Real lives: Fun for big kids (and their children)

Pantomimes, zoos, theme parks - GREG ROWLAND will be going to the lot this Christmas. He might even take his son with him
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The legion of men trying to recapture their childhood is now one of the major forces driving the western economy. You can't move for blokes buying and selling collections of 1972 Matchbox Hotwheels or mint-condition runs of "The Amazing Spiderman" on the internet. However, if you really want to cheat death, hold back time - and have a whole bundle o' fun - it's better to reproduce yourself biologically. This way you get to buy new toys and introduce your offspring to some of the old classics that you once enjoyed. And Christmas, of course, is the ultimate excuse.

Take the panto season. Some kids love this (though the sight of real people doing song-and-dance routines outside the telly can bemuse the younger ones). As for the grown-ups, panto is to be celebrated as a uniquely British art form. It also keeps an army of punchy boxers, former soap stars, crazed weirdos, MOR entertainers and people who have fallen off the bottom rung of the showbiz ladder in gainful employment. And then, of course, there's always the lovely Anita Harris.

It's wise to ask around before you book your panto. I've seen a few shows where the K-List celebrities have been more intent on making in-jokes with the cast and crew than entertaining the kids. Several appeared to be drunk or on drugs - clearly getting their Christmas snow from Columbia rather than Lapland.

If you're new to the "having a kid" thing, you'll find that a visit to the local park over the festive season is a rather different experience to the one you might recall from your youth. Safety is now the keyword, whereas in the past the municipal playground seemed to throw a gauntlet down to children to fill their kneecaps with gravel and break their wrists on the lethal Witch's Hat. Indeed, the placement of such playgrounds in areas of national strategic importance was a central pillar of defence policy in the 1950s. The lure of these bone-crunching play sites to the leisure-starved invading Russians was considered a far more effective means of mass immobilisation than barbed wire or land mines.

But now playgrounds have safe stuff and bouncy floor surfaces. All traces of the blood-spattered past have been eradicated. Still, trips to A&E are far less frequent so I suppose it's a fair compromise.

If you want to spend a pile of money then theme parks are the place to go. The sense of bonding among parents queuing for hours on an icy winter's day is very strong - the kind of perverse pleasure in collective suffering that got the Brits though the war. Make sure the kids have eaten a simple lunch some hours before they board a gravitational warping ride. Stoke them up with chips and candy-floss at your (and, within a 25 metre radius, everyone else's) peril. If you do go to a theme park expect to see lots of shell-suited folk there but do try to avoid the haute bourgeois disdainful look of a British Raj High Commissioner - remember we're all in this together and kids ain't bothered about class.

In my opinion, the best way to recapture your childhood in its pristine form is to visit the zoo with your children. The animals all look, and smell, just the same as they ever did. Indeed, I am reminded of WB Yeats' celebrated poem "The Wild Swans at Coole" where he foregrounds the tragic linearity of human life against the graceful ageless cycles of nature. However, Mr Yeats should have considered elephant poo as his main subject matter. It still smells as bad as it did in 1975.

Monkeys are still the best animals at the zoo. They often confront visitors with a deconstruction of the audience/ performer relationship that would have made Bertold Brecht proud. One famous chimp at Chessington used to poo in his hand and throw it at onlookers. He just failed to make the Turner Shortlist this year.

The zoo is a festival for willie-watchers - which accounts for most children under eight years old. The juxtaposition of an attempted educational visit and the overwhelming presence of penises, excrement and garish bottoms never fails to delight me. "You can see their willies!" shouted a four- year-old of my acquaintance at the monkey cage. "But it's more interesting to look at their faces," announced her father, with the plaintive tone of a man who has lost the battle before the first shot was fired. Monkey bums in particular have been genetically designed to be big, pink, bulbous and funny. You can't fight evolution.

So, if you want to roll back the years get some kids and take them out to fun places. Forget stately homes and go somewhere that has amazing rides, animals with genitalia and unemployed actors in huge furry costumes. Just ask yourself if you really wanted to look at some dead posh person's furniture when you were six and you won't go far wrong.

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