You could hardly call my childhood rural, but it was most certainly not urban. I come from a medium-sized commuter town in Surrey, with a river running through it and varied countryside nearby - forest, agricultural land, chalky downs and heathlands. My grandparents lived at the greener end of town, and during my many happy weekends at their place, I soaked up a working knowledge of the trees, plants and wildlife around me, and spent a lot of time outdoors, doing outdoorsy things - quite often with tools.
For a while, my favourite activity was making boxes from off-cuts of wood using the tools from my grandad's shed. I have clear memories of the shed, which I always considered the dark, slightly sinister counterpoint to the muggy, sun-filled greenhouse. I found the shed forbidding and exciting in equal measure. So much danger! So much possibility! It was a thrill to be entrusted with hammer and nails.
The boxes I made were a wonky, rustic affair, at the very limits of what you could reasonably call a box, and they proliferated way beyond the point of usefulness. I clearly remember the feeling I had when I made them. I felt adult, self-sufficient, like I could craft a solution to any problem. In later life, roasting a chicken and knitting a pair of socks would inspire the same feeling.
My grandparents were so good at keeping me busy in meaningful, physical ways like this. If I wasn't making boxes, I was potting out seedlings, peeling muddy potatoes, making sponge cake, splitting firewood*, learning to knit, washing the dog (Fred!), brushing the cat (Benson!). All these jobs made me feel good about myself, but the making of things was what really stuck with me.
These days, I find I'm not very good at doing nothing. I'm excellent at procrastinating and not doing the thing I set out to do, but being idle - having idle hands, in particular - makes me feel queasy. Making things makes the queasy feeling go away.
As well as my idyllic weekends with my grandparents, I almost certainly inherited this trait from my parents. My dad is a keen coarse angler, which creates endless opportunities for rig tinkering, bait preparation and tackle room refurbishments. He also writes and draws well. My mum has the air of a retired athlete** (don't laugh, mum!), who can't sit still. The upside to her restlessness being that her house is mad tidy. (Regrettably, and for the avoidance of doubt, our house is a catastrophe most of the time).
Here, in the city, I worry that their urban upbringing offers fewer opportunities for my children to experience the self-esteem and confidence-raising effects of making stuff. Of course one can make stuff anywhere, but sheds are in short supply in our corner of west London. The boys can copy MisterMaker's latest creation, but I can't help thinking there is more value in proper, purposeful making.
Some city dwellers will be keen DIYers or makers and their children may naturally gravitate towards the wielding of tools. However, I suspect it's rather more typical for tools to be dug out only when needs must, or for them to enter through the front door in the tool box of a handyman or woman. So I cultivate opportunities.
Yesterday, Oscar had a play date. In an effort to fend off having to constantly suggest new activities and adjudicate turn-taking disputes, I set up a picnic blanket in the garden and put out some scraps of wood from the skip next door (I asked first), hammers, nails, bottle tops, pipe cleaners and paint. Oscar and his friend are both the sensible, cautious type, so they were a little nervous around the tools, and I'd wager it was their first time using the real thing (it was certainly Oscar's). Ultimately, the project veered away from woodworking towards art, but they worked at it for a long while and l loved what they produced together. Oscar was keener on the tools than his friend, so I am hopeful he will return to his hammer and nails.
* Nearly chopping off a valuable index finger with the curved wood-splitting blade was an early, keen lesson in respecting your tools. The silvery slither of scar tissue above my knuckle serves as a reminder.
** My lovely Mum was actually a serious athlete in her teens.
I'm a keeper.
By that I mean that I have difficulty discarding the artistic output of my children, however trivial the scribble. I know that some parents fall more readily into the "thrower" category, shiftily seeking the first opportunity to slide the 45th tree-house-flower assemblage into the bin. I envy those people who can enjoy the picture and then make a pragmatic decision not to fill their house with dusty pages which will never be looked at again. And as for those people organised enough to photograph the artwork and make books? Well, the organised shall inherit the earth*.
I think we partly ascribe value to our children's art because we recognise it as evidence of progression and healthy development. Seeing a recognisable figure emerge from the end of your child's crayon for the first time is a wonderful milestone moment. This is true for me, but I also value it because it is rare.
Oscar is a terrible perfectionist which he has 100% inherited from me and I am so sorry for it. Consequently, he is not a hugely enthusiastic drawer or painter. He much prefers junk modelling and process art (both fabulous and fun), as he gets easily frustrated at not being able to translate his detailed imaginings into equally detailed (and accurate) representations. When he does relax enough to paint or draw something, I tend to treasure the results. If he does draw, we often see the same picture iterated, as he tries to get it just right. We saw a lot of this guy (a monster, of course) for a time.
Spike was also slow to take up artistic pursuits, but he increasingly spends time creating. While he is generally satisfied with what he produces, his delayed fine motor skills mean that he does find drawing (and writing) tiring. When these rare gems appear, I can't help but scrutinise them for a little insight into his inner thinkings like some sort of half-assed Freud. Currently, 90% of Spike's drawings are of trains, train parts, or TOC logos. From this I can clearly discern that...[dramatic pause]...Spike likes trains. Occasionally, though, his drawings offer more insight. This is a particular favourite of mine.
So, here a giant six-winged butterfly (a brimstone, perhaps) is being threatened by a disembodied hand, wielding a ferocious looking sword-chainsaw hybrid. The butterfly is understandably petrified and is backing further into peril, towards a loo. He will not find refuge there, as it houses a carnivorous, toothed, snapping plant. It's fair to say the butterfly is f$£@ed.
Just like Nicole Kidman, Spike has a raging case of lepidopterophobia and has clearly taken comfort in designing a fitting end for the insect. I think the drawing would get a lot of love over at I Hate Butterflies.
My loose aims for the summer are to encourage Spike's more narrative drawing (because I love it), and to help steer Oscar from the path of perfectionism.
* I confess I did this once, for Spike's first year at nursery and optimistically subtitled it "Volume I", but then...life.
I love this book. I'm pretty sure Quentin and Russell had my youngest son, Oscar, in mind when they created it. Anybody who has spent a little time with Oscar knows that he has pledged his allegiance to the Dark Side. Woe betide you if you suggest that he might want to dress up as a superhero, or take on the role of the valiant prince in pretend play. It's baddies all the way with Oscar. And who can blame him. Everyone knows villains are more interesting than heroes. I'd take the charismatic Loki over the bland, thuggish Thor, any day.
Really, since the concept of good and bad crystallised in Oz's brain, he knew who he was rooting for. Even his imaginary friend seemed a little bit evil: Nikker, the shape-shifting, age-shifting (but unwaveringly female) force of darkness. Oscar describes Nikker as having black teeth and a curved spine. She lives in a hollow tree, sleeps on a bed of bugs and will only eat mustard custard*. Most disturbingly, he once told me that she had "come over to help fix the knives". I'm a little bit sad that she doesn't seem to come out to play any more.
So we know a thing or two about monsters in this house. I do sometimes wonder what psychological purpose this heterodox imaginary world serves Oscar, but I like to think that it shows an independent spirit and a willingness to question societal norms. Occasionally, though, teachers and visitors have revealed a flash of concern or confusion, when they have realised what's going on. In those moments, I'd like to have silently handed over a copy of "Monsters" to them.
"Monsters" features John, a boy with a passion for drawing bristling, scarred monsters engaged in violent, armed battles. After embarking on a particularly "serious"-looking monster, parental concern creeps in. The concern is dismissed by the boy's art teacher, who reassures the parents that "Boys are naturally a little monstrous." However, the scale of the drawing compels the parents to seek the advice of Dr Plunger. His initial solution is to offer the parents a little "calmer" to bring their anxiety a down a notch or two. However, he eventually consents to meet with the boy. I won't give away the ending. Parents should feel appropriately warned against pathologising a lively imagination.
Oscar loves the pull-out, revealing part of John's monstrous drawing and we thought we'd have a bash at our own creature, today. Oscar informs me that it's a work-in-progress, but it's already looking pretty formidable.
* This diet was undoubtedly inspired by Michael Rosen's fabulous "Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly & Gravy" - a brilliant book of poems, beloved by Oscar.