ON THE SHELF

My wife is an avid follower of various vloggers, and I’ve noticed that recently she has begun to tilt towards those with children and those who discuss or video-diary their parenthood.

I imagine that during the months and weeks leading up to the arrival of our first child, there will be much she and I digest to help us prepare. Doubtlessly we will read lots of things which guide us towards the right mindset and emotional space for parenting, and we will also find plenty of advice on morphing our home into a baby-appropriate physical space.

I’m sure we will also find websites on what to buy, books on what to do and magazines on what not to do.

One of my longstanding habits during trips to the local Sainsbury’s has been to travel down the magazine aisle first. It’s closest to the door, but even if it weren’t I’d head there to acclimatise before trawling for Panko breadcrumbs and Pak Choi.

At medium pace I spy the usual suspects. Uncut, Mojo, Doctor Who Magazine, Empire, Viz, Private Eye, Nat Geo… Occasionally others. A cat magazine if the picture on the cover happens to remind me of ours. A psychology or long-form content magazine if the headline on the front sparks or tickles the brain.

Something I’ve noticed lately, for obvious reasons, is the surprising number of parenting and baby magazines available. Off the top of my head I can’t remember the titles I’ve seen. But I suspect they are: Baby Baby Baby, New Baby, What Baby, Your Baby, That’s My Baby, It’s A Baby, Just A Baby, Baby Challenge, Baby Chat, Hello Baby, OK Baby, Baby’s World, Baby Times, Baby Weekly, Baby Monthly, Baby’s Own, Baby’s Realm, The People’s Baby, Retro Baby, Model Baby, Baby Maker, Baby Builder, House & Baby, Baby Interiors and Classic Baby. Plus – I have absolutely no doubt – Scottish Wean, Yorkshire Bairn and W London Heir.

And so on… Interestingly, these apparently always cheerful publications are displayed on the shelves between the women’s magazines and the puzzle magazines – which, depending on where you stand, is presumptuous or wry.

I am, I must confess, quite intrigued by all of them. The idea of bite-sized chunks of parenting advice accompanied by nice pictures appeals. But at this stage I don’t know which of the magazines is any good, worthy of the £4.99 or so, and which of them is bad.

I am disgustingly eager to find out which will get me tutting and cursing myself for not having bought the Uncut: Simon & Garfunkel special instead. And which of them will leave me gasping for air, having been wildly entertained as well as enlightened… I guess I will have to ‘suck it and see’, as the saying goes. Watch this space…

But before I investigate – before I invest, digest and perhaps commit to a single title and take up a subscription which will inevitably lapse – there are some enduring books I aim to re-read. Separate volumes published across a nine year period, but a sort of interlinked factual trilogy. Childhood (or being someone’s child, even if that is as an adult) is the connection.

All of them are by the esteemed poet and prose writer Blake Morrison. I thought of them earlier today, and so pulled the trio of hardbacks down from the shelf.

The first, published in 1993, is And When Did You Last See Your Father? – and it is partly responsible for this very website.

My first encounter with it came a year after it was published when, shortly after my Grandad died, my friend Sally lent me her copy. It is a confessional book, honest in its examination of the father and son relationship, and of family life. It is aware, but also very warm and funny. And, of course, moving. It was my friend’s way of encouraging me, pushing me, to work out some of my grief onto paper. And I have never forgotten that inspiration.

The third of the books – Things My Mother Never Told Me – was published in 2002. In it Morrison investigates his mother’s curious (and ‘hidden’ or ‘forgotten’) early life. In exploring the notion that our parents are not just our parents – so never only who we, their children, presume them to be – it is every bit as moving as Morrison’s first memoir. Perhaps more so.

But it is the middle book, the second book, first pubished in 1997, which is the most affecting of the three. As If is a compelling overview of the James Bulger murder and subsequent legal proceedings. Morrison, in his some-time role as broadsheet journalist, attended the trial of the two children responsible for the Merseyside toddler’s death. He was profoundly affected.

As If is a challenging read which does not shy away from the horror – though, mercifully, it never once crosses the line into sensationalism, voyeurism or pornography. It is, primarily, a beautifully written book about childhood innocence.

What that really means and how it can possibly play out during the constantly shifting times in which we live. How high-profile things like the Bulger case (and, before it, Mary Bell and the so-called Moors Murders in the 1960s and, since it, Damilola Taylor, Millie Dowler, Soham and more) not only steal that innocence from those directly involved but compromise it for all others too.

As If is also a book about responsibility and consequence, and reason. Morrison sensitively advocates compassion for all concerned in the Bulger case, as he attempts to establish what the trial itself did not: Why?

A relative of mine, a cousin, was murdered. Brutally, shockingly, sixteen years ago. She was not a child, but was still only just beginning. A young adult. As you would expect it affected her parents at a fundamental level, but their family unit closed ranks and has been stoic. Noble, even. Now, when I think about what happened, what strikes me most is that the ‘Why?’ of it has all but disappeared, as we approach two decades later. Time has marched on and on. And on and ever on.

Bless Blake Morrison for his unflinching bravery in trying to fathom the unfathomable. As if anyone ever could.

Visit Blake Morrison’s website, here.