All posts filed under “Life

Ada wearing a knitted hat with bear ears

Year one

Our daughter turns one today. I have learned some things about babies, parenting, myself, my marriage, and my ability to form coherent blog posts in the 364 days since she was born, and so allow me to glug some of my brains out into this post.

  • There is a point somewhere on the continuum between ‘it is hard’ and ‘we found it hard’ that is objectively true; a fulcrum whose position would tell me the extent to which we particularly just made heavy weather of the experience of the first few days, weeks, months, and to what extent it’s just a spectacularly challenging gig. But I’m jiggered if I know where it is.
  • You forget what made it hard. You can call up impressionistic washes of anxiety and pettiness and novelty and failure (and happiness and delight), but you can’t remember the specifics. This is good, as it’s the only way our species doesn’t dwindle in a kind of reverse Fibonacci; you need people to forget so they voluntarily have more than one child to balance out eventually losing the two who made that first one.
  • There will be a neat mathematical model too to describe the toughness of the challenge – some inverse square shit that I should be able to call to mind in a more specific way. Basically: it doesn’t get easier in a linear way. At least till now it’s gotten easier on some sort of accelerating curve. The first six weeks were black and the subsequent six months horribly difficult, but the last three months have brought increasing contentment and joy amidst the wrangling. The stage we’re only arriving at now is the one which I naively thought parenting-from-day-one was like: requires huge commitment, patience, hard work and attentiveness, but there’s a lovely, sweet, kind, curious little kid with a deliciously absurdist sense of humour and a killer chuckle in the middle of it all too. In the early days the sheer unremitting terror of being solely responsible for this new life was, for us at least, suffocatingly hard; you’re caring for a little thing that does not work like anything you’ve interacted with before, and it couldn’t matter more that, at best, you get this wrong only in small ways.
  • Once you’ve worked out that mathematical model, you can apply it verbatim to your perception of time. I remember completely clearly, once we were discharged from maternity care, knowing that our next allotted chance to talk to a doctor was at our daughter’s 6-week checkup and thinking that was an insupportably, unimaginably long time to hold out. A day was lifetime, a week an aeon, a month an eternity, and if you’d asked me up even into the spring of this year to imagine her first birthday I wouldn’t have been able to in any but the most abstract terms. “Take each day at a time” isn’t glib, facetious advice; it’s a survival technique. Duties and time seemed to yawn relentlessly, chillingly out in front of us, but I am not intimidated by the idea of another year now; I’m excited.
  • Caring for your child and watching them change and grow and learn every single day is a godsdamned privilege. I keep saying it; it keeps being true. This trusting, loving (grizzling, shitting) little thing has no agenda, no plan. It just is. It just be’s. And you’re there right alongside it, helping, yes, and guiding, supporting, sure, but most of all watching as before your eyes a person is building itself, by the accretion of a thousand tiny moments, interactions and decisions. Everyone else gets to see my daughter; I get to see how she figured out how to be herself.
  • Parenthood strips you down. It forces you to confront often unsuspected truths about yourself, some of which you can draw great pride from, and some which are deeply shameful. I am ashamed of my temper and my pettiness, but I am proud that no matter how deep I’ve dug to just keep pushing forward, there has so far always been a deeper reserve I can scrape down to when something harder comes along.
  • I keep discovering new ways in which to find my wife remarkable. I wouldn’t, couldn’t do this with a lesser woman.
  • And here’s the most important thing I’ve discovered in the first year of my daughter’s life: she’s wonderful. She is full of wonders. That kazoo-like chuckle, deep and cheeky, that makes everyone else laugh too. The fact that she started proffering her toys and food to us to share without us even thinking to teach it, and being pleased when we enjoy them. The new tricks that astonish and delight us by their very unexpectedness: yesterday, plucking a tissue from a box, holding it to her nose and blowing a raspberry in mocking imitation of me with a cold – then looking at us all Fozzy Bear to see if we agreed that what she did was funny. The little curls at the back of her head. The perfect handprint on her face that persists for hours from where she slept with her head resting on overlapped hands, like a painting entitled The Sweet Purity of Youth. The tiny, tiny snores. Her saggy baby bum. And a hundred, a thousand more.

Friends, family, even total strangers who follow either of us on social media will know that we found being parents to a newborn gruelling, mystifying and disenfranchising. But it’s done now; check! Time – long overdue, you might say – to formally flick the switch and disable crisis mode. Time to realise that our life is not dazzlingly, incomprehensibly different to how it was before, it is now merely different to how it was before, and for the best of all possible reasons. Time, in other words, to start enjoying being parents. I love you so much, Jenny; I love you so much, Ada.


I found out today that a friend and his wife are pregnant. Indeed, very pregnant. I congratulated him, of course, since there’s a better than average chance that at our stage in life, this is welcome, longed-for news.

But I wanted also to commiserate. Which is hard. In part it’s hard because no soon-to-be parent wants to have any more apprehension and fear heaped on them, in part because I was totally blindsided by how hard I found the first few weeks and months, and, crucially, in part because it’s not as simple as “it’s awful” – or even “but it has its rewards”.

It’s so fucking complicated.

It used to be that when someone told me they were expecting, I would of course congratulate them, but it would mostly – and don’t worry, I hate myself for this – it would mostly be a learned reaction. I didn’t feel bad for them; I felt little for them. It was, to me, a remote and irrelevant thing.

Then, we decided to try for a child – a decision that boiled down basically to “you’re never ready” and “I’m months away from being categorised as a geriatric mother” (which happens at 35, incidentally) – and when we had trouble conceiving and started the process of exploring our options, news of a friend’s pregnancy gained another unpleasant dimension. I knew that telling my wife would knock her back, would once again start thoughts about our situation and why getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as we’d been warned in sex-ed classes.

Now, news of a friend’s pregnancy boils up a visceral knot of reactions. Delight, of course, and excitement on their behalf about the adventure they’re about to embark on, but also a gut-punch reminder of how disorientating and disenfranchising and alien the first few weeks is. Or at least, was for us.

They might be fine! They might not have our medical challenges, our neuroses, our hang-ups, our problems. They might, in short, be more natural parents than we are, and find the process at worst tiring.

Perhaps the most challenging thing about my reaction to the news, though, is that I never really know now what my reaction is going to be, because my own situation, with my soon-to-be-six-month-old daughter, is such a shifting and ill-defined one. It’s not resolved. It’s in turn magical and difficult and fun and tortuous, and I need the hindsight of 25 years to know what I think about it. And that helps nobody, now.

It gets easier

I’m writing this in part to reassure friends with babies younger than Ada (which includes BABIES AS YET UNBORN, WOOOOOOOO!) who may find or might be finding things tough going – and who might still be haunted by our ashen faces and shakily-recounted tales of bafflement and exhaustion – and in part just for the exercise of marking this time and exorcising this stuff from my brain. (I actually started writing it a month ago; it just took a while to find space and time to complete.) Here, then, is why things have gotten easier.

The first few weeks of Ada’s life were dazzlingly, bruisingly tough for lots of the usual reasons that everyone will experience – the stakes being so high – and for some more special reasons all of our own. Now, with her a little over four months old (as she was when I started writing at the start of December), we’re beginning to catch our breath. Indeed, we’re beginning to enjoy Ada – and girl, if you’re reading this is twenty years’ time on a holoscreen, please don’t read that as us resenting or disliking you hitherto. It was just vast, exhausting work, and newborns don’t give anything back. Like, they’re not required to – “they didn’t ask to be born” – but it means you’re under heavy physical and emotional stress for hours, days, weeks, and the thing that’s at the centre of the maelstrom your life has become could not give one shit. (Except, you know, in the visceral sense.) I am not saying I’m a good person for finding that challenging, but I am saying I did. Which brings me to the first reason it gets easier.

Start the day with a smile

When I go to get Ada from her cot first thing in the morning, she looks at me, a moment passes and then her face splits into the biggest, cheekiest grin I’ve ever seen, she kicks her legs, she stuffs her fist in her mouth in her transports of delight. “Oh my god, this guy‽” she says, correctly identifying an opportunity to use an interrobang even in body language because she is my daughter; “I bloody love this guy!” And thus, whatever challenges and arguments and perplexities had figured so oppressively in the day before dissolve away in a heartbeat, and we begin afresh. But it took many weeks to get to this stage.

Practice makes piss-easy

The first time you sterilise anything, the first time you put on a nappy, the first time you run a bath, hell, the first time you pick up your baby, you won’t really know what you’re doing and so you’ll spend hours, cumulatively, reading manuals and guides, fussing with holds and fits, and ultimately not believing for a second you have done it right at the end of the process. Give it a couple of months, though, and you’ll do this kind of dull logistical stuff without a second thought, and that not only means you’re spending less time on them but you’re also not filling up your mind with fretting about what are ultimately quite minor things. Don’t get me wrong: we still worry about plenty of shit now, but through the mundane act of doing some things many dozens of time we don’t also worry about them at a bald mechanical level.

Tool up

We read books, we stocked up, we thought we were well-equipped. And we were, but only, it turned out, for a small set of scenarios. For example, because reasons, we decided at about week three to feed Ada expressed milk topped up with formula, which meant bottles. Because this wasn’t really a scenario we’d envisioned (because of the conspiracy of fucking silence about how difficult breastfeeding is, for one thing), we had a bit of a mish-mash of bottles we’d just kinda accreted. Once we actually bought good bottles that Ada liked and figured out the correct flow of teats, and then once we’d actually bought enough of them so that we could have the next full day’s worth sterilised and ready before I went to bed rather than frantically washing and sterilising two or three in a rolling dance of clusterfuck, we were golden.

Other stuff that has helped immensely (most of which were discovered as a result of Jenny’s research):

  • Nuk dispensers for formula. Measure the correct number of scoops into these at the end of every day, then the next day when things can be frantic just dump straight into the bottle. (Also, if using powdered formula, buy a Perfect Prep machine or similar. Just do. Ain’t no parent got the brainspace to be boiling kettles half an hour before feeds are required.)
  • Also, Nuk bottle cleanser. ‘Light’, not as foamy as usual washing-up liquid, and has an enzyme that specifically targets and breaks down milk. You can see it happen. Great stuff.
  • Look, I’m going to tell you we bought one of these baby chairs and I’m going to feel the need to justify the price, but we just love it. It’s somewhere to put Ada down while we’re doing other things (which might be simply ’massaging one’s sacrum while staring into the middle distance’), and she loves it too. It will last her for years, and the only bad thing is that it’s a pain to move around. Oh, and the crippling working class guilt about the price.
  • When you buy a sleeping bag or a babygro or whatever, buy the next size up as well at the same time; you’ll need it more quickly than you expect, and having it right there on the day when suddenly nothing fits is a magical gift from past-you.

Anyway, the point is: I suspect nobody has the stuff they need before a baby is born, so don’t even really try. Get the basics (books will tell you what these are) and then just be prepared to make many spur-of-the-moment trips to Boots, and late-night Amazon orders.

We are learning how to parent; Ada is learning how to baby

Newborns are like nothing you’ve ever encountered before, or more precisely caring for one is like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. You’ve literally spent a lifetime learning how to interact with people, and you’ll likely even – as a girlfriend, as a co-worker, as someone with an elderly parent – have spent some time caring for people at some level. Newborns aren’t people. I mean, obviously, they are, but they do not operate like people. This isn’t about babies not being able to articulate “Ah, father; I think the purple dungarees today – I’m feeling vivacious!” or “No, mother, don’t you remember? I took a dislike to Baby Snuggle Book last Wednesday and I simply cannot countenance the woolly sheep today”. No; we know ahead of time that babies can’t talk and that we will have to interpret their needs in other ways. But what actually happens is that they don’t even have the same basic concepts of needs or responses or drivers that adults, children, even toddlers have, and so it’s not even like you can work out what the different cues are and deal with them.

As the weeks ticked by, however, we would more and more often comment “Aw, she’s starting to be a proper little person”, and it was only later I realised that a side-effect of this is that she started being easier to interpret, simply because we’ve had a lifetime of interpreting people. And still this isn’t about knowing specifically what Ada wants; she’s too young, clearly, to form words, and we haven’t properly started with signing. It’s about me doing something funny and her chuckling; it’s about Jenny cuddling her after we’ve given her saline drops to help clear her nose when she had a cold and Ada understanding that a cuddle is comforting; it’s about – oh my days is it – Ada understanding what sleep is.

At the same time as Ada is learning how to be a baby, we’re learning how to be parents. In part we’re just better at mechanics of it, but we’re also just better at knowing how to support each other, how to structure days, how to adapt to the ever-changing process of parenting. We fuck up often, in big and little ways, and there hasn’t been a week where either I or Jenny or both haven’t cried, but we’re now able to at least identify those areas where we need to research more or just sack up more for, rather than just finding literally every aspect of the situation intimidatingly alien.

We are, too, now, the world’s foremost authorities on Ada Margaret Gray Phin. Nobody knows her better than we do, so when well-intentioned advice is offered, we feel confident in listening politely and then quietly, privately ascribing it little relevance to Ada if we believe it’s not applicable. Clearly, we’re not going to dismiss it out of hand, and this doesn’t apply to medical advice or advice from professionals, but equally we’re now experienced enough to know that no, she’s not windy just now; no, that thing she does when feeding doesn’t mean she isn’t hungry; no, there’s no point in trying to get her back to sleep after only a half-hour nap; half-hour naps are what she takes.

What’s more, while in the first two, three, four months we’d live pretty much half-hour to half-hour not knowing what was coming next, she’s settling into routines now, we’re learning her cries (and she’s learning to make different sounds for different things), and we’re using an app to track feeds, sleeps, medication and more so that we can start to see patterns and work out whether behaviours are out of the ordinary.

So: it gets easier. Not easy – presumably never easy – but easier. Everyone told us it would in the first few weeks and months, but we had to live through it to believe it. We have. It does.

Ada sitting up

Stuff I didn’t know about babies before I owned one (or: The Handy-Dandy Guide for Existing Parents to Feeling Superior to the Phins)

Parents love to give advice to other parents, despite the fact that since all babies are different most advice will be utterly worthless. I didn’t set out to write advice here as such – rather just to note down the stuff that surprised me about parenthood – but it has rather come out that way. If it helps, imagine that the ‘you’ I’m addressing here is me, a few months ago.

This list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive, because babies are. Or something.

  • Humans need to be taught to go to sleep. For the first few days, our daughter would eat, stare at us blankly for a few minutes and then drop off to sleep again, to be repeated a couple of hours or so later. Then one day, or so it seemed, she basically stopped falling asleep on her own, with the result that we would get to the early evening and she would scream bloody murder. Turns out, you have to firmly if politely make your baby nap during the day in order to avoid over-tiredness and the attendant yelling and tears – from everyone. This has been The Biggest Thing. We are idiots, but we simply didn’t realise that when babies get tired, they don’t just go to sleep, as we do.
  • You are not prepared. You will have a vague idea about ‘sleepless nights’ and ‘piss everywhere’ but while these are to a greater or lesser extent true, the things you think will be hard won’t be as bad as you imagined, and the things that are the hardest to deal with you hadn’t even thought to anticipate. Also, every vanishingly minor thing that irritates you about your partner, love them dearly as you do, is made, conservatively, a billion times worse when the stakes are so high as in the first few weeks of your baby’s life. Basically: accept all this for what it is. You can’t – I couldn’t – prepare properly. Embrace the chaos.
  • Before your baby is born, midwives and other medical and support professionals will only tell you The Right Way to do things. ON DAY ONE of your child’s life, it becomes apparent that no fucker ever does things that way because they are often wildly impractical. Best of all, for fretting and anxious parents, it’s the midwives who are the ones to say “Well, yes, ideally, but I never did that with my ten kids, and…” (I don’t exaggerate. One terrific maternity care assistant had ten kids and she looked irritatingly unravaged.) Would you like an example?
  • Wipes. Fucking wipes. You are strongly advised to clean your baby at nappy changes using cotton wool dipped in a bowl of warm water, and then dry her with more cotton wool. You mustn’t use baby wipes – despite their tricksy, misleading name – because your baby will get nappy rash and their bum will fall off. We dutifully did this in hospital and for the first few days despite the particular challenge of the first few dirty nappies – Google ‘meconium’ if you don’t know what I mean and my apologies for what you’ll find, and if you do, my apologies for reminding you – but quickly decided that was so much of a faff that we would risk a bum-less daughter. We bought newborn-safe wipes, NAIVELY AND IRRESPONSIBLY swallowing the MARKETING BULLSHIT on the packet that said they’d been shown to be “as safe and gentle as water in one of the largest ever clinical trials”. So much easier to use (we bought a wipe-warmer too mostly so the cold wipes didn’t jar her awake in the middle of the night) and, since we still carefully dry with cotton wool, she has resolutely failed to get nappy rash and is in full possession of her bum. I buy 36 packets at a time from Amazon; £24, delivered free. Sold.
  • Apparently, because hormones, newborn baby girls can have a period. This was mentioned casually at a birth class. CAN YOU IMAGINE not knowing this, taking off a nappy, and finding your days-old daughter BLEEDING FROM THE VAGINA.
  • Your diet will change. Your diet will have to change. Before our daughter was born, we smugly filled the freezer with home-cooked meals – ragù, chili con carne, chicken casserole and so on – which would simply need to be defrosted and paired with some quick-to-whip-up carb such as rice or pasta. Ahahahaha. Simply carving out 15 minutes to prepare one of these meals is hard enough to begin with, and then there’s plating up, eating – often one-handed, or cold – and clearing up. For basically two months, we lived off ready meals and take-away, sometimes literally cutting it up and feeding it to each other. (We had also wildly underestimated the length of time it would take us to get back on our feet, so our freezer supplies in any case were woefully inadequate.) The kind of food you need is food that ⓐ can be easily eaten one-handed and which ⓑ doesn’t have a precise ‘ready’ time; it needs to be able to sit in an oven or on a hob keeping warm. Additionally, in the first few days in particular, both of us lost a decent chunk of weight, simply through there not being set mealtimes where we could be sure we were eating enough, and through running around more than usual. In these times, ‘just any calories’ is fine; when we arrived home with Ada, we sat and ate half a chocolate cake each. And finally, you might need to adjust the nature of your meals completely: we found that, having normally eaten our evening meal around seven, baby bedtime pushed this back to nine or ten, and trying to convince a baby to sleep, after a day of convincing a baby to sleep, when you also have low blood sugar is fun for nobody; we started having bigger lunches to carry us through, and peppering the flat liberally with vaguely healthy snack points.
  • People will stop you in the street and talk to you about your baby, and you won’t know what to say.
  • Nine months is a long time and thus you will basically forget that a baby will arrive at the end of it. Let me explain, since that will be greeted with much “I bet Jenny didn’t forget!!!” roffling. We knew early on that Jenny was pregnant, so we were aware of the full nine – actually, ten – months of pregnancy. For one thing, there is no bump for much longer than I expected. And then a weird thing happened. I realised, after we went into hospital late on in the pregnancy for some monitoring after the baby was a bit too quiet for a bit too long, that the medical context had finally prompted me to realise and remember that she was imminent. Now clearly, I hadn’t forgotten, but ten months is a long time, and at some level ‘Jenny being pregnant’ had just become the new normal. That was how our life had been for so long towards the end of the pregnancy that a part of my brain had just started thinking that’s how it would continue to be.
  • There is an ingeniously simple system – which I won’t detail for fear of compromising it – for letting expectant mothers secretly alert the authorities to domestic violence. That’s a chilling thing.
  • Every little thing – every little logistical thing, like brushing your teeth or taking the recycling out – becomes much, much harder, even to contemplate.
  • Holy fucking shit, they develop so fast. I swear that I could feel Ada being heavier in the evening one day when I picked her up compared to first thing that morning, so quickly was she growing and putting on weight. And also, after a few weeks of not much apparently changing mentally, when she hit around two months everything started kicking off, and every single day, she’d do something new and astonishing – vocalise, know how to activate the music on her baby gym, grab a finger, grab a finger more gently and deliberately, and so on.
  • The sheer relentlessness of the first few weeks is the killer. Usually, after a major event – your baby’s birth, in this case, but I’m thinking exams at school, an operation, a big launch or something – you get a chance to rest, recuperate and reflect, but here, it’s just the start, and exhaustion and frustration and worry and the grind of keeping the household running just builds and builds and builds. It’s hard.
  • You will find it impossible to explain what it’s like, and why it’s so hard.
  • It’s also, of course, all worth it, but that was one I knew before.

Human 101

My echo chamber has been getting noisy with cries of disparagement for Glamour’s ‘13 Little Things That Can Make a Man Fall Hard for You’ article over the last couple of days, and it’s not hard to see why. It reeks of a weird, tortuous misogyny, and the underlying themes – that men are impressionable, gullible, infantilised meatsticks, and that a woman can trap a man using a series of bulletpointed hacks, to name but two – are at best disquieting.


I do some of the things in that list – or variants thereof – for my wife, not because I need to “lock her down”, but because “stocking the fridge with her favourite drinks” or “giving her a massage” are just nice things to do for someone you love. I don’t have an ulterior motive – beyond the ‘selfish gene’ argument about altruism, which I accept – but I just want to do nice things for someone I think is awesome, as she does for me.

Another of the examples is to “show an interest in his favourite players” and “earn points on and off the field”. Clearly: blargh. But again: of course you should at least give ‘being interested in your partner’s interests’ a shot. Don’t fake it to get something you want, but working a little hard to overcome your dismissal of or antipathy towards something that’s important to someone you like seems to me to be, if nothing else, basic courtesy.

The tone and fundamental premise of that list – the idea that you should subjugate your own desires and transform yourself only and specifically to “make a guy swoon” – is reprehensible. But the idea that you’d try to empathise with your partner, potential or current, and do nice things for them with no expectation of reciprocity? That’s Human 101.

Awesome like a hot dog

I wrote a tweet earlier – before discarding it because I couldn’t fit the requisite nuance and cadence into 140 characters – which described Alienware’s new PC as ‘awesome’. And as ever when I write ‘awesome’, I fancied I could already hear the tuts of people who dislike the modern appropriation of the word. Its root, of course, is ‘awe’, and ‘awesome’, they say, should be reserved for things that genuinely inspire that sense of wonder, humility and amazement.

The problem, they say, is that if we rob ‘awesome’ of its power, we’ll be left with no further superlatives when faced with something that genuinely fills us with awe.


For starters, language works by consensus, and that’s it. If I point to a rock, declare that henceforth I shall instead call it a snooglebustle, and you start doing the same, we’ve just made language happen. And if I tell you that the hot dog I had for dinner was awesome, you don’t literally think I was filled with awe, struck dumb at the sheer, unknowable majesty of a tube of finely-minced lips and assholes. Language changes – in English at least, dictionaries describe language, they don’t prescribe and proscribe it – and as well as coining new words, old words can either have their meanings reappropriated or can rub along quite happily, thank you very much, with a new. It should be entirely clear from context whether someone’s use of ‘awesome’ reflects the meaning ‘really, very, and delightfully good’ or ‘cower before your god, brief mortals’.

Here’s the other thing, though. Even if we completely lose ‘awesome’ in its traditional sense, we won’t lose our capacity to feel awe, and if ‘awesome’ comes only to keep its modern meaning, we’ll make a new word – and completely organically and by consensus, without really trying. It might be completely new, or it might be another word that has a similar or completely antithetical meaning. And then people will bitch about how that word is being robbed of its true meaning.


I buy bags of ice – not being sufficiently well-off to afford a contraption that makes it, but being sufficiently fond of taking my whisky on the rocks that I can’t keep up by making it in trays – and a thought often tickles me when I reach into one.

Sometimes, you see, I drop a chunk of ice on the floor, and at that point, of course, it’s useless. I don’t want to pick it up and drop it in my glass, and it will melt into a puddle of water when I chuck it in the fridge. And the thought is: what I bought was a transient state of matter. Most times at the supermarket, you buy stuff – even if what you’re really buying is some chemical energy that you’ll process once you eat it rather than some immutable gobs of matter. But with ice, you specifically buy the state the matter is in.

This thought can appear to be lousy with resonances and heady with import when you are topping up your ice for a second glass of whisky, which coincidentally is when you’re most likely to drop some ice cubes on the floor.

5 musicals you should watch (especially if you think you hate musicals)

It’s amazing how many people claim to love music but say they hate musicals. You probably hate musicals. I have no data to back that up, but I’m about to write over a thousand words on that basis, so we’re both just going to have to accept it.

So, you! The reasons you don’t like musicals, I bet, is because you think they’re frothy, camp and trivial, because they make you cringe, and because you just can’t get over that moment when the strings swell and you know with a dread certainty that a character is about to burst into song. And I get that. Even though I can enjoy those sentimental, highly-mannered musicals, I get that they can be hard to love – or at least, hard to admit to loving.

Not all musicals are like that, though, and if you dismiss all musicals as frivolous confections lacking in substance or merit, you’re going to miss some truly wonderful, valuable and rewarding films and theatre. So to ensure you don’t miss them, let me recommend to you five musicals that even people who don’t like musicals should watch.


I could just recommend this and be done. For one thing, you can marvel at its technical brilliance, at how the songs act as signposts, either pre-figuring or underlining major plot markers. And what signposts. Smart, moving, funny – and often utterly, utterly vicious. In the same way as the ugly spectre of Nazism pervades what could be a bland boy-meets-girl story, so too are even the silliest, most ludicrous musical numbers shot through with twist-the-knife despair and vileness. That very contrast – how an apparently whimsical number called If You Could See Her Through My Eyes about a man dating a gorilla turns on the very last line into an excoriating commentary on anti-semitism – is why it has such power. Sometimes the contrast is less stark, and that can be wonderful too. Witness how, with apparently nothing really changing, the pure, clear, optimistic pean to youthful promise Tomorrow Belongs to Me morphs into a chilling march, prophesying the apparently inevitable rise of the Third Reich.

And besides, despite unmistakably being a musical, its characters don’t, as a rule, do that breaking into song thing, and that’s thanks to the clever use of the Kit Kat club – the cabaret of the title – as a useful dramatic construct. The whole thing is actually supremely and terrifically meta; the closing song, Cabaret, is meta meta, and that’s delightful.

You might think you know some of the songs from Cabaret, but stripped of their context, you probably only know their superficial meaning; in context, they can become almost unbearably poignant, powerful and heavy with pathos.

It’s worth seeing in the theatre – a regional rep can do it justice as well as a West End company can – but the 1972 Bob Fosse film is nevertheless glorious. Yes, Sally Bowles should be English, and no, she shouldn’t really be able to sing, but Liza Minnelli gets the fragile femme fatale, ingénue thing so right, Michael York is just wonderful, and Joel Grey is canonical.

(Oh, and it’s anything but a bland boy-meets-girl story.)

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Flight of the Conchords

In three paragraphs’ time I’m going to recommend you watch an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, so I thought I’d better bank some street-cred by first recommending you watch something that’s about as far away from Phantom of the Opera as you can imagine.

If you’ve never seen it (or technically, even if you have), Flight of the Conchords is a comedy TV series set in New York – but it’s very definitely a musical too. Despite being a comedy and despite it being a TV series, it’s actually probably more classically a musical than Cabaret; the songs, as well as moving the plot on, are sung by the primary characters, and they do, I’m afraid, do that bursting into song thing.

The songs, though, are fab; witty, superbly produced and with properly world-class melodies and hooks. It’s no wonder one of the show’s creators, Bret McKenzie, was asked to do the music for The Muppets movie – which is another belter of a musical, incidentally.

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Jesus Christ Superstar (specifically the Norman Jewison version)

It’s possible you hate Jesus Christ Superstar, thanks perhaps to its big closing number, to ham-fisted amateur productions or to unbearably camp, leadenly re-contexed productions such as 2012’s O2 stadium performance. And again, I get this.

This 1973 film, though, should change your mind. Its success comes from three factors: the staging, the actors, and the fact that it’s so fucking seventies. I love the spare, almost Brechtian staging – the cast and crew rock up in the middle of the Iranian desert in a van, and film in the ruins of Avdat. It’s beautiful, but because you’re not distracted by how well or otherwise the sets have been built and dressed, it focusses you on the story too.

Even better, the cast is giving it their all. And not in a RADA, X Factor, clenched-fists-and-eyes kinda way. You know how legend has it Carrie Fisher was so off her tits on drugs during filming of Star Wars that she really thought she was in space? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn something similar of the cast here. They are wildly talented, yes, but there’s also a rawness and immediacy to their performances that I don’t think you can fail to respond to.

Then there’s the seventiness. Squealing guitars, the slightly Instagram-ey colour grading on the film, Pan’s People-style dance numbers and awesome hair. It’s awesome – but it also has huge power and potency.

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Fiddler on the Roof

Now I’ve convinced you to watch something by Andrew Lloyd Webber, anything else should be easy. So here’s Fiddler, an absolutely classic musical, and of course I’m going to recommend the 1971 film version, also by Norman Jewison – though mostly because I’ve never seen it staged.

As you probably know, it tells the story of a community of Jews and Christians in Russia, and through the marriages made by the daughters of Tevye, the main character, we see a traditional way of life challenged, challenged and challenged again, and we see how Tevye, as a proxy for an entire people, struggles to adapt.

There are some wonderful tunes, some genuine laughs and of course some toweringly nuanced and poignant performances.

This one, I admit, might be a tough sell if you’re a musicals naysayer, just because it’s so classically musically, so don’t make it your first.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s Christmas classic is warm, sweet and clever, and a big part of its appeal are the songs – not just the well-known This Is Halloween but also What’s This? and the terrifically well mimicked Oogie Boogie’s Song. I’ve written this at exactly the wrong time to recommend you watch it – optimally, you should watch it on the day you put the Christmas decorations up – but it’s a lovely film to watch at any time of year, and whenever you do, you might catch yourself realising that what you’re watching, indeed, what you’re enjoying, is a musical.

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If by the time you’ve watched all five you have either reluctantly accepted that musicals are not entirely lame or have wholeheartedly embraced the form, the good news is that there are many more waiting to be enjoyed – and sometimes, they are films or theatre pieces that you might already know, but have never before thought to enjoy as musicals. The Jungle Book (indeed any Disney cartoon), Chicago with Queen Latifah, Bugsy Malone, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – especially the wonderful production at the Theatre Royal – that musical episode of Buffy, Labyrinth, the surprisingly touching story of Cole Porter’s life, De-Lovely, and a hundred others can be beautiful, funny, affecting, and filled with pathos, and can tell stories in ways that straight drama just can’t.

As for me, the next I’m going to see is Into the Woods, a 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical which a new film adaptation of has just been released. It’s supposed to be wicked-smart, look stunning and have great tunes — what’s not to love?

Apple eMate in a café

On finding and protecting the things you like to do (and what to do next)

I’m having a terrific time writing and doing photography for my Think Retro column at Macworld. My latest is on how computers, austere and anodyne today, used to be much chirpier – literally.

The thing I always forget I love till I pick up my eMate again is the noises it makes. As you use the stylus to select things on the screen, little confirmatory noises sound, and the joyous thing is that they’re not the same sound. The effect, as you tap about the screen to format a document and send it by fax, say, is that you get a cheery burble of “beek,” “bik,” “bok” rather than the same “click,” “click,” “click” as you’d expect on other systems. It’s emblematic of a much more human, much friendlier approach to operating systems than any other I can think of.

You can read the whole thing at

It’s a funny thing; life seems inevitably and inexorably to lead to the present when you look back at it, but you had no idea where it was heading at the time. I just used to like old Apple stuff, and so bought it if it was cheap and I wanted it – with the result that now even I’m surprised by how much stuff I have from which I can draw for Think Retro.

Today, then, I have a regular writing gig sharing an enthusiasm with others who seem to be enjoying it. I’ve always struggled to know what I want to do with my career, and you often hear the advice that you should identify the things you enjoy doing, then work out how you can turn them into a job. I suspect I rejected that at some subconscious level for two reasons. First, it seemed too easy; surely a job was a necessary evil to be endured? It should be arduous; it’s called ‘work’. Worse, I had come to dislike the Confucian quote ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life’ because experience suggested to me there was no surer way to leech the delight out of a hobby than to bury it under a thick layer of work apparatus and office life.

I think I probably got it wrong – thrice. I was slow to recognise the things I actually enjoyed doing, had a deep-seated and unhealthy attitude to work, and needed to get much, much better at translating my curiosity and aptitude for a broad range of subjects into money. Let’s see if I can get better at learning from my mistakes in 2015.

Handy cards to (never ever, because you’re British) give out to people who are using leaf blowers

I had a little rant on Twitter this morning, which is the accepted use of Twitter.

Happily, all my terribly astute followers agreed with me, which lead to the below – as salutary a lesson as you could wish for on the dangers of surrounding yourself with yes-men.

Clearly, I’m never actually going to print these out and give them to people – I’m British; I cope with frustrations by making ostensibly witty comments and by writing passive-agressive blog posts – but should you wish to, here’s a handy PDF:

Download Leaf Blower cards