Tag Archives: shopping

Life lessons from a ten-year-old

How are your parenting skills?  On a good day, I’ll give myself an eight out of ten, I guess.  But you’re the first person I’ve told that to.

I’m not saying I’m a bad mother, I just don’t shout about being a good one.  But then, I don’t measure myself in the ways that other people do.  For example, I don’t get involved too much with mumsy school stuff.  In fact, I’m a total shirker when it comes to volunteering for committees and the thought of being the class rep fills me with dread.  What if they found out how often I take my kids to the pub?

So I hardly ever read the scores of emails that come round from all the other more dedicated mothers every week.  I work on the principle that if there’s something really important I should know about, I’ll get to hear about it eventually.  I’m not into monitoring every aspect of my child’s education. I’m more in the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ camp.

So it was very refreshing when the new headmistress sent round a letter this week and I perked up and took notice, for once.  She’s on a mission to teach our ten-year-old kids some ‘life skills’ before they go up to senior school.  On her list, among many suggestions, are a touch typing course, a first aid course with St John’s ambulance, a cycling proficiency course, a cookery course, and an introduction to trading a fantasy portfolio on the stock exchange.  As well as visits from guest speakers and a stint doing some community service.

See? Education can be innovative and good after all.  Those are all fabulous things to teach a ten-year-old.  And thank God, because the older I get, the less sure I am about the practical life skills I’m capable of imparting myself. OK, so I can  touch type at the speed of light, but I’m not entirely sure how to carry out a Heimlich manoeuvre and the only stocks I’ve ever owned have promptly plummeted.

Of course that wouldn’t be so bad, but I’m not such a great role model at the more trivial side of life either.  The other stuff my ten-year-old really wants to know about – namely, how to look cool.

But me and blow drying hair? Skilfully applying make-up?  Fashion?  Help!

I put it down to the terrible training I had myself.  My early days were spent being dragged around Marks and Spencer’s with my mother and making do with hand-me-down clothes from my elder sister. My teens were spent copying what Tracey Woods bought from Miss Selfridge (remember Iron Lady lipstick?).  My twenties involved getting pissed in the pub, then doing a smash and grab for clubbing gear on Kensington High Street, and my thirties were spent mostly in pregnancy clothes.  And so now, in my forties, I’ve wound up with many, many pairs of jeans that don’t fit, a host of outdated party frocks and some truly shameful T-shirts.  Where’s my skilfully put together designer wardrobe? I always thought I’d have one when I reached this age. Where did all that go wrong?

The Big One caught Gok on the TV the other day.  ‘Why don’t you ever buy clothes like that, Mum?’ she asked. Good question.

So I took her to Zara on Saturday for some retail action.  I can’t say therapy.  I find shopping far too stressful.  It’s the basics I can’t get right.  Like, the second I walked in, I was too hot.  How do you regulate your body temperature in a shopping mall? How come all the other shoppers look comfortable and aren’t lugging round their huge parker over their arm?

I picked up lots of clothes, but then balked at the idea of queuing for the changing rooms, so I queued instead to pay for them, huffing and puffing and feeling insecure.  Three-quarter length zippy jeans and a backless t-shirt?  Sky-scraping orange heels?  With these bunions?

The only item that actually worked (and that I won’t now be taking back) was a spotty blue scarf The Big One chose and I said we could share as it was twenty quid.  The trendy assistant at the till folded it up and said, ‘Good choice.  This is the best thing in the store.’

I stared a the Big One, a whole new thought occurring to me.  What if she could teach me? What if a miracle has happened and I’ve accidentally bred my own fashion guru, who can effortlessly mix ‘n’ match charity, Top Shop and designer pieces?  What if she turns out to be thrifty and cool in the way that I’ve never been?  Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Maybe being a good parent isn’t about imparting life skills to your children, but learning skills from them instead?   OK, so my three-year-old is a bit young to be teaching me anything of value soon.  But surely it’s only a matter of time.

And in the mean time, with my more practical deficiencies, I’m volunteering as a ‘helper’ for the life skills course.  I’ll let you know what useful stuff I pick up.

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Check-out. The new rage.

I love a new product.  I’m a sucker for them.  Especially cleaning products.  I had the first Dyson vac, which was so heavy I lost my big toenail the first time I used it.  And remember The Swiffer? I wandered around the house like the lady on the advert showing my dust to anyone who would look.


Dishwasher products were my fad for a bit.  But after extensive powerball research, I  can exclusively reveal that cheapo powder works best. Fact.  I draw the line at air fresheners, though. I  tried one out once in the playroom, but strangely I never experienced the ‘Tibetan peace chimes’ or the ‘freshness of a mountain stream’, when I opened the door.  Only rotten apple core and something unspeakable on the bottom of a discarded trainer.


Beauty products are another one of my early adoption vices.  It’s always been so. Who can forget Apri, a ground-up almond facial wash that took the entire surface of your skin off?  That certainly got rid of my teen blackheads.


I’m hopelessly gullible when it comes to the whiff of a new product.  When Gwyneth mentioned this week in a magazine that she bathes in Epsom Salts, I put in a request for some on Emlyn’s Superdrug run.  ‘They don’t have them in stock,’ he announced on his return, ‘the Victorians used the last of them.’


It’s no surprise, then, that they love me in Space NK. I had one of their first swanky black ‘N.dulge’ cards with my name on it and I have more lipsticks that don’t suit me than I care to count.  But oooh.  Filler.  That sounds good.  And look at the shiny packaging.  So new…


So you’ll see it follows that when my local supermarket recently brought in a scanner system, where you could scan your shopping and plop it straight in your bag – or in my case, my fetching granny trolley – I was chomping at the bit to sign up with my jazzy pink store card.


I was an immediate convert, shouting loudly about my super speedy shopping.  It was all going swimmingly until I went shopping with the Middle One at Christmas.  The crafty Miss managed to sneak in a big tin of Quality Street into our trolley.  When we came to pay, smugly bypassing the huge queues at the checkout, they demanded a rescan and we were nicked.  So now I’m on some kind of blacklist.  And every time I shop, more often than not, I get asked for a rescan, even though I shop there all the time.


So, on Monday, Emlyn and I went shopping together.  Bad mistake.  Shopping solo is surely one of the true benefits of being married for over ten years. I picked up my  scanner, ‘Welcome Mrs Rees,’ it told me, ‘Thank you,’ I said, taking it out of the slot, Emlyn pulled a face and told me that it was another new-fangled fad of mine and it took far long.


‘You’re wrong,’ I told him.  ‘I shall prove it.’  So we did our shop together in a rather scratchy way, him harrumphing about me carefully scanning everything.


But when we came to pay, infuriatingly, I was asked for a rescan.


The look on Emlyn’s face sent me orbital.   I had to ask him to leave the store, so I could loose my rag in private.  I have since had an email of apology from Customer Services about the subsequent ‘scene’, but it’s taken me all week to get over my sense of injustice.


Having not being back to the said supermarket in protest, we went to the other one across the road to buy some Special K this morning (as you do).  I was amazed when Emlyn chose to use the self service checkout.  Fool!  ‘It won’t work,’ I gloated. Besides, he didn’t want a bag, didn’t have a Nectar card and was paying with a fifty pound note.  The machine can’t cope with that. He had to call the assistant….twice…and ended up going to the checkout when the self service machine self combusted.  So it’s not just me.


Which leads me to conclude that the moral is that it’s all very well to be an early-adopter, but old-fashioned bottle bleach and Pond’s Cold Cream still work the best.  And in life, sometimes you just can’t avoid the checkout.


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The Christmas Nazi

This week everything is very Christmassy here in Rees towers.  Despite my griping about Christmas coming too early in the shops, once again, I’ve fallen for the whole yule-tide jamboree hook, line and sinker.  I’m weepy-eyed at the kids singing carols and have ‘pomander thumb’ an uncomfortable condition caused by pushing sharp cloves into unforgiving oranges.  Reams of paper have been made into snowflakes and I even got the sewing machine out and made Christmas bunting.  Yes, I’m full of Christmas spirit.  (Well, champagne actually.  But there’s much to celebrate.)

This is all in marked contrast to this time last year, when Emlyn and I had one of the worst rows of our marriage.   It was a full-frontal scream-a-thon during which he accused me of being a Christmas Nazi and added that I’d been relentlessly cheerful for three and a half weeks and he was sick of it.  I retorted that he was a lazy, bah-humbug scrooge and ought to stop hiding with his computer and join in the Christmas proceedings, there being three excited little girls in the house.

He then countered that Christmas was all my problem.  Christmas, he told me, was invented by women for women.  It’s women who are competitive about it, not men.  Men don’t give a reindeer’s fart if the house is tidy, or decorated, or whether any Christmas cards have been bought, written, sealed, stamped and posted.

I flapped my mouth open like a guppy fish, astonished at his outburst.   And then, to drive the point home, he added that ever since the time of Jesus himself, the husband’s only role in Christmas has been to open the door to unwanted visitors.


So there you have it, girls.  A bird’s eye blokes view on Christmas.  We laugh about it now, but I’ve taken on board the grain of truth at the heart of the row. There is no point being angry at men for not doing much in the run up to Christmas.  Because they don’t care as much as we do.   Fact.

But being described as a Christmas Nazi hurt.  A lot.  Probably because it was a bit more accurate than I wanted to admit.  But then, suppressing my inner-Nigella and the hopeless feelings of inadequacy that goes with it, is hard at this time of year.  Adding festering resent of one’s spouse on top is a toxic mix.

Acceptance and serenity and lots of booze is the answer, I think.  This year, I am trying very hard not to be a Christmas Nazi, although I am being relentlessly cheerful.  I can’t help it.  But I’m happy to do solo Christmas shopping in my deeply inefficient dithery sort of way.  And I even de-tangled the Christmas lights for the tree all by myself.  I’ve signed all the Christmas cards from all of us and the marital involvement only has to extend, for today at least, to the Middle One’s Winter Wonderland Christmas play this afternoon and the Year 2 parents piss-up tonight. And so far, so good, although there is a week to go.

I’ll report back, to let you know whether my new ‘acceptance and serenity’ policy holds up through the inevitable packing-the-car row, or the inspection of presents critique on Christmas Eve!

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Ball envy

November.  Everyone you know is really busy, right?  The world is full of harassed people, cramming in actual work before the party season starts.  But not me.  I’m in a writing hiatus, with projects awaiting the green light.  See these thumbs?  Officially on twiddle mode.

It’s all terribly frustrating and there’s nothing I can do, but wait.  You’d think, as the avid list-maker I am, that spare time would be a Godsend.   There’s a chocka-full Christmas present list, the Things I’m Going To Do To The House List bursting with tasks.

But the old adage – if you want anything done, ask a busy person – is so true in my case.  I’m dithering for Britain.

I should be used to waiting.  Waiting, after all, is a writer’s curse.  Mostly you sit at your desk waiting for inspiration.  I have various tactics for these times, my favourite – apart from writing lists – is the curiously satisfying task of de-fluffing my keyboard with folded over sellotape.

My beloved husband, Emlyn, spends his time cruising the BBC site, digging up ‘fascinating’ trivia facts with which to entertain and enlighten me.  Yesterday’s being that a new species of grasshopper has been discovered which has testicles which account for fifteen per cent of its bodyweight, making it officially the creature with the biggest balls on the planet.  ‘Imagine. Fifteen per cent.  That like an equivalent of a whole human leg,’ Emlyn said with a faraway look in his eye.

Gareth, our dear friend the poet, told us over dinner last night, that he too suffers from occasional bouts of ball envy.  He’s invested in a hamster to amuse him during the lonely hours as he strives to complete his PhD.  He pokes food through the bars and talks to his blind little hamster with its grandiose triple-barrelled name, Gabriel Dante Rossetti.  Gareth’s quite smitten with his little writing buddy, despite the hamster’s curiously large balls.

And talking of balls – and there is a link here – I’m pleased to report that my creative writing course started well this week.  I had a bunch of extremely talented twelve and thirteen-year-olds, who were an utter joy to teach.  I’m already excited about our next session together.

I’ll admit that I was a tad nervous before-hand, due to my entirely different kind of teaching experience which happened somewhere deep in the Winnersh Triangle, last summer.  (Which, for those who don’t know, is that oddly over-signposted area in the tangle of motorways just outside London.  Where, whenever we pass it, we can’t help but sing Barry Manilow’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ and wonder if we too are about to disappear.)
I was speaking at two library events – one at lunchtime and one in the evening, and with an afternoon to kill, I volunteered my services to the English department of the local comprehensive school.

The harassed teacher who met me in the corridor during a stampede of kids, shouted in a war-torn kind of way that they were a ‘man down’ and hoofed me alone into a class full of texting, gum-chewing, blank-faced seventeen year-olds.


It became immediately apparent that they couldn’t give a monkey’s that I was a published writer, or that my books have been translated into 27 languages, or thought any of my anecdotes were even remotely amusing. I started to feel like Naomi Watt’s character in King Kong, doing ever more elaborate tap dances and cartwheels to amuse the great beast.

I cut to the chase and got onto the creative writing session I’d planned.  This is all about accessing one’s seam of inner creative magic, I told them. They seemed sceptical.

I urged them to pay no attention to spelling, punctuation or grammar and banned them from crossing out.  They had to write.  Fast. For ten minutes. And even if they wrote ‘banana banana banana’ then their inner critic wouldn’t get air time, and eventually they’d get creative.

I gave them the first line to get them going.  ‘The shirt that he wore was…’
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, as they started, ‘Anything goes.  I’m un-shockable.’

Not entirely true, as it turns out.

At the end, some of them seemed to be satisfied with their endeavours.  I plucked a few out at random and read them aloud.  Then I picked on the smirking Goth boy in the corner.

‘The shirt that he wore was… tucked into a pair of tight black leather trousers,’ I read. I scanned down the scrawl, my cheeks flushing. ‘Inside were a pair of unfeasibly huge balls straining to get out…’

Oh God. I’d started so I had to finish.

Well, the best I can say about the humiliating – and lengthy – description of self-pleasure that followed, was that at least it included the rather lyrical phrase ‘squirrel coloured pubes’.

Afterwards, I ran to the car and called Emlyn, who was eventually sympathetic once he’d stopped laughing.  ‘You told them to write about what they know.  What did you expect?  What else do teenage boys do?’

Good point.

But I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve got a case of ball envy too.  Not the actual wanting of them, but the fact having something like to obsess about in the way that men do, would occupy my mind whilst I’m waiting for my news.

Do other women have ball envy too?  Do you?  Maybe we should set up a website.  A self-help group to find something bigger and better than balls, something that us intelligent women can singularly obsess over too.

Answers on a postcard/email please.

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Doing the ‘To Do’ List

Does anyone else write endless lists?  I spend my life writing the damn things.  I can’t help it.  I’ve even just bought myself a new Moleskin notepad for jotting notes down on my next book, and instead of exciting plot ideas and cool character names, it’s already filling up with ‘To Do’ lists.

The thing with obsessive list-writing is that I don’t find it particularly satisfying, even though on each list I always include something I’ve already achieved, just for the satisfaction of crossing it off.

I’ve been writing ‘To Do’ lists all my life.  I found a list in my parent’s attic which I wrote when I was nine.  It said:  Grow up.  Live in London.  Get married.  Be a writer.

How simple!  I should be thrilled there’s a list I’ve finally completed.  Even if it took me 30 years.

I think the problem is that my lists these days, is that they are so panoramic in their vision and not at all specific in their time limit, although it’s always my outlandish assumption that each list is a day’s worth of tasks.

Take today.  At one end of the spectrum are the small things I need to do.  These include: wrap present.  Send text about a play date.   Both list-worthy entries and not to be forgotten.  So far, so good.

However, in the middle of the list, is the whole bunch of every day tasks that are permanently repeated on every single list I write:  load washing machine, make kids’ beds, take out compost, unload dishy, go to supermarket, school run etc etc.  This stuff runs to a page.  I don’t know about you, but when I start committing the machine of life to paper, it seems absurd that I ever get anything done at all.  But the list isn’t finished there.  Oh no…

Because now comes the occasional jobs section of the list.  This section can get a bit out of control and can make me feel a bit panicky.  Today’s pressing tasks include: mow lawn, clean cooker, sort car insurance, put landing pile of clobber in loft, take jumble to charity shop, dry-cleaning, hire carpet cleaner….Stop!  STOP!  See what I mean?

Then at the end of the spectrum there’s the big stuff.  A hang-over from my nine-year-old self, perhaps:  Get a new computer. Learn to speak Spanish.  Put solar panels on the roof.

I think list-writing is an entirely female affliction.  Emlyn never writes lists.  Or if he does, it’s because I’m dictating the shopping list and he goes to the shop and buys exactly what’s written down.  No more, no less.

See, I don’t get it.  How can he do that?

Because I go to the supermarket and obviously I have a list, but  I never look at it.  Why would I consult it?  I wrote it, so I know what’s on it, right?  Wrong.  I always forget the one thing I went to the shops for.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that secretly I’m an off-list kind of girl.  I write lists and then do a fraction of the tasks on them.  So for example, the washing is still in the washing machine, the kids’ beds are unmade, I haven’t wrapped the present, mowed the lawn, or organized solar panels for the roof, but I AM off for lunch instead.

All of which leaves me wondering, why do I write these list at all?  Are they a job advert for a magic fairy, perhaps?  Or is it because I can control my world on a piece of paper and not in real life?  Or is it just that I’m a writer and writing lists is a justifiable literary procrastination?  Maybe I’ll put that on my list of things to find out.


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The problem with shopping…


So here’s a picture of me having my big author moment on Friday.  My book signing at Gatwick.  OK, so it’s not me pulling up in a stetch limo outside Harrods in a white designer trouser suit, like I always fantasized it would be when I started writing novels, but it felt pretty rocking none-the-less.

For a whole day, I managed to cover up my pool painted toes and shutter scraping war-wounded knuckles to sign copies of my new book.  The lovely Tina had tables of books ready for me to sign and it was a fabulous feeling seeing so many copies of Forbidden Pleasures and Platinum all stacked up.

The only thing that irked me was that I had no children with me, lots of time and all the family credit cards, but could I find anything I wanted to buy in Gatwick?  Could I hell. Not a thing. 

I’m usually dashing past Accesorize, running for the gate with kids in tow and screech to a halt as a lovely bikini has caught my eye, but there’s no time to buy anything and I’m dragged off, cursing that I never have time to shop.

But shopping is an illusive thing.  It’s one of those girly life skills I seem to have completely missed out on, along with how to apply fake-tan and how to achieve a smoky-eye without looking like I’ve been in a fight.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I’m slightly phobic about shopping.  Don’t get me wrong, I love having new things, but not so much that I don’t look in my wardrobe and think that what I’ve got already will do.

So far, one of the highlights of my summer has been getting all my summer clothes down from the loft.  I only ever bring hand-luggage on holiday, as I know I have loads of clothes already here, but it wasn’t until I got them out the other day, I realized how many there were.  It was like Christmas.  Loads and loads of old favourite summer dresses – all totally shabby, but wearable.  I sat with them heaped around me, dewy-eyed with pleasure – the biggest part of which was the knowledge that I wouldn’t need to go anywhere near a shop for the whole summer.

Of course, in with the good stuff was a heap of market mistakes, which I keep purely for comic value.  You know the thing when you’re on holiday and your basket is full of melons and peaches, but the lady on the next stall is selling cheap dresses and you convince yourself that the pretty fabric will look amazing on you? My favourite such travesty, is last years pink and black paisley one-piece with elasticated pantaloon legs and a boob tube top.  Yikes.  What was I thinking?  The Little One put it on her head and pranced around like a clown to riotous applause.

But I wonder about how I should teach my girls to shop, because they don’t have a clue.  My own mother failed to pass on any clarity.  She only shops in  M&S and buys endless outfits, only to take them straight back again the next day.  She’s spent more time in the returns queue than anyone I know.

But we all shop differently, I’ve noticed.  I have some mates who spend hours browsing the stores.  They know instantly when the new stock is in at Zara, or when the sales start in Selfridges.  They sniff out bargains and compare prices and stock like truffle pigs and they’ve often bought the Grazia recommendation even before it’s gone to print.

Then there’s the really skilled shoppers regularly schedule ‘shopping days’ with their other friends and lunch out for hours before coming back with whole outfits that they’ve somehow managed to co-ordinate.   I envy those girls.

But I don’t envy the junk food shoppers.  I know loads of them.  They’re after a quick fix, but remain deeply unsatisfied and have wardrobes full of ill-fitting Gap trousers and un-washable New Look tops, but still can’t stop themselves buying something on their lunch break.  They are Gok candidates through and through.

Personally, I’m of the smash-and-grab school of shoppers.  Once in a blue moon, I’ll see something I like, run into the shop and buy it.  I’m ashamed to say that price is rarely a factor in my purchasing decision and I only have a 70/30 impulse decision success rate.

So, after mooching round all the concessions at Gatwick, I consoled myself by parking myself at the Seafood Bar, where I decadently ordered myself a half bottle of champagne and a smoked salmon salad.  I’m pleased to report that there are some life skills at which I do excel, after all.

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