Holding hands and skimming stones

Like many households across the country, today was the dreaded return to normality after the Easter holidays. For Heather it was back to school, for Gemma it was back to work – both after 2 weeks off – and for me it was a return to the office after two weeks mostly spent at home. I don’t know yet how the others have fared, but I had a successful morning, which included my fastest door-to-door cycle to work yet, tantalisingly close to the hour mark I’m aiming for. One day…. one day…

Our break itself was pretty successful too. We started the process of clearing out and overhauling our bedroom, celebrated Gem’s birthday with an impromptu party and a night out in Glasgow, hung out with friends (including a trip to see Muppets Most Wanted, which I highly recommend), had a new front door fitted, and even found some time to relax. Poor Heather spent a good chunk of her first Easter break ill – possibly with scarlet fever – but even she still found time to get out on her bike and play with her friends.

Possibly the highlight, though, was a trip to Millport with the extended family on the Saturday of Easter weekend, in memory of my Grandma who died last August at the age of 95. Three generations of us, seventeen people in total, made the trip over the water to “Scotland’s most accessible island”, a place that Grandma loved. She spent many a holiday there, especially in the years when her mother, my Great Grandma, ran a boarding house overlooking the sea front, which made it a fitting place in which to say our final goodbyes. And I think she was looking out for us too, as the sun split the heavens all day, with barely a cloud to be seen.

Of course, no trip to Millport would be complete without having a picture taken on the Crocodile Rock. Nothing to do with Elton John, I hasten to add, this one is an actual rock, similar in shape to a crocodile and with painted eyes and teeth. First painted around 100 years ago, it’s one of Scotland’s best-known landmarks, and if our photo collections are anything to go by, one of its most photographed as well.

My dad has been scanning old pictures and slides recently, and compiled a set of Crocodile Rock pictures to share with everyone at the weekend. Obviously we took a few more, meaning we now have four generations of Blacks pictured on top of the Croc – a veritable family tradition!

And one which is likely to continue for some time to come – Gem and the girls enjoyed their first trip to Millport (yes, shame on me for not taking them sooner) so I’m sure there will be plenty more trips – and photo opportunities – in the years ahead. Although I don’t expect the sun to be blazing every time we go :)

Grandma and Grandpa, c.1939

Dad and Aunt Eli, 1950s

Paul, Ali, me, Gill, Rachael and Uncle John c.1992

Rach, Matt, Iain, Me, Gem, Ali and Gill, 2014

Me, Megan and Heather, 2014

Review: Shaun the Sheep – Spring Cleaning

Shaun the Sheep - Spring Cleaning

Somewhat unbelievably, it’s 25 years this coming Christmas since Wallace and Gromit were first beamed into our living rooms, in A Grand Day Out. I’ll just let that sink in for a second… 25 years! A quarter of a century! That’ll be another one of those things that make me feel positively ancient then.

That said, it wasn’t until their second adventure, The Wrong Trousers, was broadcast four years later than I became aware of Nick Park’s creations, and I’ve loved them ever since -who doesn’t?

It was the third Wallace and Gromit adventure, A Close Shave (1995), that introduced us to Shaun the Sheep, a character so popular that he was given his own CBBC series in 2007, and has appeared in over 100 episodes since.

Spring Cleaning is the latest collection of Shaun the Sheep episodes to be released on DVD, and it really is fun for all the family – in fact, I think I might even have enjoyed it more than the girls! Each episode features five minutes of farm-based fun, as Shaun and his woolly friends get up to all sorts of antics involving such things as sheepdog trials, pet rabbits, coconuts, skateboarding, home barn improvements and window cleaning.

I must admit I hadn’t seen any of Shaun’s solo adventures prior to receiving this DVD, and I’m not sure the girls had either, but we’ll definitely be looking out for him in the future – especially with a feature-length film due to arrive in cinemas next year!

Shaun the Sheep – Spring Cleaning is available to buy from today. As well as 10 episodes from the TV series, there are extras including behind-the-scenes features, and a tutorial on how to draw Shaun himself. To celebrate the DVD launch, Studio Canal have provided me with some Shaun activity sheets, which will be ideal for keeping the kids amused over the Easter holidays. Click on the links below to download them

Hey there, Jersey Girl

Gem had a night out last Saturday night, meaning that once the kids were in bed I was on my own, something that doesn’t happen often, and left me with an interesting problem: what to do?

A quick scan through the TV listings revealed there was absolutely nothing on worth watching – it was Saturday night after all – so I raided the DVD cupboard and came up with a Kevin Smith double-bill of Chasing Amy and Jersey Girl. An unusual selection for me, as it barely featured Smith’s most famous creations, Jay and Silent Bob.

Chasing Amy, a story about a comic book artist who falls in love with a lesbian but ultimately can’t deal with her past, was every bit as good as I remembered it on the numerous occasions I’ve watched it in the past. Highly recommended.

Jersey Girl, released 10 years ago this month, was still in its cellophane wrapper, which tells me the only time I’d watched it was in the cinema. A rather different film for Smith, it’s a sweet tale of fatherhood starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, at the time one of Hollywood’s most high profile couples. This wasn’t a good thing, however, as their previous collaboration, Gigli, was a box office flop and is still regarded as one of the worst movies of all time. Jersey Girl suffered by association, and reviews were rather mixed.

I remember thinking at the time that it was better than I’d expected, though, and I expected to like it ten years later. What I wasn’t expecting was to like it more than I had first time around, and I think that’s down to understanding the subject matter a lot more.

Affleck and Lopez start the movie as a high-flying couple living in New York City. All that changes about fifteen minutes in, when Lopez dies in childbirth, leaving Affleck to raise their daughter single-handed. At first he’s more interested in his career, dumping the baby on his dad (played by the great George Carlin), but an unfortunate incident at a Will Smith press conference changes all that, and slowly he embraces what it means to be a father, ultimately realising that raising his child is the most important thing in his life.

Now that I’m a father myself, I was able to relate to all of that much more. The scenes in the delivery room meant much more, as did those involving smelly babies. In short, I got it far more than I did first time round. And being able to relate more to the characters meant I was rooting for them more, which ultimately meant I enjoyed the movie more. So much so, when Gem got home, we ended up watching it again, together.

More often than not, re-watching something you loved in your youth is a disappointing experience. Dated visual effects, clunky dialogue and poor acting all seem to show up more when compared to old memories. So it was nice to see something that had improved with age.

Which makes me wonder… what else is hiding in the DVD cupboard, waiting to be rediscovered?

Review: Barbie The Pearl Princess

DVD cover for Barbie The Pearl PrincessIt’s probably no great surprise that I’m not a huge fan of the Barbie movie franchise. However, the girls love them, so when we got the chance to review the new Barbie movie, Barbie The Pearl Princess, there was no way I could turn it down.

Barbie appears in this movie as Lumina, a mermaid with special powers that allow her to control pearls, making them dance and glow amongst other things. But Lumina has spent all her life hidden away from the world, living with her aunt on the outer edges of the mermaid kingdom. She dreams of one day visiting the royal palace, and when an opportunity comes up to do just that, Lumina and her seahorse friend Kuda set off on an adventure that brings Lumina more than she bargained for.

The animation in this movie was great, and a real step up from some of the previous Barbie movies I’ve seen. The music was pretty good too, particularly Mermaid Party which managed to sound like a load of recent chart hits without sounding like a rip-off of any of them. The story, though, left me a bit cold – there was no real sense of surprise or danger, and you can probably work out how things end up from the title alone.

That said, I’m not really the target audience, and the girls enjoyed it well enough. Heather gave it a solid 3 out of 5 (although I’m not sure she really understood what I was asking) and Megan has watched it several times, so clearly she enjoyed it too. Also, she got really excited about the posters and trailers we saw in the cinema at the weekend (as well as it’s DVD release, the movie has a limited run at Vue cinemas) which proves how much she liked it. What do I know?

Barbie The Pearl Princess is released on DVD on February 17th. It’s also on at Vue cinemas on February 15th/16th

Girls and boys come out to play

Since becoming the father of two girls, it’s fair to say that I’ve become more sensitive to many gender issues than once I was. You might even say it’s brought out the feminist in me. Once upon a time I may have questioned things like “women in technology days”, crying “positive discrimination” and “where are the men in technology days?”, the older, wiser and more feminist me can see why such things are necessary, and should be encouraged.

I want my girls to live in a world that lets them be whatever it is they want to be, and doesn’t try to pigeon-hole them. Nothing should be off-limits just because they happen to be girls. And yet, in 2014, it seems the world still works that way.

Browsing the latest Argos book last night, looking for gift ideas for Megan’s upcoming birthday, I was surprised to discover that there is now a range of NERF toys specifically aimed at girls. In case you’re not aware of NERF, it’s a collection of weapons, with names like “Mega Blasters” and “Supersoakers” which fire foam darts and/or water at their victims.

Launched last year, the NERF Rebelle line is a collection of weapons aimed at girls – think crossbows in pink and purple – the not-so-subtle implication being that the girls should be leaving the bigger guns to the boys. Have a look at this page from Argos’s NERF shop, and you’ll see what I mean. The vast majority of the range is marketed with pictures of boys, and then, tacked on at the end like an afterthought, is the not quite so beefy range for girls.

Of course, whether or not our children should be running about shooting each other at all is an entirely separate debate (it looks like fun to me!) but it’s just another example of how toy companies continue to segregate boys’ and girls’ toys, building up perceptions and prejudices that can be hard to break down later.

By coincidence, I saw this morning a story shared by a friend on this very theme, that how children are encouraged to play can enforce stereotypes and limit future career choices.

Now I’m not saying my girls have to be engineers or scientists. Assuming it’s what they want to do I’d be equally happy with them pursuing a more “traditional” female career, like hairdressing or working with small children. What I don’t want, though, is for them to ever feel like anything is off-limits or just for boys.

Of course, there’s only so much Gem and I can do – our influence will diminish over time, in favour of the girls’ peers, which makes it even more important to get the message right today.

Whose idea was gender equality anyway? It seems it was so much easier in the past…