James Nesbitt: Tales of the City

'Why is it that more money spent on education translates into less time actually spent in class?'
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The Independent Online

I'm sure you'll agree that among parents who fall into my age bracket (40-45, but convinced they look 25-30), there isn't nearly enough debate about where to send our children to school. Oh, for a dinner party – rather than getting drunk and having a laugh, we could just once spend the entire night angst-ridden and emoting about how we're about to steal the North Face of the Eiger in an effort to raise funds to send our yet-to-be-conceived child to a nursery for two-year-olds where they teach Mandarin, astrophysics and knitting.

My two daughters – let's call them Private and State – attend two separate schools. It's an arrangement designed to bestow upon me a sense of equilibrium, and though at first glance it may appear harshly experimental, it works beautifully. A working-class Ulster Presbyterian, my lofty aspirations are perfectly catered for without sacrificing my instinctive left-wing principles.

One question remains, though. Why is it that more money spent on education translates to less time spent in class? As far as I can make out, Private broke up for summer just after the end of her Easter holidays, though occasionally she drops into school to appear in a lavish production of the Mikado, or such like, or to pay for a vital item of school uniform – mountaineering boots, say, or an indispensable educational aid, like the Hubble space telescope.

Meanwhile, State's term finished yesterday and she is due back at her tiny desk in an hour. They are both, however, very happy and Private has learnt more in two years with a smile on her face than I have in half a lifetime.

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Anyway, we are finally en vacance, en famille, and in our household in Dulwich that means one thing: Brockwell Lido. I can't recall the exact date I first went there in 1995, or what the weather was like, or who I was with, but the first sight of it has never left me. It was beautiful.

Lying in neglect for years, it was resurrected by Lambeth's very own odd couple, Paddy and Casey. Over the years and on a shoestring, they not only kept it open; they reintroduced it to an urban community as a way of life. The Lido has seen my wife through two pregnancies, both daughters have learnt to swim there and it is the one genuine meeting-place for friends and family to get together, eat, laugh, listen, observe, swim. Never has icy water felt so warm.

A couple of years ago, Paddy and Casey finally succumbed to financial pressures and the Lido was put up for tender. With lottery funding arriving a year too late, it has now been taken over by Fusion. In spite of ongoing refurbishment, it reopened a few weeks ago.

I'm sure Fusion mean well, but initial signs are discouraging. A huge hike in admission prices had already consigned hundreds of customers to history, and it's hard to see how the state-of-the-art gym (with separate membership) will serve the local community as a whole.

Thankfully, Casey's presence is still felt. With his wife (the pair are better known as Beamish and McGlue), they run the café as an offshoot of their burgeoning Norwood delicatessen. Paddy left the Lido but his spirit lives on, as does that of Dangerous, the public announcer whose lilting Caribbean admonishments used to make you wish you'd parked illegally just to hear him read out your number plate, and who never failed to make some child's day by leading 1,000 people in a very slow, very touching rendition of "Happy Birthday". They made us feel we belonged. We do. Fusion please take heed.

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I try to avoid premieres, attending only those for films in which I appear. So, having not been to any in three years, and with four demented children in tow, it's off to Greenwich for The Simpsons Movie premiere. The event is at the Dome, renamed "D'OHME" for the night – see what they did there? We arrive by a specially arranged boat. Embarking by the London Eye, I notice that the banks of seats on either side of the vessel are festooned with VIP labels on the headrests. Not convinced that me and my brood fit this category, I frantically scan for FIP (Fairly Important Person), or even UTBVIP (Used To Be Very Important Person) but to no avail, eventually settling on a tag-free seat, reducing myself to less than human but retaining a sense of individuality.

At the stern, in between swallowing half the river, my eight-year-old niece Emily squeals delightedly: "Look, Jimmy! St Paul's! Look! The Gherkin!" London in a nutshell.

The evening passes off in an orgy of free sweets and headbanging children, but the film is very funny and Homer saves the day, doubtless leaving millions of dads all over the world scratching their heads and wondering why they want to be like him.

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Three days ago, we swapped sodden Herne Hill for sodding Brittany. In a far-flung distant quagmire, 25 of us lay huddled in our respective family units listening to the snap, crackle and pop of rain on canvas. Outside, the food I forgot to cover up disintegrates. My wife tells me our bed needs pumping up. "It's fine when you're in it," she says. "You lift me up and balance me. But when you're not in it, I go flat."

"A metaphor for your life, really," I venture, hopefully.

"The mattress needs some more hot air," she says. "You don't."

"This is the worst holiday of my life," I mutter, turning away.

My wife, who has also seen The Simpsons, replies: "Worst holiday of your life... so far."

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