A Lifestyle & Parenting Blog

Friday, 21 September 2012

Pack Your Bags - This Mobile Pharmacy's On The Move

Hubby and I are away for the weekend.  Off to Oxford - a city I love for its beautiful spires, its unashamed love of academia and its connection with Morse. I went to a book signing in Cardiff for the last Morse novel  "The Remorseful Day". Colin Dexter was amazingly charming and erudite. During one hitch in the proceedings due to some admin cock-up somewhere, he passed the time by regaling the audience with poetry, all from memory. They were spellbound.

Old fashioned medicine bottle

Now packing for one night away should be easy. Hubby, who travels extensively, has it down to a fine art. One shirt, one pair of pants, spare contact lenses, toothbrush and paste, deodorant. That's it. I cannot go anywhere without resembling a walking advert for the pharmaceutical industry. I remember an episode of Sex & The City where Carrie says she will spend the day "working on her look". This is patently what I need to do, having been apparently welded into my leggings but instead I am flicking through Web MD to see what I might need in case of an outbreak of Beri Beri in the Cotswolds or Malaria in Dorset.  

The Bridge of Sighs in Oxford, England
The Bridge of Sighs, Oxford
My overnight bag, which should contain a frothy nightie, miniscule thong, pair of heels and the red lippie du jour (which I shouldn't really wear because most of them now bleed into my lip lines and make me look washed out and vampiric), weighs a ton and contains a cornucopia of paracetemol, ibuprofen, gaviscon, earplugs, travel sickness pills and I even have some broad spectrum antibiotics. This is not, if you'll pardon the pun, healthy.

Actually I hate packing. You never know what the weather is going to do and I cannot leave the house without a cardigan. I've never managed the Sex & The City look where everything is paired down to one of Patricia Field's barmy yet endearing visions completed by a tiny clutch bag. I should probably try it but then I'd have to add plasters and antiseptic cream to the bag.

Such is my phobia of packing that I always leave it to the last minute and will be throwing phone chargers, computerized chess games and anything else I don't need into the bag at the last minute whilst hubby is checking the windows.

And you can bet that when I start to unpack on arrival, I'll have forgotten something important. Like toothpaste. It's easier for men though, isn't it?  

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Paying For Carrier Bags - I've Bag Lady Blues

Here in Wales we have to pay for carrier bagsone of the visible signs of the Welsh Assembly's vast and all-encompassing powers. Quite why they didn't seek to redress problems in the Welsh Economy and the numerous challenges we face with matters such as NHS waiting times, random distribution of some cancer medication and the appalling condition of some of our schools, I'm not quite sure. I'm guessing plastic bags fell into the category of "quick wins" - although I expect there is some EU Directive written by an MEP in a first class Eurostar carriage somewhere that dictates the immediate implementation of such a scheme. 

'bag lady' in the park

No doubt we should also all be knitting our clothes, tanning leather for our own shoes and returning to wattle and daub for housing (medieval since you ask) by 2020 - and since much of the population will be in the 60+ age group by then, this will certainly present some marketing challenges for M&S's Christmas party range in that year.

Now environmentally, I'm all in favour of doing my bit, but whilst there is no doubt we are helping the Green movement, there seems to have been a notable casualty.  Customer service.

Whilst, in the halycon days of the past, shop assistants used to pack your shopping for you, nowadays you are left to hold up the queue whilst you fish for a glamorous "bag for life" (whose life?  trust me, none of these bags will ever need to be carbon-dated) or, in my case, one of the Ocado bags they should have had back. Then you hold the queue up further by having to pack your own shopping. 

By this stage, Caitlin and Ieuan are prodding the confectionery displays so thoughtfully left at the till point and I'm hissing "don't touch" whilst the queue ponders the ineffectiveness of my parenting style. The shop assistants in question are usually staring into space or pondering their nail polish.

Surely this is an opportunity for shopkeepers to secure customer loyalty by helping a bit more? Even in supermarkets offering to "help you pack your bag" usually means the checkout operator will pack roughly 3 items out of the mountain of 50 and leave you (and your children) to panic pack the rest so that everything is thoroughly squashed by the time you get home.

I have worked in numerous retail outlets and, believe me, there can be nothing more thankless than facing the Great British public on a daily basis. I can fully understand that you'd get so cheesed off at being treated like a lackey or never acknowledged that your attitude might slip.

But these are tough financial times for businesses. Why waste a simple opportunity to stand out from your rivals?


Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Internet Shopping: They're Open All Hours - Every little 'elps, Granville!

Apparently the true cost of your supermarket home delivery is often nearer the £15 to £20 mark, according to an article in yesterday's (where else?!) Daily Mail.  (Delivery Fee For Online Groceries May Hit £15)

Internet shoppers are being 'subsidised' by everyone else. 

Having palpitations at the £6.99 delivery fee from some supermarkets for peak time deliveries, I am currently using Ocado and have signed up to a savings pass offer - 6 months' free delivery and £6.99 per month thereafter.

David Jason and Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours

Open All Hours - The Joys of Shopping on t'Internet

I must confess to a slight frisson of "Primrose Hill and Chelsea-ness" whenever I complete my order online at Ocado and feel like I should be wearing high heels and have a pair of large designer sunglasses perched on my head whilst clicking. (Incidentally, why do some women insist on wearing sunglasses on their head all the time - indoors?).

But shall we have a tiny reality check here?  

Have you noticed what many of the online supermarkets do? Ocado in particular has come up with the genius of an idea of suggestion page after page of items at checkout you might have forgotten, have ordered before, or might fancy if you're premenstrual. I have just been offered a lovely bunch of sunflowers (£8) and a fruity Chardonnay (£7).  A couple of clicks and, bang, £15 could have just been added. I suspect that many people end up spending at least 10% to 15% of their shopping budget each time. Unless you're a demon with the trolley, I'm sure you don't bomb round Morrisons doing your own version of Supermarket Sweep and chucking in anything that takes your fancy.  

There are a raft of packaged online deals and on the Sainsburys site, a recipe page where you can click through the recipe text to put the ingredients straight in your trolley. Actually I have a particular fondness for Sainsburys current championing of family values with the emphasis on dads.

Oh, and then there's all that lovely DATA. One of the main strengths of the loyalty card, e.g. Tesco Clubcard, is that it tells Tesco precisely what you spend, when, how much and on what. This data allows them to forecast sales, peaks and troughs in sales and to see what's selling with what. They know which stores are the most profitable - hence the development of Metros, Expresses and Superstores to fulfil the needs of the local population.

And guess what - online shopping does exactly the same at a much lower cost.

Yes, there are the costs to the business of employing drivers and running vans.  There are the costs of employing staff to pick and pack but these are not management level salaries and, given the vast profits, supermarkets make, I find it hard to believe that these costs are not easily absorbed elsewhere.

There's no doubt that the out of town superstore seems to be killing high street business. Equally, it's pretty obvious that small scale producers are being squeezed out of the market by the huge buying power of the supermarkets - no matter how many 'green' themed commercials they come out with or how many quality marks / standards or stickers they use.

But I don't think we'll be seeing the death of the physical shop for a long time. For a start much work needs to be done on UK broadband provision. There is an assumption that most homes have internet access but this is probably false. Further, there are sections of the population who are resisting the internet with full force. How many Silver Surfers are there really?

An even greater issue is the distrust many have about spending money via the internet, their banking security and identity theft.

If supermarkets try to raise the cost of home delivery I think many will just get back in their cars and go to an actual store. To use the Ocado savings pass, for example, there is a minimum spend of £40. One box of Pampers nappies and you're nearly half way there but for many this amount is, I'd suggest, too high.

Christmas is approaching; many businesses make a substantial part of their annual profit at this time of year and, frankly, the supermarkets need to keep us sweet. We won't be bought off by Clubcard vouchers or discounts if the basics of price and product are wrong.  We do want to feel valued and needed which is something that John Lewis understands very well. Look at its current ad focusing on values - with not a product mentioned.  

It's going to be an interesting festive period for the supermarkets.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Customer Service: A Little Bit of Coffee Shop Love Will Keep Me Loyal

Monday morning. A small oasis of calm once the kids are in school. Hubby and I sneak off to our local deli for a coffee and to do what all adult couples must surely do these days, compare the apps on our phones. We also play a game entitled "will any of the staff smile at us today"?

Cup of coffee with intricate pattern in the froth

Our local deli is in quite an attractive spot and decorated in that 'faux French bistro' style that has been rampantly popular for quite a while - all ornamental chickens, railway clocks and bunting. It does a good trade (I imagine) in lunches with olives, cheeses, a range of organic quiches and good coffee to go. It stocks some of the more niche food brands. It's clean (including the toilet!).

But the mood is always sombre to glacial. Coffee is deposited on tables with not so much as a "and how are you today?" or a "can I get you anything else"? We have been there enough to be recognised. We do not linger over one cup. Bacon pannini and tea cakes are purchased. When we walk out of the door, we always say thank you. Words which usually die in the air. It baffles me that any business which is running and surviving in this tough economic climate, doesn't do everything it can to capture its regulars and ensure they don't wander off.

I recently swapped hairdressers after about 15 years (set in my ways - moi?) because despite colouring my hair for most of those years, they refused to colour any more unless I presented myself for a skin test 24 hours BEFORE my usual colouring marathon. Same procedures, same stylist, same hair dye.

This particular salon was run by a lady who would swan in and air kiss her staff whilst ignoring her bread and butter regulars completely. After 15 years, I'm sure she must have recognised me unless she was too myopic to be cutting hair any longer.

We have another eaterie in the village and hubby and I will have to at least check it out. Our deli has managed to commit the cardinal faux pas of upsetting lots of the local mums due to a protest about taking prams into the shop. I know there are many who will have some sympathy with this as they do tend to form an unwieldy blockade, but mums with time for a coffee and a snack after dropping off the kids must surely contribute something to the coffers.

If you run a business in a small community, I think you have to make every effort to be part of the community - local sponsorships, contributing prizes to local events, even a loyalty scheme for regulars. Because it doesn't matter how good your product or service is, if it's not delivered with a smile, you can wave your regulars goodbye - to quote from Casablanca "maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life".

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Friday Night in Cardiff - Helloooo? Anyone there?

I infrequently dine out with a good friend of mine, A, when Hubby has presented himself as babysitter with his collection of 'blokey' skills. (These include remaining annoyingly calm at all times and ensuring the kids have much more fun than they would with me). Our trips out usually take us to one of Cardiff's restaurants, either in the city centre or 'down the Bay'.  

Cardiff Bay
Image Credit: Cardiff Bay
Last night we visited our local La Tasca, (a well known chain of tapas bars in case you've been living on Mars), for some vino and a much needed carbohydrate and counselling intake. 

We chose La Tasca because it offers a consistently reliable quality of food and is very reasonably priced. The chain have recently launched a loyalty card scheme offering 20% off food on any day of the week. 

Numerous dishes from the new menu were consumed, very passable house wine drunk and a particularly gooey chocolate fondant shared and enjoyed. The service was excellent, the state of the toilets (my barometer as you know), less so, however, the evening was very pleasant.  

What was shocking, though, was how empty the city centre was.  Friday night in Cardiff used to be an event. At 5 pm office workers would pour out of the surrounding businesses and it would be knee deep at the bar by about 5:15 pm. 

Notorious clubs like Kiwis and The Rioja Bar had queues.  Le Brasserie, Champers and Le Monde were solidly booked. Even the hotel bars of the Marriott and Hilton would be thronging with those in search of Chardonnay. 'Chippy Alley' was equally busy.

Last night around 11 pm, St Mary Street looked like a deserted town in the Wild West with, depressingly, two ambulances parked up waiting for the inevitable casualties of booze. 

Leaving aside this sad waste of vital NHS resources, where on earth has everyone gone? Have increased train, bus and taxi fares put paid to weekend revellers?  Does everyone save themselves for Saturday night?

It is pretty obvious that, for all the bluff and bluster, for all the warm feelings generated by the Jubilee, the Olympics and the Paralympics, the recession is still cutting deep. Now must be a particularly risky time to launch a business, particularly one in the restaurant trade. 

Practically everyone offers discount vouchers, loyalty cards or offers via Wowcher or Groupon. I'm not sure anyone knows the true price of anything, let alone the cost. 

It is mid month and I am sure many people wait till payday before they go out. But I think for lots of businesses in this sector this festive season will be absolutely critical to their survival.

The traditional touting for office party business began in August but I'm sure lots of the smaller businesses will be offering a drink and a mince pie in reception rather than an all expenses paid shindig. A shame - because in many businesses the office party is one of the few tangible office perks staff get - even if they have to sit through the dreaded and unhilarious 'staff award' ceremonies.

Usually when you look at a company's marketing output, as soon as revenue dips, marketing spend is cut - and often in completely the wrong places. Advertising spend is slashed, PR contracts cut, promotional discounts removed when these things should be protected, reviewed and improved as necessary. Such cuts are often completely the wrong this to do. 

The other tendency of lots of businesses is to hunker down and look after the existing client base because of the cost of generating new business. You're damned if you spend and damned if you don't. But any entrepreneur worth their salt will be looking for that time critical gap in the market and galloping in to take advantage of it so you have to react to any dip in revenue as soon as possible.

I would recommend that businesses of all sizes but especially the Small to Medium Enterprises which comprise the bulk of Welsh business develop a Social Media strategy to take advantage of the sales and marketing potential of Twitter and Facebook to bolster their existing marketing communications.  It's cheap and, if used correctly, very effective. 

As far as our economy goes, it seems we are not out of the recessional woods yet.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Both Kids In School - I'm Free So Now What?

So, Caitlin is in reception and Ieuan is in nursery and I am now free for a couple of hours each morning. 

You'd think that the prospect of all this free time would have me skipping like a lamb (or an owl). Actually, I find myself immobilised by so much freedom.  

Retro lady in the kitchen circa 1950

I meant to do some housework (honest). There are a tonne of chores (still don't know the difference between a Metric tonne and an Imperial one) to be done, not to mention DIY. I am rubbish at DIY. In school we had both metalwork and woodwork lessons and I proudly presented my parents with a piece of metal with a dent in and a piece of wood with a dent in.

I'm afraid I was lost when I turned on the TV to find Jeremy Kyle shouting. Having been less than calm, shall we say, on my first morning getting the kids off to school on my own (hubby having left early for the Big Smoke), it was vaguely reassuring to find someone who gets paid to shout. A lot. Plus it's comforting to spend time with people who clearly have bigger dental problems than I do.

And then, it was Holly and Philip running the gamut of news stories in no more than 3 or 4 minute segments in case anyone's attention span was less than this and they were in danger of filing a PPI Claim or claiming 'compo' for an accident involving a Chihuahua and the wrong ladder. People seem to be very fond of using completely the wrong ladder for a whole variety of obviously dangerous activities. My dad. For one. Dad will try to cut a hedge on a ladder designed for retrieving a pot of organic strawberry jam from a shelf even Sandi Toksvig could reach. But I digress. As usual.

I will have to find something meaningful to do with my time. Charity or cooking or reading the works of Shakespeare (again). I studied English Literature at Swansea University (very fond memories) and remember asking which Shakespeare plays we were required to cover for the course.  "All of them" was the reply! You'd have to be in extreme dire straits to voluntarily re-read Titus Andronicus as far as I'm concerned. 

No, this won't do.  But what will?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Farty Owls Are On The Wing

I hate brooches.  Can't see the point (although I've frequently sat on them). They are heavy, cumbersome and leave holes in clothing. 

Even worse, I hate brooches in the shape of an animal. Over the age of 12 anything resembling a badge should be worn by a soft toy at the back of a cupboard. 

So the new trend for 'all things Owl' has hardly got me all a flutter.

I like owls. Cute, fluffy things (as babies anyway) with those mesmerizing eyes that follow you. Very useful for delivering mail to Hogwarts (not sure it would work as a Royal Mail strategy but, hey, it couldn't hurt). In my Junior school we used to dissect owl pellets to find the bones of mice and voles. "Nature Red in Tooth and Claw". That kind of thing.

But grown women investing in owl items this season? I like to think that the choice of animal displayed says something about the wearer. For this reason I obviously avoid elephants, hippos and rhinos. I equally avoid cutesy kittens, puppies, chickens and ducks. The latter two I'd rather eat than wear in any case. If you wear 'anything owl' what is it saying about you? Trust me, if it's an applique owl on any form of knitwear it is not saying you're wise.

It must have been a particularly strenuous day in the agencies responsible for promoting this trend. Perhaps the cupcake vending machine had broken down and stifled creativity or the froth to coffee ratio from the cappuccino maker was just wrong.

Whenever I think of owls, I always think of the opening shot of Fawlty Towers where someone had rearranged the letters of the hotel's name on the sign-board.  I think Farty Owls has to be my favourite. But you wouldn't want them on a tea towel, now, would you?

And if you really want to involve yourself with owls, why not make a donation to the RSPB?  That's what I call a wise investment.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Can't Stand Her On Sight? That's Not Very Sisterly.

Today in the Daily Mail, that august tome which, in its "Femail" section peels bare the issues we as women are clearly all discussing on a daily basis (ahem), carries an article by journalist Claudia Connell entitled "Why are there some women you just LOATHE on sight".

Dark haired model against a dark backdrop

Ms Connell then lists her current female bete noires as including Katherine Jenkins and Victoria Pendelton whilst the online comments (always the most entertaining, informed and grammatically correct part of the article) feature the name of Cheryl Cole with monotonous regularity.  Ms Cole, whilst missing a bucket to carry a tune in seems to be causing a national outbreak of bruxism as fast as she is flogging hair dye.

Which gets me thinking - isn't this just female cattery of the kind that shouldn't have made it into print? Is this anti feminist cant which is encouraging women to judge, not on talent or success in their field but whether their despised celebrity is prettier, sexier and able to wear a Size zero without looking like a mobile kebab? 

My Grandfather, sadly now deceased, used to take instant dislikes to both men and women for the most spurious of reasons - for no other apparent reason, primarily, than he enjoyed it. "Look at him", he'd say in a broad Plymouthian accent - "he's a right goon". As far as I could gather, a goon was someone who was too full of their own importance,  wore shiny shoes and look like they were enjoying themselves.  In those days all Tories were automatically 'goons' to him, whilst the labour supporters reeling scrumpy-soaked from the local social club in the small hours were salt of the earth.

Much as it galls me, though, I have to admit Ms Connell (the Mail refers to her as Coleman in a later picture caption so I'm not sure this is actually her name), has a point.  La Jenkins has never seemed entirely genuine to me where Charlotte Church (leaving aside her relationship with a teak stained sideboard) seemed much more so.  I break out in hives if I so much as hear the theme tune to Loose Women whilst hubby is allergic to Katie Price, Jodie Marsh and Kerry Katona.  My hackles rise at Carol Vorderman, whilst Helen Mirren always passes my 'irritation radar' with flying colours.

You know, I think what it is that lots of women REALLY dislike whilst slogging their way up the corporate ladder or juggling part time work and motherhood, is to see success rewarded without apparent effort - the very thing that our Reality TV culture promotes. The irony of this is that Katherine et al have probably worked damn hard to get where they are but all evidence of any slog has been erased by a fleet of stylists and make-up artists.  The old 'Puritan work ethic' lives on - to succeed, one must suffer (loudly!).  

The first part of Hilary Devey's "Women At The Top" on BBC 2 this week made interesting viewing. The percentage of women who make it to middle management, executive and board level is (surprise!) staggeringly low.  The male/female ratio in middle management is 70/30 and it is 83/17 in senior management.  The effort involved in reaching these levels for many women is huge.  No wonder then that the constant media promotion of female celebrities creates so much gall.

Devey's own amazing success with Pall-Ex is an inspiration but I would rather have seen her turn her attention to the career progression of women through SMEs than huge companies like P&G. I'm sure most self employed entrepreneurs are not so much worried about a female 'talent' drain' as they are about supporting maternity leave with the financial costs and the implications to the workloads of the remaining staff.  Perhaps this will be covered in the next episode in which Devey will be looking at the career progression of women in her own company. Another point made was that the UK has the highest childcare costs in Europe.  No surprise there either.

One thing's for certain though, denigrating other women's success on the basis of their looks won't get any of us very far.  It's about as sensible as the Mail's other sterling piece today by Liz Jones - about whether it's OK for a woman to wear ankle socks and sandals.  Bearing in mind that Ms Jones is approx 53.  Let me save a few acres of newsprint here and do my bit for the environment.  I've edited the piece.

"Could our columnist pull off Autumn's trickiest trend?" .   No.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Give Me A Lakeland Catalogue & I'm Happy

One of the things I've learned over the years is NEVER to berate someone else's passions. I will not laugh at train spotters or scrapbookers. If you collect stamps, coins or postcards - respect! The reason for this is simply that over the years I seem to garner inordinate amounts of pleasure from things which some might consider odd.

Silhouette of a ground coffee maker on a kitchen worktop

For example, I adore watching my collection of Hercule Poirot DVDs (starring the legend that is David Suchet).  Nothing is so relaxing as drifting back to the 1940's to watch the upper class reducing their number by shooting, stabbing and, usually, poisoning. I am practically word perfect with all the dialogue.

I love, in no particular order, Chocolate Gingers, cats, bubblewrap, picking fluff off the carpet, steam trains, the smell of new books, olives, cheese, red wine and marshmallows. I get a kick from champagne (not very often!), playing Bejeweled Blitz (very very badly) and red lipstick.

I'll happily traipse round any number of country houses and gardens, museums, ruins and harbours.  I plan to be buried in an Olde Worlde Tea Shoppe.  (Just prop me up behind a tea urn - preferably steaming, preferably steel, preferably on a trolley - the urn that is).

But there are few things that induce such a considerable frisson as the Lakeland Catalogue, the Christmas edition of which recently plopped through the letterbox.

Bill Bailey once referred to the Argos catalogue as the "laminated book of dreams" and I feel much the same about Lakeland. You can indulge in any number of social pretensions from the comfort of your own armchair.  This year's lovely Christmas tome features a range of chopping boards and cheeseboards, some made from Oak, some from Acacia and, very apt for us in Wales, some made of slate.  There are champagne saucers and Chinese dinnerware. Hampers named after the Lakes jostle for attention with a range of retro party games, chocolates and Christmas lights.

Now, as you know, my children are 4 and 3.  Lord knows we do not dress for dinner nor do we have a cocktail cabinet (how "Abigail's Party"), cut glass whiskey tumblers or glace cherries in the pantry.  We store a small (ish!) selection of wine bottles in our shoe cupboard and our place mats are glass ones from Tesco's budget range (one of which I've smashed in any case).  But there is something about 'entertaining' that makes me feel warm, happy and as if I'm contributing to the family book of memories.

As a child, my family's definition of entertaining (outside of Christmas) was to heat up sausage rolls and open a packet of Walkers.  But Christmas offers all sorts of opportunities to eat a range of foods you'd avoid all year (smoked salmon mousse, anything involving an avocado) and now we have a smorgasbord of choices to display this food too.  It's said we eat with our eyes so a new cake-stand or some paper doillies couldn't hurt.  

I always make an effort for family birthday teas.  We have cake, and candles and singing.  I think it's important - not only to acknowledge the passing of another year but to teach the children about table manners and the pleasure of conversation.  No TV.  No computer.  And I love the traditional family occasions of Christmas and Easter, and the fun ones - Halloween and Bonfire Night.

You might say that I'm a victim of commercialism, although after 20 years in Marketing I should surely know better.  It's not about spending money - hubby is driven insane by my habit of buying items then returning them to the shop (ooh, now that's another great pleasure - all the thrill of shopping without any cost)!  

I think sometimes, it is worth a tiny splurge for an item that gives you pleasure and, by default, pleasure to those you share it with.  As mothers it's very easy to stifle our own pleasures and to deny ourselves these things.  And you know what - martyrs don't get invited to many parties.  (I'm not sure you can dry clean a hair shirt).  

So, yes, those Acacia place mats will be mine.  And possibly another cake-stand.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Don't Put Your Grandmother On Celebrity Big Brother Mrs Worthington

You know, having sat through Julie Goodyear's eviction last night, I'm left feeling distinctly unsettled today because her presence on this year's Celebrity Big Brother has raised a big question in my mind. 

Many people view Julie as a 'legend'.  Whatever your views on Coronation Street, as Bet Lynch, Julie Goodyear has been a star for over 20 years and you wonder what her agent was thinking when Celebrity Big Brother was suggested.  Leaving the inducement of the fee aside, Celebrity Big Brother is a show that can make or, if not, break then certainly tarnish careers.

There is no doubt that, in the furnace of emotions the House must be, Julie was no saint  - but why should she be pillioried for playing the game she was put in there to play?  

But what is the appropriate behaviour and treatment of an elderly woman.  (I'm not even sure I should be using the word 'elderly')! Should we judge Ms Goodyear on a 'level playing field' across all age groups, or cut her some slack since she is, in her words, a 70 year old woman who is registered disabled?  Do we judge her as a 'nana' or as a shrewd and experienced woman who can spot another game player at 50 paces and make mincemeat of them?  Was there a slight whiff of ageism? 

Often Julie came across as an elderly lady totally bemused at her situation, breathlessly (literally) trying to befriend and gain acceptance. Other times, she was the sharpest tack in the box, running rings around The Situation and Prince Lorenzo in their fruitless quest for a position on Danica's wishlist. Julie  is, as she says, "quite a good actress"

Harvey, Ashley and Michael (or HAM as they so maturely branded themselves) were quick enough to adopt Julie as 'nana' - probably anticipating that her star status would be likely to carry her and, by association, them, to the final.  As soon as it transpired Julie had a keener brain than they gave her credit for, the tables turned.  Led by Harvey, a man who has taken having double standards to an art form, the bitching became Machiavellian.

If we think of Julie as 'Nana Julie' then the ganging up by other housemates was unpleasant.  The man who comes out (no pun intended!) best in all this is Julian Clary who, despite being viewed by Samantha Brick as a misogynist, seems to me to be a gentle soul with everyone's best interests at heart. Ms Brick's views on love, romance and the male sex would surely have made her Jane Austen's best friend.

So my question is this - when I get to 70, will I expect allowances to be made - and if I do - should I? My mother is 73 and I doubt very much whether she'd stand more than a couple of days in the House, let alone want to endure any character assassination - as receiver or protagonist.  

And, actually, I don't want to see the reputation of someone who is arguably part of the fabric of the TV landscape being reduced by a collection of people who, perhaps with the exception of Martin Kemp, have very little to brag about.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: Frankie & Benny's, Dunleavy Drive, Cardiff

Since we are two days away from returning to school, we decided to take the kids to our nearest Frankie & Benny's at Dunleavy Drive, Cardiff Bay. Frankie & Benny's is an American - Italian style franchise restaurant specialising in pizza and pasta and it has become part of the 'dining landscape' in the last few years.

The challenge for parents of young children is to find a venue with a low 'embarrassment' factor; that is to say if the kids kick off, you won't attract the gorgon-like stares of those who think children should be seen and not heard (and preferably left at home in the first place).

Frankie & Benny's fits the bill nicely offering friendly staff, free balloons, unlimited apple or orange juice and ice cream sundaes with Cadbury's Chocolate Buttons.

We have become strangely inured in the UK to eating out in the equivalent of airport hangars on soulless retail parks but this Frankie & Benny's is clean and pleasantly presented with a welcoming Frank Sinatra / 1950's soundtrack piped outside. A minor quibble is the cigarette butts left along the edges of surrounding shrubbery, but I guess this is a small price to pay for smoke free restaurants these days.

Outside of Frankie & Benny's, Dunleavy Drive, Cardiff

Frankie & Benny's offer a very reasonable children's menu and the food is freshly cooked, although this can entail a bit of a wait. On previous occasions, activity packs and crayons have been available to entertain the kids but we lucked out today.

Frankie & Benny's menu

Caitlin chose Chicken Strips (made with chicken breast) and Ieuan chose Fish Fingers, both with chips and baked beans. I had a cheeseburger and hubby elected for the American Hot Pizza. Hubby had a beer and I had a glass of house red. I have learned to be sanguine about the quality of house wine in the UK and this particular house red was just passable. Why there cannot be a wider range of house wines in our restaurants I'm not sure. Profit margins are obviously an issue but I suspect that many food retailers still regard us Brits as uninformed about wine whereas many of us may not be Oz Clarke, but we do recognize a decent wine when we taste one.

The food, when it arrived, was standard - in taste, presentation and hotness.

Frankie & Benny's American Hot Pizza
The American Hot Pizza

Ieuan enjoying his fishfingers, chips & beans at Frankie & Benny's
Ieuan enjoying his fish fingers

Caitlin drinking apple juice at Frankie & Benny's
Caitlin enjoying her apple juice
My burger was tasty enough although the chips were luke warm. Hubby really enjoyed the pizza. The portion sizes were generous - in fact one kid's meal would have done both our kids. The kids had strawberry sundaes made with a rather synthetic ice-cream but hiding Cadbury's Chocolate Buttons which went down a treat. Previously the buttons came in separate mini packs which I preferred as you could secrete them away for bribery purposes later!

Hubby and I had a coffee - me a latte, him his usual black Americano. The latte was piping hot and you could taste the coffee so full marks on that score. I notice that the new fad for 'Babycino' is now on the menu - frothy hot milk and chocolate powder for the kids. Being cynical, this looks to me distinctly like preparing the next generation of caffeine addicts.

The total meal came to around £35 for 4 which, these days, is definite value for money. We were also very well looked after by our server, Adam, who was genuinely pleased to see us AND the kids. Another plus for me is that there are ground floor toilets, an excellent sized disabled toilet and that these are clean.

The cleanliness of a restaurant's toilets is always a benchmark for me. I figure if these aren't kept clean, then the food preparation area may not be either. Sometimes it's the details that let a business down rather than any glitches in the overall process. Hubby is used to this pecadillo of mine and is used to enquiring "well, what were the toilets like then?". Frankie & Benny's passed this test with flying colours.

Despite the couple of quibbles I've mentioned, we'll be back. It's a stress free, value for money meal out that the whole family can enjoy. Dunleavy Drive, Cardiff may not be Little Italy but at least you don't need a passport.

*This is a completely independent review


Saturday, 1 September 2012

Tat's Entertainment? Let's Rediscover Play

Yesterday, in glorious sunshine, we took the kids to Cardiff Bay to see the Extreme Sailing and various attractions.  

The Helter Skelter at Cardiff Bay Fair

And, next to the carousel, we were delighted to find an old fashioned helter-skelter.  For £1.50 per 'slider',  you could enjoy the dubious pleasures of wood burn at speed!  Obviously I had to look after the bags, but hubby and Ieuan made the most of it.

Mat and Ieuan on the helter skelter at Cardiff Bay Fair

Today, by contrast, we ended up in one of the local retail parks on errands and were hijacked by Caitlin on a quest for a fairy tiara and wand.  Now leaving aside any feminist debate about dressing four year old girls as pink fairies (they seem to naturally gravitate towards this), there's no doubt that pester power starts early and the challenge to educate about the value of money should start equally early in my view.

The kids know that big presents are for birthdays and Christmas but they are allowed the occasional treat and we have saved some of their birthday money from relatives for purchasing the odd toy.

But, every time we allow the kids a cheap toy (you pay more for the packaging than the dreadful quality tat that generally constitutes girls' dressing up clothes and accessories), it's a five minute wonder which we find duly discarded in a pile a couple of days later.

I'm sure many parents are discovering that, no matter, how many toys you purchase, they do not help children to learn the most basic of skills - how to PLAY.  I have a strong suspicion that the focus in more privileged schools on interactive whiteboards and computers is not really helping to foster creativity.

A recent article in The Daily Mail by Clare Goldwin "What happened when I swapped my children's toys for beads and cardboard? A minor miracle. . . once the wailing stopped" looks at what happens when toys are swapped for simple items such as modelling clay, beads and cardboard pieces.   It makes interesting reading, although the conclusion I came to was that it is the parental attention rather than the simplicity of the toys that makes the difference.

Isn't that actually the most important thing?  Cheap tat is no substitute for getting on the floor to play with your kids.  Buying toys does not assuage any guilt you may have from not spending enough time with them.  I was going to use the well worn phrase "quality time" but to me, that just means small amounts of time for concentrated play to meet your timetable - not your kids.

And you can't really create any lasting family memories wrestling with a ton of plastic packaging, cardboard and those dreadful plastic ties you need secateurs to cut through - can you?
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