Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Big wheels, old ships and tears in rain

Today I had a conversation with a supermarket self-scan checkout machine.

Machine:  Place item in the bagging area
     I obediently place item in bagging area
Machine:  Unexpected item in the bagging area
     I remove item from bagging area
Machine:  Item removed from bagging area.  Place item in the bagging area.
     I stare, perplexed, at the bagging area
Machine:  Place item in the bagging area.
Me:  Yes, I heard you the first time.
Machine:  Place item in the bagging area.
Me:  I said I heard you the first time.
     I return the item to the bagging area
Machine:  Unexpected item…
Machine:  Unexpected item in the bagging area.
Me:  Stop saying the same thing over and over again!

At this point I realised that the people on either side of me were trying to move as far away as possible while still being able to scan their shopping.  I was talking to a machine.  In public.  I had clearly gone entirely mad.

And then I realised what had happened.  I had simply slipped into Toddler Talk Mode.

In Toddler Talk Mode, the aim of any given conversation is not actually to exchange meaningful information, it is simply to limit the number of times the same words are repeated, in order to avoid your head exploding loudly and messily.  For a pretty articulate two year-old, Thomas is proving surprisingly resistant to any suggestion that saying the same thing fifteen times without pausing for breath does not, in fact, make for memorable and fascinating conversation, even if said comment is phrased slightly differently each time.

Yesterday I braved the vagaries of the London public transport system and took Thomas and Ben for a full day out in London.  I decided on the tried and tested Thomas entertainment method of Thames Clipper ferry to the London Eye, followed by train from Waterloo.  We actually sustained a fairly sensible conversation during the walk to the pier and while waiting for the ferry.  Once we were on board, however, normal service resumed…..

My Mummy?
           Yes, my Thomas?
What’s that boat there, that boat, that blue boat, that one there, my Mummy?
It’s a boat, my Thomas.
That blue boat there, that boat, that, that, that blue boat.  Ooh.  That boat tied up, Mummy?
            Yes, Thomas, that boat is tied up.
That one.  That blue boat tied up.
            Yes.  It is.
Why is that blue boat tied up that one there?
            Because it is parked.  No-one is using it right now.
Is it tied up parked?
            Yes, Thomas, it is tied up and parked.
Is it parked?
            I don’t know, Thomas, what do you think?
Oh.  Yes.  It is.
            Well you knew the answer to that question didn’t you?
Yes.  I did.

Short pause

My mummy?
            Yes, my Thomas?
My mummy, that boat parked too?  That one there?
            Do you think it is parked?
Oh.  Yes.
            Well there you go then.
That boat parked my mummy!
            Yes.  I think so too.
Yes.  I do think so too.      

Short pause

Ooh. Looook.  Crane, that red crane.
            Yes, I see it.
Red crane.  And digger.  What’s that digger?
            It’s a digger.
Police boat.  Tell us to stop being naughty mummy.
            They might.
That boat parked my mummy?
            No, it’s going.
That boat going my mummy?  That boat.  Ooh.  What’s that house that house there?
            It’s a hotel.  People sleep there.
Yes.  My sleep there last morning.
            No, you slept in your bed last night.
Yes.  In my bed.  Loooook.  Bridge.  Flag waving.

Short pause

Jamie live in there, my mummy?
            No, your friend Jamie definitely does not live in a hole in the wall under Tower Bridge.
Jamie live there, in that one there?  With his daddy, Jamie’s daddy?
            Not unless his mummy has really, really had enough.

Brief pause for contemplation

Jamie not live there, my mummy?
            I am almost sure he doesn’t.

Long stare out of the window

Jamie live THERE, my mummy?
            That’s the Tower of London, Thomas.
Oh.  My been there?
            Yes, mummy and daddy took you there once.
My been there in that castle, that big castle, that one?
            Yes, we took you there.
My been in that big castle, that little castle next to big castle?
            Yes.  You lay on the ground at the feet of a Beefeater and kicked and screamed.
Oh.  Yes.  I did.  In that big castle?  That one?


Jamie live there?

In Toddler Talk Mode there are no filters between eyes, brain and mouth.  In fact, I am not sure the optical nerve in a small child isn’t directly connected to the tongue.  Everything is as valid and worthy of comment as everything else.  The vast, looming flanks of HMS Belfast elicited no more excitement than the motionless tug boat moored on the far side of the river.  A lone seagull was as noteworthy as St Paul’s Cathedral.  The stream of consciousness of a toddler is, on the face of it, a prodigious outpouring of utter waffle.  Even I find it impressive and I am capable of a fair volume of verbiage when necessary.  One of my fonder professional memories is of a certain, rather notorious judge peering at me over the top of the bench and saying “You are not going to stop talking till I do what you are asking me to do, are you?”

But I am beginning to wonder if the two year-olds don’t have it right after all.  A couple of days ago I posted about the fact that I am not entirely sure how to use my blog.  I am still wondering about this.  Is it a diary?  A record for posterity?  A log of my aspirations and achievements?  A conversation with anyone who will listen?  A CV point?  A jumping-off point for other ventures?  Or is it supposed to be the adult, hopefully slightly more coherent, version of toddler talk?  Just a record of the things I have seen and what I thought about them.  Things that others might find interesting or amusing.  Things that lead to other thoughts and ideas.

Because that is what toddler talk is, really.  They aren’t telling you about the things they see because they think you haven’t noticed.  They aren’t repeating themselves because they think you haven’t heard.  They are telling you what they think about the world around them.  If I listen very hard in the rare pauses in Thomas’s tidal wave of words, I can sometimes catch the trailing end of his thought process.  So yesterday I learned that he remembers that Jamie’s daddy works near Tower Bridge, even if he didn’t quite get the location right.  I also learned that he likes boats and that he listens and remembers more than I give him credit for. 

There is a passage in the strange and compelling “Mara and Dann” by Doris Lessing, where the main character recalls a game that her father used to play with his children.  He would end each day by asking them “What have you seen?”  As she grew older and her answers to this question became more detailed, she realised that he was really asking “What did you think about that?”  The words “I have seen” crop up so many times in literature, in film, in song lyrics.  It seems to be important to us, somehow, to record what we have seen or at least to share it with others.  Perhaps what we are really doing is stamping our thoughts on the world.  This is what I have seen.  This is what I thought was worth remembering.

One of my favourite poems is James Elroy Flecker’s Old Ships which begins with the line “I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep beyond the village which men still call Tyre.”  He goes on to give his own interpretation of the legend of the Odyssey, describing Odysseus as a “talkative, bald-headed seaman” who distracted his crew with tall tales of his wooden horse, and forgot his way home.  While it is about Odysseus, it begins with those three words again, “I have seen”.  The poet wants to relay his own experiences, not just comment on those of someone else.

The best-known example of this in popular culture is of course the dying speech of the replicant, Roy Batty, in Blade Runner, apparently improvised by Rutger Hauer.
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.  Time to die.”

So perhaps that is all a blog needs to be.  Just a record of the sum of our experience, of our own personal “I have seens”.  And perhaps the next time that Thomas decides to witter on at me like a racing commentator on speed, I might give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is just blogging out loud.

After all, is there really that much difference between James Elroy Flecker’s old ships and Thomas’s police boat?  The old ships probably weren’t part of the Odyssey and the police boat probably isn’t on its way to tell me to stop being naughty my mummy.  But as a launchpad for other thoughts and ideas, they both serve the same purpose.

Last night Simon asked Thomas what he had seen that day.

“Boats,” came the reply.  “The big boat.  And the big train.  Touched an aeroplane with Jamie.  Buses and trains and diggers and boats.” 
I interpreted.  We went on the ferry and the train.  Thomas and Jamie played on the swings and tried to swing high enough to reach the aeroplanes in the sky. 

“And what else?”  I prompted. 

A pause for thought. 

“The big boat.  Went really, really fast, my daddy.”

I tried not to think of the £18 entry fee for the London Eye, relunctantly coughed-up after Thomas went on at length about the “big wheel”.  “Anything else?” I hissed. 

Thomas looked blank.  “Boats?” he ventured.

“The big wheel!  What about the big wheel?” I almost yelled.
 He looked at me like I was mad.

“Buses and trains and diggers,” he reiterated.  “And boats.”

I felt a bit stupid.  He had been reciting the things he saw from the big wheel, just not the big wheel itself.  It made sense.  You go on the London Eye to look at London, not at the Eye.

Thomas got it.  Maybe he should write this blog for me.

Of course I have no idea what Ben thinks of it all.  


  1. haha Anne, love this, made me laugh out loud! Have never read your writing before, it's very entertaining. Also, what are you doing living in Bath and working in London? Crazy, crazy person. x

  2. We don't commute daily if that makes me less crazy!