Child and youth care workers know all about activities?
If itís Monday itís the Sobell Centre. Flora goes there every week for her gym class, along with twenty or so other six-year-olds. I also take Sarah and Jessie from our local streets which in theory means I should only be ferrying them every third week, but you know what itís like, working from home, hanging about, so I seem to spend half my life dashing to the Sobell. So thatís Monday. I think Iím free on Tuesdays, sorry I mean Floraís free, though thereís a terribly good pottery class somewhere in Hampstead. The ballet class is on Wednesdays, but thatís within walking distance. Thursdays thereís a standing swap. Sunday morning itís swimming. Thank God sheís too young for the Brownies. That will start in the new year ...
We try to restrict their activities to a maximum of two a week, but there are some parents who are in transit everyday, round the clock, especially if they're driving kids to school as well. These are the ones who cause all the accidents, driving their cars blind, trying to stop Tom and Ben fighting in the back or Sophie and Louise from moaning that they're bored with ballet. 'No you're not, darlings, you love it. 'Sboring, The teacher was just saying how well you're doing. No, I'm not. 'Sboring.'
It is very annoying if they want to pack it in after only a few weeks, especially if you've begged and pleaded and lied to get them accepted. You've also boasted to other parents who only have two classes lined up that yes, Flora simply adores fencing/drama/cookery/tap dancing, of course, we were very lucky to get her in. The worst is when they pack it in when you've just got all the gear.
Getting all the gear is often the prime attraction of any activity. They can't do ballet in vest and knickers, even for just the first lesson to see if they like it, but have to have real ballet shoes, leotards, legwarmers and cross-over cardigans. We have a green shirt lying around somewhere which Jake got when he was in the Woodcraft Folk. I think he thought it was going to be the Hitler Youth Movement at least, as he was very keen on iron discipline at the time, but he left after half an hour when all they did was sit in a circle and think about trees.
It's always the weediest kids who join the clubs with the most impressive gear. I took Jake along once to a Judo class with his friend Orlando who had so much junk it almost needed a trailer to get him to the hall. I helped Orlando get ready for the judo lesson, while Jake worried whether he should join, and it was bad enough getting his ordinary clothes off. He was only two foot high but hid this enormous six-inch-broad buckled belt round his nonexistent hips. His mother, who was very trendy, wanted him built up strong so that he could knock bullies down with one finger. So far, he still hadn't got enough strength to take his own trousers off. Luckily, Jake decided he would join the Cubs instead.
The only club I was ever in as a boy was the Scouts. I can still smell the mixture of dust and adolescent sweat in that grey church hall. The camps were terrifying. Bigger boys tried to do unmentionable things to you in the back of the tent in the middle of the night and I was always racked with asthma with sleeping in damp clothes. Today, there are so many different clubs for children catering for every predilection, I shouldn't wonder.
We've just started a new class for Flora, piano lessons on Friday after school. It's the end of the week, so it won't make her too tired for school. No one ever thinks about how tired I might become. But the big advantage is that the teacher, Fred, lives just opposite. I agreed at once. What a dawdle. No more driving across London or hanging about. The first surprise was that on his door, in a little note saying come straight upstairs, he'd signed himself Frederic. For years I've called him Fred, but I suppose Chopin's neighbours were equally familiar. The next surprise was that I have to stay with her, throughout the whole of the lesson. My wife had muttered something about him being a Suzuki teacher and I thought that meant he sucked tangerines while he played. What it means, amongst other things, is that a parent can learn with the child. My wife, being a tone deaf, non-driver, has all the luck.
Flora's had four lessons now, and has started playing with two hands, chords and all, so my fury has softened rather. The parent doesn't actually play, just watches, so that you can help them at home, doing the practising with them. I'm a bit behind with my practising and, if I hear 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' once again I'll scream. I'm not just learning the piano, but the French, German, Spanish and Japanese for the dreaded 'Twinkle'. I had to trail down to Soho to buy the book and I was furious at first to find it was all in foreign languages, with English being only a minor part. I know the Japs have taken over the motor-car trade but who'd have thunk they would also take over the lives of little men in back rooms giving piano lessons, I can't actually help her much with her practising. She thinks I'm useless and ignores everything I tell her, slamming the lid one day so hard that my fingers got caught and I couldn't type for two days. One can't teach one's own children anything, doesn't one find?
All these mums who are trailing their kids round these endless lessons are hoping somehow to keep them occupied. They're desperate for them to learn something, anything, knowing that in this permissive, indulgent age, parents aren't able to teach their own kids, not if it involves discipline. I'm only hoping this fellow Suzuki doesn't get on to gym and ballet next. I refuse to do cartwheels with six-year-olds or wear black leotards. I dunno. Being a caring father is so terribly tiring.
This feature: Hunter Davies (1981) Father's Day, London: Hamlin. pages 11-13