Scotty’s Soap Box: Halloween Special

Now is the time of year our streets will be teaming with youngsters, all wearing costumes and face paint, marauding through the local community, angrily making their demands. No, I’m not talking about the next protest from Extinction Rebellion; I’m referring, of course, to Halloween.

I’m baffled as to why it seems to be such a big deal these days? I think it’s the closest us Brits get to having an affinity with the Americans, apart from our growing obesity problem and embarrassment with our political leaders. It’s a major feature on the calendar now. The kids get excited like it’s Christmas and it nearly rivals Easter when it comes to the calorie count.

When I was a kid back in the 1980s Halloween wasn’t even a thing. I can only remember going trick or treating a few times. The first time was when I was about three years of age, a mere amateur in the game. My parents took a photo of the occasion. I was there sporting a massive black bin bag, with skeleton bones crudely drawn on the front in Tippex. I looked like a walking ISIS flag. I was wearing my father’s wellingtons as they were black and presumably, my Fireman Sam ones didn’t have the required scare factor. I was sat in my Batman go-kart and my poor dad was pulling me around the streets with a rope. I think I was the only Trick or Treater to be chauffeur-driven.

The second time I was about 12, which in trick or treater years is approaching retirement. I was with a friend and went trick or treating around his estate. It was a strange night. The only people to answer the door were his parents, his grandma and one of his highly religious neighbours, who gave us a little note of some bible scripture, warning us against dabbling with the occult. My mate ate it as he thought it might be some sugar paper, it wasn’t but he’s now a fully qualified vicar so it was certainly laced with something.

They even have zombie walks through town centres now. Hundreds of people, walking with a vacant stare, moaning and groaning. I’ve seen it in Nottingham many times, although not exclusively on Halloween.

I often wonder if trick or treating is different in really posh areas. The kids would probably only be able to do two houses as it would take half an hour to walk up the driveways. They’d all be dressed in designer Halloween costumes, a little off the shoulder gothic number by Gucci, with a swan slung over each shoulder and they wouldn’t say trick or treat, it would be “Hoodwink or delicacy?”

Unless it’s Green and Blacks 80% organic fairtrade chocolate, they’d not accept it and the tricks would be a little different too, something more in-keeping with the area. “I say sir, haven’t you heard, house prices here are set to plummet by 5%!”

I have two children, nine and three, strange names but easy to remember. They both love Halloween. At my eldest daughters’ school last year for Halloween they were allowed to go in fancy dress, she said to me, “Daddy I want to go as something really scary.” So I had a think about it and sent her as an Ofsted inspector.

We don’t send them out on their own trick or treating, it’s a different world now. So, we have to accompany them like a pair of weird bouncers. Waiting at the bottom of the driveways and mouthing an embarrassed “sorry” as they storm into our neighbour’s hallways to mug them of all the Haribo they have.

The street I live on really embraces Halloween, because the demographic is mainly young families. It started out quite low-key, a couple of pumpkins, maybe a cobweb here and there. A morning at Costa and a WhatsApp group later and its now Grand Designs meets Friday the 13th. It’s a competition in one-upmanship. We’ve got gravestones in gardens, smoke machines and spooky music on Bluetooth speakers. Last year one resident had the idea of putting a life-size dummy of a killer clown in the front seat of their people carrier. It was a nice touch until one child had a panic attack. I think they are still in therapy now.

I don’t know where this madness is going to end. I wouldn’t be surprised if my wife tries to convince me to bury myself in the garden, with nothing but a paper straw to breathe through. She’d tell the children I was working away and then on Halloween night, as soon as the first bars of Michael Jacksons “Thriller” are blasted across the garden, I would emerge from the soil like one of the Living Dead.

Towards the end of the evening, we tend to get the stragglers coming, to pick off the last of the sweets. These are the kids who are too old for the trick or treating game. The ones who have worn the tread on the tyres, jaded old hacks who should know better. The cut-off point is when The One Show intro music starts, everyone knows that. Once the pumpkin is extinguished it’s over. Yet they still come, all charged up on E-numbers, mobile phones lighting their faces like low budget ETs and hammer the doorbell. I expect the reason they were late is because some of them are old enough to be working at Subway and they needed to finish their shifts first.

The carving of the pumpkin is something I try to involve the children in. It’s a calmer, more traditional taste of Halloween. The kids try and carve, but ultimately, they get bored. They start off with such big ideas, “I’m going to carve Harry Potter’s face into this one Daddy!”, “I’m going to do a full-scale picture of Hogwarts in mine Daddy!” this all fades away at record speed when they realise how difficult it is to cut into and all we end up with is two pumpkins with a glory hole in them.

This years Halloween will be very different. I won’t be able to celebrate it as I am performing my tour show “Leap Year” (tickets available at www.scottbennettcomedy.co.uk/tour.html yes this is a plug) in Amersham, Hertfordshire.

Let’s hope that it’s a treat for me and not a trick where no one turns up. Or worse than that, one person turns up, in fancy dress as the grim reaper.

@scottbcomedyuk | scottbennettcomedy.co.uk Find The Scott Bennett Podcast on SoundCloud and iTunes.

Motherhood: Halloween

In our house, Halloween is as big as Christmas. Costumes are decided during the end of summer sales, our amazing porch (tiny front window directly onto the road in front of our small terraced house) is decked in crunchy burnt-orange leaves, pumpkins and skulls, neighbours avoid us until mid-November.

Previous costumes themes have included Stranger Things, The X Files, The Walking Dead, and weirdly, Parks and Rec. This year we have decided on Fleabag as our muse. I’m Fleabag (of course) my husband, despite being 6’2 and bald, is the sexy priest, and our little girl is Hilary the guinea pig. We pride ourselves on having a 0% success rate for people guessing who we are.

Our little family are all huge horror fans. My favourite film as a child was the 18-rated Troll, which we rented so many times from the video shop that the guy who owned it eventually gave it to us for free because the tracking was wearing out. My daughter loves Goosebumps and is sniffing around my old Point Horror collection. My husband likes anything with fighting and blood in it.

We are natural Halloween enthusiasts. Part of the attraction for me has always been the subversive nature of celebrating a pagan ritual, a two-finger salute at religious holidays and a chance to run around in the dark demanding people give you stuff for free.

My fondest memory as a kid was of my parents unrolling bin bags and my mum getting crafty with scissors and sellotape. I was a witch every year for 8 years. When I was about 6 my dad took me trick or treating and told me to beware of witches lurking around corners, just as two unwitting students came around the bend in our road and through my screams of pure terror I felt that first rush of white-hot fear, and instantly knew that being scared was awesome. My daughter is the same. She will beg me to make her jump or tell her a scary story, to the point that she’s exhausted herself with screams and laughter. I’ll tell her stories of working as a scare actor in attractions around London, and of the people who fainted or threw up or begged to leave. It was the best few years of my 20s.

Whatever you do this Halloween, don’t be a scare-scrooge and avoid the doorbell. Grab a bag of pound shop sweets and tell the kids they look awesome, they will remember it forever. Or do what we did and set up a smoke machine in the hallway, and terrify the living souls out of the local children by answering the door dressed as a dead Mulder and Scully. You’ll remember that forever too.

DL

Bow Selector: Tim Pollard

One of the things I love about Beeston is how it changes – for instance when I was younger you couldn’t move for shoe shops but now they’re almost all gone, replaced by a proliferation of hairdressers, charity shops and vaping emporiums.

One of the shops I miss the most is Bodens, towards the Chilwell end of town; a now long-gone fabled place full of second-hand furniture, pictures, nick-nacks, books and sculptures which stretched back seemingly in time as well as space. It was, to my young eyes, the kind of place you’d see in a Hammer Horror film (or an Amicus or Tyburn Production for you 1960’s horror movie aficionados), run by Peter Cushing and with a dreadful story to each piece – and a dreadful fate for whoever bought something.

Thankfully it wasn’t some repository of cursed horror though – I used to buy loads of small items and still have the fabulous reproduction Chinese sideboard I fell in love with so many years ago. But it was my lovely mother-in-law Joy who found what is to me the most interesting item I’ve ever seen from there (and that’s no mean claim); a ’Roll of Honour’ from the First World War commemorating local men, men from The Angular-Hole Drilling & Manufacturing Co. Ltd. who had left to serve their country during that great conflict – and although we’re now approaching Halloween and all the faux-terror that it commercialises, I wanted to share this historic part of Beeston’s past with you as we also move once more towards Remembrance Day.

“It’s very sobering to look up the names on the Angular Hole list to see how many of these young men lost their lives a century or more ago.”

According to David Hallam’s very informative ‘Exploring Beeston’s History’ website I found the company was founded before 1913 by one John W Gaze and was initially situated on Station Road but eventually moved to Dovecote Lane where ‘it continued for many years’ and was one of the many industrial/manufacturing companies our town had at the time.

The roll itself is very telling – it lists sixteen employees who joined up; thankfully it’s not a casualty list, although of course not all of the men returned home. One, Private Frank Willett, is listed as having joined the RAF so that must date it to after its creation in April 1918.

The names listed are: Driver Richard Sims Army Service Corps; Private Joseph Hardy 7th Battalion Sherwood Foresters; Private Joseph Hunt 1st Lincolnshire; Private Clarence Hazzeldine King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry; Private Jack Athin 1st Leicestershire; A.B. Alfred Brewster HMS Hindustani; Private Thomas Sweeney 3rd Sherwood; Private Ernest Orchard King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry; Private Amos Martin R S Fusiliers; Private Albert Walker 2/8 Battalion Sherwood Foresters; Driver Cecil F Smith Royal Fleet Auxiliary; Private Herbert Baker Notts and Derby; Private George Keelley Notts and Derby; Private William Hardwick Notts and Derby; Private Frank Willett RAF; Private Chas H Beales Royal Engineers.

What happened to these young men? Turning again to the invaluable resource that is the ‘Exploring Beeston’s History’ site you can find a very detailed Roll of Honour there too which lists every person from Beeston killed in The Great War. It’s very sobering to look up the names on the Angular Hole list to see how many of these young men lost their lives a century or more ago. It’s also interesting to see that some of them changed regiments too – for instance, Private 28027 Ernest Orchard who joined the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry but transferred to the 2nd Battalion Sherwood Foresters (Notts & Derby) Regiment. Sadly Private Orchard died in the battle of Ypres on Wednesday, 9th August 1915 aged just 18 and has no known grave. Spend some time yourself looking at some of the others right here

The Angular Hole Drilling Role of Honour is a lovely, poignant and unique piece of real Beeston history that now hangs with pride in my house (right next to that Chinese sideboard) – and if anyone knows any more about the company or any of the men listed I’d be fascinated to hear from you…

University of Beestonia

Augar-ing down into the world of Higher Education

On my return from a University of Beestonia sabbatical I find HE in the national headlines, in May sandwiched somewhere between Farage and Trump (don’t dwell on that imagery too much) Dr Auger and his colleagues presented their Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (from the literal rather than creative school of titling I
guess…).

The headline grabbing recommendation (out of all 53 of them) was that to reduce the University Tuition Fee from its current level at £9,250, to £7,500 per year for undergraduate students. Less widely reported, but fairly critical for the Universities was the following recommendation that Government should replace in full the lost fee income by
increasing the teaching grant, leaving the average unit of funding unchanged at sector level in cash terms.

This seems fairly critical, as otherwise most Universities will see substantial reductions in income, given the high percentage of that income that comes from tuition fees.

However, word on the lanes and boulevards is that the next government is likely to embrace the former recommendation and quietly ignore the latter. After all, saving folk money is a good thing, whereas taking it away from something else or increasing taxes generally doesn’t go down so well.

Some point out though that government also want a high quality higher education sector in the UK – it has its uses after all, not least the 1.2 % of GDP in contributes (figures from the Auger review).

So how does one go about balancing that alongside the other things Universities have to do, like undertake research? It is the question that Universities and those that work within them have been batting with for some time. How do you balance the books and maintain or improve quality? How do you measure quality and ensure it? Themes such as this have drifted through this particular column before.

And whilst we juggle with the balancing, there are still huge uncertainties about just what will happen to the review in the hands of a new PM, a new government and in an uncertain Brexit landscape. It’s difficult to plan for, and so institutions have to look to the worst case. A cut in fee will likely have to be compensated for by an increase
in student numbers or cut in provision somewhere. Neither are ideal in terms of providing a leading higher educational experience to our future students. 20 go to 10.

There’s a challenge to doing more with less, to more by fewer. And it’s a shame because we have great students who deserve and should demand a good University education, and we want to be able to provide that. I don’t think the Auger review wanted anything less than that either, I just hope whoever implements the review allows it to happen.

It’s good to be back…

Prof. J

The Yorkshireman Speaks #12

This month the Yorkshireman looks at how children are an inspiration

Pablo Picasso famously said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

We recently went on a family holiday and I’m using the term “holiday” loosely. There is no such thing as a holiday when you have a young family, it’s essentially just stress on tour. You go from your house, where you all have your own space and comfort and go and live together all in one room, for two weeks, like the Bucket Family in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. That isn’t a relaxing break, that’s like you’ve been temporarily rehoused after a flood. They shouldn’t give you duvets, just foil blankets, you don’t need room service you need the red cross!

You don’t realise how noisy your kids are until you all have to sleep in one room. How can a two-year-old snore? They are T-Total, have hairless nostrils, yet mine sounded like Gollum with a head cold!

Your bedtime is their bedtime too, that’s so weird. My wife and I were laid next to each other in the dark, all wired and awake, “I can’t sleep” she said, “neither can I it’s ten to seven, the One Show hasn’t even started yet!” People said to us, try keeping the kids up. No, we’ve tried that they go feral, they start fighting and crying, screaming at each other across the hotel lobby whilst people are trying to check in, it’s like a hen night without the gin.

“They are like dictators in Peppa Pig pyjamas.”

As parents most of your holiday is spent huddled in the bathroom, that’s like your own little apartment. It’s ten o’clock at night and you find yourself sitting there on the toilet, just drinking a box of wine, eating a buffet off the side of the bath. Rockstars chop out lines of cocaine in a hotel bathroom, I’m cutting carrot into sticks.

You get jealous of the childless couple in the room next door, “they’re loud aren’t they? I wonder what they are doing?”

“Each other probably, like we used too, remember that?” you both stare wistfully into the distance, imagining what that would be like, then one of you breaks the silence, “fancy another game of travel Scrabble?” “yeah, whose legs are we balancing the board on?”

We came back shattered too, because the youngest always came and slept in bed with us. She’d always say, “Daddy I’m scared, I’ve had a nightmare” I felt like saying, “So, have I mate, what’s yours about? mine started in 2016, looks exactly like you and it doesn’t end even when I’m awake. But why don’t you pop in here with us and for the next eight hours, just use my back as a treadmill. I love the way you position yourself just at the perfect height to kick me repeatably in the kidneys until the sun rises.

She’s doing so many miles on my back at one point I swear my wife started sponsoring her. I always know when the holiday is coming to an end because it’s the same day, I start to see blood in my urine, that first wee of the morning was like Darth Vader’s light sabre!

The kids just gradually take over the bed, it’s like sleeping with a military occupation. They are like dictators in Peppa Pig pyjamas. I spent the whole night clinging on to the edge of the bed. The only thing that kept me there was the suction from my own clenched arse cheeks.

It was on this holiday however, that I noticed this zest for life that the children have and it made me re-evaluate my attitude to things.

We had a key card for our hotel room door and this blew the kids minds. A simple plastic card, a door handle and a little green light, that was like Disneyland to them. Every day they had to take it in turns, one of them would take the card, we’d all have to leave the room. They then would approach the door, put the card in, we’d marvel at the little light, they would open the door, we’d all walk into the room, one child one give the card to the other one, we’d then back out of the room again and repeat the process again….six times a day. We spent more time in that corridor than we did in the room!

If you did this as an adult people would tell you to grow up!

I feel that they do need to reign in this excitement. Life is going to be such a disappointment. If they carry on like this, the first time they do drugs their heads will fall off and no doubt a plastic card will be involved there too.

I have realised the best way I can be a role model to my kids is to approach life with positivity and joy, what other choice do we have? As adults we need to be more like the kids with the key card, reconnecting with those experiences in life that make us happy. So, I’m making changes, tomorrow morning I’ll be up at eight, singing and whistling and marvelling at the majesty of that bin lorry from my window.

@scottbcomedyuk | scottbennettcomedy.co.uk

Find the Scott Bennett Podcast on SoundCloud and iTunes

Motherhood: Spring

‘Spring is sprung, the grass is ris, I wonder where the birdies is’.

My Dad used to recite that line to me when I was a child, and if I replace ‘birdies’ with ‘pinot grigio’ you have exactly my sentiments about the approaching warmer weather. I’m a big fan of a pub garden, of early evenings sat outside while the children play in the paddling pool and run through the wheat fields before leading the country into the abyss. Wait, that’s just Teresa May, my bad.

I adore the good weather, I’ve lived and worked in central Europe and being outdoors suits me entirely. My issue with the approaching summer is that my kid is an only child, which means that I am her playmate, which means no wine, no sitting down, and absolutely no relaxing thank you very much. Despite a social life which would make the Kardashians recoil in exhaustion, my kid wants to play with ME. Which is great, because she still thinks I’m cool enough to play with (time is ticking on that front) but it flies in the face of wine-drenched relaxation in the garden. The first green shoots of Spring signal the end of my peaceful hibernations indoors, and the start of my Olympic training regime in such sports as Kick the Ball Loudly into Next Door’s Fence, Help Me Up on to this Swing, and Mum Can I Have an Ice-Lolly. I need to get fit, quick, these are blood sports and I’ve neglected my training.

Having an only child is an absolutely magical thing. They (maybe a tad patronisingly) allow you to become an honorary child again while they set the rules and run you ragged. I adore it. We can’t have any more kiddos, so this girl will be forever thrust into other people’s gardens, picking up neighbourhood waifs and strays to play with while we are out and about. I don’t think this is a negative thing, and I’m grateful that I’m active enough to keep up with her while she shouts rules at me and berates my obvious athletic inadequacies in public. From what I hear from people with more than one kid it seems to be more of a lion-taming situation anyway, more Chris Pratt with the raptors in Jurassic World and less The Waltons. I’ll never know, but sometimes I feel a pang of gratitude in Autumn when the nights draw in and we can legitimately stick a DVD on under a blanket and ignore the outside world completely. Summer is great, but dear sweet baby Jesus I’m shattered already.

DL

Daisy Leverington

Motherhood #10: Technology

A local radio station ran a piece recently on whether not children spend too much time looking at screens and not enough time playing outside, getting ruddy-cheeked and grass-stained.

Their experts (a grandma from Sandiacre and a bloke called Tony who doesn’t have kids) were in fiery agreement, that kids these days are indeed a lazy bunch of lounge-lizards, content only when 15 million megapixels are shining directly into their retinas, content never to leave their child-caves lest they catch a lethal dose of vitamin D waddling to the car for the school run. They are an obese, entitled generation of layabouts who were given phones at birth and wouldn’t hesitate to outbid your Nan on eBay.

WELL. I had some THOUGHTS. Yes, Tony, my daughter can code an entire computer game from scratch and edit homemade animation which she casts to our xBox from my laptop. She can also do her times tables, knows the rules of chess and can bake cupcakes without a recipe. She does indeed play Minecraft after school, but she spends all summer camping around the UK while her dad and I perform at dozens of festivals. She is far better at learning about new technology than I am, and I’m writing this on Microsoft Word 93 so suck it Tony. You too, Sullen from Sandiacre.

My daughter is the generation you sighed about, and you compared her life to your own wistful childhoods full of good old rickets and rationing. Mind you, after Brexit we might have a small glimpse into those halcyon days when antibiotics are being sold for £100 a pop behind the bins at Tesco, so chin up.  She’s also the generation which will be left to sort out the mistakes of mine and yours, and she’ll be using a computer to do it.

How about we all open our minds a little and look at what these fantastic advances mean to our children instead of attributing lazy stereotypes to a group of people you simply don’t know. You have no clue how clever our kids are, what a huge (and daunting, I’m not daft) place the internet is, and what brilliant things are out there to help kids learn and understand. Chill out Tony, the kids are alright.

DL

The Yorkshireman Speaks: British Booze Culture

Congratulations, some of you reading this have almost made it to the end of “Dry January.”

A whole month without booze, there’ll certainly be a celebration when it’s over. Not just for you, but for the rest of your family too. They’ve had to endure a month of your miserable face sulking round the house, looking at all that left-over festive booze and moaning about not being able to touch it.

I think the British have a real issue with alcohol. As a comedian I often have to walk through city centres late at night and it’s like Dawn of The Dead. There are couples screaming at each other, men trying to pick up their mates in an impromptu show of strength, people rocking back and forth in the kebab shop hypnotised by a spinning slab of meat. Then there’s little old me, sober as Mother Teresa, trying to make it back to my car with my flask and tuna sandwiches.

Us Brits can turn any event into an excuse for booze. Wedding? Have a drink. Funeral? Have a drink. Finished the decorating? Have a drink. I was in an airport recently. Now that’s where we really go for it. It’s like everyone is on some sort of perpetual stag weekend.

You never hear this conversation anywhere but in an airport:

“What time is it?”
“Ten to four in the morning”
“Fancy a pint?”
“Why not? We are on holiday!”

No, you’re not mate. You’ve gone nowhere. You’re still in the East Midlands. What are you doing?

Surely the last place you want to be hammered is at 36,000 feet in a glorified tin can. What if you are the passenger who has to lead everyone off the plane? You’ve been drinking since 4am, it took you an hour to open that packet of crisps, how are you going to cope with an emergency exit and an inflatable slide?

We don’t do this with other forms of transport. You don’t see anyone drinking cans of Kestral at 6am before getting on the 38 bus to Long Eaton? Well you do actually. Sorry that’s a bad example, but to be fair if I had to drive that bus route too, I’d have a drink.

I do most of my drinking under the radar. I don’t mean laid on the runway. I mean when I’m cooking. Specifically Sunday lunch. I love cooking and drinking. It’s amazing. It’s like normal boozing but instead of a hangover you’re left with a slow cooked lamb shoulder and seasonal vegetables. Occasionally you have to chase the last few drinks with a shot of Gaviscon, but that’s as bad as it gets. To the outside world you’re a diligent parent providing a meal for your family, however in reality you’re smashing your way through that drinks cabinet like a teenager whose parents have left them home alone.

My night out starts at 10am Sunday morning. As soon as Andrew Marr says goodbye, I pour a sneaky glass of wine and tell everyone to get out the kitchen; I need space to create. It’s just me, Amazon Alexa and Delia Smith.

By half twelve I’m naked from the waist up, body shiny with meat grease, dancing around on the lino floor like Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs, ripping chunks of off the roast with my bare hands. At this point my wife always comes in. “I thought you were cooking?” I shout back at her, “I am, I’m doing a red wine reduction, I started with a full bottle and now it’s nearly gone.”

I start to get overconfident, experimenting with flavours. “You know what this mash potato is lacking? Vanilla extract!” I’m pioneering flavour combinations even Heston Blumenthal would describe as “a bit much.”

My portion control is all over the place too. “How old is she? 3? I reckon she’d eat a kilo of mash.” The alcohol makes you fearless, you start taking things out of the oven with no gloves. I once ended up with the Tefal logo burnt into my palm like Joe Pesci in Home Alone.

By two, I’m in the euphoric stages of the cooking binge. Most of the week’s shop has gone, I’ve got some Brillo pads browning under the grill and I’ve fried off my rubber gloves in garlic. I’ve used every single pan too, so I’m now having to boil the sprouts in a wok.

I rarely remember the meal itself, but I always think it went well. I’m often laid on the sofa, nodding in and out of consciousness. Behind me I can just make out the sound of smoke alarms and pans being scraped into the bin. “At least he tries to cook,” says my wife to the starving children, dialling the number for Domino’s, “and I reckon he’s onto something with that vanilla mash.”

Scott Bennett

Daisy Leverington

Motherhood #9: ‘Tis the season

It’s getting close, I can smell it. The faint scent of pleading in the air. The most delicate whiff of peer pressure and hope. The bold claims among school friends about which presents have been requested and which ones they will oh-so-definitely be receiving. It’s Christmas and there’s absolutely no escape.

Every Christmas in our house is a day of firsts and lasts. It’s always bitter-sweet and there is no greater measurement of the passing of too-short childhood years to make me wonder if this year was a few months shorter than usual. We only have one child, so each year we edge closer to losing her belief in Santa, the mystery grows smaller and wonder shrinks like a vacuum-packed tool set. She’s still little enough to believe, but big enough that next year she might not. Each present from Santa is precious and for a second she is tiny again, mystified by the enormity of his night time adventures. The next second she is opening a card with £10 sellotaped inside and a tiny piece of the spell falls away.

Christmas with a child has been the lovliest experience. It was a stressful time growing up with divorced parents and time-share days and two dinners, always two dinners. Now we have our own family and although we still need to try to find balance between 4 different sets of grandparents, we manage and it’s peaceful and we fall asleep after dinner just like our parents did. The hardest part of the day is trying to soak it all up, to take in her face when she opens an unexpected gift or watches her dad try on his inevitable novelty hat. To take photos but not too many, to capture the best moments but also not to miss them trying to switch the camera on.

Firsts and lasts happen simultaneously with an only child and Christmas is such a huge barometer of how little time we actually have that I can’t help but feel a little sad. I’m very lucky, I know. I know that my tiny family is here and safe and loved, and I know that other’s aren’t. So, every year I will love and give and play and argue because there aren’t any promises that we have more to come. I will get annoyed at advertising and buy it anyway, I’ll buy glittery make up for my 7 year old if that make her happy, because one day she will wants £30 lipsticks and I’ll spend the day weeping into my bank statement. It’s the little things, the little lasts. They are my real present.

DL

Read previous Motherhood’ columns

Robin Hood and The Old Peoples Home For Four Year Olds

There was time when I was known as ‘Nottingham’s official Robin Hood’ (a truly wonderful job I still do, rumours of my retirement being substantially in error) but these days I’m much more likely to be known as ‘Scarlett’s Dad from that Channel 4 documentary series’ – and actually that’s quite fun.

‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’ is a documentary series that was filmed in Nottingham (at the Lark Hill Retirement Village in Clifton) and featured ten residents from there aged between 86 and 102 and aimed to see if introducing them to a group of ten children aged 3-4 over a protracted period would have any effect on their mental and physical well-being.

I first found out about the project (or ‘experiment’ as the producers preferred to call it) when the wonderful Roopam Carroll from the excellent Beeston Nursery (which Scarlett was attending at the time) contacted me to ask if I might be interested in her taking part, as the producers were approaching several local nurseries looking for potential participants.

As you may know I lost my beloved wife Sally to breast cancer last year and I was (and still am) a bit of a mess because of it – suddenly becoming a 54-year old widower with a 4-year old after months of caring for Sal at home left me dazed, confused and directionless, so it seemed like a fine idea to suggest Scarlett might take part as it would provide her with a new adventure, new friends and a unique experience I certainly couldn’t give her myself.

Apparently a couple of thousand children applied (well, their parents did) and there was a long process of careful selection and diligence on behalf of the producers – who I can’t praise enough for their compassion, caring and consideration for all the children – and eventually two were chosen from Beeston, Scarlett and Phoenix (who if you’ve seen the documentary were both featured very heavily in the first episode).

We had film crews visit us at home to film background interviews and a child psychologist come to discuss what the ‘experiment’ might entail and whether Scarlett and I were genuinely happy to be involved and if it was right for us. Of course one of the questions involved how it would be if one of the older participants passed away during the course of the show (an unlikely but potential happening) and how that might affect Scarlett having lost her Mum so recently. Obviously I hoped it wouldn’t (and thankfully didn’t) happen – but if it did I thought it was more likely to ‘normalise’ Scarlett’s experience than anything else.

And then we got to meet the older residents, and they were an utter delight! They were (and are), as with the children, a very diverse group, some with health issues, some very shy, some full of laughter – but all curious, excited and not quite knowing what to expect.

102-year old Sylvia, who turned out to be a real star onscreen, was a joy – when I met her she told me how she enjoys visiting Lark Hill’s bar in the evening and always walks her much younger friend home to make sure she gets home safely! I asked her why she enjoyed the bar so much and she told me there were lots of widowers she could get a kiss from… and when I mentioned I was a widower she coyly pulled her long skirt up to show me a bit of ankle and winked at me!

When the children met the residents too as part of the filming it was just as wonderful, Scarlett made a bee-line to 86-year old Beryl who she instantly became inseparable from – and even though filming has now finished we still see regularly both at Lark Hill (when all the parents, children and residents have a lunch and catch up together) and on our own with Sal’s Mum Joy for Sunday lunches. It’s like having a new family for us all, and is just joyous.

There’s a moment in episode one where the children are asked to write party invitations for their mummies and daddies and Scarlett turns around and says, very matter of factly, that ‘my Mummy has died so I’ll make it for Daddy and Gran-Gran’. It’s shocking in its simplicity and openness and (as of writing) that clip, put online by Channel 4, has had nearly six million views. But for me, it’s the heart of why I wanted Scarlett to participate in the programme – because she’s been through such a lot but can still speak of losing Sal whilst at the same time knowing how much Sal loved her – and would be so proud of her.

I’ve never really been a fan of ‘reality’ TV but this show helped everyone involved and judging from the press and media attention it gained and the comments both online and personally I’ve see too has helped and affected a lot of other people too, both in starting a discussion about how we shouldn’t segregate the old and the young because they both benefit hugely from such interaction, but also how we talk about the loss of a parent to children.

This will be the second Christmas we’ve had without Sal now and whilst I’m still hugely bereft and lonely I’m deeply glad we’ll be surrounded by family and friends – but also a new extended family too, the promise of those bonds continuing for many years to come and lessons Scarlett and the rest of the children can carry with them for the rest of their lives. I’m certain #SalWouldApprove.

Oh – and I’m not supposed to say anything – but watch out for the Christmas special, we finished filming it last week! J

Happy Christmas!

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