Buffet Bandits

The number of theories put forward in an attempt to explain why some people seem more prone to weight gain than others is dizzying. Some, it seems, can tread carefully pretty much every day of their lives and despair that one or two slip-ups go ‘straight to their hips’, whereas others (like – erm – me) can guzzle whatever they want and remain slim. (Before you hate me, remember that I have NO boobs. None. Whatsoever.)

My brother is also slim (OK, he’s absurdly fit and athletic for someone pushing 40 but I’m willing to bet he’d still be slim if he was a couch potato), and my own theory is that we have both grown up and remained this way largely because of the way our mum parented us when it came to mealtimes. In my opinion she got it absolutely, 100 per cent right, and I’m very grateful to her for the health benefits that have come with this. Of course, I’d’ve been still more grateful if she’d been considerate enough to pass on her big boobs gene, but you can’t expect everything.

I don’t remember much about our family mealtimes, because a) the food, although perfectly palatable, was rarely so mouthwateringly delicious that I fantasised impatiently about eating it minutes or hours in advance; and b) there were simply no ‘issues’ (to use the vernacular – I mean problems really) surrounding food and eating in our house. We sat down at the dining table, presumably hungry most of the time, ate as much or as little as we wanted, probably chatted about our day, and that was that. On to the next activity, which usually involved charging around outdoors.

30 years on, no difficulties have grown up out of a sense of deprivation, because my brother and I were always allowed more if we wanted it, and as no seed of guilt was planted in our little bellies if we left food on our plates we are still happy to leave food on our plates. (Actually, I won’t speak for my brother here. Having married a fantastic chef he may well be in the habit of stuffing his face morning, noon and night and just running it off with a quick 10k …) The other good thing Mum did was to offer crap puddings. She was a busy, working woman trying to be all things to all people (she still is), didn’t particularly like cooking and didn’t have the time or inclination to bake something fat and tempting, so it was usually a choice of fruit or yoghurt. This was an unintentional stroke of genius, because it took those odious pudding threats or enticements completely out of the equation.

I’m sure there was the odd occasion when Mum or Dad would have said to one of us, “Come on; can you manage a few more mouthfuls?” if we’d eaten particularly little, but we were never, EVER coerced into eating anything. I remember leaving quite a bit of dinner once at my nan’s house, and my great nan in the background wagging her finger and exclaiming: “The poor little girl down the road would be glad of that!” “She can have it”, I said earnestly. “Shall we take it to her?” I honestly had no idea that my great nan (God rest her – I’m not portraying her in the best light here, but she was an amazing character who’d had the hardest of lives) was employing a guilt tactic in order to try to make me eat more than my body was telling me it needed.

I had a straightforward relationship with food (by which I mean a completely unremarkable one), because I was allowed to listen to my body telling me when it had had enough. I’m the same today, even if this means leaving three chips on my plate (it drives Alex mad!) I know quite a few people from the ‘clear your plate’ school of parenting who have managed to stay slim, but I know more who have found it an increasing struggle since that delicate appetite calibration mechanism was perpetually and permanently overridden. This is the reason I can eat what I want: because that mechanism from childhood is still intact, I never want to eat beyond the amount my body needs. If I do so, I feel really ill. This is my theory, anyway.

I wish to make it clear at this point that I’m not attempting to level criticism at any parents who raised, or raise, their children this way (who the arse am I to criticise anyone’s parenting: I’m all over the place!) When I was young clearing one’s plate was the norm, and my mum was the exception. And it is just my theory … it’s quite possible, of course, that I’d’ve remained slim (scrawny) if I’d been made to finish my meals. As I said, I know many people who have.

Some time ago I attempted to gain a few pounds in the vain hope they might go to my hips and boobs and hence make my clothes fit better, but to no avail. I did gain a few pounds, but felt bloated and ill every miserable day, and just ended up with a slightly distended stomach. As soon as I started eating ‘normally’ again, my weight and shape quickly reverted to their former states.

So, as a parent myself, have I continued in Mum’s excellent footsteps? Are my two older children ‘well-calibrated’ and keen to race around outdoors at every opportunity? Erm, maybe not. The bigger question is, does this really matter? I don’t know. They are fit, healthy and beautiful (in my unashamedly biased opinion), they have a decent diet with home cooked meals, they do kick boxing and karate and Big Daughter is freakishly strong (I mean, insanely strong). All three of my kids seem to have the constitution of an ox. But the older two also consume too much sugar and I’m not entirely convinced they know when they’ve had enough to eat. My son, who has just turned 11, tells me he wants to lose weight, which is fairly heartbreaking. The easiest thing to do, of course, is to blame the dad.

On Wednesday we returned from a short break at Disneyland Paris (if you’re interested, my review is here: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g2079053-d189258-r296527505-Disneyland_Park-Disneyland_Paris_Seine_et_Marne_Ile_de_France.html#CHECK_RATES_CONT but I warn you it’s a bit negative, so if DP is dear to your heart it may make your defensive hackles rise. Remember it’s just my perspective 🙂 Also there’s a typo in there that I can’t correct. Grr.) We got a really good deal which included a buffet meal each evening. I like a good buffet because of the informality and being able to select as much or as little as I like from an exciting variety of dishes. My husband likes buffets because of being able to fill his face with as much food as he can possibly cram in (from an exciting variety of dishes).

The first and second evenings passed slowly, but not as slowly as the third and final. How can it possibly take two hours to eat a buffet meal? Alex made no fewer than five trips to the groaning tables, each time returning with a fresh, fully laden plate. And oh yes, the older children followed his example. As I spent most of my time docked at our table, I was the one receiving disapproving looks from servers who repeatedly came to clear the detritus. Phrases such as “our last night so make the most of it” (as if we were prisoners on death row), “wait a bit to make more room” (why not just do the Roman thing and jump around till you vomit?) and “getting our money’s worth” punctuated the dreary swathe of time as the minutes snailed by and other families came and went. Eventually my son threw in the towel and went off for half an hour for a poo while the other two continued. Alex’s final onslaught was five – five – puddings crammed on to a plate together (so it only counts as one pudding, right?), which he set down in front of him with a look of absolute glee. It’s worth mentioning that the watermelon I had selected for my pudding some hour and a half earlier had been met with a complicit scowl of derision from Alex and Big Daughter.

What to do …? Oh, I gave Alex a hard time alright, but the children? To criticise might have risked sowing the seeds of deprivation issues or making them feel ‘greedy’ (which could cause potentially devastating problems later on). As a parent you have to be so, so careful where food is concerned. Maybe they’re just going to be more like their dad than me. Actually, I hope so: as well as being pretty much the best bloke on the planet, he’s a far more contented individual.

Pint pots and porta-loos

I’m a fairly negative person. There are many things I consider significant irritations: being too thin; being cold (largely as a result of being too thin); mud; being rained on; needing to get up for a wee several times every night; being kept awake by others, whether through noise or fidget. So when it comes to holidays, you might assume that camping wouldn’t be my ideal option. And you’d be right. Unfortunately, though, when you’re a bit broke it is often the only option, and now Little Daughter is almost three I’ve decided I need to bite the bullet and take the family on a camping trip at some point this summer.

When the sun shines I love the idea of camping. I think about that refreshed, alive feeling you get when you unzip your tent in the bright, dewy morning after a night under canvas, about the kids running free and forgetting their iPods and Kindles, and about frying bacon and playing cards and sitting around strumming guitars. But then it comes down to it and I think – I wish there was a TV (just for the evenings, you understand). And a nice hot bath. And an in-tent toilet.

I did something terrible last time we went on a camping holiday. I was seven months pregnant with Little Daughter (quite how I survived seven nights on an airbed – which was already on a tilt because we’d pitched the tent on a slope – without entirely wrecking my poor back, I don’t know), and needed to wee what seemed like every few minutes. There was no way I was going to struggle to the loos ten times a night (it was bad enough wrestling the vindictive airbed and my husband out of the way just to get to my feet), so I decided it would be a good idea to wee in a plastic pint pot and then tip it out of the tent. To avoid the risk of anyone treading on the wee patch, I thoughtfully lifted the ground sheet as well, so the offending liquid was both out of sight and out of stepping range. All well and good, until the day we packed up the tent ready to go home and discovered a large patch of dead, blanched grass that stood out starkly white against the surrounding verdure. Clearly I had underestimated the toxic impact of seven nights’ worth of pregnant wee. Oops. We departed quickly.

Hopefully this time my nocturnal toilet situation will prove less extreme. And we’ve already had a trial run with the tent, which had spent the last three years in the leaky shed being rained on, at the Ely Folk Festival last weekend. No amount of praise I could heap on Ely would do it justice. If you’re a nervous would-be festival-goer who’s wondering about taking that first step; if you are intimidated by crowds and are repelled by too much mud, noise and stink, I’d definitely recommend Ely as a gentle, safe and very enjoyable introduction to the festival scene. You don’t even have to like folk music that much (though if you do, there are some real treats), as the definition these days is so far reaching you’re bound to stumble upon something you enjoy. And if listening is too passive you might prefer learning how to dance a ceilidh or play a dulcimer. For Big Daughter and me it was more about atmosphere, chilling out with extended family and friends and really unwinding.

For families Ely is simply perfect: the two main performance arenas are at either end of a large field, with smaller marquees, concessions stalls (there’s some lovely stuff) and food and drink vendors filling up the rest of the perimeter. This leaves a large space in the middle in which children remain in clear view, whether they want to have a go at various outdoor games on offer, such as hula hooping (which, incidentally, is not just for children – Alex’s aunt drew quite a crowd on Sunday with her party piece, hula hooping whilst swigging a glass of Pimm’s), decorate Jan’s hippie van with paint or chalk, do puzzles or attend one of the captivating story telling sessions. The festival itself is civilised, clean and well organised: there are stewards everywhere, the porta-loos are emptied and hosed down frequently, and everyone I have ever met there has been perfectly pleasant.

Helping decorate Jan’s van
Finding one's groove
Finding one’s groove

We were fortunate enough to receive complimentary tickets, courtesy of Alex’s dad who comperes at the festival, and with our financial situation as it is at the moment they were a most welcome gift. I was, however, concerned about the cost of food. I would highly recommend the food vendors – it’s all proper, decent nosh (Alex always raves about the goat curry) – but there was no way we were going to be able to indulge this year. So I stocked up on tinned food at Lidl. See? I told you I shopped at Lidl, just not all the time. For camping trips, however, it ranks head and shoulders above Tesco. I bought ravioli, chilli and noodles, and everything tasted delicious. I know food always tastes better outdoors, but still. Best of all, though, was tinned chicken curry which I almost couldn’t bring myself to buy, but I’m so glad I did. It was real chicken breast (not that horrible processed nugget crap) and there was absolutely nothing in there I didn’t recognise (chicken, tomatoes, yoghurt, cream – cream! – spices … even the colour was simply paprika). Heated up on our trusty camping stove and served over Lidl rice it genuinely did taste as good as the vendor food, but at less than a tenth of the price. And Alex made no complaint about his 90p Lidl real ales.

So with the laid back, sunshiney buzz of Ely still washing over me and the summer holidays beckoning, I’m ready to give a family camping holiday another go. I’ll just need to make sure we choose a pitch close to the toilets.

A cheerful and colourful festival-goer
A cheerful and colourful festival-goer
The spirit of Ely; all photos courtesy of ©William Lonsdale Photography

Hairy Mary

Well, not really; not unduly … just a brown eyed brunette, so on a (female) hairiness scale of one to 10 I’m probably about a six. It became a slight issue at the age of 12, when a group of older girls started taunting me with the term ‘werewolf’ on account of my eyebrows meeting in the middle. I mean, they didn’t go right across in one thick, unbroken caterpillar, but there were a few hairs beginning to stray from either side into no man’s land and because they were dark they were particularly noticeable. I spoke to my mum, and she grabbed some tweezers and dutifully plucked out the offending hairs (I think I would have been more tempted, in her position, to punch out the offending girls). From then on I started tweezing on my own and, 29 years later, I’m still going, despite previously having vowed to free myself forever from the tyranny of the monobrow via electrolysis by my 40th birthday. (Too skint, naturally.)

Soon afterwards began the rise of the moustache (again, I’ve seen worse on plenty of other women but it did bother me), on which I used Jolen bleach for facial hair every week or two. So I was still hairy, but it was less noticeable because it was fair (until the roots came through, of course, at which point it looked just plain weird). I then switched to Immac cream, which Mum also used. I persevered with Immac (now Veet) cream for years, because it did the job and a tube lasted a long time, but it had its pitfalls: if I left it on a minute too long it would leave my skin red, sore and dehydrated for several days, and I needed to use it at least once a week because it only took off surface hair rather than pulling it out by the root. This would have been in addition to the ‘usual’ depilation,  consisting of a quick flick of a razor on legs and under pits, which remains an almost daily ritual.

As if all this wasn’t enough, I’m becoming increasingly aware that today’s eyebrows are supposed to be far more preened than was previously acceptable, but the cost of threading or waxing is, in my opinion, pretty steep. Having never been professionally ‘waxed’ at all, I had a look at the price lists of local beauticians. It seems lip/chin combo waxing ranges from £9 to £11.50, eyebrow reshaping is around £10, and a full leg and bikini wax will set you back £28-£30. If, like me, you’re a bit of a hairy Mary and will require repeat treatments two or three weeks later, the cost quickly escalates.

This is where Veet waxing strips, those fabulous, cheap, ready-to-go pre-coated strips available everywhere for about a fiver, have saved me a small fortune (which I’ve then carelessly blown on other stuff). I like to buy them in a maxi pack of 40 strips, which comes with 4 perfect finish wipes for removing any residue (not nearly enough, but you can substitute baby oil or – my preferred option – coconut oil). A pack of this size will last me ages; months and months. I use the strips on my thighs and bikini line, moustache, chin (occasionally. That one was a shocker. Thought it wouldn’t happen until I was at least 89), and also to remove stray hairs from beneath my brow line and – at holiday time only – on my big toes. I couldn’t believe it when I heard someone say they actually paid to have their big toes waxed by a beautician …

A word of warning: read the pack first, as you have to be careful with certain skin conditions and apparently waxing is unsuitable if you are diabetic. As with any kind of hair removal, you might have a bad reaction and also, it does hurt. In short, wax at your own risk -! Then again, all that would apply at the beautician’s too and at least this way you’re saving money.

If you decide to go ahead, start somewhere safe like a leg, and if you are going to wax any facial area use those strips specifically for sensitive skin (I don’t, and have always been fine, but Veet says I’m wrong). When you’re ready to start, here is my advice:

  1. Cut the strips into the correct size for your requirements. It is extremely difficult to work with a great big unwieldy bit of sticky paper unless you’re clearing a large area like a thigh. If you’re waxing your bikini line, this is even more important, especially as you’ll find such an operation already involves a great deal of bending, reaching and stretching (as well as some light hopping).
  2. Make sure the wax is warm, by rubbing the strip between your hands.
  3. Separate the two sides of the strip slowly. If you rip them apart you’ll end up with both sides unevenly coated.
  4. Smooth the section of waxing strip on your skin in the direction of hair growth then, holding the skin taut, rip it back on itself – right back, not upwards. Explete to your heart’s content (you’re in the comfort of your own home, after all).
  5. Finish with one of the wipes or, if a small area, some coconut oil. It’s lovely stuff – goes on solid from the jar but melts into your skin and can be removed with dampened cotton wool. Leaves you feeling soft and smelling larvely.

Big Daughter recently asked me to neaten up her eyebrows, as she felt they were getting a bit messy. I thought they looked fine, but did as she asked and took a few photos along the way. Incidentally, the two tiny slivers of waxing strip I used probably cost less than a penny each.

20150606_180904
‘Raw’ eyebrow
20150606_181020
Teeny, custom-cut Veet strip
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A smudge of this, to remove any residue
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The end result (redness faded within an hour)

The Evil Corporate Giant: How I Hate to Love You

Another post which I feel requires a disclaimer at the top. Let me just say that I think Aldi and Lidl (Aldi in particular) are brilliant. My parents shopped at both of them years before their popularity explosion with middle class, middle income families (for whom the discovery is still sufficiently recent to provoke a heartwarming childlike giddiness – aw, bless!), and so do I.

However, I confess quite openly (as is becoming my way when blogging) that I do the majority of my household shopping at Tesco. The reason is, quite simply, the Clubcard. I am eternally indebted to my friend Sarah for educating me on how to get the best out of my Clubcard. (If you are already a convert, feel free to stop reading.) If you shop at Tesco and do not have one you need to sign up right now. If things are even more dire and you are one of those people who have signed up, get your vouchers through and simply use them for face value towards your grocery shopping, then you run the risk of me snatching them out of your hand at the till and shouting “Nooooooo! It’s such a waste!!”

The way it works, in brief, is that you sign up for your Clubcard and then you get a point for every pound you spend (sometimes more, depending on offers) and these points are translated into vouchers. Four times a year the vouchers are posted to you. In my case I usually get around £25 each time, which also takes into account any money Alex or I have spent on fuel. This is the bit where people often go wrong, thinking “Great! £25 off my food bill.” Stop right there, though: go online and look at the ways you can get more for your vouchers. I believe you can get all kinds of things through Tesco Direct for double the value, and sometimes you can get double the value on clothes in-store too.

BUT: the best value is for days out (from which there are loads and loads to choose, all over the UK and at various venues beyond) or meals out, because these give you FOUR TIMES the value of your vouchers. You simply choose what you want, click on it to put it in your basket, then input the voucher codes.

Now, if a meal out or fun family day somewhere is definitely not on the cards within three months of receiving your vouchers and you need to buy a washing machine then OK, go ahead and use double the value to put towards it. If you are genuinely on the breadline, then fine, make a straight swap for food and I promise I won’t hassle you (though in this case I would shop at Lidl or Aldi and save the vouchers). If, however, there is a chance (and I think in most families there would be) that within that three month period you might really fancy dinner at Prezzo or a trip to Woburn Safari Park (or any number of other restaurants or fab days out) for free, then for goodness’ sake hang on to them. Just make sure you exchange them in good time. Restaurant tokens are generally emailed through within about half an hour these days, but days out tokens still come by post and take a few days.

To give you an idea, here is a list of exciting, fun, interesting and often educational places we have visited over the years as a family, for free, for doing nothing more than shopping at Tesco:

  • Wicksteed Park (multiple times)
  • Cadbury World
  • Flambards in Cornwall
  • Warwick Castle
  • Devon’s Crealy
  • Kent’s Cavern in Devon
  • Thinktank in Birmingham
  • Black Country Living Museum
  • Conkers in Derbyshire
  • Diggerland in Kent
  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not
  • Park Asterix (while on holiday in France)
  • Activity World in Peterborough (multiple times; watch out for the 7-year-old skinheads, though: intimidating)
  • Woburn Safari Park (Clubcard was having a sale so we got 5 times the vouchers’ value!)
  • Duxford Imperial War Museum
  • Britain at War Experience
  • Vedettes de Paris boat excursion (we ordered these, but ended up not using them so Tesco just recredited our account)

Meals out have usually been at Pizza Express, Prezzo and Chimichanga, with us only having to shell out for drinks and tip.

You can’t lose, really: if it’s great, which it almost always has been for us, then wonderful. If it’s not so good, you don’t end up berating yourself for having spent a ton of money. Warwick Castle and Woburn are particularly satisfying to visit ‘on the Clubcard’ because they cost a fortune.

Perhaps the best use of our Clubcard points, however, was setting up an automatic conversion to Virgin air miles when we knew that four years down the line we hoped to travel to Orlando. Again, this was quick and easy to do online. We did miss the days out (though there are plenty of free places we love to visit), but the points kept on ticking away and, when the time came, although dates were tricky and Alex had to spend a long time on the phone to an operator, we ended up with an incredible deal that saved £1500 on our flights AND included a free return seat for Little Daughter (who was just under two at the time and would otherwise have had to sit on my lap – I don’t mean we were contemplating leaving here there …). There were even enough points left over for Alex and I to fly to Edinburgh, on one of Little Red’s last trips, for our joint 40th birthday celebration weekend. After that, with the points exhausted and no further flights on the horizon, I switched our Clucbard points right back and we’re now getting the vouchers again.

On a weekly basis, I have no doubt I would save some money if I shopped solely at Lidl or Aldi, though I am not sure how much as I can now manage a week’s shop at Tesco, for a family of five (including washing powder, toothpaste etc) for £60. At a generous estimate, though, say I saved £15 … would I really put that weekly £15 into a savings account and refuse to touch it until it had grown into a £1500 holiday fund? Or would it more likely be guzzled up by a school trip or unwelcome car repair? You have to remember that I have had years of being crap with money. We’re currently having a particularly lean month because, as a self-employed music teacher, my income tails off around April and doesn’t pick up again until September, but I’ve got £40 of Pizza Express vouchers and £80 of generic Days Out vouchers in the kitchen for when we get really fed up. The fuel thing is good too: if I time it right I can get 20p per litre off a full tank of diesel, which amounts to a saving of around £10.

My ideal would be to buy about half my weekly shop from Tesco, some bits from Lidl and other bits from Aldi (which, maddeningly, is 11 miles away and involves shuffling in traffic for quite a while), but I am not sufficiently time-rich to manage this. So for now I continue to be in league with the evil corporate giant. Soulless it may be, and unfashionable it definitely is, but it works for me.

Settled or Settling For?

Window-gazing, at one time or another
In the course of travel, you must have startled at
Some coign of true felicity. “Stay!” it beckoned.
“Here live your life out!”
                                                                               Robert Graves

That is how I would have liked to arrive at the place – namely, St Neots, a fairly unremarkable East Anglian market town that nevertheless boasts various accolades, according to Wikipedia – in which I have remained for the past 16 years and look set to stay for many more.

In reality my arrival couldn’t have been more different. I was working in London, Alex was working near Cambridge and Peterborough was a bit too far from either (and we’d been burgled while living there, which can put you off a place). So we looked at towns along the train route, as Cambridge and London themselves were way out of our financial league and, with a bit of a shrug, agreed on St Neots. It’ll do for now, I thought, as we moved our meagre possessions and goldfish Rod, Herman and Herman’s Friend (think about it) into our shabby, rented, one-bedroomed house next door to a particularly ropey pub.

It’ll do until our careers take off, I told myself as we took out a 100% mortgage to purchase our small Victorian terrace in a more salubrious area of the town.

Well, I do like the church, and we know and like the vicar, I reasoned, when we made the easy decision to get married in the stunning mediaeval parish church.

And it’s fitting to have our babies baptised in the same place, I conceded, as first Francesca and then Toby came into our lives; and we do need a bigger house, and Francesca’s enjoying her playgroup, and we have made some lovely friends … as we took a step up the ladder and moved into our current abode.

“You do know you live in catchment for Ernulf?” several concerned friends pointed out to us, referring to the less successful of the two local secondary schools. I didn’t bat an eyelid. We won’t be anywhere near St Neots by the time Francesca starts secondary school, I thought, almost indignantly. We’ll be living in some gorgeous village in Dorset. I found it depressing, and vaguely alarming, that anyone with a young family would accept that they were going to stay in St Neots for the duration.

On reflection, I don’t know why the thought bothered me that much. There’s nothing particularly wrong with poor old St Neots. It has some quite pretty bits, actually, and apparently these day’s it’s a “thriving commercial centre” too. Hmm. Maybe it’s because, for me, it was always going to be my transitional place. It was convenient; functional in relation to our jobs at the time (the rail links, admittedly, are excellent). I was never going to stay.

So where (and when!?) was I going to go?

Whenever I catch an episode of Wanted Down Under I become absurdly drawn in and end up practically aching for the family to emigrate, regardless of the tearful tributes from their nearest and dearest tugging at their heartstrings. I don’t understand why: I am not an adventurous person, I suffer with anxiety and I have a phobia of aeroplanes. I don’t deal well with change. I’ve never had wanderlust as such, unlike my cousin who has travelled extensively (and lived abroad) with her young family. Yet I still find it incredibly difficult to accept that, for us as a family, St Neots will be … it. Job done. It feels so final, and so finite; a mighty shutting down of horizons.

Occasionally, if Alex is feeling particularly fed up at work, he will apply for a job overseas. He feels an affinity to the States, so more often than not the job in question will be in America. He knows his chances are practically zero, because there would have to be no suitable American candidates (pretty unlikely), but it’s still exciting because there’s that molecule of hope. I pester him for news more frequently than with the UK applications, and start mentally planning … or rather, I picture the huge, immaculate house with pool and aircon that I have decided will (quite deservedly) be bestowed on us as part of the relocation package, with friendly neighbours calling round with fruit baskets and the Florida sun beating down, and unlimited flights ‘home’, and Disney five times a year, and friends and family coming over to visit us and being impressed. Oh yes, I think to myself as I waft around all serene and tanned, wearing white linen and those Greek goddess sandals, this is the real us. We’ve arrived now. Did you really think we were going to stay in that tired, cramped end of terrace in St Neots for ever …?

Back to St Neots. The vicar who married me and Alex, and who baptised Francesca and Toby, retired and moved away, and I lost my connection with the church and, some time later, my Christian faith … for a while the sense of not belonging, of needing to move on, was very profound. But it’s strange how imperceptibly yet inevitably the roots go down, even when you tell yourself you are just treading water. Francesca is now a teenager and is settled at the same secondary school that Toby will attend come September, and Little Daughter (Nancy) spends two days a week with a fantastic childminder. I have a good work-life balance. I have made friends here that I know are with me for the long haul; friends who have seen me through some seriously rocky times, and who in turn I have tried to support when they’ve needed me. We are less than an hour’s drive from both sets of parents. Alex’s sister and her husband have also settled here, and I find it hard to imagine moving away from them and my two young nieces who, being Nancy’s age, are in some ways more akin to siblings than her own much older brother and sister.

Maybe I’ve become increasingly uneasy about this whole issue recently because of the potential guilt over relocating the children … or maybe it’s to do with my envy and frustration that so many of our friends are ‘doing better’ than we are, and my dark, inner sense of entitlement longs to escape the scrimping and scraping … or perhaps it’s because I’m in my early forties and the phrase ‘now or never’ is starting to plague me. But the thing that niggles me the most is knowing that if Alex turned round to me tomorrow and said “I’ve been given my dream job with Disney! Shall we go for it? Relocate to Florida?”, my answer would be “I don’t know”.

Being Mini

In the year 1948 God made my mother. He made her well, and by the time her wedding day arrived 24 years later she had long, thick, brown-black hair, a beautiful face, shapely legs, a neat little waist and a rack to die for. The years rolled by and she matured into ever greater voluptuousness, and rumour has it that the same bloke who had said “I do” on that particular wedding day recently responded to the sight of her running with the comment “Melons in a sack”.

In 1974 God made me. He made me well, and on my wedding day 26 years later I had shiny, mid-brown hair, a decent face, shapely legs, a neat little bottom, the ghost of a waist and an uber-padded, underwired, gel-filled, cleavage enhancing bra that just about sustained the illusion of a pair of B-cups.

In 2002 God made my first daughter. He made her exceedingly well, and by the time she was 12 she had bigger boobs than her mum.

Damn. I promised myself I’d make my first post on this topic about being generally small/thin, and not focus on the boobage issue, but it seems I can’t help myself. A few years ago I went bra shopping with my mum in John Lewis: shrinking violet that she is, she bought something purple in a K cup, a size I hadn’t realised even existed, and I bought something in a 32A (this was in my slightly bustier days, before the arrival of daughter number two). I know God is purported to love wondrous variety, but don’t you think he was having a bit of a laugh at my expense, juxtaposing physical extremes in this way?

A  couple of points (ho ho) I should address: I know, intellectually and in terms of the profound gratitude I feel for my good health and for having been able to breastfeed my three babies, that bust size does not really matter (same with men and their willies: as long as everything’s healthy and working, size doesn’t matter, right? Right?) I’m also being flippant about God (sorry), as I’m sure he’s got better things to worry about than my flat chest. I too have better things to worry about, and worry about them I do … but the sorry fact remains, however superficial it renders me, that pretty much every day since I can remember I have wasted at least a few seconds of precious time fretting about having no boobs.

Part of the reason for my ongoing dissatisfaction is that I’m reminded of this petty irritation on a daily basis. If clothes fitted me,  or I could afford to have them tailor made, there wouldn’t be an issue. But buying well-fitting, age-appropriate clothes within my budget has proved virtually impossible. The seemingly universal clothing manufacturers’ rejection taunts me at every turn: The reason women’s clothes do not fit you is that you are the wrong shape: so wrong, in fact, that you are off the spectrum. Real women have curves. Here are some nice big bras for proper women; voluptuous women; feminine women. Here’s yet another gaping v-neck to show off the cleavage you ought to have. Don’t like it? Go and shop in the kids’ section, then, and to hell with what’s left of your sense of womanliness. “Bones are for the dog; meat is for the man”, I once read on Facebook, endorsed with several thousand ‘Likes’.

Hmm. I can’t help thinking about the amount of fakery it would take to mutilate my body into the image of a ‘real’ woman; surely the last word in irony.

Needless to say, I never had a boob job. I was always either too skint or too scared. I did come close to it once or twice, though. I also tried herbal compounds and different types of contraceptive pill (only ever made me nauseous), as well as every bra I could find that claimed it could boost my bust by up to two cup sizes (rubbish: in my extreme case, all these bras did was create a kind of moulded crater in which my tiny boobs floundered and on to which the top I was wearing would settle, creating a weird ridge). I even tried a hypnosis CD, but the feminist in me bristled as soon as I heard a man’s voice telling me that I deserved to be ‘more feminine’ (how dare he!? Say that to Kylie, would he!?) To add insult to injury, he had a speech impediment, and in truth all was lost the moment he uttered the words “bweast enlargement pwogwamme”.

Deep breath and move on.

I know that this loathsome self-pity and waste of my emotional resources must end. I’m still working on that, but in the meantime I did decide that it was crazy to continue wearing uncomfortable, underwired, gel-filled bras when there is nothing to support and they don’t even fit. So it was out with shop bought, ill-fitting 32As and in with bras designed for genuinely small (AND real!) women from Little Women www.littlewomen.com/ and the splendidly named Know Knockers www.knowknockers.co.uk/  I never thought buying bras would be enjoyable, but I cannot recommend either of these sites highly enough. Know Knockers in particular is a real joy: instead of the bras being sported by 20-year-old busty beauties, they are modelled by Sheila, in all her middle-aged, small-busted glory (and I mean that – she really does look good!) She also gives helpful hints and tips on whether a particular bra comes up big/small etc., as well as engaging in friendly chit-chat if you leave a comment or ask a question.

I’ll admit to looking even flatter than usual in some of my new bras, but I don’t suppose anyone else would notice, and the upside is that I’m comfortable and every bit of material fits flush to my skin, so no more craters or ridges. They also minimise what I have dubbed Concertina Armpit Scrottage (a curse for women large or small over a certain age), again because the fit is good. And for special occasions I have my Enhance Bra www.littlewomen.com/nonwired/r799 (not an underwire in sight!)

My friend Anne recently made me feel better about being both thin and flat chested. Her comments were so touching and, moreover, such an eye opener for me (she’s the guru of positive perspectives), that I’m going to quote them in full:

“Every single bit of medical evidence shows that slimness (provided there is no eating disorder) is good for you long term.  You are not going to have any pressure on your joints, issues over organ failure, and perhaps most importantly, you will be able to carry yourself like a much younger woman.  Things that you take for granted (like being able to get up off the floor quickly, run suddenly, jump) increasing amounts of the population can’t do any more.  How lovely that you will be able to do this forever – celebrate it!”

So I’m off to take my skinny, flat-chested self and my second daughter to the park, where my narrow arse fits down the slide and I can still ace the monkey bars.

Mini bras! Various degrees of padding but all oh so comfy
Mini bras! Various degrees of padding but all oh so comfy

 

 

‘Fessing Up: Skint through Choice or Ignorance?

I should make it clear, right from the off, that a) my definition of ‘skint’ is pretty cushy compared with that of someone who is genuinely on the breadline: my husband has a job that pays what should count as a decent wage and I work part-time; our children do not go without, and that b) once you know the basic history of my work, income and expenditure, you will probably regard my financial situation today as my own fault, or a matter of choice (or a combination of both), and you’ll be pretty much right. As you will see, there was also an element of youthful ignorance involved early on but, as our teachers told us, ignorance is not an excuse.

The facts of the matter are these: Alex and I bought our first house, a little two-up, two-down Victorian end terrace, when we were both 25. At that time I was earning £14,000 per annum as an editorial assistant and commuting to London, which ate a big chunk of income (and this was a ‘graduate job’!), and Alex was earning slightly less working 30 minutes’ drive from home. Our mortgage was £400 a month and seemed, to us, extortionate. Remember this was only (only!?) 16 years ago.

We didn’t have kids then, so goodness knows what we did with our time, but I remember we had cheap holidays (we got one Teletext deal to Menorca for £159 each), drove old cars and did bugger all to improve our house apart from the occasional bit of painting. I continued buying the same kind of food I’d bought when we were students (yep, we’ve been together since the year dot) and I shopped at places like New Look because there was no Primark and Tesco only sold groceries (imagine!?) On first reflection I have no idea where the money went, but when I think a little harder I remember I did tend to stop to pick up a pain au chocolate and freshly squeezed orange juice from a nice little patisserie in Bloomsbury on my way to work … and my colleagues and I would often go to the pub at lunchtime … and generally we’d go after work too, especially on a Friday. Hey, I was in my twenties and it was London! Alex and I also liked our restaurants, as I recall, and our wine, and our Indian takeaways. Hazy though that time is, my dad was right when he said we were well off: DINKies, he called us (double income, no kids).

16 years, three kids, various entirely preventable remortgages and – I’ll admit it – five amazing holidays (see!) later and we’re in another, bigger end terrace and doing quite different jobs. Alex’s career has progressed well and I’m a qualified teacher. I’m still earning around £14,000 per year, but the difference is I’m earning it working part-time as a freelancer. I still shop cheaply (clothes, food, makeup etc). I’ve never had any part of myself professionally waxed (keep an eye out for my homage to Veet waxing strips, posting soon!!) and have only had my nails ‘done’ once, which was for my wedding. The shocker is that, had we known our financial arses from our elbows in the early days, our mortgage could now be £40,000 or less.

Instead, at the time of writing it is £148,000, which is exactly what we paid for the property.

I shudder as I write this.

Our current home, which seemed so big and grown up when we moved into it 12 years ago, now feels cramped and run down, at a time when many of our friends have overtaken us and progressed to immaculate, four-bedroomed detached numbers or at least spacious semis with lovely gardens. We’re going to struggle to find the equity to take that next step. If any young, first time buyers happen to be reading this, please take the advice that no-one gave us when we started out:

  1. Shop around for the best mortgage – we were conned into an endowment which, long story short, set us back years – and either choose the shortest term you can manage or, to be on the safer side, choose a longer term but make overpayments on it as soon as you can afford to – ideally from day one. You will knock years off the mortgage.
  2. Once you’ve got your mortgage, live within your means and don’t add to it just to feel temporarily better off. Over the last decade Alex and I have thrown countless loans and overdrafts into the mix, tacking them on to the insidious, slyly swelling monster with a false sense of feeling freed up (out of sight, out of mind, right? Yay, let’s go to Disney again!) but, believe me, it all comes home to roost. And …
  3. If you’re anything like me and suspect you might flit from job to job and bugger about training for new careers all over the place, get a private pension in addition to the company one. Just bite the bullet and set it up; it’ll be relatively painless. All I have is a couple of years of teacher pension floating about somewhere. I should start a private one right now, shouldn’t I? Trouble is, at my age I’d need to set aside 20% of what I earn; more like 40%, come to think of it, because I’m a part-timer. Oh, and guess what? I need that 40%. I need the 20%, because I’m skint!
  4. Read everything to do with mortgages and pensions at www.moneysavingexpert.com – I wish this had been around when I was 25.

Looking forward, rather than staring glumly behind me, my toddler will be starting school in a couple of years and already I’m going to be increasing my working hours from September. I should also point out that I don’t regret training as a teacher or working part-time; these things were/are lifestyle choices and I feel very fortunate to have this time with my children. And the whole higgledy piggledy mess has provided me with some valuable opportunities: to solve problems creatively; to be resourceful and mindful; to source exciting, cheap or free family days out (more to come on all of this); to write!  Happily for me, it’s also taught me an invaluable life lesson and now, for the first time, I am living within my means in a sustainable way. Better late than never …

I wouldn’t change my family for the world. I wouldn’t change the gap between my second and third children, despite the delay it’s caused in my return to full-time work. I wouldn’t change the family holidays, although I’d certainly substitute a few fun camping trips for big Disney blow-outs.

What I would change is the £108,000.

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©William Lonsdale Photography

Launching…

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©William Lonsdale Photography

(Um, is this it? Are we live …? Right. Here goes …)

41 tomorrow and no novel yet written, let alone published, despite this being my life’s ambition since the age of seven. OK, I have one that’s half written, and another that’s three quarters written, but something (fear of failure? procrastination habit? lack of inspiration? sheer laziness?) has prevented me completing anything. And yet I have to write; the compulsion bubbles away inside me like something fermented that is beginning to think fairly urgently about needing to make an appearance.

My 13-year-old daughter is a fan of vlogs, but to be honest I think I’d rather peel my own skin than attempt one of those. Not to mention the fact that I can’t imagine anyone (except perhaps my husband) willingly spending even a few minutes staring at close range at my funny little middle-aged face and listening to me stammering and bumbling away self-consciously. Vlogs (if autocorrect will allow me to even write the daft word – there, corrected it, thank you) are for the young, beautiful and confident – or the ludicrously eccentric and entertaining. I’m not being all falsely modest, either: I DO think I have something to say, and that I am absolutely as entitled to say it as someone half my age and twice as lovely, but my medium is very much the printed word.

So this is me, then: skint; mini (as in petite – or rather, short, slight and flat chested – so much more on this later); and a mumma – to three children, in fact: Francesca, aged 13, Toby, aged 10, and Nancy, aged two (yep, same dad, thanks). Other things that it may be useful or vaguely interesting to disclose from the off are that I’m a musician (not a proper one, I mean a teacher – though I do end up playing the piano a fair amount), my husband Alex manages an orchestra, works long hours and is away quite a bit, I suffer from anxiety but generally deal with it quite well these days, and I am an ex-daily drinker, ex-caffeine glugger and ex-Christian (kind of … it’s complicated … possibly more on this too, waaaaay down the line).

And what do I hope to gain or, more importantly, impart, from writing this blog? Well part of the gain for me, as I’ve already suggested, is fulfilling my need to write. But I also want my voice to be heard. Perhaps because of my diminutive stature and my seemingly passive (ho ho) demeanour, I’ve often been made to feel that I possess a quality of invisibility. The number of times I’ve been physically nudged or even shoved aside – quite by accident, I’m sure; the culprits didn’t notice me – by strangers and even my own mother (who, bless her, continually underestimates her physical dimensions) has caused me considerable indignation over the years, particularly as I take up such a small amount of space that I think I really should have the right to occupy that space in its entirety. This cyberspace, on the other hand, is all mine, and no-one’s briefcase or fat bottom is going to squish it against a wall.

What I hope to give is, at the risk of sounding both vague and slushy, enjoyment. I hope you will find my writing readable; maybe even entertaining at times. I also hope that from time to time my choice of subject matter – which will meander all over the shop, I’ll tell you now (although it will generally be linked in some way to at least one of my three key themes) – will resonate with you and offer up an occasional useful nugget of information or experience. If it does not, then I hope my perspective will still give you an insight into my world that will leave you feeling that you have not wasted your time.

Thank you for reading.

Small, skint skinny facing the big pricey world