Sunday, 30 August 2009

Stringing Words Like Beads

You know how it is when you rediscover a word in the sense that you hear it and you know it but it sounds totally strange all the same?

For me, just such a word has been ‘bead’. If I repeat it over and over in my head very soon the connection between label and object becomes almost completely erased. There ceases to be any significant relevance applied or association made. Why on earth is a small decorative ball with a hole in the middle a ‘bead’?

At times like this I have to re-establish a link before I become in danger of slowly erasing yet another word from my limited vocabulary. In the case of the ‘bead’ I remind myself of a joke I heard on a Sunday lunchtime radio comedy show when I was a kid. It may have been ‘Round The Horne’, I can’t remember exactly. The joke was about an exotic dancer who performed a dance wearing just one single bead. Predictably, there followed a number of saucy quips and riotous laughter from the audience. The punch-line was that men drooled over the dancer in question, straining to discover what the bead concealed. Then, one fateful day, during an unchoreographed contortion, the bead fell off. The poor woman's exposure was her downfall and her adoring fans deserted her, quickly concluding that without the bead she wasn’t really up to much. Pathetic isn't it? But this, for me, is what brought 'bead' back from the dead.

Now I have a much better reference. Our Speckly-Woo (two year-old granddaughter) is a 'dab hand' at carefully creating ‘bead people’. Now, I find, the word is more likely to conjure an image of the rather loosely formed Mr and Mrs Bead. And, believe me, these are people I can relate to.

The loosely formed Mr Bead

The long-suffering Mrs Bead

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges 

Friday, 28 August 2009

What Do They Call You?

I'm not sure when we started to use pet names in our family, but they are pretty well established now. Whenever I sign off my emails to our daughter, I always use the name of a character from the 1971 film Gumshoe. For some obscure reason our daughter takes on the name of one of Rupert Bear's best friends when we send a text message. My wife and I have been jointly associated with a line from Return of the Pink Panther for years. Little wonder then, that our granddaughters are loved, in order of seniority, as Speckly-Woo, Immy and Icky. Immy and Icky being five month old twins.

In most cases this odd renaming process is likely to have resulted from a memorable line in a film, comedy sketch or perhaps just a moment of lunacy. The latter instance being the kind that can only be experienced when a joke has developed a life of its own and is then liberated from those sharing it. Don't tell me you and your family have never succumbed to a collective fit of giggles while the cause has taken off madly, like an untied balloon, around the room. Usually in an attempt to bring about order everyone has a go at predicting the joke's next move. Ultimately, of course, the joke comes to rest but the most memorable remnants remain in our heads, only to resurface as esoteric 'one liners' and exclusive reference points.

All joking aside though, pet names are intimate labels we choose for those closest to us. It can be a reminder of a shared moment, a humourous association or even an unintentional slip of the tongue. In short, it's special, private and protective........which is precisely why I will be using pet names when making reference to our grandchildren in future posts.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Woodburning Desire

In recent days I swear I've sensed autumn in the air, and it only takes a whiff of wood smoke to remind me of when we enjoyed the ancient practice of warming ourselves at the hearth. Whenever an aromatic haze lingers in the lanes around our home, I deliberately slow down to give myself the best chance of a ‘fix’. A little over a decade ago we lived in a cosy cottage, nestled in a tiny Cornish village. Taking delivery of winter logs was an annual highlight. Unloading, splitting and stacking. The sweet scent of torn bark and glistening sap. The sight of the exposed grain and the fibrous feel of the timber. The comforting prospect of living flame.

There is an abiding memory from childhood. A Sunday morning set in a hoare frost and me standing in a clearing of a copse that my Grandfather worked. A small group of men, including my Grandfather, stood around a blaze of trimmings. Some had cigarettes hanging lazily from their mouths, hands plunged deep into pockets. Others were breathing into their cupped hands or rhythmically throwing their arms about their bodies to keep warm.

My Grandfather (left) in the copse with fellow hurdle-maker sometime in the 1970s

I watched through my knitted balaclava as the men slowly got down to the business of sawing and chopping piles of logs. Even though perilously close to the bonfire I was frozen. Holding a cup of hot cocoa from a Thermos restored some life to my lips and fingers but my toes were totally numb. I was stood on my own little stumps and I wouldn’t thaw out properly until much later in the day when a match had been put to our own fire at home.

Wood fire at my Grandparent's home - The Laurels

I was entrusted to light bonfires before I started school, so it was a skill I took on board early, coached by my Grandfather (an expert in ‘burning up’) who constantly stressed that fire was a dutiful servant but a bad master. Sadly, our present rural abode doesn’t boast a spot where sparks fly and smoke turns itself inside-out before letting loose from the chimney in wisps. In short, the evenings promise no glowing embers for us to contemplate. Instead, storage heaters stand in a lifeless pose against the walls, their pale metallic casings emblematic of a social conscience that prefers clean convenience over living warmth.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Concrete and Play

Life doesn't need to be all gift-wrapped and sparkling to light up the eyes of a two year old. It's worth remembering that building things (while obviously important) can wear a little thin. Yes, there's something about the sight of a familiar object being taken apart that resonates deeply with toddlers.

For the past two days my son-in-law and I have been breaking up concrete that used to form the bases of a small dilapidated garage and a glassless greenhouse. The idea is to free up more space in the garden for the children. Our two year old granddaughter already needs the extra room to accommodate her attempts at breaking speed records whilst going about her daily business. The twins are only 6 months old and still regard any extraordinary goings-on with rather bemused expressions. But the time will undoubtedly arrive when all three will be careering about within the confines of their own 'outdoors' and it will be handy for all concerned if we minimise the risk of collision.

This afternoon we completed the first stage of project 'garden expansion'. We moved 6 cubic yards of rubble and deposited it in a waste skip. During the process our little landscaper was assisting by carrying the withered remains of a forsythia bush, that had fallen victim to our efforts, to the skip. Not quite tall enough to complete the manoeuvre on her own, we took turns to raise her up like a champion so that she could bathe in the glory of her achievement.

All along the way there were enough pairs of adult eyes to keep her safe. The important thing was that felt involved and useful. Little people need to know their worth too.

She was beaming with pride and evidently filled with delight.......just before she announced that it was time for her to receive a drink and a biscuit as her due reward. At this point it was difficult to raise an argument against taking a break. Kids are so perceptive aren't they?

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Friday, 21 August 2009

Belts And Braces

A huge industry has taken off in the interests of in-car safety. Rear facing car seats for babies, front facing car seats for toddlers and booster seats when children reach the correct height/weight threshold.

In 1979, when we transported our daughter around in a dilapidated Renault 10, more often than not, she slept peacefully in a carry-cot on the rear seat with her Mum, without belts. We didn't see anything wrong with that in the days before tree-climbing was considered bad for kids. Of course now we would be held to account for acting so irresponsibly.

As a child - or as an adult, for that matter - I never considered my grandfather to be irresponsible. In fact I would have trusted him with my life, as my mother obviously did.

With this in mind my thoughts were drawn back to the June issue of Hampshire Magazine, 1988, where one of my regular articles contained the following:

"On occasions when I was allowed to tag along, we went 'up the copse' by motorcycle and box. Grandad sat astride his Triumph while I rode in a rough wooden box that couldn't have been elevated to real sidecar status in a million years. Though despite its humble appearance, this rickety conveyance had high spots on its passenger list. It had transported several members of the armed forces, a pilot and his parachute and my great grandfather in his armchair through the city of Winchester; though not all at once, and it was great grandad who rode through Winchester announcing, in response to raised eyebrows, that he didn't give a damn long before Rhett Butler made the words immortal.

The famed Triumph Thunderbird and box in 1982

So it was that I followed distinguished folk when I settled myself amidst the folded sacks, binder twine, hooks, saws and assorted implements. I was proud to take my place in a permanent swirl of dust behind my own windshield that flapped wildly only inches from my nose. Child restraints? Well my mother may have prayed for one in a moment of anguish, but it wouldn't have been applied in the interests of road safety. A gag was probably the sort of thing she'd have in mind, and looking back, who could blame her? A few miles from my home village of Upham then, and we might take the lane off the main Winchester road to either Redlands copse or Deeps wood, depending on where the hazel was ready for working.

Now the journeying along properly surfaced roads in the box was one thing. Careering along the woodland rides was another entirely. To me the effect had all the marvel of the switchback at the fair, and all the alarming qualities of shooting Niagara in a barrel. We wended our way over the ruts and ridges, the thundering machine and creaking box pitching and rolling at crazy angles. Great tentacles of greenery reached out at intervals and slapped me in the face. I ducked and dodged while grandad remained impervious in his flat cap, leather gauntlets and heavy canvas coat."

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hats Off To Space

My journeys to the planet 'Toddler' are never a complete waste of time. I often return in an altered state of mind, which is either attributable to inspirational grandchildren or oxygen starvation.

Today I have a handy tip to offer. Basically, it's how to turn a novelty birthday hat into an intergalactic mode of transport for all manner of soft toys.

A perfectly ordinary novelty birthday hat complete with candles

Mary (you remember Mary, from yesterday?) graciously agreed to be the test pilot so we are all truly indebted to her for that.

Mary just landing after the trip of a lifetime - flaring candle-rockets and all

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Hiding To Something

You know, some days spent with our grandchildren leave me feeling rejuvenated. Others leave me feeling as though I haven't been 'let in' on the plot. One thing is for certain...I always feel tired!

Today much of my time was taken up with entertaining our two year old granddaughter. She's a strong-minded little girl and today she was wearing her Director's hat. Early on I knew that this meant that I would be on the sharp end of an ever changing script, involving the 'usual suspects' from her collection of dolls and soft toys.

Left to right - Emily, Tinkerbell and Mary, with Mr Teddy learning his lines

Sure enough, Mary and Tinkerbell were soon centre-stage with me speaking lines dreamt up on the hoof and delivered in a highly improvised fashion. The plot revolved around the repeated disappearance of Emily, a diminutive character dressed for winter,complete with silver boots. Put simply, our 'director' took off with Emily and concealed her (usually somewhere right under my gaze) before sending me off with Mary, an awkward looking rag doll whose legs have been poured into unforgiving striped tights, on a mission of mercy.

To keep the tension high Mary deliberately searched everywhere but the place where Emily was lost, much to the annoyance of our 'director' who hasn't quite mastered the concept of hide and seek. With a manic waving of the arms (complete with fading chickenpox) I was urged, to cries of “She's there granddad, under my stool,” to find the hapless Emily.

As is often the case, I soon became unsure as to whether this was the actual shoot or merely an audition, because each member of the cast took it in turns to be hidden before being discovered, predictably, by yours truly.

Between takes, I mulled over the idea of hiding somewhere myself, but then I remembered I haven't got a 'get out' clause in my contract. Hmmm, she seems to have thought of everything.

These two characters appear to have found the ideal hideaway

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Monday, 17 August 2009

Let's Not Call The Whole Thing Off!

It was almost a year ago when I submitted a 'guest article', about the rare value of those individual characters who aren't afraid to raise their heads above the parapet, to a blog based in the U.S . The original work was published in Viewpoint, a paper for comment, funded by the University of Southampton and normally, that's where it would have stayed. But when I happened upon the Slow Leadership blog it seemed appropriate for the the piece to have a home on the other side of the Atlantic too.

The editor, Adrian Savage, welcomed my contribution but advised that it might need to be tailored for a non-UK audience. I thought, over to you then Adrian and lo, he produced a really nice version without hacking it beyond recognition.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of having Square Sunshine promoted stateside by Susan Adcox at About.Com

Apparently blogging grandfathers are a bit thin on the ground. Strange when you think how many of us there must be around the world and even stranger when you consider how much there is to write about from a grandfather's perspective.

Susan ended her most welcome post with, “He lives in rural Hampshire, England, so don't let his use of "nappies" for diapers confuse you!”

Now I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw's claim that, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language." You say diapers, I say nappies – you say vacation, I say holiday, but when it comes down to how we feel about our grandchildren I know we're all singing from the same songsheet.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Time, Travel and Twain

One of my favourite Mark Twain quotes is, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

I think I like it for two reasons. First of all, I feel slightly distanced from it in that my father wasn't around when I was growing up, so at 21 I somehow felt exempt from ever having been a callow youth – although, of course, I had been as callow as the next. Secondly, it's just a great quote to pull out when you're well into your middle-years. By this time, if few people credit you with having attained any real wisdom, they might at least be impressed by the fact that you can quote Mark Twain verbatim!

Unconventional Grandmother with youth emerging from callow into yellow

Last night BBC Four screened the Woodstock movie on the 40th anniversary of the event. But it's also been 40 years since the first man landed on the moon and the release of The Beatles' Abbey Road album.

In his own youth, my grandfather was assured that any notion of a man travelling to the moon should be regarded as little more than science-fiction. As it happens, he witnessed the lunar experience in 1969 from the comfort of his armchair like many of us did. But for him, Woodstock, The Beatles and their like must have seemed as distant as the stars.

Strange though, to think that if I referred to anyone over thirty as 'grandad', I never made a direct association with my own grandad. So what was I saying in those days when our generation thought we had all the answers? Something for the Sociologists to argue about or back to Mark twain?

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Challenging and Choosing

Following on from my last post, I thought it well worth promoting the efforts of The Reading Agency. Among other things, they organise the annual Summer Reading Challenge. The challenge is to encourage children to read six books from their local library during the summer holidays.

Part of the Challenge includes an invitation to become a Quest Seeker and take part in the quest to search for the 'golden book'. This opportunity is extended to children of all reading abilities and in partnership with the RNIB, the Challenge has produced posters and stickers for those who are visually impaired. The RNIB itself also loans books for children and young people 5+ in Braille, giant print and audio format.

Children, 10 and under, who feel that they would rather concentrate their efforts on writing the stories will be pleased to discover that Pure and Fun Kids Radio are running a competition this summer tailored just for them. Or perhaps junior journalism is more their thing. If so, First News is an online weekly newspaper for children that "...aspires to raise the profile of children's views and opinions in society and to donate proceeds to children's charities."

Choosing the right book for your grandchildren can be tricky, and while some grandparents have fond memories of the tales that kept them entertained throughout a typically British seaside holiday, when thoughts turn to current offerings it can all get a bit mind-boggling. In which case, the Guardian offers some tips on which titles might appeal to our little darlings, from picture books to literature for the over-12s.

Happy reading!

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Kids Included

In case anyone hadn't noticed, it's been a while since children were to be seen and not heard. Thankfully, now there are many initiatives that place children where they should be; at the forefront of our thinking.

Since 1999 we have had the Children's Laureate in the UK. It's a role designed to promote and maintain the importance of children's books and the ability to read them. Unfortunately, for a host of reasons, some children slip through the net, but there are efforts to pick them up. Many local libraries offer rhymes, songs and stories for kids under five and at a national level, the National Literary Trust runs an initiative called Reading The Game and “ to promote reading, writing, and speaking and listening for all ages through the motivational power of sport.”

For children, playing should be the most normal and natural thing in the world, and it's hard to think that we should consider it necessary to have an annual celebration of children's right to play, but here in the 21st century we do. Playday has been doing exactly what it says on the tin for more than two decades.

Finally, there are things happening for children at this years Edinburgh Festival. More children's shows, more child-friendly venues and perhaps a further underlining of the fact that children cannot be ignored and, for our own good, must continue to be heard.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Route Decision

There are few things more painful than watching your grandchildren agonising over something. I mean something serious like how to build a castle, that won't collapse on its inhabitants,.....out of scatter cushions! But no matter how much you feel for them in their moment of crisis, you know that they'll resolve the problem either by simply re-writing the scene or by bringing their floppy fortress to its knees before turning it into a boat.

It's a different matter when your own kids have agonising decisions to make, especially when they are adults and particularly when they are the parents of your grandchildren. If I said that our daughter and her husband had been agonising recently, that would probably be a bit strong, but they've wrestled with the prospect of their two year old starting pre-school next month. They've weighed it up and the upshot is, she won't be going. It isn't a case of not wanting to let go or taking a sideswipe at the system, it's a parental decision based on what they perceive to be their child's best interest. So it's not one that they've taken lightly.

Formal schooling will begin in a couple of years and until then she'll continue to enjoy her present circle of friends whilst attending other new activities two or three times a week. For instance, she'll be learning to swim at a local pool and she'll be bouncing around and making more friends at 'Gym-Tots'. The rest of the time, she can be a little girl with a big imagination that we know and love. She will also gain valuable experience in how to interact with other family members across a range of ages, and especially with her 19 week old twin sisters. At this time in her life we should celebrate the re-casting of the main characters from Peter Pan, the blending of traditional nursery rhymes with snatches of improvised dialogue or offerings of coloured building bricks, each one representing a different flavoured ice-cream. It's magical for us, but it's complete freedom for her. She can continue to create her own wonderful worlds and discover how they fit in with the real one.

My own personal belief is that we aren't all necessarily designed to grow in a 'one size fits all' system. I'm not an educationalist, so I don't have any clever theories that will get the best out of our children. All I can say is, I spent more than eight years as a mature student at undergraduate and postgraduate level, which I enjoyed immensely, but I loathed school as a child. So education holds a mysterious fascination for me, and it remains the subject of hot debate amongst many of those responsible for shaping the road ahead. ( see my recent post 'By Rote', featuring the Ken Robinson video).

Today's parents face much tougher choices than we did. The sheer volume of information (much of it, conflicting), peer pressure and the fear of failure is mind numbing sometimes. All the more reason for grandparents to remain flexible and supportive in their roles.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Crashes And Creches

Haven't posted for a few days and there's a good reason for that. The computer has had the wobbles but it seems to have regained its composure now. A couple of virtual Alka Seltzers did the trick.

However, during the 'downtime', I have to admit to having more than a passing thought about dumping Microsoft. There are options out there you know and they don't all cost a fortune. In fact, for all you techy grandparents, can I introduce you to Ubuntu? A free, yes FREE, operating system that you might try loading on to an older machine before passing it on to your grandchildren.

On the family front, we've been doing our regular pitching in. Nothing quite like the domestic reality of assisting with 18 week old twins and a toddler under three years to test your resolve. On Tuesday of this week there was moment when I was torn between running, screaming from the building or quietly accepting the onset of middle-age madness.

Things had started well enough with our two year old granddaughter dancing around the lounge to her favourite Disney songs. The noise and movement then built in layers. Not content with dancing, our terpsichorean toddler was giving us a running commentary on the somewhat complex relationships her Peter Pan figures were experiencing. Then the twins really went for it in an 'anything you can do, I can do better' sort of way. Our daughter gamely juggled pre-feed nappy changes with bottle warming, while we juggled the babies. All we needed at this point was someone to enter the room banging a base drum.........although, in fairness, we probably wouldn't have noticed it.

© 2009, copyright Martin T. Hodges