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.”
I am quite like Gollum in some ways. Not only do we both lack hair, we’ve spent a fair bit of time in darkness and have arguments with ourselves.
I realised when watching the first of the Hobbit films the other night that there are several other parallels between this classic adventure story and my own epic battle with depression.
The film starts with the dwarves losing their home to a large and dangerous dragon, and that’s kind of how depression feels – an unstoppable force that takes control of your life and leaves you feeling lost and confused, with a permanent sense of doom, fear, paranoia and anger.
The mighty dwarf kingdom swiftly goes from domination to desolation, and they are cast out and obliterated, with just a small band clinging on for survival. That sounds familiar too.
The story follows their mission to claim back what is rightfully theirs, and that’s what the long road to recovery is like. There are dark forces and enemies to contend with on the way, steep and treacherous paths to navigate, many perils, threats and dangers to overcome – some that seem impossible to escape from – and countless twists and turns that throw up great challenges and battles.
Let’s go back to Gollum for a moment. He’s one of my favourite characters in any book or film – a disturbed creature, possessed by the power of a ring, in turn both playful and vicious, perky and tortured.
Everything the wretched creature does is accompanied by his own running commentary, and that’s where he reminds me most of myself. His head is full of conflicting thoughts and moods in a constantly shifting power struggle. Even now I am much better, there are times I find myself caught up in a Gollum-like argument with myself – often in the morning, and most commonly in my own company. The dark powers and over-thinking can take over for a while, but, like invading orcs, hungry trolls or sly goblins, they can be overcome.
And then there’s Bilbo Baggins, our unlikely little hero, plucked from his cosy home to go on a great adventure, which will change his life – and Bilbo himself – forever.
Maybe I’m a bit like Bilbo and the dwarves myself. Rather them than Gollum, anyway. Life now is about rediscovering what depression clouded or took away, and it’s about discovering new things.
It’s been an unexpected journey, but one I am determined to learn from.
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’.
Coming off antidepressants has been like taking the stabilisers off a bike.
There have been wobbles – big at first, but smaller as I’ve got used to it – and numerous doubts and crises of confidence, but, through persistence and the passing of time, I’ve done it.
Three months ago, I took my last dose of Citalopram – my constant companion since early 2010.
Then off came the stabilisers and it was time for my brain to ride solo. At first, I noticed no real difference. It was something of an anti-climax. I’d been waiting a long time for this magical moment, when I would be free of the medication, but when it came, I felt pretty much the same. The world didn’t change colour. I didn’t suddenly discover the meaning of life.
The fact that I felt no difference was a good sign, really. But in the weeks that followed, I did start to feel a difference, and it wasn’t always good. I’d finished my antidepressants just in time for a busy spell at work, a nerve-racking performance as Elvis in a local cabaret event, and the build-up to my annual pantomime appearance. At times, the stress and my rapidly filling mind kept me awake at night, and it felt ominously reminiscent of the dark days of depression.
I made up my mind on four different occasions that I would go back on the tablets. Things just felt too hard, and I didn’t want to risk my recovery by stubbornly persisting without the pills when I so clearly needed them. But, unlike before, those moods lifted fairly quickly, and I never did go back to Citalopram.
I’ve learned a few things about life without antidepressants:
- Don’t think while tired – most of my most negative thinking and worst worrying has happened first thing in the morning, often in the car on the way to work. Now if that sort of thinking starts to mess with me in the mornings, I turn on some music and drown it out. I also have to be careful not to get too tired, and to make sure I look after myself. When my memory starts to go again, I hear an alarm bell ringing and try to take things easier for a day or two.
- I notice I’m more prone to anxiety and over-thinking than I was when I had the shield of Citalopram to blunt those feelings. I’m slowly learning to manage this, but it will take time.
- My confidence has taken a hit in the last few years, and it is taking some time to build back up – but it’s gradually happening. Patience doesn’t come naturally to me, so I’ve got to work on that too. I’m keeping a diary of positive things that happen to me (compliments, achievements, good times etc) to keep reminding myself that I’m actually doing pretty well.
One of the reasons I’ve written this post is to take a while to reflect on where I’ve got to. Three months free of antidepressants feels like a nice milestone – and not one I even dared imagine for a long time.
These other posts tell the full story of my adventure with antidepressants – a story with a happy ending, all being well.
Clear, bright, calm – that’s the river and the weather in this photo, and the opposite of how I’d been feeling in the days before I took it.
It was October 2011 and I was off work with depression. A stressful couple of months had slowly, sneakily reversed the progress I’d made since having counselling for my first bout of the illness. One night it came back with a vengeance.
My brain felt so full that it might explode. I was angry, confused, miserable and shattered. This mental turbulence kept me awake at night and my tired brain couldn’t cope during the day – a cruel and exhausting cycle that trapped me in darkness.
I vowed to myself that I would get out of the house every day and go for a walk, partly to get some exercise and fresh air and partly for a change of scenery that might distract me from the cyclone in my brain. My dad must have recognised this was what I needed too, because he arranged to take me out for a hearty walk by a canal out in the countryside.
Looking back on that outing, there were a number of small things that helped me.
It was in a place I didn’t know, so there was a sense of exploration and discovery – a new experience and the best kind of distraction.
It was a bright, sunny autumn day – one of those crisp, cool days that makes you want to take deep breaths, which helps you relax and appreciate what’s around you.
Being a keen birdwatcher I had taken my binoculars, and remember some of the birds I saw that day, and where I saw them. As we got out of the car, there was a great-spotted woodpecker that flew from a tree and landed on a telegraph pole a few yards away. Further along the walk, near the river, we saw a sparrowhawk zipping low along a line of bushes. And we saw fieldfares, which had arrived from Scandinavia for the winter.
My memories of that autumn are otherwise pretty murky, but these images are crystal clear in my mind even now. I think that shows the value of trying to do something you enjoy, however small, if you can muster the energy.
The fact my dad had organised the day helped too. I didn’t have to think – just take it in. And the company certainly helped. Being able to talk to someone you trust and who understands you is so important, and the different setting took me away from my problems somehow, and gave me a boost that defied my weariness.
There’s a reason holidays are marketed as a chance to ‘get away from it all’. It’s because that chance is something we all need and crave. This walk wasn’t a holiday, of course, but the change and escape was what I really needed.
* I wrote this post for Time to Change. Read more about them here
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.
A little over two years ago, I was off work with depression.
One day or night, I sat and watched 8 Mile, the Eminem movie, and took some kind of small hope from the underdog rapper’s never-say-die determination and ultimate triumph over adversity. My own determination wasn’t putting in an appearance at the time, and triumphs seemed in short supply.
Here in the present, it’s more than a month since I took my last antidepressant and there’s a part of 8 Mile that now seems particularly significant.
The film’s climax is a rap battle between Eminem’s character, Rabbit, and his enemy, Papa Doc. Now, I am no battle rapper or gangsta MC – I’m more Yorkshire Tea than Ice T – but I do know that the basic gist of such battles is to brag about your own greatness and insult your opponent as wittily as possible.
Except in this contest, Rabbit catches his opponent off-guard by confessing to all his own flaws and secrets – all the things Doc was about to hurl at him. It leaves his nemesis impotently lacking ammunition. And then he exposes him for the coward and fraud that he is. You can read the full lyrics here.
So, what’s this got to do with me and depression?
- Depression is a cowardly bully that skulks in the shadows and messes up your head – and it thrives on the shame and stigma that comes with it. It knows everything about you – all your flaws and weaknesses – and uses them against you. By talking to someone about what you’re going through, you expose it and weaken its power.
- You can also get to know your enemy, through counselling, talking to others (either in person or online) or reading about it. This helps to arm you against its dirty tricks. Stopping my antidepressants has been like taking down my shield. At times in the last few weeks, members of depression’s gang have roughed me up – stress, anxiety and insomnia have all had a go – but I am better able to fend them off than I used to be, because I know what they’re up to.
I’m not naïve about this, and will have to keep a look-out for future attacks, but for now this underdog has triumphed. I celebrated my first medication-free month with a glass of bubbly that had been at the back of a cupboard since before I started taking Citalopram.
Recovery from depression is slow. Even when you feel well, coming off the medication is tough. For an impatient patient, it seems like a never-ending war. But liberation from depression is possible.