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Role models and jellyfish

24 Sep


Human beings are prone to acts of madness. We engage in activities that can to others seem pointless, reckless and downright dangerous. Many people would have been thinking this when they read about Diana Nyad. Earlier this month, Ms Nyad made her fifth (and ultimately successful) attempt to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to the Florida Keys. Not in a boat, but by swimming 110 long, painful miles.

What possesses a 64-year-old woman to swim a volatile stretch of water brimming with sharks and jellyfish?  To be honest, that’s not important. More important is what we can learn from her. What can someone who has such a strong desire to achieve a goal that they will persevere for 35 years and endure a skinful of jellyfish venom teach us? She certainly deserves to feature more highly in people’s minds (and the press) than a £300,000 per week footballer.

Nyad is a role model in the true spirit of the term: someone who inspires others to achieve their dreams whatever the discomfort required. She has no shortcuts to success. Neither celebrity nor money can help her. Ultimately her success is down to sheer hard work and preparation (with perhaps a dash of luck on the day).

In the dark days we are living in, we need to read stories of the apparently pointless. Far from being trivial compared to current world events, individual endeavours such as Diana Nyad’s remind us that the human spirit – and with it hope – still remains. We need such seemingly mad acts to keep us sane.

When’s a tweet not a tweet?

25 Aug


When it’s a postcard. No really, paper is back. But we’re not going as far back as tweets printed on ticker-tape. Thanks to at800, the humble postcard is the latest way to reach the friends and relatives you’ve not yet been able to drag kicking and screaming into the 21st century world of Twitter.

at800 has launched the UK’s first and only free postbox for your tweets. Of course, it’s not done out of the kindness of their hearts. What lies behind this clever wheeze is at800’s campaign to minimise the disruption that the rollout of 4G at 800 MHz may cause to Freeview services. at800 are in the process of sending out their own postcards to the households where signals may be affected. In the areas where disruption is likely, they will also be supplying free filters to block the 4G signal at 800 MHz and ensure Freeview services are unaffected.

If you like gimmicks that help spread the word then send a free postcard to a non-tweep. They must be living in an area where 4G at 800 MHz will soon be activated (you can check this on at800’s website). If they are then it’s as simple as sending a tweet with the hashtag #at800postbox and then following @at800tv so that they can DM you for address details. Your lucky recipient will then receive a postcard (yes, on paper!) with your neat little tweet on it (and of course lots of useful info about how at800 can help stop you missing the latest episode of Jeremy Kyle).

You may be wondering who I sent my postcard tweet to. I tried to think of someone for whom the loss of television would be a right royal pain in the behind. Someone like me: a parent. I hope my postcard spares her some stress and a few tantrums.

Thank you to at800 for inviting me to write about their postcard campaign. I did not receive any payment for doing this. Full information and a stack load of FAQs can be found on at800’s website.

Little Waitrose at John Lewis Watford – win £150 of vouchers

25 Jul

John Lewis Watford

There are few shops that I can say hold memories for me. (Or at least pleasant ones – my mum will remember the unfortunate incident in Cresta Cards that cleared the shop.) As a child I remember wandering around the John Lewis (or Trewins as it was in Watford in those days) haberdashery department marveling at the rainbow walls of cotton reels. John Lewis was where my big brother had his first grown-up job. I shopped for my wedding list there and then three years later was back buying for my first baby and wondering who could afford a Silver Cross pram. I shall resist any mention of the Royal Baby … And, of course, there was many a time I got my boobs out in the baby department.

For both old-timers like me and the yet-to-be-converted, the great news is that the John Lewis store at Intu Watford (formerly the Harlequin Centre) has just got even better. Not only are there 4 glorious floors of whatever you fancy to peruse – you can now tickle your taste buds at the same time because John Lewis’ tastiest family member, Little Waitrose, has moved in with its big brother. 5,500 square feet of John Lewis has been converted into the new Little Waitrose space giving you the chance to shop for your favourites whilst enjoying everything John Lewis has to offer.

Convenience is all. Little Waitrose is the ideal place to choose something for dinner, pick up a snack or top up your regular food shop. Alongside fruit, vegetables and deli products you can find fresh meat and fish counters and a bakery. Get some flowers if you need to say sorry to someone. Choose from the wide range of wines and beers if you want to celebrate something. And for the more mundane days when not much is happening and you’ve been neither insulting nor successful, you’ll find store cupboard essentials from washing powder to cereal. Why go anywhere else? Happy days.

To celebrate the arrival of Little Waitrose at John Lewis in Watford I’m giving you the chance to win a fabulous £150 worth of John Lewis vouchers (which can be spent in any John Lewis, Waitrose and Little Waitrose or online). For your chance to win please see below. Good luck and happy shopping and eating – both at the same time, marvellous!

To enter please scroll down and leave a comment telling me how you’d spend the vouchers. Of course, if you don’t want to tell me and just want to say “hello” that’s fine – I’m just being a nosey-bones. Either way, you’ll be entered to win.

Entries from the UK only. Just one entry per person. No entries accepted after 5pm (GMT) on August 31st, 2013. The winner will be chosen completely at random and will be announced here on September 1st as well as contacted individually. If the winner doesn’t respond within 5 days then an alternative winner will be chosen.

Disclosure: A big thanks to the John Lewis Partnership for giving me the opportunity to offer these vouchers.

Review: Horrible Science – Blood, Bones & Body Bits

14 Jul

Horrible science

My 4-year-old is at an age where she finds bodily functions and their associated sights, sounds and smells hilarious. Completely normal and, coming from a family where being proffered a finger to pull is perfectly acceptable, I’ve done nothing to discourage it. When the opportunity to review Galt Toys’ Horrible Science: Blood, Bones & Body Bits kit came up I knew she would be rubbing her hands together in gruesome glee.

Blood, Bones & Body Bits is a collection of science experiments – “Horribly fantastic bodily experiments!” – in a box. Aimed at children 5 years and up, I knew it would mean a lot of participation on my part. But this is a good thing. Not only could I try to control the mess (in true over-bearing parent style), it also meant that it was going to be an educational experience for me.

The ‘Lab Notebook’ accompanying the kit is excellent. It is informative, clear, funny and, best of all, I could make my 4-year-old believe I knew what I was talking about. I’m no scientist (I was afraid of Bunsen burners at school) but reading out the booklet – simplifying it in places if necessary – made me sound like Mrs Einstein. The ‘Horrible Science’ style of the booklet would be a great read for older children. Unfortunately, much of the humour was lost on my daughter but it certainly made it more digestible (excuse the bodily pun) for me.

Helpfully, the instructions alert you to which of the experiments are most messy. If you’ve not got lots of time I recommend you tackle some of the quicker, less messy experiments like the ‘Bottom-Burp Machine’ or ‘Gruesome Guts’. This kit isn’t for the mess averse. If you deploy your best control-freakery it will still beat you. Take the ‘Bulging Bag of Brains’ experiment: I guffawed when I read the warning that “spilled brains can be very difficult to clear up”. How hard can it be not to drop a bag of porridge on the floor? Ask the 4-year-old who decided that she just didn’t want to hold the bag any more …

Science experiment

Brains – runnier than I expected.

To avoid disappointment, check which of the experiments need leaving overnight before you promise instant ‘Rubber Bones’ or ‘Amazing Real-Size Brain’. And before you start an experiment it’s a must to check you have all the necessaries. The kit provides most of the equipment you need and anything extra can generally be found around the house (vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and such like). But do check. Turns out rolled porridge oats aren’t as effective as instant oats when you’re trying to recreate grey matter. Who would’ve thought? Ahem.

Not every experiment worked for us. Trying to squeeze beads through a lubricated plastic tube to demonstrate the digestive process was more a lesson in constipation – not quite the intended result but educational nonetheless! There was some trial and error on mummy’s part trying to make the balloon function as a ‘Bottom-Burp Machine’ but my daughter won’t forget the effect of adding “just a little bit more” vinegar to bicarbonate of soda. Boom! A good lesson in how experiments are not about always getting it right first time – with science mistakes can lead to discoveries.

Science experiment

Squeezing out a poo. Or not, in this case.

Did we learn anything from Blood, Bones & Body Bits? Absolutely. My daughter may not remember all the intricacies of biology that the kit makes a good stab at teaching but she has learnt how fun science can be. For me, I had the opportunity to ‘teach’ science with all the props and knowledge provided in one convenient box – something I couldn’t have done by myself. Easy mummy brownie points and lots of laughs along the way. Bring on the quantum physics …

Thank you to the lovely people at Galt Toys who sent this product to me free of charge and expected nothing in return other than an objective review. Horrible Science: Blood, Bones & Body Bits retails at around £15.99.

Massages: a whole lot of stress

20 Jun


The purpose of a massage is to relax the body’s tissues. Ideally, it should also relax the mind. I recently indulged in an 80-minute Balinese massage (yes, 80 minutes – there was a promotion on) and, as the therapist covered me with a white sheet and washed my feet as if she were preparing a corpse, I had plenty of time to contemplate how I really felt about the whole experience. Am I in a minority in finding massages to be wholly unrelaxing?

Being required to lie on your front with your face poking through what looks like a gnome’s padded toilet seat is bad enough. But to be forced to contemplate the same square foot of floor beneath you for a significant amount of time (in my case at least 40 minutes) is quite something. If I could relax in these situations then I would close my eyes and drift off to a desert island, but unfortunately I got to know that piece of floor in intimate detail. I wondered whether it was real or laminate. If the former, where had it begun its formative tree years? (And when did it branch out into floor work?) I speculated on the purpose of the bowl of pot pourri placed on the floor directly under my face. Was it there to waft a delicious scent (it didn’t) or to catch my dribble? If the latter then that was considerate as dribbling was inevitable, unsure as I was as to whether it was acceptable to move an inch and wipe away the said dribble before it rehydrated the pot pourri.

Spas. Not just for chavs. Obviously.

Spas. Not just for chavs. Obviously.

Of course, focusing on a specific point is a key part of meditation. But far from inducing a meditative state and quieting my mind, for me such focus flips two fingers at self-awareness and snaps the handbrake off of a runaway train of thought. The worries of the world, big and small, race unstoppably through my mind with no distinction between the significant and the insignificant.

What is the masseuse thinking? Oh, her toe nails looks nice. Would she rather be doing Balinese massage in Bali? Does she miss her family? And (oh god!) what is she thinking about the mound of flesh on the table in front of her? A mound that when slapped onto a flat surface cannot possibly look attractive. Hold on, surely she must be grateful though that I’m not a fat, sweaty, sunburnt, hairy man? At least I’ve shaved my legs up to the knee. I’ve not had a Hollywood wax but I have given a nod to the gorse land in my native England. Is she going to flip if she has to listen to one more day of this piped Indonesian-style muzak? Would Bon Jovi bring some relief?

And talking of relief … She found that spot that stimulates the urge for a wee (in extreme cases the need to break wind). Gosh, it happens every time. Whilst the rest of my muscles have terrible trouble relaxing, my pelvic floors always manage to bag the best spot on the beach and kick back sipping pina coladas. I must concentrate on another part of my body. I must concentrate on another part of my body. Bugger. “Excuse me,” I say, raising my head with its imprint of the gnome’s toilet seat, “please can I just pop to the toilet?” The masseuse gives me a pitying look and I resist the urge to qualify my request with the statement: “I have had two children, you know”.

Saturday is Caption Day!

20 Apr

It has been a while since I’ve gone all linkified on a Saturday. Maybe it’s the sunshine that’s made me go a little bit wild this weekend. Thank you to Butterfly World for the photo below. My son, however, clearly isn’t thanking anyone. Captions please! (And for more photos do head over to the lovely Mammasaurus’ blog for all the #SatCap entries ….)

Butterfly World St Albans

2013: the year of the tentative ‘yes’

31 Dec

Happy New Year

It’s that ugly time of the year again when I look back at my blog and review the sheer scale on which I failed to adhere to any of my 2012 resolutions. 2012 was the year of ‘taking the trouble to’. The plan was to shift my sorry behind and get on and do the things that I might normally grumble about because they are too much trouble. My example was using the milk frother:  I love frothy coffee but could rarely be bothered to use our machine as it was too much of a pain in the butt to clean. Well looky here! 2012 has been the year of the homemade frothy coffee. If I measure my success on that criterion alone then for once I may actually have kept my resolutions. The phrase ‘taking the trouble to’ did oft ring in my ears during 2012. Having a ‘mantra’ rather a set of rigid resolutions gave me the illusion of choice (rather than of denial) that I had hoped would help chivvy along my success.

So what of 2013? I recently had a conversation with someone who is splitting up with their wife after a decade of marriage. He told me that in 2013 he was going to have a ‘yes year’. Not very original of course but nonetheless an outlook that never fails to inspire people to do things they would normally reject. As a consequence he is already signed up to run a marathon and is contemplating changing his career after many years in the same job. And he’s not even into 2013 yet. Good man.

Now, people who know me may start to draw some parallels – running, many years in same job – but rest assured this is a real not a hypothetical ‘friend’ I’m talking about, it’s certainly not a cloaked reference to me. (Actually, anyone who does know me would know that it would take an awful lot more than the reward of personal satisfaction for me to run a marathon. Think diamonds and gold bars, then add some more.) However, he has inspired my new mantra for the coming year: 2013 – the year of considering saying ‘yes’, thinking about it for a bit then uttering the word ‘maybe’. It’s the year of the tentative ‘yes’ as opposed to the outright ‘no’.

That may all sound a bit wishy washy, lukewarm and (yes, I know you’re thinking it) pathetic. Believe me, it’s a step forward. It will give me time for a spot of gentle internal persuasion before I take any plunges I might regret. I’ve always thought that life is too short to be doing things you really don’t want to be doing so for me saying ‘yes’ to everything risks encountering situations that turn out to be as bloody awful as I expected them to be. As a half glass empty person, that risk far outweighs the benefit of discovering that, for example, against all my expectations, I have a natural talent for sky diving.

Whilst 2013 might not be the year in which I jump out of a plane or streak at a major sporting event, I will nonetheless be dipping my toe into waters where I wouldn’t normally dip them, hoping to feel the gentle nibble a garra rufa fish (pre their health scare status of course) rather than the jaws of a great white shark.

And if I do encounter any sharks? Will I venture back into the waters of the unknown and the potentially uncomfortable? Yes, well maybe. I’ll have a think about it at least.

Christmas cheer and fear (part 2)

2 Dec

E and ZP

Just when you thought Father Christmas was scary enough, along trots Zwarte Piet with a handful of sweeties. But what’s worse is that he tags along with Santa. Double trouble. Lock up your reindeer.

Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a familiar character in the Sinterklaas celebrations in early December in the Netherlands and Belgium. Tradition has it that Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) arrives on a boat from Spain (like Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas dreams of, he has clearly ended up in a sunny ex-pat community) bringing with him a mischievous Moorish companion, Zwarte Piet. Piet ably assists Sinterklaas in deciding who has been nice and who has been naughty and, dressed in his colourful pantaloon and feathered cap, he looks very much the clownish companion of his sharper suited and bearded boss.

Nothing wrong in that you might think. A long-standing tradition from the 19th century. Harmless fun. You might be feeling some warmth towards Zwarte Piet already, imagining him darning Santa’s socks after a long day’s sleigh ride (or boat ride in this case). Gently brushing the snow from Santa’s beard. Bringing him a brandy. Nothing there that could be remotely unsettling for an adult or child. Right? We like a bit of history, a bit of colour. Would you like to meet Piet in his full glory?


This is the Zwarte Piet that you will see striding through the streets of Holland in the run up to Christmas, handing out sweets to children. He is also a staple feature of the decorations adorning shops and streets, as ubiquitous as the Christmas robin or reindeer. My first reaction on seeing Zwarte Pieten in the flesh in Holland was “Seriously? They’re blacked-up? In afro wigs? You’re kidding, right?” Coming from the UK where the Black and White Minstrels were given short shrift some time ago and assigned to the pile of once embraced characters now branded ‘politically incorrect’, Zwarte Piet made my PC alarm ring louder than the herald angels sing. To the non-local eye, he is an anachronism from a time when being sensitive to racial background simply wasn’t a consideration.

Opinion about Zwarte Piet is divided, even in Holland, with those complaining that the tradition is racist often being accused of trying to spoil was is just a bit of historically rooted, seasonal fun. Political correctness aside (hard as it is), what is obvious is that Zwarte Piet has the potential to scare the Christmas cheer out of small children like a festive Papa Lazarou. Our host in Holland (the very lovely Bee and Barlie’s Books) has, as a resident, been subjected to Piet overload. She describes how her daughter was left traumatised after a troop of “beyond black … and very, very tall” Zwarte Pieten visited the local school – “She came out and just jumped pretty much up onto my chest. Last time I saw her like that was Halloween”. That sounds like great Christmas fun. Of course there are exceptions. My 4-year-old was more than happy to meet someone who so filled her hands with sweets that she had to steer her scooter using her wrists.

Zwarte Piet is an unsettling character on several levels and makes any jitters about a scary Santa pale in comparison (if you’ll pardon the pun). Both are in the tradition of the grotesque characters that pepper our folklore and history and show that there’s nothing we like more then to be a little bit scared, even at the merriest time of the year. So deck your halls and rest ye merry but remember to bolt the door and block the chimney.

Q. What’s shiny & hard? A. My Kindle of course

21 Aug

My Kindle arrived yesterday. All I can say is that I was PPPing: Positively Peeing Pants. God help the postal system if the parcel had been delayed. It has taken a while for me to succumb to the future. Having worked in publishing for over 12 years, the so-called ‘death of print’ has always been a sensitive topic, but as I see more and more projects at work move from paper to pixels I’ve finally reconciled my guilt and gone all 21st century. I’ve got down with the kids. Not without a couple of flinches and shakes though, I might add.

The age of the ebook has been a very, very, very long time coming. I was forced into dabbling a few years back when my husband bought me a Sony Reader. I didn’t like it and to be honest I felt like a right ponce getting it out in public. (Bear in mind these were the days when mobile phone were still being used to make phone calls.) Year after year the ebook was going to be the Next Big Thing. No one would want books anymore. “Yawn, yawn” was my response, “I like my paper.” Yet lately when I’ve got a paperback out on the train I’ve felt like I might as well be wearing crinoline and lace collars.

It was a giant leap forward then when I ran up to bed last night to choose and download (*shudder*) a book – nay, an ebook. I had a spring in my step in the same way I do when I finish a book and plan my next trip to the bookshop (of a bricks and mortar design).  And it was with even more anticipation that I settled myself on the train this morning knowing that I had my Kindle in my bag and it was full of goodies. Ironically, today the people sitting around me were all reading paperbacks, not a drop of electronic ink in sight. Flipping typical. Suddenly my £89 purchase felt like a vanity.

The pangs of guilt resurfaced. I felt jealous of their paper with its squashed flies, food stains and tatty edges. Worse than that I felt embarrassed. Not embarrassed of my shiny new gadget. Not embarrassed by the smug expression I’d probably had as I reached into my bag. No. Embarrassed because I thought everyone was thinking I was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Being a woman of a certain age what else could I possibly be reading?  In fact, when the book I was reading included a bit of saucy talk (literary saucy talk of course), the typesize seemed to quadruple and flash neon and  I very nearly skipped the page in case the person next to me spotted it and jumped to the inevitable conclusion. Believe it or not, I’ve not bought a Kindle so that I can be titillated privately in a very public place. Or indeed titillated publicly in a very private place.

Now, where’s the vibrate option on the Kindle?

The crack police

10 Apr

Call it what you will – intergluteal cleft, vertical gluteal crease, bicycle park, builder’s bum – we’ve all got one: a bum crack (or butt or ass crack, if you will). There isn’t a pleasant name for it. As a meeting point for the buttocks, it doesn’t have a specific purpose other than perhaps as a quasi pair of velvet curtains to drape the least pleasant exit point in our body. Such is the personal nature of the bum crack, we tend to keep them covered up. Even the skimpiest of thongs gives a nod to the sanctity of the bum crack.

Of course bum cracks do occasionally make a bid for freedom and unless the offending crack is hairy and sweaty this generally raises a giggle rather than disgust. I assumed this was a universal reaction. On a recent trip to the US, however, I was amazed to discover the existence of what I can only call the Crack Police. Upon arriving at one of the Disney parks, poor Mr C&P was taken aside by a security guard:

“Excuse me sir, but I … errr … thought I should … errr … let you know that you are showing your … errr …crack. You might want to … you know … just in case … you know.”

He was obviously embarrassed but clearly not embarrassed enough to stop him pulling someone aside and having a serious word. Is showing your bum crack down there in the Disney Rulebook alongside not taking Mickey’s name in vain and not mentioning Donald’s speech impediment? And “just in case” of what? The mind boggles.

An amusing one-off? Well, no. It seems there is something in the American psyche that finds bum cracks enormously troublesome. A few days after the above incident, Mr C&P was carrying our daughter on his shoulders when we heard quickening footsteps behind us. I turned to see an elderly lady signalling to us and I expected her to be clutching a dropped hat or toy. But, no, she was an undercover officer from the Crack Police:

“Your little girl is showing her bum crack. I wanted to tell you just in case people … you know …”

Just in case of what??! In case 1 cm of her crack ends up in a photo on a dodgy hard drive? Hell’s bells – some perspective please! Just as Mr C&P was made to feel like a wannabe flasher, I somehow felt a bad mother. My daughter should be wearing industrial trousers pulled up under her armpits and fastened with a padlock. I’d not packed these – I’d only packed skimpy summer stuff for the baking heat. Bad BAD mother.

Florida is one of the most conservative states in the US. Topless sunbathing is illegal so maybe showing an inch of crack is perceived to be the start of a slippery slope to whipping your boobs out in the local 7-Eleven. If anyone can shed any light on this ‘interesting cultural difference’ that would be cracking.

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