Wednesday, 31 July 2013

School Holiday Controversy

We are now into the school summer holidays, which has led to some heated debates recently. When I say school holiday controversy, it is more like controversies, as there are several different issues floating about at the moment.

School's out for summer

On facebook there is a page I am a member of called "Bicester Have A Rant Page". Now a very close friend of mine who have the utmost respect for posted up a week a two back that one of the things that really gets her goat is people moaning about the school holidays. I can certainly see her point of view. I have seen quite a few people put up comments during the holidays on facebook about how stressed they are, "bloody kids fighting all the time", that sort of thing.

Parents celebrate during the school holidays in The Simpsons,
as the bus departs for Kamp Krusty.

My friend loves the extra time she gets with her kids during the school holidays, as do I, and feels very strongly on the issue. So when someone put up a message today bemoaning the 6 week long holidays and the problems caused by the kids being off that long, my friend responded, many other chipped in, and all hell broke loose for a while.

The thing is, I can understand both points of view, although I personally love having the kids at home with me, I am very lucky because I am lucky enough to earn my living predominantly from home, that's running the disco business, and developing my writing career. Admittedly, it's much harder to get work done when the kids are around, but I work around it. My writing, other than these blog entries is more or less done for the summer now, so unless fame comes calling between now and September, the kids will have a lot more time with me. Obviously I still have other work to do - I have spent several hours over the past two days putting together and perfecting a playlist for a 70s disco I am doing on Saturday. Why have I spent so much time on this? Because it is for a very good friend's 50th birthday party, they are paying me well for it and they deserve to get their money's worth. I could never be one of those DJ's who just turns up somewhere and trots out the same old stuff.

Another Simpsons picture. I think Disco Stu would enjoy this Saturday's party.

We've also had builders here for two days, replacing the chimney pot, which put the garden out of bounds. However I planned for all of this in advance so the kids were packed off to the grandparents for 24 hours. Now all the hard work is done they can have my almost undivided (it can never be 100%) attention for the next few days.

I think when some complain they don't really mean it, though I have seen statuses (or stati) put up at times on facebook where I wonder, "seriously, why did you have children?". I don't think the school holidays are the great evil some make out, you just need to adjust. If you have read my first book, you'll recall a chapter entitled "Getting out of the term time mentality" which sums this up very well.

Apart from the joy of spending time with the kids, there are other benefits too. Mornings are remarkably relaxed around here these days. We potter about, have a bit of breakfast, I have a cup of tea, chat and relax and head out when we are ready. There is none of the mad panic associated with school day  mornings when tempers can be frayed running against the clock to get to school on time. That we managed a 100% arrival time in the past year was a minor miracle when I recall the number of incidents from the boys in uncooperative mode, failing to eat breakfasts, messing around while getting dressed, pooing a nappy just as the key is in the front door whilst ready to leave the house, that sort of thing.

I think one of the major complaints about the summer holidays is that they are too long. I agree. Not because it is too long looking after the kids 24/7 but because I just don't like the way the school year is divided up. New legislation coming in this year though means that every school has the right to set whatever terms it likes, providing they fulfil the necessary number of weeks a year, which is about 38.

What difference will this make? Diddly squat. I cpnfidently predict that not a single school around here will deviate from the school year we currently have. Why? I'll come on to that. But first we should commiserate with the fact it won't happen for the following reasons.

Firstly it would end the outrageous rip off of travel agents charging 2x or even 3x the cost of a term time holiday in the 6 week summer break. If every school had different holidays, some off in June, some off in July, some off in September, then it would smooth out the prices. It would be bad news for you that don't have school age children as you wouldn't enjoy the cheap breaks you get in term time now, but well, that's the way the cookie crumbles. Or doesn't in this case because it won't happen.

Speaking of controversy, another piece of legislation coming in, announced about 18 months ago by our "esteemed" Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is that Headmasters are no longer authorised to grant term time holidays. We used to be allowed up to 10 days under the old scheme, so you could get your cheap break in, but that's been stopped. Now I imagine a majority of teachers will be positively in support of this - after all they cannot take time off in the term, and also it's disruption for them when kids are off. But not everyone is, including the head of education in Oxfordshire, and the thing I fear most about this ruling is that the travel companies are going to use it to hike the holiday prices ever higher, because they know many parents won't take their children out for fear of retribution.

If only schools did take advantage of this new ruling to set a new imaginative school timetable, so schools were all off at different times, it would solve it, but there is one very good reason I can see it not happening.

Imagine if one of the Primary schools in Bicester decided to radically alter its school year, and for sake of argument, have its six week break in June and July, going back just as all the other were breaking up. Good news for the parents? Well maybe, if you have only got one child, but what if you have got older children at another school that sticks to the original timetable? Six weeks off for one and then six off for the other? That's 12 weeks of childcare to sort out if you work and you can't go on holiday at all, because they are all off at the same time. No - there would be uproar and it would never happen.

The only way I can see to beat this, is if individual counties were to set there own radically different holidays. So in Oxfordshire we all do the same, but in Berkshire their holidays are all completely different. That means we've got consistency locally, but screws up the travel agents rip off business plans. Will it happen? Of course not, it's a sensible idea!

My idea of the perfect year? Scrap half terms. Have 3 weeks off at Christmas, 3 weeks off at Easter, 4 weeks off in July and 4 weeks off in September. Sorted. You don't want to be off in August anyway, that's a crap month and there are too many wasps about. Sorry Ollie, I know I promised you'd never have to go to school on your birthday but under my plan you will!

Before I go, if you did not know already, I am absolutely delighted to announce that my second book was launched yesterday and is now for sale in the Amazon store, with a paperback due shortly. This is a sequel to my first book and is called Austerity Dad. If you enjoyed my first book, I really hope you'll want to purchase this one too. I am still awaiting my first review, and I'm not going to canvas for reviews, if you do buy and want to leave one, I'll be flattered of course, as I was last time.

Here is the link To view Austerity Dad on Amazon, click here

I personally think this book is a great improvement over my first offering. I have taken a lot more time, chosen more carefully what to include and what not to include, and found the perfect picture for the front. The piggy bank timer works on so many levels - the austerity, money saving theme of the book, my general love of ham, bacon and pork products in general, and the little timer on the side, which is quite apt when you consider the early morning races against time I mentioned above. Oh and buying this book and following the tips within will be like putting money into your own piggy bank. Well most of the tips anyway, some of them are spoof tips, but I am sure you know me well enough by now to know what's real and what isn't.

Mmmmm....ham.
Just keeping in with the Simpsons picture theme there.

If I could review it myself I'd write all of the above and tell you what a comedy masterpiece it is, and to buy it now before I'm finally discovered so you can say to people "I knew him when he was just a small town DJ, and I bought the first copy of his first book when he spelt "diary" as "dairy" in the introduction on the first print run - it's worth a fortune now you know".

But I'm getting a bit above myself there, still, I have to sell myself, so I say, buy the book for £2.50 and have a good laugh, you won't regret it.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take a look at my books on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle), where you can read lots more of the same! Click here.

Jason xx




Friday, 26 July 2013

Quest for success

This is quite a difficult subject to write about, and part of me wonders whether it is even something I should write. I've always felt that the quest for fame selflessly pursued by the type of people on reality shows is rather vulgar is some ways, much preferring the quiet life out of the limelight.

However things have changed somewhat for me lately. I realise that most of those people are just looking for their fifteen minutes of fame. In some cases e.g. Big Brother it is not even about talent.

The fact is though, whatever the merits of any of these people, we all deep down would like to be famous or at least recognised and respected in our field, whatever that may be. In most walks of life this simply isn't possible. You don't become famous for being an amazing estate agent (if such a thing is possible). A few select experts in their fields e.g. gardening can become household names on TV but generally the main route to fame is through either the sporting or entertainment genres.

When I started writing all those years ago, silly letters, plays and emails, and even my blog in its infancy on MySpace six years or more ago when hardly anyone read it, I had no inkling that my writing could take me as far as it has done. I knew that I enjoyed writing and that I could write material that I personally found hilarious, but I had no idea that the wider world would.

And in fact, many didn't. I have come to realise that I am a bit like Marmite when it comes to my writing, and myself in general really. Some people don't get me, others do.

It's really difficult to write about oneself without coming across as egotistical or showing off, in fact this is partly why I use a lot of self-deprecating humour in my writing to try and offset any hints that I might be boasting. Because boasting is not something I do. I recognise what I am good at, and try to let that come through in my writing.

And bit by bit, it has done. My writing has gradually built up an audience and I have gained a lot of what I can only describe as fans. Again that sounds egotistical, but it really isn't meant to be. You have been there for me, encouraged me and been with me all along the way and I have come so far in this past few months in a way that I could never have done without you.

On my readership list are lifelong friends, local acquaintances, and people I have never met. All of you have contributed in your own way to the inspiration that led me to launch my book and the initial success of that overwhelmed me.

Three months on, sales have tailed off somewhat, but I remain undaunted. The approval and interest from people, not only for the actual writing, but in how I live my life has continued.

Dear readers, I do wear my heart on my sleeve and know you are with me for both the highs and the lows. I feel the book was a great success, but if I could go back, I would have taken a little longer over getting it perfect. Now I am working on the sequel, which I am getting quite close to publication. I have high hopes but I still need to get some more exposure. There is a step jump I need to get over from being a local writer selling a few hundred books to people locally to one where I'm getting some national attention.

People have shown interest in me - my blog has already brought me to the attention of one major radio station which I appeared on in May. I've also been featured in the Bicester Advertiser and Oxford Mail and have attracted attention from others. I recently spoke with a researcher from one of the main TV channels who are planning to make a documentary about karaoke. Nothing further has come of that, but the point is that all of these things even if they don't come to fruition are potential opportunities.

I completely believe in myself and what I am doing and a great deal of that is down to you. The number of you out there who have encouraged me and made me believe I could do this and go far with it has led to me really starting to believe I could fashion some sort of career out of this. I know by saying that I am potentially setting myself up for a fall and there will always be people out there just waiting for me to fail but I am not turning back now.

I thought long and hard about whether to tell you this next bit, but then I decided I would, but without any names of people involved. It's all true and is something that could be seen as ending in failure for me but I have always been completely honest with you, so why not share my experience.

I have just come extremely close to being featured in a major national newspaper. I was contacted by a very well known and respected national journalist a few weeks ago following my appearance in the Oxford Mail. This person (I'm not going to identify him/ her for reasons of confidentiality) felt that my whole story of being a stay-at-home Dad and writing an on-line diary had massive potential.

This story almost made it to print in a major daily national newspaper but failed at the final hurdle. The features editor loved it, but it didn't make it past the final say so by the paper's main editor.

This was a huge disappointment for me, but I have to take heart in the fact that I made it that far in the first place. The best analogy I can think of is of being a small town football club improbably defying all the odds to reach Wembley and then getting absolutely hammered in the final.

No matter, that is only one paper. The journalist in question still believes in me and wants to continue to act as my agent. In the meantime I have to turn my attention back to the book sales. Sadly that huge rush of sales of the book was not sustained and having sold 122 in June, I have sold the laughably low total of 1 in July. I could have kept that to myself too but I want to be honest with all of you, you have been with me all along the way and I want you to continue to share in the highs and lows.

It is odd that sales fell off a cliff so much but I suppose every product has a shelf life. Not a single copy was shifted after the story broke in the paper. I also find it quite amusing in a way that absolutely dozens of people have come up to me and told me they have seen my book in Cole's and that they are planning to buy it, yet Cole's report not a single sale.

So it seems like doom and gloom but I am not a quitter by any means. I have achieved an awful lot to get this far and it's unrealistic to expect fame and fortune to just land in my lap overnight. The fact that I made it to inches away from a major feature in a paper read by millions should not be seen as a massive failure but a big achievement that I made it as far as I did.

I've read countless autobiographies of actors, comedians and other entertainers and the first half of many of these books recall the years of struggle before they got their big break. Of course there are millions of unwritten autobiographies too of people who never got that break but I don't want to be one of them. Through an unswerving self-belief, entertaining writing, being honest and being myself I will have my day in the sun. Even if it is not in The Sun if you catch my drift.

What can I do now? Get my head down, keep in touch with all of you through blogging, and work really hard on getting book two to the market. It is literally days away from completion, it's called "Austerity Dad" and if you liked the first one, you'll love this because I think it is a huge improvement on the first offering. Not that I am saying that one was bad of course. Having two out there has got to be good - if people like one they will buy the other.

I have a lot of other ideas in the pipeline and if I could get into the national press, I have all sorts of ideas to pitch, such as a weekly "Dad's Diary" column or maybe an advice column, "Dear Dad", aimed at people like me, stay at home dads, or even mums looking for a man's point of view, who at present make up a lot of my core readership. A weekly column would be a fantastic way for me to get myself established and known and it also has the benefit of providing a regular income.

As for future book ideas, I will have to get back to you on that, my ideas are too vague at present.

One thing did come my way this week which made me really feel like I am a "real writer" at last and that was my first royalty payment from Amazon for book sales in May. It's not a massive sum but it is the first money I can honestly say I have been paid as a writer and that is an achievement in itself.

Thank-you all for your continued support, comments and many private messages, please keep them coming as they mean so much. You are all simply wonderful and continue to inspire me.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take a look at my books on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle), where you can read lots more of the same! Click here.

Jason xx

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Trophy Cabinet

We're living through an unprecedented golden era for British sport. A Wimbledon winner, the Tour De France, Cricket, Rugby, it seems we are sweeping all before us.

What can be behind this amazing success? I would like to pretend that I have made some sort of contribution to this, but sadly I haven't really had much of an impact. Unless sitting on the sofa with a large bag of Doritos yelling "Come on Andy" at the telly counts.

It seems that sport and I have fallen out of love over the years. In fact even in my prime we were not exactly comfortable bedfellows. However, I did used to play a lot of sports, with a level of ability ranging from mediocre to pitiful. But it is the taking part that counts, so they say.

The main reason I don't really do anything now, or rather the main excuse I use to get out of it, is that I am too busy with the kids. There is an element of truth in this - after all I can't just nip off for a ride on my bike as and when I feel like it if I am looking after the kids. However, even if Claire is here, I lack the inclination. The fact is I got out of the habit of doing exercise of playing any sport after Ollie was born and now I lack the motivation and energy to get back into it. It is too much like hard work on top of all the other things I have to do. I don't feel particularly unfit though. I am quite comfortably hitting my 10,000 steps walking target each day on my phone and the constant cleaning up and housework must keep me in reasonable shape.

I can't imagine getting back to the point of going to the gym again. Believe it or not, it was at the gym where Claire, who had gone there to watch some friends play squash, first decided she wanted to go out with me when she looked through the fitness room window and saw me on the treadmill and thought "I fancy a bit of that". That was seven years ago and unfortunately I didn't come with a guarantee that I'd maintain that shape, but that's contented married life for you.

Despite my rather unremarkable attempts at sporting greatness, I have actually got a few trophies upstairs from various activities so I thought I'd take a few pictures and explain how I came to win these esteemed prizes. Looking at each in turn, it has to be fair to say in most cases, more by luck than skill and a fortunate set of circumstances but win them I did, and when the children ask about them I can always exaggerate my achievements in order to maintain my hero dad status.

Table Tennis, 1984
This is the first trophy I ever won, for table tennis, in 1984. We were on one of our many camping holidays, but this is one I remember fondly as were staying at a big site with lots of entertainment - in fact it was a Pontins at one point I believe. Table Tennis was something I was quite good at. I helped organised the league we had at the local youth club and played a lot. This trophy was won very much on merit in a big knockout tournament that went on all afternoon, sadly I couldn't quite raise my game to win the final, even so, I still proudly display my runner-up medal, 29 years later.


Fantasy Football, 1995
 OK, this is not exactly a sport, but Fantasy Football is something that I have always been amazingly good at. Just to clarify that statement so it does not sound like bragging, that achievement is something far outweighed by the number of things I am astoundingly bad at.

But Fantasy Footy with its stat based systems is the absolutely perfect game for someone like me with my mathematical brain and I have been very successful at it, winning many times. I've also made a fair bit of money out of it. Some years ago a bookmaker I used to bet with ran a competition which wasn't fantasy football as such, more to do with predicting scores, but I spotted a way to win this game purely by exploiting the scoring system with the likely outcomes of the matches to win out of several thousand people. It was simple case of playing the perecentages over 38 weeks to come out on top. I won the first prize of £1500 for winning that game (it was free to enter) plus a £200 free bet on the Champions League final which I stuck on Barcelona to kick Man Utd's arse which they duly did, adding another £375 to the pot. That paid for our holiday in Lanzarote that year. And it was all down to the beauty of maths and stats, I barely watched a match.

I've won various other leagues in Bicester, at Nielsen, all of which have been quite lucrative when everyone is sticking a tenner in the pot and it is winner takes all. It's all good! Anyway the trophy above is from a league I organised back in the nineties and also won. Well, when I say "I" won that isn't strictly true. To make up the numbers (we needed 20 people) I submitted a second team to be managed by my cat, Susie, under the name "Tuna Felix Eating Tigers". .Susie swept all before her, so technically it was her trophy, but since she is now dead (or is she?) I have inherited the trophy.


Karting, circa 2001.

I've covered my karting exploits in detail in my book, Fortysomething Father. This is the only trophy I have and it is for 3rd place in a big race we had at a now defunct karting track over in Oxford, in which about 12 of us participated. I actually led this race for a long way, having got pole position in qualifying but only finished third due to the fact that everyone's favourite metalhead maniac Adam "Satan" Wilkins was on the track and decided to ram me up the arse and launch me into a wall of tyres when I was lapping him so I had to wait what seemed like an eternity for the marshalls to come and rescue me. After the race Satan's explanation for his actions was that he did it "for a laugh".


Golf, 2002
 As everyone knows, I am hideously bad at golf, so how on earth did I manage to win a trophy for it. Well this trophy is not quite as amazing as it seems.The HOGS (Heavily Overweight Golf Society) in which I used to play had split the members into three divisions based on their ability. Division One was competent, Division Two was incompetent and Division Three was downright diabolical. Unsurprisingly I was in Division Three and quite used to coming back with cards littered with double figure scores - in fact anything under a round score of 140 was considered good by my standards.

Amazingly however there were people in my division who were even worse. My main opponents on this day in my division were Pete Thornton, the ex landlord of the Hobgoblin, he walked off after about two holes claiming a bout of flu, Eggy (not exactly a natural golfer) and American Rob who could actually hit the ball quite far but had never really got the hang of putting. He could get within a few feet of the hole and then whack it so hard with the putter it would end up thirty yards back down the fairway. So with a round score of about 138 and a dismal 7 Stableford points, I cruised to this famous victory.

Aunt Sally, 2009
At last, a trophy I can feel proud of. In fact I have a few for Aunt Sally. This one is from when I hit my one and only "six" back at the Six Bells during my last season there. I had come close a few times, but never quite managed it. I wasn't sure if I had on this occasion because the last one was very debatable and a 50/50 call, but the scorer didn't have the heart to call "iron" after the first five went in.

I've also got a doubles winner trophy which I won with my old pal Michael Cooke several years ago and various other team trophies for winning divisions and also the year we gloriously triumphed against Launton Sports in the cup final when we were massive underdogs.

So that's my trophy collection. However there are lots of other sports I have participated in over the years, which I have not won trophies in (mostly due to being crap) so I think I may sum up my performances in some of those next time.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take a look at my books on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle), where you can read lots more of the same! Click here.

Jason xx

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

BREAKING NEWS: First Review of the New Sainsbury as it opens its doors on an historic day for Bicester.

So - the long years of waiting are finally over. Wednesday 10th July shall go down in history as the first day of the rest of Bicester's life. And as your resident town blogger, I am delighted to be one of the first, if not the first to bring you the low-down on the new store, hot from the presses, barely an hour after it opened!

Jamie Ayres, aged 2, of Bicester, welcomes
 you to your new Sainsbury store
  The glittering new flagship store of the great British Sainsbury flung opens its doors to a hungry and grateful populace at 9am this morning. In fact it was slightly before 9am, as I got there at 8:50am and it was already open. I had a quick chat with a guy from Radio Oxford who wanted to interview me and then I was through the doors, an awesome moment.

Because of the store opening ahead of schedule I was sadly unable to fulfil my ambition of being the first person in the shop to buy something. My initial plan was to have grabbed a paper or something and headed straight to the till, but there was no chance of that, there were people already there. I was desperate for a first something though, and then I spotted the toilets. Perhaps I could be the first to use them. Sadly not - as judging by the grunting and other noises coming from the cubicle, someone else had well and truly got there before me.

No matter - third time lucky and I achieved my goal this time by becoming the first person ever in Bicester to purchase a packet of Pork Breakfast Sausage.

This is a Sainsbury own label product which has been around forever as far as I am concerned. My gran used to give it us when we were kids. We used to call it round meat on account of the fact that it was round and it was meat. OK, not very imaginative but I was only around 4 at the time. Anyway, Sainsbury is the only place that has ever sold this product so I have been quite starved of it since moving to Bicester, with only the occasional trip to Kidlington to stock up to keep me going since.

It's coming home, it's coming home, it's coming...
Pork Breakfast Sausage is coming home.
One thing that marks this store out as being different is the fact that it is on two floors. Jamie had great fun on the escalators, and so did I. I only had a basket but I cannot wait to get a trolley on there for a ride.

This young shopper gives the escalators his seal of approval!
The upper floor is given over entirely to non food, and what a range! There is a huge offering up there, far greater than Sainsbury in Kidlington, I would say it was on a par with Asda in Bletchley for all the different stuff you can get. Toys, CD's Clothes, homeware, the list is endless. One of the accusations I have heard the moaning minnies bleat out many times over the years is "You can't get anything in Bicester". Well - now you can. And for those who want to keep the moaning up with "But it's really expensive" well quite frankly I think that is a long standing urban myth about Sainsbury which I tire of hearing. I don't know anywhere else you can get such good and hard wearing children's school trousers from at such good prices, and to give another example, they have got some fantastic Panasonic Blu-Ray players in there at really competitive prices compared to the internet. I know, because I recently bought a Panasonic and it is the best machine I have ever owned, you really can "see every blade of grass", another cliche that gets bandied about.

There is a very nice looking cafe up there as well, I didn't have time to go in but it looked quite decent. That will have to go in a future blog.

The view from the balcony
So that's upstairs, what about downstairs, Mr Carson? Well it's huge. I did not have time to go down every aisle this morning but focused on a few key ones. The whole of the back of the store is given over to deli/ hot food and I have to say it looks amazing. The entire salad bar/ hot chicken is fantastic and makes anything else similar on offer in Bicester look like an afterthought. I picked up a French stick from the Bakery which I have just had a bit of for my breakfast and it was gorgeous. As for the deli itself there is a mouth-watering array of cooked cold meats, pies, and other delicacies - just what Bicester Blogger ordered you could say.

If I have one teeny weeny bit of criticism of the new store and it is very minor is that I was somewhat disappointed with the crisp range, there were not as many different brands as I was expecting. I doubt whether this will be that high on most people's priorities anyway, I do recognise that crisps occupy a more important place in my "hierarchy of needs" than in most people's.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
In mine, crisps come in-between water and sex  on the bottom row.

But it's not a problem as Poundland has an excellent range so I can always nip over there for them. That is the beauty of Bicester now - we really have got everything. Sainsbury has the lot, but for a few cheap alternatives you've got Poundland and Wilko in town (plus Aldi and Lidl) and there's M&S too for those upmarket occasions. We really do have it all now. What a fantastic town this is we live in and it is about to get even better because hot on the heels of this we have got the cinema opening tomorrow and that looks amazing too!

Welcome to the future!

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take a look at my books on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle), where you can read lots more of the same! Click here.

Jason xx

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Consumer Crusader

I think I might be losing it a bit (note - that is spelt "losing", not "loosing" by the way) because I seem to be making some rather strange mistakes that I would not normally make. For example when I put the shopping away today I put the baby wipes in the fridge and the milk in the cupboard.

Hopefully I am not losing the plot, this time I shall put it down to being rushed, hot, bothered and the fact that I still had my sunglasses on which made navigating the kitchen slightly more challenging than usual.

There are a zillion and one things to do around here. The washing has reached a new peak since the warm weather came - the children have developed many new and interesting ways to get mucky in the garden. I seem to be constantly running out of clothes. How is it that I do a wash load every day yet a boy owning 7 pairs of shorts can still run out? There's a load just finished sitting in the machine now waiting to be hung out, but it shall have to wait half an hour as I've got the pen between my teeth so to speak and have to bash one out (a blog!!!)

There was lots of follow up on the Town Centre chat page to yesterday's blog entry which certainly caught the public attention, in fact over 300 hits by the time I went to bed last night. I went back in today and had a good look around. I can confirm having checked the prices of all my staple grocery items that prices remain as they were for all the commodity items, and are in line with Tesco prices elsewhere. However, much more space has been dedicated to higher margin lines and also to single serve - for example with drinks. I imagine this is how they intend to drive increased profits. There are many many more facings now of single drinks e.g. Coke and less space to multipacks. As I have said before, buying single drinks or chocolate bars is a mugs game. But lots of mugs go shopping so it will probably work.

This is in danger of turning from a parenting blog into a shopping blog but there are so many things I could write about the supermarkets, it could be a blog in itself. Perhaps I should self style myself as "Jason Ayres - the Consumer Crusader - fighting evil supermarkets across the land". I could quite see myself doing that as a weekly column in one of the papers - exposing all the scams. I'd like to be so feared by the big chains that when they see me walking into their store I strike as much fear into their hearts as if the grim reaper himself had just walked in!

OK, I am getting a bit carried away. Anyway I did my bit today to maximise my returns. In Tesco I took all my shopping up to the till, £30+ worth and then put it through as 3 separate shops, they came to £10.00, £10.05, and £10.25. In my bag I had several £3 off when you spend £10 vouchers that were handing out like confetti during the refurb. So each of my £10+ shops was accompanied by a voucher, saving me a princely £3 each time, so overall, £9 off. How many of you would think of doing that? That's an extra £6 saved! Brilliant! That's enough to buy 3 copies of my Kindle book! Amazing!

I wrote a while back about these Brand Match schemes that the supermarkets run where they say you have saved so much on your shopping and such like with some accompanying tips e.g. split your shop into two, look back you'll find them. It struck me that on every shop I have done since these schemes came in, my ticket has informed me that I have saved money on my shop today, whether it be at Asda, Sainsbury or Tesco. I have never received a voucher for money off next time. At first I congratulated myself on being a shrewd shopper. But then I thought some more about it and the penny dropped.

People tend to buy items that are on offer in the shop they happen to be in. For example if you are someone who likes to buy 12 packs of cola and don't mind whether you have Pepsi or Coke, you just buy whichever is on offer then this is how it works.

Let us say that Tesco have their 12 packs of Coke at half price - while Sainsbury are full price. On Pepsi it is the other way round. If you shopped in Tesco you'd buy the half price Coke, if you were in Sainsbury you will buy the half price Pepsi.

Either way, when you get your receipt, this will be added to the money it is claimed you have "saved". You haven't really at all, you've just chosen the brand on promotion in whichever store you happened to be in. It's just one more way that supermarkets try and create the illusion that they are doing you a favour and they are cheaper than the others. They also are trying to make you feel good about yourself and that you are a shrewd shopper and you really are beating the system! But you aren't - you are being very cleverly milked of your money. Don't be fooled people!

But you can beat the system! I am confident I got value with my £3 vouchers today as I was buying predominantly low margin items. If you don't know what the mark up is on various things, I might cover this in a future blog - or in my Crusader column in the newspaper should it ever get off the ground. Who knows, I shall just keep writing away and hope to be discovered!

One other thing to follow up on - the whole "horse meat" thing was mentioned again on facebook. If you haven't seen it, I ventured the opinion that if major supermarket chains can get caught out, who knows what we might be eating from burger vans, kebab shops, at festivals etc. I would have thought that was far harder to police than checking out the supermarkets. It never gets mentioned though. Perhaps people aren't that bothered about what they are eating at 2am after 10 pints, I know I never was.

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Monday, 8 July 2013

Revamped Tesco Metro opens in Bicester Town Centre

So, after a week long refurbishment, Tesco in the centre of Bicester has re-opened its doors, just ahead of the grand opening of Sainsbury on Wednesday.

Welcome to Tesco Metro!

So what is the new Tesco like? How has it changed? What's new? Bicester Blogger investigates.

Now as you know if you are a regular reader, I have had my problems with this store in the past, however, I have decided to approach this review from a completely fresh perspective. So as far as I am concerned, they are starting with a clean slate.

So what is noticeably different about the new store?

Well - my first thoughts were that it has not changed as much as I thought it would have done. I was expecting a much changed offering, with far less groceries and much more fresh food. But I would say the basic offering of the store is still the same - you can still go there and buy your basic groceries as you could before.

Here are the major changes I noticed whilst reviewing the store today.

The overall number of aisles has been reduced from 11 to 10. This does not sound like a major change, but in fact it does make a considerable difference. The aisles are notably wider than they were before, which was just as well today as the store was packed. This is to be expected on launch day as people are curious. The wider aisles are definitely welcome. Pretty much everything has moved around from where it was before, but the offering is remarkably similar to previously on the standard grocery aisles. I think I was expecting there to be a lot more space dedicated to fresh food than before - and whilst there certainly has been an increase - it has not been on the scale I anticipated - for example like the Sainsbury store on Magdalen Street in Oxford.

A lot brighter! Same old floor though...
The big glass windows facing out to Sheep Street have been changed to clear glass so you can see in and out. This is a huge improvement and really adds to the amount of natural light coming into the store.

The tills have been completely redesigned, the self serve and standard checkouts have basically swapped places. Customer Services is no longer where it was - it has gone up to the other end of the store.

Bakery re-design
The bakery area has been redesigned and now looks more appealing with a sort of bay window style offering. My first impressions were that the product range had not changed much though, I am sure if I am wrong on that I shall be corrected! The fruit and veg area has also been redesigned and looks a lot more appealing.
A lot of space given to water - good in the current weather, but all year round?
At the far end of the store a lot more space has been given over to fresh foods and sandwiches, including one chiller full of water. This is the area where the most change has taken place. There is now a hot chicken counter which looks rather nice, and also a salad bar, and hot pies. This is clearly in an attempt to compete with Sainsbury who are going to have all of the same things in their new store. I shall take a look in there on Wednesday so I can compare the two.

The salad bar. Doubt I'll be frequenting this much but thought I'd
better put it in as I know some of you like that sort of thing.

As far as pricing goes, my first impressions were that grocery prices were in line with what they were before, but I have not yet done any investigation into this. My plan for a future blog is to do a price comparison between this store and the big Tesco at Pingle Drive to see if there are any discrepancies. My guess is that there probably won't be, because to me it would be commercial suicide to try and charge convenience store prices right next door to a big Sainsbury.

Hot chicken - self serve, this is more my sort of thing.

So - in summary, a reasonable refit, with a few new offerings, but nowhere near as big a change as I expected. It still feels like the same store to me with a few added frills. Can it compete against Sainsbury? Well it is not for me to say, I'm not going to dust down the crystal ball just yet, but I have my own personal views on what will happen. It would be unfair of me to put them here though and bias anyone, so I shall merely say, toss a coin boys, let the match commence and may the best team win.

Jason xx

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Saturday, 6 July 2013

Pool Ponderings

Well, here it is at last! After nearly six long years of waiting, the heatwave has finally arrived!

Allow me to elaborate. Back in the day (1990 to be precise) I started work at Nielsen, a great big office block with glass windows and no air-conditioning in Oxford. It's the big building on the left just after the park and ride if you are driving into Oxford from the M40.

Add to this greenhouse of a building a dress code which basically dictated "you wear a suit and tie at all times", and you have the perfect picture of complete misery during the summer heatwaves. There I sat in a pool of sweat throughout that first summer looking out of the window and dreaming of being free. This went on for 15 long summers when the heatwaves rolled around with monotonous regularity.

It didn't get any better when I went to work for the probation service. In the long hot July of 2006 I had to go home for a cold shower every lunchtime just to be able to get through the afternoon.

So when I finally left the full time workplace in 2007 I found myself looking forward to a bright future of lovely sunny summers in the garden. But they didn't come.

Yes, July 2006 was the last truly hot month, mockingly the weather has turned on me. I was so looking forward to my leisurely chilled out summer life style laughing evilly inside at all those poor sods still stuck in their offices or crawling up and down the A40 in their overheating volvos. But, finally, it seems the time has come! The family Ayres has moved out into the garden, the BBQ is in full swing as the long for heatwave finally kicks in. I may even have cause to dig my ancient old air-conditioning unit out of the back of the cupboard where it has been gathering dust and developing a highly advanced spider eco-system these past long wet summers.

But I still feel something is lacking. We've got some nice garden furniture and a nice little patio and a barbecue. But it is not like being on holiday. I really miss having a pool you can just get into at any time. I know it is possible to get plastic pools but they aren't really practical with kids my age. Paddling pools have also proven to be troublesome. Our garden area is not laid to lawn. It is half patio, half gravel. So any sort of inflatable pool is a bad idea. We did have a plastic one last year but this was also a problem - once it was filled up with water it was so heavy there was no way to empty it. Plus paddling pools are unappetising at the best of times. Within a few hours of filling one it is full of dead flies, stones chucked in by the children, toys, leaves and various other detritus. And the children had the tendency to get into it with their shoes on which is also a problem.

This year we have got a water table which is quite good fun - Ollie fills his water shooter up and fires it around. This is supposedly to water the plants but a fair amount has found its way onto other people, windows, even into the house. Neither of the boys like getting wet and complain vociferously leading to countless changes of clothes. Then they go straight back out and do it all again. Jamie particularly hates being wet and will come in whingeing and complaining asking to be changed if he has so much as 50p sized splat of water on his shirt. This is most irksome and somewhat hypocritical I feel as he refuses to toilet train and has no problem walking around with a great big ball of piss strapped around his waist but a little splash of water is unacceptable it seems.

It really would be nice if we had somewhere local to go swimming but we haven't. The baby pool at the sports centre has been closed since before Christmas after they found some cracked tiles on the bottom. Unbelievable that they haven't been able to sort it out by now. And we don't have an outdoor pool or even a paddling pool.

I think it is a great shame that in a town this size we haven't got so much as even a paddling pool in Garth Park. Now that would be lovely in this sort of weather when you could go and have a picnic and then a paddle. It's just so frustrating when there is nowhere to cool off, which is why holidays are so great. We are going to Butlins next month and they have got a fantastic outside paddling pool area. Will the weather be like this though? Probably not.

I wonder if anyone has ever broached the idea of a paddling pool in Garth Park? Probably not - I imagine it would be rather expensive. They do have the fish pond at the front but I imagine paddling in that would be frowned upon, not to mention rather stressful for the fish.

Never mind, there's always cold showers. And it is quite nice being outside at this time of night, though not as nice as it used to be as there is a lot more noise around here than there used to be. I am sat outside right now with a nice glass of vino writing this - and it is well deserved as I have just come back from work, doing a Year 6 leavers disco which went very well. I even discovered that I have a fan (of my writing). A lady who has been following me on twitter and following my blog for some time, so that was really nice. A good evening all round really, and they even ordered in a lot of Domino's Pizza, including my favourite, which is of course the "Meatylicious". Helen, my fan, despite only meeting me for the first time today, clearly knows me well!

Enjoy the sunshine!
Jason xx

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take a look at my books on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle), where you can read lots more of the same! Click here.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A new era dawns for Bicester

Bicester bucks the trend as Sainsbury's commits to £70 million development
It's nearly here!

Well it has taken a lot of time, a lot of planning, a lot of wondering whether it would ever even happen, but finally the new town centre and Sainsbury is on the verge of opening.

I don't think I am exaggerating when I say this is the biggest thing to ever happen in this town. Well at least the biggest thing to happen in the 22 years I have lived here.

Over that 22 years there have been changes. But it is also fair to say a lot of things should have, and could have changed sooner. But no matter about that now - it is finally here.

How ludicrous is it that in a town this size there has been no cinema? In fact there did used to be one, down London Road but you would have to be pretty long in the tooth to remember it - it closed down decades ago. But it matters not that we have had to wait so long for one to come - the point is that it is now finally here.

"Baaaa...do you think they'll be showing Silence Of The Lambs?"

When I came to Bicester 22 years ago I was struck by two things. Firstly how remarkably friendly the people are here. And secondly by the relative lack of things to do. This was a common complaint amongst the residents. If I had a pound for every time I've heard someone in the pub say something along the lines of "There's nothing for the kids to do here, nowhere for them to go..." I'd have £78 by now.

The fact is - there have been changes. I remember on the day I first came here driving along Sheep Street. You could stop outside the chippy that used to be half way along the street. The big pedestrianisation that took place in the mid 90s changed all that and was the last major change. Of course shops have come and gone and it has to be said things looked pretty bleak a few years back. Not only were national names like Woolworths and Adams going bust leaving empty units, a lot of our great loved traditional businesses such as  Ashmore's disappeared too. It seemed that the promised land of the new Sainsbury development would never come. It must be the best part of a decade since I first mentioned the plans on my old MySpace blog. At time I wondered if it ever would. There seems to be a frustrating slowness about things happening around here, but maybe that is the same anywhere.

In fact things were so bad that a few years ago I started my facebook page "Save Bicester Town Centre". Well I believe it is well and truly saved now, hence the recent change of title to "Bicester Town Centre Chat". We are 7 days away from a truly momentous day.

Those that have long complained that we live in "Tescoland" need complain no longer. I see that the old town centre Tesco has closed for a revamp - I think that is a very wise idea. My understanding is they are going for more of a city centre style store - less bog standard groceries and more sandwiches and takeaway food to attract the lunchtime shopper. Will it work? We shall see. As you'll be well aware if you've read my book Fortysomething Father I have had more than my fair share of run-ins with this store over the years, but I do think they are doing the right thing as it is hard to see it competing against the new Sainsbury as it is. Will it work? Well there is a lot of competition now - but as we all know competition is good for the consumer. We now have Sainsbury, Tesco, Aldi, Lidl, M&S and Iceland - all of which apart from Tesco have opened their new stores within the past five years or so. Now that is real progress and no longer should we be labelled as "Tescoland".

We don't know what all the other units will be yet, but lots of information is trickling through on to the Town Centre Chat page. The rate of sign up of new members is unprecedented so clearly there is a lot of interest. I will be posting this blog entry up on the page as it is relevant, so if you are a new reader, I'd just like to say "Hello - and welcome!" The more along for the ride the merrier! I am really pleased with the way the page is going actually - since I kicked off all the spammers it's been great for chatting about local issues, and I do allow a little promotion of local events and businesses as long as it is relevant and people don't abuse it. A great little page full of positive ideas - if you're a part of it, well, thank-you!

I cannot wait to get down to see the new development next Wednesday. All the years of hard work, planning, setbacks, problems, it's almost over now. Rest assured I'll be on here bright and early next Wednesday to give you my review.

Oh and finally - look out for me in the Bicester Advertiser this week - the photographer came round this morning to try and snap my best side. I held my stomach in as best I could but I rather overdid it at the barbecue last night so apologies in advance if my super size me persona takes up half the page.

Happy shopping people!

Jason xx

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, please take a look at my books on Amazon (Paperback & Kindle), where you can read lots more of the same! Click here.