Farmer Jack’s folly

Jack closed the kitchen door quietly, but his attempt at stealth had failed. Kitty was standing by the window with folded arms and tapping foot. “What’s in that trailer?” she snapped.

“Oh, hello, dear,” Jack puffed. “I’m just going to put the kettle on. Do you want something?”

“Not until you tell me what you’re up to.”

They sized each other up for a few seconds. Should he come clean now? Or was it better to wait until she had calmed down?

“I went to the auction in Stow,” Jack said at last. “Some really nice stuff, actually. Mostly too expensive for us. There was some lovely furniture, looked like it had come from …”

“What did you waste your money on?” snarled Kitty.

“Not much, really, dear. Just some … ornaments for the garden. I thought we could put them up near the road. It will amuse the schoolchildren as they walk past.”

Kitty’s eyes had narrowed. “Schoolchildren don’t walk past here, you old fool. It’s the A44. There’s no pavement.”

“Well, maybe we could open the farm at weekends, then.”

“Show me.”

Jack’s mind scrambled to think of an excuse. None came. Very slowly, he put his boots back on.

She followed him into the yard, watching him intently as he unhooked the tarp and pulled it back with a dramatic flourish and a weak “Ta-da!”

Kitty unfolded her arms and stared in bewildered disbelief at the contents of the trailer. For a second, Jack thought he might have got away with it. But then her eyes narrowed, her lips grew thin, and she turned to him so sharply that he thought she was going to hit him.

“You’ve got about ten seconds to explain what all this junk is for,” she said, “or you’ll be sleeping in the pigsty for a month.”

“I told you, dear. I thought we could open up the farm to the youngsters. They could come and pet the sheep, and that.”

Kitty was wearing the expression of a headmistress who had caught a mischievious schoolboy pulling a little girl’s hair, and who was quite prepared to wring a full confession out of him, no matter what.

“If they are here to pet the sheep,” she said, every word precise and cold, “then why have you bought a life-sized plastic castle?”

“That’s not just any castle,” he beamed. “That’s Snow White’s Castle, and it was very reasonably priced.”

“Oh, well then, excuse me,” she shot back. “I meant to ask, why have you bought a life-sized plastic Snow White castle?”

“I thought we could have a bit of a theme. Fairytales, like. The kids will love that.”

She gave a slow, exaggerated nod. “Yes, they will love petting a sheep in a plastic Snow White castle. Where is Snow White, anyway?”

Jack pulled the tarp back further. Despite herself, Kitty gasped. “Why is there a corpse in your trailer?” she hissed.

“It’s Snow White, dear. She just needs a lick of paint, that’s all. And,” he said proudly, “I’ve got the s- … I’ve got some dwarves as well.”

She stared at him so long that he started to shuffle and stutter.

“That’s – that’s not all, dear. Of course, it wouldn’t be fairytale-themed if it was just Snow White. I’ve – I’ve also got these other things.”

He peeled the tarp right back, and waited while she took in the other items in the trailer.

“Tell me, Jack,” she said, at last. “What fairytale is it that tells the story of two seahorses, two dophins, two octopuses, two mermaids, and a duck playing the guitar?”

“It doesn’t have to be an actual fairytale, dear. They can be wired up to the ‘leccy! They’ll be magical! These are genuine seafront illuminations from the prom at Folkestone!”

She exhaled and looked at the sky. Appropriately, it had started to rain on Jack’s parade.

“OK, Jack,” she said eventually. “I think you’ve lost your marbles, but this isn’t the first time, is it? That barn is full of old rubbish you’ve wasted your money on but don’t know what to do with, and I’m tired of telling you off about it. Here’s what we’ll do. Let’s split up the savings account. Take your half and invest it in your fairytale petting zoo. Build your plastic castle out by the main road.”

“You’ll help me?”

“No, Jack. I’ll take my half and invest it in something else. Something that might actually earn us some money for our retirement.” She eyed the lower field. “Maybe I’ll build a nice smart hotel and spa over there,” she mused, wistfully.

Jack felt a rush of emotion but failed to keep a straight face. I’ll show her, he thought. This will be the Disneyland of the Cotswolds. People will come from miles around to see the fairytale illuminations. I’ll build it, and they will come. I bet I can even get the Prime Minister to do the official opening ceremony.

Rather against the odds, he was right.

Illuminated duck playing the guitar
An illuminated, and possibly drunk, duck playing the guitar
Illuminated mermaid
An illuminated mermaid, whose sculptor spent a lot more time on her bottom than her face
Illuminated octopus and dolphin
Sea creatures from your nightmares

This is, of course, a work of fiction. Some of the text above has been exaggerated for comic effect … but only very slightly. In recognition of the fact that this is a functioning business and well-known tourist attraction, I have chosen not to explicitly identify it.

A toddler in Disneyland

Mummy says, “It’s your Big Birthday this year. What would you like to do? Shall we go away somewhere?”

“Oh, yes,” says Daddy. “I’ve had my eye on Sicily for a while. Imagine having a private villa with a pool. Imagine playing all day on the beach, even this late in the year, and then going home and drinking locally-produced Nero. We could go and visit Commissario Montalbano’s house by the sea, and the Temple of Hera, and all the castles and cathedrals. That’s what I’d like to do.”

… And that’s how we ended up booking a holiday to Disneyland Paris for Daddy’s Big Birthday.

Why would you take a toddler to Disneyland at all? Surely he’s too young to go on most of the rides? Surely he doesn’t recognise most of the characters? Surely he’ll get tired and have a tantrum? And surely he’ll never remember the experience, so why bother?

The selfish reason, of course, is that we go for the benefit of the adults in the party. But I’m not only certain that A did thoroughly enjoy it, but that he even remembers parts of it (when prompted by photos).

Disneyland goes well out of its way to be engaging for the whole family. For the older ones, it has an attention to detail – in its theming, ride design and overall visit experience – that far exceeds any UK attraction I’ve visited. Yet it is surprisingly inclusive for younger visitors. The vast majority of rides are suitable for a two-year-old. There is genuinely plenty to keep us all absorbed for days, and we didn’t feel that we were missing out by ignoring the very fastest, scariest rides.

It helped massively that we visited off-season. Waiting times for rides were rarely more than a few minutes, especially first thing. Our timing was dictated by the Big Birthday but it happily coincided with the changeover from Halloween to Christmas theming. Again, the attention to detail is superb, with individual rides adopting seasonal themes, as well as changes to the parks’ decor and parades. We were also lucky enough to experience A’s first fireworks display, which he loved. (At the end, he asked for more; it’s surprisingly difficult to explain the concept that the show is now over. But, at home, he now sometimes asks to look out of the window to see if there are any fireworks happening.)

Pumpkin decoration in the form of Mickey Mouse
Halloween decorations at Disneyland
Christmas tree and garlands featuring Mickey Mouse
Christmas decorations at Disneyland
Mickey offering Minnie a Christmas gift, with castle in background
Christmas at Disneyland

It is true that A did get very tired, and found it difficult to get to sleep from all the excitement and disruption (and possibly food). And I don’t think he understood the point of some of the attractions. But it’s also overwhelmingly true that he was as excited about the whole thing as we were.

Every visitor to Disneyland will enjoy exploring and building their own list of favourites; so, unlike some other reviews, I am not going to attempt to dictate what you “should” and “should not” do with a toddler. But I can tell you a few of our personal highlights and things we learned from.

We liked our transfer from the airport, via the so-called Magic Shuttle coach service. It took about an hour; we dropped off our bags at the hotel and went straight into the Park in time for the lunchtime parade.

We all liked the first ride we went on, Autopia, in which guests even as young as A can “drive” vintage sports cars around a track. We could tell immediately from his reaction that A was going to have a good time. We went straight from there to “flying” a rocket on the Orbitron.

A loved It’s A Small World, which we went on several times – perched on the edge of his seat, excitedly pointing out details. He loved the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups, the Casey Jr. Circus Train, and many more. And he adored seeing Lightning McQueen and Mater in person, even though the live motor stunt show left him a bit cold.

Lightning McQueen and Mater characters
Lightning McQueen and Mater

There were a couple of rides in which A showed a little trepidation. On the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride, which opens with a stretch of darkness and growing sense of dread, he clung close to us at first; but he was soon asking to go on it again. And there is a Toy Story themed vertical drop ride in which he looked a little concerned as he ascended high above the Park; but as soon as he saw that we were enjoying it, it was enough to have him chortling with delight.

Some rides just bemused him. The Ratatouille ride is a technical marvel – best described as a trackless rollercoaster with huge cinema screens (for which, I have just learned from Wikipedia, the correct terminology is a Local Positioning System Trackless Dark Ride) – but he wouldn’t keep his 3D glasses on. And although he enjoyed steering the pods in Buzz Lightyear’s Laser Blast and shouting at the evil Emperor Zurg, he didn’t really understand the point of the actual lasers.

Yet he was also remarkably patient and brave when it came to some attractions. He sat attentively at the front on his own during the interactive Stitch Live! show, and even remained engaged through most of the Buffalo Bill dinner show, despite its long duration and despite being way past bedtime.

We liked our hotel – the Newport Bay Club. It’s smart, reasonably quiet (despite being huge), and has good facilities, including an indoor swimming pool that wasn’t too busy. It was a little stroll away from the Park entrances, but not too far; the pleasant lakeside walk was good for building excitement / calming down.

New England style building with illuminations
Newport Bay Club hotel exterior
Hotel reception
Newport Bay Club hotel reception

We didn’t like that our meal plan required us to have breakfast in the Park, rather than at our hotel – even though this meant an additional incentive for getting into the Park early. The organisation at the Videopolis venue was terrible, with long queues developing over the course of the morning, and the food options were very limited. But we did like having the meal plan overall, as it allowed us to try decent, themed restaurants in the Parks as well as dinner at our hotel. We learned that it’s really important to book in advance for any of the themed restaurants, but the reward is being able to step out of the crowds and into a swanky-looking art deco bistro, or a colourful Arabian-inspired café.

Art decor interior
Restaurant Des Stars
Arabian style interior with friendly tiger
Agrabah Café interior

Overall, we hugely enjoyed watching A’s reaction to new experiences and sensations, as well as seeing his confidence grow significantly over the course of a few days. He embraced certain rides and characters; was unfailingly polite to waiting staff and others (a two-year-old saying “merci beaucoup” unprompted is simply adorable); and was patient during queues and travel. We are looking forward to doing it all again one day soon.

Can’t deny, we’re feeling smug

The clocks have gone back by an hour. On this day each year, non-parents get a joyous extra hour in bed. Parents, though … parents spend the night before dreading the prospect of a wide-awake toddler an hour earlier than usual. 0530, say.

So full marks and a gold star to our little man, who stayed snuggled in bed for an extra two hours this morning – giving not just himself, but Mummy and Daddy too, a much-appreciated bonus lie-in.

The loveliest word in the English language

Some people believe that certain words are intrinsically beautiful. This may be true in isolation from their meaning: “cellar door” is often cited as being an example of a phrase in which the sound of the words is far more beautiful than the mundane reality they convey. A word may also pleasingly match its meaning to its sound; every onomatopoeia is an example of this, but also any word or phrase that is selected to add symbolism to its context. Wikipedia gives examples including euphony and cacophony, and even suggests that some words can be inherently funny.

It’s also said that certain entire languages are more beautiful than others: Italian is flowing, melodious and passionate, while German is staccato and a little bit terrifying.

Anybody can suggest their own list of pleasing words and we can’t argue with their choice, because beauty is in the ear of the beholder. But I can add my own proposal to the list, and I’m prepared to back up my choice with evidence. My proposal for the loveliest word in the English language is toddler.


(noun) A person who toddles, especially a young child learning to walk.

With its tee and dees, and especially with the awkward dee-to-ell transition, the word stumbles uncertainly; sometimes it falls over, but it picks itself back up cheerfully and just carries on.

But the word’s loveliness is primarily due to its emotional association. “Toddler” represents infinite possibility. It is complex distilled emotion. Every slightly funny noise is the height of comedy; every unwanted spoonful of food or early bedtime, a bleak tragedy. Delighted to distraught in a flash, for no discernible reason. A surprising sound or sudden drop can be hilarious; a tickle can be devastating.

A toddler is always busy doing something and it would be unfair to call this aimless when it is clearly so purposeful. It is the earnest pursuit of unknowable goals: a crayon scribble, a babbled conversation, a re-ordering of toys so that they are perfectly aligned according to plan. It is daily growth and adventure. It is fierce independence, offset by a desire for frequent reassurance. It is unbreakable ritual and habit, with sporadic moments of joyous mayhem. A toddler’s activity can only be driven by imitation, intuition and imagination, and as such is an insight into a different dimension of thinking, uninhibited by negativity or even reality.

By contrast “baby” is a diminutive, a put-down, an expression of helplessness and vulnerability. Yes, a baby has potential, but it is defined by its lack of personality, its utter dependence on others. A baby can be happy or sad, but never cheeky, witty or insolent. “Baby”, as an insult, suggests immaturity and helplessness. “Toddler” is rarely used in this way (except in one specific case).

To toddle is to move uncertainly with uneven steps. Moreover, it is to make a big deal about going nowhere in particular. What a luxury that is, to fill one’s day with passion, exploration and intrigue, and to return at last to a mother’s embrace.

Now some will tell me that I am being smug, and that the reality of many toddlers is not that they are delightful, adventurous little wonders, but rather that they are noisy, messy, and thoroughly uncooperative. That is, after all, the rare case where an adult is occasionally compared to a toddler: in the event of unreasonable, intractable petulance. Our own may be no better than most, or perhaps we haven’t yet reached the nadir of the Terrible Twos. But the reaction of strangers to our toddler is overwhelmingly positive. This suggests to me that most people do look past the occasional grumpy face or shout of annoyance, and see instead a perfect reflection of innocence, wonderment and joy.

Daddy is a famous film director at last

Silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock or, possibly, Daddy

Alfie points to the DVD shelf and calls out, “Daddy! Daddy!” He has apparently decided that there’s a picture of Daddy on the side of one of Daddy’s boxed DVD sets.

Now, on the one hand, it’s flattering to be compared to one of the greatest film directors of all time.

On the other hand, I’m not certain that Alfie’s taste or critical appreciation for Hitchcock’s work are the reasons for his acclaim. Maybe I need to go on a diet.

CBeebies’ top totty

Over at Mumsnet, assorted Mummies go weak at the virtual knees for Mr Bloom, Dr Ranj, and Andy’s hair (or his trousers, according to a Daily Mail article that I’m not going to link to). Meanwhile, you cannot browse parenting blogs for long before stumbling across the notion that Saturday morning programming is specifically designed to hold Dad’s attention as well as the kids’ – whether that be the mere suggestion of playing dress-up with Rebecca or perhaps spending a bit of exploratory time with Maddie and her Special Camera.

CBeebies is a TV channel full of high-quality, inclusive, educational content for toddlers, free of advertising. But this right here is The Internet, so naturally there are plenty of people furiously tapping away on their phones in order to sully that wholesome experience. Even the fact that a good proportion of the CBeebies content is animated does not seem to reduce this forbidden-yet-freely-debated undercurrent of desire. (It is, however, a small mark of progress that a blog post entitled Sharing My Top 5 CBeebies Hotties also finds the time to complain that Topsy And Tim “reinforces gender stereotypes”.)

I want to be taken seriously as a parenting blogger and I therefore feel that this is a barrel whose bottom I, too, must scrape. All complaints in the comments section, please, as I reveal – definitively – the top eight eligible women of CBeebies.

8 Captain Captain

As seen in: Swashbuckle

Eligibility: Captain Captain is certainly rich, possessing all kinds of plundered loot, including several giant gemstones. Her moronic employees have given her low expectations of men, which can only work in a potential suitor’s favour. Having been shipwrecked for some time, and having walked the plank into the “ship’s mess” on several occasions, she would probably appreciate meeting a guy with a sturdy boat and even sturdier nostrils.

7 Xuli

As seen in: Go Jetters

Eligibility: Xuli lives an international, jet-set lifestyle as an ace pilot, and has a home on a beautiful tropical island. She is brave and resourceful, has a strong moral character and speaks with an exotic accent. However, she is saddled with huge student debts from the Academy.

6 Polly

As seen in: Something Special

Eligibility: Polly is well-connected, upbeat and inclusive. We can infer that she’s independently wealthy, having inherited a significant portion of the Tumble estate. She loves tea, family camping holidays, and dressing eccentrically.

5 Josephine

As seen in: Peter Rabbit

Eligibility: Recently-widowed Josephine Rabbit is looking to date again after the tragic loss of her husband. She is an exemplary mother and home-maker but don’t assume that she’s a domestic bore: she has a secret dark history as a highly courageous adventurer.

Now, we might argue that quick-witted Lily Bobtail is the more eligible Lake District lapine; but she’s very young, and we wouldn’t want this to get weird.

4 Toodloo

As seen in: Twirlywoos

Eligibility: Although technically married and outwardly happy, Toodloo is actually lonely and stir-crazy after being held virtual prisoner by Great BigHoo on his modified lifeboat. There is some evidence that Great BigHoo is gaslighting her – exposing her to weird phenomena from the outside world and later denying that they existed. She is desperately hoping to be rescued by her personal Prince Charming, preferably one with his own helicopter.

3 Amma

As seen in: Bing

Eligibility: A dedicated carer with a razor-sharp wit and a wonderful turn-of-phrase, Amma is pragmatic, no-nonsense, imaginative and wise. She is long-term single, having recently come to realise that Flop only has eyes for Padget.

2 Hennie

As seen in: Hey Duggee

Eligibility: How would you like to meet a posh bird with long legs? Hennie is smart, caring and athletic. Plus she has her own train set.

1 One

As seen in: Numberblocks

Eligibility: She is, by definition, single – but One is cool with that: she’s very well-adjusted and contextualises her solitude as a manifestation of every individual’s objective uniqueness in the universe. In fact, she has an ace identity and is a natural in any base. She is petite and positive (but neither perfect nor prime). Note that her personality changes substantially when she’s in a group.

A fine vintage

Alfie loves his cars. He even enjoys pushing non-vehicular toys and other objects around the carpet.

When he’s a little older, he’s going to really enjoy playing with my collection of Matchbox cars – dutifully kept by my parents for many years. It was a bit of a lurch to realise that he’s going to consider all of those cars to be somewhat vintage. The likes of the Escort Mk II and the Datsun are going to look hilariously old-fashioned to his eyes.

To Alfie, they will look like 1940s cars would have done to me at the same age.

Further reflections on Postman Pat’s performance

  1. Usually spends the whole day delivering just one parcel.
  2. Is a terrible driver. Most parcels damaged, spilled or broken are caused by his van going around the corner on two wheels and screeching to a halt just in time to avoid running into roadworks, the policeman, or his own cat.
  3. Has an eco-friendly electric van, yet usually needs to resort to motorcycle, off-road vehicle, boat or even helicopter. To deliver one parcel.
  4. Frequently cannot deliver the parcel without opening it. For example, when delivering a bicycle, will usually complete the delivery on the back of the bicycle itself.
  5. Sometimes decides to keep the parcel for himself, feeling that his customer is better served by Pat devising some knock-off solution out of rubbish. For example, when delivering a shed that has turned out to be too large, he builds a small replica out of cardboard and keeps the shed. When delivering ice that is melting because it’s taken so long, he substitutes plastic milk bottles. It’s not what the customer ordered, Pat, and it’s not yours to keep. The buyer has wasted their money, and a blameless eBay seller’s going to get a terrible review.
  6. Perpetually turns up at the last minute, just as everyone is giving up hope. Karaoke night in Greendale? Starts late because the PA hasn’t turned up on time. Key item for a school project? The kids are starting to riot or even cry in distress. In one case, an item that was supposed to be delivered to the station missed its train, and Pat had to race the train to its destination.
  7. Cannot answer a straight question from his manager. When the despatcher Ben asks, “When can you get here?”, Pat inevitably answers, “I’m on my way.”

In mitigation, unlike certain couriers round our way, at least he doesn’t leave the parcel in the dustbin. On top of a mound of nappies. On bin collection day. While we’re in the house waiting for it. Congratulations, Pat, you’re not the worst postman we know.

Hey Duggee is back and I’m rather excited

There’s a trailer on BBC iPlayer trailer for new episodes of Hey Duggee, starting on 4th December. I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am.

As you’d expect of a channel aimed at toddlers, CBeebies is stuffed full of worthy, educational shows and plenty to hold the attention of younger viewers. Well, in theory, anyway; Alfie seems to like the music or title sequences at the start of most shows, but is still too young to sit through the whole episode. This means Mummy and Daddy are responsible for vetting the quality of different programmes, in the hope that we can steer him towards the most entertaining and educational.

Because, in reality, seen with a critical adult’s eye, the tone of the channel can be very uneven. There are shows that are ostensibly educational but mainly just an excuse for an entertaining adventure (Go Jetters, Octonauts – which both are very entertaining but also a bit too dramatic for very little children, and which have come in for criticism for being too merchandise-driven). At the other end of the scale, there are shows of educational intent without the slightest joy or fun at all (Numberblocks springs to mind). There are shows that seem to actively celebrate being naughty as long as everyone learns their lessons (I’m looking at you, Timmy Time, and also Bing to a certain extent). There are shows which take all you know about beloved characters and “update” them for modern audiences, with dubious results (Peter Rabbit).

With that critical adult’s eye, half of the shows don’t even make objective sense. Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures sees a man with a time machine go back millions of years so that he collect artefacts for a museum. Nobody ever seems to question from where he’s getting extinct, yet fresh, foliage and dino-eggs. And he always arrives back with just seconds to spare before the new exhibit opens. Again – he’s in a time machine. Set the thing five minutes earlier, Andy!

Bad news if you have fond childhood memories of certain shows that are still going strong: Postman Pat is a terrible delivery driver. Awful. He should be fired. Every episode of his Special Delivery Service sees him with just one job: delivering a single parcel. And every episode sees him losing the parcel, damaging it, or delivering it so late that everyone has given up hope of seeing it and are on the point of cancelling the fete / show / karaoke night or whatever. In many, many cases he has to open and use the contents of the parcel in order to accomplish his mission. Imagine if the real world were like that – your new bicycle delivered to you at one minute to midnight by a uniformed man riding your bicycle, while talking on your brand-new phone, and with a well-thumbed “new” book in his pocket to give you.

Quietly standing head-and-shoulders above all of the other content on this channel – and, I would argue, almost of all of the content on every other channel – is an unassuming, primary-coloured cartoon series about five animals and the leader of their play club. Each short episode sees Duggee lead the “Squirrels” on an adventure of some kind, from the epic to the intimate. At the end of each episode, the Squirrels are awarded a badge for their efforts.

The simplistic look-and-feel of the animation (triangular chickens!) belies a thoroughly unexpected depth and complexity to the universe that the Squirrels inhabit. Not only do the Squirrels themselves have realistic, complex and flawed characters, but the extensive supporting cast do, too. They make mistakes; they learn from one other. Sometimes, they even annoy one another: they are not perfect. Yet the Squirrels are consistently supportive and generous to everyone they meet.

There’s a mixture of educational messages being pushed – not just about collaboration and inclusivity, but also more overtly: from simple counting, shapes or colours, to higher-complexity stories about the life cycles of frogs and butterflies. Yet the educational aspect never feels forced or preachy, but fits naturally within the Squirrels’ adventures.

When the programme goes off-piste, as at rather frequently does, it is joyously ingenious. The River Badge, for example, is an episode that is ostensibly about delivering a parcel; yet it manages to be an homage to both The African Queen and Apocalypse Now, and a parody of eighties computer games, all within the confines of a seven-minute educational animated programme for children. These are not merely cheap nods to pop culture reference points, like certain long-running animated series; but they infuse the stories, and the way they are brought to life. I wholeheartedly agree with this reviewer in the Guardian who describes the execution of The Puppet Show Badge as “dizzyingly brilliant”.

It is clear that the producers have a lot of fun, and that’s deeply infectious. The surreal and freestyle writing reminds me somewhat of Willo the Wisp, a personal favourite from my own childhood – but Hey Duggee has none of the darkness, and has a far broader canvas for adventures.

In short, Hey Duggee is a series that condenses the essence of joy, friendship and childhood innocence into every episode. I love it.