Saturday, 28 April 2012

Why I won't be giving relationship advice to my daughters

Stop press: my daughters are growing up.
No news there, I know, but when your kids grow up their interests also change.

So long gone are the days of dolls, colouring-in and baking fairy cakes,  and in their place? Boys. And in the Teenager's case, a boyfriend. And a very nice boy he is too.

But what happens when your children turn to you for advice about relationships? Do you dish out your knowledge gained from years of your own experience of dating, marriage, relationships, etc?

You see my problem is this: I'm really bad at relationships. I've said it before and nothing has changed since then - I just seem to have the gene missing for forming and maintaining happy, stable relationships with men.  Just can't do it. My track record is littered with relationships that for one reason went wrong. So I'm reluctant to give my girls relationship advice when I'm clearly not great at it myself. It's like giving singing lessons to someone when you can't hold a tune. (And have you heard me sing?)

Of course I want them to be happy, and I will listen, sympathise and cheer when needed, but giving them advice about situations I clearly have no clue about?'s not going to happen.
So I've decided for all our sakes to offer my daughters only two pieces of advice. And these are my cast-iron, don't-even-think-of-ignoring-them rules.

1. Never marry a man who doesn't respect his mother.

Pretty straightforward I think. The way a man treats his mother is pretty much his blueprint for how he treats women generally, and that includes you. Even if he treats you well at first, given time he will fall back into his default setting for women.

The only opt out for this is if his mother is a complete nut-job and you have witnessed it with your own eyes.

2.  'He's just not that into you'.

No, not the film because that wasn't great. I refer to the revelation from Sex and the City episode 'Pick a little, talk a little' when Carrie's boyfriend Berger tells Miranda that the reason a man doesn't call isn't because they're 'busy' it's because he's just not that into you. If he want's to see you, he'll call.

So simple and so true, and yet it has taken me many years of waiting by phones and making excuses (and accepting his) to realise that this is good advice. Take it, because if he really likes you he will make the effort to call/visit/see you.  If I'd accepted this in my early 20s it would have saved me a lot of heartache.

And here's Miranda passing on the dating gospel to some other women.

Not silent Saturday

My brother just sent me this photo. Amazing.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Sponsored video: how to get to the finale of Britain's Got Talent

I don't have any discernable talents, well...none I can share on here at least, but you might remember my efforts to teach my dog Tessie to say I love youAnd yes, I know we're not quite there yet but I may surprise you yet, just give us time. This dog owner has had slightly more success training her dog than I have, and her dog Bella is adorable.

Do you have a special talent? Can you play the guitar with your teeth a la Jimi Hendrix, or perhaps you can do some mean body popping? My brother used to do a very good Elvis impersonation, but unfortunately we don't have it on film. 

Or what about a party trick that you'd like to share with an unwitting world? I know someone who can tie a knot in a cherry stalk with their tongue! The mind boggles.

If you, or a member of your family, have an amazing talent why not share it via the Virgin Media Talent School Youtube and you could be in with a chance of winning tickets to the finale of Britain's Got Talent. 

Disclosure: this post is sponsored by Virgin Media

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Giant Spectacular in Liverpool

Little Girl Giant
This weekend is quite exciting in Liverpool as there's a fantastic piece of street theatre taking part over 3 days. It started yesterday, and today we went into town to see it for ourselves.

It's all part of Liverpool's commemorations for the recent 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which was registered in Liverpool and many of the ship's crew were from the city.

The Giant Spectacular was inspired by a letter written by a young girl to her father, who was a steward on the liner. The original letter is on show in Liverpool's Maritime museum, which has a permanent Titanic exhibition.

Jean Luc Courcoult, artistic director of Royal De Luxe, came across the letter and was moved to create this amazing piece of theatre which has been two years in the planning.

The girl, called Little Girl Giant, is walking around Liverpool on a quest to learn news of her father who died on the ill-fated Titanic.  She is accompanied by her dog, Xolo. The photos don't show the movements of the puppets, with lifelike eye movements and gestures and the dog's wagging tail!

The puppets are operated by the red-coated Lilliputians
from the Royale de Luxe theatre company

She stopped for a while to swing children on her arms
Unbeknown to the Little Girl Giant, her Uncle made a promise to scour the ocean floor for the shipwreck and put his brother to rest, and in doing so discovered a letter written by him to his beloved daughter.  The Giant Uncle arrives in Liverpool and starts looking for the girl.

The Giant Uncle taking a rest outside St. George's Hall
Tomorrow, Sunday 22nd, they will finally meet up, say goodbye to Liverpool  and sail by boat down the River Mersey.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Sponsored video: how to talk to your teenager about alcohol

This video is very pertinent to me. I have two daughters, one is 12 and the other is 15 (or 'nearly 16' as she likes to point out).

The 15 year old, also known as the Teenager, spends a lot of time socialising. She has a huge group of friends, and someone is always having a party for one reason or another. We've discussed the effects of alcohol and I've told her about my worries that come with that - you know the sort of thing, binge drinking, being more vulnerable when drunk, etc. Many of us have been there when we were younger, but who in their right mind wants their children to be in any danger because of too much alcohol?

I want my girls to grow up with a responsible attitude towards alcohol, and talking to them about it is one way to encourage that. In fact if you watch the video, The Teenager and I have already had very similar conversations - the girl in the video even looks a little like her - and yes, they can be tricky but it's something every responsible parent has to do. Just ignoring it and hoping that they're not going to start drinking isn't the way to deal with it, you have to start that conversation.

Here's some facts and figures to digest:

·     Most children would prefer to go to their parents for drinking advice, with 65% saying they’d go to their mum and 51% to their dad[1]
·     Parents are the main suppliers of alcohol to 15 – 17 year olds, with 61% of teens who had drunk at home in the last week saying their parents had provided them with the alcohol and 43% saying their family had provided them with alcohol for parties[2]
·    One common myth is that beer or wine are safer to drink than liquor.  The amount of alcohol consumed affects the person most, not the type of alcoholic drink.  A 12 oz beer, a 5 oz glass of wine, and 1.5 oz shot of liquor all contain the same amount of alcohol.[3]
·       Mixing energy drinks and alcohol can mask the effects of alcohol, and drinkers who consume a mix of the two are 3 times more likely to binge drink.  They are also twice as likely to be sexually taken advantage of.  Binge drinking is responsible for over half of the deaths associated with excessive alcohol consumption.[4]

There's a free app from Drinkaware which you - or your teenager - can use to track your drinking.


This blog post is sponsored by Drinkaware.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The new garden in spring

We moved into this house at the very end of October last year, when there was no colour in the garden except for the tail end of the lavenders.

 I wrote about the new garden in January and and looking back at it now it looks quite bare, with just a couple of splashes of colour. But 3 months later, I'm starting to see the garden blossom.

The only thing I've done in the garden so far is to tidy the borders a little, cut back the leggy lavender plants and remove some of the dead leaves from last year. I have some ideas for planting, but I'm going to hold off until I've seen how the garden progresses throughout the summer.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Dreams Beds: the sorry tale of the bed not suitable to sleep in

One of the things I was most excited about when we moved house last October was that the new house had an extra room for guests to stay. A guest bedroom, small but perfectly formed.

It wasn't first on my list of rooms to decorate, but pretty near the top of the list because I have a number of friends who are keen to visit and stay over; these friends live too far away to get a taxi home after a boozy dinner and when we visit them they have somewhere for us to stay.

So, just before Christmas I took advantage of an offer on the Dreams website offering sales prices and free delivery. I chose this bed for the guest room. I liked the look of it, and for occasional use I thought it would do the job.

First problem: delivery. I agreed a date for delivery, a day I wasn't going to be at work. I also paid an extra £29 for assembly.

Four days before the agreed delivery date, I was woken at 7.30am by two delivery men with the new bed.  I showed them the bedroom where they could set the bed up.  "We're just dropping the bed off" said Mr Delivery Man "don't know anything about assembling it, not our job."

Second problem: getting through to Customer Services at Dreams. I phoned....and phoned...I was put on hold several times, I rang the Sales lines and was told by a very abrupt man that he couldn't answer my questions because "I'm sales, not customer services". When I explained that I couldn't get through to the ironically named 'Customer Services'  he told me he was going to have to put the phone down because I was blocking the sales line.

Third problem: getting someone to help. I took to Twitter - this is where it comes into its own. I started writing about the poor service and very soon a very nice woman called Sarah got in touch and tried to sort things out. She arranged for a contractor (not employed by Dreams) to come and assemble the bed at a date convenient to me. She also, very kindly, refunded the cost of the bed assembly which went some way to repairing the inconvenience thus far.

On the agreed date, he arrived and the bed was assembled.  Hurrah!!

I was relieved and pleased, the bed looked good but...what was this, the frame didn't seem very sturdy and I was able to move the foot board without the rest of the bed moving with it. Very odd.

Anyhoo....I set about decorating the room in time for our first guests, scheduled to arrive next weekend.

Dreams Beds: poor quality.
Note how the wooden slats have fallen through the metal base
Today, I had finished the room and was hanging curtains, bringing in accessories and generally finishing off the room. Just as I was about to put the bedlinen on the bed, my brother came in to have a look. "Looks nice" he said, and sat on the edge of the bed which promptly gave way beneath him.

Yes, my brother is 6' 3" and a big lad (although certainly not fat) but he only sat on the edge of the bed and the wooden slats broke straight through the metal base. God forbid that didn't happen when my visitors were here!

Fourth problem: getting someone at Dreams to help resolve the problem.  I explained to their customer services person "I have a broken bed, guests arriving next weekend, and the whole process has been a nightmare from start to finish".

She offered me a 'bargain' divan base as a replacement. I declined, having already had a poor quality bed I wasn't confident that would be a decent quality and frankly, it wasn't really the look I wanted. As a compromise I suggested that perhaps this one might be a better quality and could I have that one? She informed me that I would have to pay the £20 difference in cost. WHAT???!!!

I asked to speak to her manager, and was left on hold for several minutes. The manager, Chantelle, told me exactly the same as her colleague - she was "sorry" that the bed wasn't suitable, but they could only offer what had been suggested.

I mentioned the inconvenience to me, the numerous phone calls, the amount of time I had wasted trying to resolve the issue, and - most importantly - the fact that the bed was 'not fit for purpose'.  Could they, in view of those things, be a little more flexible and offer me my suggested (although not ideal) choice of bed? A big fat NO was the answer.

And so instead I have asked them to collect their shoddy bed and refund my money. They say they are going to call me 'tomorrow, or maybe Monday' to arrange collection. Yeah, whatever.

Meanwhile, still panicking due to my guests arriving next weekend, I went to my local furniture shop this afternoon, ordered a bed and asked them to deliver it. It was delivered and assembled for free just TWO HOURS later (they also part dismantled the Dreams bed, which they said was missing a central metal supporting rod).

How's that for customer service, Dreams?

UPDATE 18/4/12: A very pleasant man called Pete became involved in this mess, he is employed by Dreams and seems to be a colleague of Sarah who is mentioned in the blog post. They must be responsible for trying to clean up some of the customer service blunders at Dreams, which must keep them very busy.

Pete kept to his word, phoned me when agreed, and organised a refund for the cost of the bed. When I asked if they would compensate me for my wasted time, numerous phone calls and inconvenience he offered to refund my phone calls (subject to me providing an 'itemised phone bill') and some in-store vouchers. I declined the offer for 2 reasons a) I don't want to waste any more of my time because of Dreams so wasn't prepared to get an itemised phone bill; b) I don't intend to ever set foot in a Dreams shop ever again so the in-store vouchers would be wasted on me.

And finally, I had a call today from Dreams' courier asking if they could collect the faulty bed on Thursday. Thing is, they'd already collected it 2 days ago.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Recipe: the best meatballs ever!

You might be surprised to see another recipe on my blog only days after the last one but here's the thing: I'm not a very confident cook, so if I try a recipe that works I just feel the need to share it. And this is a good 'un.

Tall Daughter loves meatballs, and I've tried a couple of recipes before with varying degrees of success (from 'yuk!' to 'they were okay') so I pinched borrowed this one from Mum Reinvented who cooks these meatballs regularly for her family. I've reproduced her recipe (with her very kind permission of course) with my comments in italics. The photos are mine!

For the meatballs:
 ■ 1 onion peeled and finely chopped
 ■ small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped (didn't have fresh, so used dried)
 ■ 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
 ■ 500g minced pork (or a combination of pork and beef mince)
 ■ 2 egg yolks
 ■ 50g breadcrumbs (I used one slice of bread in a mini chopper)
For the sauce:
 ■ 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes or a bottle of passata (I used a bottle of passata with herbs)
 ■ 1 onion peeled and finely chopped
 ■ 1 red and 1 green pepper, finely chopped
 ■ 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
 ■ A glug of wine (my wine seemed to have disappeared *shocked face* so just added some water)
 ■ 1 beef stock cube
 ■ Approx 10cm worth of chorizo chopped into rounds then quartered
 ■ 1 tbsp sweet paprika, sounds a lot but as it’s sweet not hot it add a lovely flavour rather than spice. (Arrghhh, forgot to add this!)
 ■ Dried or fresh parsley

Start by making the meatballs. In a pan heat some olive oil and gently fry the onion for a few minutes. Once softened add the garlic and continue to cook until the onion is see through. Allow to cool in a mixing bowl then combine with the mince, breadcrumbs, egg yolks and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Mix with your hands and form into 24 balls. (They were quick big and very filling, so I think next time I will  make around 30 smaller balls). Pop them into the fridge for half an hour to firm up.

Next start on your sauce. Heat some olive oil in the pan and fry the onions and peppers until softened. Add the meatballs and brown on each side. Add the chorizo and garlic and cook for a minute or two before adding the wine and tomatoes or passata. Crumble in the stock cube, add the paprika  and parsley and stir, adding water if required. Bring to the boil then cook over a medium head for half an hour until the sauce is reduced and the meatballs are cooked through. This recipe creates delicious juicy meatballs in a rich tomato sauce packed with flavour.

And I have to say they were absolutely delicious! I served them with spaghetti, but any type of pasta would be fine. They were a big hit with my two fussy daughters, and the Teenager's boyfriend who gave them 8 out of 10.  He's been invited back!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Freaks: short stories by Caroline Smailes and Nik Perring

By Caroline Smailes & Nik Perring,
 illustrated by Darren Craske
Once again I'm chuffed to be able to host a short story from a new book.

FREAKS is a bizarre collection of short stories each featuring a character with a superpower.

These darkly humorous stories explore the more disturbing consequences of ordinary, flawed human beings obtaining superpowers.

Meet The Photocopier, a woman who can reproduce herself at will and attempts to teach her daughter to do the same.  The man who can break his way into his lovers dream and the woman in My Little Pony pants who likes to be ridden like a Pony (ooerrr!).

There are over fifty freaks and misfits featured in the book which is a collaboration between Caroline Smailes (Like Bees to Honey) and Nik Perring (Not So Perfect) and illustrated by Darren Craske.  Stories aren’t credited so the reader is left to guess which is written by Caroline or Nik.

[Super Power: The ability to make oneself unseen to the naked eye]

If I stay totally still,
if I stand right tall,
with me back against the school wall,
close to the science room’s window,
with me feet together,
pointing straight,
aiming forward,
if I make me hands into tight fists,
make me arms dead straight,
 if I push me arms into me sides,
if I squeeze me thighs,
stop me wee,
if me belly doesn’t shake,
if me boobs don’t wobble,
if I close me eyes tight,
so tight that it makes me whole face scrunch,
if I push me lips into me mouth,
if I make me teeth bite me lips together,
if I hardly breathe,
if I don’t say a word.
I’ll magic meself invisible,
and them lasses will leave me alone.

Paperback Published 12 April 2012, £6.99. The Friday Project ISBN 978-0-00-744289-8

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Recipe: Indulgent Victoria sponge cake

For Easter Sunday I thought I'd make a bit of an effort. I don't bake very often, but today - because my sister and her fella were coming to visit - I decided to make a Victoria sandwich cake. I just don't do complicated recipes so this one seemed about right for a day when I was also making a roast dinner for everyone.

I looked at a couple of recipes, but in the end I had to go with a Nigella recipe because she specified self-raising flour and that was all I had, although I did make some small adjustments. I'm not always keen on Nigella's recipes because the results are a bit inconsistent from my experience, but this one was fine.

The best bit, cleaning out the bowl

Victoria Sponge
225g caster sugar
225g self raising flour
225g soft, unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 large eggs
3-4 tablespoons milk
2 x 21cm sandwich tins, buttered and lined on the base

My choice of filling: good quality strawberry jam.
Several fresh strawberries, double cream, and
icing sugar for the topping.

Cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Add the vanilla extract and then the eggs, one at a time with a spoonful of the flour between each one. Fold in the rest of the flour and add the milk if the mixture seems a bit dry.

Pour the batter into the prepared tins and bake in a pre-heated gas mark 4/180°c for 25-30 mins until the cakes are beginning to come away at the edges and are springy to the touch on top. You can also check by inserting a cake tester (I use a cocktail stick) and if it comes out clean the cake is done.

Leave the cakes in their tins on a wire rack for 10 minutes before turning out and leaving to cool completely.

While I was waiting for the cakes to cool I hulled and sliced the strawberries and put them in a bowl with some caster sugar. I whipped the cream until thickened but not too stiff.

When cool put one layer on your plate (I like to use my Mum's old glass cakestand) spread on the jam and place a layer of the fruit on top. Pile the whipped cream into a thick layer and squidge the top layer of cake on top. Finish with a sprinkle of icing sugar.
Serves 8.

This was an easy recipe and the cake looked quite impressive so I'll be using this one again.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Managing your money as a single parent

There is a wealth of information and advice available to single parents, and I hope some of the links below will help you if you are already a single parent or in the process of becoming a single parent.

It's crucial to get this sorted as early on as possible, as it shocked me to find out that only two-fifths of single parents receive maintenance from their ex-partner.

From personal experience the CSA (Child Support Agency) were less than useless when I became a single parent in 2003, and I spent the first 3 years without any payments at all from my ex-husband. There's plenty of advice on this Child Maintenance website as well as the Gingerbread and One Space sites.

Many single parents work part-time (myself included) and there are laws that protect the employment rights of the part-time worker. I've experienced some discrimination as a part-time worker, mainly due to ignorance of my employer at the time so equip yourself with the right information. This TUC website gives information on how equal rights for part-time workers includes pay, holidays, redundancy, pensions and training. Don't forget, the law is on your side.

The recent budget changes to Working Tax Credit are listed here and although many of the changes will make a difference to couples with children you should still check and make sure you're getting your full entitlement.

Make sure you are getting everything you are entitled to and that includes free school meals for your child/ren. There are lots of parents who don't realise they are entitled - don't be embarrassed about applying for them, they can make a considerable difference to your weekly budget.

For general information on a whole host of subjects affecting single parents, these website offer all you should need.
One Space has a really good website, full of information and support for single parents. They also have a solicitor available to give legal advice, as well as links to local services in your area.

There is also a number of e-learning courses for single parents including the Freedom programme for people who have experienced domestic abuse, life coaching, ways into work and how to build your CV.
Gingerbread is a great place to find support on a whole range of subjects. Their website offers information on money, housing, relationships and benefits and they also have a variety of fact sheets that can be downloaded. Recently they launched an email advice package for single parents including a new one about child maintenance. Gingerbread also offer a helpline, information on local support groups and a discussion forum.

 The DirectGov website also offers specific information on financial help for lone parents, including income support, child maintenance and childcare costs.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Scrotum stuffed toy, and other ways to find my blog

I have to confess to being totally slightly obsessed with my blog stats. I check them at least once a day (I know, I need another hobby) and can identify my most regular visitors - hello Woking, Surrey! *waves* - and other more unusual ones (the Houses of Parliament being one of them).

Anyhoo, it's when looking at the stats that I get to see how people have arrived at my blog via their google searches., and these are some of the more..erm, shall we say, unusual ways people have found me.

First up I give you this one:

Scrotum stuffed toy eh? Why would you even be looking for one of those? No, actually, don't answer that. But note how my blog is destination number 7 on the google list for that one *proud face*.

How about this one then:

Oh, if only it were that simple! A quick visit to Tesco's for 2 kilos of sex please, and don't give me any of that fatty stuff. Ah yes.

Or this one, which is actually my favourite:

First of all, why would anybody search for that when my blog is totally devoid of photos of big tits, but - and this is what gets me -  how the hell did they know I am of ample bosoms? Answers on a postcard please

Oh google searches*, I do love you :-)

*other search engines are available...

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Raising teenage daughters

I'm not sure how this happened but I appear to have two teenage daughters. Well, I have a 15 year old and a 12 year old - not quite a teenager, but a tweenager - but you catch my drift.

Ask anyone with who's raised teenagers and they'll tell you that it's a tricky time. Tricky, tricky, tricky. But ask for any specific tips on how best to survive unscathed and, well, they tend to have forgotten what it was like.  I like to think it's a bit like childbirth - painful at the time, but it soon passes, we forget the pain and we're left feeling relieved it's over. And so it is with raising teenagers.

A few years ago I attended a training day led by an educational psychologist who said something that shocked me. She asked if any of us had daughters, and then said "it doesn't matter how lovely your daughter is right now, but when she gets to 14 you won't like her." Harsh I thought, very harsh and clearly she doesn't get on with her daughter.

But a few years later, when the Teenager turned 14 and those hormones kicked in I remembered her words.  And since then there have been plenty of times when I really haven't liked the Teenager very much at all. She has the ability to drive me to distraction with her regular demands, laziness and untidy, festering bedroom.  She has a vile temper, she can be inconsiderate and quite harsh with her sister. She is extremely opinionated on most things, particularly me - how sad, unfashionable and how uncool I am. Her behaviour can be horrible. Her tone of voice also, horrible and she has tons of attitude. And don't even get me started on her tantrums when she has to do the occasional chore.

But here's the thing - she's a great girl.

She's clever, funny, does well at school, and is a great judge of character. She's very sociable, always out with friends and - by all accounts - a good friend to her friends.

And most of all I admire her for her strength of character, she's feisty ( I bloody love that word, and the fact I can use it for my own daughter) and of course that's why we clash so much.  She's been like that since she was a toddler and I used to say I didn't want to break her spirit - and thank God we didn't because I'm convinced it will stand her in good stead in the future.

She's good company and able to talk to adults in a mature way, and I've never had anyone comment on her behaviour (outside the home at least!) other than in a positive light.

I'm totally and completely proud of her. I tell her everyday that I love her, and even when I don't like her behaviour she knows that that love is unwavering.

Yes, okay, we still have a long way to go before we emerge from the teenage years - especially as Tall Daughter is already on the turn but all in all I think we'll survive. Just.