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The one which tells how it all began

imageEr, is this thing on? Ok here goes…..It all started on a grey weekday afternoon. Mummy was at work. I was cuddled up on the sofa with my young son watching He-Man on Netflix.

I could tell his attention was starting to waver as he began to ask me deep questions, which was unfortunate because it was getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacked Castle Greyskull.

He looked at me (my son, not Skeletor), golden curls framing his little face, eyes filled with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and asked: ‘Daddy, what’s a daddy for?’ I gave a throaty laugh, the sort which is supposed to mean ‘It’s truly adorable that you are so precocious but could you please shut up now.’ Jocular and proud, but with just a tiny hint of threat. But he kept at it, asking again, ‘But Daddy, what is a daddy for?’ the inflection in his voice rising at the end of the question as if he was pondering the utter pointlessness of the whole concept of daddies.

Worryingly I couldn’t think of an answer immediately. My usual tactic when faced with a tricky question (‘Ask mummy’) seemed not to be appropriate at this moment. Instead I settled for diversion tactics, bashing him repeatedly over the head with a cushion while doing my best evil giant voice and telling him I was going to use his bones as toothpicks.

However, the whole episode did start me thinking in a new way about the absolutely terrifying beautiful maddening wonder of being a parent and how it changes everything about your life. Usually when I start thinking I start writing. This blog is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

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Death knock

I’ve recently started watching the BBC series Press, an enjoyable and polished drama which follows the adventures of the staff on two fictional daily newspapers.

While certain shortcuts are taken or cliches pursued for dramatic purposes, there is enough in there which is familiar to pique the interest of an old newspaperman.

The conflict of the approaches of a left-leaning liberal publication which flounders while it attempts to maintain strict editorial principles with the thriving tabloid where the editor demands his reporters dig up ‘dirt’ is a quandary many journalists will have wrestled with.

Similarly the struggles of a diminishing industry dealing with the new commercial challenges of a digital age is well observed. The scene where the editor of the Guardian-like Herald explains to her groaning staff how the following Monday’s edition is going to have an advertising ‘wraparound’ covering the front and back pages is accurate. I’ve been in the room on more than one occasion while that very conversation has taken place.

Also the underlying theme of how being at the forefront of driving the news agenda requires sacrifices which can destroy family life or good mental health is a little too recognisable for me to properly enjoy.

But it is another scene altogether which I perhaps found most impactful. The first episode of the drama is called ‘Death Knock’ and part of the story surrounds a young reporter on the tabloid Post agonising over having to rap the door of the grieving parents of a young footballer who has taken his own life. Just watching it made me uncomfortable.

For several years I was the crime reporter on a daily newspaper. In far distant days the paper produced an evening edition. This meant that the reporters started work very early in the morning to meet the deadlines of a PM print run.

As the crime reporter my first duty was always to check the overnight police notes. Then, not always but often, while the rest of society was just waking up I would be on the road to do a death or crime knock.

I would be reasonably confident in stating that for several years back near the start of this millennium I had at least as many of these difficult encounters as any other journalist in Northern Ireland.

But despite the multitude of death knocks, the ritual never seemed to get any easier. My stomach never quite settled, my nerves were always raw. I could never shake the persistent feeling that I was doing something quite awful.

Yes there was and is a clear and genuine public interest in allowing bereaved families to tell their stories, but I always felt mercenary. Newspapers peddle in grief and anguish and I knew a strong human interest story would always make the front page.

In addition I had to balance the guilt over talking to a victim’s family with the fear of having to go back to the office to face my editor empty handed.

Often I thought about how I would react if I had been bereaved and a young journalist came calling at my door reeking of desperation to get the story.

Techniques evolved through practice. Most people’s original reaction is to tell you to fuck off. But if you can just get them talking first, just a little opening before the door slams in your face, the smallest of human connections, then you know you’re in with a much better chance of getting the interview.

And all people are different. The death knock demonstrated the hugely varying methods that the human nature uses to cope with great adversity. Often I was verbally abused and described as ‘scum’. On a few occasions I was advised to leave property for my own health and was pushed and shoved more than once.

But then there were the people who just wanted to talk, who found something cathartic in sharing at a time when their grief must have been overwhelming.

I’ll never forget the family of one high profile murder victim in Belfast. I was the first journalist to find their house and knocked on their door less than six hours after their son had been killed. The parents invited me into their home and were unfailingly generous and open with their time. The tearful mother asked me if I’d had any breakfast and then insisted on making me tea and toast. A more compelling example of human strength and dignity I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed.

There were disasters too. Hours spent unsuccessfully knocking on doors asking if this was the right house, cases of mistaken identity or where incorrect information which had been passed on. I remember once waking a middle-aged gentleman from his sleep to ask him if it was his son had been lost the night before. It was the wrong house but the momentary look of fear and horror on his face disturbed me greatly.

It never happened to me but I’ve heard of occasions where journalists or photographers found a victim’s house so quickly that the family had not yet been informed of a tragedy.

In my later years in journalism things changed. I was on the newsdesk so became responsible for sending other reporters to do death knocks rather than carrying them out myself.

But the routine was always the same. The reporter was loathe to leave the office, often hanging around or killing time until I firmly told them they had to do it. Several times journalists informed me they were uncomfortable. I told them that was the natural reaction, the day when they were not uncomfortable was when they should begin to worry.

In more recent times social media and the dwindling resources of newspapers changed the situation further. Rather than knocking on a stranger’s door and asking them for a picture, photographs can often be found online. Rather than needing to get live quotes from a family member, there is usually a flood of online tributes which can be harvested. Doors are still knocked but perhaps not quite as often.

But this new situation presented a new series of problems. On occasion I received angry phone calls from grieving relatives who demanded to know the source of our photo or quotes. When I told them that they freely available online it rarely placated their hostility.

The truth is that there is just enough grey area about the rights of information publicly accessible on social media that newspapers are able to charge right through the vacuum and hoover up what is available. It is a rare and brave journalist who will decline the chance to lift a photo from social media when he or she is aware that all of the competitors have almost certainly already done so.

There is no doubt that much of the most powerful journalism comes from families telling their story of facing grief or adversity. I know personally of instances where families have channeled the story of their tragedy through the media to push for justice or vital societal change.

The death knock will always be part of journalism. And it should be.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to perform.

As a former hack now there are still many parts of the game which I fondly remember and miss. The early morning rap on the door is not one of them.

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Alcohol and glory days

These days I get to go to the pub about as often as my son decides to have a lie-in (for the non-parents that means virtually never).

It wasn’t always so. I used to have an active social life and regularly enjoyed bars.

Back then the names of beers were easily recognisable – Harp, Stella, Smithwicks.

Now, on the very rare occasion I’m at a pub, I find myself squinting at the logos on the taps and the bottles in the fridge gamely searching for a brand I recognise amid the myriad of brews with strange names such as The Headless Leprechaun or Goat Manure.

My relationship with public houses changed when I essentially gave up alcohol about four years ago. My decision was based on the logic that having a very young son and suffering from hangovers mixed about as well as gin and milky tea.

I felt I needed my full reserves of energy to cope with the incessant demands of looking after a toddler rather than the soft leaky-tyre state of physical exhaustion that drinking the night before inevitably brought.

There were other reasons for deciding to abstain from alcohol. I wanted to become healthier, both in mind and body. I had grown tired of struggling to hold conversations in crowded, noisy bars and then desperately searching for a taxi to take me home at the end of the night (few words are more demoralising to hear after midnight than ‘Nah, I’m booked mate’). I was utterly fed up of pissing in dingy pub toilets, fighting my way back to my table and then realising I needed to go again the moment I sat down.

And, the reason which I seldom mentioned but which was perhaps most profound of all, I simply didn’t much like myself when I’d had a few drinks. All of the worst elements of my personality became magnified – the anecdotes were exaggerated, the comments became more cruel and I had a unhealthy tendency towards dark moments of morose introspection – when under the influence.

It’s probably not overstating the mark to say that most of the actions which I really regret in my life were carried out after alcohol had been taken.

If I had the opportunity to remove such a negative influence from my life, it seemed logical and obvious to take it.

So I made the decision to banish alcohol.

And here’s the thing. It turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated and I found that I didn’t really miss it at all. My wife still enjoyed her glass of wine on a Friday night but I wasn’t struck by the inclination to wrestle the goblet from her hand.

I simply fell out of the habit of drinking, to the point where the action of opening a bottle of beer became as alien and unlikely as sticking a large carrot in my ear.

I never described myself as teetotal and didn’t beat myself up if I decided to have a glass of wine at a wedding or a cold beer on a warm day on holiday. I just found, that for the most part, I didn’t bother.

Naturally I found myself attending fewer social occasions and, when I did, I was always the designated driver. Being in a bar or restaurant when you are sober but surrounded by very drunk people is often humorous but occasionally disconcerting or even threatening. More often it just seemed less bother to stay at home.

And this became my habit. While I have tasted alcohol on a few rare occasions I have not been drunk or in any state close to it for four years.

However, last night I did go to a bar and I drank. The occasion was a catch-up with two former colleagues from my newspaper days. Although none of the three of us work in the daily news market any longer we’ve all loosely stayed in contact and had been trying to organise a get-together for close to a year. Finally we managed to set a date which was mutually convenient.

My original intention had been to drive to the bar and home again at the end of the evening. As I prepared myself I did wonder what my old mates would think about me not drinking. I’ve not been out with them since I’ve been abstemious. Indeed the last occasion I drank with these mates was the very last time I was drunk. A heavy night in their company finally persuaded me to kick the alcohol habit.

I readied myself for some good-natured ribbing but assumed they would be understanding and supportive.

And then fate intervened. Shortly before I was due to depart a nasty traffic accident brought the roads between my house and Belfast to a standstill. I was faced with the unwelcome prospect of being stuck in traffic for a sizeable part of the evening when I should have been catching up with old friends.

So I abandoned the idea and jumped on a train. Ten minutes later I was in Belfast City Centre dandering towards a pub I had never visited before in my life.

I met my friends at the bar. One immediately asked me what beer I wanted. Perhaps I was already a little bit intoxicated by the pleasure of seeing former colleagues so I just went along with it. I asked him to select an ale for me and was quickly given a dark bottle which contained liquid which looked like goat’s piss and tasted and smelled quite foul.

However, I stuck with it and soon we retired to a table in the corner and were blowing the dust off some of our favourite insults about each other. By the second or third bottle the goat’s piss had started to taste a little better. It was clear my mates were drinking a lot faster than I was but they didn’t say anything when I sat out a couple of the rounds.

Having not drank seriously in several years my resistance to alcohol was severely diminished. Soon it was a case of, as I think Wilde put it, alcohol, being taken in sufficient quantities, producing all the effects of being rightly pissed.

My head began to swim pleasantly. However, I was wary because I know it’s a small leap from there to spending the evening with your head down the toilet. I slowed down.

And the three of us fell into a routine of drunken banter. Most of this was built around anecdotes from the period we worked together in newspapers (‘d’ye remember the time when….’)

Frequent parts of the conversations were hilarious. But it was, I think, laced with a trace of poignancy. Poignancy borne of the fact that the common experience that had bound us all together is now gone, that in a very narrow sense our professional lives are not as interesting or fun as they once were. We’re all in different places now. In the end it became like that Bruce Springsteen song where the characters all sit around talking about how great things used to be.

It was my first drunken conversation in a long time but it was just like all the rest, looking backwards rather than forwards.

And then it was over. Except it wasn’t.

I had left myself plenty of time to walk back to Great Victoria Street station to catch the last bus home to Hillsborough. But one of my friends was travelling in the same direction and floated the idea of a last pint in The Crown. I was pleasingly drunk at this point and idiotically agreed.

We supped the pints and talked nonsense agreeably until my mate looked at his watch and we concurred that the position of the hands proved beyond reasonable doubt that I had missed my bus. This meant I had to wait forty minutes to get the last train to Lisburn.

Eventually it arrived and was full to capacity. I had to stand the whole way while a group of drunken women on their way home from a night out danced, tripped over each other, laughed and sang chart songs.

When I reached Lisburn I tried to phone several taxi companies but was met each time with a voice of exasperated amazement that I would be so foolish as to expect that a taxi may be available.

Eventually I conceded that I would have to walk. It is probably about four miles from Lisburn train station to my house. When I reached the outskirts of Lisburn it began to rain. Heavily.

As I got to the countryside a couple of times I had to disappear into a darkened field to relieve myself. I trod miserably and wet along a lengthy stretch of the A1 where there are no streetlights and it was so dark I could not see where I was placing my front foot.

At some point after 2 am I reached my house and collapsed, exhausted into bed. I was very sober by now.

When I woke this morning, my feet still aching, I checked my phone. I had a message from one of my mates.

‘Great night lads. Let’s do it again soon 👍

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Dippy the dinosaur and the toilet step

It was a photo in the newspaper which first got me interested in Dippy.

The 70ft long plaster cast replica of the fossilised bones of a Diplocus carnegii dinosaur is currently on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of a UK tour, and all the hype suggested it was something that kids just had to see.

The images in the papers which launched the exhibition echoed the point. Perfectly groomed primary school children with their mouths open and eyes stretched wide as they encountered the giant dinosaur for the first time.

Now, as a former newspaperman myself, I can be quite cynical about what appears in the printed press. I know the tricks of the trade and the likelihood of the photographers instructing the children to adopt an astonished reaction is quite high. Perhaps the image was taken a few times until the persistent snapper got exactly the shot he or she wanted.

But this was not the occasion to be sceptical. My wee man loves dinosaurs. He has a large collection of dino toys and already knows the name of more prehistoric animals than I ever will. He regularly compiles lists of his favourite dinosaurs (as of yesterday the roll of honour was 1 brontosaurus, 2 T-Rex 3 stegosaurus).

And here was an opportunity where the most viewed set of dinosaur bones in the world were just down the road. When I told him last week about Dippy I said it was something we had to see because he would remember if for the rest of his life. I promised him that we would go soon.

Mummy was off work yesterday so we decided to surprise him with a visit to the museum after school. The three of us chatted excitedly on the way about what we were about to witness.

The museum has worked hard to make it an unforgettable experience for young visitors. As soon as you enter the building friendly staff members give kids ‘I’ve seen Dippy’ stickers and there are green dino footprints and signs erected pointing the way. In the waiting room, next to the hall where Dippy is on display, there are little peepholes where young ones can have a sneaky peek before they are admitted.

Soon it was our turn. My wee man ran and bounced into the room. He spent a few seconds gazing upon the majesty of the huge collection of dinosaur bones which dominated the space, then he turned to us, smiled sweetly and said…

‘OK, what else is there to see?’

It was, in truth, not quite the reaction I had been expecting.

The Dippy room is packed with dinosaur facts and art projects but, it quickly became clear, my son had seen enough and was ready to move on. I managed to stall him for a few more minutes, trying to draw his attention to the size of Dippy’s feet or the length of his tail, but soon I had to concede what was obvious, he was already bored.

We left the room and descended the stairs, pausing to look at a few other artefacts and exhibits. He clearly wanted to see everything, but only for a fleeting moment, before he rushed on.

He became truly animated only once.

It occurred when he spotted a little plastic step beside a glass case. He came running to find me.

‘Daddy! Daddy! Come and see! It’s the same wee step that we have at home! The one that I use to climb onto the toilet!’

This got him more excited than Dippy.

Our visit inevitably ended in the museum gift shop. We probably spent ten times as long here as we had in the Dippy room as my son pondered and agonised over which small toy to buy. After an inglorious display of indecision, and with my threats that he would leave with nothing hanging over him, he eventually settled on a roaring stegosaurus.

He explained: ‘Stegosaurus is my third favourite dinosaur and he has some blue on him, and blue is my favourite colour.’

Then we drove home. The car was a more subdued place now as exhaustion overcame us all. My wife and son went to bed early and I was left to reflect into the late hours upon what had happened.

I had promised my boy that Dippy would be an experience he would remember for the rest of his life. Perhaps I felt a little cheated that he had dismissed so quickly what I had spent so much time building up. If there was a little bit of pique within me it was because it had not worked out the way I had imagined.

And therein lies one of the conundrums of being a parent. Understanding that my experience, or even my perception of what that experience should be, is not the same as my child’s.

I suppose I want to write a beautiful narrative of exactly how every day will work out for my boy. But it is my narrative, not his.

Just like this blog is mine and not his and the events described in it are reflected through the prism of my consciousness. Perhaps some day, if my son ever reads these words, they will all seem foreign and unfamiliar to him because it is not the experience he remembers.

The way a child thinks is so different to an adult that they may as well be a different species. But it is adults who write the children’s stories. That is why we spend a lot of time talking about things like Dippy, and no time at all talking about the excitement of finding an exact replica of your toilet step.

When my son woke this morning he immediately wanted to play with his dinosaurs, to introduce his new stegosaurus to the other toys. He talked a lot about our museum visit as I drove him to school. He proudly wore the ‘I’ve seen Dippy’ sticker on his school jumper and as he met his little friend at the school gate he immediately began to tell him all about the dinosaur museum.

And then it occurred to me that it was a special occasion for him. Perhaps because he’d seen the most famous set of dinosaur bones in the world. Maybe because he’d got a new toy or found a match for his toilet step. Possibly just because we’d done it all together as a family.

Maybe, just maybe, he will remember it for the rest of his life. And then, when he wants to, he’ll tell you exactly why. And that’s just the way it should be.

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The Parkrun odyssey goes on

Like all journeys in life I found that the best way to approach the Parkrun odyssey was to run straight at it.

Once I had announced my intention to complete each Parkrun in Northern Ireland (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2018/09/02/my-parkrun-challenge/) and basked in all of the congratulatory words and messages of good luck, then I really hadn’t left myself any alternative. I was going to have to do this.

And so it began. Travelling to new locations, searching for the starting line, familiarising myself with the route, meeting new runners every week.

I was worried that a sense of staleness or unwelcome obligation might soon set in. But the truth is that every Parkrun is different, they all have their own unique personality.

Wallace Park has the bandstand where everyone gathers for a chat and a sticky bun. Carrickfergus has all of those crazy bends. Victoria Park has the talking toilet and the beautiful views. Valley Park has that brutal hill – which you have to run up twice. And Ormeau Park has the numbers. If you want to run a PB at Ormeau then get yourself near to the front or else you will be swallowed in a sea of good-natured participants.

But there is also a constant theme which unites all the Parkruns. The welcome that you get. The sense that we’re all in it together, regardless of individual levels of fitness.

Often I’ll meet someone I know. If not then I’ll usually find someone new to talk to, sharing some common experience. I’m not much of a conversationalist but the Parkrun gives you a starting point for a chat. How many have you done? What’s your PB? Watch out for the hill.

Since I’ve blogged about the Parkruns I’ve had dozens of messages from other runners and invitations to come to their local courses. I’ll get round them all in time and hope to meet with everyone who has contacted me.

I need to get out of the greater Belfast area soon. Next week I’ll aim for a more distant location.

Ormeau yesterday brought a new experience when I was addressed mid-run by a man who patted me on the shoulder, told me he had read my blog and loved it, and wished me all the best for my tour. It was a lovely moment which helped to sustain me just at a point when my energy was flagging.

And I had anorher welcome encounter. One which perhaps sums up the inherent social value of the Parkrun. The fact that it makes you get up in the morning and go out to see people.

I have an old friend who does the Ormeau run. A work colleague who I sat beside in an office for years. For a long period we probably spent more time with each other than we did with our own spouses.

And then our lives moved in different directions. We both took up different employment opportunities and had families. For longer than I can remember we have been promising to meet up for a coffee, but never quite managing it.

But there she was at the Parkrun. So we swapped stories about our jobs and children and how unfit we have become. Then we did the run. Then we chatted some more and posed for photographs.

As we said goodbye we promised that we’d have to meet for that coffee soon. I also promised to come back to the Ormeau Parkrun. We’ll see which happens first.

The Parkrun challenge goes on…..

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Building a shed

It’s no secret that I’ve never counted DIY as one of my strongest life skills.

I’m more than willing to have a go at manual tasks, but, like a dog distracted by pigeons during its daily walk, I often have trouble staying on the right path.

On extreme occasions I’ve even been known to call my da for help when putting together the toy in a Kinder Surprise egg.

Which meant that lately I’ve been left daunted by my shed situation.

To explain; when I moved into my current house some years ago I became the owner of a large, wooden garden shed.

As my house exists sans garage, the shed became the dumping ground for all non-essential items.

In short, it was filled to bursting point with shite. Old CDs and cassettes, various old kitchen gadgets, unwanted ornaments, garden tools, a pool table, a dart board.

And books, thousands and thousands of books.

But even a garden shed needs a little love and attention and, like a selfish spouse, I neglected it over a long period of time.

And as I filled the shed with more flotsam and jetsam, it began to slowly disintegrate.

First the floor began to collapse. Then vines from next door’s garden began to grow through the wood panels. Then a hole appeared in the ceiling. Not a little gap which could be stuffed or filled, but a proper hole which you could imagine a stunt motorcyclist trying to jump over in a daredevil aerial challenge.

In truth the shed reached the end of its natural life about two years ago. And it was around this time that my wife started pleading for me to do something about it.

But I’m a slow starter and I did nothing, allowing the shed to deteriorate further. The walls started to collapse, the door fell off. By the end there was very little left. Months of rain entering the shed had destroyed all of the contents beyond any useful state.

Finally, much too late, I was forced to act.

I rented a skip and undertook the unpleasant act of emptying the shed. At times I was ankle deep in sludge as water damaged books disintegrated in my hands.

Once it had been gutted, I knocked the shed down. This consisted of the enjoyable task of me wildly swinging a sledgehammer. On the odd occasion I even struck the piece of wood I was aiming at.

My da then brought down his chainsaw and the shed was sawn up into small bits which I could throw in the open fire (my da did this job, I could just about be trusted with a sledge, but being let loose with a chainsaw was not a fate any of us were prepared to tempt).

The demolition of the sad, old shed was the first part of the equation. Now I was faced with the urgent need for shelter for my lawnmower, barbecue, bike and tools (my wife was strangely unwilling to let me bring them into the dining room).

So I went online and ordered a new shed. Much smaller than the original, plastic and (apparently) one that could be built at home. This new shed would be just for essentials. Strictly no shite.

The online purchase process included a guarantee that the delivery driver would text me to let me know when they would be dropping off the item.

He didn’t.

Instead a large lorry arrived unexpectedly at my house at 9pm on a Friday night when I was in my pyjamas and had half of a bag of popcorn caught in my beard.

The jolly delivery men left the large cardboard box in my back garden.

I stalked it for a couple of days like a hungry cat eyeing its prey.

And then, one sunny day last week, I put on my old pair of jeans (well, my only pair of jeans), and cut the ties on the box.

The instruction booklet was forty pages long. The first part I read said: Two person assembly required. Do not undertake on your own you bloody idiot. (I may have invented that last bit).

I scratched my head and looked around. My son was racing toy cars around the garden. I decided to plough on.

I set out the parts and ensured all the fittings were present.

Then I went and had a cup of coffee as I tried to mentally reconcile myself with the task.

In truth, this is not proper DIY. It’s really just following instructions, like doing a big jigsaw. It’s not like I’m cutting down a tree, chopping up the wood and fashioning a shed from the timber. But we all have to exist within our own capabilities.

I started to put together the floor. Then the walls. Then I stuck them together. It didn’t fall over and looked oddly shed-like.

Encouraged, I went on.

In truth, the actual building of the shed was not the most time consuming bit. That honour belonged to reading the instructions, scratching my chin and saying Bajaysus a lot as I searched for the right bit.

There were hundreds of screws, all in little plastic bags with strange codes. While the s13b screw may have looked identical to the naked eye to the dS26bg screw, I couldn’t shake the fear that to use the incorrect one might have grave, unknown consequences. Like triggering a mega-tsunami which washes away the whole east coast of the United States. I spent a lot of time making sure I used the right screws in the right places.

The roof was the trickiest part. This is where another person would have been really useful. I found that as I attached one side of the roof to the wall fixing, then the opposite popped out. Then when I tried to remedy the facing side by fixing it into place, the original side popped out.

This went on for some time, leaving me feeling rather flustered and foolish. It was a conundrum I eventually solved by weighing one side of the roof down with a large bag of rice. Unconventional perhaps, and not something I’ve ever seen on a home improvement programme on the telly, but it worked.

Once the door, window and air vents were attached the shed was complete. It had taken me four hours.

But the task was not yet over. I now had to create a level and firm base for the shed to rest upon. Building a proper foundation with concrete was a little too ambitious, and my original plan to rest it on a bed of sand didn’t really work out because it was too soft underfoot.

So I set about creating a solid base from flagstones left over when our back yard was paved last year.

My rough idea was that I wanted the base to be somewhere close to level. Close was acceptable.

On my hands and knees with my little spirit level I laid the flagstones upon the sand, knowing for the first time what it must be like to be my own da.

It won’t win any awards but the end product was pleasing to the untrained eye. Then I slid the newly built shed on top and began to fill it with tools.

About five minutes after I finished, it began to rain.

I sipped coffee until the shower passed and then I stepped outside again and admired my own work, basking in self-satisfaction at an achievement that I genuinely feared might be beyond my abilities.

I opened and closed the door several times and ran my hands along the walls. I could feel the exhaustion caused by the unfamiliar strain of manual labour entering my limbs.

I stepped back and took one last look at my smart new shed. Then I had one last thought:

‘Christ, it really does look just like a portaloo.’

5

Hope, fear and the little white kite

There’s nothing more demoralising than having your hopes raised, only to be let down by the realities of life.

It’s like every time I get a call on my mobile from an unknown English number. Against all reason there’s always a part of me that believes that it might be good news. Perhaps some publishing giant has noticed one of my stories and is calling spontaneously to offer me a million pound book deal.

Which makes it all the more bitter when it inevitably turns out to be someone who can’t pronounce my name trying to sell me PPI or asking if I’ve been in an accident in the past five years.

And that’s how I’ve felt about kites from childhood.

I’ve always been enchanted by the concept and intoxicated by the possibilities of controlling a gracefully soaring object high above the tips of the trees.

But experience has taught me that they never work.

I endured a series of disappointments with kites as a child, both amateurishly homemade ones and cheap, garishly coloured items bought from shops.

The story was always the same. A confusing, untidy mass of sticks, string and plastic which stubbornly refuses to go into the sky.

Foolishly I’ve run along beaches and fields trailing the limp objects behind me, bumping them up and down along the ground like a sleeping dog being taken for a walk. Occasionally, just occasionally, a gust of wind might lift it a few feet into the air, bringing howls of excitement, only for it to crash back onto the sand seconds later, limp and flaccid, like a seagull which has been shot with a rifle.

And then I end up throwing the cheap kite away, recording it as just another of life’s broken promises, another little bit of innocence lost.

I remember when I was at primary school my class were asked to compose a story or poem for a junior literary competition. The assigned subject was The Kite.

I threw myself into the task, baring my soul in a young Larkinesque display of cynicism and rebellion.

If if my memory holds up properly then I recall the first two lines went as follows

‘I dreamt of heights. I dreamt of flight.

But instead the white kite proved to be shite.’

I don’t think the horrified teacher read any further and I was promptly sent to the principal’s office for a good thrashing. My teachers were quite determined that any aspiring literary ideas would be beaten out of my head.

Now I’m not suggesting here, as a blanket statement, that kites don’t work. I’m not saying the whole concept is a complicated hoax. Of course people who know what they are doing, and who have a properly made kite, can enjoy the hobby quite successfully.

It’s just that, for a child, the practice was not immediately accessible. It never worked quickly or well. Therefore it gets recorded as a misadventure. It’s one of the many things which is just not as good as you hoped it would be.

And now, as the parent of a little boy, the story has continued with the same narrative.

Last year I bought my son a kite. A complicated looking creation, painted with eyes and bared teeth.

He was full of excitement as I began running along Newcastle beach.

But within five minutes he had abandoned it and was off collecting pebbles as I vainly tried to convince the wretched article to soar above ankle height. There was plenty of wind on the day but it made no difference.

The fact that there was another father on the beach dazzling his children by controlling a flying drone with a remote control only increased my sense of inadequacy and witlessness.

It was bad enough when I couldn’t get a kite to work for myself. But the wound is that much more raw when I’m trying to explain to my own little boy why I can’t get the kite off the sand.

Which brings me to this week. Thursday lunchtime and I was in my usual position in the school playground picking my son up from class.

As the P2 children started to file out I was surprised to see that they were all holding bright white kites.

All except my son.

He was dispatched and greeted me with the words, ‘Daddy, you didn’t send in the Fly A Kite money’.

I quickly learnt that there had been a workshop in the school where the children were permitted to produce a design which a kite-maker then transformed into their own personal kite.

The only problem was I knew nothing about it.

It’s entirely possible that the letter never made it home. It’s perhaps more likely that it did but I just didn’t see it in the midst of all the fliers and brochures advertising churches, dentists and private tuition classes, and unwittingly threw it in the bin.

The end product was that my son was allowed to participate in the workshop but was told that he could not bring his kite home until the requisite five pound fee was produced.

Now, there is probably a discussion to be had about the wisdom of allowing a small child to make an object, but then denying him the right to bring it home when he can see all of his friends excitedly grasping their kites as they leave the classroom.

But that’s not what this post is about.

I was already wary of kites. Now this was compounded by the shame of me being the parent who had forgotten/neglected to send the money in so his child could have the same experience as all the others.

I apologised to my boy and sent him off this morning with the money in his bag.

And then at lunchtime mummy and I were there to meet him as he trotted across the playground bursting with pride at the Mr Men design he had drawn on his little white kite.

And, naturally, he wanted to see it fly. So we undertook the short drive to the forest park.

As we were walking to the green area my little boy talked incessantly to mummy about his pride in the kite, showing it to her again and again. I walked a step or two behind, already mentally rehearsing what I would say to him when it didn’t fly.

We walked into the middle of the field. My son handed me the kite, grinning nervously. I examined the object – small, white, triangular, held together by sticks and with long ribbons sweeping out below. It looked like a well-made kite.

I unraveled the string as I felt the wind begin to rise. Then I started to run. I ran for some time before I looked back.

When I did the kite was high in the air. Very, very high.

And what’s more, it stayed there.

My son danced below it with unbounded joy.

We stayed in the field for a long time. The kite flew high for me. It flew high for mummy. And, most importantly, it flew high for my son.

It was almost too successful. At one point it was being pulled so strong by the wind that my son seemed to think he was going to be lifted into the air alongside it and yelled ‘Daddy, I’m scared!’

But I was quickly beside him to hold his hand and tell him that he was doing brilliantly and had made a wonderful kite.

Over and over I kept repeating to nobody, It works, it really bloody works.

Even after my son had got bored and decided he wanted to go to McDonald’s I was still running around with the kite, until sweat stained my shirt.

Then we left the field, feeling a little bit more satisfied with ourselves than the mere flying of a kite probably warrants.

And as we walked back to the car my mind was full of thoughts. There are many things in life which don’t turn out the way you hope and it’s all too easy to become cynical and fearful. But every so often something does happen just the way you wanted. Then you might see your little boy dancing with joy. And the world seems to be a slightly better place.

As we got back to our car we met the mother of another child who is in my son’s year at school. She greeted us and noticed me holding the kite.

‘We took ours out yesterday, and it really works.’

‘Yes,’ I responded. ‘Yes it does.’

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Sticks and great big flipping stones….

I took my son to the play park after school today.

A fine autumnal sun was warming my skin and I decided he deserved a little treat for making the readjustment to P2 life without significant complaint. Also, I reasoned, there may not be many more sunny days left before winter has us in its grip and I have to disturb the family of giant crows which has taken up residence in our chimney.

As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the play park is very much an interactive experience for me. While most of the mummies are able to sit merrily enjoying the weather and watching their children play, I’m dragged around and expected to take part in every game and activity. At one point today just as I was being dispatched to search in the grass for long lost treasure, I actually noticed one of the park bench mummies was being given the time to read a book.

Soon we moved to the large climbing frame and slide at the bottom of the park area. My boy likes to pretend this is a prison and I’m a robber who keeps making vain bids for freedom only to be chased down, handcuffed and soundly beaten (the Prison Ombudsman does not exist in my son’s make believe world).

But as we approached the equipment I noticed something a little bit different. There was a small group of boys playing there and they seemed to be hurling objects in the general direction of each other. As I neared I realised the objects were actually large pieces of rock.

I quickly realised that there is an old wall at the rear of the park which is beginning to crumble. The children were gathering sizeable pieces of masonry from the bottom of the wall to use in their new improvised game.

There was no malice or conscious intention to do harm, it was merely little boys doing what little boys tend to do. But, due to the size of the stones, there was the obvious risk that someone could get hurt.

I had three main fears, which I record here in no particular order (although use of bold type could be inferred as giving particular prominence).

1 My little boy would get hit by a rock and be reduced to tears.

2 Another boy would get hit by a rock and be reduced to tears.

3 I would get hit by a rock and be reduced to tears.

So I decided I had to intervene. I put on my caring adult voice and began to tell the little boys that throwing rocks is not a fun game. I think I managed to get about half of the sentence out before a piece of masonry the size of Belgium flew past my ear.

It was clear that stiffer measures were required but I was gripped by an awkward nervousness, borne of a social reluctance to chastise another parent’s child for bad behaviour. I looked around at the mummies on the park benches, but they were all much too far away to see what was happening.

So with the tiniest adjustment in the tone of my voice I told the children to put the pieces of rock down on the ground. They all complied immediately and I gathered the stones and discarded them in a corner.

My son and I then played our cops and robbers game for a few minutes before he quickly got bored and decided he wanted a turn on the roundabout at the other end of the park. As I spun him around I kept my eyes on the distant climbing frame. Within two minutes one of the little boys had gone back to grab another piece of rock and lobbed it again towards the group.

We played on for some more minutes, my son taking turns on another slide, which is closer to the top of the park where the parents and carers congregate. We were lost in the middle of another make believe game when I noticed that a little boy had now moved to this piece of play equipment – with a large stone in his hand. He threw it a couple of times, at nobody in particular, before chasing it down and gathering the stone to throw again.

At one point, as he was about to hurl it in the direction of my son I put up a warning hand and sternly told him not to dare to throw the rock at us. He stopped immediately. Another mother intervened when it looked like her daughter was going to pick up the rock, instructing her sharply not to touch it.

At this point I decided that perhaps retreat was the safest option and we left the park to go and buy a lolly. I was even reluctantly persuaded to buy one for my son as well.

As we sat on the benches at the front of the grand old church, licking our lollies in the sun I watched as, gradually, all the other children left the park. Sweet innocent faces, filled with wonder at the world, as their little hands nestled comfortably and reassuringly in the grips of their mothers.