Thursday, 29 November 2012

Celebrating - with food and a flight

Before embracing all things Christmas, we first needed to celebrate another very special occasion - Daddy's birthday. This year we wanted to do something really fun and memorable, so straight after school we jumped on a 341 bus and were down at the South Bank by half past four, ready with our tickets, to board the fabulously blue and twinkly London Eye.

The views from our sedately moving pod were spectacular, and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. And gazing down at London, a sparkling toy-town stretched out beneath us, we munched these rather rugged-looking cheese oatcakes, baked for the occasion, the night before. They were so delicious that I'm putting the recipe here, mainly to remind myself to bake them again before the year is out. Perfect with a glass of fizz, they take less than thirty minutes to make; perfect for any celebratory occasion - not just flights on the London Eye.


100g oats
135g plain flour
75g hard cheese of choice, grated
2 tsp baking powder
40g melted butter
200ml milk
A pinch of salt

  1. Mix the sifted flour with the other dry ingredients then add the milk and melted butter
  2. Place dessert spoonfuls of the rough-textured dough onto a greaseproof-paper covered baking tray
  3. Squish the dough dollops into plumpish discs
  4. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes at 220c, or until golden brown
  5. Transfer to a wire rack to cool

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A browse around the baubles

On Saturday afternoon we joined the crowds and headed to the West End; we thought it might be a good opportunity to show our children the Christmas lights and seasonal window displays of the posh shops before the December crush. With darkness descending around four o'clock, our timing couldn't have been better - Regent Street was positively twinkling as we emerged from Piccadilly Circus tube station, and all the shop windows were satisfyingly sparkly with festive decoration. 

We paused outside Fortnum and Mason for quite a while because its displays told a tale that was familiar to my children - the story of Dick Whittington. They loved reading us the little text boards at the bottom of each display and they gazed in at the store's theatrical interpretation of each part of the story. Meanwhile my husband and I facetiously exchanged quiet quips about poor Dick having to survive on port and cheese, and perfume and silk ties, or whatever luxury good was also displayed within the scene. Hilarious, we thought. Our comedy was largely ignored by the children though, whose little noses were, by now, pressed up against the windows-of-wonder like two Victorian urchins. They asked if we might go inside and, with some trepidation, we agreed.

Now, we certainly didn't need to buy anything; we were there purely to browse. But as soon as we entered through its highly polished wooden and brass-fitted doors, I think gawp might be a more accurate way of putting what we did. It was like being inside Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Did you know they have golden shopping baskets in Fortnum and Mason? As we moved to the first floor we grabbed a couple of them - not to put potential purchases in you understand, but to store our now redundant and very bulky coats. This was one of our better ideas, because we would need to be as streamlined as possible. We had entered *gulps* - the Christmas decoration department. This, like the confectionery on display downstairs, had the feel of a fairytale factory - not of Willa Wonka, but rather that of Benjamin Bauble perhaps, inventor of the most decadent decorations ever.

It was quiet in here though - and I noticed the lack of children almost immediately. Our initial delight at being in amongst the jewels and crystals of a classy Christmas started to diminish, as above the festive tunes tinkling optimistically in the background, we began to notice an altogether different sort of tinkling sound. More frequently than you'd hope, we could hear the unmistakable shatter and crash of a bauble, of preposterous delicacy, being dropped. Of course every time I heard this, I spun round - carefully, so as not to knock anything off a table or shelf - to see if it was one of us who'd been the latest culprit of bauble-breakage. My throat was beginning to tighten - and I felt myself beginning to sweat. This was a terrible mistake - why were we here? This couldn't end well. My children are good and careful, but if grown-ups were breaking these fragile fancies left, right and centre - what chance of avoiding this cruel fate did my two kids have?

Well, there is a happy ending to this story, you'll be pleased to hear. And it came down to the fortuitous finding of Dick Whittington. And the fact that my children are bookworms. For the briefest moment I lost sight of Bud and Daisy so, only in a mild panic, did I begin looking for them -  hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. I eventually found them, safe and well, settled under one of the display tables. And they were fully occupied; totally oblivious to the luxury items around them, and the posh perfumed ladies swishing past.

They had each found the only book available in the department - Dick Whittington, of course - and had, rather wonderfully, decided that reading a story to themselves was far more appealing than bauble-gazing or indeed, grabbing. And there they stayed for a good fifteen minutes - in quiet, literary bliss - while us grown-ups, very nearly, enjoyed a more relaxed browse around the baubles. And we didn't break a thing. Phew.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The price of convenience

Ready-made craft kits, like the examples above, are convenient. They're convenient because they're available in local supermarkets, craft and toy shops and online. And they're convenient because if you're looking to buy a gift for a child who likes to make, the box always tempts with the promise of 'having fun' and 'creating lovely home-made things' without any preparation. But how many of these kits actually deliver enjoyable, let alone creative, experiences for our children? How many of them actually make good on their promise that a child can accomplish the craft activity easily. They never say how an adult will need to help them follow every complicated instruction, or take over completely for the fiddly bits. And how exactly does this 'following of instructions' foster creativity anyway?

We've accumulated quite a collection of these kits over the years. My children are given them as presents and on paper, they seem like such a great idea. We keep them in our rainy-day box, and if we are stuck indoors, or if I or one of my children are feeling poorly we occasionally choose something from this stash to do together. We picked out a couple of kits to try today, and yet again, they did not live up to their creative promise.

We tried an old-fashioned knitting doll and a make-your-own friendship bracelet kit. We very quickly abandoned the knitting doll as neither myself nor my six-year-old could master the weird wool manoeuvres. Then the friendship bracelet instructions told us we needed the ability to plait, and to thread frayed wool through tiny pre-cut slits in neoprene - way beyond my daughter's skills. I eventually persuaded her to abandon the instructions and just do her own thing. This she eventually did, but unlike when she was little, she felt she had failed by doing so, and very quickly lost interest in the project. 

If I was more of a radical I would throw away the instructions and packaging of these kits, and add their materials to our existing collection of art and craft resources. Then I would respond how I usually do when my children want to make something - which is to gather a few materials from our collection, the recycling stash or the kitchen, and let them experience making something in their own time, in their own way - with their own outcome. This would be a much better use of the materials, and a more creative experience. 

We have a lot of success with these kinds of impromptu creative sessions. For example, on Sunday when I set out some simple craft materials in the hour before dinner, my two children happily joined me in some cosy and creative pomander-making. And the contents of this experience? Just an orange each, some cocktail sticks, a felt tip pen and lots of gorgeous smelling cloves. We had a fabulously chilled-out time making patterns for our pomanders by poking holes into our oranges with a cocktail stick. There was no set of instructions to follow, we inspired each other by sharing our ideas, they honed their hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills, and they both decided when their making-time was finished. The pomanders are now looking and smelling marvellous on our display shelf.

I suppose because of the time of year, I'm thinking how lovely it would be to put together some home-made creative kits using the components of some our favourite invitations-to-create - to give away as Christmas gifts.  Whether I manage this or not, at the very least I'm definitely going to try not to use these creativity-free ready-made kits with my children any more; for me, the price of their convenience is too high.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Adventures at Home at the theatre: The Snow Spider

Anne-Marie Piazza, Philip Benjamin (centre) and Joey Hickman in THE SNOW SPIDER.  
Presented by Io Theatre Company and Ovalhouse Theatre.  Photo by Stefan Lacandler.

My children are experienced theatre-goers, and love a good show. Last week we were invited to a performance of a new children's play presented by Io Theatre Company and the Ovalhouse Theatre - The Snow Spider. Despite us not being familiar with the story, adapted from the children's novel by Jenny Nimmo, I felt confident my two children would like it. What I hadn't expected was its sad and complex themes  - would my children enjoy or even understand such a serious play?

Although the auditorium's heating was on full blast, causing a rather stifling atmosphere, we were most effectively transported to the cold and snowy Welsh mountains - where the story of Gwyn, a nine year old boy, and his sad, fractured family begins. The atmosphere is created by a stark, minimal set, and the talented cast who play violins, a harp, drums and other percussive instruments to evoke the wind, rain and snow of the winter weather, and the anger, sadness and occasional but diminishing flashes of joy of Gwyn's family. The use of musical motif, by James Lark the production's composer, is particularly effective in introducing a most important ingredient - magic; the glimmer of hope, the dangerously powerful driving force of the story. 

Magic begins to enter the lives of Gwyn's family through his eccentric grandmother played brilliantly by Anne-Marie Piazza. Even though the actor is notably pretty and clearly youthful, she plays the elderly, naughty, child-cum-matriarch with aplomb and humour, and all without the mask of a grey wig or ageing make-up. In fact the playing of numerous characters, differing wildly in age, required of all the actors didn't phase this young cast at all. When I asked my daughter how she knew someone had become a different person in the story she told me, 'It was easy, mummy. They just put on something like a hat or a pair of shoes, and changed their attitude.' 

The clever, multiple use of props and objects to create scenery was thoroughly enjoyed by my children too - the plank of wood that became a door, a seat, and a table, for example - and they liked the cheeky physicality of the acting too - Gwyn, played by Joey Hickman, climbing the craggy mountain peak made of people was particularly admired. But it was the Snow Spider herself which they thought had been most cleverly realised, and they found her appearance spell-binding.

This production of the The Snow Spider is truly spun with magic, but it addresses really complex and sad issues like death, grief, and families falling apart. This is pretty serious stuff for my two children (aged six and seven), and I wonder just how much they understood. However, the actors' lilting Welsh accents, the haunting music and confident storytelling kept them immersed in the tale, and even if my children didn't get the full meaning of the arrival and subsequent departure of the mysterious new friend, for example - there was no doubt in their minds that a good story had been told, and a magical afternoon had been had by all.

Ovalhouse and Io Theatre Company present The Snow Spider
Adapted by Io Theatre Company from the award-winning novel by Jenny Nimmo
31 October - 17 November, Ovalhouse, Theatre downstairs
Box office 020 7582 7680

Monday, 5 November 2012

Bonfire party in Quainton

Quality night-time photography doesn't come easy - there's a lot of faffing and fiddling required to achieve anything near the atmospheric and often dramatic effects of a little light in darkness. Here's my best shot of my Daisy, taken in Quainton on Saturday, at the brilliant bonfire party on the village green. This is the first year my two children haven't run for the hills - or under their duvets, to be more accurate - at the mere mention of fireworks - so I was delighted to be able to introduce them to the very English tradition of celebrating Guy Fawkes' thwarted attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament hundreds of years ago - in a very English village with family, in a genteel and family-friendly way.

Here you can see what Daisy was gazing at - a huge and lovingly assembled bonfire complete with burning effigy of Guy Fawkes atop (we didn't draw too much attention to him, naturally). As the fireworks started, in front of the village's windmill - did I mention just how quaint Quainton is? - both children responded with the prerequisite ooohs and ahhhs - and absolutely no screams of terror, thank goodness.

Hearing the patter and pops, fizzes and bangs of London's numerous firework displays tonight, we sang a Fireworks song of my own devising (to the tune of Frere Jacques, should you wish to partake) during bath-time. My children still need a song or game to help them tip their heads back while I rinse their hair - and this one was perfect for tonight. I've used it - and variations of it - at play sessions at the Geffrye Museum and the British Museum, so my children know it quite well. It's a great call-and-response song, and of course it can be sung in a round should that tempt.

I see fireworks, I see fireworks
Sparkling bright, sparkling bright
Multicoloured starbursts, multicoloured starbursts
In the night, in the night

I hear fireworks, I hear fireworks
Whoosh, whoosh, fizz. Whoosh, whoosh, fizz
Crackle-crackle, bang-bang. Crackle-crackle, bang-bang
Wheee, pop, whizz. Wheee, pop, whizz.

Happy Bonfire Night!