There is, I suspect, a pinch point in everyone’s day when they wish they were someone else or somewhere else. Or both. It normally occurs about the same time every day, whether it is a hellish commute, a frantic deadline rush, or children’s dinner time. Oh dinner time. At some point between 4.45pm and 5.05pm, when the food for the children is practically ready, every single day, they will both be shouting, shrieking, grizzling at the table, and I long for the days that putting one’s head in the oven was a solution to such woe.
Dulcie will be in tears because:
- She was enjoying a game which I have, with unspeakable rudeness, interrupted
- She has not approved the menu for the day, as though she were a tiny Rebecca and I her giant Mrs Danvers
- I am taking too long to serve the food i.e. more than a hundreth of second has elapsed between her bottom connecting with the chair and the food being put in front of her
Himself the Elf will be bellowing and lowing because:
- I have strapped him in a chair and prevented him licking the television or trying to plunge head first down a step onto a stone floor
- He is hungry. Or not hungry. Or tired. Or not tired.
- Dulcie is doing it, so why shouldn’t he?
I long to be the sort of woman who just serves up beans on toast every day and opens jars of baby food, but obviously I’m not, and instead I try to keep one ear on Radio 4 because I simply must hear the headlines – as a connection with the real world – while reassuring people that food is coming and no-one is going to expire in the next three minutes because of malnutrition. Then the little birdy mouths are suddenly munching their dinner and peace reigns. We smile. We chat. We can hear Eddie Mair.
Clearly what is needed is a bridge between the yawning hopelessly of pans being emptied onto plates and the plates getting taken the eleven footsteps to the kitchen. Oh poetry, can you possibly help? Yes you can. Because I have found Dulcie is a sucker for anything with a narrative and Himself the Elf will generally respond to the cadences of my voice if I keep them varied. So, what do I know by heart that doesn’t reek of unsuitable longings, lust or despair? Hello there, Mr Milne!
When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne illustrations by H.E. Shepherd
I first tried ‘The King’s Breakfast’ as a diversion for Dulcie has she imperiously demanded more butter on her bread, and she was captivated. Since then I have learned, by dint of occasionally reading the other charming poems in this collection with the book in front of me at calmer moments, a fair amount of them off pat, or at least passably for my audience. And they adore them. I know it is a rather sanitised version of childhood, all tousled-haired boys who like nothing more than looking for mice, but goodness me, isn’t it all so universal and utterly, utterly charming? Little lads struggle to do up their big boy braces, fret about their mothers galavanting around the wrong end of town and look for their pets. There’s no buzzing, flashing toys or micro scooters here.
How much does it mean to Dulcie? Can she possibly connect to these snapshots of life in a privileged nursery a century ago? I think she can. ‘Lines and Square’ about avoiding walking on cracks in the pavements makes her nod wisely; she can – and frequently does- imagine something like ‘Brownie’ lives behind a curtain (or in her more modern case, an Ikea blind); and ‘Three little foxes’ has her refusing to wear shoeses and sockeses, too. ‘Before Tea’, the old battle for clean hands, is as apt now as it ever was, and what child hasn’t planned what they’d do as a ruler as the little boy in ‘If I Were King’ does?
I couldn’t resist a bit of ‘Rice Pudding’ when Dulcie objected to chicken and broccoli pie, which calmed her right down, although her demand to try rice pudding was not a success, and she now doesn’t blame Mary Jane her dinner time hysterics. Himself the Elf can’t, of course, understand what we’re talking about, but the cosyness, the child-centred language and the attractive rhythms do their job for him. When we all sit down to look at the beautiful illustrations – colour in this edition, whereas my childhood copy was strictly black and white – Dulcie is apt to think the little boys with their mops of hair, buttoned shoes and pinafores are girls, but really, what does this matter? This is a collection of poems that I really wouldn’t be without.
Better start preparing dinner. I really don’t want to leave it to the last minute…