Friday, 31 December 2010

My wish for 2011

Photo credit foobean01

I've not blogged at all this week. I kind of gave myself some time off and told myself I would only blog if I really wanted to. I haven't wanted, partly because I have not been well and not felt like it. Thankfully, I'm better now and have time to do my end-of-year post.

Everyone that has been blogging has been doing so about plans or resolutions for the new year. I am not going to do that. Technically, I'm still working on my 2010 resolution - which was to regain my pre-pregnancy size and whilst I am not there yet, I am a hello of a lot closer than I was a year ago. I am doing the same things as before, and as a resolution feels like a change, it feels odd to set one. I'll just carry this one over.

Instead, I've given some thought to my wish for 2011. What I want most in the world. I asked the good folk of Twitter what their wishes were and got a range of responses from holidays abroad to football teams winning trophies. Some were prosaic, others were more intangible and incredibly kind-hearted. Cures for cancer, good health and good fortune to those in need.

It made me think. The end of the year in our family has been one marked by ill health or ill fortune to relatives. My father-in-law is still in hospital in a high dependency unit, two weeks after keyhole surgery turned into major surgery to remove a bowel tumour. We're confident he'll be OK but obviously, it's a worrying time and the children have missed seeing him over Christmas. Others in the extended family have health problems and our thoughts are also with them. My sister, who got married in November, was made redundant in the middle of December. Great timing.

With these things in mind, I've decided on my wish for 2011. I wish for peace, happiness, health and wealth (material and spiritual) for those I love and those that they love.

And with that, I wish you a Happy New Year. See you next year.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Dad's Chestnut Stuffing

You'll know, if you do read my blog regularly, that Christmas is a time for remembering my Dad, as he died just 8 days before Christmas. I don't really want Christmas to be a sad time because we had so many good times at Christmas. When I was a child, Dad did a lot of cooking when his very long working hours allowed him. Before I was born, my mum had been quite ill and very often had no appetite so Dad would cook. He did a lot of the Sunday roast stuff and he did a lot at Christmas - full dinner on Christmas Day, mince pies, the lot.

When I was about 10, Dad was given a recipe for chestnut stuffing by a friend of his called Don. Don ran a vintage wedding car hire business, was brilliant at restoring cars - until it came to lifting the bonnet. Dad used to do extra work for him in the evenings and at weekends fixing and restoring engines. Dad was never happier when tinkering with cars.

I helped Dad to make this the first Christmas but we did everything down to boiling the chestnuts. We had (and my mum still does have) the tiniest of galley kitchens to work in and in the hour that it took to boil the chestnuts, the place got so hot, I felt faint. I really can't be bothered with that anymore so I tend to buy tins of chestnut puree but you can also buy vacuum packs of cooked chestnuts that you can mash - or just chuck in the food processor.

I reckon I have made this every year that I have cooked Christmas dinner. I actually honestly do love doing it - I plan it carefully and have a timetable to follow so that I don't forget anything. And this year, I will be following the advice in English Mum's great guide. But my one constant is this recipe to go with the turkey (a crown in this house, as we have such a small oven). Mum still has the original recipe, written in Don's handwriting, with notes from Dad, as well as Dad's signature and address scrawled on the page for some odd reason. I have two photocopies of it but I typed it up a few years ago so that I never lose it. I've amended it for my purposes these days and as I have a food processor, make it really simply by bunging it in there and mixing. I cannot do Christmas without this now - it reminds me of Dad and helping him in the kitchen. Of happier times. Don also passed away a few years ago and it reminds me of both of them. Sadly, for me, the last conversation I had with Don was over the phone - telling him that Dad had died.

Oh, and the recipe contains this dire warning if you do boil your own chestnuts in large letters - pierce chestnuts BEFORE boiling!

Chestnut Stuffing 
serves 4-6

1 small packet of sage and onion stuffing
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
225g/8oz pork sausagemeat (or 4 good sausages, skins removed)
1 small egg, beaten
50g/2oz breadcrumbs
2 rashers streaky bacon
225g chestnut puree (or similar amount of cooked chestnuts)

Snip the bacon into small pieces. Place everything in the bowl of food processor and mix. Season with salt and pepper.

If you don't have a food processor, snip the bacon into a bowl, and chop the onion finely. Add the sage and onion stuffing, and breadcrumbs and stir to combine. Add the sausagemeat, the chestnut puree or chestnuts (whole ones should be mashed with a bit of butter first), and beaten egg. Season and mix together (you may need to use your hands to knead it together.)

The stuffing can be made into balls or do as I do - I make double quantities and pack it into a loaf tin, which saves space in my oven! This freezes well uncooked - I made mine a few weeks back and I'll take it out of the oven today ready for the big day tomorrow. It takes at least 40 mins to cook (allow up to 50 mins) so can be cooked once you have the turkey out resting. I sometimes do a bit of butter on top, or spoon over some of the juices from the turkey to keep it nice and moist.

I love cold leftovers of this as much as I do having it with my Christmas dinner. And, of course, when I eat it, I think of Dad - and smile.

Merry Christmas everyone! Have a great time and a wonderful New Year. Thanks for reading my blog during 2010.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Some last minute present ideas for kids - a bit of a mega post

As we've been so overwhelmed with toys from Toys R Us, it's been hard to know what to review. Some of the toys I'm going to mention haven't actually been played with yet - there has been so much, I have held some of them back until the day itself.

The first of those is the Sticky Mosaics Unicorns set (£14.99). Earlier in the year, we were sent Sticky Mosaics Dinosaurs and we absolutely loved it. I don't think I've heard a bad word said about them by other Toyologists too. So, we're giving the Unicorns to Missy Woo for Christmas as the designs are full of her favourite colour, pink. However, I have no doubt that Monkey will be helping her make the pictures.

Then there is the Jolly Octopus game (£14.99) In this game, you have to remove crabs with tongs whilst the octopus spins. If you get hit, he spins further and giggles. We actually gave this game away to another family and they loved it as it was pretty simple to understand. However, the parents also reported back to me that they had spent many a happy hour playing the game once their children had gone to bed! The octopus has two speeds so you can start it slow for little children and then increase the speed as they get better at it. Sounds a hoot!

Next, something we have played with is the Tomica Big City set which is £39.99. This is a figure of 8 track set with a train, a platform, some roads, garage, pick up truck and figure - plus various other bits and bats. We took this down to Devon for Monkey to play with. It is just the sort of thing he likes as he is big on cars and trains. He loved playing with it and we ended up with the set out throughout our stay. He sulked when we took it down and put it away again. There was plenty to keep him occupied so it was good to return to again and again. You can add other Tomica toys and sets to it which means it would be a good starting point for a Tomica collection. And even though Monkey really loved playing with the different parts of the city, Missy Woo also enjoyed playing with the set, but she is used to her brother playing with cars and often joins in. They gave it a big thumbs up.

A board game we have played with is Pirate Snakes and Ladders and Ludo (£8.99). This is basically two games in one as the board is reversible and are what you would expect from the name - classic old board games done with a pirate makeover. Monkey and Missy Woo seem to know how to play these - they must have learned at school because we don't have the basic versions here - and sit down to play nicely with this. Well, apart from Monkey making up his own rules and deciding that 2 is not a good number so that means he's allowed to throw again. It's really lovely watching them play old classics such as this and they did play so nicely. Good value for money and a nice stocking filler.

Nerf N Strike Recon CS-6
And then there are the Nerf guns. We've been sent two recently. The first is the Nerf N Strike Recon CS-6 (£19.99) which comes in 5 parts so that it can be customised. It has a sight and a red light beam for night times. And then we were also sent the Nerf N Strike Raider Rapid Fire CS-35 Blaster (£24.99). This is like a machine Nerf gun - it has a huge drum magazine which can hold 35 foam darts and a pump action. Now, Monkey thought this was great and had lots of fun with it for a few days. I STILL have a huge problem with guns of any sort as toys for children, even though the darts are pretty harmless. Oh, and I keep finding them in the strangest of places. The darts, not the children. Thumbs up from the children, and a not sure from me. If you feel differently about toy guns, you will probably love this as Nerfs are great for kids of all ages.

A useful stocking filler is the Snazaroo Boys Face Paints set (£9.99). We were sent the girl set earlier in the year and this is definitely more boyish in terms of colours, plus it has black paint which you need to make many of the designs. There is a guide in the box showing you how to do some designs which can be very helpful. The paints are non-toxic and hypo-allergenic. However, I'd love to see them doing a Unisex set of face paints because if you do have both genders, it seems a waste to need two sets, particularly if you have a girly girl and a boyish boy like I do.

And finally, here is something we're holding back for Christmas. It's the Lego Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle (£99.99). It's actually listed as suitable for 8+ but I have been convinced by the older child of the house (ahem) that it will be fine to give to Monkey and that he'll help him build it. It looks amazing and incredibly detailed - replicating features from the books / film and has 10 minifigures, including Harry and Hermione. It even has secret sliding stairs! My only concern - as with all Lego sets - is where we're going to store it, be that built or broken down. The potential for my kids to lose important parts is huge - and me to tread on them at an inopportune moment. Still, Monkey does like Harry Potter and I'm sure he will be wide eyed when he opens this on Saturday morning as he is really getting into Lego now, and getting good at it too.

Phew, think that is it for my mega post. Hope these reviews have been helpful for choosing toys for your children this Christmas!

The Gallery - Love

My child. My boy. You landed with a bang and I wondered what had hit me. You needed constant amounts of everything for what felt like an eternity and life, as I had known it, stopped. It felt like a horrible waking dream. I felt I couldn't cope as a mother and as early as your 8th week, discussed going back to work. But I stuck it out for a few weeks longer. And suddenly, you changed. You slept, you played, you laughed and you smiled. All in healthy quantities. Within a few more weeks, I was hooked and all thoughts of returning to work vanished. You became my joy, my shining light. I would do anything for you. As you have grown, I've been so proud of the boy you have become. But just occasionally, I remember this moment at a meet in Manchester, when I held you on my knee and you fell asleep, resting your head gently on my chest. You slept on me so peacefully, like never before. Even if you did give me pins and needles that day, it was and remains a special moment in my life. A chance to be still and hold you. A chance to just be, mother and child together. Every time I look at this picture, my heart sings as it reminds me that the key component in motherhood (or fatherhood) is love. That love might not be obvious at first but it is there and it can grow inside you until it takes your breath away.

And that, for me, is Love.

View the other entries on The Gallery at Tara's Sticky Fingers blog.
ShowOff Showcase

This post was linked to The Boy and Me's Show Off Show Case on 16th April 2011.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

How to Make Monster Soup - by Monkey (aged 5 3/4)

This is a "guest post" by Monkey. He wrote it this morning completely off his own back and brought it to me. I think it's fab so I thought I'd share it with you. I'll use his words and spellings first and provide a translation - as he read it out to me - underneath. 

Over to Monkey..... 

How to make Monstar Monster SoPe

1 Fiei put a Man into the Pan.

2 next put a plug into the Pan.

3 Atht that put a slug into the Pan.

4 put a meeaacat into the Pan.

5 put so slim into the Pan.

6 put a telaviin into the Pan.

Photo credit: siulesoj
7 put a Powd into the Pan.

8 put so culud Powd into the pan

9 put so Iic Crim.

10 Put so Dogs into the Pan.

11 boil for 99 minits

(Translation How to make Monster Soup

1. First, put a man into the pan.

2. Next, put a plug into the pan.

3. After that, put a slug into the pan.

4. Put a meerkat into the pan.

5. Put some slime into the pan.

6. Put a television into the pan.

7. Put some powder into the pan.

8. Put some coloured powder into the pan.

9. Put some ice cream (into the pan). 

10. Put some dogs into the pan. 

11. Boil for 99 minutes. 

Apparently, this feeds 80 monsters. Bon appetit!)

Silent Sunday - Who put all that there then?

You can find more Silent Sunday posts at Mocha Beanie Mummy.

Silent Sunday

Friday, 17 December 2010

Today is the day...

... that I said good-bye to you for the last time. I didn't know that I would leave you, and Mum sat there with you, and that you'd be gone within 2 hours, forever. I knew it wasn't right but the prognosis was a few days and I had to come home to go to work.

Before I left, I made sure that someone was on their way to be with Mum for a while. After all, she hadn't planned to come and see you today but something made us come and see you. I called Carolyn and she made plans to come and see you straight away.

I left, fully expecting to be called back in a day or two. I was two-thirds of the way home when my phone rang with a voicemail message. I pulled into the next services and it was Mum asking me to ring her. She was very matter of fact when I spoke to her but she told me that you'd gone. Carolyn was still on her way - she never made it. I didn't know what to do. I rang my friend, just to talk to somebody and tell them. I drove the rest of the way home in a daze.

I knew it was coming.We'd known for a while that the end was nigh. I knew what Mum's wishes were in terms of your treatment. I knew it would happen. However, that last day was a shock. Even from the day before, the deterioration was visible. We didn't know what you did and didn't know anymore anyway. All I know is that you knew my voice, and the staff said that you were always brighter after I'd visited. That morning, when I said good-bye, I told you it was OK to go now. I just didn't think it would be so soon.

For a long time, I didn't really feel anything. We coped - over Christmas, with your funeral looming over the festive season, through the funeral on a clear but snowy day, when I cried but only a little bit. I started a new job in a dreamlike state a few days later. For months, I was not in a good place, with being away from home a lot and other issues in my life. I began to feel like I'd been abandoned, although I wasn't angry with you for that. How could I be? I was a mess emotionally for a good few months until I gave myself the proverbial kick to get on with life. It was what you would have wanted me to do, cliché that it is.

Since then, I have got married and had two children - your only grandchildren, although you have four beautiful step-grandchildren that you loved as your own. You would have been so proud. They would have loved you to bits and Missy Woo would have had you wrapped around your little finger. I think it was then that the loss of you really hit home to me. They are beginning to understand now that you're not around - Monkey asked me once why you always went away we went to stay at Mum's. It broke my heart that they thought you didn't want to see them. I had to explain that you were somewhere you couldn't come back from, although I think they might still think you are in Devon. Given the chance, you would still be there with them, playing with them, giving them sweets and taking them out on day trips.

Every now and then, like tonight whilst I am writing these words (and others in the past) the tears start to flow freely. It is when the emotion really overtakes me. I think too hard, that's the trouble.

Because you were the man, the constant in my life from birth. Having suffered a loss of a stillborn baby, you had no way of knowing if I would be born alive but I was and you chose my name. You raised me along with my sisters and worked long, long hours to pay the bills. You let me get on with living my life, to make choices and to make my own mistakes, from a fairly young age. You were there for me but you weren't critical - you just accepted what I did and supported me through it.

I graduated on your 51st birthday. You were so, so proud that day. No-one in our family had ever been to University. You looked fit to burst.

Ten years. Ten long years. In that time, my life has changed beyond recognition. I wonder if you ever thought I would become a mother. I wonder if you would be proud of the person I have now become, of the things I do, of my lifestyle. I suspect, knowing you, that you'd be mostly proud, but you wouldn't comment on the rest. You wouldn't see it as your place to do so.

Today is the day you went away, ten years ago. Fate and life has been cruel, meaning I can't have time to myself today, gathering my thoughts and memories of you. I need to mark this tenth anniversary in some way but I'm not sure quiet contemplation will be possible. Perhaps I should spend some of the day hugging my children and showing them that I love them. For the biggest tribute I can pay to you is to love them as much as you loved your own children, to raise them knowing they are loved, that they know it's OK to make mistakes, and to be the kind of parent that you were to me.

I miss you, Dad, but I am so proud of you, of the man you were as well as the Dad you were to me. You live on in our memories and in the people we became. And for that, I thank you.

Rest in Peace, Dad.

Brian Thomas Giles 10th July 1935 - 17th December 2000

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Easy Christmas party food - a compilation of ideas

Photo credit: DontBblu
So, the Christmas party season is upon us. In little over a week, kids everywhere will be ripping paper off obscenely expensive toys and the cooks of the household will be panicking about getting the big event that is Christmas Dinner just so. It can be a lot of work - although most of the work is getting it all ready at the same time without spoiling.

With Christmas lunch the star of the show, most people don't want to be spending hours making food for Christmas parties, whether it is just a few friends round for drinks and nibbles, or a whole houseful that leave your house looking like a plague of locusts has been and gone. (Or is that just our families that do that?). I know the answer for some will be to go to the supermarket but it works out pretty darned expensive and I find it a bit samey. Obviously, if it's after the big day, there's a possibility of leftover turkey etc - but this starts to wear thin quite quickly and it's nice to make something slightly different.

I have a few ideas that I use for parties, although I often resort to an oven full of jacket potatoes and a slow cooker full of chilli con carne to pad it out. I had an idea that I would put it out to the good people of Twitter to tweet me some nice but easy ideas for party food for Christmas time. I got tons of replies and am going to try and mention as many as possible.

Let's start with mine:

  • Philly and Chilli (also suggested by @grealis) - put a tub of soft cheese on a large plate, pour sweet chilli sauce over it and surround with tortilla chips or kettle chips for dipping into the cheese. It is delicious!
  • Pesto Palmiers - lay ready rolled puff pastry out flat and spread with pesto, then roll the pastry up from each of the short ends so that they meet in the middle. Wrap in cling film, chill for 20 mins. Unwrap then brush with beaten egg yolk and slice into 1cm slices and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 10 mins or golden brown. Grate over a little parmesan as you remove from the oven. Serve warm or cold. 
  • Christmas Crispy Squares - melt 4tbsp unsalted butter, 2 cups marshmallows and 100g white chocolate chips in a pan over a low heat, using a spatula to stir them together. Add 100g rice krispies and 125g dried cranberries and stir until well combined. Quickly spoon into a baking tin lined on bases and all sides, and press flat with spatula or fingers. Leave to set for 20 mins. Lift out of the tin using the paper and cut into squares.
Moving on to ideas from other tweeters:
  • Mummy Limited - Goat's cheese and fig wrapped in parma ham were a hit last year.
  • Soggous - Bruschetta - lightly toast slices of baguette, rub with garlic clove, top with chopped tomatoes & basil, drizzle with oil. Or spread tapenade on toasted baguette slices. Another fave is smoked salmon on triangles of brown bread.
  • @Jannism - brush tortillas with oil, place on baking sheets in a hot oven (200C/400F/Gas 4) for 5 mins so they puff up. Also, horseradish added to hummus is good.
  • English Mum - Chicken tikka skewers! Marinate chicken in mixture of yoghurt, tikka paste and squeeze of lemon. Thread, grill, serve with raita. Also, I'm doing mince pies with a piped meringue top as little puds.
  • @ebabeelikes - Italian breadsticks wrapped in parma ham, yummy and very easy.
  • sezi13 - Honey and Mustard Cocktail Sausages. Mix together 2tbsp wholegrain mustard, 3tbsp runny honey, 1tsp white wine vin & 1tsp olive oil. Pour over cooked sausages and put in medium hot oven for 15 mins. (@Wholovesmecouk also suggested honey and chilli sausages)
  • @Tracytid - Cheese Stars. Mix together 50g flour, pinch cayenne, 25g softened butter, 80g finely grated red leicester, and 20g grated parmesan by hand or in a food processor. Knead together. Roll out thinly and stamp out star shapes. Bake at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 10 mins. 
  • @Tracytid - cubes of beef on a stick with horseradish dip. (Sounds great for leftover roast!)
  • @Tracytid - cut flattened slices of bread into circles, dip into melted butter and garlic, bake until crisp, top with cream cheese and salmon.
  • DomesticJules - Mini Toad in the Holes. Make a usual recipe but make individual ones with chipolatas or cocktail sausages in a bun tin. Bake for 15 mins. 
  • AFCband - Butter slices of bread and lay a slice of ham on top. Roll each slice longways, wrap and chill overnight. Slice into rounds. 
  • TheMummyLife - Party Mini Pizzas. Mix 1 cup of flour (100g) and 1tsp baking powder in a bowl. Beat an egg lightly and add to the bowl with 3/4 cup/160ml of milk, whisking thoroughly. Add 60g grated cheese and 2 pepperami cut into bite sized pieces to the mixture. Leave to stand for 10 mins. Pour into muffin or cake tins and bake at 160C/320F/Gas 3 for 20-30mins until golden brown. Can be eaten hot or cold. (The veggie side of me would want to do this with peppers and mushrooms instead!)
  • @putajumperon - Blinis with sour cream and lumpfish caviar or cream cheese and smoked salmon. 
  • imperfectpages - Popcorn with paprika. Melt 2oz butter in a pan, add 2 tsp each of ground cumin, ground cinnamon and ground paprika, mix and pour over popped corn. Shake together with some salt and sugar.
Let me know if you try any of these and what you think of them. If you have any quick and simple ideas you'd like to share, then let me know by leaving a comment below. Thanks to everyone that tweeted ideas or emailed me recipes. Sorry if I've missed you out, but I had to stop somewhere - this post could have gone forever. 

May all your parties be fun-filled and stress-free. And most importantly, filled with lots of lovely food.

(Oh and as an afterthought, I've just thought that the ideas on my Tapas Tea might also be relevant. Russian salad, in particular, is great for parties and it's easy to make.)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Gallery - Sparkle

Sparkle. It comes naturally to her. She likes to add to the sparkle with her dressing up outfits but most of it is her own - the sparkles on her dresses just represent her. From her eyes, that sparkle with mischief and wonder all her waking hours, to the sparkle you can hear in her giggle when she goes a bit giddy and silly. The sparkly white teeth of her sweet smile; even her hair seems to sparkle. Her whole personality is sparkly and glitters like the shiny new star in the universe that she is.

She sparkles and fizzes her way through every day, like a glass of champagne that never goes flat.

Never-ending sparkle.

That's my little girl.

(Please visit the Gallery at Sticky Fingers to see more entries in this week's Gallery)

Monday, 13 December 2010

Review: Some stocking filler ideas

Toys R Us are still sending us lots of toys to review. So that the kids don't get overwhelmed, we've held some of them back til Christmas so you may well get a mega post from us over the festivities. 

But there are lots of smaller things we've been sent that I thought I'd mention. 

Back in September, we reviewed the Hello Kitty Plaster Rotator Creator which was a qualified success. Since then, we've been sent two more plaster based craft kits to try out. The first one is the Ben 10 Shaker Maker (£9.99) which, of course, appealed to Monkey. There are two moulds - one of Ben10 himself and one of him in Heatblast form. You pour the plaster straight into the moulds and you shake, oddly enough, to create the models. This was far more successful than the Rotator Creator at creating a good mould first time round. Obviously, Monkey was not impressed about the overnight wait to let it dry fully, but what can you do? He liked painting the mould. This required less adult supervision but still, even though it is suitable for 5 year olds and upwards, it still needed adults around to keep an eye and do some of the steps. 

And then there was the Galt Cute Cupcakes Kit (£5.99). The moulds on this are tiny as they make 4 mini cupcakes (in two halves) and a cake stand to put them on. The moulds are in a tray like a silicon baking tray. What we found this with this is that the instructions left you with a lot of plaster mix even after all the moulds had been filled. Luckily, we had some spare moulds from something else and still filled all of those too! Missy Woo was delighted with these - and she enjoyed painting them in the pretty pastel colours supplied. They also come with glitter glue which is sparkly girly heaven for a 4 year old. Again, she needed some adult help but still, it was more successful than the Hello Kitty stuff as the models are more robust, but maybe the instructions need looking at to make sure they are correct. 

Moving on from plaster moulds to construction, we also got sent a K'Nex Construction Case (£9.99), which contained all the parts and connectors - and instructions - to build 10 different vehicles. This is great for a child who is showing an interest in building things as the construction ideas go from simple ones to more difficult ones, which means it will remain useful as your child develops the skills to build more complicated models without it being too advanced to start with. We love it for this, as it makes it very good value for money. 

And finally, we were sent the Littlest Pet Shop Blythe Sitters - Perfectly Plaid (£12.99). Now, Blythe dolls have largely passed me by but I can't help to notice the increasing proliferation of them around so I assume they're popular. I'm also guessing, judging by the price, that these aren't the real deal. No matter. The set comes with the doll, fetchingly dressed in a riding hat, woolly jumper, and plaid mini skirt plus her pet horse, a doll stand and a comb as well as a few small accessories that are very sweetly done. These are good for children who love dolls, but as I have pointed out before, Missy Woo, although she oohs and ahhs when she sees stuff like this, she's really not that into dolls and not that bothered about playing with it often. A little girl into dolls would love this more than her. Or you could keep it in a box, and boast you have a Blythe doll. Just don't try selling it on ebay as "authentic". I don't think you'd get away with it - the dolls are really very small! 

Hope your kids' stockings are now suitably filled! Come back soon for some more Toyologist reviews. 

(I was provided with the above toys to review and have received no other compensation. The opinions stated here are my own, and have not been influenced by the aforementioned compensation.)

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A Cold Monday in December

Photo Credit - chrissi
I was at home because I was due to leave later on a business trip to Chester and that was a pretty long drive from my then home near Southampton. I decided to do some Christmas preparations - wrapping presents, writing cards and the general stuff that we all do in December. I had the radio on - Radio 1 in fact, for I was still in my 20s. All of a sudden, at about a quarter past 8, there was a newsflash that there had been a train crash between two or three trains near to Clapham Junction station. My heart froze for a moment. I worked for a company that had offices in Oxford Street so I regularly travelled into London through Clapham Junction. I knew people who travelled regularly. I could know people on those trains.

Now, this was before mobile phones and internet usage were commonplace so there was no way to ring anyone I knew. There was also no 24 hour news channel to tune in to for updates. For a while, it was unclear which trains had crashed but soon, they said that one of the trains involved had come from Poole. Which only meant one thing. It stopped at my station. I knew people on that train. I felt sick.

I made sure I rang my mum at that point. She worked then in a factory and listened to the radio. She didn't know enough about my movements to know if I was on the train or not. I don't think she was overly worried but she was pleased to hear from me.

As the morning wore on, the news got worse. It was becoming obvious that people had died. There was no information from anyone commuting - if they weren't involved, they would have been behind the crash and therefore stuck on a train.

I left for Chester. All I could think about the whole time were the people involved in the crash. The number of deaths reported went up and up and up throughout the day. By the end of the day, they had confirmed more than 30 people died. Hundreds of people were injured. I got to Chester and watched the television news in horror.

As it turned out, my trip was a waste of time. Late on the Monday evening, I started to feel ill and had to cancel the course I was meant to run the next day. I had to drive all the way home again, still not knowing whether everyone I knew was OK. It might be different now but long distance commuters were often friends on the train only and didn't have contact numbers for each other at work or home.

It was another couple of days before I managed to speak to someone "from the trains". People I had been worried about were OK. As usual, with these things, plans had changed, people missed trains, and their lives were possibly saved. Others, not so. I remember the words that the man I was speaking to used:  "We lost two of our number". Both women, Gill and Bev. Lives cut needlessly short. Another was the Hat Lady, who I've blogged about before. I was ill the whole of that week with 'flu. I felt sorry for myself at home, but it seemed trite to complain.

I, along with many other commuters, went to the memorial service at Winchester Cathedral in late January. I remember the words sung by the choir. "May light perpetual shine upon them." Sadly, one of the victims, who remained in a coma for some time after the crash, died after the memorial service.

Only a couple of months after the crash, I started a job that required me to commute full time into London. I got to know people who were on the Poole train that day, mainly in the buffet car. They were fortunate but they didn't feel that way. Some of them saw terrible, terrible things - and yes I know what they were, some of them couldn't help talking about it occasionally - which I won't repeat on this blog. Those things haunted them, which took its toll mentally and physically, no doubt on their relationships and their families too.

They built a memorial and a garden for the victims, above the crash site. Services were held there annually until the 10th anniversary, when it was decided that no future memorial service would be held, which frankly shocks me when you consider that other disasters that happened around the same time are commemorated in some way regularly. The 35 victims - and the crash itself - have been forgotten. Last year, there was even a story about how the gardens beneath the memorial were being neglected by Network Rail.  The railways that failed these people, that caused their deaths, seem intent on trying to forget them, in the hope of writing them out of history perhaps. I wonder just how the families of the victims feel about the way that the memory of their loved ones is treated with apparent contempt.

I, for one, will not forget what happened. The news images from that day stick in my head. I think, as I blogged before, of the ones I knew alive from time to time. Once, I read through as much as I could of the report from the Hidden Inquiry - if ever there was an apt name, that is it - and it's a depressing account of the events leading up to the crash. Some of the recommendations from that report have never been fully implemented. Shocking. Shame on those who allowed that to happen.

Today is the 22nd anniversary of that cold, clear day in December. Monday 12th December 1988 at 08:10, thousands of lives changed. 35 of those lives ended as a result.

When I was looking for an image to illustrate the post, I found this. It has a factual error in the words on the screen - no-one in fact died on the Basingstoke train on the front - but it is a fitting tribute to those that died. I am not afraid to admit that it made me cry a lot when I watched it. I often find I react more to such disasters since becoming a mother - everyone who died was somebody's child, and many children were robbed of parents and grandparents.

To end, I'm going to list the names of the victims, because they deserve to be mentioned and not forgotten. They were:

Gillian Allen, Clive Attfield, Jane Aubin, John Barrett, James Beasant, Michelle Boyce, Timothy Burgess, Glenn Clark, Arthur Creech, Norman Dalrymple, Brian Dennison, Stephen Dyer, Romano Falcini, Paul Hadfield, Edna Hannibal, Geoffrey Hartwell, Stephen Hopkins, Everett Lindsay, Stephen Loader, Joseph Martin, Alison McGregor, Christopher Molesworth, David Moore, Teresa Moore, Michael Newman, Beverlie Niven, Austin Perry-Lewis, Alan Philipson, John Rolls, Alma Smith, Tracey Stevens, and Alan Wren.

As the choir sang during their memorial service, may light perpetual shine upon them. RIP.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Dear So and So makes a return

Dear So and So...
Dear Car,

Seriously, are you joking me? Are you determined to ruin my Christmas EVERY year? Two years ago, the front suspension went and you cost me £200. Last year, my battery died on New Year's Eve and so my first job of 2010 was to go to Halfords and get a new one. In hindsight, I got off lightly with that one.

Now, you decide to let the water pump pack up and break another part. All because of some cold temperatures. I mean, come on - you're a car, you live your life outside. This time, you've played a blinder as it's going to cost over £300 to fix it. In December. That's more than I've spent on Christmas already.  Not impressed. No, not one bit. How are we supposed to eat?

Please be nice to me next year (if indeed, you last that long - bwahahaha)

Yours very pissed off,

Your annoyed owner
Dear other machines in my life,

And you can stop breaking too. I don't have the money to fix you all at once, y'hear? The car has to come first so you'll have to wait your turn. Come back to me in late 2011. I might have enough money by then.

Not impressed either,

Dear pedestrian,

The place to walk down a steep hill, even in icy conditions, is NOT - repeat, not - the middle of a narrow road. OK, so there is no pavement to speak of, but do you have a death wish? What's wrong with the less hazardous and better paved roads in the locality? Did you really need to save yourself a couple of minutes walking down THAT hill?

No love,


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Gallery - White

Much as I hate driving around in it, I love the way fog gives your surroundings an unreal quality, like they've been shifted to another world. It was clear as a bell on Sunday when suddenly, the fog rolled in from nowhere and changed our day within about 20 minutes. I snapped this with my phone as I left the house to take Monkey to a party. If I had had the camera and a bit more skill, I would have been able to capture the way the fog was beginning to obscure the sun a bit better. The fog cleared a few miles from home and was fine in town but about an hour later, the fog rolled in - but by the time we left, it had cleared at home.

Why not visit the Gallery at Sticky Fingers to see some more of the entries in this week's Gallery?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Review: Gadget Toys

Been a while (yes, I know I'm bad) since I posted any reviews. This doesn't mean we haven't been playing with toys but yanno, life gets in the way sometimes. In all the parcels we've received from Toys R Us, there have been a few gadgety type things for kiddies that you might be considering for Christmas presents. Here is our low down on them. 

First is the VTech Kidizoom Video Camera in blue, costing £59.97, although it's also available in pink. Monkey loved this - he particularly liked the face-tracking stuff that allowed him to add animations to the videos, and he enjoyed the games on the camera. It's pretty robust, although Monkey managed to stick a plastic coin in the slot meant for external cards but we managed to remove that without too much incident. It was great for the way our kids play but it did seem to eat batteries at an alarming rate. Whether or not that was because neither Monkey or Missy Woo ever remember to switch things off, I'm not sure. Overall, we liked this and is a great first video camera as it does so much more than just take videos. 

Next, we got sent the Leapfrog Leaptop in pink for Missy Woo (£14.97). Now, this is a "first" laptop and is actually intended for a much younger child - from around 2 years old. You can connect the laptop to a real computer and download a limited selection of songs, customise emails and so forth. I set it up for Missy Woo so that it said her name when it opened up (Monkey was not impressed when he opened it and it said her name!) and read her "emails" from various people. She was initially delighted with this - I think it says a lot that she wanted her own laptop to be like mummy and read emails - but she soon got bored with it. This would be suitable for a younger child and I do like the way you can connect it to a PC and change what's available to the child. Still, it's not real and the biggest problem I have with toy laptops is the screen - they are consistently dreadful. So, this was a qualified win but I think we will give it away to a younger child who will really get the best use out of it. 

And then there is another Vtech product - the Storio Animated Reading System (£59.97) which is a child's version of an e-reader. It included a Toy Story 3 cartridge, but you can buy other cartridges featuring other characters - like Scooby Doo or Dora the Explorer - for £17 each, which I think is quite steep. There is an inbuilt game you can play and a dictionary to find out the meaning of diffcult words. The cartridges have games on them too. I like the fact it has a full QWERTY keyboard as they are used to this layout at school and that they can interact with the stories as they progress. I'm not totally convinced of its educational value but then anything that gets children reading has to be good, right?

The children loved this. We took it with us on a long car journey to Devon and back and Monkey played with it both during the journey - obviously not good if your child gets car stick - and whilst we were away so it is a good toy for travelling as it's easy to pack and pretty light. You don't have to buy additional cartridges - if you can get an SD card, you are supposed to be able to download more stories from the VTech Download Store but as I have yet to find it, I can't say what this is like nor how much they cost. The price of extra cartridges does seem a little steep so it's definitely worth investigating. As a piece of kit, it's pretty neat actually - and it even has a headphone socket if you want some peace whilst your child plays. For the price, I think it's very good value. 

(I was provided with the above toys to review and have received no other compensation. The opinions stated here are my own, and have not been influenced by the aforementioned compensation.)

Friday, 3 December 2010

Secret Santa

Picture the scene. Last year's school Christmas Fair. The children and I were queueing to go and see Father Christmas in his grotto. Daddy was at work. Only he wasn't. Well, he was. He WAS Father Christmas sat in the room we were about to enter, I knew this and getting nervous that they would realise and have their illusions shattered.

He'd done Father Christmas before with the children around, but back then, Monkey was scared of him and Missy Woo was still a baby. Daddy reported back afterwards that if either of them twigged who he was, it was Missy Woo - she may have been under 6 months but he saw the recognition in her eyes as she looked at his face. 

Queueing up, Missy Woo was not keen to go in - she was having her phase of being scared of Father Christmas. Monkey just wanted his present! 

Eventually, we went in. Neither were keen to sit on his knee, but both stood there transfixed as he spoke to them, bringing up little details so that they knew that Father Christmas was watching them all the time. After a couple of minutes of chat, they took their presents, said their good byes and walked out of what was actually the Y3 classroom temporarily converted to Santa's pad. 

We walked out of the door in silence. And then it happened. Missy Woo turned to me, took my hand and  as we passed the queue waiting their turn to be called into the inner sanctum, said in the clearest voice possible:

"Mummy, that Father Christmas sounded just like Daddy."

Cue a few sniggers from those that knew who we were, me stifling a laugh and trying to maintain a straight face whilst shepherding the children away before she said anything else to the assembled throng. 

Thankfully, that was largely that. Monkey never said anything and I still, to this day, don't know if it is because he didn't notice the same or he is just in denial. Missy Woo made one further reference to it the following day when she told Daddy that Father Christmas sounded like him. Having been briefed by me, he managed to come up with a suitable brush off and it was never mentioned it again. 

Tonight is once again the Christmas fair at school. And yes, once again, Daddy is Father Christmas. He likes doing it, he's good at it and the school ask him to do it. I am not really sure what to expect this time. I'm hoping Daddy can disguise his voice a bit better this time, because I love their innocence. I love that they have a sense of wonder at the magical things about Christmas. OK, they are fabrications but it makes Christmas special for them. In the meantime, I have to think up a suitable and plausible explanation if either of them - especially Missy Woo, there are no flies on her - manages to out him completely. 

Maybe by this time tomorrow, Santa won't be quite so secret after all. Wish me luck!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A trip to the Good Food Show - celeb spotting and oh yes, food.

I got lucky last week. I asked on Twitter if anyone could get me a ticket to the Good Food Show and the lovely Rachael from Tales from the Village offered me two she had won but couldn't use. I'd always wanted to go so I was over the moon. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get anyone to come with me as everyone else had plans (yes, I'm a saddo) so Sunday morning saw me set off on my own on a cold, clear and frosty day in the car to Birmingham.

I got there early, which turned out to be a good plan as by lunchtime, it was very busy. I spent a happy time in the morning sampling everything on offer in the Producers' Village part so didn't need a breakfast. I decided I would come back later to some places, which was a mistake - partly because I couldn't remember all of them when it came to making purchases but also because it was so busy later on.

Aside from the food sampling, my day turned into a bit of a celeb-fest. A foodie celeb-fest, that is. I had made it my mission to try and meet two people I follow on twitter who were going to be at the show. The first was Edd Kimber, who won the Great British Bake-Off earlier this year, who blogs at He-Eats. I found him quite early on as he was doing a demo at the British theatre and was there setting up when I sauntered past. So, I went to say hello to him as I'd been tweeting with him the night before. Poor bloke, probably the last thing he needed, some idiotic woman coming up to him at a time like that but I didn't hang around - didn't want to be seen to be a stalker! I watched the demo he did (hosted by Tom Parker-Bowles, get me) where he made Spiced Apple Millefeuille which looked and smelled lovely - unfortunately, they weren't allowed to let us taste. I thought it was funny that the one thing they didn't have on this smartly fitted out kitchen was a pair of oven gloves!

The other person I wanted to meet was Dhruv Baker, the winner of Masterchef. Not only do I follow him on twitter, but he follows me also after I talked him into it as he was also following the lovely CoffeeCurls. She had given me strict instructions to find him and give him a big kiss and who am I to argue? But how to do it?

I booked myself to go to a session in the Supertheatre featuring Dhruv cooking off against Lisa Faulkner, who won Celebrity Masterchef, but there was no opportunity to meet the presenters (and yes, John and Greg were there too). After I came out, I was trying to figure out what to do when I noticed where people involved in the presentations seemed to come out. So, in a slightly stalkerish fashion, I hung around trying to look nonchalant. Nothing seemed to happen for about 10 minutes but then John Torode and Lisa Faulkner appeared. A couple of minutes later, Dhruv appeared. I walked up to him and said who I was. I delivered said kiss and I got this photo taken of us. Scuse me grinning like an idiot.

Dhruv was really lovely and was so nice to me. I'm really glad I made the effort to find him. I hope I didn't seem like a stalker to him. Lisa was very jealous when she heard I'd actually achieved my mission.

To complete the foodie celeb fest, I also saw James Martin, Michael Caines and Paul Rankin doing book signings/demonstrations.

And the food? Oh yes..... I came away with goose fat, some dip mixes, a pile of nice crisps, a load of cakes, some spiced berry cordial - and one of the macarons made by Tim Kinnaird, who was also a Masterchef finalist, whom I met at his stall after Dhruv's recommendation. My God, it was divine.

If you ever go to the show (which I'd thoroughly recommend), try to go on a quieter day in the week and get there early to avoid the worst of the crowds. If you're going to buy later from a stall, make sure you know where the stall is - it's like a maze in places.

But overall, enjoy it. It was great to be reminded of the wonderful food that is now available to buy in this country - whether it was produced here or not - and that we have some fantastically talented people turning that food into superb dishes. I was less impressed by the £8 parking charge. Seriously, NEC, what is that all about? But overall, I had a brilliant day and still can't believe I actually got to meet both Edd and Dhruv.

I will definitely be going again next year - but maybe I'll do a little less stalking meeting celebs next time. Or not.
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