Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

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The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

20140112_125548
Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

20140312_132028
Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

20140112_125548
Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

20140112_125548
Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

20140112_125548
Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

20140312_132028
Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

20140112_125548
Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

CR_Books_SJ_Party_girl_160x214pxmuch pic

The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

IMG_20140111_144333
What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

20140312_132814
And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body hair. It’s a huge challenge and takes time to adjust. Help her to get comfortable with her new self.

Never stand in the middle of John Lewis waving a trainer bra and shouting: ‘I think this one’s big enough.’

No screaming or fainting when she chops off her beautiful curtain of hair, dyes it orange and pierces her tongue. Instead, say: ‘Wow, what a fierce new look.’ Two weeks later, happily buy as many hats and wigs as she needs… without complaint.

Set her aims high. Teach her about fabulously successful, amazing other women and tell her: ‘Look what they’ve done, you could be just as brilliant.’

Guard her self-esteem – like a lioness protecting her cubs. Declare at the top of your voice – and make her Dad declare it too: ‘You look stunning in that dress!’ ‘You were utterly fantastic in the play.’ ‘I am so proud of your kindness and understanding.’ ‘Thank you for being such a friend to your sister.’ ‘I absolutely love you.’

When you have no idea what to say, shut up, hug her tight and listen. The girls who succeed in life come from loving homes where they will always have someone who will listen and love them… no matter what.

* This article first appeared in the Daily Record.

Rocks to die for, or steal?

For the next few weeks, I’m handing the keys of the blog over to my lovely friends from:  ‘The Jewels of Manhattan’. First up, Sapphire Jewel, antiques jewellery expert, writes:

I know round about this time of year, the nights get dark and all the jewellery store windows start lighting up for Christmas. Everyone wants brand new sparkly stones in the right kind of box from the right kind of jeweller.

But in your jewellery box, I bet you already have some lovely old pieces, maybe from your grandma or your great-auntie that you never ever wear because they look dowdy and old-fashioned.

Well, here’s the news: real vintage jewellery is totally in fashion right now. So it’s time to take that piece out of the box and first of all clean it up. There are some great tips on cleaning fragile, vintage pieces right here: http://www.pastera.com/cleaning-care

When that piece is sparkling again, it’s time to wear it with a twist.

Could that old-fashioned brooch be turned into a stunning cocktail ring? Check out this photo from US Vogue.

saph

Or you could string your brooch onto a ribbon and wear it round your neck or even pin it to a hairband and wear it in your hair.

Check out vintage jewellery stores and jewellery auctions for true bargains. Prices are good right now and I promise you, the quality of older pieces is so much better than new.

As we like to say in Texas, if you buy vintage, you are going to get so much more bang for your buck.

Sexy and ladylike in a stunning lace dress

A long sleeved below the knee lace evening dress…

Where has this dress been all my life?
Could anything be more ladylike meets devastatingly sexy? This is new season D & G perfection. My favourite label for dressed up glamour. Best for LBDs and stunning evening shirts. Try one of their lace or chiffon numbers flung over jeans – mamma mia!
(And the price tags are not too scary-crazy either).

Take care, girls with phones

 Fireman Sam

The fire safety officer came to visit my daughter’s school yesterday. She made me hoot with laughter re-telling the best moments of the visit and she passed on some actually pretty essential fire prevention advice.

Every girl with a phone needs to read on!

First, the class was asked if anyone had been involved in a fire. Two children had and both blazes involved burning things falling out of the fireplace and setting the carpet alight. In one incident it was a board game that had been tossed onto the fire… hmmmm…. Monopoly by any chance? That frequently ends in a blood bath at our house.

One boy confessed that when he was four, he was watching Fireman Sam on TV showing how to call the fire brigade… so he decided to try it. He picked up the receiver, dialled 999, asked for Fire and told them there was a fire. The brigade duly arrived and Broke Down The Door of Their House. Daddy was apparently not very pleased.

Next, the safety officer asked the class what they should do if they were trapped by fire in an upstairs room. One girl answered: ‘Throw everything out of the window to make a soft landing and jump?’

At this, the officer smacks his forehead and asks: ‘Where did you learn that? Disneyland?’ Lots of laughter.

 

Shout Fire!

The real answer is shut the door, block off any gaps smoke can get through, open the window and shout ‘FIRE!’ because apparently ‘HELP’ will be ignored by most passers by. Charming.

Here’s the grim news. The number one cause of house fires these days – now that not so many people are sharing cigarettes in bed on nylon sheets – is leaving your phone charging beside your bed!!!!!

The most common victim of this kind of fire? Lovely, chatty, popular girls who don’t want to miss a text/ post/ tweet.

I know, I was utterly traumatised. We often have everyone in the family going to sleep beside their charging phone. So, this blog is actually a public safety broadcast. Charge your phones before bedtime, then switch them off and sleep safe and sound.

And never throw your Monopoly board into the fire, no matter how annoying it is to land on Park Lane with four houses and one hotel AGAIN.

Pink books for girls, blue for boys?

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The children’s book reviewer on The Independent has caused a stir by saying she will no longer review books that are specifically aimed at girls or boys.

She’s cited the example of The Beautiful Girls colouring in book (pink, cover, you’d never have guessed) versus The Brilliant Boys Colouring In Book (cover, guess what – blue).

Now, I have mixed feelings about this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunchly equal opps mum and personally I would never buy my daughter any book that was about being gorgeous instead of doing brilliant. Because that’s the difference isn’t it?  Being praised for what you passively are as opposed to achieving praise for what you’re actively doing.

For this reason, my daughter and I have not spent a lot of time watching teensy-waisted Disney princesses pout across the screen either, but I have to admit, even those cartoon girlies have both wised up and toughened up over the years.

But, here’s ‘the but’: I do write books that are (mainly) for girls. Although I’d love boys to read Cross My Heart because it’s about a fascinating time in history, very brave teenagers (male and female) and it’s action packed and gripping – sadly, I don’t think they will because there’s a girl on the cover and she’s the central figure.

Men won’t read books with women on the cover or even written by women. Why do you think JK, PD and so many others went for initials not their full names?

No man or boy wants to be caught with a feminine book – that’s not my fault, or the publishers fault, that is the fault of every single man or boy who will mock him for reading it.

But my Secrets at St Jude’s series is definitely for girls. And it has pink and purple and glitter on the cover to shout that out loud and proud. It’s about a girl gang of friends sharing secrets, experiences and yes, having adventures. It’s a girls’ only space set at a girls’ only school. And I absolutely defend the right of girls to have girl space and girl time to explore their feelings, experiences and compare and interact with one another rather than with boys. Because the boy characters aren’t central in this series, I think it allows girls to explore all the elements of their characters. They can be brave and adventurous and proud and jealous and none of these feeling is labelled as ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’.

Interestingly, at girl only schools, more girls choose to do Maths and Science subjects all the way up the school than at mixed schools: surely because the subjects aren’t labelled as male or female?

Do more boys study fashion and home economics at a boys only school?! Ermmm… I don’t think so.

cupcake

I truly believe there is space on the bookcase for every kind of author:

the girlie book writers like Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson,

the very boysie book creators, like Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore, plus the authors who appeal to both boys and girls: JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins.

We should let children find their own way through the books on offer. If your girl wants to read the whole Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider adventure series, great, if your boys are dipping into Jacqueline Wilson to explore the many emotional issues she raises with her stories, fantastic.

Reading is about examining every kind of thought, feeling, adventure, reaction and emotion from the safety of your armchair. That’s why it’s so mind expanding and often mind blowing.

I have a son and a daughter and I try my absolute best to bring them up totally even-handedly.

I want them to be in touch with every part of their personalities: the tender, the tough, the caring, the determined… not to shut any kind of feeling off, which is surely what sexist conditioning encourages us to do.

My children read widely, widely, widely. But there is a definite preference. My son loves books packed with travel, fascinating facts, sci fi, even engineering tips. He read chapter one of the lovely Fault In Our Stars and put it down forever, declaring: ‘This is so depressing, no way am I reading this.’

But my daughter loves books that are a really emotional journey. Michael Morpurgo is up there in her top five authors and oh my goodness, Meg Rosoff made her cry. The baby goat scene… the baby goat…

My boy likes more factual books, my girls likes emotional ones. Is this conditioning? Is this society? Is this natural? Does this just coincide with the way girls and boys develop?

Publishers use their covers to prime the reader. A figure running across a landscape says a spine-tingling action adventure. A cuddly kitten promises cosy comforting animal read with a happy ending.

I think it’s far more acceptable for a girl to read about and to do challenging physical adventurous things than it is for a boy to read about or do nurturing, emotional or tender things. We have the Daring Book for Girls but no Caring or Sharing Book for Boys. That’s something we all need to think about.

The fact that women are still doing most of the cooking and the housework right here in the 21st century suggests that maybe we should be calling for cupcake themed colouring-in books for boys.

Thank God for Jamie Oliver who should be sainted for the single-handed work he’s done to make cooking laddish. He taught my husband to cook and I have bought almost every single one of his books as a thank you.

The machismo culture for boys, featuring games which make it ok to run women over with your car are surely a much bigger problem than pink covered books for girls.

I mean for goodness sake, sometimes after a tiring day studying maths, physics, and running up and down the football pitch, a girl just wants to colour in a cupcake. OK?!

 

 

 

 

 

20 Tips For Surviving The Builders

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Builders’ tea

And the builders are OUT… phew! I’m breathing a huge, dusty sigh of relief and allowing life as I know it to resume.

I’ve totally renovated four homes so far and although I don’t think this one will be the last, I have promised my family some peace and quiet… for a while.

I’ve learned (the hard way) a few useful things about having the builders in and thought I’d share my top 20 tips in case they’re useful to anyone else in this nerve-shreddingly stressful situation.

1.     Get as much done all at the one time as you possibly can. I’ve tried doing a bathroom here, a kitchen the next year, redecorating bit by bit and it’s not ideal. Plumbers and electricians come in and sigh: ‘Who did the kitchen like that? For the new bathroom, I’ll have to re-do all that piping/ wiring.’  Or worse, hauling their ladders and equipment into the kitchen, they scratch your new hall paintwork or eeek, your brand new floor. The more work you can get done at once, the better the price should be.

2.     Move out if at all possible. Even for the first few weeks. This allows you and your family to remain sane and be dressed without plaster dust on your clothes, in your hair, all over your beds and even in your food. It also lets the builders forge ahead without having to worry about water, gas and electrics having to be reconnected every evening.

3.      If you have to stay at home, tape polythene sheets over doors, buy a brush, dustpan, even a cheap vacuum cleaner just to deal with builder mess. Do not use your lovely Dyson to scoop up plaster dust and rubble. Do not let the builders use it either: it will die!

4.     If you work from home, you HAVE to find somewhere else to go. Trust me here. The library, a café with wifi, you have to get out. You cannot listen to Lesser Known Hits of the 80s, plus drilling and bumping and banging for weeks on end and get work done.

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What shade of green?

5.     Be VERY choosy about which builder you use. Do not rush this decision. Get recommendations from people you trust, or neighbours… even bathroom and kitchen suppliers. Go and see previous work the builder has done. Ask the owners if the work was quick and tidy, if the builders were polite, stuck to the agreed budget, turned up on time, stayed with the job right to the end. If a builder is available straight away, beware. Good builders have to be booked in advance. If you’re in an old house, you need a builder used to renovating old property.

6.     I don’t like tradesmen who only want to be paid in cash and I don’t like it if they want part of the money up front. Both of these things suggest they’re not running their business well and they won’t run your project well either. I totally wanted to sack a builder once, but had paid too much up front to be able to do it.

7.     Some money part way through is OK. But you need a week or two after the work is completed before you pay your final bill. So you can work out what the little problems are and ask for them to be fixed before you settle up.

8.     Plan, plan, plan. Make drawings of your rooms. Think about plugs, lights, tiling, cabinets, the way the door opens… Make as many decisions ahead of the work as possible. There will still be lots of decisions to make on the spot. Take some guidance from your builder – he might from experience know of a better way to do it…

9.     …But don’t do everything the builder way – sometimes they can go overboard with plastic trimming, beading, coving, laminate flooring and everything in beige and before you know it the heart and soul of your characterful old house has been ripped out and MDF-ed over.

 

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Before….the old kitchen

10.   Consider using an architect. I asked an architect friend, who recommended the office junior, who made several visits and lots of plans. She had great ideas, oversaw getting the building warrant and all the relevant permits and charged us less than we expected for her time.

11. If your decorator umms and ahhs and says: ‘Are you sure? That’s quite a dark/ bright/ unusual colour?’ Just say YES. If you want a beautiful paint job with proper sanding down and many layers of paint, say so. Expect it to take longer and cost more than slapping the stuff on.

12.  Don’t freak out when standing in an empty newly painted room. By the time you’ve put in sofas, pictures, lamps, shelves, books – the colour will be lovely and just the way you imagined it.

13. Be business like with your builders. They’re not your new friends; they’re not your Dad/ uncle/ boss. You’re in charge. If things aren’t going the way you want, ask about it. Explain what you want. Listen. Sometimes you will have to compromise because what you want doesn’t work. But don’t accept something you really don’t want. The builder is going to move on and you’ll be left regretting this bit of work for the next five, ten years or longer.

14. When you first agree a price with the builder, try and get everything you can think of onto that estimate. There will always be a few extra jobs at the end, which will put the price up, but try not to make it a great long list of extras. Otherwise your bill might be a nasty shock.

 

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And after… the new bedroom

15. Agree a timetable. Expect it to take a bit longer. But do not accept endless weeks of delay. If this is happening, you need to find out why and ask them to get back on track.

16. Keep all your estimates, bills and receipts in a dedicated folder. File all those guarantees. Unused paint tins, lightshades that didn’t match, bookcases that didn’t fit, unopened boxes of tiles – all can be returned if you have the receipt.

17. Get everything finished! Don’t leave wires dangling while you procrastinate on a bathroom cabinet, don’t leave plywood on the floor while you dither about tiles. After all the pain you’ve gone through, you NEED the big ‘tah dah’ when it all comes together and looks brilliant.

18. Accept that budget limitations can lead to creative and brilliant results. My £9 a metre bathroom tiles look amazing. Crown and Dulux have colours just as pretty as Farrow and Ball’s (use tester pots to find them). Two IKEA pendant lights can look even better than one designer one. A cheap bookcase properly assembled and fitted to the wall by a joiner looks almost as good as a bespoke one.

19. Realise that your wine/ chocolate/ biscuit consumption will rocket during this horribly stressful and expensive time.

20.  Remind yourself that it will be worth all the pain, expense and hassle. We’ve created a big family kitchen, renovated an old bathroom, plus put in a second bathroom and already, one week in, this has transformed home life.

 

My grandparents’ war

To understand my fascination with the Second World War, you have to know a little bit about my grandparents. The most intriguing thing is that they fought on opposite sides of the war, as I’m half British and half German.

My British grandfather was a farmer, so because of his occupation he was not in active service, but a member of the Home Guard during the war. He was on regular patrols looking out for invaders, making sure everyone’s windows were properly blacked out. Meanwhile, my granny, was a local ambulance driver.

They had two farms on the east coast of Scotland, so food was plentiful and they made money growing and selling it. They were well away from bombing raids and – although they would both have known people who were fighting and killed – they and their small children were out of harm’s way.

They had a work force of foreign prisoners of war. My Dad (who was five when the war ended) has a hazy memory of Polish men on the farm, RAF pilots at dinner and fighter planes flying low over the fields.

Meanwhile, my German grandfather, serving as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was having a horrible war. What he told me about that time goes like this.

He wanted to be a journalist when he was young. He used to review plays and films. But then the war came and he had to join up. He was sent to fight on the Eastern Front (against the Russians) and it was beyond appalling. So cold people died of frostbite. So cold, your gun froze up and jammed, the snot froze inside your nose and you had icicles hanging from your nostrils (I wasn’t likely to forget this detail). He was lying in the snow, firing on the enemy when he was hit by a bullet and severely wounded. He was hospitalized, taken out of Russia, back to Germany and (to my knowledge) injured out for the rest of the war. He had ugly scarring from the wound, but otherwise enjoyed good health for the rest of his life.

In my late teens, when my questions for him might have got much more interesting, he developed Alzheimer’s, so our conversations were very limited.

During the war, my German grandmother worked with her parents on their small farm, vineyard and village shop in the rural, very Catholic Mosel valley, close to Trier.  This is where my Mother, born in 1947, grew up in severe post-war austerity. She had the kind of childhood where not one scrap went to waste, you treasured your few clothes and shoes, grew your own food and if you didn’t finish your dinner, you were served it cold for breakfast.

I love this photo of my Mother and her family making haystacks. It gives you an idea of how they lived.

haystacks pic

 

 

Why fasting is such a terrible idea

Did you know that the number one book in the UK charts is currently The Fast Diet, which promotes the idea that we should fast for two days every week?

If that doesn’t quite grab you, don’t worry. With summer, aka the bikini season, just round the corner, a veritable bonanaza of new diet fads is about to be unleashed to prey on womankind’s insatiable desire for thinness.

Which means an awful lot of trees are about to be needlessly sacrificed – because all the expert advice that is worth a damn is that DIETS DO NOT WORK!

Yup, you read that right. All that self-denial… all those punishing breakfasts… the grapefruit… the black coffee… the calorie counting…

Diets actually make you fatter.

Here it is in black and white. Reviewing 31 diet studies, UCLA researchers found: “You can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back, plus more.”

So if you are clutching a copy of the latest miracle cure in the hope that by chapter seven you will morph into Angelina Jolie, I’m sorry to have to disappoint you.

The Fast Diet is written by two authors [Mimi Spencer and Dr Someone] who spout scientific research — because diet books, like shampoo ads, are always so much more convincing with ‘the sciency bit.’

This particularly annoys me because, as it says on the NHS website: “There does not appear to be any research evidence that looks directly at the 5:2 diet.”

And here’s Scientific American: “Despite growing enthusiasm for intermittent fasting, researchers have conducted few robust clinical trials. Its long-term effect in people remain uncertain.”

And yet the authors are all over the media claiming it will make you thinner, live longer, outsmart dementia, cancer, heart disease etc.

We’re supposed to believe that Mimi Spencer, who is a mother, spends two days a week eating just 500 calories: one quarter of the recommended amount.

I can’t think of a worse example to set your children: ‘Oh no darling, Mummy is eating a peanut for lunch today because it’s her diet day.’

Oh, it’s just toe-curling.

Children are acutely aware of what we eat and what we think of our bodies. It’s absolutely no use telling your daughter that she should eat regular healthy meals and accept her body as it is if you’re fasting twice a week in a determined effort to be thin.

If you’re so fixated on thin and the denial required to get there, aren’t you setting her on the path to an unhappy body image and punishing diets – which, remember, don’t actually work?

Any Mum with children to look after tends to have a frantic day, up early, rushing about, the nursery, work, the park, housework, feeding, cooking. On 500 calories, you’re going to flake out before elevenses. Let alone be able to do the one thing which might actually keep you at a healthy weight – some good, old fashioned exercise.

‘Eat less, is the wrong message!’ says US obesity expert Dr James Hill. ‘The correct message is: move more and eat smarter. The most current research suggests that increasing energy expenditure will increase weight loss.’

So get off the sofa and go for a walk, it doesn’t have to be a run. Think back to when you did sport: was there anything you liked? Swimming? Badminton?  Netball? Could you get back into it? Of course you could. With a friend? Even better.

Didn’t you hear how Gwyneth, Madonna and Cameron Diaz maintain those figures? They go to the gym every single day. They work those highly paid butts, they sweat it off.

Chuck your diet books away, I beg you. Concentrate on being healthy, not thin. It’s better for you and a much better message for your kids.

I’ve hung with the superthin and I’ve found that to a stick they tend to smoke, drink coffee and look unwell, because they are.

I’ve hung with the athletic crowd too and I love the way they train hard and eat ‘clean’: natural unprocessed foods. A scene from 1980s movie Flashdance where the girls pig out on dinner then go to the gym to work it off transformed my relationship with food.

You only get one body, please stop hating it and wishing it was less. It’s doing fine, it’s got you this far. Cherish it and do good things for it.

Remind yourself and your children that every single shape can look sensational. Bin “I want to be thin”. Just get active, and glow!

This article also appeared in The Daily Record.

A letter to my future self about how to deal with a teenaged daughter

Being the mother of a teenage girl is a nightmare. I should know – I was that teenaged nightmare.

Bad hair, out all hours, drinking, smoking… boys? Been there, snogged, torn the T-shirt.

My daughter is not a teenager yet. But in preparation for the difficult years ahead I’ve written this letter to my future self, with advice I’m determined to follow.  In the spirit of Facebook, I’d like to share it with you.

 

Dear Me,

Allow her to go to that party, meet those friends and do what the other kids in her class are doing. But only if she takes a phone; agrees to a pick up time or a taxi home and respects the arrangements made with her safety in mind. Independence is good. Safety is vital.

Remind her – 50 times a day at least – that all models are airbrushed to within an inch of their lives and everyone on TV has a make up lady, a hair stylist and a wardrobe assistant. Real people in real life are not like this. Except in California where everyone has had full-body plastic surgery.

Insist she peels herself off the sofa, away from the screen and takes some brisk exercise every single day. Because this will get her heart pumping and blood racing in a way that One Direction never can. If you can convince her to play a sport, even better, because winning will build her confidence but losing will build her character.

Make sure she’s not bored. Remember how out of your head with boredom you were? Stacks of books and endless hours of TV are not enough. Your girl needs interests, hobbies, passions. She’s got to find her thing: drama classes, bird-watching, star-gazing, chemistry club. Whatever it is, she has to get out there and find it.

Encourage her, by example, to be a good and generous citizen. Together you will volunteer, be polite and cherish your friends. You will try not to moan or whinge, but be grateful for what you have.

Cook and eat the good stuff together – but never, ever DIET.

Talk openly, but sometimes back off and respect her privacy. She may not want you to know that she has been ditched by the boy with flicky hair. When she asks for advice about sex, be honest and give it your best shot.

Do not be embarrassed by all the puberty stuff: boobs, periods, tampons, spots, body ha