All posts filed under “Life

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.)

Buy on Amazon

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.

Buy on Amazon

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.

Buy on Amazon

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.

Buy on Amazon

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.

Buy on Amazon

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


➚ Let’s see if the comments vindicate this column’s topic…

My TechRadar column this week is on the inherent uselessness of a public-voted star ratings.

The fault isn’t really with the system, though, but with people. How else can you explain the 4.9/5 rating the first picture the Philae lander sent back from the surface of comet 67P currently has? What kind of towering arsehole looks at that picture – a picture taken 316 million miles away by a probe we launched 10 years ago and which landed on an object travelling at more than 30,000mph – and rates it anything other than five stars?

➚ How to do the jobs you hate and feel good about it

My wife and I have formulated a little life hack over the past five years or so that helps us get shit done, makes our home and work environments more pleasant, and makes us feel good, so of course I offered to write it up for Lifehacker UK:

Most importantly, though, is the fourth benefit this approach brings: it makes you feel good about yourself. If, every day, you do one thing that needs doing but that you don’t want to do, no matter how major or minor, the sense of achievement and empowerment you get is huge. It really does have a dramatic effect on your self-esteem, never mind on your home, your job, or the rest of your life.

Why I love the new John Lewis ad (apart from the obvious reason that it’s bloody adorable)

It has become de rigueur among my peers to sneer at the manipulative, saccharine and by now frankly quite formulaic ads John Lewis airs for Christmas. And if one doesn’t object to those aspects of the ads, one must at least object to how much people talk about how good they are.

There’s a quite distasteful undercurrent of snobbishness in this, as if something that is sweet and fun and maybe makes you feel a bit warm and teary is somehow terribly unbecoming, or underserving of any approbation; in the context of the old divide between high and low art, this is subterranean, and my dear, it’s an advert! How can it possibly have any soul? It’s there to sell you things; wake up, sheeple!

Fuck all that. Seriously; fuck all that. This year’s is lovely, and I think you’ll be a better, more open and loving person if you don’t join in with the fashionable wave of negativity and dismissal.

While I was rewatching it (yes, guys; rewatching it) it struck me that part of the reason it’s so strong – and why I at least bought so completely into it that the reveal at the end hit me unexpectedly hard – is that the penguin is so penguiney. It’s barely anthropomorphised at all – it’s up to us to infer its emotions and its story rather than it being heavily implied. Sure, there are hints, but the makers realised that part of the reason we love penguins so much is because of their distinctive little mannerisms and quirks; these are penguins, not men in penguin costumes.