Museums I have known and sprinted in, by Henry Jeffcoat

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I am a huge believer in kids and museums. Firstly, because I love museums, and if you can’t impose your likes and dislikes on your children while they’re too young to roll their eyes, well, when can you, eh? Secondly, because most of them are free, so I can buy us cake on the way out instead if we’ve got any spare change. And thirdly, because they’re only going to learn appropriate public behaviour if they get a chance to practice. I am as big a fan of soft play as the next rained-indoors mother, but let’s face it: all they learn there is survival of the fittest. It’s like a germy Lord of the Flies.

We do museums in London whenever we get chance – the ‘dinosaur you-seeum’ being our personal favourite, of course – but it’s not quite close enough to go often. But Reading has two jewels in its crown for pre-schoolers, and they’re only a short walk\drive away. The Museum of English Rural Life is a dream come true for transport-obsessed toddlers, and I’ve written about that one here. Today, we went to the other: Reading Museum, in the town hall, a gorgeous old redbrick building near the station.

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Every time we come here, I want to text everyone I know with children afterwards. It’s fantastic. The collection is quite small, and as random as anything: Reading historical artefacts on the ground floor, from the medieval abbey onwards; then a complete, full-sized replica of the Bayeux Tapestry on the first floor (more about this later); then art, stuffed animals and a Victorian schoolroom at the top. The best part, though, is the backpacks. Toddler-sized and colour-coded, you choose one you haven’t used before and take out the treasures inside one by one. Then there’s a question or quest attached to each item. Since Henry’s hobbies include backpack wearing and getting new toys, you can imagine how he feels about it.

Today we started with a brick, and found a wall of magnetic bricks to make patterns (like several redbrick buildings in Reading). We looked at tiny medieval people in glass cases, and listened to some plainsong from the monks.

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Then we had a toy horse – oh, the joy! – and looked over the BayFaux Tapestry to find horses in battle, and horses riding in boats. Can we just take a minute to talk about this? A determined Victorian embroiderer, Elizabeth Wardle, decided that Britain should have its own copy, and engaged her Leek Embroidery Society (yes!) to make an exact copy. It was completed by thirty-five women in just over a year, and they worked from Elizabeth’s memory and from colour photographs at the V&A. This is a brilliantly batty thing to do. Did you need any further proof that the Victorians were happily bonkers? It’s here.

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After that we had a squirrel to find in the stuffed animal room – which also comes with puzzles and colouring pencils – a set of jingle bells leading us to a thumb piano, and finally some binoculars to look at some art on high shelves.

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Henry was so engaged in finding things, rummaging in his bag for the next toy, and zipping up and down in the lift, that he didn’t have time to misbehave. Maybe excitement about Old Stuff will carry through into his adult life, and he’ll enjoy history as much as I do. Or maybe he won’t, and he’s just learning to look and ask questions and be excited about the world around him. I’ll take either option, to be honest, especially if it comes with a backpack.

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He always cries when we leave, and I think this is recommendation enough.

 

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The secret to choosing the perfect holiday reading

Tomorrow I fly to the States for my little brother’s wedding. Leaving aside how weird it is that tiny sticky-handed brothers can grow up to become nice people and get married to other nice people anyway, like what business is it of theirs getting older, I have a fair few things to ponder over this morning. Not least: narrowing down the book pile that will go into my carry-on.

(No, I don’t have a Kindle. Yes, I can finally see the value in it and probably will succumb at some point, but today is not that day.)

I have a fail-safe rule when it comes to holiday books, and this applies even if you do have a schmancy e-reader and are wondering what to download. It goes:

something old

something new

something funny

something true

If you’re thinking that this holiday is the chance you’ll get to finally get through the Booker shortlist, I’m here to tell you that’s probably not going to happen. Holiday brain is real. By the time you’ve got over the dribbling relief of being away from your normal routine and in a pretty place by a pool, you can forget the Serious Novel.

Here’s my pile for the Arizona desert:

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old: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By ‘old’ I mean an old favourite – one you’ve read and reread till you can quote the opening sentence on the first dog-eared page.  Agatha is my go-to comfort read, as you probably know. And Then There Were None is so forties it hurts, and fiendishly, blood-curdlingly clever. I know exactly whodunnit and I still can’t leave it alone. 

new: Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

By which I mean, again, new to you. There’s nothing like discovering something magnificent in a new place. The two become forever linked in your head, and thinking about one will remind you, beautifully, of the other. I am ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read Mansfield Park, and a seventeen-hour travelling day will probably leave me enough time to get stuck in. Besides, wouldn’t a dash of Regency manners be a perfect antidote to sitting in economy like a trussed-up chicken?

funny: Terry Pratchett’s Mort* 

You don’t want to be hammering through some literary theory when you hit turbulence or are waiting for your third delayed flight. You want something quick and hilarious. Terry Pratchett might not be your laugh-magnet of choice – choose whoever is –  but Mort is one of my oldest and most beloved of funny books.

*NOTE: ‘funny’ can here be replaced with ‘trashy’, and the effect is the same. If you go with ‘trashy’ I would recommend some good corset-and-codpiece historical fiction, or else a magazine, if you can find one that doesn’t make you want to stab your eyes out.

true:  Nine Stibbe’s Love Nina

I do like a bit of holiday non-fiction. This book has been the most joyous thing I’ve discovered this year – the journal of a resolutely unimpressed nanny in a houseful of literary celebrities and precocious children. I wanted to start it again the minute I finished, and this weekend I’ll finally have time. (Warning: bohemian households containing Alan Bennett swear a lot.)

Now all I have to do is work out what to do when it’s FORTY DEGREES CELCIUS AT FIVE PM. Apart from weep tears that immediately evaporate into steam. I’m excited! (I’ll also be away from here for the next week. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, lovers.)

The genie in the sandpit: why I want my kids to read

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‘What a gift to give, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued…Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?’

Philip Pullman

I texted Tim around mid-afternoon.

‘Costco was good’, I wrote. ‘Got a new drying rack, pancake mix, baby food.

Also the complete works of Roald Dahl. Sorry.’

He didn’t reply. He expects that sort of thing when I go to Costco.

There are certain things I am determined to pass onto my boys: table manners, compassion, an inability to listen to Dean Friedman without breaking into interpretive dance. But oh, hobby gods, ye hander-outers of personality traits: please give them books. Even if I have to clobber them once a day with the complete works of Roald Dahl (it’s heavy), I want them to love to read.

Most of my early memories come from reading. I remember my mum and aunties laughing at me because I’d started saying ‘oh golly’ and eating condensed milk out of the tin with a spoon – I was reading too much Famous Five. I got myself to sleep for about seven years by making up new Prince Caspian stories on the Dawn Treader every night. Once, the end-of-lunchtime bell rang and shocked me out of Drina Ballerina. I’d been reading about how she’d twisted her ankle and wasn’t sure if she could dance anymore. I got up and limped all the way to the door before I remembered that her ankle hurt, not mine. I still do that now – when I read and read for a while, I have to go around touching things to make sure they’re solid. I’ve been sat in another reality so long that I feel like a ghost in my own house.

There’s a book for every mood and movement you can imagine. My comfort food author is Agatha Christie: when your certainties are uncertain and your decisions are unmade, it’s the best thing in the world to get stuck into a detective novel. No matter the variations or enjoyable tensions along the way, the reader knows one thing, sure as the sunrise: sooner or later, there will come a point at which Poirot will exclaim to himself ‘Ah! What an imbecile I have been!’ And then everyone will be summoned and everything will be explained, and someone in that room is GOING DOWN. A perfect ending. Every time. If only life were the same.

It would be impossible to tell you just how much reading books has done for me. When I was younger I imagined a genie in every sandpit, a door to a secret garden behind every curtain of ivy. It made everything exciting and mysterious. Words were exciting too – the obsession I’ve got with how to communicate so that the person reading it feels something emotional, how to put exactly the right words in the right order to make something beautiful – that came from reading books. It decided my university subject and my career path. It has made me.

And so I want my boys to open their eyes to worlds beyond their own. They will find characters in books that make them want to be better people. They will read books that give them glimpses of what it’s like to live in different countries, extreme poverty or a war zone. They will lose themselves, and find themselves, and find themselves changing. They will always, always know the difference between there, they’re and their. A boy could get an awfully long way with a skill set like that.

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I first wrote this post for Ceri’s Ginger Warrior blog, which you should definitely check out. But in tribute to Shakespeare’s birthday (and with her permission), I’m posting it here. Happy reading, all!

Wheels and wheels

That resolution of mine hasn’t been going very many places. Because neither have we.

Not today though, ladies and gentleman! No, last night I went to bed at the ever-so-glamorous time of 8.30pm, and woke up this morning ready to ACHIEVE. We attempted to go to rhyme time at the library, but I spent too long answering correspondence (thank you, by the way, so much for your well wishes!) so we had to drive. And then there were no parking spaces, and then an angry lady nearly slapped me in the car park because we had an eyebrow conversation along the lines of ‘I MUST REVERSE’ (said her eyebrows) and ‘MY CAR IS HERE, SILLY’ (said my eyebrows). And then her next gesture cannot be reproduced for a family audience. And so we decided that this wasn’t a rhyme time kind of morning, and went to go pick up the dry cleaning instead.

On the way back, we found ourselves here.

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Steady yourselves. I know this looks too thrilling for words. Actually, it is.

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It is a museum of wagons and milk churns and steam engines and farming machinery. For a boy currently in love with wheels, it was the best thing he’d ever seen. And it was the most child-friendly place I’d been in ages: they had a carpeted area with a huge box full of toys, clipboards and paper for drawing and a table with a toy farm. Henry turned every knob worth turning and wedged himself into at least three pieces of equipment, and had the time of his life.

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We will most definitely be going back. And now we feel like we’ve done something worthwhile, we can nap without guilt. You see how that works?

Here’s to 2013, outside these walls. A very good start.

In praise of the paper-and-ink

There’s a place you can go where everything smells of unicorns and chocolate sprinkles. Stuff Disneyland. Just take me to Waterstone’s.

(I am putting the apostrophe back in, because COME ON, WATERSTONE’S.)

The Waterstone’s at home was a house of wonders. The books sat in the old Wool Exchange building in Bradford, and I breathed in the paper-and-ink under huge vaulted ceilings, wanting to take everything home with me. Instead I wandered through all the aisles, brushing the covers with the tips of my fingers, sitting on tucked-away sofas reading first chapters I dreamed about later. It was intoxicating.

If we’re shopping now, I save the bookshop till last, the way any sensible person saves the Yorkshire pudding till last on roast dinner days. If I have anything to do with it, my kids will want to savour it too. I want them to sit at the little table in the children’s section, rummage through shelves, run (clean) fingers over the pictures and find new things to love.

We might not be that lucky, of course. Bookshops are a rare breed, these days, and they’re getting rarer. Waterstone’s is the only one in my town, and it’s probably the only one in yours. Who’d bother to get out of the house and spend £8.99 on a book, when Amazon will deliver it to you in your pyjamas for £3.50?

Well, I would. And I think you should too. Think of it like buying free-range eggs: it’s more expensive and sometimes more hassle – especially if the eggs come with chicken poop still on them – but you do it for the hens, and because it’s the right thing to do. Online booksellers are cheap and convenient, but they’re not real. There’s no physical presence, no smell. You can’t come across something accidentally that becomes the best thing you ever read. If there comes a point where I can’t walk into a bookshop and get knocked over by the worlds waiting for me underneath the covers – because Amazon’s shut them all down – well. I will run away to live outside Shakespeare and Company, and I’ll be taking all the free-range hens with me. Because if we can’t sustain a shop full of books on the high street, not even one, then we don’t deserve nice things.

So buy bookshop. Do it for the hens. Do it for your cherub-faced children, who still have a lifetime to be amazed by words. Do it for everything lovely in the world. Do it for me, and I’ll bake you a cake and give you 10p. You can’t turn down an offer like that.

(You may find it hard to believe, but no one at all paid me to write this. Though, if you’re interested, Waterstone’s? Put the apostrophe back in, and let’s talk.)

Teether/reader

I never thought I’d be grateful for teething in any particular. Baby teeth can, as a general rule, bog right off from this house. Don’t mess with me, teeth. I’ve got pepper spray.

However.

When Henry was cutting molars earlier this month, all he wanted to do was be held. We sat for long afternoons on the sofa with him on my lap, our legs under a blanket, a pile of books on our knees. He’d never had the patience for storytime, not until it hurt to move. Dosed up with Calpol and holding onto the hem of my t-shirt, he was enthralled.

Now, in that difficult hour before Daddy gets home, when he’s hot and tired and hungry, we put down everything else and go sit on the sofa. Him on my lap, our legs under a blanket, a pile of books on our knees. He loves those stories from the library so much that I’m wondering if I can just renew them till he’s five, and whether I’ll actually go insane, repeating them once a day till then. Left to himself, he gets them off the shelf and turns the pages, clucking with excitement. You should hear his monkey noise in Where’s Spot. It’s a zoological masterpiece.

(I deliberately omitted the question mark at the end of Where’s Spot. I know all too well where he is: in the basket, the rotter. Out out, damned Spot. Eat your dinner, for all of our sakes.)

It was teeth, of all things, that made Henry look at books like there might be something thrilling inside, and sit down long enough to find out. Well, I’ll take that, demon molars. Now off you jolly well bog.

Favourites thus far:

Where’s Spot [THE BASKET. LOOK IN THE BASKET], Is This My Nose?The Terrible PlopPenguinCarrot Soup, and absolutely anything by Oliver Jeffers (those illustrations are something else).

Unexpected rejects:

Each Peach Pear Plum (pastel-coloured pictures. Not interesting enough); The Very Hungry Caterpillar (reasons unknown. Caterpillar fear? We never get beyond the three blue plums); There’s an Ouch in my Pouch (I love this. He doesn’t. He thinks the rhymes are a bit much).

This is September calling. It’s time to change your life.

You guys, September is in the air. Can you smell it? It smells like freshly sharpened pencils (tm Tom Hanks).

A whiff of September is irresistible to me. Eau de New Start. I buy stationery I don’t need and embark upon life-improving projects. It’s the sort of month where I start feeling like I might want a new lampshade, because what COULDN’T you accomplish with a fancy lampshade in your living room? The Cakery Bakery project was a product of September. It’s a good month for beginning things you’ve always wanted to begin, and that is the truth of it.

Today, poorly Henry and I have been holed up in the house with rain spattering the windows. I have cleaned and thought, stopped cleaning out of boredom, restarted and thought some more. Here’s what I want from myself in the last leg of this year:

Write well. Work hard at it. Write about things that matter.

I just don’t know anything better for understanding myself and my surroundings than working it out in words. I love this little blog – it’s become something essential to me, unexpectedly – and I want to make it a place worth visiting.

Make definite, uncrossable, computerless spaces in our day.

Did you know, Henry knows how to switch on an iPhone? He can’t talk, but he can swipe. The phone signal down in Dorset was awful, and I was surprised (but not really) by how clearly I can think, how many more things I notice, when cut off from a screen. I would like to resurrect our computer-free zones and the iPhone spirit prison, and maybe September will help them stick.

Read. Poetry and all. 

A bit of literary criticism does me a heck of a lot of good, even if it’s just by myself.

Really, truly listen.

To both my boys. To the people I’ve asked how they are without stopping for an answer. For the things that are said and the things that aren’t said.

Vacuum at least once a week. Do laundry more often than that.

What?

In addition, we are planning a month of diet detox and I just feel like life would be more sparkly with at least two more notebooks and a set of coloured pens. Paperchase, you and I have a date with destiny. Let’s get this month ON A ROLL.