Prior to becoming a father there were several things I had never heard of.
Dilation, meconium, mucus plug – don’t Google Image search this, I once did and couldn’t go near broccoli and stilton soup for three months afterwards – placenta, Braxton-Hicks – I’d previously thought this a solicitors firm based near Slough – incompetent cervix, colostrum, pelvic floor... I'm still not exactly sure what that last one is but Mrs Canavan hasn’t been able to go trampolining since.
Something else I’d never heard of – and perhaps most unpleasant of all – was the Santa Express. But boy, I have now, because in the days before Christmas I found myself on it.
It involves, for those not familiar, around 75,000 screaming, excited children, accompanied by several incredibly depressed and forlorn looking adults, boarding a steam train which rides to a nearby station and then back again.
The highlight of the journey – though I use the word ‘highlight’ in the loosest possible sense – is an appearance from Father Christmas, who in our case was some bloke wearing a hat and a fake beard and with a bad outbreak of eczema around his nose. In between dishing out presents, he kept pausing to dab his face with hydrocortisone cream.
As well as Father Christmas, there were a whole assortment of characters on the train including magicians, elves, a brass band and carol singers, during which the youngsters on board were encouraged to smack their hands on the tables as loudly as possible.
The journey lasted about an hour, though it felt much, much longer.
I suppose my criticism is grossly unfair given that I’m looking at the experience through the eyes of a 41-year-old when it is clearly designed for small children.
But the problem with these things is that the adults have to go too, for someone needs to look after the kids. I therefore think they should provide something to keep us grown-ups happy too – perhaps a carriage containing a TV showing the best bits of the 2012-13 Premier League season, or a talk on grouting, or at the very least some lap dancers.
Alas there was none of this, meaning we had to sit with our offspring, who were so excited they might combust at any moment throughout.
As a gift to the adults – presumably a reward for having to sit through the whole thing – we were given a mince pie and a small bottle of sherry.
I hadn’t had sherry since raiding the drinks cabinet at my grandmother’s sheltered accommodation as a teenager and I remember detesting the sweet liquid. But here I downed the entire bottle in one, in the hope it would numb the pain. It didn’t.
I was on the train with my wife and daughter – Mary, now 10 months old, spent the entire ride ignoring everyone who walked by and instead playing with the plastic top from a water bottle – my sister, her child, and my mother. It was, predictably, the latter who managed to spoil the climax of the entire day.
Before Father Christmas comes into the carriage, two people dressed as elves – one an over-enthusiastic young woman, presumably a recent graduate from a university drama course whose career wasn’t quite going in the direction she’d hoped, the other a man in his forties almost certainly on anti-depressants – do a little comedy sketch where they pretend Father Christmas can’t make it because he’s stuck at the North Pole.
All the children gathered went ‘awwwh’ and looked upset.
My mother, concerned her three-year-old grandson was about to cry – and spotting Father Christmas hovering outside the carriage waiting for his cue to enter – announced in a big loud voice: ‘don’t worry, he’s outside the door’.
All the children turned to look at Santa while the elves, who had been carefully building up to the crescendo of a moment when they announced Father Christmas was here after all, glared furiously at my mother.
There was a pause during which time the elves wondered whether they should carry on with the pretense that Father Christmas wasn’t there – tricky as by now every child on board was chanting ‘Santa, Santa!’ and pointing towards him – before deciding that given my mother’s actions that would be futile and instead they waved him in.
Father Christmas burst through the door with a 'ho ho ho' and wandered down the aisle handing out gifts to youngsters.
‘Look Mary,’ I shouted at my child, in a vain attempt to pique her interest and, more importantly, to get our money’s worth. 'It’s Father Christmas!’
She briefly examined the man stood next to us in his red coat and white beard, pointed at the dry skin around his nose, then carried on trying to eat her water bottle top while my mother shrieked at me about the dangers of choking.
I won’t lie, I was rather happy when the whole thing was done. But that said, the kids loved it and I daresay we’ll be back again next year, when, with a bit of luck, Father Christmas's eczema might have cleared.