A newly discovered joy of being in London is the One O'Clock Club in Battersea Park. One foot off the Eurostar and La Fille starts chanting "Wan-ka-ka, Wan-ka-ka". The first time she did this I ignored her, even though she got louder and louder. To tell the truth I thought she had picked up an awful swear word while I was not paying attention and wondered, guiltily, who she could have possible got it from. Then the penny dropped. "Oh, One O'Clock Club," I said with relief. And there was I thinking my two-year-old had turned foul-mouthed and feral after only a couple of visits to London.
For the uninitiated, or childless, One O'Clock Clubs, or Centres as they prefer to be known (I prefer too; Wan-ka-cen sounds less like a chant from the football terraces) are supervised playgroups run between 1pm and 4pm across London. They are funded by local authorities and free to parents and children. On a desperately miserable, rainy "I want, I want, I want," day they are not quite the parental pause button one might pray for as you have to stay with your child and cannot disappear for a couple of hours to do a step class or down a bottle of wine with friends. But for those of us who used up our reserve of responses to the "What Shall We Do Now?" question some time ago, they are an answered prayer.
The One O'Clock Centre at Battersea Park is by no means unique, or even our nearest. But I love Battersea Park and we have got to know the club and the people there now. To La Fille it is a magical place with its 'sensory room' and rack of brightly coloured dressing up clothes and its painting easels. She especially loves the Thursday afternoon sing-alongs where she has added 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat', 'The Grand Old Duke of York' and 'Down In The Jungle', to her repertoire of - until now - mainly French songs like: 'Marie Soak Your Bread In The Sauce', 'My Father Has A Field of Peas' and 'Ma Michel Has Lost Her Cat'. (I am in no position to criticise the apparent madness of Gallic nursery rhymes having just sung 'Michael Finnigan' and 'Three Blind Mice').
To be honest, I never, ever saw myself getting down and dirty with the Copydex, but the other day I was persuaded to make fridge decorations out of coloured paper, glue and sticky-back magnets (very useful when you have a built-in fridge). This was the day after I had helped make 'monsters' out of raw potatoes and pipe cleaners, and shortly after I assisted in churing out Scottish flags to mark Burn's Night. The Burn's Night tape was still being played in the 'sensory room' a couple of days later. I doubt this was what the Dutch inventors of the Snoezelen Multi-Sensory Environment had in mind when they suggested it be filled with calm music, tranquil lighting and tactile objects, but I had huge fun belting out 'Donald Where's Yer Troosers' ("Let the wind blow high, Let the wind blow low, Through the streets in my kilt I'll go, All the lassies say 'Hello'..."). Fortunately La Fille and I were the only ones experiencing this sensory extravaganza. (No, I'm not a Scot which is why I had to consult my friend and former colleague known as 'The Animal', who is, to establish whether I should have been singing 'ladies' or 'lassies' and whether it was several winds or just one whooshing up Donald's nether region.)
I have dragged the Frenchman to various One O'Clock Centres in the last couple of months. He was reluctant at first, but is now also a fan. It is true overall child care provision in France is better than in the UK, but they do not have anything like this - open to anyone and free to those using them - and that is a pity. The centres also offer advice, support and contacts. Perhaps Londoners with no children, or grown-up ones, regard them as a waste of public money, but for those who cannot afford £60-a-day private nurseries they must be a sanity-saver. And if one poor mother's sanity is saved, then it is surely money well spent.
The move to France was only supposed to be for a couple of years, not forever. Then I met The Frenchman. Then I had La Fille. Now there's no way back. But La Fille, to whom a horse is a cheval and a frog is just pond life is still half English. So before the Gallic nation claims her for its own, sprinkles her with garlic, sautés her and swallows her up whole we make regular escapes on the Eurostar. And we have discovered the grass is various shades of green either side of the Channel.