Friday, 31 December 2010

Reflecting on being a Symbio Tester

2011 is a mere 7 hours away.  This means there is only 17 more days in the reviewing period for the Graco Symbio.  Over the last few weeks, this pushchair has been like the 8th member of our family.  It's gone everywhere we go, it's been the subject of photo shoots and videos and it's even joined in with family singsongs!!

The going got a bit tough with some of the reviews I had planned.  The unprecedented snowy weather scuppered a few ideas.  Then we all got struck down with the dreaded Christmas flu which hampered things somewhat.  However, over all, I've given the role of Symbio Tester some serious effort, because that is how I take on new challenges!  I am a bit full-on, buzzing with ideas and over excitedly throwing myself into the project in hand!  It's been fun and I know I will look back on the photos and videos of Freddy in his pushchair with such fondness in a few years time, when he'll no longer need pushing around when out and about!  I have documented a period of time in his life in a way I would not have done without the ideas generated from being a Symbio Tester.  I've loved this "job"!

Graco, Symbio,

Thursday, 30 December 2010

My Top 5 Good Things About Having Kids


As a self-confessed list addict, I am very excited to take part in Kate Takes 5's Weekly Top 5 Listography !
                                  My Top 5 Good Things About Having Kids

1: Looking at these beautiful little people and knowing that they are my contribution to the future!  How cool is that!

2: Seeing life through my children's eyes allows me to relive all those magical moments anew. Children still see wonder in the mundane. What I see as an old plastic pop bottle ready to be recycled, Freddy sees as a fantastic new toy.

3: Watching children's films over and over again...I've seen Toy Story 3 about twenty times over Christmas, I can recite the lines, I cry everytime...and I get away with it because I say it's on for the kids!!

4: When my hair is greasy, I have no make-up on and I'm wearing my tired old trackie bottoms, my kids still  look at me with pure, unjudgmental love!  They laugh at my feeble attempts at humour and don't tell me to shut-up when I sing along to their favourite songs, even when I'm not sure of the words or the tune!

5: Getting to buy kids' food...oven chips, Quorn Nuggets, Spaghetti Hoops, cheese slices. Penguins, Arctic Roll and ice pops...and secretly indulging!

My 2010 Photo Montage

My year 2010 in photos...(for your chance to win a ticket to CyberMummy 2011 with Mummytips
add your Year in Pictures too!)

My montage sums up 2010 to me.  My fabulous family who continue to suprise me and delight me; renewing my vows with my lovely husband; our continuing love of all things "horror"; our World Cup excitement, turned disappointment; my new blog, which has become an outlet for my ramblings as well as offering me some amazing opportunities and my newfound success and hope for 2011!!

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

My 2010 Reminiscing!

As 2010 prepares to bow out, replaced by the new kid on the block 2011, it's a time to reminisce. 

This year has been generally kind to me and my family.  No monumental events...they all happened in 2009 with Freddy's birth, Megan and Joe leaving home and my redundancy all shaking up the dynamic of the household.  There have been a few dramas with my older children this year...some relationship wobbles, some health worries and some financial concerns...but they all seem to be resolving themselves.  *fingers crossed*  My three youngest children have all flourished in their respective worlds in 2010.  Freddy is running around and starting to chatter away.  He is an absolute joy to us all.  Kizzy is loving her new Junior School and doing well in all aspects of school life.  Ella has started her GCSE year with a whole host of A*'s and her music is coming on in leaps and bounds.

Ian and I renewed our vows on our 13th Wedding Anniversary and I wear my beautiful ring with pride. Our party was featured in Pick Me Up magazine which was hilarious! We are still happy and very much loved up with each other and our life.

The biggest thing to come out of 2010 has been my discovery of the possibilites of social media.  In September I found the courage to start this blog, after months of  procrastinating. I am thrilled to have followers, originally wondering if anyone would ever even notice my ramblings. I love discovering other peoples' words and have become an avid reader of a few favourite blogs.   Alongside the blogging, I rekindled my love of comping and my family have enjoyed some fantastic successes...most notably Ian's car win!  I was chosen as a Graco Symbio Tester and have enjoyed reviewing, blogging and vlogging about the experience, adding YouTube and Flickr to my repetoire of technology I can use.  In the last three months I've had a whole host of experiences that I would not have otherwise had...being filmed hosting the Ultimate Family Party in the VW final and donating £2500 to charity as runners-up; attending both the Clothes Show and the Good Food Show; making our bespoke ice cream flavour with my 8 year old daughter at Cheshire Farm Ice Cream Factory; taking front row seats at the Bullring Fashion Show and supporting Ian in the Hands Off My Hyundai challenge.  I've met some really lovely people and made some wonderful virtual friends through these experiences.  I can't wait to see where my hobby takes me in 2011!

My journey into 2011 is as yet unknown, but it is something I am looking forward too.  As my family's adventures unfold, I'll enjoy sharing the moments right here on my blog.

Hope you all have a Happy New Year!

Monday, 27 December 2010

Toyology Review...Scalextric Start Grand Prix

This Christmas, Santa was given a helping hand  in providing presents for my family, when I won a wonderful box of Toyology toys from A Modern Military Mother's blog.  I was exteremely thrilled to win such an exciting array of Toys R Us's finest!  On Christmas Day, one particular toy became an instant hit with the whole family from 18 month old Freddy right up to 42 year old Dad!  This was the Scalextric Start Grand Prix Set.

"This great Scalextric Start Grand Prix Set allows you to design and decorate your own cars and then race against your opponent to become grand prix champion on the 1:32 track. The new simple fit track and skill level hand controllers let you control the speed making this set perfect for beginners and professionals."

Toys R Us, Scalextric, cars, toys

My husband has a history with Scalextric.  He collected it as a child and still indulged in tournaments as a teenager.  So he was really excited to put the new set together.

His first observation was that it was much easier to assemble with the new Ultra Fast Fit Track.  The pieces slotted together very simply and within minutes the whole track was assembled and ready to go. There are six different 540cm circuits.  We opted for the simplest track, which was very straightforward to construct using the diagram on the front of the box.

The set came with two Grand Prix Racing Cars, one in red, one in white.  There are stickers which can be used to customize the cars.


The set is for children aged 5 and up.  My 8 year old daughter found the controllers really easy to get to grips with.  She quickly worked out how to exert the right amount of pressure on the trigger to avoid launching the car off across the living room.  She was able to race against her elder sisters and her dad without feeling in any way handicapped by her age.  The Skill Level Control feature allows you to restrict the hand controller's sensitivity  so younger children can play without risk of damaging the cars or becoming frustrated by cars constantly coming off the track.  This would make it more accessible for beginners.  Although possibly considered a boys' toy, my three girls became very competitive, racing against each other and enjoying every minute of the high octane fun!! 

Our 18 month old was fascinated by the cars whizzing around the track.  He enjoyed sitting on Daddy's lap and feeling involved.  Daddy even helped him to have a go at controlling the cars himself.  It'll be a few years though before he can take pole position himself!  He did try to grab the cars on their way past him a few times, creating spectacular crashes, but no harm befell the vehicles!!

All in all, the Scalextric Grand Prix Set provided good family entertainment that was not limited by age or gender.  Everyone enjoyed playing it and cheering on the cars in the races.

8 year old Kizzy said "It is so exciting when the cars get neck and neck because you don't know who will lose or win.  You have to stay in control or else you'll crash off the tracks.  I can even beat my Dad!!"

Priced at  £69.99, this is a great starter set. Perfect for children just discovering the joys of Scalextric or for dads reliving their Racing Driver childhood dreams.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Present Pile


Friday, 24 December 2010

A Comping Christmas...Cheers to Everyone!!

My aim this year was to try to win Christmas!  With the recession biting and the people at Student Finance robbing us blind, an extra mouth to feed and me being made redundant, I decided in September to resume my comping hobby with an aim to win the things we couldn't afford.

This week I was lucky enough to win the Naked Wines Consequences Story Competition and won £1000 worth of beer, wine and chocolate!  Perfect for the festive season!  This morning we had a delivery that made my husband smile!

Our garage is now full of festive goodies that I am looking forward to sharing with friends and family.  So, cheers to everyone.  Hope 2011 brings good luck to everyone!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Gallery...Love

When I thought about this week's theme I considered all different aspects of love.  The love I have for my husband, the love for my beautiful children.... my love of cake maybe!!  But then I thought about the love that made me most proud!  That is the love between my children.  I love how all five of my children get on so well.  I've never had to sort out a situation between warring siblings  They may have the odd squabble but it's never escalated into anything greater than that.  They are so supportive and openly affectionate with each other.  They make me proud!


Wordless Wednesday

I love this needs no words!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Making Ice Cream at Cheshire Farm

Back in the Summer my 8 year old daughter Kizzy entered a competition at the Cheshire Farm Ice Cream factory, to invent your own, brand new flavour of ice cream.  Her entry was a combination of mango, pineapple, banana and orange, with swirls of fruit puree running through it.  We were totally delighted when her flavour was chosen and we were invited to go to the factory to help make a batch.

Thankfully, the weather today did not prevent us from making the journey to Cheshire and we arrived to be greeted by the director Jonathan.  We donned paper coats, shoe covers and hair nets ready to enter the factory.  Everyone was lovely and had made such an effort to make Kizzy's experience an unforgettable one.  Pots of fruit concentrates were lined up on the counter for her to sniff and identify.  The orange was amazingly pungent!  Kizzy was then invited to create her flavour by adding concentrates to the base mix of milk (fresh from the farm cows yesterday), cream and sugar.  She took great delight in dolloping and pouring the fruit, while her sister Ella mixed it with a big whisk.  After some taste tests, she came up with the perfect mix!

This bucketful of fruity goodness was poured into the bespoke ice cream making machine and Kizzy pushed the button to begin the freezing process!  It was surprisingly quick...just long enough for Kizzy to put the personalised stickers on the lids of her 2 litre tubs.  The filling of the tubs was a lot of fun.  Armed with her specialist tool (aka a wallpaper scraper), Kizzy scraped the splodging ice cream flat and swirled in fruit purees to make ripples of orange sauce.  She experimented with peach and passionfruit purees too, making six 2 litre tubs of her own bespoke Ice Cream!

The highlight for me was when, armed with a spoon, we were allowed to scrape out the remnants of the ice cream machine.  The freshly frozen, fruity ice cream was refreshing, tangy and creamy all at once.  A real triumph!  Kizzy absolutely loved making the ice cream and enjoyed being given the freedom to experiment and get creative.  We felt how Charlie must have felt in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. 

We were given six tubs of the rippled fruity ice creams which we look forward to sharing with family and friends.  We were already big fans of the Cheshire Farm Ice Cream, we love it even more now!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Our Christmas Montage with a Graco Twist

As part of my review of the Graco Symbio, we decided it would be fun to add a bit of festive cheer and music to the proceedings.  This is our video "A Graco Symbio Xmas"...please give it a watch and enjoy our rendition of a whole host of Christmas favourites...with a twist!!

Silent Sunday

                                                              Silent Sunday

Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas Traditions Inside the Wendy House

Today is the last day of term.  Once I have picked up my girls this afternoon for the final school run of 2010, it will officially be Christmas Inside The Wendy House!  I never peak too early, for fear of burning out before the 'big day'.  Tomorrow we're off to Manchester to collect our prodigal daughter (plus 3 sacks of washing!) from university.  It's always wonderful when the big kids come home for Christmas!

This year I am intent on rekindling some of our family traditions that have slipped a little recently.  Freddy is now old enough to have a little understanding of the magic of the festive season.  We've got out all the Christmas board books, DVDs and cuddly toys, giving him a whole new world of playtime.  The tree remains a source of amusement for the little fella.  The constant battle to keep the baubles on the tree and not under the sofa continues!

Because we have a whole week before Christmas Day, I'm looking forward to getting crafty and making a whole host of Christmassy artwork.  There will be lots of baking...veggie pies, muffins, gingerbread.  Kizzy has her chef's hat and apron and is always thrilled to get in on some kitchen action. 

I'm feeling really inspired by the Thinly Spread blogpost!  Father Christmas Bread sounds like a wonderful idea.  I'll definitely be trying that!  The children will have their new PJ's on Christmas Eve so they can wake up with them on, on Christmas Day in order to pile into Mum and Dad's big bed and open their stockings.  Ella will be playing Christmas songs on her guitar and we will all sing along.  Santa will be tracked via NORAD and he will be left his usual snack and tipple along with a carrot for Rudolph.

Last year we set up a 'secret camera' and caught Santa partaking in his festive port and mince pie.  7 year old Kizzy was delighted with the print out of our 'evidence' that we gathered, proving the Big Man had indeed stopped by!

Evidence that Santa stopped by!

Before me and Ian go to bed, we cover the opening to the living room door with wrapping paper from a big roll.  In the morning the children burst through it to find the room magically transformed into a wonderland with pressies under the tree and festive goodies arranged on the windowsills.  However old they get, they love the anticipation and excitement of this tradition!

We always try to take time with the present unwrapping to avoid the frenzy of activity that always results in the kids not knowing who they got their presents from.  Gift tags not even looked at in the urgency to rip off the paper!  So, we make sure we stop and think of the person who gave us each present before we dive in.  It makes the children appreciate the value of gift giving.

The rest of our day involves around playing with the latest games and watching the new DVD acquisitions, while surrounded by tins of Celebrations and Heroes!  Now I'm tee-total (the reason for that is another blog post in itself!!) alcohol doesn't figure in my day, but we try to devise non-alcoholic cocktails so I don't feel left out!  Last year we perfected the 'Orang-utan' juice, cranberry and lemonade!  This year I've bought some alcohol free ginger wine and am looking forward to a nice warming tipple and a few cocktail concoptions too!

Christmas dinner is still not confirmed.  I know it's going to be good vegetarian fayre...just not sure what yet!!  This is one of last year's festive feasts.
Chestnut Bourginogne Pie with a trio of Mashes and Sprouts!
Freddy is going to love it this year and I can't wait to see his delight when faced with colourful wrapped presents and the excitement of Christmas!  Last year he was just a baby...this year he'll be the focus of our enjoyment.  Seeing it all through his eyes...I can't wait!

Freddy last year!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Gallery: Sparkle

The photo I have chosen for this week's Gallery epitomises the theme.  Pictures of my Christmas Trees past pale into insignificance next to this photograph.  This is my Nan, who lived to be 98 years old.  We miss her sparkling personality so much, especially at this time of year.  I love this picture taken on her  birthday.  I adore her sparkly cardigan, her sparkling jewellery and the sparkle in her eyes. She was one wonderful lady!   Bless her. xxx

Ella's Kitchen Review Part 1

I'm already a fan of Ella's Kitchen...maybe because my daughter is called Ella so I had an affinity with the branding before making my first purchase!  I love the ethos of the company.  Their Ella says:

"When I was little my dad made a promise to me and my brother that he would only use stuff in our products that is natural, is pure and helps make us healthy. I told him everything has to taste great, and he agreed! We now have lots of scrummy foods that babies and little big people love!"

Their baby food pouches for Stage One Weaning are wonderful.  We used them for Freddy as an alternative to home pureed food.  The range offered more variety than my DIY banana or sweet potato mush, giving him the opportunity to taste exciting flavour combinations, which he loved.  I'm sure his early foray into the delights of butternut, squash, carrots, apples and prunes has helped nurture his love of fruit and vegetables that continues to this day.

However, it is not the pouches that I am reviewing.  When Ella's Kitchen offered me the chance to sample the products available for older children, I was delighted.  Coming from a small market town, our local supermarket doesn't stock a huge range of baby and toddler foods, so these were new to me.

A lovely selection of goodies arrived.  I love the packaging, with the friendly font and the vibrant colours.  They instantly look appealing with a strong brand identity.  I had been sent pack-o-snacks , stacks-of-sticks , bakey-bakies  and cooking sauces.

Freddy was instantly interested (he has a keen interest in food!) so we started off with a Pack o Snacks.  These are little kid sized bags of dried organic fruit.  Freddy had the "Chompy" one which was a scrummy mix of organic raisins, apricots, dates, apples and bananas.  The little bag was an ideal size for him and the unique pyramid shape meant the top stayed open for him to dip into without having to resort to tearing into it and spilling dried fruit everywhere!  Freddy does enjoy dried fruit and he ate up the whole bagful!

Easy to use packaging for little people.

Eight year old Kizzy did not want to miss out on the chance to enjoy a healthy snack.  She had the "Chewy" one which is a yummy mix of cherries, raisins, strawberries and mangoes.  She loved them and decided they would be perfect for her school lunch box.  They are the perfect size and provide her with slow release energy to see her through the afternoon.  She loves identifying the pieces of fruit and gets especially animated when she finds a dried strawberry!  These are a huge hit with her.

The Stacks O Sticks are little breadsticks, perfect for the little hands of inquisitive toddlers.  They come in wholegrain or orange and pear flavours.  There are two separate bags of sticks in the box to keep them fresher for longer.  The wholegrain sticks are perfect for dunking into a triangle of cheese spread as part of a healthy lunch.  Being smaller than regular breadsticks means that the danger of eye poking is minimised! Again, big sister Kizzy enjoyed sampling the treats alongside her brother.  The wholegrain was her favourite flavour, as she considered breadsticks to be savoury.  The fruity flavoured ones struck her as a strange combination, but Freddy who had no preconceived ideas about the taste of breadsticks, tucked in happily.  They are perfect for his little gums while he is teething.

The Bakey-Bakes are crunchy oat crackers made from 100% organic ingredients and delicately flavoured with cheese and spinach or apple, raisin and cinnamon.  The little individual bags contain a small handful of the thin, round crackers.  I have to confess that they reminded me of the wafers that vicars pop in your mouth at church, but they certainly tasted better!  The are tasty and easy to chomp (Freddy only has 7 teeth!)  The sweet ones are my favourite in this case.  The flavour is lovely with the gentle warming spiciness of the cinnamon.  Quite Christmas-y!  These oat crackers are a great alternative to unhealthy, salty crips, which are totally unsuitable for toddlers.  Kizzy was not so keen on these.  As she has indulged in the highly flavoured world of Monster Munch, I think the subtle flavours may have been a little bland for her palate and oat crackers have quite a distinctive texture.  But again, Freddy who is untainted by the world of junk food, found them most enjoyable. 

I love that Ella's Kitchen are producing healthy, organic snacks for older babies and children.  I like to know that the food that I give my children is of the highest quality and is good for them.  In this respect Ella's Kitchen ticks all the boxes.  The wonderful website has a whole host of facts about the products, recipes, fun stuff and FAQ's as well as a comprehensive list of stockists.

As I haven't used the cooking sauces yet, I'll be reviewing these at a later date.  I'm looking forward to making Freddy an Indian and an Italian meal very soon using these pouches of 100% pure organic sauces!  Watch this space!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Oh Christmas tree...Oh dear!!!!

It's still ten sleeps until Christmas.  The Christmas tree is still standing, but only just.  Freddy adores baubles.  He thinks they are brightly, coloured little Freddy sized balls, hung tantalisingly on the tree just for him.  His delight in removing them from the artificial bows is palpable.  The grin that spreads across his little face, is a physical reflection of the joy he feels, at the moment when the shiny projectile is hurled across the room.  The satisfying sound as the plastic sphere hits the nearest wall, has Freddy literally jumping for joy, as he runs on the spot on his tippitoes.  It is an activity that has not grown old.  The novelty which I thought would wear off in a couple of days, hasn't!  However many times I return the now rather battered baubles to the tree, I know that within minutes they will be removed again in the same exuberant manner!  Consequently, to a height that is equivalent to Freddy's reach, the tree is pretty bare!  But, who I am to dictate how a 17 month old expresses his love of Christmas!

However, I think even by Freddy's standards, things have been taken to extremes.  He managed to get a hold of his Graco Symbio pushchair and, thanks to its super easy manoeuvrability, wheeled in straight into the tree!  Does he love his new pushchair so much he wanted to put it on the tree alongside his newfound favourite toys, the baubles??  Was he trying to share his new game with his new wheels?  Who knows what goes through the mind of a toddler...but he was very pleased with himself for doing it!

I wonder if the tree will be standing by Christmas?  Only time will tell.  But I'll be keeping the brakes on next time I leave the Symbio indoors!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Great Fine Art Fiasco...a Cautionary Tale to Compers!

As someone who regularly enters and sometimes wins competitions, I am used to receiving mystery parcels through the post.  Usually, the goodies inside come with a note from the sender congratulating you on your success, but occasionally nothing more than a mystery gift arrives on your doorstep.  9 out of 10 times the package's contents triggers a memory and you recall filling in the form or commenting on the blog in question, and you pat yourself on the back for being a clever clogs!

Rarely though, something completely anonomalous occurs.  Something unbelievable that shakes your trust in the entire foundations that provide the backbone to our hobby.  I know because it happened to me!

A knock on my door heralded the arrival of a huge parcel.  It was massive and heavy and encased in a plastic box.  My mind boggled trying to work out what would fit in this was kind of TV shaped, but didn't have the right packaging.  Thankfully, my husband was home. He armed himself with a knife and began hacking through the tape.  The plastic box covered a polystyrene box, which contained a thick polythene wrapped package.  It was like some sort of crazy grown-up pass the parcel, as we pulled aside layers to reveal the hidden prize.

At the very heart of the parcel was a picture.  It looked like a child's drawing of a house containing a black scribble, framed in a big, thick wooden boxframe.  I looked at it with puzzled eyes.  I've never entered any competitions to win any artwork, let alone weird absract artwork on a giant canvas, wrapped up like it was the crown jewels!  We sat wondering how my name and address could have been known by the sender.  I'm always filling in forms online or in person, but surely I'd remember trying to win that!  I don't follow art blogs and don't move in the circles where fine art would be considered as a prize for filling out your name and address on an entry form!

Ian looked closer and saw the artist's name was Antony Gormley.  I googled.  He was the artist behind the Angel of the North.  A little further delving and we discovered the picture that stood propped up against Fred's highchair was in fact The Firmament.  One of only 60 in the world and priced at £1245 + VAT.  At this point, I felt even more confused, panicky and in total shock.  An important piece of artwork would never be proferred as a prize.  This is when alarm bells started ringing.  The Conspiracy Theorist in me starting concopting elaborate ideas involving art smuggling and fencing stolen masterpieces via innocent compers who spread their details far and wide on the internet.

We didn't know what to do for the best.  We had signed for this unsolicited item unwittingly.  We were liable.  We rewrapped it and stashed it away, scared to death in case Freddy hit it with one of his projectiles!  We sat back and waited for some repurcussion.

Two days passed.  No Mafia gangsters appeared, no further works of art appeared on our doorstep.  I continued to wrack my brains and fervently google looking for clues as to why I had over a grand's worth of art gallery sat in my dining room.  Then, the next evening there was a knock on my door.  A man told me he'd come to collect a parcel.  My immediate thought was that a deliveryman had popped a card through a neighbour's door saying they'd left a parcel from Next at my house.  As a stay at home mum, I often take in deliveries for our cul-de-sac for those that go out to work during the day.  So I apologised to the man saying I hadn't taken anything in for anyone.  He went away.  Minutes later he returned saying that he'd spoken to his boss and I had something for him to collect.  It was at that point that a shiver ran down my spine as I connected this man to our mystery work of art.  I got on the phone to Ian who told me not to let anything leave our house without an explanation.  We had signed for the piece, our name and address was linked to it.  Thankfully Ian was nearly home and I told the stranger on my doorstep that he'd have to deal with my husband as I knew nothing about it.  (Yes, I'm a coward!) I shut the door and hid out in the living room!

When Ian arrived home, it became clear that the man who had been sent to retrieve the picture had no idea about what was going on.  Several phone calls followed with Ian looking for some explanation and some proof that we were not embroiled in some scam, with us as unwitting patsies!  Eventually, he untangled the truth. 

An art dealer had ordered the rare artwork from a gallery in London at the same time as I won a prize through a PR company, also in London.  The art dealer lived up North, I'm in the Midlands so our parcels took similar journeys to a courier company  that serves these areas.  On arrival, that company attaches their own address labels to the packages before loading them onto the vans.  Only, in this instance, my name sticker ended up on the artwork and the art dealer's name sticker ended up on my prize. 

How this can be allowed to happen?  Surely there are failsafes in place to stop this sort of thing from occurring...but apparently there aren't! It happens, they told us! I can only imagine the look on the art dealer's face after parting with his £1245 + VAT only to receive my little prize instead!  I'm sure heads have rolled over this.  I was so stressed having the Gormley in my house, wondering how and why it came to be there.  Wondering who was using my name and address, not knowing whether it was a genuine mistake or at the heart of a more sinister activity that I had been sucked into.

Today, my parcel (something I won for my husband for Christmas, so I won't tell you what it is!!) arrived to me, its rightful owner and the Firmament went to an art lover from up North.  Everything back where it should have been.  But it still beggars belief how this was allowed to happen, in a time where we have computers, parcel tracking and bar coded delivery labels.  It makes me wonder how many other parcels go astray or get sent to the wrong addresses.  We've all had prizes go AWOL.  I never received my Asda Mountain of Mugs that I won back in September.  I've stopped chasing them.  Is there someone, somewhere sipping tea out of a mug printed with my children's faces??  My mum received notification that she had won a was never delivered to her.  Did someone else enjoy her prize?  It does make you wonder. 

This experience has opened my eyes to a situation that I wouldn't have thought possible.  It's like something out of a Carry On film.  What other things go on, that we don't know about!!!  I guess we'll never know...unless it happens to us.  So Compers beware....keep your eyes on your prizes, you don't know where they might end up!!

Nana's View of the Graco Symbio

My mum is 77 years old and a proud grandmother of thirteen grandchildren.  She has seen the evolution of nursery equipment through the decades from the 1960's through to the present day.  Things have changed a great deal. 

This is my mum in 1962 with my eldest sister Carol.  The pushchair she was using was a very basic one with fixed wheels and a simple low solid seat.

When my sister Paula was born in 1964, my mum got a big Silvercross pram, that was very grand.  It was also cumbersome and my mum recalls having to store it in the shed because it wouldn't go through the door of the house!  It was commonplace to see a row of such prams outside the local shop while the mums went in to do their shopping.  They were not very manoeuvrable at all and couldn't cope with stairs or tight spaces.  The carriage didn't fold at all, so it took up a lot of space.  As most amenities were local, these prams were designed for walking.  Cars were still quite rare so being able to fit the pram in a boot was not a necessity.

These days things are so very different.  When her first grandchild was born, a simple carrycot on wheels transported the babies around.  The simple canvas seated buggy with a reclining seat fulfilled the needs of babies in the 90's.  Three wheelers were introduced in the early 2000's and provided the opportunity for off roading with your baby!  Gradually, the introduction of the Travel System saw interchangeable seating options to suit the needs of the baby at various stages of his life.  Though some of the designs seemed as technical as the Krypton Factor Intelligence Tests, with putting the bits together and attempting to adjust and recline the seat!

So when my mum heard that I was going to review the Graco Symbio, she didn't know quite what to expect.  She is always up for a challenge though and loves to get involved, so she has enjoyed finding out about the pushchair and getting hands on with her grandson's new wheels!

The first thing that struck her was how simple it was to push.  The steering is so light and the suspension makes for a smooth ride.  She didn't struggle with handling it at all, even up and down kerbs.  She was very impressed with the flip-handle and found it easy to do.  She liked the idea of being able to face Freddy if she wanted to!  My mum thought the Symbio looked ultra-modern but liked the idea that this didn't mean it was ultra-complicated.  It is in fact very simple, straight-forward and user friendly.  The safety features such as the brake, the padded bar and the harness impressed her.  The pushchairs of her day didn't have any integral safety features and she recalled an accident where she mis-steered me in my pram and it tipped up throwing me out!! She loved the foot muff and its fleecy lining, and how easy it was to zip up around Fred's legs. "That's much better than blankets that fall off!" she remarked. 

Overall, Mum enjoyed having a go with such a modern, expertly designed and innovative pushchair.  To add her own touch, she knitted Freddy a jumper in the same colours as his Graco Symbio!  How about that for a marketing idea?  Buy the Symbio, get the jumper free!!!

Are Men from Mars...or just from Uranus??

Anyone who has read my blog before will know I am lucky enough to have an absolutely fabulous husband. He is honestly, the nicest person I have ever met and I consider myself and my children incredibly blessed to have such a rare breed living alongside us! I'm certain there are a good few of us who have been fortunate enough to find ourselves a good'un, and I'm sure you all share my sentiments in having landed a decent, honest, kind and caring other half. But this post is not about these great guys. This post is about another breed of man...the lying, cheating sort who mess with your mind and make you feel to blame for their wrongdoing.

As life has exposed me to numerous men in numerous guises I have noticed this trait common in too many of them for it to be down to co-incidence or chance.  Let me elaborate with some examples.

Things had been going wrong with me and my boyfriend for some time. We had split up but had got back together after I discovered I was pregnant aged 18.  We were trying to find a house for us and our future baby. I was scrabbling together all my energy in an attempt to make it work, convinced that it was me that was at fault in our relationship.  He'd made it clear that my paranoia, possessiveness and depressive tendencies were the problem.  When he arrived home at 5 am in the morning, he resented me asking where he'd been.  I'd lie in bed worried sick, six months pregnant with my imagination in overdrive, but how dare I doubt him!  When the front seats of my car were fully reclined that same morning, I convinced myself there must have been an intermittent fault in the mechanism when faced with his puzzlement as to how on earth it could have happened.  The can of hairspray and the lipstick on the floor of the car was because of an innocent lift he'd given a colleague.  I even went with him to return these lost items and didn't question why I had to wait outside in the car while he went in to return them.  If I even raised a suspicious eyebrow, I'd be told that I was mad and unreasonable with trust issues.  This constant feeling of confusion lead me to question my own sanity.  I began to feel incredibly vulnerable and unsure of my own instincts.  Eventually, of course the shit hit the fan.  We were about to sign a lease on a 2 bedroomed maisonette, when he pulled the car over and said "I can't do this," and physically shoved me out onto the street.  What had I done?  I asked outright whether someone else was involved, but was shot down in a torrent of accusations about it being my fault entirely, and why did I always resort to trying to blame him for destroying our relationship.

It didn't take long however, for me to find out that 'hard done by' boyfriend had in fact been seeing the hairspray and lipstick losing work colleague since we first split up.  Convincing me that my suspicions, the doubts and the fears I had were unfounded and all in my head, had given him free reign to do exactly as he wanted.  Having his cake and eating it for six months.  Six months where I could have moved on, sorted out me and my baby's future.  Instead, I was made to feel like a bunny boiling maniac and spiralled into a dark place mentally.  Did he apologise for the deceit?  Did he confess all and tell me my suspicions were actually 100% correct and that I wasn't mad or paranoid?  Did he heck!!  It's as if he thought he was doing me a favour by keeping it going with me while he went off with his new woman.  Then when the dirty deeds were all out in the open, he treated me with utter contempt and generally ignored my existence. (Was that guilt??  Was he unable to face me because that would have meant facing up to what he had done to me?)

Now, if this was an isolated incident, I'd think I'd been unlucky in love.  That I'd wound up with a rotter.  But no.  Time and time again I see this.  My sister QWERTY Mum had a similar experience with her ex-husband.  He was carrying on with his Portuguese work colleague....taking 'important phone calls'', going on 'business trips' and 'working late'.  All the time denying any involvement, going to the lengths of saying she was like his little sister.  (Now there's a whole other can of worms that don't want to be opened!)  Engaging in dirty sex talk on MSN (yes my sister found the logs...interseting reading that made!)  yet vehemently denying that he was in any way responsible for the breakdown of the marriage and eventually insisting on divorcing HER due to an incident involving vegetarian sausages (another story entirely...please blog about this one day Paula!)  Not once did he throw his hands up and say "Yes, I was having an affair.  Sorry about that!"  Instead it was him attacking her for being paranoid and demanding a six month even keel in the marriage for him to decide what to do.  It's so cowardly and gutless...even when found out he didn't fess up!  Refusing to take any blame. Do they actually believe they do nothing wrong?

More recently, someone very close to me has found herself on the receiving end of this brand of man behaviour.  Having her own instincts questioned, having her emotions run through the mill and doubting her own sanity.  Even finding a text message saying "I've got out the shower and I'm naked. Wish you were here!"  wasn't evidence enough for ball-less boyfriend to admit to any wrong doing.  It was just a mate having a laugh he said.  The hour long secret phone calls that left my friend sat alone waiting for aforementioned limp BF to return were the same 'mate'.  So convincing were his denials that there was no other woman involved, my poor friend began to wonder if his mate was in fact trying to "come out" and was not messing around at all.  BF listened to her concerns without an ounce of guilt on his two timing face  All the while he was making promises to her, making himself look sympathetic to her distress, all the time compounding her own feelings of helplessness over being the one in the relationship at fault.  He painted himself as a saint, putting up with her distrust...all the time he was openly betraying her. Eventually, some mutual friends who could no longer watch the pathetic masquerade play out any longer, told her the truth.  Their loyalty to her exceeded their desire to cover up for this gutless wonder.  Even when confronted and asked outright for an admission from his own lying lips, he would not accept any wrongdoing.  He adopted a very pre-pubescent approach that belied his age, upbringing and education: "I'm not even talking to you anyway," he bleated.

Time and time again I hear this story.  Different ages, different social classes, different demographics.  However, all concerning men who cannot admit any wrong doing in relationships, who shift 100% of the blame onto their wives or girlfriends convincing them that they have over active imaginations and trust issues.  Prolonged exposure to this erodes your confidence and has you believing that you are being overly suspicious and don't deserve the relationship you are in.  The harder you try to fix it, the easier it is for the man to lead his double life, with you pre-occupied trying to stay sane and please your man so he forgives you for doubting him.  Surely all these men aren't that clever that they connive to facilitate this effect in the relationship.  Is it learned behaviour or is it instinctive?  Is there a secret handbook that a certain breed of male are privvy too?  Are we as women as much to blame for allowing our doubts to cloud our own judgment when confronted with evidence of wrongdoing perpetrated against us? 

What are their motives?  Is it an anthropological  anomaly that makes males still have the urge to spread their seed far and wide, while females strive for the protection and security of monogamy?  Are these men too insecure to move on entirely, trying to keep one foot in each camp for as long as possible, thus keeping their options open?  Or are they just that arrogant, that they think they can play who they want, to achieve what they want until the last moment when it all comes crashing down around them?  Which is then they squirm away still holding onto the righteous indignity of being caught out by a lesser mortal.

I simply do not know the answers.  But I do know that my husband says the idea of emotionally hurting me makes him feel sick to the stomach and that he would never risk damaging the integrity of our relationship by ever doing anything deceitful.  I believe him 100%.  He and any other decent bloke out there are not to be tarred with the same brush as these aformentioned nomarks. 

Some people say that Men are from Mars and Women from Venus.  Of course men are different to us women. Vive le difference!!  Embrace it!  However, these other men....they are another breed entirely and being so crappy I believe they can only possibly come from Ur-anus!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Ode to my Graco Symbio!

One of the things that my children always do at school this time of year is an acrostic poem.  It's one of those poems where each line begins with the letters that make up a word, which is the subject of the poem.  So, after hearing yet another Christmas one, I decided I'd give it a go for the the Symbio.  This lovely pushchair has become a big part of our life...I take my reviewing very seriously!  Trying and testing the pushchair, and seeing how it fits in with my family life! So here is my ode in acrostic form!  I had some fun with it.

G is for glad I'm pleased.
R is for raincover that fits on with ease.
A is for Awards...a well deserved gold.
C is for cosy toes, so snuggly if cold.
O is for options, carrycot or carseat.
S is for safety, these brakes work a treat.
Y's for our youngsters who travel in style.
M's for manoeuvrable, mile after mile.
B is for bag that attaches with hooks.
I is for interaction...towards Mum baby looks.
O is for original and thoughtful design.

Graco happy you're mine!

Friday, 10 December 2010

Jackson Reece Babywipes Review

I think babywipes are one of the best inventions ever.  I use them for bottoms, faces, hands...even for cleaning my leather sofa!!  However, I am quite concerned about reports of the chemical content of wipes, which can irritate or damage baby's delicate skin.  My children suffer from eczema and I am an aware of how certain products can cause a flair up.  So when I was given the chance to try Mother and Baby  Gold Award winning Jackson Reece Kinder by Nature herbal wipes and flushable wipes, I was interested to discover what was different about them.

Jackson Reece Herbal Wipes offer parents a natural, healthier alternative. Their unique herbal formula soothes and protects against common skin irritations such as nappy rash and eczema and contains none of the harsh ingredients that can potentially damage delicate skin.  99% of the ingredients used are derived from vegetable or plant extracts and they use a unique vegetable based preservative (not the harmful parabens found in many of the big brand wipes!)  They contain Certified Organic Tea Tree, Aloe Vera and Lavender oils.  The wipes and the packaging are 100% bio-degradable and the cloths are 100% chlorine free.  Jackson Reece also do not test their products on animals and has a vegan friendly formulation.  Being made in the UK reduces the carbon footprint of the product, which will reduce the impact to the environment.

So, the facts and figures look impressive, but what about the wipes themselves.  The product still has to perform well.

Jackson Reece wipes are really soft but also very strong.  They are moist and have a lovely fresh scent thanks to natural organic ingredients, not artificial perfumes.  There is no lingering stickiness or residue after using these wipes.  I tested them to the max on dirty bums, dinner smeared faces, sticky fingers and snotty noses.  I used them to remove my make-up after a night out.  I wiped off face paint.  They performed perfectly well and didn't dry out between uses.  The flushable wipes are equally effective and degrade, once flushed, within eight days.  They won't be washing up on a beach somewhere!

To have a wipe that does the job in hand, made by a company which offers an open and honest approach to care better for babies and the environment, is a very attractive prospect indeed.  These mild, gentle, cleansing,soothing, protective wipes are kind to baby and to the planet!  But do they cost the earth??

In fact they cost the same as other big brands.  You do not have to pay a premium for a greener, safer product.

Visit for full information and  for stockist details.
72 wipes per pack RRP £1.99  

Jackson Reece Wipes

Prizes for Pressies

Since September, I've been fortunate enough to have won quite an array of miscellaneous prizes including vouchers, T-Shirts, toys, a hamper, DVD's, video games and books. I've been putting these goodies away, in order to share the love at Christmas.  Generally, I'm not one to overspend.  The idea of getting into debt for one day of excess seems ridiculous.  I've never felt pressured to get the year's "must have" toy, and thankfully my children have never been the sort of kids to pressurise me with guilt laden tactics, making me feel like I'm less of a mother for not supplying the latest Zhu-Zhu Hamster or Buzz Lightyear toy.  (Although one year in the early 90's, I totally accidentally got my son the incredibly rare Power Ranger doll everyone else was coveting, because I just happened to be stood in Woolies when a new delivery arrived unexpectedly!  I did feel quite smug about that!)

So this year, the children will get some very random surprises in their stockings and some unexpected treats.  My bumper Toyologist prize from the fabulous A Modern Military Mother 's blog giveaway has provided a host of excellent toys that my children are going to love. I'm so grateful, and they will be too!

I have enjoyed the idea of winning prizes for pressies.  It's made this Christmas quite exciting, not knowing what I'll be giving to whom.  When I am lucky enough to receive something, I designate it to someone who I think would love it.  It's fun.  Football merchandise lends itself to my eldest son, Coronation Street tea caddies will make my mum smile, a cheeky naked man calendar is right up my sister's street!  Things I would never have thought to have bought, but I'm excited about giving.

There are still a few competitions which offer prizes which would be perfect for my family members.  For example, on a Diary of a Frugal Family there is a giveaway to win the new Michael Jackson Wii game where you can party to his unforgettable songs and learn some of his iconic dance moves.  You can even sing along to some of his greatest songs.  Sounds like a Thriller of a game!!  My 24 year old nephew Tom likes to cut a few moves to a bit of Jacko.  I can imagine the family party where we get on the Wii and Tom gives it his best moonwalking and crotch grabbing.  It would be hilarious!  So I'll keep my fingers crossed for that one!

I never expect to win, but I do enjoy entering and anything I win is such a bonus.  Good luck if you decide to enter yourself...who knows you might be able to give a few extra unexpected pressies to your loved ones this Christmas!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Chestnut and Mushroom Casserole...My Merchant Gourmet Recipe Entry

When I saw Merchant Gourmet were holding a recipe competition for their whole chestnuts, I got a little bit excited!!  As a vegetarian, I'm always on the lookout for interesting ingredients to experiment with.  I discovered Merchant Gourmet Chestnuts a few years ago and they are now one of my favourite ingredients for use all year round.  They are versatile, at home in sweet and savoury dishes, nutritious and low in fat. They have a unique "meaty" flavour and texture which adds a novel twist to veggie dishes.

More often that not, chestnuts are used as accompaniments, in stuffings or with Brussel Sprouts at Christmas.  But my recipe uses the chestnuts in a main course, served in a rich casserole with mushrooms and vegetables.  It is easy to make and perfect for these cold wintry days. My 14 year old daughter calls this meal "a taste of Christmas".

200g pack of Merchant Gourmet Whole Chestnuts
1 pint water
1 organic stock cube
3 sliced carrots
2 sliced onions
2 cloves garlic crushed
8-12 oz assorted mushrooms (I used open cup and Portobello)
5 fl oz red wine
2 tblspns soy sauce
2 tblspns plain flour
ground black pepper
dried parsley

I've attempted to make a video demonstrating the method, but I warn you I'm no Nigella!!

Finished meal:

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Best Sleigh'd Plans (see what I did there?)

Today, we thought it'd be a lovely treat for Freddy to take him to the Local Garden Centre to visit Santa.  At the weekends it gets so busy, so when a midweek window became available, it was too good to resist.  We planned to get some lunch in the lovely restaurant and look at all the wonderful Christmas displays that Bridgemere had to offer!

It's only six miles from our house.  We had our annual festive compilation CD playing.  The gorgeous rural setting was a wintry wonderland wrapped in shimmery frost and the sky was blue.  A beautiful day. 

On arrival, we realised Freddy had just dropped off.  We expected the cold air would wake him up when we popped him in his Graco Symbio.  However, once in the comfy, moulded seat, with his fleece lined foot muff toggled up to his chin, the lure of sleep was too great. 

So, with a slumbering baby we made our way into the garden centre.  I love the effort they make to show their wonderful range of gifts, food and decorations in such eye catching displays.

However, the comfortable seating of the Symbio was just too comfy!  Freddy slept on!

In the nativity scene, the donkey seemed very interested in the Symbio with the sleeping Santa Baby inside!  Meanwhile Fred snoozed some more!

Even the big guy himself wasn't enough to wake up my little boy.  His peaceful slumber was uninterrupted. 

Not even Frosty the Snowman with his festive tune blaring, could disturb Fred from his dozing!

We left to go back to the carpark.  We enjoyed looking with wide eyed wonderment at the displays and would have loved to have seen Freddy's delight too!  But, sleep in such a vital part of a toddler's day, that his uninterrupted restful slumber was worth its wait in gold!  The Symbio is the comfiest pushchair I've ever owned, and the seating position lends itself perfectly to napping on the go.  So even if our best laid plans didn't quite turn out how we expected, Fred had a lovely kip!!

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

My Childhood Christmas Memories

This post is not going to be a sugar coated version of events.  No rose coloured glasses are involved in my recollection of events.  It's an accurate portrayal, an exposee if you will, of our family Christmas experience in the 70's!

Our home was a small two bedroomed semi in Slough.  Given that there were five of us (mum, dad and three daughters), it immediately posed a problem.  The solution was that my parents made the front room of the house their bedroom.  This left one small backroom as our sole living/dining area.  At Christmas this really presented a challenge. Space was extremely limited and my parents' style was sadly the antithesis of minimalistic.  With the extra demands of the festive season, coupled with the whole family together in that one room, the result was an atmosphere akin to claustrophobia!

Our green tinsel style tree was put up and took its pride of place on top of our old Radio Rental TV set.  The decorations would be hung by our Dad, who was quite protective of his job, with us three girls fighting over who'd bagsy which wise man and where they'd be hung on the tree.  This would inevitably result in me crying, a common theme to my childhood with sisters aged 5 and 10 years older than me, who'd tire of their attention seeking younger sister!  My Dad would keep the plastic gifts from the previous year's crackers and put them onto the foil boughs.  Plastic moustaches and false teeth adorned the branches, and woe betide us if we dared touch them!  If and when we did touch the tree, tempted by the lure of the fake red lips, the tree would topple off the TV, spilling its booty into the exposed vents.  How there was not an electrical mishap, I do not know!

When it came to the big day, we'd be up early and race downstairs to a pile of presents positioned on our pre-allocated sofa seat.  We'd dive in whilst the parents busied themselves in the tiny kitchen peeling sprouts and stuffing turkey.  By now Dad would have started his first rum and coke of the day and, on account of the fact that he was a non-drinker all year round, would get progressively more slozzled and tearfully profess his love for his kids.  They never shared in the unwrapping of presents nor did they see the delight on my face as I received my much coveted Rolf Harris Stylophone or Girl's World.

After presents, Dad would bring in the table in readiness for our dinner.  As previously mentioned the room was small.  TV in one corner, real fire adjacent to it on the back wall, three piece suite squeezed around the remaining wall space.  The table was a big, heavy duty wooden affair that filled the floor space.  The five mix and match chairs were positioned around, meaning we had to climb into our seats and squeeze into the gap between chairback and table edge.  We children were left to our own devices, whilst our parents continued to make dinner.  Now, this often resulted in unfortunate situations.  One year I decided to see how close I could get my Christmas cracker over the table candle.  Great game until...WOOF...up it went in flames.  I spent the rest of that day hiding under the table crying!  Barring any pyromanic disasters, dinner would be served.  By this point though, the seat that was directly in front of the fireplace would be getting quite hot. leading to complaints.  These protestations would go unheeded.  Similarly, one person would be sat with their back to the TV.  Telly was permanently on in our house.  When Top of the Pops coincided with Christmas dinner, the person sat in the telly seat would have to twist and crane their neck to see, whilst the rest of us would moan that they couldn't see past them.  More friction!  I don't remember the food...only the arguments!

If we survived lunch we'd spend the rest of the day packing away numerous chocolate bars, satsumas and sneaky shandies!  We wouldn't have been so greedy. but the Christmas food would be out on display for the whole of December and we were forbidden to so much as look at it.   "Not until Christmas day!" was the household mantra, meaning that when the day arrived we'd stuff whole boxes of Maltesers, bars of Galaxy and Just Brazils, until we were green!  I remember eating eight satsumas one after the other.  Also being dared to eat Quality Street concoptions by my sister, consisting of all the suspect flavours squeezed together by hand into a melted mass of chocolate and fondant centres!

Tea was another stressful affair.  Masses of buffet food laid out alongside the turkey carcass and leftover lunch.  My Dad always used to make stilton, brussel sprout and digestive biscuit sandwiches. It was a tradtion.  But when we helped ourselves to the excess of festive food, we'd get in big trouble.  My big sister took five varieties of cheeses from the cheese board.  She thought she was being sophisticated, sampling the dairy delights.  The shout of "Five cheeses!!" was bellowed in disbelief by Dad, crumbs of Brussell Sprout, Stilton and Digestive biscuit spewing from his mouth.  Even as a very young child, the irony of this exchange was not lost.

Tensions always ran high on Christmas Day and it'd often end in tears.  However, the limitations of an inappropriate house were responsible for most of the problems.  Money was tight but Mum and Dad always worked hard and did their best to give us girls a good Christmas.  I thank them for my unique experiences and blogging material!!

The Gallery...White

Everything is white in this wintry wonderland created by the meteorological effect of  a large area of high pressure developing in the Atlantic, causing a ‘block’ to the westerly winds that tend to keep us that little bit milder. As a result this has allowed very cold Arctic air to move south across mainland Europe.  (Just in case you were wondering!!) 

Here is my entry into The Gallery this week.  A lovely, white, tinselly cobweb, courtesy of Mother Nature and the high pressure block!!

When Breastfeeding Goes Beyond the Call of Duty

Don't get me wrong.  I adore the fact that I am able to still feed my glorious little boy.  Nothing beats the fact that I am still able to provide him with vital nutrients direct from my body.  The closeness I experience still overwhelms me.

However, right now I'm feeling that this Attachment Parenting lark is a game for Masochists.  Surely, what I am experiencing is beyond the call of duty.  I truly deserve a medal for enduring this afront to my human rights. European Conventions should be held regarding this violation.

The torture to which I am referring to...breastfeeding in this weather.

Here I am in my snuggly jumper, all cosy and warm.  Along comes my sleepy boy looking for his comfort food of choice.  Pulling up the aforementioned jumper exposes flesh that really does not want to be exposed to the chill air.  Then, here comes the real sting in the tail...a pair of freezing cold little baby hands creep up under the ruched up jumper, searching out new areas of flesh to touch with their icy fingers. There is no escape, no position that can be adopted.  Until a temperature equilibrium is reached, whereby the heat from my body moves by means of conduction to warm his extremities, I feel like someone has slipped an ice cube down my top.  But unlike that childish one off prank, this is occurring several times daily.

Roll on the warmer weather, or weaning, or both!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Oh Christmas Tree...

Against my better judgment, I have put up my Christmas tree.  I never put my tree up until after Winter Solstice on December 21st.  This year though, seeing Freddy's delight at displays in shop windows, I decided to try to create a magical December for my little boy by decorating the living room with fetsive splendour! 

This year for reasons of safety, we decided to go with our artificial tree.  We sent daddy up into a freezing loft to fetch our tree and the numerous plastic lidded boxes filled with all manner of Christmas-y bits, some dating back to 1988 and my eldest son's first Christmas!  When opening the boxes, a sense of nostalgia comes flooding over me.  A history of 22 past Christmases is contained within those boxes.  Although the older pieces only represent a small fraction of the contents, which has been added to by January sale purchases in more recent years, they never fail to raise a smile and sometimes a tear.  A book of press out cardboard Christmas decorations (which I never pressed out) has been with us now for almost 20 years.  A present from my big sister Carol, who is no longer with us.  It's typical of the sort of gift she'd buy.  And it's typical of me that I never made them, not wanting to ruin the beautiful book!  Every year, I take out the book.  I flick through its now creased up, aged pages, then return it to the bottom of the box where it will remain until I repeat the ritual again next year.

It's like a display of our family history seeing Baby's First Christmas Baubles lying alongside a wooden mouse on a candycane that my eldest son's first teacher gave him.  Each decoration holds its own memory of Christmas.  I am also reminded of my own childhood.  The one over riding memory I have of Christmas, when all three of us sisters still lived at home, is our fighting over three particular decorations.  They were the three wise men, represented by three different colour, felt covered cones with a featureless ball for a head and stick on headwear.  For some reason, the allocation of who got to "bagsy" which king was theirs for the duration of Christmas became a major event.  As the youngest sibling, I usually got last dibs and would inevitably end up in tears because I had wanted the red one and ended up with the green one!

One other memory that putting up the Christmas tree evokes is from 1990 when my eldest boy was two years old.  We had dressed the tree and covered it in foil wrapped chocolate decorations.  One morning as I came into the living room, I realised something did not look quite right.  I realised that where once had hung Cadbury's finest chocolate discs, now hung  single golden threads with a spent foil wrapper hanging from each one.  Little Joe sat there with a chocolate covered face and an "It wasn't me" expression!  He had painstakingly worked his way around the tree eating the festive treats insitu, leaving only the inedible bits behind.  Nothing has really changed with Joe.  Up until last year when he left home, I still bought him a choccie advent calendar, the contents of which he had totally consumed by the morning of December 1st!

This year we have used only plastic baubles, which the girls helped hang.  Freddy loved delving into the box and pulling out the sparkly trinkets.  But as predicted, the lure of the projectile properties of the decorations became too much and we had to duck out the way of Freddy's missile attack!  We got him to hang a few on the lower branches of the tree, but he just as readily un-hung anything within his reach.

Today, the lower branches are all bear.  Anything within Fred's reach has been removed, thrown, secreted in the seat of his sit n ride truck or rolled under the sofa!  I've stopped replacing them hoping the novelty will wear off.  Then I can put them all back on the tree in time for Christmas!

Professionals in Competitions...what do we think?

Rightly or wrongly, recent events have again caused controversy to raise its ugly head in Planet Comping. The issue of people in the filming industry entering video competitions and raking in prize after prize has been raised, and is an interesting area for debate. So in a purely hypothetical way I aim to question this topical phenomenom. The terms and conditions of competitions do not say that entrants in certain areas of employment are exempt from entering competitions. But, although not against the rules, do we think it is ethical or moral for people in the industry to use comping as a lucrative sideline?

My first concern is that these entrants are not part of the community that we enthusiasts call home. As we join up to Facebook groups and 'like' the promoters' pages, getting involved in commenting and generally enthusing and sharing the competition (...and therefore promoting the company hosting the competition, which is the aim of the marketing team who run them...) they can hide away anonymously, often adopting various nicknames unlinked to their professional self, taking no part in the proceedings other than producing their entry and uploading it. It is quite a sterile process aimed solely at winning, with none of the heart of us amateur enthusiasts who engage with the promoters' banter in an open forum. Again, nothing illegal here, just not in the spirit of the process that we know and love.

Obviously the capability of someone with access to top of the range cameras and editing suites is way in advance of us amateurs with our flips. Someone who is, for example, a video producer will know all the tricks of the trade to produce 30 seconds of top quality, celluloid gold. Will companies be seduced by these anonymous, slick, beautifully produced videos with crystal clear sound production? Of course they will. And they are. The danger is that the average enthusiast will stop entering, knowing that their own efforts produced at home on their Flip in real time just won't be good enough. Will a good idea with lots of effort put into it, win out over an MTV worthy finished piece? Probably not. Much like the voting competitions, where average people fear to tread, due to the presence of the masters of vote courting, we will see genuine FB likers put off, knowing it's a done deal before the competition even begins.

As Facebookers, we are transparent in our activity. People can see who we are and what we do. A lot of the reasons why we enter competitons is for the experience, the fun, the sense of community. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful to win a prize, but that isn't the sole motivation. To distance yourself from this and to remain anonymous is a luxury we don't have. By setting up various Youtube accounts, under comp specific nicknames, to keep previous successful winning videos and current entries separate, and using different faces in videos, individuals are allowed to win over and over again, without anyone realising that the videos all come from one source. You could argue this is just good tactics. Who are we to say that this method of comping is any less worthy than our own? Are we in danger of becoming the Facebook Gestapo by assigning ourselves the role of moral highgrounders based on our own beliefs? Or are we simply acting out of frustration knowing that competition promoters are awarding prizes without realising the origins of the entrants...or indeed possibly not even caring? Either way. a little transparency and honesty in this area would make such activity look less suspicious. If there is nothing to hide, why cover your tracks to avoid videos being linked?

I am all for judging things on merit. I am a big believer of letting the best man win, but if the judging does not take into consideration the individual's effort based not just on slick production, we will soon be marginalised by the pros. Where success is based on views, a pro with hundreds and thousands of upload views will wipe the floor with someone like me who gets excited if my view count goes into double figures! However, if the promoter will be getting a video entry that would cost thousands of pounds to commission independently, you could argue that this is a mutually beneficial outcome. Entrant wins, for example, a top of the range household appliance, promoter gets a top notch video to display on their website. Win, win???

Maybe the inclusion of these quality entries will raise the profile of this hobby, make it appear less embarrassing to admit to! Is it a good thing that people with the potential to create great things want to be involved in this activity? There is nothing worse than seeing poor, ill-conceived entries winning competitions based on vote exchanges. I would applaud the inclusion of better entries. as long as it is done with integrity. It doesn't take much research to track an individuals' online activity. When it becomes apparent that someone with huge talent is attempting to work below the radar, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. As I said before, if it's not wrong, why hide it?

There is of course the possibility that someone in the industry would enjoy this hobby as much as us amateurs. Perhaps to them it is an outlet for more frivilous pursuits, an opportunity to hone their craft in a new and exciting forum. In which case, who are we too criticize or question? Using your skills to their maximum advantage is what we all try to do. But would Manchester Utd enter a team for a local 5-a-side football match? Would Delia have entered the Tesco Recipe Comp? Would Tom Jones enter Britain's Got Talent? Would Freddie Flintoff field a test team in a local village CC match? just wouldn't be cricket!


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