If you can’t say anything nice…

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I was chatting with a couple of friends recently and when I mentioned that I’ve gone off Twitter a bit recently, I wasn’t really surprised when they agreed.

I’m big on positivity, and honestly, Twitter seems to be getting more and more negative all the time.  Take the Great British Bakeoff for instance: a fun, frivolous and frothy reality show about people baking cakes in a tent.  Innocuous enough, surely?  But following the hashtag #GBBO whilst watching the programme (I do this all the time, and I’m not alone – according to a recent survey by Ladbrokes Bingo, 50% of women use a second device while watching TV) all I could see were negative comments: how the contestants were anything from ‘too flirty’ to ‘too thin’, ‘scheming’, and everything in between (contestant Ruby Tandoh wrote a fabulous piece on it in the Guardian – check it out).

I also like X Factor – we have friends working on the series and I like to keep up with it, but honestly, the comments drive me insane: ‘she looks awful’, ‘she’s so fat’, ‘ugh, vile’.  Would they say this to the people’s faces? Of course not! It’s all about being a keyboard jockey and hiding behind your online persona.  It brings out the school bully in so many of us.

A friend of mine works in a school and is constantly battling with bullying and nastiness online, generally through Facebook.  Kids are terrible and have very few filters, so a medium like Facebook is asking for trouble, but most of the people on Twitter are ADULTS, for goodness’ sake – what is wrong with people?

The rather wonderful English Grandma always says ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’.  A mantra that a good few people could do with adopting, I reckon.

Surgical stockings ahoy!

Surgical stockingsSo yesterday, I went into hospital to have some surgery (just something small – don’t send flowers).  My long-suffering mum had to drive me a considerable distance at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, drive back to my house, get the kids to school, then later drive back to pick me up, bless her.

She got her own back when I showed her my fetching surgical stockings and commented, in a loud voice for all to hear: ‘WELL, YOU ARE 43!!’.

I bloody love the NHS.  The hospital was spotlessly clean and the staff were amazing – full of fun, very caring and a good laugh too.  Much amusement was had by me declining the standard pre-surgery pregnancy check.  The conversation went something like this:

Nurse: ‘now we’ll need a sample for a pregnancy test

Me: ‘oh that won’t be necessary

Nurse: ‘well, it is standard procedure but you’re welcome to decline

Me (whispered): ‘my husband’s had the snip you see

Nurse (shouting against background noise): ‘sorry? I missed that

Me : ‘MY HUSBAND’S HAD THE SNIP!

Sadly, this coincided with someone in the corridor turning off their floor cleaning machine and was delivered to background silence.  All eyes slowly swivelled and landed on me. Awkward.

Anyhoo, I was well looked after, was awake by the early afternoon and, best of all, it’s all FREE!  When I got home, I had, interestingly, received an email from medical negligence lawyers First4Lawyers sending me a copy of a survey they’d conducted that found over 29% of people had experienced poor treatment by NHS staff. I’m pretty gobsmacked by that (and saddened, frankly).  I do think a lot of it has to do with how hard they’re worked (in fact, in the same survey nearly half of those people agreed with my feelings that complaints are often due to the staff being overworked).  My lovely nurses were running around like headless chickens and doing it all with a smile.  It’s also been reported in the media that the total paid out by London NHS trusts last year as a result of medical negligence claims was over £172 million.  172 million!  Depressing reading don’t you think? Would you sue if things went wrong?

Happily, none of this affected me and I’m now sitting in bed, still in the surgical stockings, being looked after very well by the boys who made dinner last night and even cleared up.

It’s a miracle.

Plus I have to get well quickly because the pupster is arriving on Friday morning!  EEK!

Review: ‘A greedy man in a hungry world’ by Jay Rayner

Jay Rayner

Here’s a thing: that Jay Rayner, yes, him off the telly, the scary one who can close a restaurant with a swish of his pen? He’s actually really nice. I’ve chatted a bit with him recently about his new book, and he actually cares what I think.  He cares about food: not just posh restaurant food, but the everyday stuff that goes in our trolley.  He doesn’t eat foie gras for breakfast. Who knew?

This book is probably the hardest I’ve ever read.  I read it twice (sorry, Jay, I lied when I said I wasn’t finished), not because it’s full of big, complicated words or anything, no, it’s actually very funny and incredibly entertaining (wait ‘til you get to the big wooden willy bit).  Jay – I feel like we’re on first name terms now – is self-deprecating (almost cringingly so on occasion) and honest and it’s very interesting.  It’s just hard because there are facts in it that made me question everything I currently believe about food, how I buy my food and where it comes from.

The book will take you on a journey from 1960s Kenton (where people like his mother spent half a day a week and probably a third of the family’s weekly income food shopping), through heart-breaking Rwanda, where children are starving in a fertile, but overpopulated land, to today’s supermarkets where 1 or 2p added to the price (and less BOGOFF deals) could make a massive difference to this country’s farmers.  It will introduce you to terms such as ‘sustainable intensification’, ‘virtual hectares’ and ‘gastronomics’, and make you really scratch your head over GM foods and food miles.

This book is basically about feeding a burgeoning population. It’s about why sometimes, buying local isn’t, environmentally and economically, always the best option, and about why farming on a huge scale can be a good thing.  This, of course, has upset everyone who believes that small-scale and local is best and I understand that, I really do.  But (to totally oversimplify things) take Jay’s example of potatoes.  In Norfolk, with its peat-rich, loose soil, farmers can yield about 20 tonnes of potatoes per acre.  But in London, with its hard, clay soil, they’d get more like 16 tonnes an acre.  So in order to match Norfolk, London farmers would need much more fertiliser, or more land, or something. And all of this would impact on the carbon footprint of those potatoes.  This, I understand.

I learned so much too.  I know that China is buying up vast tranches of agricultural land in Africa to safeguard their future, and that biofuels are really, really bad.  I know that in Britain we slaughter between 150,000 and 160,000 pigs a week (oh, the slaughterhouse bit, just… bloody hell) and why farmers’ markets, whilst I love them, will only ever be a luxury.

The trouble is, there are several quite complicated elements of the story to understand here, and I’m just not sure I have the mental capacity to understand them all (and no, I’m not participating in any foolish Silly Me Syndrome ‘gosh I’m blonde I am’ thing here, I just honestly believe that some of it went over my head).

I’ve made decisions after reading this book. I’ve resolved to buy only what I need, avoid BOGOFFs like the plague, to cut down on my meat purchases and to pay proper prices for things like milk.  After I’d finished the book, I tried to explain it to my husband.  But like all immensely clever writers, Rayner is practically un précis-able (yes it’s a real word because I said so).  Which is a good thing, because if you care about food, and about how we’re going to carry on feeding ourselves, our children, and their children, the one thing you absolutely must do is read this book for yourself.

Becoming James Bond: GCHQ Apprenticeships in British Intelligence

As you know, we’ve had some ups and downs regarding education.  The Mad Professor is now happily resitting the first year of his A levels, but this isn’t without some hassle, and his future is by no means certain – he wants to go into the Navy and become a pilot, like his Dad, but the armed forces are taking on less and less people these days, so other options are always good.  Imagine the shock horror, then, when we discovered you can be a REAL LIFE JAMES BOND.  Oh yes, GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters (a British Intelligence agency) has just announced for the first time that they’re going to be providing apprenticeships.  I know, right? Proper, paid two year courses with the finest intelligence agency in the world – getting your mitts on some of the world’s most cutting edge technology and helping to tackle counter espionage, terrorism and organised crime.  EXCITING!

This course is not just fabulous on the outside, either.  There’s proper university-delivered education, work placements and full on technical training too.  GCHQ is based at Cheltenham, but in the second year, who knows where the students will end up (it’s secret, after all).  Plus there are proper qualifications to be had: a Foundation Degree and a level 4 Diploma in IT Professional Competence.  Plus, of course, you might even get to be a real life secret agent at the end of it. Imagine the doors this would open!

Got a teenager who’d love this too? They’ll need, or be expected to gain by September 2013, three A levels (or equivalent) two of which must be at C or above in science, technology, engineering or maths related subjects.  You can find out more, and register for their open days in Manchester, London and Cheltenham, at www.careersinbritishintelligence.co.uk.

 



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Fairtrade cotton – why it’s so important

Do you buy Fairtrade coffee? Chocolate maybe? I think a lot of us do – I know I do it now without even thinking about it. It gives me peace of mind to know that farmers and growers in developing country are being treated well and don’t suffer at the hands of my buying decisions.

So how about cotton? I hadn’t really thought about it before, but this video is a brilliant way of explaining why we should all be looking for the Fairtrade label on things that we buy. Helping to fight poverty by guaranteeing the farmers a minimum, fair price for their cotton is a wonderful thing to be a part of. Take five minutes and have a look. It’s worth it, I promise.

 

Tesco’s new price drop: vote with your keyboard.

Read any self-respecting food blogger’s posts and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only things in our supermarket trolleys are stuff like truffle oil, organic this, free-range that, puy lentils and 90% dark chocolate.

Of course I’d love to tell you that’s true, but the reality is that my teenagers hit the kitchen like a plague of locusts every evening after school and yes, I’m afraid they demand crisps, sliced bread, gallons of milk and digestives as well!

Now I’ll be the first person to shout that our obsession with cheap food isn’t always a good thing, but everyday staples have to be bought, and essentials like eggs and bread, and those after school bickies, really add up.

Handily, Tesco have now given us a way of voting with our keyboards and actually influencing the items that we all want to see added to their new price drop campaign.  All you have to do is click on The New Price Drop on Facebook and you can really help to make a difference to the price of the food in your trolley.

Of course, I shall be demanding price drops on caviar and quail’s eggs too.  Worth a try, surely?

For more information on Tesco’s New Price Drop, go to tesco.com/pricedrop.

 

The murder of Billy Dove

On Saturday night, well, early Sunday morning, when many people were enjoying the aftermath of bonfire parties or, like me, were safely tucked up in bed after lovely evenings with their families, 21 year old Billy Dove was stabbed in Hemel Hempstead town centre.  Obviously I can’t speculate as to the circumstances, but the end result was tragic: Billy died.

As the parent of teenagers, this terrifies me.  My lovely nephews live in Hemel Hempstead.  They mix in the same circles as Billy.  They’re out in the town centre at night.  You can’t help but think: what if it had been one of them?

A 17 year old boy has been charged with Billy’s murder and another, also 17, is still being interviewed.  17!  What on earth goes through the head of a lad just 6 months older than my son to make him disregard his own life and that of another so much that he can carry a blade, and worse – use it?

Of course, ‘society’ will be blamed.  Joblessness is at an all time high.  Hemel Hempstead town centre is a shadow of its former self.  Still, the majority of young people are decent, honest and law abiding.  Nearly 10,000 people have paid tribute to Billy on the Facebook page created in his memory.  Most of the commenters are young and local. They’re all horrified by what’s happened.  So can we blame this on unemployment and/or social issues when the vast majority are horrified and appalled, and wouldn’t dream of committing such an act?  I just don’t know.  Should we just accept that every so often, a real scumbag is born (or made) and nothing any of us can do will stop that happening?

All I know is that it scares me.  It makes me worry for the future of my teenage boys, and it makes me sad for the parents and friends of a young man who are mourning a future and a life cruelly wrenched from them.

The Channel 4 Paralympic Games website – get your tickets now!

As you know, we recently visited the site of the impending London 2012 Olympics.  It’s going to be an amazing time for London, and we mustn’t forget that the Paralympics are on their way as well.  (I live quite near Stoke Mandeville, the ‘home’ of the Paralympics, so I’m a massive fan – I think it’s completely inspiring and amazing. )

The lovely chaps at Channel 4 have put together a guide to the best family-friendly tickets at the Paralympic games – there are some really great ideas there and I urge you to go along and support our sporting heroes.  What a fabulous thing for our children to see. The ballot to apply for tickets is open until 6PM on Monday 26th September.

The link is here  – book your tickets now!!:

http://paralympics.channel4.com/inside-stories/newsid=1230847/index.html#

Time to buy a house? Or time to run away screaming…?

So back here in the UK, we’re squatting, somewhat ridiculously, in my Mum’s house.  All our stuff’s in storage (even the beloved KitchenAid), even then it’s a bit of a squeeze and the Ninja Cat of Death is living an uncomfortable truce with Ellie the labrador and fending off amorous advances from Harry the ‘ginger t*sser’ (I know it’s mean, but it’s his name – he accepts it, and so should you).

We spent a while looking for rental houses, but it’s hard going – they seem to be gone almost as soon as they’re advertised – well, the ones that don’t smell of wee and have kitchens out of the 1940s are, anyway…

A friend of mine was recently looking for a rental house round here, was registered with all the local estate agents and heard of a house to rent.  When she asked the agent why she hadn’t been told about the property despite being registered, she was told ‘oh it was gone by 8.30am’…  WHAT?!

Now admittedly it’s commuterville – 30 minutes straight into Euston on the train – but queues for viewings?  Seriously?  And don’t get me started with the prices: £1500 a month for a very small semi-detached house (admittedly, they probably watch us shamble in, me with sticky out Russell Brand hair, the teens with their mahoosive feet and jeans around their arses and English Dad looking seriously pissed off with the whole process – and quickly add on an extra few quid) and they’re always 2 double bedrooms and one single – you try asking two teenaged boys which one wants the single room…  One of these days I’m going to suggest a fight to the death (joking).

So we decided we’d buy a house.  English Towers Part Deux, if you will.  I know, I know… the FTSE is down 12.5%…  oh wait, it’s up again… But it’s a very, very small house, with one reception room (I know it’s facile, but all I could think about was where the hell would the Christmas tree go?) on a new estate that was offering good financial incentives for people like us (for ‘people like us’, read poor people).  We very nearly bought it too: mortgage offer in place… contracts ready to sign… and then the extras happened.

Heard about ‘the extras‘?  Everyone that buys a new house will be nodding their head wisely at this point.  Turns out that the extras are charges for practically everything that’s not cemented in.

‘You want carpets in your new house?’

‘Would be nice…’

‘No problem sir, that’ll be three grand.  A kitchen you say?  One with built-in appliances and a double oven?  A snip at £3250…’

‘Got teenagers?’

‘Yes, two’

‘Okay, well there’s a small teenager surcharge of £1000 per child…’

And so it goes on.  I might have made the last one up, but our very modest extras – tiled bathrooms, pretty normal kitchen… came to £8,000.  And I think we would have stomached it – killed ourselves but stomached it – until the husband read one of the extras was to install Sky:  £800.  I think it tipped him over the edge and we had a really, really good think about what we were doing.  Could we afford all these extras and the deposit?  Probably not.  Should we stick the money on our credit cards?  Probably not.

But the final nail in the new house’s coffin came from my brother, the Cocktail King, Sensible Uncle Ian.  He made up our minds in two seconds and with one sentence:

Sensible: ‘Do you love it?’

Me: ‘No.’

Sensible: ‘Then don’t buy it.  Why would you make one of the biggest purchases of your life and not completely love it?  No amount of builders’ incentives should persuade you to buy a house you don’t love’.

So we’re back on the rental market.

*Le sigh*

Aaaanyway, we’ve found a house.  Not exactly where we’d like to live but, unbelievably, very close to the house we nearly bought.  I’m looking forward to rescuing my Kitchen Aid from storage! It’s got room for us all, and a decent kitchen.  And I think I’ve even seen a spot where the Christmas tree can go..

What about you? Rent or buy?

Amy Winehouse, dead at 27. Somebody’s daughter, remember?

A long time ago, back in 2007 in fact, an Irish model – Katie French – died of a drug overdose. I found some of the comments made at the time pretty abhorrent and remember writing a blog post about it.

Yesterday, over 90 people, many of them teenagers, were murdered by a madman in Norway.

This afternoon I watched Twitter in horror as first people near her home tweeted about seeing ambulances and police cars, and then the confirmation came: Amy Winehouse had died. Instantly, people crowed: ‘it’s her own fault’… ‘who gives a damn?’ and much, much worse.

Seriously? Yes, Amy Winehouse obviously had terrible addictions to goodness knows what… she was troubled and – let’s face it – ill. Does that make her death less serious than those killed in Norway?   She’s still somebody’s daughter.  Somebody’s heart is breaking tonight knowing that she’s gone.  Do the circumstances of her death make her parents less worthy of our compassion and our sympathy?

I say no.

This weekend, I’m keeping a whole lot of people in my heart. People whose lives will never be the same again. And holding my children very, very close.

And the last word must go to Katie French’s family, who said at the time: ‘we would earnestly ask all those — both young and old — who may be tempted to dabble in potentially lethal substances to simply say ‘no’.  No amount of so-called fun is worth the loss of life that so often befalls young people in Ireland today.’

Michelle Obama’s speech at Oxford University: inspirational.


I think I’ve got a bit of a crush on Michelle Obama (ahem, a totally girly non-pervy one).

Her speech to schoolgirls visiting Oxford University this afternoon was amazing: incredibly inspiring and uplifting.

I bet every mother of young women would pay a fortune to have their daughter in that room and be inspired by that speech.

On education: ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.  Don’t be afraid to take risks.  Learn to use your voice.  Ask questions… ask stupid questions!  Be laughed at.  Get it wrong: trip, fall… and then get back up.’

And on choosing her husband: ‘I knew he was special… it was how he felt about his mother… his work ethic… he was smart… he was low key and he was funny…’ .  You could tell she was really sharing.  I loved the sense of intimacy.

On relationships: ‘Reach for partners that make you better… do not bring people into your life that weigh you down.  Trust your instincts: good relationships feel good, they feel right.  They don’t hurt – they’re not painful’.

On friendship:  ‘We as women in particular… starting today you all have to be supportive of each other.  You can’t be jealous and push and trip… it’s hard enough, so in your lives now…  be kind to each other, support each other because there’s room for everybody to succeed’.

What awesome advice.

And wowzers, her dress sense is pretty good as well. Check out the gorgeous gown she wore for the state dinner with the Queen.  What say you?

Andy Gray, Sky Sports, sexism and teenage boys

This afternoon, Andy Gray, the Sky Sports football presenter was sacked after ‘new evidence of unacceptable and offensive behaviour’ came to light.

If you’ve been living in a small shoebox in the cupboard under the stairs for the past week, I’ll bring you up to speed: during Sky’s Sunday match, Gray and his co-presenter Richard Keys were recorded off-air making offensive comments about Assistant Referee Sian Massey, and Keys also made comments about West Ham Vice Chair Karren Brady.

Further clips then emerged showing Gray and another Sky presenter making off-mic comments about Sian Massey including comments about her looks and again the classic: ‘what do women know about the offside rule?’.

Twitter went wild.  One notable comment, from Kenny Dalglish’s daughter Kelly Cates made me laugh: ‘Phew am exhausted. Just read about something called “the offside rule”. Too much for my tiny brain. Must be damaged from nail polish fumes’.

Apropos of nothing, I do actually understand the offside ‘rule’  (not that I think women need to prove knowledge of the laws of football in order to compete with the fellas).  I come from a footballing family – my Dad was a footballer at a reasonable standard before going on to become a referee, and my brothers and husband are/were all decent footballers.  Rightly or wrongly, there’s a lot of sexism surrounding football and I genuinely think this news will bring up the same old discussions about the definition of ‘banter’.

There’s been some debate in this house, I can tell you.  The reaction of my teenage sons, one of whom actually feels quite sorry for Gray, mentioned ‘entrapment’ and thinks that he’s been harshly treated, and the other who thinks his sacking was inevitable, reflects the diversity of the comments being made elsewhere.  I think teens are 90% bravado, 10% hormones, and ribbing and piss-taking are part of their everyday life, hence a bit of ‘banter’ is nothing unusual.  They also, though, mix with teenage girls, who don’t take crap, especially not crap of the sexist variety.

As usual with these kind of things, I can see both sides (I’ll never be a banner-waver at a protest, I’m afraid).  Admittedly, most people would get caught out eventually if all their comments were recorded, then played to the wider public, but, as I pointed out to my laid-back offspring, both men knew they were being recorded and sexist comments are unacceptable, especially when they come from public figures.  Sky was never going to let Gray continue in his role, especially when further film came to light of him asking a co-presenter to ‘tuck this in for me, will you’, gesturing towards his, well, I presume it’s his microphone.

And the loser in all this?  Poor old Sian Massey, who has been withdrawn from officiating at tonight’s league 2 game, and has found herself at the centre of an unholy row through no fault of her own

What do you think?  Is Andy Gray unfortunate, or a sexist pig?  And have you had to explain this whole situation to your kids?