Engineering calm

A TV programme about reconstructing a lawnmower should make good TV for insomniacs, but the first episode of James May’s The Reassembler (BBC4, last night) managed to be simultaneously fascinating and calming.

ReassemblerBetter known as part of the presenting triumvirate on Top Gear, James May’s other programmes have always interested me more, revealing his deep interest in how things work and a quiet reverence for the remarkable people who created them.

With precisely zero technical skills myself, I can completely understand this awe of technology and engineering; which is why it was so interesting to see someone with a modicum of these skills work their way through the reconstruction of something as prosaic as a 1959 Suffolk Colt lawnmower.

How does the internal combustion in a lawnmower (or anything!) work? I sort of know the theory, but seeing all the component neatly laid out like a work of art on a table, then gathered up and reassembled, revealed more in 30 minutes than any amount of books would.

But it’s May’s subtly rambling commentary on the reassembly process, interspersed with the lawnmower’s history and development, that transformed this 30 minutes of nerdistry into a  little piece of TV nirvana: I could feel my body relax – heart rate slowing, muscles relaxing, mind clearing – as, piece by piece, a lawnmower took shape once more.

It was TV as meditation!

This, I suspect, is because it brought back memories of being small and watching as my dad performed miracles in the garage: welding iron gates, fixing broken electrical appliances, making his own bricks for a wall, affixing a fold-down workbench to the wall. He would pick his way through endless drawers full of ancient and mysterious tools (passed down from his dad) to to fix or create anything.

Sadly, I haven’t inherited his practical skills, but my innate curiosity about how things work is all his doing (which is why I’m quite good at fixing computers). And that curiosity is a real gift: it taught me you’ll never ever be bored if you can recognise the artistry and complexity of the world all around you.

So, thank you, James May; but thanks more to my Dad. 🙂


Saturdays when I was a lad mostly seemed to involve either hanging around leisure centres while my parents played netball and football, or staying round my Nan’s house while my parents played netball or football.

We were three brothers and it was just how Saturdays were. We explored and played and ran about the leisure centres of Swindon, running onto the pitch during half time and trying to cadge 8p for a cup of hot chocolate from the vending machine.

At my Nan’s we’d have a bonfire, teach Nan how to play computer games on our ZX Spectrum, explore the railway sidings at the bottom of her garden and help her check the football pools when the results came in (an important job since we were all going to Disneyland if she won).

Saturdays for our girls are quite different.

The Lovely Melanie and I aren’t interested in either playing or watching sport; we don’t live in Swindon; grandparents are quite a distance away, and no modern parents would let their children have an unsupervised bonfire!

Yesterday I found myself marvelling just how different the girls’ Saturdays are to my memories, after we caught the train into the centre (of London) and had a great time at the Royal Society, for their annual open day.

Crazy shades at the Royal Society
At the Royal Society

There were demonstrations, robots, talks on how science gives us “superpowers”, stunning holograms, mind-blowing augmented reality, a display of (justifiably!) award-winning photographs, lots of hands-on science displays, and all presented by really smart and nice people.

We expected it to be fun, hoped it might be inspirational – and weren’t disappointed. It was great seeing the girls getting stuck into all the displays and chatting with the people running them. I got talking to those running the robotics and hologram displays, too – it’s nice to let your inner nerd out to play and get really in-depth and interesting answers to any questions you have.

Particularly well done to the lady giving the “superpowers” talk for keeping all ages attentive, but also for showing plenty of women talking about their careers in science and engineering. Millie and Amber probably didn’t notice the gender balance, but I did. 🙂

We stayed right to the very end (as did lots of other people) and then went to Chinatown, as promised, for Chinese food, which we all love. The girls loved the food and the place – especially the giant fluffy dragons by the door.

That’s where I looked around at my family, in a “proper” Chinese restaurant, eating Chinese food with chopsticks, and realised we would never have done this when I was growing up.

Not better, just different. 🙂

(Tooth) Fairy Stories

Poor Amber, having suffered with multiple wobbly teeth for the last month, making it very difficult to eat anything but soup!

wpid-wp-1448283889241.jpgShe then lost three of those teeth in just seven days, leaving her with a mouth like… Well, like this!

She’s been very stoical about it though, helped by so many visits from the Tooth Fairy and a money box that is now very full.

The Lovely Melanie started a tradition of writing letters to the Tooth Fairy (in my day she just left the cash…) which Amber has been loving – her letters getting longer and longer. They began simply asking their age and name, before moving on to begging her to come and live with us!

It’s my fault: rather than simply reply with “My name is Vera and I’m 17” I started enjoying the story and adding unnecessary extra details.

As a copywriter I just can’t let a good story go untold… 🙂

So, the second tooth was collected by Titania, head of the tooth fairies, who was 307 years old and remembered collecting one of Queen Victoria’s teeth when she was just a little princess.

I had to dial it back a bit with the third tooth. Amber wrote a long letter begging the tooth fairy to come to stay with us and promising she would be very happy and well looked after if she did.

So this time a very young tooth fairy,  Domino, had to explain how busy they all were collecting teeth and, as much as she would love to, couldn’t possibly come and live with us.

Still, it was worth it to see Amber’s face each morning when she read the tiny small letters I had painstakingly written out the night before, and hear her telling anybody who’d listen about Titania and Domino. 🙂


Despite it being sub-zero temperatures outside, my two girls are running around inside in swimming costumes, swimming hats and swimming goggles, screaming hysterically.

Millie has just gotten a new pair of goggles through the post and both of them have gone completely off the deep end about them.  It’s one of those great parental moments when, watching them getting hysterically worked up and looking ridiculous, you can’t help but smile.


I read the girls their bedtime stories last night – the first time I’ve done that for an embarrassingly long time (I also started writing this year’s Christmas story, but that’s another, er, story…)

The Lovely Melanie was attending the first “executive meeting” of her new part-time job, which is helping our friend Liz with her new business, Zinnia Community Enterprise.  She’s helping with the research and administration (which, she told me) she really enjoys.

The venue for this important executive meeting?  New Cross’s very own Trump Towerthe Albert. 😉

But never mind that, it was storytime I wanted to discuss, not social enterprise.

It’s been far too long since I did storytime for the girls; partly because I do the morning shift looking after the girls, but also Millie now enjoys longer books, e.g., Harry Potter or the Famous Five.  The Lovely Melanie has been keen to read these with her from start to finish, rather than us taking turns, so I seldom get a look in.

Which doesn’t usually bother me, if I’m brutally honest.  But perhaps it should.

Previously, storytime was often a bit of a chore – 30-40 minutes to be gotten through at the dog-end of the day, often the same books over and over again, when all I really wanted was some dinner and to relax in front of the news.

Yeah, I know, bad parent.

But sitting with both girls on my lap, I realised that in just a few short years they’ll no longer want to sit on my lap.  Both of them will grow up and this time with them will be gone, never to return.

Hardly rocket science, sure, but down in the parenting trenches it’s easy to lose sight of this simple truth.

Last night it was refreshing to sit down with each girl for 25 minutes and read with them, doing the character voices and putting some dramatic effects in there (I’ve always thought I could have been a very good actor, but I never got picked for speaking parts in school plays).  Amber objected to the voices, claiming Mummy doesn’t do voices, but I overruled her – this is Daddy Storytime!

PrincessBrideAnd Millie is reading the wonderful The Princess Bride by William Goldman – a new book for both of us (although, I’m a big fan of the film).  It’s at the cutting edge of her literary abilities, but with a minimum of judicious real-time editing we could both enjoy it.

And that was the point of this entry, really: the fact that I really enjoyed reading to my girls last night – watching them listen and be amazed by the power of fiction, of imagination.

I can see why the Lovely Melanie has been hogging storytime. 😛

But the icing on the cake came upon being told that both girls had been very excited about Daddy doing storytime for a change.

It’s always nice to be wanted and appreciated, and all too easy to forget (again, when you’re down and dirty in the parenting trenches) that children are nowhere near as cynical as we might think.

Indeed, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they’re children, a rather different – but rather wonderful – species of being. 🙂

More thoughts on parenting

When you’re a small child, childhood goes on forever.  Similarly, when you’re a parent the initial stages of childhood feel like they’re going to last forever – particularly when you’re up at 4am for the third night in a row mopping up sick.

But the experience of parenting has fundamentally altered my understanding of the world, and, patronising though it may sound to non-parents, I’ve come to believe that a life lived without children is all the poorer for that. No matter what you try to fill it with, you’ve missed a fundamental aspect of human experience.

Of course, I would say that: marathon runners probably say the same about running marathons, but obviously they’re mad; whereas I’m sane, completely unbiased, and very unfit. 😉

Make no mistake though, having children has completely disrupted everything I had before, everything I thought I knew and valued – everything I thought I was, even.  The ongoing challenge is that children are always changing, growing, becoming something else – and you have to adapt alongside them.

Think you understand your children? Think you’ve got their measure?  Think again, buddy!

Children grow and they grow and they grow into…well, who knows?  Astronauts?  Writers?  Musicians?  Explorers?  Scientists?  Inventors?  See, that’s the big difference between pets and children: animals stop growing and changing very quickly, reaching their limits and becoming predictable (within certain limits).

Don’t get me wrong – I like animals a lot, but the most amazing cat or dog in the world is never once going to surprise you the way that a child can every day.

I think that’s basically what I wanted to say here: kids will stretch you, mentally and physically, like nothing else.  And mostly in a good way, too.

Oh, and you know what?  It’ll also make you appreciate your own parents that much more, especially if they did as good a job as mine did! 🙂

Letting bygones be bygones

One of the things I love about children is that they don’t hold grudges.

They might sometimes be petty and unthinking and prone to dramatic outbursts, but they make up just as quickly as they break up.

This morning, for example, Amber had a massive benny because I asked her to take a cardigan with her to nursery.  She didn’t have to wear it now and could hang it on her peg as soon as we got to nursery, but I wanted her to take a cardigan just in case it got cooler later.

Cue massive benny.  She carried on like this all the way to nursery, sitting behind myself and Millie all the time we were on the bus, glowering at us from narrowed eyes.  That’s quite a long time if you’re a four-year-old, trust me.

But two minutes later, she and Millie were doing the usual walking on the wall, falling off into my arms, and I got a big kiss as I dropped her off as though nothing had happened.

I rather like this way of letting bygones be bygones.  I wish adults could do it as effortlessly as children do.