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Mohammed Saeed Harib, More Intelligent Life

Posted on November 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“I am married to the four grandmothers and that is as much as my religion will allow.”

The animator Mohammed Saeed Harib is the creator of Freej, the Middle East’s first 3D animation show. This month Series Four launches, in time for Ramadan. A region-wide, cross-generational hit, Freej (local dialect for “neighbourhood”) stars four 21st Century Dubai grandmothers in visored Bedouin masks: Um Saeed, the wise linchpin; Um Allawi, the intellectual; Um Saloom, the benign dimwit; Um Khammas who is, she admits, “Crude, as in oil.” To westerners, at least, its depiction of raucous, irreverent, comic Arab matriarchs is a revelation.

From an enclave of tottering windtower houses amid skewiff skyscrapers, the four tussle with problems new and old – westernised teens, noisy neighbours, a blogging neighbourhood gossip, pricey fish at the market. Insults fly – “You are even ugly in the dark”, “May God flip the on switch in your brain”.

Harib, 33, studied General Arts and Animation at North Eastern University, Boston, before returning home to Dubai and working in marketing at Dubai Media City. But the idea of Freej had already been sown, in Boston, and in 2003 Harib began three hard years of pitching to TV Channels and potential backers. In 2005 he established Lammtara Pictures and in 2006, Freej hit the screen. Harib spoke to More Intelligent Life by mobile, seeking out Lammtara’s pantry for some peace and quiet.

How did you create the grandmothers?

One of the classes at University was Intro To Animation. Our professor asked us to come up with a superhero, ‘I want a superhero that relates to you now, from your culture’. Before we had this oil infusion, our grandfathers used to go pearl diving, six-to-seven months. The female figures had to raise six to seven kids in a very harsh financial environment, a very harsh weather environment. She used to teach the kids, she used to work, so she was the superhero. On top of that she looked very unique thanks to the mask she was wearing. And hence my first character was born.

Which one was it?

Um Saeed, she was my first born, as they say. Um in Arabic means ‘The mother of’ and Saaed is my father, so it is a homage to my grandmother. The others are offshoots, kind of extremes of a grandmother.

What does your grandmother’s generation make of Freej?

They love it to bits. These grandmothers have seen the country evolve from some small village in a desert to this place where they have the tallest skyscraper in the world. So how do they adapt, how do they react with the new generation who is riding this wave? And we realise [in Freej] that through their simple way and their simple judgement, you can find the purest solution.

Is the culture that Freej’s grandmothers represent threatened?

Definitely. Not by outsiders as much as by us being negligent about our own identity. We are minority in our own country, so it is very important, as generations are brought up, to remember who we are, what makes us special.

Why has Freej been such a hit?

Number one, we lacked quality shows. Our quality of productions in Arabia was second to none when it came to badness. Number two, they were importing and dubbing non-Arabic shows, and we found out people wanted to see local, cultural shows. And my last thought would be, I am hoping that the show is good, actually.

How much of it is your work?

I created the main characters. I write the scripts with scriptwriters but I have to fix those scripts. I work with the actors. I work on the music. We have 500 people but I am pretty much captain of the boat. With the first season and second season, it was in my head, I was the only one who could express it. Now I have a very good team, they know the parameters. We say ‘Um Saloom would not say that’ or ‘OK, this fits her’. There is always reasoning for everything we do, even the buildings, they have to be skewed in a certain way.

Where did you find the four lead voices?

They are all my friends. I did a casting for over 60 people and none of them spoke to the woman that was in my head. It was a blessing in disguise. I had these friends who I used whenever we did script readings and they matched perfectly. They never acted before, they were your regular local person. So I thought, people will accept them, this is the first part you associate the voice with.

What were the artistic influences on you that created Freej?

I am an inspiration junkie. I get inspired by the stupidest thing, maybe a cheesy song or a big thing here or a monument somewhere. Dubai is an inspiration, the energy. When the show was first produced, you opened the newspaper and some business makes a project announcement, another mega building. So you are pushed to do something out of your norm, something that is a ‘Wow!’ factor.

Dubai is relatively liberal but do you feel constrained in what you can say about life in the city?

I am Dubaian, by default I have certain borders in me, it is like the chip in you. The TV Channels never force you, they never say ‘You can’t talk about this or about that’.

What wouldn’t you talk about?

Politics, religion, how do I say this, certain sexual themes. Basically the three main things you will find in any conservative culture.

And maybe, if you have that cultural background, you wouldn’t want to talk about them in a programme anyway?

Well you also have to look at the format of the programme. It is about four old grandmothers and if you want to talk about certain things, it’s not appealing to the sort of programme you are doing. My show is not a show which discusses current issues. I want something that lives, and to make it live forever you need to speak about themes which can withstand the passage of time.

You are a very business-minded animator, aren’t you?

I learnt the hard way. When I set out to do this show I was an artist, an aspiring person who loved to sketch. Then I had to put together business plans, feasibility studies. I had to speak to sharks, CEOs who wanted a bite of your company. We have a problem with Emiratis who don’t trust Emiratis. Many CEOs don’t see an Emirati talent as a talent worth spending money on. Hence I had a huge struggle to get financing. You go through this and you learn to become an entrepreneur.

What is next for you? More Freej?

Every year I tell myself ‘This is my last year’. But you have people who demand the show, we have an extensive merchandizing programme, you diversify your brand, it went into a stage show. You can’t just cut it off, like that. When I feel there is nothing I can give, I will stop and move on to something else.

How about home life? Have you found time to stop and get married?

Not yet! I am married to the four grandmothers and that is as much as my religion will allow.

August 2011

Andy Kershaw, Time Out

Posted on November 11, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

“If you are spiralling out of the sky above Angola, to avoid surface to air missiles…It’s Alton Towers South.”

Andy Kershaw’s rich, Rochdale voice has enlivened music for 30 years: Entertainment Secretary at Leeds University in punk’s heyday; tour manager for Billy Bragg; groundbreaking BBC Radio DJ, documentary maker and roving foreign correspondent. He has championed World Music (mostly famously The Bhundu Boys), reported from North Korea and genocidal Rwanda and won nine Sony Awards. In 2006-08, tabloids feasted on Kershaw’s break up with his longterm partner, and breakdown.

A lean, sober Kershaw bounced back to secure access to his children, present Radio Three’s Music Planet and write his autobiography, No Off Switch. Buoyant and passionate, he talked over iced coffee and Dandelion and Burdock in a humid Exmouth Market.

What was Leeds like?

Absolutely extraordinary. Dealing with people you knew to be giants, like Elvis Costello. I caught the last flurry of creativity before rock music exhausted all possibilities of four blokes with guitars, bass and drums.

Was there really rock and roll but no sex and drugs as Billy Bragg’s tour manager?

There was dope smoking for me but Billy was suspicious of that. And precious little leg over. I pay tribute to one Dutch girl I should have stuck with, but it’s a long Kershaw tradition of having beautiful girls, treating them appallingly and losing them.


Well, being thrown into that way of life, having an easy come, easy go attitude and being 23, and randy.

Your book honours John Peel but won’t the criticisms of him surprise people?

Why shouldn’t I be critical? There has been a deification of John without any analysis of the complex figure he was. Here is an analysis by someone who did know him well. He was as flawed as the rest of us. He was very, very ambitious and had a fantastic flair for sensing which way the wind was about to blow.

Why couldn’t you do that?

Why didn’t I pretend to like dance music? Why didn’t I change my accent twice in my broadcasting career? Come on. It’s as authentic as Tim Westwood, and that’s as authentic as me presenting my programmes in a Congolese accent.

The Bhundu Boys broke up, with your friend Biggie Tembo later committing suicide. Are you now wary of discovering Developing World bands?

No. Biggie wouldn’t have wished it to go sour like it did. But to have achieved all he did against all expectations, I don’t think he’d have missed that for the world. When I was getting hints of things going awry for Biggie in Harare, I should have flown down. I never got in that state myself, four years ago, but I know how important it was somebody took the trouble to pick up the phone and say, ‘Are you doing alright?’ I didn’t do enough of that for Biggie. And I still miss him, I really do.

What keeps you scouring the world?

Sheer bloody nosiness. Not just for music but everything. It’s all too interesting.

Does all great music share something, wherever it’s from?

Soul. Without question. Obviously not with a capital s. But it’s all soul music.

What has radio got over other media?

Intimacy. It has an intimacy television can never have. The great broadcasters, like Peel, have that.

You are very optimistic.

Oh aye.

Didn’t the Rwandan genocide crush that out of you?

Funnily enough, no. It was horrific and does make you ask how one human can do this to another. But I also saw something equally uplifting: a bunch of Rwandans swept across the country and put a stop to it. Some of those heroes were children. Not only did child soldiers save my life, they saved thousands and thousands of Rwandans.

How did you cope with fear in Rwanda, or Haiti or Angola?

The nosiness and that desire to see it for yourself overcomes a lot. And your chances are better than your fears tell you. You have more chance of being mugged here than in Port au Prince. But we all like scary fairground rides. If you are spiralling out of the sky above Angola, to avoid surface to air missiles, into a war zone…

It’s Alton Towers South?

It’s Alton Towers South. And it’s a high when you get out of it, you have a much intensified sense of ‘I’ve got the job done’.

After your relationship broke down, you said shouldn’t have had so many affairs. Why did you? You weren’t 23 anymore.

Good point. Boredom, restlessness, nosiness again. It’s about new and different experiences. I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d got. And now I’ve got nothing. Ha! Nothing in a romantic sense. I can’t upset anyone because there is no one to betray.

If you have no off switch, do you at least have a dimmer switch now?

No, give over! I’ve found the overdrive button.

14 July 2011

A dawn run in Florence, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…down the shuttered Via della Vigna Nuova and into the Piazza Della Repubblica’s deserted canyon.’

The Westin Excelsior stands on Florence’s Piazza Ognissanti, the River Arno on one side, Botticelli’s tomb in the Chiesa di San Salvatore on the other, and in the basement, a gym. Not finding gyms a tonic, I ignored it. But after a greedy wedding party week something was needed.

The something was a small map next to my complimentary bedside chocolate. It showed two runs through Florence, 5km and 8km, chosen by Runner’s World magazine. I drew the 8km route on to a bigger map (the original one was too small to read while running on the spot, lost) and set off at 6.45am on a Saturday.

Florence was chilly but fantastically empty. Along the narrow Via Ognissanti on skinny Florentine pavements, over the carless crossroads of Piazza Goldoni, down the shuttered Via della Vigna Nuova and into the Piazza Della Repubblica’s deserted canyon.

The flat streets made a good speed simple. The emptiness gave time to glimpse the city without falling over: the grimily gorgeous Duomo cathedral; green and white Santa Croce church sedate behind its Piazza. Ha, this was easy!

But then I crossed the Arno. Four hairpin bends staggered uphill. ‘Running’, I breathed like an asthmatic cart horse. Then the top, the open Piazzale Michelangelo and ecstasy after agony: Florence, laid out at dawn, the Duomo a liner ploughing through a terracotta sea, village lights on the slopes beyond.

A pleasing jog down hillside steps then a longer, almost rural uphill run. The narrow Via di Belvedere, between the old, biscotti-brown city wall and fields, rose straight up. No moderating bends, just gradient. But at the peak, under Forte di Belvedere’s walls, the pink-skied panorama again.

The run down, past waking houses bedded into the slope, came out near the Ponte Vecchio. Keeping to the Arno’s quieter south side, and energized by no hills, I crossed the Ponte alla Carraia and attempted a sprint to the Westin. Wary of sweating all over the elegant lobby, I caught my breath outside: a run to pump the heart and lift the soul.

14 January 2006

Beer and breakfast in Smithfield, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…burly, shaven-headed and looking, in his shorts and knee-length smock, like a Bruegel yeoman.’

It was 6.45am on a cool, blue-skied morning in the City of London. As the financial markets woke up, Smithfield Market quietened down. Butchers tidied sausages, chops and football-sized jars of pickle on trestle tables. White-overalled porters in health-and-safety trilbies trundled meat to vans. It was time for the pub.

Opposite the market’s purple and green Gate 16 is the Cock Tavern, open to all from 6am. It is a comfortable, basement pub: low ceiling, wooden floor, long curving bar, cream walls hung with black and white market photographs and traders’ red and gold signs – M.L. Offals Ltd, G. & E. Meat Ltd.

Butchers talked loudly at the bar or slim tables, relaxing after a hard day’s night. One strode in, burly, shaven-headed and looking, in his shorts and knee-length smock, like a Bruegel yeoman. Quieter City types sat over alcohol-free breakfasts.

With worrying ease, I drank a 7.00 am pint of Wells Bombardier bitter and read the lengthy menu. The breakfasts, and many and varied lunchtime steaks, are the work of Carmen Leslie, the tavern’s chef for 38 years.

How about grilled kippers, or smoked haddock and a poached egg? Why not compile your own breakfast: Welsh rarebit, bubble and squeak, and a liver and bacon sandwich? Or go traditional, with the Smithfield or Old English?

Steering clear of the Cowboy (beans, more beans and bacon) I chose the Cock Tavern, the priciest at £6.95: liver, kidneys, sausage, bacon, black pudding, tomato, beans and a fried egg.

It arrived crammed on an oval plate like a small range of hills. All the meat had made the short journey from the market and was delicious: thick, tangy bacon; smoothly peppery liver; smoky black pudding and, best of all, tongue-itchingly spicy kidneys.

The fruity Bombardier suited the food well. It took more beer and a cup of coffee before my breakfast was all gone. Outside, the streets were busy with wide-eyed commuters. I headed against them, ready for bed.

22 October 2005

Bespoke snuff in Exeter, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us.’

Walk into McGahey The Tobacconist in Exeter and you are swaddled in the sweet smell of Bovey Honey, Lustleigh Velvet, Zeal Champagne and dozens more loose tobaccos. Their fat glass jars jostle with pipe displays, ranked lighters and cigarettes.

Judges from the nearby Crown Court buy their snuff here and that is why I have come. Like them, I need a pollution-free tobacco hit in an increasingly non-smoking world. Martin (grandson of the original McGahey), who looks pleasingly like the bearded Jack Tar on Player’s Navy Cut packets, will advise on creating my own unique snuff blend.

He brings out the range: McChrystal’s of Leicester; Gawith Hoggarth; rectangular tins from Germany; round tins of Wilsons of Sharrow, whose snuff mill near Sheffield is still powered by water-wheel. They should make the blend, recommends Martin.

We take a spiral staircase down to the basement and sit in leather armchairs by a walk-in humidor. Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us. Each bears the italics of Fribourg and Treyer, the late-lamented Haymarket tobacconist whose snuffs Wilsons now makes.

Martin opens them one by one. High Dry Toast: fine, pale, pungent. Seville: coarser, orange-scented, “a good brain tingle”. Princes: peaty, moist, powerful. And Beau Brummell’s favourite, the dark, elegant Old Paris. But these, we decide, are too complex a base for a blend. So Martin suggests the simpler, smooth Wilsons of Sharrow SP. We agree on oil of May blossom blended in for freshness, and lemon for bite.

The order is placed that afternoon and four days later it arrives at my home in a green and gold-labelled McGahey tub. Opened, its citric scent has spring lurking underneath. I place two chestnut pinches on the back of my hand and inhale. My eyes water and nose tingles. The snuff, my snuff, ambles into the sinuses, then spreads potently out. The world seems brighter, my mind sharper and there is not a wisp of smoke anywhere.

13 November 2004

Pilsner, circa 1842, in Pilsen, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea.’

We walked through high wooden doors and along a wide, sloping tunnel, British beer lovers dipping into Czech history. Above ground sprawled the Pilsner Urquell Brewery: huge copper vats like upturned champagne glasses; tiled, Art Nouveau meeting rooms; the sampling room, where tasters clear their palates between sips with bread and cheese.

No nation reveres its beer like the Czechs. Old brands such as Pilsner Urquell and Budvar are potent symbols, constants of a Czechness that endured the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi occupation and Communism. Ninety nine per cent of the beer Czechs drink is Czech.

Our thirsty party was on a purists’ mission. Pilsner Urquell, the first pilsner, was created in 1842 by Josef Groll, a genius headhunted by the burghers of Pilsen and “the rudest man in Bavaria” (to quote his father).

But since the 1930s, yeast has been filtered out before bottling. We were to drink unfiltered Urquell; the original pilsner in its original form, still made in small batches for comparison’s sake and, you can’t help feeling, love.

The tunnel branched, the arms leading into a five-mile network of arched, white-walled cellars, their sandstone floors grooved for rolling barrels. At the end of a branch line, we came to the place: twelve, six-ft. high wooden vats of Pilsner Urquell in its original form fermenting against a wall.

From a platform, we caught glimpses of the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea. We followed the pipes to the next cellar and stood dwarfed between double banks of oak barrels, each six ft. in diameter, containing unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, quietly maturing. The cellar man selected a batch he felt was ready. He firmly knocked a spiked tap into the barrel. We queued up, trying not to push.

In the glass it was a clouded gold, pale fragments of yeast floating within, the head thick but loose. The taste was sublime: elegantly light but rich, the bitterness rounded, velvety as stout but with the body of ale, the unfiltered yeast giving it punch – beer circa 1842. We murmured delightedly, and drank more.

23 July 2005

Inside a Cabman’s Shelter, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘It was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny.’

The Knightsbridge Cabmen’s Shelter stands isolated in the middle of Brompton Road. Built in 1875, its green panelled walls and steep felted roof suggest a park-keeper’s refuge, as do the panels’ florid latticework and its crowning dovecote-like chimney. The windows are frosted, and while the un-Knowledged may buy drinks and snacks from a hatch the interior is strictly for cabbies. Like all 13 surviving shelters, it is Grade II listed.

Captain GC Armstrong of St John’s Wood conceived cabmen’s shelters in 1874. The drivers could keep out of the elements and, as importantly, the pub. Booze-free shelters serving tea, coffee and bread and butter, with an attendant to cook food the cabbies brought in, would keep London’s cabs literally on the straight and narrow.

The first was opened in 1875 in St John’s Wood (handily for Captain Armstrong) by Arthur Kinnaird MP before a crowd of 100. Rules for customers stipulated no swearing and the publishers of The Graphic, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Fun and The Animal World provided seemly reading matter gratis.

By 1908 there were 47 shelters, each costing £200. The Duke of Westminster provided Piccadilly’s shelter, but who was Mrs Braithwaite, the benefactor behind the one in Hobart’s Place? Or Miss Roget, who financed the Knightsbridge Shelter? Subverting the ban on alcohol, cabbies gave the shelters pub-like names. Knightsbridge is The Bell and Horns. St John’s Wood, near Lord’s, is The Nursery End.

With the coming of congestion, one-way systems and parking meters, the shelters went into decline but soldiered on with T&GWU and GLC help. When the GLC folded, the bacon bap was passed to the Heritage of London Trust, which has underwritten the renovation of all but two of the shelters, at £25,000 each.

They take on the characteristics of the areas they are in. The Sloane Street Shelter gleams like a designer emporium. The Kensington Gardens trees overhanging The All Nations have left the roof rustically bowed and mossy. The handwritten cardboard signs on the Embankment Shelter mirror the begging signs of Embankment’s down-and-outs.

But what are they like inside? The Bell and Horns was decorated with Christmas lights the cold night I crossed to the middle of the Brompton Road. Cabs were parked on the rank down the centre of road but no sound came from within. I opened the door.

Inside, it was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny. Two benches ran along the white walls behind two long, thin formica tables with hinged leaves for squeezing into your place. Two people could pass in the central aisle, if they turned sideways. At the far end the owners bustled in aprons between a cooker, fridge and packed shelves of sliced bread and chutney. Cabbies were tucking into supper. They glanced up at me. The tall, dark-haired proprietress turned with a polite but sharp look.


“Is this just for cabbies or can anyone …”

“Just for cabbies.”

I asked if it was true the shelters had names and a curly-haired cabbie explained. Another mentioned that Peter Raymond of the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund and T&GWU had helped the shelters survive. The proprietress brushed past to serve someone, annoyed. I didn’t belong and, with a “Merry Christmas,” squeezed out.

22 February 2004

‘Children’ column on baby slings, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy.’

Lawrence is too fat for the baby sling now. Each of his legs is like a haggis on top of a black pudding. Yet as he wobbles on his rug or staggers about with his Douglas Bader gait, there is something magnificent about his size, like Sidney Greenstreet or the King of Tonga. A cheery soul, he carries the weight well. And without the sling, I am saved a sore neck, the danger that one of his flopping feet will kick me in the testicles and other, subtler pains.

Because like those stickers that say ‘Baby On Board’, a sling on a man seems like a boast. “Look at me!” it says. “Not only am I fertile, I am also a Good Father. I share the load of Parenting in a Sensitive manner and am generally Concerned.” Of course it isn’t usually a boast, just some bloke trying to be helpful. And helpfulness is in demand. My wife and I work from home and share the parenting, so I need to do my bit as a part-time househusband, or Mary-Ann as my Lancastrian parents would say.

Mary-Anning waits for no man: Lawrence is one, his sisters Rosemary and Rachael, three and six. When it’s my wife’s turn to earn the money for nappies, potatoes and Silk Cut Ultra Low (so mild that inhaling is a form of exercise) there are bottoms to wipe, playgrounds to visit and prams to be pushed. But at least there are no slings to be worn.

My first tussle with one came with Rachael. It took only half an hour to turn the straps, pads, harnesses, clips, loops, buckles and press studs into something almost like the drawing in the instructions. And only 15 minutes more to take it off and put it on the right way round. Just 20 minutes later, Rachael was slotted into it. Having checked that she could breathe, that her arms were comfy, that she could breathe, that her legs were through the right holes and that she could breathe, we set off.

So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy. A little unbalanced perhaps. There’s a slight worry that you might bash the baby into things if you turn round too quickly. And a feeling that if you fell over backwards, you wouldn’t be able to get up, but nothing too difficult. Before guilt got the better of me, I even found I could tilt my head backwards and have a cigarette, the smoke floating in our wake.

It was fun. Nervous fun (suppose I fell forward, she’d be squashed) but fun. Look, there was a man pushing a pram. Ha! How primitive! More important, how uncaring, abandoning his baby to a cold embrace of nylon, plastic and metal. Would it feel loved and safe? Where was the bonding, the pride? At Cafe Nero, even the black-clad folk perched over their espressos and novels seemed delighted by the sight of Baby and Sling Dad. The effect on the pretty girls behind the counter was remarkable. “Ooo,” they went and “Aaa”. “What a Sensitive, Caring man,” their smiles seemed to say. “Fertile too.”

I spotted other Sling Dads on our travels. One sat in a cafe quaffing cappuccino, a muslin square over the baby’s head to protect it from croissant flakes. Another lounged outside a pub, the muslin over the baby’s head to catch drips from the father’s pint. They were on the Tube, buses, restaurants. Their babies of course were uglier than Rachael, but I was not alone.

That was before my first pain in the neck and the months of trying to avoid flopping feet. There was no sudden revelation, no stranger shouting, “Oi, you with the sling. You look like a git!” Just a creeping feeling that, in a world full of babies, maybe Rachael, the sling and me weren’t that interesting.

Anyway, my wife looked better in it and she’d been pregnant, so she was good at pain. She pottered about the kitchen in the sling, filling bottles. Strode around the shops in it. Beavered at the computer in it. So now, if I want to feel Concerned, I need only smell the odour seeping from Lawrence’s nappy.

13 September 2003

‘Children’ column on autumn, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘He sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose.’

“Urngh!” Lawrence points down at the pavement. His face shows almost incredulous delight, his 18 month old mind stunned by his find: a leaf. He bends down, grasps about and slowly picks it up, then holds his trophy out as we walk. “Urngh!” Again he stops – another leaf. Lawrence grapples it off the wet paving stone and clutches it with the first. Trips to the corner shop are taking a while this Autumn. (Although not as long as when the shopkeeper decided I was Rowan Atkinson, and kept asking for my autograph.)

Lawrence finds the oversized communal garden next to our undersized flat even more exciting. Leaves gusted along the grass have him chuckling in wonder and stamping his feet. He starts to run with them before remembering he can’t really run. The wind tearing at the plane trees makes him laugh as much as his own wind. He ploughs smiling through knee-high drifts of leaves.

Last year he was too swaddled to notice Autumn, so all this is new. When it is too wet to go out, he presses his face against the French windows, watching the show. Or a hand has to be held against his forehead as he bangs it on the floor in rage at being kept from it all.

For his older sisters Rachael and Rosemary, Autumn means bigger puddles to stamp through until their socks are grey, and more fallen branches to trail inside and leave like an art installation over the dining room floor. Autumn brings better mud too. It is easier for them to mould and clings better to the “treasure stones” they dig up with twigs from the garden path. Then there are conkers.

When Rachael was three, we found some lying in ones and twos in a quiet alley behind mansion blocks. Their horseback polish and hedgehog shells seemed incongruous, suggesting cart tracks and copses. Rachael liked their different shapes and colours and how they were snug to hold, fitting neatly into her fist. When Rosemary was old enough, she took to them too. Like everything, conkers became a battlefield for their wills. They may be too young for the vicious miss hits of the game conkers, but conkers supply other grounds for scrapping.

Coming home from school in September, we stopped to pick a fat crop scattered over a back street. While Lawrence sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose, Rosemary and Rachael scrambled about claiming conkers, boasting to each other. They decorated an old Corn Pops box to keep them in. Rachael painted a tree and a horse on her side. Rosemary, annoyed by her older sister’s skill, went for impact, streaking her side with as many colours as she could. They painted a face on the cream-grey disc of each conker and ranged them neatly along the mantelpiece. “I’ve painted more than Rosemary,” said Rachael.

After supper, with the garden made bigger and spooky by night, they tool up for a Torchlight Walk. Rosemary goes for the sleek silver torch. Rachael favours the hefty black rubber one. I get the pink Tweenie number.

Outside, Rosemary warbles and shivers pretending to be scared. Rachael presses the giddy button and rushes ahead, beam waving wildly. They dance the spotlights up tree trunks and swoop them around the top branches. Black silent bushes and the searching beams make hide and seek more intense. In football they run with their own floodlight. Playing Dizzy (“You spin round and round and the first one to fall over is the loser,” says Rosemary) their beams arc across the trees and lawn. Neighbours peer from windows into the night, wondering what all the fuss is about.

16 November 2003

‘Children’ column on cars, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!’”

We need a car made from some thick rubber substance. Ground-in, saliva-clogged biscuit bits could be peeled off seats. Sick stains and ‘accidents’ could be hosed down. Spilt juice, crisp grease and the adhesive produced by half-sucked Haribo could be wiped away. Best of all, every few weeks the car could be turned inside out and rapidly shaken over a skip, emptying out shredded comics, furry fruit, grimy stickers, crushed water bottles and all the little rockeries of crumbs.

This detritus doesn’t only look rough. A few years ago I gave a lift to a trendy-booted, childless young account exec and a middle-aged art director. As soon as they got in, the account exec said, “Urgh what’s that smell?” I had no idea what he was talking about. The art director – who has three children – politely mumbled, “You forget the smell that children make.” This was when Georgina and I had only one child.

With three, the smell (presumably) is worse. Certainly just getting into the car is trickier. Rachel and Rosemary lark about, hopping between the front and back, turning the lights on and off. Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!” He squawks and punches, torso stiff, as he’s harnessed into his corner throne, the rigid German boots he wears to straighten his rubbery feet kicking inches from your temple.

Rosemary sits next to him, hands folded, not needing toys. The peculiar details of the passing world entertain her enough, that and the pleasure of noting the random, stressy errors in her parents’ speech. “You said Rachel instead of Rosemary.” “You said Saddam instead of supper.” Rachel sits next to the door, playing school or demanding we arbitrate in border disputes.

The car brings them small excitements. For Rosemary there is the glamorous thrill of driving up the ramp onto Sainsbury’s roof-top car park. The tilt of Lawrence’s car seat gives him a better chance to spot and name his beloved flags (“Na-na!”), planes (“Na-na!”) and trees (“Na-na!”). The journey home from Rachel’s school offers a scintillating choice: the nail-biting drama of driving extremely slowly towards red lights so the car never actually stops; or the covert ingenuity of taking switchbacks and obscure roads so we avoid traffic lights altogether.

Excitement disappears on the long motorway trips, North West to my tribal homelands, North to Georgina’s. Unable to speed the journey or map-read our progress, the intense pitch the children live at causes the hours to stretch into a tedium grey enough to make them weep. The car becomes their mobile half-home: cramped playroom, a dining room where they can’t leave the table and an awkward bedroom. They shove and bash each other territorially in sleep.

Travelling by day gives them chance for revenge. As babies, they protested against the sun-glazed boredom by waiting until we were just past the half-way break, then filling their nappies to straining point, challenging you to bear the smell for 100 miles. Once potty-rained, they’d protest by asking for the loo as soon as we got on the motorway.

There is baby rage too. Many hours were lost on one Scottish holiday giving Rachel puppet shows to stop her ranting. Glens and lochs slipped past unnoticed as dolls talking in funny voices were danced along the top of the front passenger seat (although, unlike our niece, our raging children have never struggled from their straps on the motorway, crawled forward and tried to put the handbrake on).

Night travel means they sleep longer at least. The car quietens, traffic thins, sweets can be eaten without trying to hide the fact from them. This is how it is all supposed to be you think: the children peaceful and secure; the parents calmly guiding them onwards. We arrive red-eyed and needing bed. The children wake, refreshed and ready to play.

29 February 2004

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