Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The one where I review the Christmas ads

Work was crazy last week. I write about adverts, and the first week of November now seems to be when all the big U.K. advertisers release their Christmas commercials. I sat through, and then wrote about, at least a dozen festive offerings, then felt surprised when I went back into the real world and everyone wasn't making mince pieces or watching the snow fall prettily outside.

I'm sure virtually everyone in the UK has seen the John Lewis ad by now, but I'm going to post it here for the benefit of my non-UK readers. I like it, even though I know it's highly manipulative and designed specifically to appeal to me, the middle-class mother. The Doctor said it looks as if it was directed by Richard Curtis, and I agree (it wasn't. The director, Dougal Wilson, has done many of John Lewis's "hits", including The Snowman). Some people (including the lovely Melissa at Talk About York) said the little boy in it was too good to be true, and of course she's right, but an ad featuring grumpy tired kids who don't want to do their homework probably wouldn't have worked as well. A minority still said it left them cold -- one Facebook friend of mine said she just kept thinking the grubby penguin toy needed a good wash.


Marks and Spencer's, ad, meanwhile, is just as whimsical but not quite as winning, in my opinion. It concerns a couple of fairies who go around spreading their magic dust to better everyone's Christmas. I particularly noted that they manage to get a bunch of kids, who are sitting around watching TV and on iPads, outside playing in the snow.But that wasn't enough to make my eyes smart.

Maybe laughter is better than tears? Mulberry's ad is the one that made me laugh the most. Even though I'm not into fancy handbags, I love the humour and the portrayal of the snooty family.


 Waitrose, meanwhile, has a child who's bad at baking being saved by the lovely people at Waitrose. Now I sympathise with this child. I was/am rubbish at baking too. But if I went down my local Waitrose and asked for help with making biscuits, I can't really believe they wouldn't stare at me like I'm a crazy woman. Anyway - it's nicely done, and if you didn't know, the choir singing Dolly Parton's "Try" is made up of ordinary people who uploaded clips of themselves warbling the song.



Finally Vodafone has a bunch of people singing "Let it Go," in their Christmas ad this year. I wonder if they thought this would be a hit for anyone with small children? But perhaps these parents are fed up with hearing the bloody song, and will groan when they hear it yet again? 




Which is your favourite? Have you seen another one you like?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

What happened to October?

Amsterdam
Stunning autumn colour in Germany
The University library, Leuven

Where did October go?

Oh I know.  There was a work trip to Amsterdam (fun), a family funeral (not so fun), a couple of three-line whip family events.... oh, and half the month was taken up with a bloody two week half term. That was what happened.

I'm really not sure about these two week half terms. (It's a private school: as my friend says, the more you pay for education in this country, the less you get). It feels like we're starting a whole new term now, and it's going to take everyone at least a week to get back into the whole routine.

As I was working for most of half-term, it wasn't exactly relaxing, involving either a) rushing the boys from one activity to the next while trying to fit in work or b) working with them in the house and having to fend off constant cries of "Can I write a story on your computer?" which seems to be their new favourite activity. I'm all for budding authorship, but I don't really want my Mac overtaken with stories called things like "Lord of the Pigs."

However, we did manage a four day trip to Germany, to stay with our lovely German friends from New York days, who we haven't seen since 2012. Apart from seeing them, which was the main thing, there was a a trip to the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, which kept both adults and kids amused, a stunning, autumnal hike to a castle, and an evening at a superb swimming pool, which had slides, various pools and best of all, a massive outdoor hot pool (the Germans do this kind of thing very well). We also ate a lot of sausages, potato salad and cake (the Germans do that well too. But November will be diet month). The boys also got to go to a German school for an hour, with our friend's son; they took part in an English lesson in which they apparently refused to say very much about Halloween.

On the way back, we stopped at Leuven, which is a beautiful University town in Belgium, full of gothic architecture, bookshops, bars and pubs-- a bit like the Belgian version of Oxford.  I hadn't been there since a school trip when I was 17 and everyone rushed off to smoke Camel cigarettes and drink Stella Artois (we were supposed to be looking round the town, but honestly, what did the teachers really think we were doing?). I also remember at the time that "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" was number one in the charts, and we went around singing "You've Lost That Leuven Feeling.". Oh, how witty we thought we were......

Now, it's back to the grindstone again. Littleboy 1 has just been asked to learn the capitals of all the EU countries for a test next Monday. I do not even know the capitals of the EU countries, so I don't have high hopes for him being able to remember, say Ljubjlana. He still thinks the Prime Minister is called David Beckham, so I don't think names are his strong point.

Talking of which, if we do end up leaving the EU, I think I would have preferred Beckham as the Prime Minister.....

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Am I really that disorganised?

I used to pride myself on being pretty organised when it came to the kids.

Not to the point where I'm arranging their clothes in matching colours, or booking playdates a couple of months ahead or signing up for things like schools several years in advance. No, that's just scary.

But I write things in a diary, I've never yet forgotten a meeting/playdate/appointment, and I'm generally not late for things.

Recently, standards have been beginning to slip though. Since September I've doubled my working hours, and balls are getting dropped left, right and centre.

Two boys at the same school was fine in America - they had their own personalised backpacks in different colours, wore different clothes and didn't have to take much, other than their homework and lunch.

Now, they have identical backpacks, identical games bags, similar looking music cases and both have violins. Their scehedule, with each playing two instruments at school, is so complicated that I have a chalkboard in the kitchen on which I've written what each boy needs to bring each day.

And still I get it wrong.

Over the past fortnight I have packed piano music instead of violin music, sent Littleboy 2 to school with his brother's games bag, and failed to pack a snack on numerous occasions. I even set myself a reminder to pack a special themed snack for Littleboy 2 (which I'd bought and put in the fridge, but knew I'd forget) but failed to hear the bleeping go off on my phone as we left the house.

I've also on several occasions put the wrong homework in the wrong bag -- potentially a more serious crime as Littleboy 1 can now get into trouble for not bringing it on the right day. As I result I've emphasized to the kids that they now must check their own backpacks before school in case I've got something wrong.

Iota blogged this week about people who let their kids come out of school and simply dump all their belongings on their long-suffering parents. I know I've been guilty of this before. But I feel duty-bound to try and sort out the family kit in the mornings, not trusting the boys to do it all themself.

I'd feel awful if one of them got into trouble for me not signing their homework book or leaving their football boots behind. But at what age can I let it go -- and let them take the rap?


Monday, 6 October 2014

Tears Before Bake-Off time

My two boys love The Great British Bake-Off. And I'm wondering. Am I alone?

Nine-year-old Littleboy1 in particular seems to be fascinated by this show, which in itself is strange as, of the two, he is the more traditionally "boyish".  (His brother, meanwhile, has been known to say he wants to be a girl, and prefers drawing pictures to football.)

Although I'm not a big fan of baking, we happened to watch it a couple of times in the summer, and now, despite the fact that it's on at bedtime, he wants me to record it so we can watch it together the next day. He then sits down and solemnly watches people baking cakes for an hour. It's quite funny to watch him; he doesn't get any of the Mel and Sue smutty references on the show, but laughs like a drain when they try to sneak some of the food. So I suppose I have to hand it to them for appealing to audiences of all ages....

Last week he burst into tears when Chetna, (his favourite), was voted off the show. I think he finds the whole voting-off procedure quite traumatic -- we don't watch The X Factor or anything like that with the kids, and it's the first time they've experienced that particular aspect of reality TV.

But he's clearly fascinated by the show and it has caught his imagination. Having last week said his ambition in life was to become a Bake Off judge, he's now decided he wants to be a baker when he grows up, and open a patisserie. Never mind that his mother is one of the world's worst bakers and the extent of our (joint) baking repertoire runs to crumble, a blackberry cake a few weeks ago and several batches of chocolate brownies. But his eyes lit up when I suggested making a cake next weekend to take to a Harvest Supper.

I have an inkling that there might be other small boys out there who are addicted to this show (his-10 year-old cousin apparently watches it in cookery class at school). Although I have no idea if he ever discusses his Bake Off passion with any of his mates. Anyhow, we will solemnly be sitting down to watch the final on Wednesday night. I might even bake something in celebration.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Twelve Labours of Homework Time

"We all you YOU can do your child's year 3 maths questions, or write a story about a caveman," said the teacher at the recent parents' talk at school. "We want to know if THEY can."

Sensible words of course, but oh, how hard when you're standing over your child as they struggle with a homework question. The rational me knows that you mustn't help them, it's for their own good, the teacher needs to know that they can cope with the work.

But the mother  in me, and the journalist in me, desperately wants to copy-edit their English homework, come up with creative ideas for their project, and help them do the very best they can. And there's another voice whispering in my ear: the one that says: "I bet all the other mothers are helping too, so if I don't help, my child will end up with the worst project in the class."

I can't stand to see smudgy writing, bad spelling and little errors such as full stops left off the end of sentences, and it takes a Heraculean effort for me to hold back from correcting such mistakes, or at least hinting to the child that they need to read through the work again.

I could, of course, book them into after-school club every night and leave them to do their own homework on their own, without hovering nearby with my 5pm mug of tea. The rationale is you then cast a cursory, relaxed glance over the work to check they've done it before signing the homework book (at our school, the children get reprimanded if the book doesn't get signed by a parent). But does this really happen? Or do such parents still agonise over messy work and wrong answers? (Funny anecdote time: a Mum I know told me recently that one evening she noticed her child had written, for a geography assignment on a "place I've visited", all about Mount Everest. "And he'd written it all in pen, so I couldn't even ask him to rewrite it!").

Then there is the homework that clearly they can't do on their own - the assignments that involve, for instance, looking things up on the internet and printing things out. (I'm sorry, but how many 9 year olds know how to use the family printer? I can barely work out the combination of different gizmos that are required before it actually does something other than give me an "error" message.)

In the past year, I've slaved over looking up homophones, making a fez, putting together collages and more, while gritting my teeth over mis-spelled words, messy writing and silly words inserted in stories. And I know it's only going to get worse, as they're really piling on the homework at school this year. I know at some point in what seems like the distant future, they're going to be doing homework alone in their rooms -- but in the meantime, how do I stop myself from having a nervous breakdown over it?

 How do you cope with homework - and what's your involvement?

Friday, 5 September 2014

What age do kids walk to school on their own?


At what point does the adult in this picture disappear?
The new school year has started, and Littleboys 1 and 2 are now at the same school. This makes dropping off/picking up much easier for me; however, building works at the school now means that parking has become even more chaotic than usual. So as always, it's a challenge.

We can walk/cycle to school from our new house, although it's a brisk mile and a half steeply downhill; fine for going, not so great for the way back. But we are already talking about whether the boys could do it on their own in future, which brings me to the subject of this blog post -- what IS the right age for kids' to walk to school on their own?

Expat Mum touches on it in her latest post, and it's a subject we often discuss at home. The Doctor is always telling me how, at the age of seven, he was travelling across central London on his own to school, by bus and tube. This was the late 70s; apparently he was the only boy in his class doing so, but when his brother, six years older, had done it in the late 60s everyone did it.

But it's not just a generational thing; different countries have different expectations. Our friends in Norway tell us that their 11 year old not only walks a mile home, she lets herself in and does her homework for two hours until her parents come home from work. Apparently this is completely normal over there.

I was talking to some mums recently and the consensus was that 10 was about the right age. But is 10 old enough to also be supervising a younger brother? And does it make it better, or worse, to do it with a friend? (The idea being that if they're with a friend, they're less likely to concentrate on things like crossing the road).

So I'd love to know what everyone else's kids do and whether they're doing it on foot, bike, scooter, public transport or in the car, with you as their taxi service. Because, while I enjoy walking my kids to school, I don't want to be chauffeur forever.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Swallows and Amazons Save the Day on the M6

My own intrepid explorers head up-river in Anglesey
The Valley-to-Palais family has been in Anglesey, North Wales for a much needed post-move break.

We decided to drive up on Friday afternoon before the bank holiday, something we knew was potentially foolish (due to past experience with the traffic) but which couldn't be avoided, as some friends from Long Island were flying in from Heathrow that morning, and it was the only day we could see them. So my day began with driving to Heathrow to meet the red-eye, driving back to West Berkshire and eating a large breakfast with our friends before they left for London. We didn't leave for Anglesey till after 1, and the traffic was predictably awful. It took us six hours, after negotiating jams on the M6, crazy roadworks near Shrewsbury and tiny Shropshire lanes.

So what helped us survive this journey (the same time as it took to get to Vermont from New York, and about half the distance?) I've sung the praises of audio books before: this time we listened to Swallows and Amazons. It's years since I read Arthur Ransome, and I was a bit concerned that it would be too old-fashioned for the Littleboys, not to mention rather tame in comparison to the exploits of Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and the rest. The first chapter contained some rather technical sailing references, which I thought might really put them off. And although they sat in silence for the whole six hours, I still wasn't quite sure what they were making of it.

But it turns out they loved it; despite never having been sailing in their lives, they were utterly gripped by the tale of the plucky Swallow family, the Amazons (aka Blackett Girls) and Captain Flint (aka Uncle Jim) walking the plank. Littleboy 1 now wants to read/hear the rest of the series and what's more, it has fired their imagination. This morning they were playing a game with a compass; apparently the shed was the North Pole.

What struck me is that as an adult, you immediately realise that the children are play-acting and imagining things; of course "Rio" is just a little lakeside village, and Captain Flint is not really a retired pirate (although what WAS he doing with a Jolly Rodger on his houseboat?). But as a child reading it, the lines between real and make-believe definitely weren't quite so clear. Littleboy 1 was very confused when he asked about the "Amazon River" and I said it was in South America. "But are they really in South America?" he asked.

(You forget how children see the world sometimes. Yesterday, watching The Great British Bake-Off, which my two boys rather inexplicably love, he remarked, "Gosh that two hours to make the cake went really quickly, didn't it?" when the results were shown after about 10 minutes.)

Anyway, seeing as books seem to be becoming something of a special subject on this blog, I'm wondering whether to do a monthly "books" post (for which, dear PRs, you are welcome to send me press releases). This month I'm going to give a non-sponsored shout out to Audible.co.uk, which is owned by Amazon and sells audio books. It's a bit like a club; you can earn credits for buying a certain number of titles per month, and therefore reduce their prices dramatically. For us, audio books seem to be becoming a bit of a necessary expense, so I think it'll be worth it. Happy reading!