

Maybe he’s got a point.  But something else we like to do in Norfolk is to catch the little coast bus a few miles east or west and then walk back.  A couple of years ago we walked from Wells-next-the-Sea to Brancaster Staithe – this has got to be one of the best walks anywhere in the world.  Amongst many other things, you cross this ridiculously over-crowded beach.

Banker-free beach

This time we went the other way, catching the bus to Stiffkey and walking back to Wells.

The village of Stiffkey

Looking towards Blakeney

Norfolk marshes

Back at Wells, I was able to indulge in the supreme afternoon luxury of sitting in a bar, drinking a couple of pints of local beer, and reading some blogs.  In a busy life, a little moment to be treasured.

Later that evening I had one of those “how am I ever supposed to get things right” incidents which I assume afflict all married men from time to time.  The BA would not deny that the intensity and pressures of her course has pushed her weight upwards a little over the last three years.  But more recently, she’s lost a few pounds.  That evening she put on a dress which made her look as good as she has done in a while.  She looked fabulous and I told her.

“So you’re saying I’ve been looking rubbish up to now?”

No, that’s not what I meant.

“Are you just trying to get inside my knickers then?”

Obviously, but only because I always am.  Again, you’ve misunderstood.

What’s a man supposed to say?

Norfolk is also one of the best places in Europe to watch birds and we came home via the reserve at Titchwell.  Boy, there are some serious bird-watchers around.  We felt quite out-of-place without 3 telescopes each, camouflage clothing and an obsession with the length of our bird list.  But we did get a good long look at a marsh harrier quartering the reed-beds – they’re fairly common in those parts, but we thought it was exciting.

Frozen Titchwell

Snow on the beach

So back to the Small Boy Wonder and his foreign excursion.  When we picked him up (different time of day, same freezing weather) he seemed in good spirits.  Most of his chatter was about mucking about and banter with “the lads.”  But I think the battlefield experience had had some impact.  He thought the reconstructed trenches were cool (high praise indeed) and the fact that they still stop the traffic and sound the last post every day in one of the cemeteries quite impressive.

They’d also each been given a cross to place on a grave, and he had found around 30 graves with the same initial and surname as his.  I don’t know exactly what he thought of that, but it made me well up when he told me.

I do find things related to the world wars very moving.  I cry at Remembrance Day parades, and also at the lyrics of this song.  There are many different versions, and this is just one.  The leaders of Israel and Iran, or (sadly) even the UK and Argentina, could do worse than listen to it and reflect as they consider what they do next over the coming weeks.

RSPB Bird Watch

This may be one the (many) things about us Brits which bemuses our friends from overseas.  This weekend, more than 600,00 of us will spend an hour watching the birds in our garden and logging the details to a website.   Our European neighbours like to catch and eat small birds.  We like to feed and watch them (the birds, obviously, not the European neighbours).

In the town where I live there is a market on a Saturday.  There is a stall which sells all manner of seed and feed for wild birds.  There’s always a queue, and on cold days they sell out (i.e. they sell everything they’ve got, not they start to make bland, commercial albums, betraying their original fan base).

I make no apology about it.  I am seriously into this peculiar British obsession.  This was my Christmas present from my parents.

We do occasionally visit nature reserves to do some more serious bird watching, but it’s the garden birds I really love. Also, the Beautiful Armenian seems to have a fantasy about having sex in a bird hide and can get a bit giggly and skittish when we’re out.

Anyway, we seem to do very well for garden birds. Our garden only just scrapes into the RSPB large category (size of one tennis court), but we are very near lots of countryside and we have an old field hedge as one of our boundaries which birds love.

These are some of my favourite visitors to our garden.

Bullfinch

Bullfinch (photo courtesy of Hilary Chambers from Flickr - Hilary has no link with this blog).

The Small Boy Wonder has about as much interest in birds as I do in Blackberry Messenger, but even he said that this was a “pretty cool bird” when I pointed one out to him. I think they are beautiful – that combination of slate grey back and rich pink breast.

They have a special place in my heart, because when I was a child our next door neighbour used to shoot them in large numbers, I think to protect his fruit trees. He was an odious man, and it makes me very happy to see them apparently making something of a comeback, at least round here.

Starling

Starling (photo courtesy of John Glass (madmcmojo on Flickr) - John has no link with this blog).

You’ve got to be joking, I hear fellow bird-lovers say. Those hooligans of the bird table, who descend in an unruly gang and go through the food like a swarm of hungry teenagers?

I love them. Yes, they do make a big mess, but that brings other birds to the garden who clear up after them. Again, there’s a childhood connection. There was a wood near where I grew up where starlings used to congregate in their thousands and thousands to roost. All through the late afternoon you could watch flock upon flock heading for the woods.

Starlings have declined by about 70% in the last thirty years or so, and so they are welcome in my back yard any time they like. Also, Chris Packham says they are very cool, and I wouldn’t argue with a word he says about wildlife.  I’ve never seen the spectacular flying displays of the vast flocks, but it’s one thing I would love to see before I die.

Blackcap

Blackcap (photo courtesy of Hilary Chambers from Flickr - Hilary has no link with this blog).

I was so excited a couple of years ago when I realised we had these in the garden. However, it’s probably a sign of global warming, and ours seem not to have read the Handbook of British Birds, which clearly says that they feed from bird tables. Come on chaps, stop skulking around in the hedge.

Goldfinch

Goldfinch (photo courtesy of cazstar from Flickr - cazstar has no link with this blog).

Another bird on the up. These are the bling-merchants of the bird world. Gaudy and over dressed, but with a beautiful song.

House Sparrow

House sparrow (photo courtesy of HermiG from Flickr - HermiG has no link with this blog).

Like the starling, this may raise some eyebrows. But like the starling this once very common bird is in decline. If starlings are teenagers, these guys are toddlers – noisy, lively and in to everything.

Redwing

Redwing (photo courtesy of Richard Toller from Flickr - Richard has no link with this blog).

Again, having these around makes me very happy. We don’t see them often, but they love the berries in our hedge and seem to be able to eat their body weight several times over.

Long-tailed Tit

Long Tailed Tit (photo courtesy of snapp3r from Flickr - snapp3r has no link with this blog).

Another bird that visits us in little gangs.  They’re like little mice with wings, scurrying up and down the nut feeder, but never staying very long

Now, look away if you are a small bird reading this blog. Because my last favourite, you won’t like.

Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk (photo courtesy of Keith Laverack from Flickr - Keith has no link with this blog).

This guy is smart. We feed the little birds, making them plump and complacent. The sparrowhawk eats the little birds.

But how lonely must it be to be a sparrowhawk? Every other bird in your world detests you. Everywhere you go, you make others flee.

I also think it’s one of those profoundly wonderful things about nature that small birds are hard-coded to recognise the shape of a sparrowhawk.

As I say, I think we do very well. On a really cold day, it’s like freakin’ Springwatch out there.  You half expect Packham to turn up with Kate Humble (about whom the Beautiful Armenian has something of a girl crush who my wife says is the sort of girl she would find attractive if she were a man).

Packham and Humble

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