Thursday, 30 August 2012

Online or not online - that is the question?

This is sort of a part two of the shopping blog I posted yesterday. I had intended to follow up in the same day as my blogging average has dropped during the school holidays, but I've not really been up to it unfortunately.

One of the things about being a parent is that being ill isn't really allowed. Back in the day I could phone Nielsen, put on a pathetic voice and then go back to bed. When you've got kids you don't have that luxury - they still have to be fed, dressed and taken to school. Fortunately not this week, and also fortunate that Claire was also off sick for two days so between us we've soldiered on but to say it's been a tough few days would be an understatement.

I'm not well enough to leave the house at the moment which means any socialising is out of the question for a few days, which is a pity as one friend has his 40th birthday tonight and then there's a karaoke night I had planned to go to on Friday, but can't be helped. Health./ family comes first and I know they'll all have a great time anyway - contrary to what I might have you believe it's not absolutely essential to have me there as the life and soul of the party to make it go with a swing. Though I undoubtedly do make an impact - even if it is only on the buffet.

We'll only need one tray of those now, Jason's not coming.

Anyway - shopping. Last time we dealt with getting the best deals possible, and let's face it, who wouldn't? Every few quid you save in Tesco's or wherever is money to be spent on the more important things in life e.g. drinking and gambling. Today's blog is not so much about saving money, though clearly shopping online is one way to do that. No this is more about my own personal preferences about where I like to shop.

Online or not online? Well our individual preferences differ, and I don't just mean shopping. Take betting for example. Many people enjoy nothing more than the banter and company of some fun in the bookies - I have myself in my day - but it's no longer really an option for me. Besides, I can get a massively better deal on any betting I want to do online - just little things like being paid for the first 5 places in big races like the Grand National other than 4 places in the shops, and countless other concessions, but it makes a huge difference.

Poker is another one. Now I have a poker player friend, let's keep his anonymity by calling him "Sharky". Now Sharky likes a game of poker. So do I. But the two of us have never met in a game and possibly never will. Why? Because Sharky has never played online poker in his life. He loves to sit around the table with people and try and read their body language. That's what it is all about for him. And why not? That is how the game has been played since time immemorial.

I am the complete opposite. I was aware loads of people played poker but never myself played until well past the age of 40, when finally my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Now, unlike Sharky and most of my other mates, if someone rings up and says "hey mate, poker tournament tonight at such and such", for the reason I have stated so many times before - young children, responsibility etc. So my poker playing has taken place 100% online. I enjoy it - can't pretend I've been massively successful at it, but it's a cheap, and challenging mathematical game to while away an hour or two late in the evening when my responsibilities for the day are done. The thought of actually sitting down around a table with lots of other people is quite terrifying really but I guess I ought to do it some day. Funny though isn't it how our lives lead us to do different things differently - Sharky only plays live. I only play online. But we are playing the same game.

Flush! Get in!

Now finally on to shopping. I like to shop online too - with some notable exceptions. Let's get the positives out of the way first. Anything electronic - PC's cables, batteries, ink cartridges, cd's, dvd's - you must buy online. It's no shock to me that the likes of HMV have ailed so badly in recent years - they can't compete. I can't believe how WHSmith get away with it myself - the prices they charge for some of their products that can be bought for fractions online or elsewhere is truly outrageous.

Back to scbool? Where do you think I go - Eton?

But - what won't I buy? Easy - food! Now Bestie and Jo Jo extol the virtues of online shopping and I can see the appeal in some areas - many people find it easier away from the hustle and bustle down the aisles. And other find that by not going to the supermarket you save money by not buying all those impulse items. Well these are two things that I enjoy. Let's take a couple of these scenarios and look at how they might be handled.

1) You want to get down the aisle, but two old biddies have stopped for a chat, strategically placing their trollies with just not enough space to get through. As an added complication they have done this right next to one of those cages full of boxes that some spotty gap year student is meant to be filling the shelves up with.

Do you

a) Stand there tutting and moaning while the biddies gossip on about old Mr Gittins and his hip operation, while spotty lamely tries to open the next tray of baked beans with his girlie 17 year old hands.


b) Shout "Coming through", knock grannies and spotty flying, whilst making it look like spotty caused the accident as they all lie groaning on the floor.

Coming through - move it or lose it!!!

2) There's a big display near the door with all this week's best offers on - they include BOGOF's (buy one get one free) on the following items: Strongbow, Walkers Crisps, McVities Chocolate Digestives, Gammon Steaks, Butter, Cheese. What do you say?

a) Look at that blatant attempt to lull us into buying all these unhealthy products, wifey. It's a disgrace. No wonder this country has such an obesity problem. Come on - let's walk by and go to the salad aisle.


b) I'll have the lot.

Well both b) for me so that's why I love supermarkets. But all joking aside, I do not like the idea of buying food online. Here's why. Firstly - sell by dates. Now I had a most unpleasant experience in Iceland the other day (no surprise there then I can hear the Iceland haters saying). I always go there to buy my milk as it costs £1. In Tesco it is £1.18. In M&S it is £1.49. Well milk is milk isn't it? I don't believe M&S milk can possibly come from cows producing milk of 49% better quality so Iceland it is.

However - I have a real big issue when buying fresh food that I have to have the best date available. This was borne out of a number of early shopping trips when I would take a packet of bacon or something off the shelf, put it in the fridge and then discover a day or two later it was already out of date.

Everyone knows surely about merchandising and stock rotation. How the oldest stuff is at the front, and newer stuff at the back. Well go in any supermarket and check. You could very well find that your packets of bacon at the front are dated 2nd Septemeber, whereas reach round to the box behind and they are dated 23rd September! OK - both are in date, and you may be planning to eat them today - but quite honestly - would you really prefer having something that's been hanging round at least 3 weeks longer than the fresher stuff at the back?

Anyway - what happened in Iceland? Well, their milk fridge packed up so there was none on the shelf. Desperately needed some - so asked an assistant. She said there was some out of the back and she would get me some. This immediately made me nervous. If I can't choose what I want myself I'm not happy. So off she went and sure enough came back with a bottle just 3 days away from it's use by date. I am used to getting at least 7+ days with milk. I had to buy it then, as I just felt I couldn't ask her to take it back - however this highlights in a nutshell why I won't even contemplate online food shopping.

I am told that they do give you the freshest stuff. Well how do I know that? If I ordered a shop from Tesco today and they brought me a bottle of milk with the date 4 September on it - 6 days away (we'll drink it within two so no problem) - then that's OK isn't it? No - it's not OK - I cannot live with the thought that whatever warehouse/ store that came from may have had some with the 5th, 6th and even 7th on it. I have got to have the freshest! Sorry, it's just the way I am!

And it's not just dates. It's quality too. Now when I go shopping I have very clear indications of what I want. The hams I buy and cook for example. I like to get down on my hands and knees and rummage through the whole lot looking for the one I like the look of most. Some are really fatty and horrible. Others much better. I have got no control over that with an online shop. Bacon - has to have the right amount of fat in the right place and has to "look right" - hard to explain. Bananas - got to find 5 at the exact level of ripeness I want. And then maybe I want 5 carrots for a casserole. I have to go through the box and get 5 the exact right width, length, with no nasty bits on them. If they look all old and hairy, then I'll rip open the bag below to get at the fresh ones. And don't think I don't know about your trick of hiding the nasty veiny gristly bits in your beef by turning it the other way or up or trying to hide it under the label. I'll be buying my meat from the butchers in town from now on. None of those tricks and it does actually taste like meat as well.

I'll choose my own, thank-you!!!

So that's why I don't do online food shopping.

Obviously with all this rummaging around, there can be some collateral damage - i.e. the nice tidy display of hams that someone took great pride in may change from the look of a freshly made and laundered bed to one that someone's been having hardcore sex in all afternoon, but in war there are always victims, and every trip to the supermarket is a fresh battle in the every going war against the blatantly profiteering Goliath's that rule our country.

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, 28 August 2012

Shop around, save a fortune.

I've done shopping related blogs before but haven't given away all my trade secrets - still here's a few more. Seriously - if you can be bothered, you could save thousands a year just by following my simple advice.

It all sounds totally obvious "No shit, sherlock" type stuff, but how many people actually do get the best deal week in week out?

Just as a disclaimer before we start - if you are the sort of person who has a well paid job and plenty of money - you probably don't have the time/ inclination to scrabble around saving a few quid here and there - life's too short! This blog is more for people like me who don't work full time, looking after kids etc yet manage to maintain a pretty decent lifestyle on a limited budget.

In the past I've done blogs about rip off special offers, multisaves etc so I won't go over that old ground again - you can find them in the blog archive. In this blog I am going to cover shopping around - and in the next one

Let's deal with the unit price thing first. I'll use soft drinks as an example. Let's assume you like to drinks cans of coke or pepsi - possibly both. And you drink a lot of it - like me. OK - even if you don't - imagine another product you buy all the time.

Now when you shop for these products in a supermarket - their prices change all the time. .Different products will be on different promotions in different chains every week. Each has it's standard price e.g. £3 for 6 cans of Diet Coke is fairly standard. Yet every few weeks this product will be available at half price or BOGOF in Tesco whilst it is full price in Sainsbury, the next week it will be on offer in Sainsbury and something else will be on offer in Tesco - Pepsi for example or a different pack size of coke.

The point is that you should NEVER just pay £3 for six cans of coke. That's 50p a can. Bearing in mind when it's on promotion you are paying 25p a can. That's 25p saving everytime you open one. Say you drink 8 cans a week - that's £2.00 saving a week or £104 a year - and that's just one product.

How much would you pay per can?

But - if you don't have time to go to several different supermarkets or you shop online - well what can you do? Either look for the best unit price available - or stock up heavily with a month's supply or more. It's not rocket science as they say. You need to be able to do a bit of maths too. And remember - some offers are crap. Tesco this week have two eight packs of diet coke for £7 - that is a crap offer. 43.75p a can. Last week they were on BOGOF - far better. Under my system you'd have bought half a dozen packs and stocked up last week so no need to buy them this week.

There is only ever one time you can justify paying a quid or more for a can of coke and that's when you want one right now, and it's got to be cold - then you get it from the chiller cabinet of any shop going. You are paying then for the convenience of it being cold. That's how shops like WHSmith justify it - but what about other things? I think it absolutely outrageous that you can walk into one of those branches and be expected to pay 70p for a Mars Bar or 60p for a packet of crisps when you can get 4 Mars bars for a quid in the supermaket and multipacks of crisps at a fraction of the price.

Anyone who buys a single chocolate bar in a shop like WHSmith is a muppet and a fool and literally throwing their money away on a retailer that is taking the piss. If you want to throw your money away like that, come round to my house, give me 50p and I will give you a Mars Bar out of my cupboard. Would you feel ripped off by me selling you something for 50p that I paid 25p for. Probably. Do you feel ripped off in Smiths paying 70p for something they probably paid 20p - probably not. Why? Because they are a "respected" retailer and I am not. And don't buy anything else from WHSmith either while we are at it - their office equipment/ supplies are hideously over priced.

Anyway - unit prices - everything's on offer somewhere all the time, here's a few examples of products I buy all the time and my minimum unit pricing I aim for. You should be aiming to get down as low as the following prices "per unit". And in many cases you can get a lot less.

Coke/ Pepsi - 30p per can
Crisps/ snacks - 15p per pack
Strongbow 440ml can - 65p per can
Dishwasher Tablets - 15p per tablet
Washing tablets/ liquid - 20p per wash
PG Tips - 2p per bag
Mars bars/ Twix/ Kit Kats etc - 25p per bar

In terms of shopping around, all of the supermarkets will claim to be the cheapest, giving price comparisons on various products and even deductions at the till or telling you how much you have saved on your shop but these don't tell the whole story. They are based on what we used to call "KVI's" - known value items - that's the few hundred or so top selling branded lines that all consumer know and are price sensitive about. It's not possible to directly compare most fresh products for a start as the supermarkets all vary in their offerings - for example - how do you easily compare a Tesco 400g pack of "Casserole Steak" with a Sainsbury 450g pack of "Braising Steak" - different weights, different names, differing quality. You can't compare. Same goes for all those "Finest" or "Taste The Difference" meals - the mark-up on those is horrendous and there is nothing to compare against. Also these comparisons don't always take into account promotions. So let's go back to Diet Coke for another example. This week it's £3.85 for an 8 pack in Sainsbury but £3.98 for an 8 pack in Asda. So it's cheaper in Sainsbury than in Asda - you won't get any discount on your till receipt for that in Sainsbury. However what you aren't told is that it's "Buy 2 for £5" in Asda - making them the cheapest per unit if you buy 2 packs. There are loads of websites dedicated to this sort of thing. Check out the attached link and you will see what I mean (NB: prices change all the time so this might not be correct by the time you look at it). coke

Click on the diet coke 8 pack and you can see the various offers, and where to buy. It also demonstrates how crap Tesco's current 2 for £7 offer is. I've said it before and I'll say it again - never be lulled into thinking those little yellow shelf stickers mean you've got a good deal.

Note on the link also the graph - and the ups and down of the price. Think of it like the stock market - you want to be buying at the bottom. Diet Coke doesn't go off that quickly so if you get what I call a MEGA deal  - the sort that doesn't come up very often - when it's say 20p a can, buy as many as you can afford/ carry! You can also do it online - though remember online shopping comes with other factors you've got to take into account like delivery charges and such like.

The site I linked to above is a great place to make comparisons. Particularly if you want to do your shop online. Personally I wouldn't - more of that next time, but there's nothing to stop me doing a "mock" shop at Tesco and then going up to the shop to get it. The other thing I like about this site, is it does highlight for you what the best deal is, taking into account unit prices and promotions.

What it doesn't do is let you do one shop from several shops. Now wouldn't that be good - if you could cherry pick online and have a home delivery come for £100 quids worth of stuff, a third each from Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda. Probably not logistically or economically feasible but still a nice idea! I still wouldn't food shop online though - why not? That's coming in the next entry.

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 x x

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Comedy Calamities

Right, I think it's time we exposed a few bits of common knowledge for the crap that they are.

Slightly aggressive opening, I know, but I've got the bit between my teeth.

In a conversation on facebook tonight, it was mentioned by someone that they had seen a couple of clips from The Office on one of those "Top 100 comedy moments shows" and it got me thinking.

It got me thinking how bloody annoying and predictable and sheep like those programmes are and indeed any programme that ever pays homage to any classic show.

My point it this. There have been many many great sitcoms over the years with many classic moments. Sadly, when it comes to featuring clips from these shows, the producers always go with the same tried and trusted clips which it has become ingrained into the national consciousness must be the best moments from these shows, because they themselves have previously seen them in similar shows. So it is taken as gospel that if you are going to show a clip from The Office then you must show the clip of David Brent dancing as according to every man and his sheep this is the funniest moment of the show. And this is my point. The worst thing is - that this clip does absolutely nothing to highlight the whole point of what The Office is about and any casual viewer watching who might never have seen the show is going to get no idea whatsoever of what it was all about.

Seriously, was this really the best moment of The Office?

And the same thing is repeated across all shows.

We are to believe it seems that during the entire 20 year run of Only Fools And Horses the two most amazing things that ever happened were Del falling through an open hatch and a chandelier falling down. Or if you are very lucky a clip of them as Batman and Robin. Yes - funny moments in their own way, but the crowning pinnacle of the series? Are we to ignore the remaining 30+ hours of material. Show some imagination for goodness sake!!! Del falling through the bar was quite amusing the first time I saw it - but after 50 times the joke has worn thin. Just like David Brent's dancing which quite honestly I find embarrassing now and a low point of the show.

Yeah great. So what happened in the rest of the episode?

Fawlty Towers? Basil hitting the car with a branch. One Foot In The Grave? Victor answering the phone which turns out to be a dog. Hilarious. Not. Didn't find that joke funny in the first place, in what is an amazingly funny show so why it should have become deemed a classic I don't know. Presumably someone important decided it was so everyone else who worked for him kissed his butt and said it was and then the millions of sheep who watched the clip show decided it must have been. Hey presto.

What about shows I haven't watched, well there aren't many. But I can't stand Dawn French - nothing personal but she irritates the hell out of me and for that reason I have never watched The Vicar Of Dibley. But of course I've seen the clip shows. So shall I tell you what I know about The Vicar Of Dibley? Dawn French jumps in a big puddle. Guffaw Guffaw. How amusing. And it would never happen. If that's the funniest moment that show's got to offer I'm glad I didn't waste x hours of my life watching it.

So that's point one dealt with. Point two. For which I blame John Cleese and Connie Booth, who of course wrote the fantastic and best sitcom of all time, Fawlty Towers.

Sadly, something John and Connie said after writing this show, has had repercussions since. They said that to make the show as amazing as it was, they could only possibly have written 12 episodes. In order to pack the maximum into every one of those 12 shows. I think perhaps they are right. We are used to having hundreds of episodes of US shows at our disposal, but in Britain things are rather more frugal. Imagine if there were 200+ episodes of Fawlty Towers around - would it be as good - or diluted? What would you rather have?

In the case of Fawlty Towers, perhaps 12 was right, however the legacy of this has been that so many shows since have been similarly restricted, I could name many but the fact is we have been starved of episodes of so many classics when they could have made so much more. And it's not just comedy.

We produce some amazing shows here. Take Sherlock for example. Great show. Has run for 2 series. But 3 episodes per series? Can we have a bit more please? OK they are feature length - I'd split them personally and have 6 episodes per series as 3 two part stories but that's just my preference. They make 4 per year of Lewis, and the standard run for any UK show is 6. Sometimes a few more - Shameless can be praised for extending their episode run up to 22 a year but that's very much the exception. Perhaps they looked across the pond.

Over in America, when they invest into a TV series they really invest. Sign up the stars on 7 year contracts. Have a team of writers in place. Run for 20+ episodes per season. Note - it's a season in the US, not a series as we have here. Now the generally perceived view over here is that this approach dilutes the quality - it can't be as good. Perhaps in the past that was true, and I was always one for dissing "transatlantic trash" in the past but all that has changed post Millenium. Look at the quality that comes out of the States that we can gorge on with 20+ episodes a year. Lost! Heroes! House! True Blood! The Office! These shows are produced to high quality and don't have weak or filler episodes. So why must we put up with 6 episodes of all our favourites and lengthy delays between series. You don't get that in the states, they start in September and that's it. In fact they are barely off the air all year round as unlike here they have breaks in transmission between "new" episodes.

And to illustrate my point - the fantastic Office with David Brent and his dancing ran for 14 episodes here. Then they took it over to the states. I thought - uh-oh, this is going to be shit, just like every other UK sitcom every sent over stateside - sorry, but they just don't get our humour. So I watched the opening episode - and it was woeful. They attempted to copy word for word the first UK episode - it was stilted and awful. Yep - another disaster. But I kept watching. It limped unspectacularly through an opening UK style 6 episode season (they must have felt robbed over there), and then something rather amazing happened. They stopped trying to copy the UK show and let their characters develop in their own right. Throughout that second season (a full 22 episode run) it grew and grew and became quite amazingly the most brilliant and hilarious show I have ever seen come out of the states. And I hate American sitcoms with a passion, Friends? Absolute shite. Sorry if that offends, but tough, it's mindless, annoying twaddle.

Nauseating shite.

The UK version of the Office never had the chance to go on and see if it could maintain it's level of greatness, we are to believe it seems that it's quality would have been diluted as per the Cleese and Booth philosophy. But the US show shines on and shows no sign of stopping, even despite losing it's main star, Steve Carell at the end of season 7. Meanwhile, minor characters such as Keith in our UK version never had time to be much more than cameos. Yet his counterpart (Kevin) across the pond has had time to shine in his own right, as have all the other minor roles.

No point me recommending any of you watch this show because if you like it, you like it, if you're not interested you are unlikely to be swayed by my arguments. But if you do decide to try it, don't watch an episode from season one. Something they also used to say about Star Trek, The Next Generation which also had an indifferent first year. My advice on that one, is that if you are flicking through the channels and come across an episode and think about watching it, check to see if Riker has got a beard. If he hasn't, don't bother.

Good episode
Crap episode.
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, 17 August 2012

Practical Parenting

One of the upsides of having two children close in age - and the same gender means they naturally play well together - and it helps with learning concepts such as sharing and working together.

Of course, that's not all sweetness and light and for every happy moment running around together there's one of fighting, snatching, crying - it's all part of the growing up process.

Now I can't pretend the school summer holidays have been easy all day every day. I would love to be able to tell you happy tales of us heading off every day to theme parks and animal sanctuaries and all the rest of it, but the house and the business still need to run - and there are simple practicalities such as feeding and washing and cleaning that can't be ignored. OK - some people do to more extent than others, but I've settled on a bit of a compromise situation here. We'll have a couple of days out a week - on the others I'll work like a blue arsed fly to get everything done here and get ahead of the game.

When you have two children it's quite hard to give either of them the individual attention they need - both vie for Daddy's attention and if you attend to one, the other doesn't like it. So we all look forward to Friday at the moment. That is the one day per week when Jamie - the two year old goes to his childminder for the day. Although she has another child in her care, the fact that this is her full time job means that she can give him a level of attention I cannot always manage, and she takes them out to various toddler groups and on outings most weeks. This arrangement will be coming to an end soon, which will be sad for us, but Jamie is moving on to pastures new (The Courtyard) in September - all I will say is, publicly here, thank you so much Julie, you have been fantastic with Jamie for the last six months. I can thoroughly recommend her if any of you out there are looking for some childcare, here is a link to her page.

Now the big bonus of Julie taking Jamie on these Fridays is that I am then able to devote the whole day to my other son, the 4 year old Ollie. Now as you know, Ollie has had some behavioural issues which we have had a number of specialists in the school involved with and he is to some degree on the autistic spectrum - not severe - but like everything in life - we are all on a scale somewhere and he is towards that end. He is a fantastic and loving little boy, but does have some behavioural quirks that I more than anyone seems able to deal with - which as his main carer is as it should be. He finds it hard to deal with some fairly straightforward day to day situations which lead to frequent upset and tears and I cannot always deal with this effectively on the spot instantly as I'm doing one of some many other things - preparing their meals, changing nappies, hanging out washing and all the other stuff. However on Fridays it is different. I ensure that everything that needs doing around here is done by the end of Thursday (other than very basic everyday necessities) so on Friday there is no washing, no business work - everything is already prepared for the weekend gigs, I ignore emails and so once we drop Jamie off with Julie the day is ours.

And what a difference it makes - this whole day with my undivided attention. We've had barely a cross word or crying moment today - he has been happy, fantastic, and he's shown it. He's even said "I love spending the day with you Daddy".

We went to Garth Park - deserted because the day started wet, but it was dry when we got there. We went on the swings and the rocket. On our walk there he asked me about the power lines over Priory Road instigating a whole talk about electricity and what it does for us in the house - finishing with a quiz - e.g. I say "name 3 things in the kitchen that use electricity". We don't get the opportunity to talk so much at home when everyone else is about.

We walked around all under the trees and going inside the hollow bushes - looking for treasure (daisies). Ran round and round the bushes. Ollie chased a squirrel right across the park and watched it fly up into the tree. We pretended to train a pigeon to walk on the different coloured sections on the roundabout "walk on the green bit, Mr Pigeon". And he chased some across the field to great laughter when they flew up in the air. We were in the park about an hour and a half. Then we went to Nash's and he had toast and an iced biscuit and a carton of Orange Juice.

And then back home and we sat with some learning books I have for 3 to 5 year olds, joining up letters to pictures (e.g, draw a line from the picture of the cat to the letter it begins with). Not a single moan or whinge the whole time - which is remarkable for Ollie who due to his issues gets frustrated very easily.

So I have no qualms whatsoever about splitting the two of the boys up one day a week - it's beneficial for both of them.

Oh - and we have not had that CBeebies on all day (it's a TV channel - not a baby sitter) either and nor has it been asked for.

We have had a good day!

Now they are both home and playing in the garden. Fighting has not broken out yet. All's good (so far).

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, 15 August 2012

Massaging me bits

"I'm a prostitute robot from the future!"

The immortal words of Bill Bailey in "Black Books" when trying to work out what a home neck massager was and holding it up to his chest.

Well I haven't got one of those yet, but if Homedics foot massager is anything to go by I soon will.

Now I have always suffered from both sore feet and a sore neck. Most of my other bits seem to be OK most of the time. Now some years ago I did have a brief dalliance during a single period with a young lady whose speciality was foot rubs. It does seem however that this is not a common hobby of most women - I can think of another activity unsuitable for a family audience that you've got more chance of getting than a foot rub. Thankfully, kindly wifey has indulged me for some years, but what with her recent RSI on the wrist, I've had to reluctantly give her some leave. However, this can now be permanent as she has very kindly purchased me a Homedics foot massager - and here it is.

Give it to me baby...ooh yeah, right there...
This thing is amazing! Forget crappy foot spas, this thing is the dogs! The red lights you can see are small balls about the size of marbles and when you place your foot on them, wow, it's like your feet have died and gone to heaven.

If all Homedics products are like this, then I am definitely going to get Bill Bailey's robot prostitute device next! My neck and upper shoulders have always suffered.

Next up tonight - my home contents insurance. Boring subject I know but it highlights the need I have always said to shop around and get value. Well I've had this insurance for 6 years and it has been bumping along quite nicely at around £20 a month. Suddenly and inexplicably the renewal comes through and it's gone up to £36 a month! Now I almost let this go through without noticing but the figure jumped out at me. Rang them up - no explanation except something about underwriters re-assessing the postcode or some such bollocks.

Straight on to and an hour or two later and a few searches later old policy is cancelled, and new policy in place for just £16 a month and with over twice the amount covered as before.

Just goes to show, you should never automatically renew things without checking what else is out there. My "value" way of living my life has kept me in considerable good stead over the years. Shopping around. From paying £5.99 on Amazon for something that is £18 in Argos to backing a horse at 12/1 with one bookmaker when it's 8/1 with another, all these little things every single day make the difference between living like a prince or a pauper. It all works for me.

I keep meaning (and promising to QOTS) to do a shopping blog, and I will do soon! As well as initiating her into the joys of the supermarket. Something for September - funny, everything seems to be on hold until September at the moment - I wonder why? (Clue - all the mums and dads know).

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, 14 August 2012

Childish Pursuits

I am finding it very hard to blog or do anything at the moment - this one's been a couple of days in the drafting. The children are quite literally taking up every waking moment of my time and there are so many other things to do around here I am really finding it hard work. And as a parent who takes my responsibilities very seriously I have to fulfill my daily commitments AND find time to spend with them that's not just cooking and washing but talking, teaching, learning. Other than at work on Saturday and Sunday nights I think everyone else will see very little of me until term starts.

Before then it's Ollie's birthday. Trying to get the birthday presents right is always tricky, especially at his age. When I originally asked him what he wanted for his birthday he said "nothing". Sounds like a bargain - I thought kids are all money-orientated these days. Maybe that comes later. Anyway, I tried various suggestions including some new games for his Leappad (last year's present) but the response was "I'm happy with the ones I've got, thank-you". Those were his exact words.

The Leappad is an amazing gadget, it cost £80 when I bought it but they are only £45 now and Ollie has had hundreds and hundreds of hours play and learning out of it. Games are designed with a learning edge in mind - and also in it are various other things like an art studio and a pet you have to look after. He adores it. Here's a piccie.

Best toy ever

I have to say if you are stuck for present ideas, you can't go wrong with one of these. Ollie has done thousands of drawings on it, and taken photos and even videos. He has drawn over 2000 pictures, here's a few that I found when I uploaded them to the computer a couple of months ago. Remember this is all stuff he has done completely off his own bat - without any help from me.

This is a staircase

It's all very logical - these are just a few examples but his pictures are very ordered and mathematical. I think he's going to be an architect.

Anyway, can't buy him another leappad, when pressed he asked for crayons - of which he has hundreds, eventually we got to looking at the Argos catalogue, and he expressed an interest in a Cars racing set which I bought and then subsequently returned when he later asked for something else - a water play set - with slides and waterfalls. Which was the same price so an easy exchange.

Both my boys love cars, and I got to thinking about some of my childish pursuits. I loved anything to do with racing, and stats, and was forever organising games with cars and various other things. We even had a collection of snails which we raced on a large board with some lettuce at the end - unfortunately most of these were lost in a deadly woodlouse attack one wet Wednesday in the Spring of '78.

I used to draw out large chalk race tracks on the front drive and divide them into squares, like a traditional game board. All the cars would be lined up on the grid, and then I would throw dice and move them around the board, starting with the leader each time and working back. My very own Grand Prix. To liven things up there was the odd death square. Land on this and throw again - if it's a double, you've crashed! All my cars had names and numbers and whole Formula One seasons could be played out in this way, with points scoring and everything.

This started not long after I got into Grand Prix racing after James Hunt won the British Grand Prix in 1977. But I was also fascinated by league tables - always have been. For example I am not really interested in the slightest in watching any football matches but love to look at the league tables and follow how they 

I also had an indoor league for wet days and the winter which was using a track thing called "streak racing", not dissimilar to the hot wheels toys of today. This was a twin set of track with a loop the loop and a finish line, two cars racing side by side, winner takes all. I had about 80 cars divided into four divisions of 20. I created fixture lists and they would all race each other over the course of a season. The league tables were kept on my bedroom wall and updated after each set of results using blu-tac and cut out numbers and names. At the end of the season there would be promotion and relegation. Cars would move up and down the tables, over the years, older ones would drop down as they began to get worn and their wheels didn't go as fast. 

This went on for a few years I would say between the ages of about 8 and 12. Later on by the time I was doing my A-levels I was still running leagues - but in this case it was a drinking league that took place in the Duke Of York after Communication Studies on a Friday lunchtime. 

But still have had a hand in organising various leagues since then, but not currently. If Ollie (or Jamie for that matter) shows an interest in any of these areas, and with the love of numbers and cars, it's very possible, then the great racing leagues of my childhood may well return! League tables on the playroom wall? Bring it on!

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, 8 August 2012

Bake your own yummy bread for 30p a loaf

I can't understand why more people don't make their own bread - and yes that includes using a breadmaker for all those clever dicks who say that you aren't making real bread if you are using one. This sparked off a sarcastic debate on Facebook the other day, which ended with me comparing the comments to other things e.g.

"I didn't really have milk in my tea this morning because it didn't come straight from a cow's tit. And it wasn't real tea either as I didn't sail to India to pick the leaves before breakfast, it was a PG Tips teabag".

Point made I think. There seems to be this opinion that using a breadmaker is somehow cheating, but if it produces perfect bread every time then why is it cheating? I don't hear this about any other modern labour saving devices so why is the breadmaker singled out for derision.

The Panasonic SD253 - still going strong after 7 years.

Anyway, 30p a loaf, that's how much I've got my costs down to now for baking my own bread - OK - admittedly this excludes the electricity to do it, but how much can that be - pennies?

I've tried a number of different recipes with a number of different flours and yes, admittedly there is an element of "you get what you pay for" but the price differential between different brands varies enormously.

For example the nicest flour I have found is the Wessex Mills range - they sell it in Nash's at the rather steep price of £2.50 - or £2.25 if you get your 10% discount for having something in the cafe - i.e. Bacon Roll and Coffee.

The best flour - £2.50

Absolutely delicious, but the price differential is such that a standard flour does the job 90% as well, and at 60p - the going rate for Tesco's standard strong white you can't go far wrong. These come in standard sizes of 1.5Kg which is enough for 3 and 3/4 loaves at 400g a go.

A 60p bargain

I think this is one of those key items that the supermarkets compete on - like milk, so there's very little margin in it. The others do similar, the cheapest I have found is Aldi's at 59p. Like I said it's probably 90% of the quality of the Wessex Mills but at £2.50 vs 60p I'm willing to take that % drop in quality.

This year's had an aura of all things Gallic about it for various reasons, and my bread making is no different. The breadmaker has a settting for French Bread and the recipe is remarkably simple. In the past I have baked wholemeal and white loaves containing Sugar, Milk Powder and Vitamin C powder, none of which are included in the French Recipe. The idea is you get bread similar to what you would have in a French Stick. Obviously it's not a French Stick, it comes out as an actual loaf, such as below. Which is handier anyway. The recipe is incredibly simple - here it is, plus costs.

1 tsp Yeast (5p approx, Allinsons)
400g Strong White Flour (17p approx from Tesco)
15g Butter (7p approx)
1 tsp Salt (1p approx)
300 ml water ("free" - ok fractions of a penny if you're on a meter).

So that's how I do it for 30p, and here is the end result.

Photo: My home baked "French Style" Bread - and it's made the house smell yummy (for a change) x
Freshly baked bread

Bread is a staple food in this house, the kids eat more of it than anything else. A lovely fresh loaf like this won't have time to go off - 24 hours is about as long as it will last before it's all wolfed down, and that's even with wifey being off carbs at the moment. So none of the artificial preservatives you get in shop bought bread needed. I used to buy wrapped (factory) bread from Iceland - but quite honestly it tasted stale as soon as opened even if a few days off it's use by date, and I wondered how long it took to get from bakery to shelf. May well have been sat in the back of the shop for a few days in the interests of "stock rotation".

Now one of the problems encountered with this sort of bread is it's quite difficult to slice. Not for me! My faithful old Andrew James Meat Slicer also has a bread blade and it produces lovely even thick slices which can be put in the toaster or used for sandwiches. Admittedly there are crumbs everywhere afterwards, but this is to be expected as anyone who has every tried to slice a freshly baked French Stick will know!
My mate Andrew -
best kitchen appliance I have ever purchased.

And sandwiches are a must in this house. My four year old son (Ollie) is in Year One (his second year) at St Edburg's Primary which is a small school in Bicester which does not have a canteen. All of the children take packed lunches. This is a godsend (C of E school - geddit?) for me, because Ollie is notoriously fussy over food but the one thing I can guarantee he will eat is bread - or more specifically marmite sandwiches. So I can send him off to school each day with his lunchbox secure in the knowledge he's got something fresh, homemade that he will eat in there. As he did every day last year when he was in Class R.

So there you have it - the 30p loaf, fresh, the kids eat it, baked and sliced right here at Baconham Villa.

I'm feeling peckish after writing all that, time for a slice of toast I think!

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.