Happy new year!

8:38 pm, 4th January 2015 by Rachel

Oops sorry, I really thought I had done an entry for November. I can’t remember what happened in November. The boys started going to Beavers and Cubs and started acquiring badges. I started teaching them to sew badges on.
December was quite a lot about the Hyde Park Unity Day pantomime “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Hair”, in which Peter played Child No. 2 and A Ghost, I played an occasional scene-shifter/prop-organiser/ghost-dresser, Matthew came along to a lot of the rehearsals and making-sessions, learned the script by heart and made an eyeball out of newspaper and sellotape but eventually (with Gavin) played an appreciative audience member. For me and Peter at least it was a surprising amount of work and a surprising amount of fun. Community panto at its finest, the sort when you just about manage to have a full run-through before the first night and then realise that the audience enjoy the mistakes as much as they enjoy the bits that actually go right.
We had Christmas in Edinburgh and between-Christmas-and-new-year in Rugby and new year back here and lots of food and lots of sitting around and lots of miles of train travel with no delays at all, and it was great. And now it’s just about time to go back to work for 2015… which will be something of a rude shock after nearly two weeks off.
It’s been a good year for us; we are astonishingly fortunate in so many respects and do our best to stay aware of it; I’ll try to keep up the blogs in 2015.


8:25 pm, 2nd November 2014 by Rachel

Sorry everyone. We are, in fact, still here. And we have been doing things in September and October, but I haven’t been writing blogs. The excuse that worked for the first half of the year, viz that Gavin and I seemed very rarely both to be at home, doesn’t work… until just recently. Gavin’s currently in Hawaii. Before that, I was in Aberdeen. It’s been a mild autumn throughout the UK, but I can’t say I exactly had the tropical-paradise experience. Nor did the boys, who were in a relatively warm and sunny Rugby for half-term.

What’s been going on? The football season has started and I’ve been learning lots about football. I have the Match of the Day theme tune on the brain more often than I care to think (and if YOU now have the MOTD theme tune on the brain, thanks to reading this, I apologise. Catchy tune, isn’t it? Did you hear the Chief Rabbi singing the grace-after-meals to that tune on the Radio 4 Sunday programme the other week? We had to play that back to the boys twice. But I digress). Well, when I think of it, MOTD makes about as much sense to me as In The Night Garden used to. I can recognise the characters, mostly, though I still get some of the less memorable ones mixed up. I know what their main personality traits are supposed to be. I can pick up the emotional tone, even when I can’t really follow the plot. I get the theme tune on the brain. On some basic level I fail to see the attraction. But I like it vicariously because it makes the boys happy.

Meanwhile, out of doors, a public service announcement. Himalayan balsam is, as we know, an evil invading plant, out to oppress our harmless native species (and, presumably, take their jobs and benefits). It has taken over large areas near us, and when the spring comes we shall play our full part in the Leeds City Council “Banish the Balsam” campaign; the boys are already looking forward to it. However, in the meantime and given that it’s too late to do any anti-balsam action this year – the explode-in-your-hand seed pods are really, really cool. We’re making the most of them before the balsam all gets banished next year. (I hope we’re not making the banishing job harder by exploding the seed pods. My excuse is that we’re exploding them forcibly before they are ready to explode. Hmmm).

Matthew has accompanied me on a couple of afternoons canvassing with the local Labour party. The one where nearly every door was opened by a half-asleep student in pyjamas was more fun, if dubiously more productive, than the one where most people were out. In other political news, considerable relief here in mid-September on learning that (for the moment) all our family still live in the same country.

The boys have been to their first meetings of Cubs and Beavers; it was a bowling trip, so no knot-tying involved. Peter has had some keyboard lessons at school and can just about play ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ (officially) and the Star Wars theme and a bit of ‘Yellow Submarine’ (unofficially, because Matthew and I decided he should learn something a bit more interesting). They both still seem to like school, and like going to school. This is never something we take for granted. But it’s very, very useful…

I finished, and sent off, what I’ve been referring to as ‘the Quaker book’. I would say that this means I don’t have to bore the rest of the household with it any more, but I’m not taking that risk.

Spy Mystery Party

7:57 pm, 7th September 2014 by Rachel

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts (see last year) about kids’ birthday parties; I come up with ideas every year, some of them work and some of them don’t but few of them ever get used again (by us) so I reckon others might benefit from the lessons learned.

So this was M’s 9th birthday. We ended up with 12 kids at the party besides M & P. M was, as always, the oldest; most of them were from his class, so aged 8; the youngest who came is a neighbour who’s not yet 6. M was interested in a mystery party, so (not convinced of my ability to invent a mystery) I looked online for ideas and found www.kidsmysteryparties.co.uk. I bought their very reasonably priced online “spy party” pack, and am not going to give away for free here anything that they are selling – but I’ll give them some free advertising. What I took from them was a great concept, a clear idea of how to run the party, and some but not all of the clues – because I needed to modify it a lot for our use (and we don’t have some of the things it assumes everyone has – like a car…) I think it would work much more “as is” for smaller groups of slightly older kids.

Their “mystery parties” for primary school are basically very complicated treasure hunts with a strong plotline (in this case, catching a double agent and finding the “spy equipment” = party bags) and suggestions for invitations, etc. And you have to – or at least we had to – add in a few extra games and activities to fill the party time. (I think with fewer and quieter and older kids they’d spend longer on the secret writing and codebreaking stuff; and there are a lot of good paper-based puzzles in the “spy manual” supplied with the party. But these kids were many and loud. So we played to their strengths).

We also modified the cast of characters and became M and Q. Mainly because Gavin really wanted to be Q. When the kids needed pencils for a secret writing/codebreaking thing he did the introduction – “a stealth communication device that works in zero gravity” etc. Copernicus was Special Agent C, and didn’t put in an appearance himself but was featured in the mystery.

Here’s some of the stuff we did:
– Getting the kids to create codenames by drawing an adjective and a noun at random. (“Jumping Guitar” and “Invisible Torch” were two of the odder ones). They made badges, which worked ok until they lost them and got upset.

– Laser beam challenge with bits of wool criss-crossing a passageway – they all have to get through without breaking any of the lines, in a set time. Problem is that if someone breaks it it takes a lot of time to fix. So we never fixed it after the first round. They really liked the idea though.

– For a few minutes, the timebomb game (kitchen timer stuck to a box, set the timer for not very long, throw it around as a “hot potato”, if you’re holding it when the timer goes off you’re dead). High energy, high volume, abandoned when we realised we couldn’t hear the timer because everyone was shouting too loudly.

– Learning secret writing and code-breaking worked ok. They liked the white-wax-candle invisible-writing trick best.

– Disguise game. If I’d known how good this was going to be I’d have done it earlier in the party. Very simple – big box of random clothes, set of face paint sticks; divide kids into teams, they have 2 minutes to disguise one member of the team; then there’s a brief disguise demonstration/parade (including silly walks and voices if desired) and everyone gets prizes. Thought they’d think it was a little-kids-dressing-up thing but they got really into it – and it was a very good mixer and a way to keep the younger and smaller ones involved.

– The treasure hunt/spy mystery itself. Our key modification to how the original idea worked: because of the large numbers we split them into 3 groups, and gave each group a separate trail leading to part of the final answer (so, one group ended up finding a key, one the fact that it opened a cupboard, and one where the cupboard was). This was the bit that worked amazingly well; the excitement built as the groups arrived back at base, helped each other figure out the last bits of the clues (we had a couple of Caesar-code specialists by then) and headed off to find the lost spy equipment.

And they also had a food fight, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. And had a few rounds of wink murder, which is always ok. And played a hide-and-seek/ grandmother’s footsteps variant (“the police game”) which this group invented when they were six and have played every year at our house ever since.

I’m tired now.

Irregular summer update

9:13 pm, 16th August 2014 by Rachel

Ooops, sorry about that. I can’t remember what was happening at the end of June. At the end of July we were getting ready to go away for two weeks’ summer holiday (type thing). So… in the last two and a half months quite a lot has happened, from the sublime to the ridiculous. For example, and not in this order:
– The boys’ new cousin Agnes May Pelling arrived; we called on her when she was two weeks old, and she was kind enough to be awake and not crying for some part of the time
– Peter turned six, and had a “space” party with more slightly offbeat games and arguably too much food colouring
– Another year of school finished, and there were lots of sports days and school trips and end-of-term events
– We went to Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath [see below]
– and on holiday for a week in Studland
– Peter went to Edinburgh
– lots and lots of cricket happened, mostly to Matthew but some of it to the rest of us (and if you do a web search for “Bairstow and Ballance surprise visit to cricket club” you can see a video of one of the more surprising bits of it)
– lots of loom bands were joined together into very long multicoloured chains, which you can then look at and say “that’s a really long loom band chain” before leaving it lying around the house
– the boys and I each knitted a couple of centimetres of a six-mile-long pink scarf

And while we were in Bath:
Gavin, being on arrangements committee ran around being important and slightly frazzled and doing vital things, like sorting out changes to the agenda and supplying the gathering team with fruit;
Matthew made himself useful as a sidekick to arrangements committee and the logistics team. His finest hour was when he was deployed on excursion day to explain to Friends why they’d been given the wrong packed lunches (because the well-known Quaker rudeness/directness that emerges on these occasions seems to fade away when confronted with an eight-year-old);
Peter figured out an impressive number of ways to have a good game of football (or similar) on top of a small hill;
Matthew clerked a nominations committee and Peter wrote most of a minute;
I drank a lot of tea and talked to a lot of people. The boys got used to being unable to walk between any two points without having to stop for a chat.

Overall – it’s been a good summer, we were more than ready for the holiday, and I’m putting off starting to think about work again.

May 2014

12:43 pm, 7th June 2014 by Rachel

We like bank holiday long weekends.
Peter regards the whole of May as a buildup to June and his birthday. Daddy’s birthday is also mostly part of the buildup to Peter’s birthday.
Gavin went to Japan for a week. As far as the boys were concerned, the main reason to go to Japan was to travel on a bullet train (and bring back a phone-video showing how fast the bullet train goes).
Matthew played more cricket, Peter played more football, Matthew started playing rugby league at school. The mud continued. Matthew read Sherlock Holmes stories. Peter started reading Bible stories and asking tricky theological questions at bedtime. There were large sunny multi-garden birthday parties with the children next door. We went for the normal end-of-May pizza at the local pizza restaurant (that did good gluten free pizza before all the big chains got in on the action). I took Matthew to his first ever Shakespeare play – an outdoor production of Merry Wives of Windsor. In a thunderstorm. It was, you might say, memorable. Luckily a lot of the humour didn’t require us to be able to hear the words. We had large umbrellas.

April 2014

9:35 pm, 4th May 2014 by Rachel

It’s been a beautiful proper Browning-and-Chaucer April, apart from the fact that there wasn’t much of a drought of March to pierce to the root(e). The vertu engendered, in this case, leads not to going on pilgrimage but to digging the garden. Or, in the boys’ case, running around outside more than ever.
The Easter holidays happened. Matthew spent a few days, mostly at the science festival, where among other things he made bubble bath, built a robot, poked a sheep’s heart and developed a photograph. And watched lots of things go bang. Whether because of the science festival or not, he likes the periodic table at the moment. And the Tom Lehrer song with all the element names.
Peter stayed at home, his most exciting expedition being (at his request) to the national football museum in Manchester. If you didn’t know there was a national football museum, you probably didn’t really need to. But Peter was quite happy with his visit, especially as there was an Easter egg hunt. There was also an Easter egg hunt at the urban farm (a fiendishly difficult one that baffled the collective wits of our family plus Grandpa Martin. We’re sure some of the egg signs had fallen down or been moved. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it). And there was an Easter egg hunt in our garden. And one in the neighbours’ garden. And I blew lots of eggs to decorate. And Peter made a paper-mache egg. There were really rather a lot of eggs. Arguably an eggcessive number. Etc.
Matthew played his debut match of “kwik cricket” for St Chad’s under-9s. He took two wickets, which is pretty good even considering that the rules of kwik cricket allow in theory as many wickets to be taken as there are balls bowled. I very much enjoyed sitting in a field on a sunny morning watching a relatively gentle sport played at the slowish pace achieved by under-9s.

March 2014

9:06 pm, 4th April 2014 by Rachel

Gavin spent a lot of March 2014 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. All the boys knew about Tennessee before Daddy went there was that the Wombles in Nashville, Tennessee play country music. Now they also know that the Tennessee Volunteers baseball team wear bright orange kit (Peter is very pleased with his bright orange baseball kit). Other than that it probably hasn’t broadened anyone’s horizons very much. But the research trip went ok.

Other than that, I really can’t think of much to report. The boys and I went to Rugby and they had the chance to hang out with Cousin Marcus and get muddy in the grandparents’ garden instead of ours. Peter and his friend were very enthusiastic for a while about writing a story about a ninja hamster. Granny Jocelyn came and gave a talk to the year 5 & 6 pupils at the school; I haven’t heard whether they were better behaved than the Leeds Institute of Physics. Spring came and things grew. Matthew played more cricket. We hunted scarecrows around Headingley and attended a childrens’ book launch, all in the name of the Headingley LitFest (they were literary scarecrows. The boys liked the Jeremy Fisher scarecrow best). I started reading “The Secret Garden” to Peter and realised that after all these years in Yorkshire I still can’t do a Yorkshire accent.

February 2014

12:20 pm, 1st March 2014 by Rachel

It feels a bit like spring, at least a lot more than this time last year. We have crocuses and snowdrops. And, still, a lot of mud. The boys spent a remarkable amount of time over the February half-term, together with the boys next door, digging a very deep hole at the end of next door’s garden. It’s going to be an underground den, apparently. It’s already deep enough such that a boy who climbs into it comes out covered in mud from the shoulders down. The parents say to each other in resigned tones: it’s fresh air and exercise and, if not actually constructive, at least not overly destructive. And thank goodness for washing machines.

February’s cultural report:
– Cinema: The Lego Movie. Extremely funny. The boys now frequently sing “Everything is Awesome”. We were all very glad that there was a starring role for the little 1980s space lego man; thanks to Gavin’s childhood love of lego, we have a lot of those 1980s spacemen, most of them with broken helmets just like the one in the film.
– Books: Reading aloud to Peter I finally made it to the end of “Swallowdale” (I’d forgotten quite how long it was). Reading on his own, Peter has launched into his first proper independently-read no-pictures chapter book (“Christmas According To Humphrey”). He reads slowly, but follows the story well enough to empathise deeply with the characters; he comes downstairs looking sad when one of the children in the book has suffered a disappointment. Given his sensitivity to emotional tone, we’ll keep him on nice gentle ordinary-children-doing-ordinary-things books for a while, I think. Matthew is reading a very eclectic mixture of anything history-related (fact or fiction, but preferably fictionalised versions of actual events); detective stories from Secret Seven to bits of Sherlock Holmes [whom he wants to be for World Book Day. He has a magnifying glass. We will improvise a deerstalker, but might leave out the pipe, to fit the anti-smoking messages that the kids are already hearing at school. Peter wants to be Roger from Swallows & Amazons; hooray once again for books about ordinary kids].
– Music: Matthew’s trying to learn to play some Beatles songs on the piano. His piano teacher noticed that he knows the songs quite well. Since he’s been listening to them since age two, that’s not very surprising. Perhaps we ought to have a go at bringing his musical tastes more up to date sometime.
– Weird Popular Culture Stuff That Only Makes Sense To People Who Are Matthew’s And Peter’s Age: I think we have our first bona fide instance of this, viz. “Match Attax” cards. I think they’re the latest version of cigarette cards/ football stickers/ Cabbage Patch Kids cards/ other small items produced solely for kids to buy with their pocket money and swap with each other. They have footballers on them. That’s about all I can tell you. But they are suddenly extremely important to both boys, especially Matthew (they have lots of numbers on them); and the very long and earnest conversations about them are totally incomprehensible to us.

Proverbial wisdom

1:57 pm, 22nd February 2014 by Rachel

A Facebook friend put me on to this game, which I recommend to all parents (or anyone who’s ever required to entertain primary school age children, and has no moral objection to forcing the children to entertain them instead). Ask children to complete well-known sayings. The point is not to test whether the children know the sayings, but to pick ones they don’t know and see what they come up with. The resulting mix of surrealism and accidental wisdom is wonderful. Here are some of M&P’s best efforts, all of which I promise were completely unaided other than by supplying the first half of the saying:

Don’t put all your eggs in one… chicken (M).
All roads lead to… other roads (P).
Too many cooks spoil the… kitchen (M).
A rolling stone gathers no… dust (M).
A rolling stone gathers no… nuts (P).
It takes all sorts to make a… mess (P).
It takes all sorts to make a… party (M).
There’s no time like… dinner time (P).
Practise what you… don’t know yet (M).
Don’t teach your grandmother to… do cartwheels (P).
All work and no play makes Jack… run away (M).
Genius is 1% inspiration and 99%… guessing (M).
Half a loaf is better than… an electric shock (P – ???).
Those who can’t learn from history are doomed to… be history (M).
To let the cat out of… the cat flap (P).
Too many chiefs and not enough… advisers (M).
To pour oil on… fish and chips (M).
To pour oil on… a gate that doesn’t open properly (P).
The bigger they are, the harder they… are to beat (P).
In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is… not welcome (M).
In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is… not seeing very well (P).

January 2014

8:22 pm, 1st February 2014 by Rachel

Weather-wise, it could be worse. We could be living in the Somerset Levels. Or in the ancient near east at the time of the flood. We would still like it to stop raining.

New year seems a long time ago. Immediately after new year we went to Edinburgh to stay with Grandpa Martin (travelling somewhat against the flow of traffic) and rode on the big wheel and went swimming in a pool with a wave machine and were thoroughly spoilt. in the finale of a Christmas holiday during which all the travel worked perfectly and we had only one day’s illness between us (that was Peter, who had seen the new year in with a lot of vomiting).

Then it all started again. School, work, after-school club, weekend activities, too much laundry, not enough tidying up. I discovered in “sharing assembly” on Friday that this term Matthew has been learning to do Bollywood dancing and risk assessments. Not risk assessments for Bollywood dancing, as far as I know, though I’m sure the University of Leeds health & safety bods would manage to come up with an impressive list of risks. Peter also seems to have been doing a lot of dancing – “The Magic Elf” is, I take it, the new equivalent of what my generation remember as Music & Movement (“Find yourself a space…Pretend you are a tree…”)

We now have (Great-)Grandpa Morris’s old piano in our living room. It is a very beautiful thing with a fine loud voice. Fortunately Matthew tends to play it, rather than mess around on it, and the rest of us mostly just admire it. Matthew very diplomatically and conveniently passed his small electric keyboard on to Peter when the piano arrived. The small electric keyboard has a volume control. And its loudest voice isn’t nearly as loud as the piano.

Only major family excursion this month was to visit old friends near Sheffield. A gathering of three families – nine children and six adults, cosily accommodated by one large house and two large vehicles. Children bonded over board games, meringues, and nearly falling off large rocks on the edge of the Peak District. Good times.

The garden is still a swamp but I have now planted the pair of pear trees we were given for Christmas. Having pared down some of the bushes to make room. Disappointingly, the partridges are still missing.