Mid lock-down, feeling guilty that we hadn’t taken the children anywhere more exciting than the local footpaths for over a year, we came up with the bright idea of a Virtual Reality headset. This way, we told them eagerly, we could each scale Machu Picchu, ski down the Matterhorn, lie on a tropical beach, parachute out of a plane – all from the comfort of the sofa in 360° 4K clarity.
We found a second-hand one on eBay, which I set up with my phone, ignoring the titters that ‘Mummy looks like she’s got a clog strapped to her face, f’nah!’
Having witnessed me walking into the kitchen wall and falling over the dogs, our oldest daughter then flatly refused to put it on, and still hasn’t. She says she’s seen Johnny English 3, the VR experiment doesn’t go well, and that’s enough. Our youngest tried it once, went straight for the Scariest Roller Coaster Ride and screamed ‘get me out of here!’ until the clog was lifted.
Their father and I, however, were immediately entranced. Taking it in turns to strap on the clog, we’ve visited Jurassic Park, fought Star Wars droids with light sabres, sat amid the Philharmonic Orchestra, perched on a stage amp to get the best festival view of The Kaiser Chiefs and flown all over the globe sight-seeing – the Pyramids, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Tokyo, Paris, Angkor Wat, Niagara Falls. For two rural workaholics denied social lives for many months – and devoid of grown-up travelling since parenthood – it’s been a revelation to enjoy front row seats for theatre and dance and to tour the finest art galleries in the world, even if we do have to do it one at a time.
Whilst perhaps not the shared family experience we’d first anticipated, the girls can see the benefits of all this parental comedy value. Gathering round the wood-burner in the sitting room of an evening, we no longer bellyache if they want to use the TV for an online Splatoon battle instead of us all watching David Attenborough together. Instead, one of us is now Clog Face, getting up close and personal with a colour-changing cuttlefish, lazing under the shade of a baobab with a lion or fighting a river croc – arms flailing, pictures and ornaments under threat, cats terrified – while the other supports eagerly. I just hope this excited, demented, sightless vision of one parent with the other as carer isn’t prescient in any way.
If we do need to allay fears on that front, we can even add VR into the ongoing middle-aged fitness campaign to help us live to a happy and healthy dotage. There’s a whole world of 360° gyms, boxercise classes and dance clubs to explore in bad weather, although now that Spring is bursting out sunnily in real life, we’d far rather be checking out the local woodland haze of emerging bluebells and wild garlic on dog walks. Plus neither of us want to spotted through the window by the postman doing the Jane Fonda workout in a VR headset.
And while it’s true we’ve been casting aside the clog more as the world around us opens up a crack at a time, I’m not abandoning it entirely because it’s such fun, and it’s turned out to be an invaluable research tool for a writer. How else could I fly over the Cotswolds, gallop along a Panamanian beach and nip up the Eiffel Tower to check out the view, all before lunch? It’s never going to be as good as the real world – or as good as reading a brilliant book – but given I live so much in my imagination professionally, having an extension to that is bliss. The children have no idea what they’re missing out on…