Serenity: only a ferry ride away

One of the great hallmarks of any self-respecting club or interest group is its bizarre terminology.

Expectant parents are no different in this regard from SF geeks, hobby gamers and the myriad other associations I have belonged to: once you join their number, you will encounter expressions which have no precedent or purpose in the world outside.

Today, I’d like to discuss just one example of this strange, cryptic lexicon: the Babymoon.

For the uninitiated, a Babymoon is the expectant parent’s counterpart to a Honeymoon. The idea is that, after discovering we are pregnant, we schedule some kind of celebratory break; a holiday which follows the subject of celebration. This is where the similarity with a Honeymoon ends.

Where a Honeymoon might take a couple to lavish lodgings at a luxury destination, the Babymoon is rather more ‘affordable’ in nature. It is a holiday planned in the knowledge that expensive things are soon to occur; perhaps a week of fine-dining in Gay Paris isn’t really feasible when one is about to start buying disposable nappies by the hundred-thousand. A Babymoon might begin its conceptual life as a slap-up city-break in Barcelona, but it will soon be redeveloped into a weekend caravanning on a small Scottish island.

The next notable difference from Honeymooning comes in the tone of a Babymoon. This isn’t a holiday which simply celebrates new possibilities and the optimistic beginnings of a life together, but a bittersweet affair: the Babymoon accepts within its premise that the freedom of the babymooners themselves is about to undergo a very serious curtailment. We’re going to enjoy some time away together, because it’s the last unmolested time we’ll get for a great number of years.

I recently embarked on our Babymoon, mere weeks after learning that such a thing existed. As expertly foreshadowed earlier in this post, our destination was a caravan park in Millport, on the isle of Cumbrae.

This might not sound incredibly glamourous and honestly, it wasn’t. We were caught in back end of a hurricane, which had danced across the Atlantic to share its wet and windy joy with south and central Scotland. This meant that much of our time on the island was actually spent inside the caravan. But in the words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want: but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

What the caravan offered in spades was peace.

Peace to read the books I had been meaning to get around to; peace to watch films we had missed in the cinema; peace to sit up late, chatting with my partner and discovering Geordie Shore for the first time (I have rarely laughed or cringed so much in the space of a few hours).

Importantly, peace for reflection. I did quite a bit of thinking on our Babymoon, about the bar I wanted to set for myself as a Dad. My impression of fatherhood is that it resembles a Presidency: one can make Grand Plans about how one will raise children, but much of it will be sacrificed once the hectic reality of just getting through each day kicks in. The trick, therefore, is to work out what the key policy pillars are – the redlines, the things which must be delivered – and fight to make the time for those crucial things if nothing else.

For me, some of those redlines are conventional (teach basic morality, prioritise education) and others are less so (do my damnedest to give our child the joy of geek life). But I’m glad I got some entirely quiet time to think about what they were – and to take a metaphorical deep breath ahead of the next few crazy years.

So for those of you in a similar life position, allow me to recommend the Babymoon as an ideal way to charge batteries and take stock ahead of the big day. Unlike a lot of the pregnancy vocabulary you may encounter, this word comes with a relative upside: one last chance, for a good long while, to feel like your own person.

The awkward truth about automobiles

Time was, a man could pick the goddamn automobile he wanted. *gobs like lightning into spitoon*

He could find his way to the sleekest, sexiest, most aerodynamic sum’bitch in that whoooole showroom… and he could make it his own.

But those days are gone, stranger. Gone…

When seeking earthy wisdom, there are few better people to approach than Creepy Old Man from Western. In addition to vague, menacing warnings about, “…a storm comin’, Mister”, he will also sometimes produce a pearl of dialogue related to current events in one’s own life. If only I didn’t need to ply him with whisky and listen to his ramblings about long-dead horses for hours first, he’d almost be a religious figure to me.

In any case, casting aside the entirely random film trope I’ve chosen to employ, cars have been on my mind in recent weeks.

One of the ‘perks’ of my employment is the ability to select a company car every three years. Until recently, I’ve had the pleasure of picking my car free of any outside influences, based solely on my own whims. Typically, this meant I’d pick the smallest, lowest-emitting vehicle on offer… in black.

You see, unlike Creepy Old Man from Western, I don’t really lust after powerful engines, sculpted bodywork and low-profile tyres. Instead, I celebrate the opportunities afforded by the most basic cars on the market: cheapness, efficiency and… well, cheapness. Without the need for a boot which will accomodate golf clubs (don’t get me started on golf), or more than 2 doors (3, if you follow the ridiculous industry convention of counting the boot), I could repeatedly pick the Fiestas, Corsas or Robin Reliants from the list offered to me, before proceeding to run that bad boy into the ground for 36 months. Bliss.

But that eerie, whiskered frontiersman was still correct about one thing: that incredible liberty to suit myself on the road has suddenly vanished.

My partner has recently passed her driving test. All at once, she has an intimate interest in which vehicle I’ll be selecting. With just this single development, my criteria list has changed from this:

  • Must be cheap, cheerful – and black, since I’m rarely going to wash it and want to disguise the dirt

To this:

  • Must be a ‘smooth’ drive
  • Must be a size which is ‘comfy’ to parallel park
  • Must have the ability to liberally adjust seating position, since the same one will never be comfy twice
  • Must have the ability to liberally adjust steering wheel position – see above
  • Must have a loud horn – I like to toot people and I like those toots to count

To compound this seismic shift in priorities, we have another major factor to consider: the micro-human we are currently brewing up, who will bring with them a whole new set of requirements:

  • Must have a boot large enough for my pram
  • …and my buggy
  • …and my changing bag
  • …and a selection of portable meals
  • …and things you can’t even dream of yet
  • Must have a good safety record
  • Must be easy to clean seats: we’re not talking crumbs, here, we’re talking foul-smelling bodily expulsions
  • Let’s be honest, this doesn’t even scratch the surface

When confronted with all of these things, it’s no longer good enough to make my selection on Autopilot. I have to do a little bit of thinking and a whole lot of negotiating.

We’re going to need something bigger than the tiny run-around I’m currently operating. But how big? My list offers 3 viable choices (alongside whizzy little numbers that will no doubt be leapt upon by colleagues embroiled in a mid-life crisis):

  1. Focus
  2. Mondeo
  3. Grand C-Max

Each of these is, in theory, a family car, but they are designed to serve very different families. Applying our criteria above, we managed to eliminate the Grand C-Max on the basis that it was as easy to parallel park as a sherman tank. The choice between the others is less simple, as it requires a bit of crystal-ball polishing.

A Focus will likely be fine if we have a single child. On the other hand, we have this car for 3 years; are we likely to have a second child within 3 years? Neither of us are really sure about this, having only just adjusted to the thought of the first one. Should we decide to breed again in that time, the Focus goes from well-positioned to potentially overcrowded… rammed full of even more stuff, suspension creaking ominously.

I decided to do a bit of research. Surely, after our baby got a bit older, they wouldn’t need as much gear to be lugged around whenever we jumped in the car?

A good friend – and father of my Godson – was quick to correct me. The stuff only multiplies, read his terrifying text. This is not a joke.

This threw me into a rising panic. It would have to be the Mondeo – for starters. Then, in 3 years, we’d need to upgrade to the tank, in case we were destined to be buried under an avalanche of our own progeny and their innumerable accoutrements… It eventually took some more wise words – this time from my partner, rather than a broken-down fictional cowboy – to bring me back to reality.

“Do we even know if we’re having another one yet? Why don’t we just see how we go?”

The words rang true, like a clean shot into the spitoon. I worry too much about future permutations – and that worry manifests itself in car anxiety, or an unhealthy fantasy life populated by tired, spaghetti-western character archetypes. Besides, I’m told if we get the new Focus, the bloody thing can parallel park itself…

The all-hearing ear

Throughout my partner’s pregnancy, our pregnancy, there have been several ‘change-of-gear’ moments.

  • The positive test result (AKA Shit, we’re having a baby… significantly earlier than I had expected).
  • The scan (AKA Shit, look at that. That’s an actual, tiny, baby).
  • The appearance of the bump (AKA Shit, that wasn’t there last night. It’s all getting very real).

Now, we have reached another threshold. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: The baby can now hear us (AKA Shit, I’d better stop swearing at the start of every sentence).

All at once, our lives and routines have changed a little.

Each night, before we go to sleep, I now spend anything between 30 seconds and 10 minutes delivering monologues to the bump. In my imagination, these are valuable deposits of wisdom which I’m making in the subconscious of my unborn child; in reality, they tend to be glib summaries of whatever I’ve been up to on the day, with a healthy amount of material thrown in purely to wind up the other half of the audience (into whose belly button I’m wittering).

Of course, the idea isn’t really to educate. It’s to expose bambino to my voice, so the little one will recognise me and hopefully find my presence reassuring when they finally emerge. Plus, if I’m particularly lucky, charming or bassy in tone, the process will become a dialogue: bump makes all its points via the medium of violence, but I find a flurry of kicks and punches an uncharacteristically rewarding experience at this stage in the journey.

It should be noted that I don’t monopolise the airtime with our growing progeny. My partner has taken to whistling for bump in the bath, a tradition which has also begun to produce vigorous reaction. The tuneful, splashy serenades have uncovered another fascinating detail: the bump has its own tastes in music (and certainly doesn’t pay any respect to its father’s sacred cows).

In light of how warmly Mum’s whistling has been received, I’ve started to experiment by playing various pieces of music to bump. The reaction has, to date, been very specific, as you’ll be able to see from this register of results:

Absolutely no reaction

  • Higher and Higher – Jackie Wilson
  • You know you’re right – Nirvana
  • Jackie Wilson said – Van Morrison
  • Married with Children – Oasis
  • Farewell and Goodnight – Smashing Pumpkins

Spontaneous Kung-Fu

  • Hail Hail – Pearl Jam
  • Whistling – Mum

We can observe a number of things from this evidence, not least that Jackie Wilson is involved one way or another in lots of great tunes. Tellingly, we can pick up the fact that bump’s listening schedule has been dictated by my desire for it to respond to pet songs and favourite bands… and that this frankly optimistic strategy has largely failed. But, silver-lining-wise, we can also note my fatherly pride at his or her reaction to Pearl Jam (get in!).

I’m now looking to diversify bump’s listening experience. Poetry is a good place to go, I reckon – rhythm and rhyme are crucial to developing a child’s language skills, so we might as well get a head-start. Learned child-rearing authors also inform us that reading stories to our kids in utero is a great idea, because they will recognise the sound-structure of those stories after they’re born. This is seemingly a comforting experience, which will help them to settle down and stop shrieking (anything that comes with this type of recommendation is guaranteed to catch my attention). And in order not to lose sight of everything music can offer, I will be blaring examples of every conceivable genre onto my partner’s waiting abdomen, so we can get a better idea of what grooves the bump is digging.

I’m really enjoying this phase – and I hope I can build up a rapport with our baby this way, before the big day arrives. With luck, that’ll soften the blow when our little listener finally opens its eyes and realises that Dad has the archetypal ‘face for radio’.

Edinburgh Festival 2011: Rich Hall

Rich Hall ****

Pleasance Courtyard, Grand. 9.40pm

At last!

I’ve waited a very, very long time for this. I’ve suffered years of disappointment and heartache, wading through turgid, recycled humour from the likes of Stephen K Amos and Mark Watson, but I’ve finally reached the promised land.

I’ve seen a comedian in the Plesance Grand who was actually worth the money.

For those of you unfamiliar with the festival, let me appraise you of a depressing pattern which has emerged throughout all the Augusts past: when an act plays the biggest venues, that act is invariably rubbish. They’ve made it, we’ve already paid for our tickets… they don’t have to try anymore. The audience wants to be entertained? Fuck ‘em. They have can have some material Lenny Henry was doing word-for-word in 1986.

To Mr Rich Hall, I owe a debt of gratitude. Consider this an open letter.

Dear Sir,

You’ve broken my bad run, mate; smashed it, actually.

I had no real expectations for your show, but you started strong and deployed material that wasn’t simply fresh, but tailored specifically to Edinburgh. You still have the gift for delivering a wry, sadistically funny turn of phrase – a quality which was missing when I saw you last year – and you intertwined it with topical items about coalition politics, London Riots and Eton students killed by Polar Bears.

I enjoyed your celebration of all things Scottish – predictable, given my heritage – but was happy that it didn’t go too far and become a ‘sugar-blowing’ exercise. I was impressed by the natural, unfazed way in which you reacted to audience events (the mark of a true professional) and even if your ad libs are pre-worked, they don’t come across that way, which is a big plus.

Most of all, though, I enjoyed your decision to close with a ‘human shield’, making a momentary star of an otherwise ordinary man named John.

My seat was literally the most uncomfortable I have encountered all festival, but hey, I’m not blaming you for that. Maybe you could consider the Speigeltent next year, that’s all I’m saying.

Yours appreciatively,

Dave Shedden

In short, big names are almost obliged to disappoint. Rich Hall doesn’t give a toss for such sacred cows of tradition: instead, he puts on a good show and doesn’t leave us bitter about paying the big bucks. This is a banker, folks – and a good end to any night of Fringe revelry.

Edinburgh Festival 2011: Tom Binns as ‘Ian D Montfort’

Tom Binns as ‘Ian D Montfort’ ****

Pleasance Courtyard, Above. 6.15pm

I hate ‘mediums’.

This isn’t a unique position, I know. Lots of people loathe them, believing (as I do) that they are well- practised charlatans who prey on the recently bereaved and the overly credulous. But then, there are still enough poor souls lapping it up to line the pockets of John Edward and Derek Acorah. If only there were a way of exposing their cynical cold-reading and vague generalisations for what they are…

There are actually many ways of doing this, but one of the most entertaining is to pay a visit to the world of Ian D Montfort, the spiritualist creation of the comedian Tom Binns. In Montfort, we find a character well suited to the twin goals of amusing an audience and venomously satirising those with the ‘second sight’.

In a soft, north-east accent, he engages members of the audience in exchanges composed of nebulous guess-timates about their circumstances, followed up with his trademark question, “Does that make sense?” Initially, most of the set pieces are examples of failed cold-reading and casual back-pedalling; after asking one guest whether he remembered a fictitious incident and hearing ‘no’, he smoothly nods, “Right, you don’t remember…” as he slides onto another audience member.

Then he moves into a second phase, where his readings seem designed purely to make outrageous statements about the audience. He accuses one man of being a Nazi, another of killing a prostitute in his car… various abominable deeds are attributed to his victims in the stands, backed up by the infallible testimony of the spirits whispering in his ear. Written down, this seems a little pedestrian, but Binns exploits a masterful talent for delivery and converts each jibe into a laugh which ripples throughout the room.

Finally, he moves the performance into a third (and most impressive) stage: all at once, Montfort’s readings become razor sharp. His guesses begin unerringly to find their mark, with names and personal details accurately attributed to an increasingly amazed selection of spectators. The performance closes with a very impressive trick, to which references have been seeded throughout the evening – it’s Derren Brown-esque and leaves us scratching our heads, bemused.

In his closing statement, Binns leaves us in no doubt about his opinion of so-called psychics, highlighting the fact that he could give an identical reading to two different people and make each feel that it was intensely personal. “But I have to feel,” he emotes earnestly as Montfort, “That being able to do that… it must be some kind of gift.”

In truth, it’s Montfort who is the gift: a gift to the rational contingent who despair at the surfeit of ghost-chasing con artists littering our airwaves. Recommended viewing for all skeptics with a sense of humour.

Edinburgh Festival 2011: The Horne Section

The Horne Section *****

Assembly George Square, Speigeltent. 11pm

If you are “doing the festival”, it can be a bloody long day. Wide-eyed Fringe tourists can find themselves booking shows some distance apart, which leads to their poor, croc-wearing feet clocking up miles at a rate Paula Radcliffe would have been proud of. Laden down by festival merchandise, sweating in their precautionary cagoules as the ironic sunshine beats down on them, several pints the worse for wear… suffice to say, it would need to be a hell of a show for them to stay up past 11 o’clock and not regret it.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present one hell of a show.

The Horne section is a riotous array of carefully rehearsed skits, mixed with improvised/jotted-down-in-the-green-room guest offerings, infused with the ambient glory of a virtuoso full band, then topped off with the incredibly likeable and amusing persona that is Alex Horne. It’s show bursting with energy, excellent special guests and a format which guarantees no two performances will ever be alike.

What’s remarkable about all this is that Alex Horne, our host and mastermind, must be even more tired than the drained holidaymakers I imagined above. He’s putting on no less than three shows, every day, throughout the festival. The man is an entertainment machine.

Horne heads up a motley troupe of childhood friends and session musicians, the excellent band for whom the show is partly named. All the set pieces on display have a musical element, from those put on exclusively by the troupe to those contributed by guest stars. It’s evident from the demeanour of those guests that working with the band is an exciting and different experience: these hardened comedians are all smiles and excitement as they deliver their hastily-created sketches, songs and monologues.

In order to keep things appropriately random and fresh, the nature of the troupe’s performances are determined by the spinning of a stylish and colourful “wheel of fortune” device, which displays categories ranging from dance, to karaoke, to “audience-participation Twister”. However, to spice things up even further, Horne removes a canvas cover from the wheel after each spin, revealing a new selection of topics. This routine gives the experience a tangible tempo, keeping the show bouncing along at breakneck speed and showcasing the superb range and versatility of the performers.

I look for several things when I’m making a festival recommendation, including laughs, originality and repeat-viewing-value. This ensemble show ticks all the boxes. I would happily return on successive nights, knowing that I’d see a new and still enthralling episode each time.

It’s at this stage that I am almost obliged to sign off with a rubbish pun, probably centred around “feeling Horne-y” or some similar bullshit. I’ll give it a miss. Instead, just go and wallow in the greatness that is the Horne Section: they are unmissable.