Once upon a time, there was a little chap called Paul who loved books.
The pudgy-faced young lad, with his tufty blonde hair, would carry a new Mr Men book in his chubby hands for a whole day before allowing someone to read it to him.
As he grew older, slightly less tubby and slightly less blonde, the lad discovered Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Michael Bond’s Paddington books, Norman Hunter’s Professor Brainstawm stories, then progressed to adventures with the Hardy Boys and Swallows and Amazons, and mysteries with Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators.
That fiction-loving young whippersnapper was, of course, me, and, since my teens or possibly even earlier, I’ve wanted to write my own books for children. My fondness for my own childhood favourites has never gone away, and these days I read them to my own children. My daughter has just peered over my shoulder to see what I’m writing, having just enjoyed a chapter of Paddington Helps Out.
I wrote my first children’s book – Splot (a story about an alien who crash-lands in a garden pond) -as an assignment for my English language A Level, and revived it for a publishing assignment as part of my degree. I still have copies of it, and for several years have planned to re-work it.
Other stories have languished somewhere either in the back of my mind, partly sketched out in a notepad somewhere or lurking on my laptop, or long forgotten in a drawer or a box, and it occurred to me last week that I’d given up too easily on my ambition. I’ve entered some competitions, got nowhere, and admitted defeat.
Although all my jobs since I left college have involved writing and publishing to some extent, they haven’t allowed me to make things up using what my teacher at infant school called my ‘vivid imagination’.
I do, however, enjoy the freedom of writing this blog. Sometimes the story is sad, sometimes funny, but it’s my story, and I’m telling it my way.
So the former pudgy-faced, tufty-haired youngster, now bald, 37 and a father of two, sat up in bed one night and thought: “I know what – I’ll dig out a story I’ve written for children, and post it on this blog so that other people can read it to their children.” And that’s exactly what he did.
This is a short story I wrote fairly recently about a monkey toddler who has an unexpected adventure on the way to the banana shop. Tell me what you think, and, more importantly, what your children think.
Scampy Monk and the Bus Full of Babbits
It was the middle of a morning in May and Scampy Monk was bouncing on his bed, bellowing for bananas.
“Bla bla!” he shouted. “Bla bla!”
“A banana?” replied Mumsy Monk. “But you’ve eaten them all! We’ll have to go to the shop.”
Scampy Monk bounced with a big boing off his bed, bumped down the stairs on his bottom and gave his mum a big hug. “Bla bla,” he said, with a cheeky grin on his little monkey face.
He grabbed his yellow bus, put on his blue shoes and stood by the door of Monkey Treehouse.
“Bla bla,” he said again.
Five minutes later, Mumsy Monk, Dadsy Monk and Scampy Monk were swinging down the tree trunk and on their way to the banana shop.
Scampy Monk went bounding down the lane, busily brumming his bus.
He stopped, as he always did, by the broken bench, where he liked to peek at the sheep through the old, wooden fence.
“Zeep!” he said, pointing happily.
“Yes, a sheep,” said Dadsy Monk.
“Two zeep!” said Scampy Monk.
“That’s right, two sheep! Good counting!” said Dadsy Monk.
“Babbits!” squealed Scampy Monk suddenly. “Two babbits! More babbits!”
“Ooh yes, lots of rabbits,” said Mumsy Monk.
“Babbits go lellow bus?” asked Scampy Monk.
“I’m sure the rabbits would love a ride in your bus,” said Mumsy Monk, “but I think they’re a bit big. Let’s go and get you a banana.”
Scampy Monk called out “Bye bye, zeep! Bye bye, babbits!” and with a friendly wave he was off, carrying his yellow bus above his head as if it could fly.
They were just down the road from the banana shop when they heard the loud but cheerful “BEEP BEEP!” of a horn behind them.
As they turned round, Scampy Monk was surprised but thrilled to see a big, yellow bus.
“Lellow bus!” he cried in delight.
“That driver,” said Dadsy Monk, “looks just like a sheep.”
“It is a sheep!” gasped Mumsy Monk. “But sheep can’t drive buses!”
“Zeep!” squeaked Scampy Monk, bouncing with excitement.
The sheepy driver was not the only strange thing about the bus. Scampy Monk noticed something funny about the passengers too.
“Babbits!” he shrieked. “Babbits on lellow bus!”
All the passengers were rabbits. Some were brown, some were grey, some were black and some were white. Some were a mixture of colours. Some were chatting to each other. Some were playing games. Some were looking out of the window. Quite a lot of them were eating carrot crisps, and one or two were having a nap.
The sheepy driver leaned out of the open window.
“Would you like to join us?” she asked.
Scampy Monk had jumped onto the bus before his mum and dad could answer, so they followed him.
“Seatbelts on!” called the driver.
Everyone quickly fastened their seatbelts. Scampy Monk was extremely excited, especially when he heard the bus engine start.
He had a huge surprise when he looked out of the window.
“Bus flying!” he cheered.
“Oh!” said Dadsy Monk. “I wasn’t expecting that!”
Scampy Monk was amazed to see clouds drifting past the window as the bus flew higher and higher, and the sheep and rabbits he had seen in the field below got smaller and smaller. An owl looked in through the window and hooted.
The rabbits on the bus chattered loudly. Scampy Monk turned round and waved at them.
“Hello babbits!” he said.
The rabbits waved back and made rabbity noises.
“Hold on tight!” bleated the bus driver. “We’re going up!”
The bus engine made a loud, grumbling, rumbling sound – more like an aeroplane, or even a rocket, than a bus.
Then WHOOSH! The bus went zooming straight up through the clouds.
“Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” squeaked Scampy Monk.
For a few moments, the monkey family and the rabbits were in clear, blue sky, looking down on a bed of snowy white clouds. Then the sky became dark.
“Time for bed?” asked Scampy Monk.
“No, sweet pea,” said Mumsy Monk. “I think we’re in space.” And they were.
As they left Earth, looking like a green and blue bouncy ball far below them, Scampy Monk spotted something ahead of them that made his eyes goggle.
It was the Moon, and it looked just like a…
“Bla bla!” whooped Scampy Monk. “Big bla bla!”
“That’s not a banana, dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “It’s the Moon. It does look like a banana though, doesn’t it?”
“Moooooooon,” said Scampy Monk. He sat up as high as he could in his seat to get a better view.
“I wasn’t expecting this either,” said Dadsy Monk.
As the bus got closer and closer to the Moon, it slowed down. Slower and slower it crept, until it had pulled up next to the Moon.
“Everybody off!” called the driver.
Scampy Monk bounced up and down on his seat, waiting to walk on the Moon.
The sheep driver gave each passenger a space helmet to wear as they got off the yellow bus. Scampy Monk felt like his little head was in a great big bubble – but it was fun.
There were some steps on the banana-shaped Moon, which everyone climbed to the top. The sheep led the way, and handed out slippery mats. It was a giant slide! Scampy Monk watched the rabbits whizzing down.
“Me! Me!” he yelled, tugging on Mumsy and Dadsy Monk’s arm.
“Let’s all go together!” said Dadsy Monk, who was nearly as excited as his son.
Scampy Monk sat at the front of the mat, holding on to Mumsy Monk’s legs. Dadsy Monk, who had the longest legs, sat at the back.
“Are you ready?” asked the sheep.
“Yes!” shouted all three monkeys at the same time.
The sheep gave them a gentle push, and they were off, speeding down the steep slope.
“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!” cried Scampy Monk, loving the ride.
When they got to the bottom, the three monkeys rolled off their mat onto a big, flat rock, laughing merrily.
“Again!” said Scampy Monk, straight away. “Again!”
They went on the slide another ten times, going faster each time.
“BEEP BEEP!” The sheep was sounding the horn.
“Everybody back on the bus please!” she called, as she drove the bus round to the end of the slide. “One last ride!”
Scampy Monk, Mumsy Monk and Dadsy Monk took their slippery mat to the top of the slide for the last time and went zipping down to the bottom, flying through the open bus door. The sheep took their space helmets and the rabbits all got on board.
“Off we go!” shouted the sheep, turning the bus round and driving off into space.
“Bye bye, Moon,” said Scampy Monk, waving as the Moon got smaller and smaller.
“Ball!” he chattered, looking at the Earth.
“No dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “That’s the Earth. That’s where we live.”
Soon the sky was blue again and Scampy Monk could see the clouds, then the fields and the trees.
“I wasn’t expecting any of that,” said Dadsy Monk, as the bus landed at the bus stop.
The bus door opened and the sheep stood up.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said, smiling. “I hope you enjoyed your trip.”
The passengers unfastened their seatbelts and, one by one, walked to the front of the bus and thanked the driver.
“Bye bye, zeep,” said Scampy Monk, hopping down the bus step. “Bye bye, babbits!”
“I bet you weren’t expecting that,” said the sheep to Dadsy Monk, with a wink.
Once everyone was off the bus, the driver closed the door, and with a wave of her hoof she was off down the lane.
“Right,” said Mumsy Monk. “What shall we do now?”
“Bla bla!” chirped Scampy Monk, with a big grin.
“Good idea,” said Dadsy Monk. “I’m a bit hungry after all that sliding.”
If you’ve been missing extreme sports like ski cross, slopestyle and snowboard halfpipe since the Winter Olympics finished, here’s something you might enjoy.
These ten new sports – yet to be formally approved by the Olympic Committee but it’s surely only a matter of time – are well established on the children’s extreme sports scene, but have not hit the mainstream until now.
Could your toddler win gold? Is your baby a future Olympian? Is your five-year-old on the way to sporting greatness? Find out with this guide to ten new events that will have you on the edge of your seat.
There are medals in several categories of food splatting, awarded for distance, coverage (of people, carpet, walls and furniture) and quality of mess created (is the resultant staining beyond the capability of all good stain removers?).
A favourite among younger competitors, this event pits infants against each other in a bid to keep a judging panel awake for as many hours as possible. The judges will be looking for a combination of extended periods of awakeness and shorter bursts of sleep interruption. The first child to cause a judge to sob, scream or collapse is the winner.
An extremely popular event, which is likely to prove highly competitive. Contestants will be judged on the volume of tears and wailing, the duration and persistence of the tantrum, and on physical manoeuvres such as the face-first lunge onto a bed, chair or floor. Bonus points are awarded to the child whose tantrum is most irrational.
This fiercely fought sport sees children begging, harassing, haggling and haranguing for a range of items, starting at worthless plastic tat and working up through ‘Stuff seen in advert breaks on telly’ to something completely unattainable, like a fairy castle. Attempts to ban ‘puppy dog eyes’ have proved futile.
Another multi-disciplinary event, in which children must devise cunning ways of delaying bedtime, going to school, leaving playgrounds and finishing meals.
Inappropriate talk of poo
Children love to talk, joke and sing about poo, and it’s never more entertaining than when discussed in an inappropriate setting (a café, for example) or with the wrong people. In this event, kids score points for embarrassing their parents and upsetting guests and bystanders with loud, graphic and inventive descriptions of – and/or songs about – poo.
Doing a runner
A sport that requires daring and stamina. Competitors have to run as far away as they can when called by a parent, and can win extra points by dashing out of doors into a dangerous environment, like a busy main road.
It’s extreme, it’s perilous and it’s one of the most celebrated of children’s sports. Olympic wee dancing glory awaits the contender who can jig, wiggle and hop most frenziedly without actually wetting themselves.
The kids who make it onto the Olympic podium in this sport will be those who can most convincingly and consistently deny having heard a clear instruction.
Gangnam Style dancing
Children are now born knowing Gangnam Style, and get frequent opportunities to perfect their dance techniques at parties and school discos. The winners will be those who show greatest enthusiasm, have the reddest and sweatiest faces, and deliver the loudest cry of ‘Heeeeeey, sexy lady’.
In more than eight years of parenting, one thing has baffled me more than anything else – the wee dance.
This curious phenomenon seems to exist primarily among small boys, who seem to be in permanent denial about needing a wee.
Wee dancers perform their high-energy jig in the moments when they are most desperate for the toilet. Rather than making the logical decision to go to the toilet, they push that urge to the backs of their minds and go jumping and leaping.
The wee dance is a tell-tale sign that the child needs to get to the loo, and quickly. Parents need to recognise this as soon as possible to avoid potentially dire consequences.
Early warning signs include an inability to sit still and even greater distraction than usual. Given that small boys rarely sit still and can get distracted by anything from the TV to a breath of air or speck of dust, these can be difficult to detect. Extra grouchiness is another sign but again this is not unusual in small boys, who are prone to irrational outbursts at the best of times.
So why perform a wee dance?
I was a small boy once but even so I cannot get inside the mind of the wee dancer. I don’t know if I did the wee dance myself but it is entirely possible. What I can see, though, is that for children, going to the toilet is boring and everything else is far more exciting and crucial, no matter how full their bladders are.
The wee dance seems to be the final stage of wee denial – a way of expressing pent-up wee desperation and postponing a toilet trip for a few more seconds. Wee dancers even convince themselves they don’t need to go.
Often the only way to stop the wee dance is to take the child to the toilet yourself. Even under direct interrogation, wee dancers deny needing a wee until they cannot stand it any more.
A typical conversation with a wee dancer goes as follows:
Parent: Do you need the toilet?
Wee dancer (through clenched teeth): No.
Parent: Are you sure you don’t need a wee?
Wee dancer (frowning): Yes.
Parent: Are you totally sure?
Wee dancer: I really need a wee!
There then follows a ludicrous sprint to the loo. The dance is not over, however. My five-year-old wee dancer will dance in front of the toilet, jigging so frenetically he is unable to lift the seat or pull his pants down.
The helpless parent just has to hope that the wee itself can be unleashed accurately into the bowl with minimal impact on clothing, the floor or the walls.
Wee dancers live life on the edge. Not for them, this boring ‘I need the toilet so I will go now’ logic. No, they will face great discomfort and peril to keep dancing. And why not? After all, it’s their hapless mums and dads who have to deal with the consequences.
If you’ve had depression, it’s hard to shake the nagging, niggling feeling that it might come back. Every bad mood, every negative thought, feels like it could be a way for this evil force to return. To help me fight the fear I’ve recruited a very wise consultant – Yoda (see my photo below).
Yoda is a tiny green chap with funny ears. He’s more than 900 years old and lives in a swamp. But his strange and underwhelming appearance is deceptive – he’s extremely powerful, with incredible knowledge and power.
OK, I know, he’s just a character from the Star Wars movies, but when it comes to understanding fear and the Dark Side of the Force (a perfect metaphor for depression) he’s well worth listening to.
Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.
He is absolutely right. The fear of depression at stressful times is the first step down a path to its return. That fear can make you tense and angry. And anger is a very destructive force that leads to suffering for you and others. Even the name of the film this quote comes from – The Phantom Menace – seems to describe depression and its stealthy, shadowy presence.
He also knows what it feels like when depression does strike.
Hmmm. The Dark Side clouds everything. Impossible to see, the future is.
Yes, Yoda. You’re right again. Depression possesses your thoughts, switches off your memory and clarity of thought, and makes you doubt and fear everything. I certainly don’t want to go back to that. Ever.
Yoda clearly knows his stuff, so I am going to listen to him.
Do, or do not. There is no try.
OK, Yoda, I’m with you.
Patience you must have.
You’re right again. It’s difficult though, isn’t it?
You must unlearn what you have learned.
True. I learned in my counselling to unlearn what I’d learned – to unravel the way I’d come to think of myself and my life and start again.
Always pass on what you have learned.
Yep, that’s what I’m doing. I hope it helps.
If you liked this post you might also like:
- Stress, depression and Star Wars (Sept 2011)
- A match for the Dark Side (Feb 2012)
- The shadowy power of depression (April 2013)
“Having children will change your life,” people told me before I became a dad.
It was hard to appreciate exactly what they meant until it happened, but the other day a train went past as I was walking into town and I had a barely controllable urge to point at it and shout “Look! Train!”
Having children makes you see the world through different eyes. Fatherhood has given me – a born worrier at the best of times – new things to worry about (I’ve never driven so carefully as the day I drove home with my baby daughter in the back of the car), but also magical moments to savour and celebrate. There’s something uniquely wonderful about sharing your child’s little achievements, like taking their first steps, counting to five for the first time, learning to read…
Here are five small examples of how life is never the same once you’re a parent:
You get excited about vehicles – and might even wave at them
Young children – especially little boys – love vehicles, especially trains, tractors and diggers. These modes of transport may not excite you personally, but once you get in the habit of pointing them out, it’s difficult to stop, even if you’re on your own.
The ultimate vehicular excitement is if someone in that vehicle – it could be a passing boat or train – waves at your child or, if it’s a car, honks their horn. My kids watched cars passing under a bridge when we were out on a walk, and when one of the drivers saw them and honked his horn, they squealed with delight. It’s hard not to share that thrill.
You become obsessed with poo and wee
Your children will, at some stage, develop a fascination with poo and wee. They will probably make up songs about them. Poo and wee are hilarious. Fact.
They’re not the only ones who are obsessed with poo and wee, though. You probably reach the obsessive stage before they do, and you’ll soon find yourselves discussing what was in your child’s nappy – “It looked like chicken korma!” – or how many times they’ve used their potty. You won’t just discuss it between yourselves; you’ll chat in detail about poo and wee with other parents, or even non-parents, quite possibly while eating tea.
You’ll develop an in-built toilet tracker
You’re planning a trip out. What is the single most important thing you need to know if you have young children? Where the toilets are. Because the poo and wee obsession carries over into a very practical need to know the location of every toilet in the vicinity.
At some point in your outing, you will hear the alarming phrase “Daddy, I really need a wee!” and your toilet-locating reflex will kick in. You will never hear a child say “I think I will need a wee in ten minutes so I’m just warning you”. The need for the toilet will be a full-on, red-alert emergency and the bit of your brain that says “Marks and Spencer, top of the escalator, turn right” is all that can save you from disaster.
You will have to sing in front of people
Children like learning songs and, until they become painfully self-conscious, will enjoy performing their songs to you. You don’t get away with just listening, though. You will often be required to sing songs to them, either for their amusement or so they can learn the words.
There is no humiliation filter, though. They will inevitably want you to sing in front of other people. I had to perform “We represent the Lollipop Guild” in the style of Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz in front of two friends from work. They’d only popped in for a coffee.
You will become soppy
The way you love your children will change you forever. It has made me become a soppy fool. I suddenly see everyone as someone’s child, who needs love and encouragement.
I’d never cried at a film or TV programme before I had children (except ET when I was six). Recently, I’ve cried at two episodes of The Ghost Whisperer, and I even get a lump in my throat watching wildlife documentaries. Why are there always baby elephants getting lost and looking for their mum and dad?
And now for something completely different – a comedy sketch about a man who goes to work dressed as characters from the Famous Five.
About five years ago, before depression waded into my life, I wrote a number of comedy sketches, as did my brother, Neil, and our friend, Paul. We wanted to create our own sketch show and it was going quite well until we realised it needed someone to fund it and make it – then it fizzled out swiftly and rather limply.
My sketches tended to be very silly and often surreal, inspired by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Little Britain. I found some of them recently and thought I’d share one of them with you. You know, for a laugh.
This sketch begins in a news room with anchor man Maxi Dandy, whose nightly show is called ‘Good Evening with Maxi Dandy’. Take it away, Maxi.
Maxi Dandy: Good evening. In tonight’s programme, we visit Dorset, where the actions of a local office worker have led to heated discussion about diversity and employee rights. Julian Blyton has been going to work dressed as a different member of the Famous Five each day of the week. Ivor Johnson reports.
Cut to Ivor Johnson, who is standing in a bland office setting, wearing a leather jacket, shirt and tie, and holding a hand-held microphone.
Ivor: Meet forty-nine-year-old Julian Blyton. He is just like any other office worker, except for one striking difference. Every day of the working week, he dresses up as a different character from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.
The camera draws back to reveal Julian Blyton sitting opposite Ivor on the corner of a desk, dressed as nine-year-old Anne from the Famous Five.
Ivor: Julian, tell me how this began.
Julian (very deadpan, without a trace of humour): Well I suppose I have always been a Famous Five enthusiast. It may be down to my having the same surname as the author and also the same Christian name as the eldest character, Julian. Which is quite a coincidence.
Ivor: And have you always dressed in this way… as one of the Famous Five?
Julian: I tried it at school once, but the headmaster did not like it. He did not show much concern when I went into school as Julian, but took exception when I attended assembly as Timothy the Dog. He sent me home and told me to wear the proper school uniform. I am fortunate that my current employer is more considerate of my needs. He really is a brick.
Cut to Brian, Julian’s boss.
Brian: Yes, I admit it is a curious lifestyle but as long as Julian does his job well, I am happy for him to dress how he sees fit. To be fair, I do ask him to do office-based tasks on the days he wishes to dress as Timothy, as I feel our clients might not quite understand.
Ivor: I spoke to some of Julian’s colleagues to see what they really thought of his behaviour.
Cut to a series of people talking directly to camera.
Woman in her 40s: It’s quite a laugh really. I mean, he isn’t doing nobody no harm at the end of the day. I prefer him as Dick myself. He tends to be more humorous on Dick days.
Irate 35-year-old man: The whole thing is a bloody farce! This guy turns up dressed as a nine-year-old girl or whatever and we’re meant to take him seriously and let him get on with it. Last week, right, he went missing for THREE HOURS and when he came back he said he’d found a secret passageway behind the photocopier and had been kidnapped by bloody smugglers!
Young woman: Well, live and let live, you know, but it is a bit confusing. Like, one day a week he comes in as George, right. I mean, George is a girl who wants to be a boy, so we’ve got this bloke, who’s a bloke, pretending to be a girl, who wants to be a boy. That is a bit confusing, for me.
Cleaner: I wish he wouldn’t do it myself. When he comes in here dressed as a flipping dog, you should see all the mess. You know, we had to have doggy bins installed, but sometimes he forgets his pooper scooper. It’s not right, is it?
Older man: On the days he’s Timothy, we have to make sure all the doors are closed, or else he goes off looking for rabbits to chase. It’s a bit much, really.
Cut to Ivor and Julian.
Ivor: So what is a typical day like for Julian?
Julian: Well obviously it depends which of the characters I am, but I like to start the day with a walk in the country and a bathe in the stream. Then I come to work, but lunch is the most important time of the day. Aunt Fanny does give me a wizard luncheon. There are always ripe, juicy tomatoes, a big, fresh ham from the farmer’s wife, lashings of ginger beer and a couple of her lovely sticky buns. Today, because I am Anne, I will spend much of the day tidying my desk, cooking, cleaning and washing, because that is what young girls should do.
Ivor: Don’t you find office life rather boring, you know, being a member of the Famous Five? Shouldn’t you be out having adventures?
Julian: My life is terribly exciting. You never know what might happen. Last night, I was on my way to the toilet when a ghost train came clanking by, which was most peculiar.
Ivor: A ghost train?
Julian: A ghost train, that is correct. It had two lights and it went very fast and made a clicking noise, and I thought “Ooooooh, how mysterious, a ghost train here in our office. Why, there are not usually trains here. What can be happening?” Anyway, it turned out to be the cleaning lady with her trolley, and I had to admit I had been the most awful fathead.
Ivor: I see. So what happens when you leave the office? Do you change back into plain old Julian Blyton?
Cut to Julian leaving the office and cycling home along country lanes, drinking ginger beer and shouting “Hallo!” to traditional English characters – the village bobby, postman, butcher, etc. He goes up a garden path to a quaint little cottage. A portly, ruddy-faced woman (Aunt Fanny) opens the door and moments later, the other characters from the Famous Five come charging out and run to the sea shore, where they climb into a pale blue wooden rowing boat. Julian runs with them, after flinging his bike into a bush.
Aunt Fanny (calling after them): Anne! Anne! Don’t forget you have a meeting with the new admin assistant tomorrow morning at half past nine! Oh, and I’ve put your Dick clothes out on the airer.
Julian: Oh thank you, Aunt Fanny. That’s jolly decent of you.
Cut to Ivor Johnson, who is looking behind the photocopier in Julian’s office.
Ivor: Golly – he’s right! (He disappears behind the photocopier).
If you enjoyed this sketch, let me know – there are plenty more where this came from.
If you didn’t, be kind ;)
Think of shaved heads and what comes to mind? Perhaps those well ‘ard Mitchell brothers from Eastenders. Maybe some skinhead fascists or football hooligans. Or, far removed from those stubble-scalped scallywags, you might think of a Buddhist monk, or perhaps a streamlined swimmer.
My shaved head is nothing to do with any of the above, nor is it a fashion statement. My bald bonce represents resignation – resignation to the fact that my hairline is receding ever further from my forehead; that it’s thinning on top; that I have a shiny, round bald patch.
Round the back and sides, my hair is still quite thick – and increasingly grey. It’s no good having thick hair just around the sides, really, is it? Left alone, it would grow into some kind of bouffant interpretation of a middle-aged mad professor, and I would be forced to wear a lab coat at all times.
Shaving my head is now, for me, the only alternative to this professor chic. I see other men in similar states of follicular depreciation trying to hide their plight. They might sport a wispy island of hair in the middle of their otherwise naked scalp. Worse still, an older gent in my situation might scrape a couple of longer strands of hair from the side of his head across the hair-free expanse on top, like some kind of flappy rope bridge across a bald canyon, prone to disastrous collapse at the merest suggestion of a gust of wind.
Prince William should take a leaf out of my book. Alan Shearer, the former England footballer turned pundit, has already done so. Well, he didn’t consult me directly on the matter, but I was clearly his inspiration. Wayne Rooney chose to go the other way, and good luck to him. There’s no better way to draw attention to your premature baldness than to get a high-profile hair transplant.
There are a lot of benefits to my hair(less) do. It’s the ultimate low-maintenance haircut, and because it’s almost idiot-proof to do it myself it’s far cheaper than anything requiring the services of a professional. I don’t need to spend ages choosing shampoo or carefully conditioning my luxuriant locks, and nor do I have to worry about the unwelcome attention of headlice.
The lack of hairstyling options as a bald chap means more time spent on choosing hats. Hats are a necessity these days, either to block out the sun (sunburn + bald head = nasty, painful mess) or keep out the cold. Even the smallest covering of hair seems to make all the difference on a chilly day. A cold blast of icy wind is enough to freeze your brains. Well, it feels like it anyway. The most extreme hat I own is what I call my Yak Hat, so called because it was made in Nepal and because it is very woolly. It has ear flaps (perhaps not stylish but certainly cosy and useful for shutting out the noise of bickering children) and, to lend it extra yakiness, it smelt of damp sheep when I got caught in a shower the day I bought it.
I sometimes wonder why I went bald at a youngish age – an eagle-eyed friend and hair obsessive spotted that my hairline was receding while I was still in the sixth form – and ponder over whether it might be some sort of hair karma; a kind of punishment for the terrible hairstyles I have had in the past.
I went through my early school years with a nondescript, standard-issue schoolboy haircut, but things started to go wrong when I become more interested in my own appearance, and decided to copy other boys in my year and get my hair spiked – a fashionable look in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the hairdresser who did the spiking one ill-fated day in 1988 decided it would look good if I also had a fringe. She was mistaken. Everywhere I went the next day, I was greeted with uproarious, mocking laughter and howls of derision. The humiliation has stayed with me ever since. Laughter at the bus stop. Laughter on the bus. Laughter in the classroom. Laughter in assembly.
I moved on to a more regular ‘flat top’, but even that wasn’t without its problems. By this time I had moved to another hairdresser’s, but on one occasion there was a stand-in guest hairdresser, with maverick ideas of how to sculpt a flat top from my hair.
“Do you want it totally square or a bit square?” he asked.
“Er, a bit square?” I answered, not really having given much thought to the would-be squareness of my head.
He proceeded to reveal a rectangular piece of plastic and shaved round it, somehow creating a perfect trapezium shape out of my extremely short hair. I was stuck with this absurd geometrical tribute for a fortnight.
When I was 19, I experimented with my hair again, having moved through a fairly stable side-parting period. Just about every footballer in the top flight, and, I think, the entire England under-21 squad, had a hairstyle that was very short and combed forward. It sadly didn’t really suit me, as my girlfriend at the time pointed out. When meeting my great auntie Kathleen, she took the opportunity to ask what my dear relative thought of this new hairstyle of mine.
“With a face like that,” said Auntie Kath, “it doesn’t matter what he does with his hair.” I think she meant this as a compliment, and I really appreciated the support for my feeble fashion failure.
I eventually gave up on my hair eight years ago and baldly went where I’d only been once before (a Comic Relief head-shaving event in 1998). Of course I would rather have a full head of hair, but – to the despair of my mother – I have conceded defeat and would rather have no hair than some tufty remnants.
Tragically (ahem) I can’t treat you to any photos of my hair nightmares of years gone by, so here is a more recent photo by my friend Jo Pickles, celebrating the baldness.
If someone asked you “Did you hear about the hole in the road?” how would you respond?
A fellow dad did ask me that very question the other day, and my instinctive response was “Yes. Police are looking into it.”
It was a classic dad joke – the name given to the obvious jokes and daft puns relished by fathers across the land.
I’m not sure anyone is truly ready for the crazy world of fatherhood when it comes along. You suddenly have to learn new skills, like changing foul-smelling, generously filled nappies, interpreting screams and dodging sick, at alarming speed, all while getting no sleep. But there were two ways I was naturally ready for the challenge of being a dad. I had already mastered dad jokes and dad dancing.
Dad dancing, like dad jokes, is one of those things that dads seem to enjoy but which their offspring find rather cringeworthy. It involves lots of air guitar, some enthusiastic twisting, and possibly a bit of singing into an imaginary microphone. I have become too self-conscious to dance in the majority of circumstances, but it might just take one opportunity to humiliate my children at a wedding, and the innate dad-dancing gene could kick in automatically.
As for the dad jokes, these, like folk stories, have been passed down through the generations of my family. I can cite my own dad as my key influence in this area. My brother, though not a dad himself, has this same talent. Family meals can descend into a rapid-fire pun-down, with us three men exchanging increasingly dire puns while my mum, wife and brother’s partner roll their eyes in pity, despair and resignation.
One of my dad’s greatest dad jokes was one I groaned at when he said it, but have since come to appreciate in all its glory. We were coming back from a family holiday and passed a lorry, which was carrying tyres.
“That driver looks tyred,” said Dad. Genius.
My first real job was working as a writer and subeditor for a newspaper, when occasionally I got chance to hone my pun-making skills in headlines and stories. I remember interviewing a lady who’d passed her Spanish exam, and was delighted to find she’d got a grade C – not because I was enthralled by her prowess in the language but because I could come up with this pretty tenuous headline: “I got a C, senor.”
I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that every dentist appointment I ever hear about is at 2.30 (that’s tooth hurty – see? Hilarious), and definitely not the only one who hopes each year that someone won’t have heard the “It’s National Star Wars Day” joke, which can be told with glee every May the 4th. May the 4th be with you!
There are certain subjects that inspire great punning, but I’ll have a go at pretty much anything. I was on the phone to Dad earlier and we were talking about a walk he’s going on, organised by a sheep farmer. “Is it a RAMble?” I asked, smirking. “Are the details a bit woolly?”
Another time at work, someone tweeted that their train was delayed because there was a cow on the line. “Have you got moos for us?” I jested. “Pull the udder one! Don’t milk it!”
These jokes are obviously not the exclusive domain of dads, but as they’ve been allocated to us, let’s embrace the cheesy badness and be the champions of this light-hearted, low-quality tomfoolery. After all, our children subliminally want this and expect it of us, don’t they?
It is often said that things that taste nice must be bad for you, and that things that taste disgusting must be good for you. Sometimes though, a disgusting thing that’s meant to be good for you is so disgusting that you don’t care how good for you it is.
This is true of my adventures with a dietary supplement called spirulina. Spirulina is widely hailed a ‘superfood’. Although it can’t make you taller, make your hair grow back, give you x-ray vision, turn you into a love god or enable you to fly, it seems it can do pretty much everything else.
There were two particular benefits of spirulina that interested me:
- it reduces fatigue, giving you more energy;
- it boosts your immune system.
I was in great need of both these things when I went to talk to the occupational health nurse at work last spring.
Two of the effects or symptoms of my lingering depression had been physical and mental lethargy, and a constant stream of tedious minor ailments and illnesses. The nurse suggested a number of things – particularly some supplements to my diet - that might help to get me fit again. Spirulina was one of them.
Eager to eradicate my troublesome symptoms and get on with the business of shaking off my depression, I went out one lunchtime to a health food shop in town and left with various tablets and potions, some of which I’ve stuck with and others that had no discernible effect. And then there was the spirulina. Popping in to a nearby smoothie shop for a fruit fix, I spotted a brown bag, labelled ‘spirulina powder’. The chap in the shop raved about its greatness and offered it to me at a reduced price.
“Mix it in with a smoothie or juice,” he advised. Off I went, clutching my bargain bag of superfood, eager to try it out and reawaken my dormant inner superhero.
Spirulina is a naturally occurring algae, and what I hadn’t expected was that it would revert to its natural slimy state at the merest hint of moisture. Even before it morphed into thick, dark-green slime, the smell emanating from the open bag was a clear warning that this was not going to taste good. But it would be good for me, so I would be brave and do what was necessary to reap the rewards of this miraculous gloop.
I put a spoonful of spirulina powder into my morning smoothie, and watched it turn green. Not a nice, appetising green. Slime green. Pondweed green. Algae green. I stirred it furiously to try and blend in the claggy blobs of goo, but lumps of it stuck to the spoon. Then I took a deep breath, and downed some. So much for my new va-va-voom – this was more like va-va-vomit. It was utterly, utterly rank. Not only did it taste vile, it encased my teeth, and the taste lingered. One perfectly good smoothie ruined.
Day after day, I tried to complete a glass of this rancid concoction, and each time coughed, spluttered and gagged my way through it. Thinking I must be getting the mixture wrong, I tried different juices. Still it stank. Still it tasted putrid. I tried mixing it with water. Even worse. Nothing makes algae feel more at home than water, and the spirulina thrived in my glass, but much less so on my taste buds, which rejected it out of hand.
I persisted for far longer than any right-minded person would do, but my enthusiasm for experimenting with spirulina was in terminal decline. Having tried just about everything else, I gave it one last go – on its own. No mixture. No blending. Just the spirulina powder, on a teaspoon. Well, as bad ideas go, this one was a medal-winner.
On contact with my mouth, the powder seemed to expand and fill my mouth, so I could hardly breathe. The saliva in my mouth transformed it into one part super-claggy slime and one part dynamite. The putrescent slime clung to my teeth, tongue and gums, and the dynamite part built up in my mouth, choking me, until it exploded, leaving me staggering around the kitchen, erupting like some green-cloud-spewing volcano.
It was the final straw.
I did try spirulina tablets, the less offensive cousin of the powder, but the jar demanded that I take six tablets every day. “Not at that price,” I objected, so I took one a day, with no benefits whatsoever, until the jar was empty.
Some time later, I saw the man from the smoothie shop and he asked me how I’d got on with my purchase. I told him it had been unbelievably revolting. He asked if I’d mixed it with juice. I said yes, I’d mixed in one teaspoon of the powder, as he’d suggested…
“A whole teaspoon?” he said. “No mate, you only need half a teaspoon.”
Ah yes, that was what he had said. My memory, along with my energy, had disappeared into the fog of depression, and I’d somehow remembered the wrong quantity. But it was too late by then. I had fallen out with the spirulina and thrown it all in the bin. And there was no way I was going to put that stuff anywhere near my mouth again.