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. 🙂

What if they laugh…?

Following a school visit from poet Rachel Rooney, Millie has become interested in writing poetry. She’s always had a bit of a poetic bent, being published in a poetry anthology back in 2012, but this visit from a bona fide poet inspired her to put pen to paper again.

OMarvellous Millie's Perfect Poemr rather, finger to keyboard: her poems are composed and illustrated in PowerPoint, and each is a re-telling of a fairy story.

As an English post-grad and writer myself this is just too perfect! So I’ve been there in the room with her as she wrote them, trying to advise and suggest without telling her what to do.

For example: a poem isn’t just a story that rhymes. Yes, rhyming can be quite a large part of poetry, but it’s not a normal prose story, with added line breaks and rhymes. Poetry means you can chop and change the story, use unusual words – or try out usual words in unusual ways.

Some of this advice was heeded, and we now have a seven page epic poem telling the story of Sleeping Beauty, as well as the opening stanzas of Rapunzel. It’s not exactly Beowulf, but it’s not bad, and I’m so glad to see her trying to do this – creating something, having a bit of faith in her abilities and enjoying writing so much (she spent a good two hours of her own time on Sleeping Beauty).

However, when I suggested printing out Sleeping Beauty, taking it to school and showing her teacher she stopped.

“But what if my friends laugh at it?” she asked.

Oh, boy, I thought, serious, inspirational Dad talk coming up.

“Why would they laugh, love? You should be proud of what you’ve written. Your friends – your real friends – won’t laugh. Friends are supposed to help and support you, not laugh or make you feel bad.

“And your teacher will be so pleased to see you’re listening and interested in what she’s saying. I’m sure Rachel Rooney would be excited, too, knowing she’s inspired someone else.”

Yesterday Millie came out of school with a big smile on her face, “My teacher read my poem out to the class – she said it was really good!”

“And did your friends like it, too?” I asked.

“They couldn’t believe I had written it!” she grinned.

And I gave her a big proud hug.


Sleeping Beauty

by Millie H. Carter, aged 10

Once upon a time there was a king and queen,
Whose love for each other had always been,
But they were not happy,
For they wanted a child,
To make them smile.
So when they finally had one,
It wasn’t a son,
It was the daughter they wished for!

So they opened their doors,
So the child could be seen
By people who were keen
And came from far and wide.
And so they made up their mind,
To always be kind,
And to call their daughter Aurora,
So they held a christening for her…

But at the christening,
An unwanted guest appeared.
And nastily she sneered,
“Your daughter is doomed
For she will live to 18
And then her finger shall prick and she will die!”
“In a coffin she shall lie!”
And with that she disappeared.

But a good fairy,
(whose name was Mary)
Came to the rescue.
She chanted a spell,
To save the princess from hell,
But prick her finger and sleep years in a bed,
With a pillow beneath her head.
Until her true love,
( who would be as sweet as a dove )
Would wake her up,
With true love’s kiss.

Aurora thought she was happy and safe,
Unaware of her dreadful fate.
But just in case,
The good fairy,
(whose name was Mary)
Took her to a safe house
Where she made friends with a mouse.
But when Aurora was 18,
And loved to preen,
The good fairy,
(whose name was Mary)
Took her back to her real home,
Where she stood in her bedroom alone,

She found a tunnel and down she went
Even though she wasn’t meant
And she met a woman who told her to sit
On a stool next her
With a spinning wheel

“But papa says not to talk to a stranger
He says it could mean danger”
“You think an old woman could hurt you?”
“Come you can try my spinning needle.”
So Aurora chose not to heed,
Her fathers warning,
Though she had great need.
And she pricked her finger,
The woman did not linger,
But away she ran.
And later Aurora was found,
And laid to sleep on a soft feather bed,
With a pillow beneath her head.

So for many year she slept,
And many people wept.
For the princess was gone,
And for 100 years long.

Along came a handsome prince,
He had heard of the legend,
Of a princess who slept,
On a feather bed,
With a pillow beneath her head,
And decided he would rescue her.

So he cut through the vines,
With his sword so very fine,
And when he got to the castle,
He found the princess,
that slept on a feather bed,
With a pillow beneath her head,
And gave her a kiss,
Which couldn’t go amiss.

The princess awoke
In the hands of…
The handsome prince!
Shortly after they got married and
They lived happily ever after
(Apart from the wicked witch
Who was ditched)

In the woods

As a man who grew up in a house full of boys I’m not the best judge of how “girly” my two daughters are.

On the one hand my eldest, Millie (8) loves cuddly toys so much that we’ve had to ration them; while her sister, Amber (6) has a similar make-up fixation that has led to us actually hiding most of the cosmetics in the house.  They both enjoy dressing up and watching Barbie cartoons (most of which aren’t very good, although, Barbie: Life In The Dreamhouse has a knowing satirical edge that makes it surprisingly watchable even for male grownups).

I’ve done my best not to judge their predilections, while at the same time trying to introduce the idea that there’s no real differences between what girls like and what boys like.  As a result, Millie likes Star Wars and Doctor Who, they both enjoy playing video games such as Lego Marvel Superheroes, and their favourite colours are no longer pink (sadly, I’m slowly losing the battle against One Direction on the music front, but they do at least hear different genres and styles of music when at home).

But what’s most reassuring are the times when we’re out and about seeing a bit of Nature.

Yesterday we went to Joydens Wood again for the day, just wandering about, exploring, and playing.  The girls ran off through the trees throwing pine cones at each other and making up their own crazy games; they both found sticks that looked like swords and were battling against witches and, er, more witches.

Basically, they weren’t “girly” at all, which was, as I say, reassuring, because it shows that they can be physical and “boyish” when given the opportunity.  They were poking at ants’ nests, screaming with delight on swings, swiping at nettles with their swords, pretending to be knights, all without a thought for getting grubby or falling over.

And I nodded my head as I watched, thinking, “Yeah, we’re not doing too bad as parents.” 🙂

Evening Question Time


“Dids”, you may recall, is what my children call me instead of “Dad”, because that would be too easy; so “Dids” it is, to the confusion of everyone outside of our immediate family…

Where was I?  Ah, yes: pretending to be Millie.  So, it’s late evening and she’s stood just outside my bedroom door while I’m playing Kingdom Rush: Frontiers and listening to Cavern of Anti-Matter.


ME: Yes?

Weasel. Not angry or in a sack.

MILLIE: What’s an angry weasel?

There is a short pause.

ME: Millie, it’s quarter past nine at night, why on earth do you want to know what an “angry weasel” is?

All the while thinking: please don’t let it be a sex thing please don’t let it be a sex thing…

MILLIE: I read it in my book earlier and I forgot to ask you then.

We pull up some pictures of weasels on the computer.

ME: That’s a weasel.  It has sharp teeth but is smaller than a cat.

MILLIE: If you were in a sack with one what would happen?

There is another short pause.

ME: In a…?  What??

MILLIE: If you were in a sack with an angry weasel, what would happen?

ME: Well, I… It wouldn’t kill you, but it wouldn’t be much fun.

MILLIE: OK.  ‘Night.

There are times when I feel like a one-man Google in this house.

Moths and spiders

Poor Millie, she does get worked up about things sometimes.

Just the other night the Lovely Melanie was putting both girls to bed while I was downstairs making dinner.  There came an exasperated cry from above, “Stu!  Can you come up here, please!”

Bounding up the stairs I found Millie in tears while an impatient Lovely Melanie tried to do some jobs.

“Can you sort Millie out, please.  She’s making a fuss about spiders.”

We have spiders in our house – who doesn’t?  They’re mostly minding their own business on the ceiling, but sometimes pop up elsewhere (Amber woke up next to one on her pillow recently – not one of the small ones either!)

Millie, bless her, has a remarkable gift for working herself into a panic about such things; particularly at bedtime.  She is genuinely scared of spiders (and moths) but this particular pair were outside her room and had been there for days.

Usually I’m pretty flippant about such things – “There’s a spider!”  “And?” – in the hope of setting an example that we’re not bothered by them, but sometime you have to be a bit more sympathetic.

I’m her dad, the person she trusts when anything goes wrong or things get scary.  You can always rely upon your dad – that’s the lesson I learned when I was little.

Sitting down on the bed I gave her a hug and looked into those tearful brown eyes.

“Lays, those spiders aren’t even in your room, love.”

“But I d-don’t like them.”

“OK, listen to me,” I began, quietly; “I know you don’t like them – I don’t particularly like them – but they’re not going to hurt you, I promise.

“I’m your dad, if I thought there was the slightest chance a spider would hurt you or Amber there wouldn’t be a single one left in this house.  But those old spiders have been sitting up there minding their own business for days now; they’re not interested in you or your bed or your toys, they’re interested in the flies that come buzzing in the house, that do come in your room and fly about getting germs on your stuff.

“The spiders are helping us by catching those flies, and all they want is to be left alone to do that.

“If you really want me to get rid of any spiders hanging quietly out there not harming anyone I will, but then there’ll be nothing to stop flies coming in your room.

“So, what would you rather I did?”

A brave little smile appeared on her face and she said “Leave the spiders there.”

I smiled proudly, gave her a great big hug and tucked in all the blankets around her.

“Night-night, my love.”

It’s a fine feeling knowing someone trusts you and everything you say absolutely: but it makes you want to be better – to be the very best dad you can possibly be.

I am just (not) doing it

love having to continually nag children to do things – it’s easily my most favouritest thing in the whole world. 😦

particularly enjoy doing it when the child in question is already doing what she was asked, dilligently following my instructions the moment they’re given.

This morning, for example, I asked Millie to get dressed.  Obviously she got dressed immediately.


In reality, she didn’t reply, so I asked her again.

“Unh!  I’m just doing it!  Stop nagging!” she protested, from her bed.

“But you’re not,” I pointed out.  “You’re naked, in bed, not moving.”

“Well, you don’t need to keep going on about it!”

“Well, apparently, I do, because you’re not doing it.”

“I am!” she shouted from the floor, where she was now crawling along like a particularly slow snail.

And this sort of thing is repeated throughout the morning.

“Millie, come and clean your teeth, please, love.”


(Time passes. I clean Amber’s teeth.)

“Millie!  Come and clean your teeth, please!

“I am!”

“In what sense is you am?”

“I! Am! Coming!  Stop shouting!”

“You’re the only one shouting.  I’m asking you to come to the bathroom and clean your teeth for the third time.”

“I! AM!”

“No, you am not.  If you were I’d be cleaning your teeth.  You are not in the bathroom and I am not cleaning your teeth.”

“Yes, I am!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, are you invisible, then?  How silly of me.  Amb, Millie has turned invisible – isn’t that clever?”

“I am not invisible!  I am just coming!”

(Time passes)

“Come on, Amb, let’s go downstairs and get our shoes and coats on.”

(We go downstairs)

Millie shouts from upstairs, “I am in the bathroom and you can’t even be bothered to be there!  Probably you don’t even care!”

I sigh.  A lot.

Victorian Dad

Sometimes you need someone to nudge your behaviour before you realise that maybe – maybe – it’s not as good as it might be.

Last night was a case in point. I arrived home from work to hear Amber wailing upstairs and a stressed Lovely Melanie trying to teach Millie about tens and units in the dining room.

I’m trying to teach Millie some difficult stuff that even I don’t properly understand,” she said to me. “Can you go and sort Amber out, please? She’s been doing that for ten minutes now.

I’ll go and have a shout at her,” I said, assuming she’d been naughty.

No, don’t shout at her, she’s been saying she doesn’t want to go to school tomorrow because they didn’t give her enough time to eat her lunch today. Millie had the same trouble when she started, remember?

I did my “heavy walk” up the stairs, the one which tells the girls “I Am Approaching! And I Am Full Of Wrath! Beware!”

But by the time I reached the top step I was chastened: why on earth was I going to yell at an unhappy little girl?  My unhappy little girl!  Surely there were better ways to deal with this than by shouting?  Good grief, is this what I’ve become – some kind of horrible Victorian father? 😦

I say down with Amber, gave her a cuddle and wiped her eyes. For the next ten minutes I patiently explained that there was nothing to be frightened of at school; that, yes, it was a bit new and strange, and it might even be hard sometimes, but all her teachers were there to help.

Within two minutes she’d stopped crying; after five she was laughing.

That wasn’t so hard.

The hard bit – as always – was remembering that she’s only four, and that ten minutes of love and patience is worth any amount of anger and shouting.