London Loves

London has been in the news way too much recently, for all the wrong reasons. So I wanted to make a space where we celebrate the London we know- not the one that’s full of tragedy and police tape. Every … Continue reading

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“Rapunzel” at Chickenshed – 09/12/17

Photo courtesy of Chickenshed

Photo courtesy of Chickenshed

 

Ah the Piccadilly Line, my old nemesis. We meet again. It had been less than 24 hours since the kids and I were stranded at Leicester Square for a full 13 minutes, and yet here were Eva and I tackling it again. I had a plan to avoid what I remember as being a long and arduous change at Finsbury Park – if you’re coming south on the Victoria Line and want to continue south on the Piccadilly Line, it’s a very easy walk through but heaven forbid you should want to arrive from the north on the Vic line and bounce back up north on the Piccadilly. That manoevure I remembered as being a pain in the oyster last time we went to Chickenshed on the tube.

So this time, I was going to try my Clever Plan – change onto the Picc Line for one stop south, get off and walk through to the northbound and back up. But once again, the Piccadilly Line was not playing my games. As we got onto the southbound train an announcement told us that the train was being held for a short time to regulate the service. So we hopped back off and made that arduous change I was talking about. Turns out it only takes 2 minutes but involves 108 stairs – 54 up and then 54 back down again. Now you know.

But we did get to alight at the most surreal of all the Art Deco stations – the crashed spaceship that is Southgate. Eva thought it was fab and so did I:

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Anyway, enough transport geekery. We were going to Chickenshed to see their production of Rapunzel – a musical retelling of the fairy tale with a cast of hundreds. We were sitting upstairs, using the “Yellow Entrance” which has (don’t tell anyone) a handy set of toilets nearby. It also has a great view and a little space where Eva could stand up and dance during the songs. Again, don’t tell anyone…our little secret.

The show starts in the real world, where a girl called Hazel is reading bedtime stories to a group of children. They get sucked into the story book and Hazel becomes Rapunzel, with no memory of her real life outside the tower. It’s a story about freedom and dreams and magic. You know the basic story – princess gets stolen by witch because of her magical hair and is locked in a tower until she is rescued. Chickenshed fleshed out the tale with groups of sleep fairies, hinkypunks, gnomes and citizens of the Kingdom of Kindness. When they were all on stage at once, the look and the sound was impressive -  it seemed on a far grander scale than most productions at small theatres.

Photo courtesy of Chickenshed

Photo courtesy of Chickenshed

There were some actors I recognised from The Midnight Gang – notably Sarah Connolly, who here played the kind-hearted Queen Aramynta. It was a bit of a shift from her role as the Matron who was, quite frankly, evil and it took me a while to trust her. But she convinced me with her soulful singing about her lost daughter. I also recognised the dryad Dryope (Finn Walters), who I think was Robin from the Midnight Gang and here he brought his gangly energy to an altogether more mischievous role.

The main part was played by Cerys Lambert, who was perfectly cast as Rapunzel with her waif-like looks and incredibly pure singing voice. She had just the right level of naivety to play a character who’d been locked away from the world all her life without tipping into cloying over-sweetness. Eva pointed out that her dress was the wrong colour but I think she’s been brainwashed by Disney into thinking Rapunzel has to wear purple.

And that was Eva’s only criticism of the whole thing. She loved it from start to finish and has been needling Reuben about how much he missed out by not going (don’t feel sorry for him – he’s been to plenty of shows without her). She swayed and grinned through all the songs and thought the cat and the raven were very funny. Towards the end, when *spoilers* Mother Gothel was defeated, I noticed her silently wiping away tears. I wondered what she could possibly be sad about unless she’d be on the witch’s side (always possible with Eva). So I leant over and tried to ask her as quietly as possible what was wrong.

“I AM happy” she replied “There’s just tears coming out”.

She’s her mother’s daughter alright. By the time the King and Queen were reunited with their lost child, I was welling up too and I’m sure I was far from the only one. Chickenshed sure knows how to hit you in the feelings – the very nature of the place is so inclusive and welcoming that as soon as you walk through the door you can start feeling a bit emotional. The show was closed-captioned but also had a signer on stage at all times, dressed as a cast member so they blended seamlessly into the production. It’s stuff like that that makes you feel yes, this is a place that cares. And this production of Rapunzel was just full of the same kind of heart. There were messages of acceptance and overcoming differences and needing each other, which is a strong theme in Chickenshed’s work.

But in case this is all sounding a bit worthy, worry not. There were also spectacular set pieces, sassy jokes and even the odd scary moment, which Eva coped remarkably well with. The pace was fast enough to keep the audience engaged, without rushing over the character development. The set was cleverly designed to shift effortlessly from woodland to underground passage in the blink of an eye and the musicians were craftily concealed in the top corner. It was a complex production – and I believe the cast totals 800 over four rotations – but very well pulled off.

So Eva and I would definitely recommend it as a family treat this Christmas. It’s 2 hours (including interval), which I think means the 5+ rating is probably well placed. Younger children may struggle with the length although there is plenty that they would enjoy, in terms of the dancing, singing and slapstick. But to get the best of it, probably find a school-age child to take with you. If you can’t find one, I’m happy to lend one out…

Disclaimer: I received free tickets to Rapunzel in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own. For tickets and more information, click here 

Photo courtesy of Chickenshed

Photo courtesy of Chickenshed

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Ongals at Soho Theatre – 08/12/17

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Well, that was surreal. We spent the evening with four knife-juggling, man-size, Korean babies. It was fun but yes, a touch surreal. I’ll tell you all about it in a second.

First though, a festive wander around Oxford Street. I know this sounds like most people’s idea of Hell but ooh, there are pretty lights and sparkly things. So many sparkly windows. And as with last year’s trip to Knightsbridge, Eva had to stop at every window to coo over how yuvyee it all was. I didn’t find the McDonald’s and Primark experience quite so yuvyee but we did emerge with 2xChristmas jumpers and 2xHappy Meal toys so I really felt a sense of achievement. They also ate the food that came in the Happy Meals but that seems largely inconsequential to the kids.

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So onto Soho Theatre. They were super keen to get in and so I didn’t even get to claim my free drink at the bar, though it might taken the edge off all the late-night child wrangling. None of us really knew what to expect and the large box which said “Toy” didn’t offer many clues. Soon enough though, the lights dimmed and the music started and we were about to be sucked into the crazy world of Ongals.

And how to explain this? Well, it’s pretty high speed and packed full of variety. There’s juggling with clubs, slapstick, bell ringing and even a little light whipping. Reuben enjoyed all the fart jokes near the beginning and yowled with laughter at a gag involving a bike pump and a balloon….and that’s all I’m going to say on that. Eva was enjoying herself too until one of the Ongals pretended to swallow a balloon, at which point she freaked out a bit. She’s easily scared but balloon-swallowing is a brand new phobia of hers. She was eventually won back when they started juggling with sparkly rings and throwing them to each other. Again, she’s impressed by anything sparkly.

I’ll admit all of us were a little terrified when it came to a stunt involving a whip, an audience member and a pocky stick. I won’t spoil the moment for you but you’ll be glad to hear there was no first aid required. Except for that poor mannequin.

All four of the performers are really supremely talented. The entire show was mimed, with only a smattering of English words and what sounded like some Mandarin counting (tho I assume it was probably Korean) and it takes a lot of skill to keep the audience engaged and laughing using just body language. They were all masters of facial communication and physical comedy but then on top of that they each have at least one individual talent to show off. The guy in the light blue was an adept knife-juggler and pulled off a magic trick with a Coke can that emerged as Reuben’s favourite moment of the show. The guy in the dark blue was an awesome beat boxer and there were some impressive moments involved hand-bells and balloon modelling.

I’ll tell you this – it is like nothing else you’ll see in London this Christmas. It’s overwhelmingly colourful, energetic and yes, mind-boggling but it was a furiously fun 60 minutes and afterwards we even got to meet the Ongals and have our photo taken by KADA (Korean Artists Development Agency). If I find it on the internet, it’ll sit nicely here won’t it?

In the (hopefully temporary) absence of that photo though, I’ll paint you another mental picture. It’s the picture of my kids on a Piccadilly Line platform, staring desolately at a sign that threatened 13 minutes until the next train. All of us tired and over-layered for the tube. It’s not a pretty picture and it wasn’t a pretty situation but we made home it eventually.  Remember how Primark in Oxford Street at Christmas time wasn’t *quite* my idea of Hell. Well, we have a replacement all lined up…

Disclaimer: We received free tickets to “Ongals” in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

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Children’s Christmas Theatre Preview

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I know it’s not Christmas yet but we gotta start facing up to the reality of it. I have Nathan filling advent calendar bags with Lego as I type, we’re planning our Christmas day present opening schedule and if you were hoping to take in any kids’ theatre this Christmas it’s probably time to get booking.

Because as ever, there’s a feast of stuff to take in over the festive season in London. One classic is the ballet of The Snowman, which returns to the Peacock Theatre this Christmas, starting on 23rd Nov and running to New Year’s Eve. You know the music already and it’s a instant mood-setter but just be aware that sensitive kids may cry at the end. Or maybe that’s just me.

Another classic Christmas story is The Nutcracker and there are two impressive options to choose from  – the English National Ballet at the London Coliseum (13th Dec – 6th Jan) and the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Both are suitable for kids by the looks of it – the ROH has a 5+ recommendation and the Coliseum one has a family friendly matinee on 6th Jan. I really ought to take Eva to see one of them as she keeps banging on about ballet but December is ridiculously busy already and we’ve already got two shows booked in to go and see.

Which two? Well, I’m glad you asked. One is Rapunzel at the Chickenshed Theatre, which runs from 22nd Nov to 6th Jan and features four rotating casts of an astonishing 800 people in total. It’s a musical version of the story, recommended for ages 5+ and I’ll tell you more once Eva and I have been to see it!

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The other show we’re going to is a bit more…eclectic. It’s at the Soho Theatre and it’s a Korean comedy show called Ongals:Babbling Comedy. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what to expect apart from four men dressed as toddlers. But I’ve been assured it “brings together incredible magic, effortless circus moves and formidable beatboxing skills”, which sounds fun at least.  Again, I’ll report back very soon.

One show that is much more a known quantity is Stomp and I’m sad to sad this is the last Christmas it’ll be spending in London. Your can hear about the LWAT reporters’ trip to see it here and I’d urge you to go before it leaves London. It may not be very festive-themed but it is a great show and unlike anything else you’ll see in the West End.

Photo credit: Steve McNicholas

Photo credit: Steve McNicholas

On a slightly more seasonal theme, the Unicorn Theatre have a packed programme for all ages this Christmas – there’s a baby show, a show called “Boing” for ages 2-6 and their 5-adult production The Velveteen Rabbit. Have a look here for more details and to book tickets.

I’ll leave you with a pair of Cinderellas. Sadly not the office-panto version that last year starred Eva as “girl wearing a ballgown and refusing to leave the stage” but a couple of rather more slick options. Greenwich Theatre are staging the story as a panto, opening now and running through till 7th Jan. Then there’s Matthew Bourne’s ballet at Sadlers Wells, which has a poster that makes Eva swoon every time we pass it at the station. Such a pretty dress, apparently. It’s for ages 5 and over and I assume Greenwich is all-age.

OK, is that enough to get working on? Book tickets nice and early and then you can retreat back into November for a few weeks…

 

 

 

 

 

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Royal Gunpowder Mills – 04/11/17

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Today we went to the Fireworks event at Royal Gunpowder Mills. Some of you may know why we haven’t been there for three years – our last visit ended somewhat disgustingly, with a toddler who was neither completely toilet trained nor completely over her stomach bug, despite a clear 72 hours.

It took some going back but I’m glad we did as the day went off almost without a hitch. The toddler is now 5 and mainly toilet trained but now at an age where she’s terrified of everything, including fireworks. I did say *almost* without a hitch.

This morning we were at church, for the joyous church work day where you sweep up wet leaves in exchange for pizza. There was a fairly tedious drive after that up Green Lanes and through Tottenham, that meant we didn’t land in Waltham Abbey till 3 – a full hour and 15 minutes later than last time (although that was a full 15 minutes earlier than the gates opened). There’s access from 2, but actually 3 was about right as we got time to do everything but didn’t feel like we were hanging around too much.

Obviously, the first thing the kids wanted to do was play on the play area:

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But there was a “Ghost of Guy Fawkes” show on at 3:30 so we ushered them along, hoping to get seats all together. It was pretty packed out, so it’s just as well we went early. Incidentally, I had to censor myself when I was telling Eva what the show was called because any mention of ghosts might have made her point blank refuse to watch it. Even though she played a ghost in her last Perform show. Sigh.

As it happened, there was nothing at all to be scared of in this show, even for a delicate flower like Eva. Just two actors – one playing Guy Fawkes and the other “Master Anthony”/Every Other Character – and a whole lot of shouting and silliness. The kids both loved it. Guy Fawkes explained how he’d got caught up in the plot and the how he was tickled into writing a confession, which isn’t *far* from the truth as I understand it. There were some terrible puns and a chase right round the theatre. Great fun and even mildly educational.

After that, we fancied doing something a bit more active so headed for the Spink Gallery on the far side of where the Queens Mead, to make some cellophane lanterns. Reuben had a few nitpicks with the instructions (he thinks the cellophane should go on the inside) but they both seemed pretty happy with the finished products:

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While Eva was still faffing about with bits of sellotape, the boys went out to see the display of musket firing. I knew it was happening but it still made me jump.

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Then we just had time for the slime making (a 5-minute activity with a bit of queuing) and a look round the rockets gallery before the Kaboom show at 5PM.

Again, it was pretty packed. Standing room only for adults.

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Dr Neutron looked suspiciously similar to Guy Fawkes but he assured us he was a different person. The show was about fire and explosions and I only caught the first 5 minutes before sneaking off to order food but yes, there was fire and the kids tell me there were explosions. Reuben said it was awesome. He’s at the right kind of age for bangs and crashes.

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It was definitely the right call to get in early with the food. I figured that everyone would have the same idea as us and be trying to feed their kids at the same time. The system was very swift though – there was a choice of chilli, bacon rolls, hot dogs or sausage and mash and it was all pre-prepared so the food was ready as soon as I paid. I just had time to find a table and a couple of chairs before the rest of the family appeared. It was busy but all well organised so that it didn’t feel chaotic. Also, they take card which is a relief as I only had enough cash on me to buy the tealights for those cellophane lanterns.

Obviously Eva whined a little about the onion gravy on her sausages but I scraped the sauce off and she soon yummed them up. By then it was 5:30 and we still had an hour and a half to kill before the fireworks started. Reuben wanted to go back to the play area, so we hung out in the cold while he tried to complete the assault course in the dark even though it was packed with other kids. It didn’t go so well.

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We needed to warm up so we went to have a look around the galleries, scene of Eva’s disgrace last time.

I’m happy to say we made a clean getaway this time. Nothing more disgusting happened than the children learning about saltpetre and sulphur, both of which sound pretty disgusting.

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There were lots of screens to interact with tho I was disappointed that the “stoking the cannons” exhibition didn’t have any of the bags you stoke the cannons with (I’m aware this makes no sense unless you’ve seen it in action) but the kids didn’t remember it from last time so they didn’t mind. Eva liked pressing the button to make the mill work and they both enjoyed this photo opportunity:

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Even though Eva was a little too short to make it work:

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We stopped by the armoury, although we’re terribly lefty-liberal parents and didn’t want Roo actually handling the firearms. He totally wanted to though. Like I said, he’s at that kinda age where explosions are cool.

All of which brings us to the fireworks themselves. They started with archers shooting flaming arrows at a Guy, which then exploded and burned for the next ten minutes or so. Then a huge boom and then wheeeeee, bang, fireworks all set to a soundtrack of classic rock (“Bat out of Hell”, “Eye of the Tiger”)

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As you can probably predict, Reuben loved it and was shouting “more big ones!”. Equally predictably, Eva was cowering behind my leg for the whole thing. I think she liked them but it seems that she’s still a little bit young and/or wussy for proper firework displays.

The only point of the day that was a bit iffy was leaving. There were signs up, asking drivers not to all leave at the same time but realistically, who is going to hang around in the cold to let everyone else go first? We were blocked in and facing the wrong way so pretty much just had to wait it out…for half an hour but having the stereo on all that time has had a ropey effect on our battery (we made it home, but only just). So if you find yourself stuck in the carpark for longer than it takes to drive home probably don’t follow the advice to stick your favourite song on.

That was the only downside of the Royal Gunpowder Mills experience. It really is a fabulous day for learning all about fireworks – the history and the science – and then experience them first hand with plenty of firepower.  They’re doing it all again tomorrow and the tickets aren’t too pricey (£32ish for a family I think) and I would definitely recommend it. More information and tickets here.

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Play, Explore, Create at the V&A – 27/10/17

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We’ve had something of a theme this half term – I had lunch with my friend Vicki on Tuesday, Wetlands with cousin Vicky on Wednesday and today the Mamma of all Victorias – the Victoria and Albert Museum. And we travelled on the Victoria Line, naturally.  I only regret that we didn’t meet up with another Vicky yesterday, though we did spot a Victoria in Tesco. It’s appropriate because Roo’s studying Victorians at school. So when we got to the V&A we were all ready to spend a day learning about the Vic…..Georgians. Ah well.  We’re getting sick of Victorians anyway.

The event was a family performance workshop hosted by Chickenshed Kensington & Chelsea, who I believe were involved in the show we went to at the RAH a few months back. The idea was for kids and adults to work together to put on a show in a day and mainly the adults were happy to get involved. I certainly was. Work panto notwithstanding, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do any drama and why should the kids get all the fun?

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The day ran from 10-4, with three breaks built in and the first 30 mins or so was a craft activity while people arrived – making invitations for the show we were going to put on later in the afternoon, with a pile of pictures of Georgians to cut out and stick on. We all enjoyed that but the kids were mainly excited about what was coming next. We divided up into three groups and did a getting to know you kinda game (say your name with actions – I panicked and did jazz hands. I’ve clearly been SwingTraining too much) and some improv, forming a spooky forest with our bodies.

Next up was some storytelling, from Diane who brought the Bible story of the Queen of Sheba to life with a great deal of drama and the music of Handel. In case you were wondering what the link between the Georgians and the Old Testament was. It was very interactive and nice to add a bit of variety into the day.

Then back into our three groups to prepare three scenes for the show. Our group had a scene about a pickpocket gang who charged rich people to get their stolen goods back. We all practised our evil laughs and pinching fingers and, most importantly, our lines. Because we only had a day to put it all together, we were allowed to keep scripts with us and both kids did have to use theirs to read from. Because of that, I’d say that Eva was probably as young as you could practically be to get the full benefit of the workshop – she could read enough to get her lines right but a younger child might have struggled. Although there were younger ones there and they seemed to enjoy the dressing up and the dancing.

Once we’d perfected our scene, we performed it to the other two groups and watched theirs – an etiquette guide for Georgian Lords and Ladies and a sketch about two rival opera singers who had a fight on stage. Then there was a short break, where the kids wolfed down some sandwiches – it was 11:45 and drama is hungry work – then we went on a walk together to the Europe Gallery.

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There we met Diane again, this time dressed as the Georgian Lady Charlotte. She taught us how to bow and curtesy and then went on to talk a bit more about Handel, including teaching us how to greet him in the three languages he spoke – German, Italian and English. We were right by the display of Regency-era instruments and so she could show us the kind of harpsichord that Handel would have played. I was thrilled to find a real life hurdy gurdy for reasons that would probably only make sense to my oldest nephew.

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We all dressed up in Georgian hats or flowery headbands and, accessorised with flags and fans, we processed together to the statue of Handel, giving out our invitations to the show on the way. Then we did some freestyle Georgian dancing around the statue itself. I’m aware as I write this that it all sounds like a weird dream but I swear it actually happened. Look, here are the kids, dressed as Georgians,  in the music room:

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Time for lunch and a step back into the real world. The kids had a constant squabble going over these two spinny chairs at the entrance to the Sackler Centre, so I marched them straight past and into the John Madejski Garden, which I assume is named after the football stadium in Reading.  It was sunny on one side of the garden and warm enough to sit out without a coat but possibly not warm enough to go paddling. But try telling Eva that:

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It’s OK. She sun-dried herself and warmed up by running a lap of the pool. It would have been nice if she’d told me that’s what she was doing, because I panicked and just thought she was running off into a crowd of people to get herself lost. How foolish I am.

Did I mention that Pluto the homework dog was with us?Because he was, oh yes. Lucky Pluto and lucky us.

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Powered up with snacks and coffee from the stall in the corner, we went back to the auditorium to keep working on the show. This section involved a song and dance routine to Pink’s “Get the Party Started”. With Georgian-themed lyrics and harpsichord accompaniment, of course. Roo enjoyed the bit where the party got really wild and he had to fall over in slow motion. Eva liked the bit where we were pretending to put on Georgian make up. If that surprises you, you clearly haven’t met my kids.

Showtime was getting near, so we chose some outfits. Roo was sporting this rather natty jacket:

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And Eve had what looked a bit like a Marilyn Monroe dress, that I hitched up at the top and back so that she didn’t fall over.

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Then the audience came in, we performed our show and it all went pretty well. Both kids remembered their cues and no-one vomited on stage, so I call that a success.

By now it was 4PM and the sensible thing would have been to get on the tube before rush hour. But I’ve not often been known to do the sensible thing over half term and so instead we went for a cup of jelly with my cousin and her family at the Science Museum because they just happened to be there. It quickly became apparent that the kids had run out of Good Behaviour and so then we really did head for the tube, which was bound to be horrendous at 5:15 on a Friday.

So I pulled what I consider to be a genius move. Often in these kinda circumstances I’ll buy them a magazine each to try and keep them occupied on the packed train but there aren’t huge numbers of magazine outlets in South Ken. However, there is a small bookshop next to the tube, which carries a very reasonably priced selection of kids’ books so for the price of two magazines, we got a Where’s Wally book and a fairytales book and that kept them quiet all the way to Walthamstow, even though we were standing to Green Park and then awkwardly sharing two seats between three to Finsbury Park. Roo didn’t even really look up from his Wally-finding when we were changing onto the Vic line, except when he spotted a Where’s Wally poster on the station wall, which he thought was a remarkable coincidence. Incidentally, the ES magazine I picked up also worked quite well for keeping Eva entertained – she likes to look at all the pretty girls and dresses and decide which dress she’d like the most. Yes, I know. What can I do with this one?

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After all that, I was pretty exhausted but what a fun day and all for free! (Except the copious amounts of caffeine). It’s rare to find something where parents and kids are encouraged to perform together and I really liked doing it. And it was great to see some of the V&A treasures as well. Keep and eye on the Chickenshed and V&A websites in case they do another one cause I would definitely recommend it.

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So. We’re Debating Working Motherhood Again. Oh Good.

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There comes a point in parenthood where you’re just kinda rolling along, in your routine and your roles not really overthinking what you’re doing. Kids to school, parents to work. What you’ve done for ages. Past the point of doing things that need to be endlessly debated by strangers on the internet – no longer breastfeeding, or potty training or weaning or babywearing or anything that’s particularly controversial. They’ve even both learnt to read now. The “frantic googling” stage of parenting is taking a break from now until puberty.

But then someone says something and a debate breaks out, and it’s about something that you hadn’t even considered might be anything to argue about. Yes, it’s working motherhood. And everyone seems to have an opinion about it, kicked off by that most contemporary of commentators Esther Rantzen.

I don’t talk about work too much on the internet but I’ll just say this – I have the perfect set up. A job I enjoy and it fits into school hours. I can drop the kids off every day and pick them up again. I miss no time with them at all because unless we were home schooling, we’d not be hanging out together between the hours of 9 and 3:30 anyway. There’s currently very little guilt attached to working, unlike the early days of working motherhood, where a screaming Roo ended up in the reception area of Nathan’s office because he just wouldn’t settle at the childminder. True, I miss some things at school but I normally manage to tweak work hours a bit to catch a school play or send Nathan to a Sports Day. Working keeps me sane and I’m a better parent for having something outside the home to focus on. Look how focused I am in my “Scarf of Working Motherhood” in the picture above.

( I’ll say right now that this post isn’t a dig at any mothers who don’t consider themselves to be working outside the home, it’s just a view from a working parent who feels under attack this week. More on that later.)

So why am I coming back to the swamp of despair on this seemingly innocuous area of parenthood?  Well, here’s some of the things that have been said about working mothers recently.  The aforementioned Esther Rantzen article for The Telegraph looked at the rise in levels of depression and anxiety among children and planted the blame firmly at the door “the decline of the housewife”. Working mothers, by any other name.

There are a myriad of reasons why children are now seeking more help with depression than ever before. I’d be inclined to cast an eye towards the new, compressed curriculum that sees my 8yo not doing PE because the class “needs to catch up” and being told to spend an hour a week of his precious after school time staring at a screen to solve maths problems. We tried it once and it did result in some anxiety so we’re skipping for now. The same curriculum has the 5yo in frustrated tears at the sheer difficulty of her numeracy homework, and thinking she’s stupid despite the fact that she writes beautifully and can draw a very realistic zombie. Cascade that same compressed curriculum up through the teens, with the regrading of the GCSEs and I’m not surprised we have some anxious children out there. Add in the pressures of social media life comparisons and cyberbullying and voila, a cocktail of teen angst. I’m no expert but I’d say that putting all the blame on “tired mothers” is a bit of a stretch.

Meanwhile, over the channel Minister for Equality Marlene Schiappa caused waves by suggesting that schools should call a child’s father when they’re ill, not their mother. She advised mothers not to give school their mobile number at all. Well. I can’t say I’m 100% with Schiappa on this one – it’s pretty common sense that whoever’s looking after your kids should have as many contact numbers as possible, in case of true emergency. But I applaud the sentiment – no, a mother should not be the one who is called out of work by default. It didn’t take long for a reaction piece to arise in HuffPost, from the founder of JoJo Maman Bebe, Laura Tenison. In it, she asked “ which mother would NOT want to be the first one to rush to the school to collect a sick child?”

I’m putting a cautious hand up here. Me. I’m that mother who would not want to be the first one to rush to the school. I’m that mother whose first reaction when a child is sick overnight is to start a furious whispered debate with Nathan about whose work day is busier the next day. I’m the mother who has Facebook-screamed as I’ve just sat down in the office, opened a full inbox and then got The Call of Doom. I’m also the mother who was on mat leave/freelance/self-employed for the best part of three years so was the default for all that time, which included Reuben’s first winter in preschool. And anyone who has experienced preschool knows the bodily-fluided nightmare that is.

It’s not just that I’m selfish. It partly is. I don’t enjoy quarantine and I certainly don’t enjoy mopping up sick and changing sheets. But it’s more than that. It’s the thing I forget after so many years of working motherhood – it’s a precarious thing. A job is hard won and easily lost and it’s stuff like taking days off to look after children that loses jobs not just for the mother involved but for mothers everywhere.

Obviously, societal change is needed but until then, us working mothers are walking a tightrope. We need to be present for our kids, especially if they’re ill., but we also need to be present for our employers. We need to work harder and faster than any other staff member to prove our worth. We need to make judgement calls about whether a toddler is ill with a virus or just teething when we make the decision about whether to leave work to pick them up or try and stall till the end of the day and the stakes are high.

It’s not our fault. Prejudice against working mothers is entrenched and discrimination is rife. I’ve been asked in job interviews how often my kids are sick. I’ve been told by someone who had several kids of his own that he just wanted someone “more flexible” doing my position. I’ve worked from home while a child has been vomiting next to me, I’ve worked on holiday and during a bereavement because we can’t afford to drop the ball. Right now, I have awesome and understanding bosses but still feel a clenching in my heart every time one of my kids has a weird clenching in their stomach.

So why do it at all? Why not take the Rantzen advice and just be happy as housewives? Well, again there are a huge variety of reasons behind why women work when they have kids. The main few I’d cover off as – a) economic reasons, although that might seem unrealistic when your salary is getting sucked up by childcare, b) career reasons, although again that might seem like a pipedream when you’re working part-time and c) sanity reasons. I’d like to somewhat belatedly say that I’m not denigrating anyone who does choose to stay at home. If that works for your family, then brilliant. It can be a wonderful thing to be with your kids as they grow up and even after they start school and you can have time for yourself. I don’t want to use my reasons for working to make anyone feel bad for not working.

Here’s the take-home though – we shouldn’t be told what to do by a third party. We shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for working or for being “housewives” (yeah, we need a better term). We should be doing what works for us, for our kids and for the family unit as a whole. What I see as perfection  – a commute into Central London after drop off and before pick up – some would see as hellish. But it works for us.

And up till this week, I haven’t felt the working mother guilt for quite some time. They haven’t been ill for quite some time so I haven’t had to juggle (although there was that A&E trip in the summer). And in case you can’t tell, I feel somewhat enraged about being made to feel guilty about this. But get ragey with me – the devaluing of women’s work (i.e. it should always be the mother who fetches a sick child) is something to be enraged about. The piling of blame onto mothers for societal problems (i.e. kids are depressed and it’s their mother’s fault) is also something to be enraged about. We have come so far in terms of equality but we haven’t come far enough. It’s bad enough that there’s still a gender pay gap but it’s the unspoken pressures – which are now being spoken- that kill a mother’s career. We’ve always flexed as to what works best at the time (hence my years of self-employment) but to change because of what Sarah Vine says in the Daily Mail? No. Thanks.

Yes, we need to safeguard our kids’ mental health but don’t we also need to safeguard our own? And for that reason, I’m out. I’m not investing in this debate any more. If work works, we should work. If work doesn’t work or stops working, don’t work. Simple as that.

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Walthamstow Wetlands – 25/10/17

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In a unusual move for the LWAT family, we’re trying to keep it local this half term. The kids and I are all a bit knackered so they’ve had a couple of days watching Indiana Jones movies with Nathan and then we have some low-key outings planned. Yesterday he took them to the Better Extreme Park at the Feel Good Centre, which has changed the age rules so that Eva and Reuben can both be in the same room now (trampolining is 5+ rather than 6+ now). The bad news is that Eva was so freaked out by the safety video that she refused to do any trampolining for the first 50 minutes. When I turned up to take over for the swimming lesson carnage, she was happily bouncing away…2 minutes before the session ended. That was money well spent. Roo, on the other had, had a “awesome, awesome, awesome time” trying the Ninja Run for the first time (now 8+ rather than 13+) so it wasn’t a total waste.

Today was the start of my shift with them and we opted for another Walthamstow day out. This time to the newly opened Wetlands with Cousin Leo who is the same age as Roo and much the same mentality. There may have been some jokes about bottoms. The people on the top deck of the 123 thanked us for it.

Luckily, we didn’t have far to go on the bus and we hopped off by the Ferry Boat Inn. The Wetlands is divided into two by Forest Road/Ferry Lane but the bit with toilets and coffee is on the south side, so we decided to explore that first. The Engine House is pretty much the first thing you see as you come in from the bus or the car park. It’s an imposing sight and has been lovingly restored. More on the interior later but here’s the outside:

 
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We followed the path round and found the first reservoir. The kids ran up and down the slope a few times then said they were tired of walking and could we have a sit down? We’d been walking for all of five minutes by then but we obliged, and sat looking out over the water at what the children called “Duck Island”:

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If you look beyond Duck Island, you can see Canary Wharf (there’s something of a bird theme developing) and the Mallard…I mean the Shard. I swear I got confused about ducks on here once before.

It was blissful with the sun shining down and a gentle breeze coming off the lake. Then one of the children made an announcement that necessitated a quick walk back to Engine House, stopping only for surprise catch up with T’sMum, who was one of my chief partners-in-crime back when I was on mat leave with Eva.

So, the Engine House. It has toilets, as you might have guessed, but I was disappointed to find a lack of toilet roll in the Ladies’ and a slightly dodgy lock on the door. The lift was also out of order. But the refit has been beautifully down and this statement artwork that goes down from the mezzanine to the cafe below was absolutely stunning:

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We didn’t try the cafe right then as we’d only been there for a few minutes still and there a queue that looked a bit scary. I’d like to try it some time when it’s not a sunny half term day. So we hung out on the mezzanine and the viewing gallery, playing with the screens that told the children more about the newts, birds and even snakes they could expect to see out on the wetlands.

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But it was far too lovely a day to stay inside for long and we headed down the spiral staircase outside to look around the northern side. It meant that we didn’t visit the shop (which probably was a good thing) or have a bit more of a look at the display of knitted birds in the main entrance. But we did find this massive hill, which was to entertain the kids for the next hour or so.

What to do with a massive hill? If you’re Leo and Roo, run or roll down with furious abandon. If you’re Eva, roll down with extreme caution.

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Roo and Leo also enjoyed having a grass fight:

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And Roo built a snowman out of cut grass, which he intended to be a life-size model of me…but he ran out of enthusiasm. Still, I think he captured my general shape:

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I can’t really explain how much they enjoyed just running around up and down the hill. I walked up to the top once, a bit less crazily than the boys were, and took in the views over the reservoir and towards the North Circular.

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It was fast approaching caffeine o clock and we made the slow walk back towards the cafe, hoping that the queue had died down a bit. The walk was made slower by Eva’s stone collection, which weighed her down somewhat, and Roo’s insistence on tickling us all with slightly mangy feathers he found by the water’s edge. Think they may have belonged to these fellas:

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So slow, in fact, that we never made it to the cafe. The Ferry Boat Inn was closer and hopefully quieter so that we could get some chips and some ice cream.

It wasn’t quieter. There was an hour wait for food so we just got mango juices and crisps and let them climb the tree in the beer garden. The curse of the sunny half term day again!

But I can’t complain. What a glorious day to be exploring a new space in our city. Look at all these pictures of skies and kids and clouds. I didn’t even need to use filters:

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It’s great for kids to stretch their legs and spot wildlife and if you have a genuine toddler thing then they’ll love the views of the trains from almost every angle. It’s worth saying that dogs aren’t allowed in the wetlands because it’s a protected habitat, so Eva’s class pet Pluto sadly stayed in her rucksack the whole time we were out. Or maybe I just completely forgot to get a photo of him there. At least he made it home.

The Wetlands are currently open from 9:30am-4pm every day. More information here.

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“Power Up” at the Science Museum – 19/10/17

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Last year we went to Power Up. You might know this not just from reading this blog but also the way that Reuben’s “concentrating” face has popped up all over social media and even the print media to promote the exhibition reopening. In case you missed it, here’s the photo:

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So naturally we were keen to revisit this year. There were some complicated plans to get there, which I explained to Nathan using four different colour pens to represent the four members of the family, a teenage babysitter and Uncle Wiley, our other child. All of which plans were almost scuppered by a cancelled train at Highams Park. The boys went on ahead and I made some time by running up escalators and down exhibition road, pausing only to take in the pretty lights of the Natural History Museum.

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I got there to find all three boys plugged into the 16-player halo console, all wearing identical vacant expressions. Roo acknowledged me with a vague wave and then went back to shooting em up. I went to get some drinks and then persuaded him to have a bit more of a look around. We only got as far as the Minecraft area before he settled in again. That’s the “problem” with Power Up. ..it’s hard to get too far around the exhibition without getting drawn in. I suspect most people wouldn’t see that as a problem at all.

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Nathan was off playing Nintendo and Roo and I went over to the Lego games, where we spent a long time trying to get C3PO picked up by a magnet so that he could open the door that R2D2 couldn’t. Roo sighed in frustration at Mummy’s complete lack of gaming skills and ended up wrestling the controller off me so he could control both. We never did open that door and even Uncle Wiley couldn’t figure it out.

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Time to try something different. And the drumming games seemed to be the change we were looking for. I may not have gaming skills but I think I have a fair sense of rhythm. The scoring system for the game may not have agreed but I think we did a pretty good version of Carmen.

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Before we left, I wanted to introduce Roo to a game I could play – Sonic the Hedgehog. Those hours of gaming in the 90s were not wasted as I zipped through the Green Hill Zone and he said “Wow Mum you’re really good at this” in a tone that was only mildly condescending. No matter that when I tried the versions of either side of the mega drive I did nothing but get stuck. And I’d never have passed the marble zone. But Act 1 of GHZ on the mega drive….aced it!

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Nathan meanwhile was lost in his own world. …I suspect he retreated into the VR headset to avoid having to go home with me and Reuben. He would have been wise as Reuben was crazy-bouncy on the way out of the museum and then swiftly crashed on the Piccadilly Line. Ah well, it was an evening well spent. Power Up opens today and is on till 31st October. More information here.

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Suntrap Open Day – 14/10/17

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We’ve been meaning to go to Suntrap for a long time. And when I say we, I mean me. The kids have both been there on school trips and so were talking knowledgeably about the invertebrate room with all the superiority that a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old can muster. So when I saw that Suntrap were having an open day, with free shuttle buses form Chingford station…well, we were in. Nathan was off to buy a new stereo and despite not wanting to come with us, Eva saw Suntrap as a lesser evil than Currys. Roo, in contrast, was “10 out of 10 excited” to be going back to Suntrap so at least he was on board with the whole plan.

The shuttle bus from Chingford was one of those thing that sounded easier than it actually proved to be. No one quite knew whereabouts the bus would go from but a small crowd of us gathered on the main road, opposite the Station House pub and that turned out to be correct. The departure time passed and the small crowd grew bigger so I was starting to worry that we’d missed it but no, a 70-seater coach rolled up and it wasn’t long before we were cruising through the Essex countryside, enjoying the contrast of a flower-bedecked church next to a pile of mattresses. Almost before the kids starting moaning, we were at Suntrap.

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he first activity the kids wanted to try was the pond dipping. There were nets and trays and microscopes, for close examination of the pond life but Eva was mainly interested in in examining her own hand:

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Roo was more interested in how much pond weed he could fit into his net and dump into the tray. But he’d brought his own binoculars and notebook with him, so that showed an enquiring mind. Somehow, we managed to scoop something that looked alive and wasn’t just a fancy acorn:

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Next up was the low ropes course, which was 50p for Roo and free for Eva. I’m not sure how the system was worked out but I didn’t begrudge paying for one of them. They got three lives to complete the course and Roo did it twice with no lives lost. Eva needed all three of hers but then her legs are pretty tiny.

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Talking of no lives lost, I dithered for a while about letting Eva fry her own pancake over a campfire while wearing a dress that was both dangly and flammable. Eventually, I went with caution and she made pancakes in her coat and leggings. I occasionally manage something approaching good parenting. Of course, a better parent wouldn’t have let her wear a nylon fairy dress to the forest in the first place, but it seems to be all she wants to wear at the moment and I have to wrestle her into school uniform five days a week so yknow, anything for an easy weekend.

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Reuben gave his pancake a thumbs up, in case you’re wondering:
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Fuelled by pancakes, we went to do some crafting inside. We gathered some leaves for Eva to make an owl picture. She was very pleased with herself:

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Roo struggled a bit more with his origami pigeon. It took two of us and several attempts to get anything that even vaguely resembled a bird:

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Having concentrated so hard, the kids needed a runaround. We found some other HP kids and they all piled into a tree together, except Eva who chose to sit and look dramatic for a bit:

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But then she piled into a tree with the rest.

We were running out of time before the 4:30 coach back to Chingford but I needed cake, so we had a quick trip to the tearoom before a bit more pond dipping and then back up to the invertebrate room. There was one last thing Reuben wanted to do before we left and I was only slightly reluctant. OK, so I was full-body-shuddering all the time but he was more than content with the “very friendly corn snake” wrapped around him like a belt.

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*SHUDDER*

And on that note we headed back to semi-civilisation. Happy 50th birthday Suntrap!

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“Write to Be Counted” Launch – 04/10/17

Courtesy of Nicola Jackson at Write to Be Counted

Courtesy of Nicola Jackson at Write to Be Counted

You may know that I run a choir. What you probably don’t realise is that it’s full of multi-talented people. Not only are most of my singers busy mothers, they’re also artists and actresses, crocheters and famous shoe-complainers…and lately I discovered we have a poet amongst our ranks too.

Which is why I found myself at the Poetry Cafe, squeezing into a packed performance space with a hot cup of peppermint tea. My pet poet was reading from an anthology she’s featured in, along with several of the other writers. It’s called “Write to Be Counted” and it’s a collection of poems on the subject of human rights. Obviously that’s a massively broad topic and the poems being read that night were quite diverse in their focuses. The subject of Trump came up every so often, along with the refugee crisis. Nasrin Parvaz read about the experience of arriving in England and waking up at the immigration centre in Heathrow. John Gonhorry read a powerful poem entitled “You sit on the back row” about people passively watching current affairs and not doing anything about it. There was a poem inspired by a Georgian snuff box, a reflection on motherhood and a reminiscence about a candlelight vigil in August 1968, when the peace and love movement were starting to realise that war never would be over, however much they wanted it.  These are weighty subjects but beautifully expressed and always with a glimmer of hope for the future of humanity.

The anthology is out now on Amazon and I’d encourage you to buy a copy – profits go towards an organisation that promotes free speech around the world. At times like these, when peaceful protesters get called “sons of bitches” by their President, we need free speech more than ever. Not the freedom to be arseholes to each other on the internet, but the freedom to stand up to institutionalized prejudice without losing our liberty. I’d also encourage you to pop down to the Poetry Cafe if you’re in Covent Garden – it’s a lovely little space with lots of events going on, including some for families. And it had some nice-looking cake too. Which, human rights aside, is definitely the most important thing…

Courtesy of Nicola Jackson at Write to Be Counted

Courtesy of Nicola Jackson at Write to Be Counted

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