Are You Being Served?

At risk of becoming sentimental I’ll state I miss paper bags.  Buying something that comes in a paper bag I mean.  Its crispness and the fact you could scrunch it down and hold it by the corner.  A bag of apples, a few buns or a quarter of Tom Thumb Drops.

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There are other things I miss.  As a child I was sat on the marble counter of J Sainsbury where a lady in a spotless white overall would scoop up and shape pats of butter with great wooden paddles and wrap it in greaseproof.  At our local grocers they roasted coffee beans in the shop and served loose tea from big square tins. The ‘wine merchant’ wrapped a bottle of gin in tissue paper, and at the greengrocer the air was moist and smelled of dug potatoes and bunches of parsley.

Food was seasonal. The first daffodils and Jersey Potatoes were something to celebrate.  Its worth remembering too that if it rained your bag got wet and things fell out and sometimes there were “shortages” of things.  But that aside it was great to actually know the people you bought things from.

This week I visited the Ginger Pig in Hackney

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The Ginger Pig began in 2009 when Tim Wilson decided to keep a few pigs.  When a local retired butcher advised him it was time to move to the next stage he taught himself butchery and the company was born.  This is a farm in North Yorkshire that breeds its own livestock with high standards of animal welfare.  The quality produce is distributed to its 7, soon to be 8, London shops where highly trained and passionate butchers prepare joints and cuts, birds, sausages and bacon with a great sense of personal pride.

They have female butchers, and Erika manages the shop here in Hackney, but I just happened to be served by Benito, a butcher from Napoli who brought all his Italian charm here to make his fortune.

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This level of care and service is remarkable.  It makes shopping an absolute pleasure.  And if I can only afford to eat this quality now and then I’m prepared to give eating lentils and vegetables and easy pasta the rest of the time a try.  Less meat but better quality.  Does this look like meat that was cared for?

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Of course you don’t have to be in London to achieve this level of quality and service.  National Food Festivals brim with quality producers of fine products.  The Food Programme on Radio 4 runs an  annual competition for small producers in all categories from drinks to sausages.   Our Norfolk pig producers breed some of the finest pork in the world.  Cornish Sardines, Kent fruit, Welsh lamb, Scottish Whiskey,Wensleydale, Melton Mowbray and all the rest.

My local butcher in Wymondham, Peter Parke has been a butcher for as long as the Queen has been a Queen and he hasn’t had a holiday since his honeymoon.

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His shop isn’t fancy, its utilitarian. There’s little on display but Peter who learned his trade from his father before him will go back into his huge fridges and produce any cut of meat you like and do it with the care and professionalism that comes with years of experience.  His meat looks cared for too doesn’t it?

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And he’ll give you bones for stock (and shhhh… dripping for your toast). He doesn’t need to be showy.  His customers just expect the best, and he’s known lots of them since they were children.

I regularly shop in the supermarket of course, but I do sometimes wonder who decided we should eat strawberries in February, or raspberries all year round?  Why carrots should be straight, or pears a certain size or baking potatoes all the same?  I don’t know about you but sometimes I want small ones, and sometimes I want big ones.  Who was it who decided cereals must be sweetened? In fact everything must be sweetened. That things have to taste salty – stock cubes for example?  Why things don’t taste like they actually do because someone thought it was more marketable to change the way they taste? And I wonder why home made soup is just better in every way than manufactured soup.

With four million people in the UK diagnosed with Diabetes and such concern for childhood obesity it makes you wonder if supermarkets are bad for us, and if we’re being ill served?

 

What is clutter….exactly?

I’m just about to embark on another pile of stuff.  Yesterday’s news, a bank statement, a clothes catalogue, a letter from Anglia Water offering me pipe insurance, a scrap of paper with a phone number of who knows who, a folded shopping bag and an unread paperback. There’s a plant label (must keep that), and a pair of dressmaking scissors. God I was hunting for THEM.

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And that’s just in one corner on one surface.  In the hall there’s a huge box containing a genuine Stetson Hat. Its a Montana Crease to be precise.  The sort of Stetson John Wayne himself wore.  The very best type of Stetson apparently.  It doesn’t even belong to me.  So that’s not MY clutter.  That’s someone else’s’ so that’s ok I can ignore it. Move on.  My camera bag hangs on the back of a chair, husband’s old binoculars are always on the side, a mini set of screwdrivers, a pile of CD’s, a roll of sellotape – AH, there it is.

In our house we don’t seem to have surfaces.  Just piles of stuff.  I suppose its clutter.  Or maybe its not its “stuff waiting to be put away”.  And most of the clutter is classed as “mine” – no-one else seems to have any, or share responsibility for it.  Maybe boxes for clutter with names on is the answer –  MINE, YOURS, HERS, THE SISTER’S, GOD KNOWS WHOSE? Meanwhile my husband has the garage, which is, yes you guessed it, full of “my clutter”. It resembles a cross between the Old Curiosity Shop and Steptoe’s yard.  But that’s a story for another day.

If I buy a special zip up bag to keep my wrapping paper and ribbons in is that like when I buy Cillit Bang and I think it means my taps will be shiny?  Yes,  What it actually means is I have to go through it all, throw away the annoying 20cm piece on the end of a hollow roll not-quite big-enough-to-wrap-a-present and the crumpled stuff and the knotted stuff.  I’ve got to do it. And before I know where I am I’ll have too many rolls to fit in it, and the zip just won’t quite close and there’ll have to be an overflow bag.

I’ve got to the age now that if anyone comes into the house bearing a gift if its not edible, or a plant I have palpitations worrying where I’m going to put it.  This can’t be right. I’ve turned into my father.  We recently moved house after living in the same place for 30 years.  I sorted clutter for Britain.  I thought I’d got it tamed.  But no, I just moved a whole load of it with me because its sentimental, beautiful or useful.

One of my clutter busting tactics is to go around collecting up little bits and put them in a small container.  My best friend despairs of my little pots.  To be honest, so do I.  Once in a while I trawl through them.  Round up the ballpoint pens and emery boards, the business cards and the odd champagne cork (?) and put them where all those things should go.  But before I know it another one starts to fill up.

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Sometimes we have a *big clear up* which involves going through stuff and putting away what you can identify, and leaving a smaller pile for someone else in the house for them to go through.  I don’t think those piles ever get fully sorted.  They just become the bottom of a new pile.

In a bookshop I flick longingly through a Conquer Your Clutter self help book for some inspiration as to where I’ve gone wrong.  Take one room at a time they tell me, take one drawer at a time they entreat.

I’ve just found the door to the Duplo house.  My children are 29 and 31….I wonder where its BEEN?

I’ve decided to follow The Organised Home  not least because they have beautiful photographs of the most lovely objects to help ease your clutter chaos, but also because there I think I found the answer to my lifelong problem.  The sage advice which is as plain as the note on my face and yet I’ve ignored it all these years – which is

put things back where they belong …..

Wish me luck with that.  Now, where should I put a little vase that looks like a hand grenade?

Let me know how you control your clutter.

 

It Never Happens the Way We Think It Will Happen

Pleased to share this blog from Teri Carter. Food for thought.

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imagesI am walking my dog when it happens. The woman does not see me. The woman does not see my dog. The woman points her car my way and guns it, and when I see she doesn’t see me—doesn’t see my bright blue shirt nor my arm waving ‘hello neighbor’ in the air nor my big yellow lab standing at the side of her driveway—I dive to my right and the bumper of her car clips my hip and I tumble down and over the newly-mowed grass of her lawn and the next thing I know I’m lying there, just lying there, pushing to get up and looking at my dog looking down at me with her tail wagging, wagging wagging wagging. The dog licks my hand. We are alive, the dog seems to say. We are okay.

For the last decade I’ve been walking my dogs in a downtown…

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Happy Easter

 

However you celebrate Easter you won’t fail to be bombarded with shiny paper, fluffy chicks, bunnies and chocolate.  Secretly I have to say I love the colours, so cheery after a slow start to Spring.

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A few little eggs on some twigs in a jug,

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a collection of cross looking homespun bunnies,

and the promise of roast lamb tomorrow.

Our family tradition.

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Simnel cake, eaten since Tudor times, signals the end of Lent. The richly fruited, light coloured cake has a layer of marzipan in the middle and eleven ball decorations representing the disciples of Jesus, excluding Judas.  The top is toasted under the grill to give it a golden crustiness.

I’m not a big fruit cake maker but with a packet of marzipan left over in the cupboard from Christmas (husband can never resist a two for one offer) and a recipe card this twist on the traditional large cake was too tempting.

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Pleased to report they were quick to make and the addition of lemon juice and zest to the mix made them not too sweet.  We’ve added a new tradition to our celebration.

Whatever you’re doing this weekend have a

Happy Easter

Town mouse to Country Living

 

A day’s jolly to the Country Living Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington was just what the doctor ordered.  A car, a tube and a walk in the spring sunshine and a chance for a natter en route.  Back to the old hunting ground of North London, where we counted four artisan bakeries (including a sugar free one), gorgeous independent fashion shops and Ottolenghi and Wahaca restaurants on the way. Very Islington.

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Although I live in the country now my roots are deeply buried in town.  And once in a while its good to breath some good old bus fumes,  jump out of the way of a taxi or fight with the Oyster Card machine.

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The Country Living Fair sponsored by Country Living Magazine of course is a showcase for designers and makers around the country to display their wares.  And although I love to look at the sumptuous cashmere wraps and paisley jackets, and soaps and unctions, and sample a few lotions and potions. I’m really interested in the makers themselves.  Their stories and their inspirations.  The interesting ones are easy to find, their products just leap out at you.

So I’ll share a few here. These pink beauties are from Miranda Weston Shoes.  Fran Peck makes shoes for ladies who have…how can a put this…challenging feet? They’re extra wide with concealed stretch, flexible leather soles and padding under the ball of the foot, and suitable for bunions.  I wonder if Victoria Beckham slips into a pair?  They’re beautiful styles and colours and made in Spain. Delicious.

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I have to express a special interest in Norfolk artist Lottie Day.  She feeds my slight obsession with tea towels.   Lottie’s workshop is based in the Noverre Gallery at the Assembly House, a Georgian mansion in the centre of Norwich she’s local to me you see (or loocal as we say here).

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And I have a pristine collection of lemon, turnip, lobster and feather and egg printed on tea towels which hang on a peg rail because frankly they’re just too lovely to use.

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 Little, functional works of art.  You can see Lottie screen printing away most days.

After an interesting career as a producer for Advertising Photographers Jan Davis decided to take things a little more slowly and literally smell the roses.  Her experience with photography led her to start her business English Accent which supplies the most luxurious wrapping paper, greetings cards and stationery items as well as scented candles. The images are flowers and plants, some from her own London garden, and  vases she fills to decorate her home.  Some of her wares are now being sold in the Chelsea Physic Garden and the images are so beautiful I swear you can smell the perfume.

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How about some tea enriched alcohol?   Jasmine Vodka, Earl Grey Gin? Doesn’t that sound amazing.  Distilled in Cambridgeshire by Sophie Hudson at T.E.A.  Now I imagine Sophie can throw a good party.  The bottles looked beautiful and the flavours were delicious, and as for their website – so classy.

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And last but not least meet the lovely lady who runs Red Hen Originals from her studio in North Yorkshire.  Julia Burns started her business in 2008.  She studied at the Slade and loves working in abstract.  But her day to day job involves the humble potato.  Her delightful original works and prints are potato printed.  Yes, like you did in play school but oh so much more skilful.  Apparently the larger the spud the better, a big surface area to pare away at.  Some pictures are built up like a silk screen print with each little bit of the picture cut out of a separate potato.  This is a woman I would really like to spend a day with in beautiful Yorkshire and a potato.

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So these are some of the designers and makers who made my day.  You can check out their websites and learn more about them. And there’s still time to visit the fair which is on until Sunday.  Meanwhile I’m off to admire my tea towels.

IF LIFE CAME WITH A MANUAL #1 Pensions

Back then, in my young life, a pension was something for others to think about.  It was something in the distant future to work towards.  Your National Insurance Contribution (NIC) , that chunk of your wages that was taken away before you got it which went into some giant Government Pot and would give you an income on retirement.    If you were employed you might have the opportunity for a work place pension if you were a man, less so if you were a women, and even less so if you worked part time, or gave up work when you had children. And women worked until they were 60.

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And now I’m here, and I find out my pension age will be 66.  The Government didn’t write to women born in the 1950’s and tell the women that they’d changed the age of retirement until 14 years later, some women are still waiting for that letter.  Their opportunity to replan and save more was gone.  I’ve found the whole concept of a State Pension is built on very sandy soil indeed. There is no big pot of money.  Today’s workers pay for today’s pensioners.

We’re living longer (although the rich are living longer than the poor and it does rather depend on where you live) and our NIC’s are not going to raise enough funds to provide a basic pension for all.  The criteria for getting a State Pension can change, the amount can change and the provision of it can be at the whim of the Government at any time.  And incidiously its now being referred to by some as “a benefit”, implying that you have to deserve entitlement.  In years to come there’s a real chance that it will be means tested.

It seems everyone now needs a financial adviser to help them through this minefield.  Your savings will earn you very little interest and if you have a SIP (self invest pension) you either leave someone else to manage it for you or you manage it yourself.  Don’t worry though its quite straightforward just follow the markets.  Here’s a simple diagram.

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If you have an employees pension it will be managed by someone else over there, who may have to keep you informed but it may be so unintelligible that you will have no clue what’s what, and you have to ask them if you’ve been “contracted out” because they may have forgotten to tell you about that bit, and it will affect your State Pension.  If you’re divorced it may affect your pension, if you go an live abroad it will affect your pension,

Young people today are paying for a State Pension they may never receive while at the same time paying into a compulsory Private Pension Pot.

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There are good ‘user friendly’ financial advisers and journalists out there who understand the pitfalls and keep abreast of the ever changing regulations and requirements.  They’re writing and commentating and we have to try hard to read and listen..

Radio 4’s Money Box just this week featured a discussion about the future of Pensions

The Pensions Guru explains it all in comic strip form like the one above.

Savvy Woman Sarah Pennells website is full of financial information with a female perspective.

Jeff Prestige writes in the press regularly on all financial issues.

They, and many others are podcasting, blogging, commenting on Facebook and Twitter and sending e mail newsletters, working away to keep us informed and up to date.  Its a far cry from the lack of information of yesteryear.

Other Independent Financial Advisers (IFA) I’ve come across on Twitter and Facebook, who I wouldn’t let anywhere near my money,  smirk at my ignorance and tell me how foolish I’ve been. But FAIR WARNING you have to do your homework.  You have to get on it and look stuff up, be in touch with the Department of Work and Pensions for a pensions forecast, check and double check.  Keep paperwork and read it all thoroughly.  Never take anything for granted. If you’re looking for an IFA there’s help out there for that too.

And if you don’t understand something. Ask.

So if I was writing my own Life Manual to hand on to my daughters it would have a chapter (short) with everything I’ve found out about the benefit of saving early for later life, and in big letters at the end it will say KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR PENSIONS.

What would be in your Life Manual?

 

 

 

An Interest in Pinterest?

It all began when I got ‘a tablet’.  Not from the doctor for my unsettled mind, or the creaking body syndrome.  This was a shiny, smooth communication device which could be dropped in my handbag for travel, and go with me everywhere.  The Apps (A mobile app is a computer program designed to run on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers) were just so tempting.  I immediately downloaded a spirit level and a decibel meter (like you do) and some handy software for editing photos. Then there were games – Peggle, Blocks and Harbour Master. But the one that unleashed an unrequited inner creativity was Pinterest.

How to explain Pinterest to the uninitiated?  Well, its a huge online pinboard, or mass of pinboards.  You can create your own, and pin onto them inspiration you find from anyone elses pinboards.  They can be random or filed by name,  they can be secret or public.  You can watch other people’s and share your own. You can pick a topic, and before you know it an afternoon can pass by.  One thing leads to another.

This is what one of my boards looks like.

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Speaking as someone who loves to make and craft, do stuff with my hands, and learn new skills, there aren’t enough days left in my life to try all the things I’d like to do.  The trouble is until now I didn’t know half of them existed, let alone how to do them.  Pinterest is there for me.  Its my guilty indulgence.  I could try this crochet….

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Who knew it could be like that?

Or that the Sharpie Pen can do this

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Or that you could start a hand carved button collection

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or have someone rustle up some of these for breakfast…well it is Mothering Sunday.

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or redesign the bathroom to look like a desert island, make an MDF toilet roll tree, or knit socks for sailors. It doesn’t matter if these don’t float your boat because I guarantee you’ll find something that does if you develop your own addictive Interest in Pinterest.

Give it a go and share your guilty secret?

Mine’s called sixtysomethingme.

 

Cake anyone?

A birthday weekend is always an excuse to bake a cake.  Will it be vanilla with cream cheese icing, or cream and jam, all over frosting or a light dusting of icing sugar? Or a squidgy carrot cake, coffee and walnut or chocolate fudge?

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Whatever the choice the gathering together of utensils and ingredients is a pleasure rather than a chore.  Softening the butter and mixing with sugar until fluffy, adding the eggs and folding in the dried ingredients a simple and well practiced routine.  I always know when a cake’s done because you can smell it. OK, I admit it, the washing up and putting away is a bit of a bore but there’s time to do it while the cake cooks.  Someone gets to lick the spoon and everyone is happy.  Anyone can make a cake, and I mean anyone.

There are other cooking tasks I really enjoy because of the gathering together of genuinely good things.  If there’s a glut of courgettes in the garden I make a bucket of ratatouille for the freezer.  A big pile of onions and peppers cut into small dice and the chunky discs of courgette fried off in a slug of olive oil, a couple of tins of chopped tomatoes, and some tomato puree, and a bit of fresh basil, if I’ve got any drooping on the window sill, simmered ’til its thick and fudgy.  A glug of red wine adds a bit of body.

Then there’s chutney of any type to use up anyone’s spare produce.  Gooseberry with its tartness, and apple and ginger with its spicy tang.  The piles of chopped ingredients waiting to go into the pan and the smell when the vinegar and sugar combine is joy, not forgetting the satisfying glop sound as it reduces down to a pot-able mass.

Jam is a bit of a tricky exercise.  Having always sworn by a jam thermometer and often ended up with ‘very well set’ jam indeed.  Spoon bendingly set.  I’ve resorted now to the old fashioned wrinkle test on a cold saucer.  Which if you’ve never done it sounds bizarre but trust me it works. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s friend Pam the Jam has all the answers to pots and pickles (although she uses a jam thermometer).  I don’t think there’s a fruit or veg that Pam hasn’t preserved in one way or another.

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A friend let me sample her Sloe Conserve at Christmas.  It was divine.  She patiently waits gets her sloes from the same bush every year, and its location is well known so there’s a bit of a competition to who can get there first when harvest time comes.  I’m going to track down my own source and try to make it myself this year, if she’ll share her recipe.

Ooh then there’s the blackcurrant vodka, using up the huge quantity of blackcurrants we get and have nothing to do with.  That’s vodka, blackcurrants, sugar, a bottle and a dark cupboard. With a ribbon round it – that’s a present right there.  Happy Days.

I know its not just me who enjoys these simple things, and makes time to do one or two of them when they can.  A freezer with something “ready” or the kitchen cupboard with jars waiting to be cracked open is a bonus.  My sister makes a mean chilli jam and delicious mango chutney so there’s exchanging to be done, and if someone gives me fruit they get jam or a cake in exchange.

Before I get completely carried away with Nigella Lawson aspirations I’ll mention the last birthday cake I made.  A chocolate chip one was requested and following an American recipe with cup measures I served up a confection that frankly would have been better at home filling gaps in a dry stone wall.  Success is not always guaranteed.

So the birthday girl this weekend will have Chocolate Courgette Cake (and believe me you wouldn’t know it has courgettes in it).  Hopefully it will be moist, chocolatey and delicious and we’ll sing, and she’ll make a wish and there will be happy faces.  Simple.  Cake anyone?

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If you’d like the recipe, send me a message 🙂

What a Champion looks like.

I was thinking today about what it takes to be a people’s champion, and my thoughts took me to Betty Jeffery a feisty 76 year old in a wheelchair, who does small bore rifle shooting as a hobby.  When a woman attempted to steal her handbag in the street Betty administered a sharp right hook and saw off her attacker.  She looks like a champion when up against it.di87Gk4ieThe parents of two year old Faye Burdett who lost their little girl to Meningococcal b, and who chose to release a picture of the effects of this awful disease to raise awareness of a campaign for vaccination of all children.  They looked like champions in the face of awful sadness.

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The five women who chose to stand up and fight against the escalation of the State Pension Age to bring it in line with that of men, are they champions?  I have to express a self interest here because I am one of the women born in the 1950’s who had their pension age  raised from 60 to 65, and then increased a second time to 66, without adequate notification or proper consideration of the effect it would have.

The WASPI women started a crowd funding page to seek legal advice, and then set up an online petition which as I write has 154,000 signatures on it. Many women of our generation gave up work to look after elderly relatives or partners and now find it increasingly difficult to find work to finance these extra years.  They are a generation who had little or no work place pensions, or pension rights for that matter, and who were historically paid less than their male counterparts, lost their jobs when having children and have provided the majority of the care in the ‘Caring Community’ we live in.

Many had physically tiring jobs in hospitals, schools and factories and are now struggling with ill health, caring responsibilities and/or child care of grandchildren.  Hundreds of thousands of them have decades of National Insurance Contributions behind them and are being asked now to work on and wait up to six extra years in order to qualify.  The speed of change and lack of notice has left them unprepared or with insufficient time to make any further pension preparations.  WASPI argue that while equalising the pension age of men and women is desirable the means to achieve this has been mishandled and merely creates a second inequality.

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Needless to say the fallout from this argument has been immense.  The WASPI founders have, with little or no funding steered a disparate group of women (and some supportive men) through Facebook rage, Twitter backlash other online hostilities. The Government has told us to claim benefits, get jobs.  In the various bays of calm shelter there’s been enormous support from MPs on all sides, commentators, journalists and bloggers,  as well as the 50’s women around the country, which brings them and us to a third debate being held tomorrow in the House of Commons followed by a vote. It’ll be lively.  I wish them well.

So a champion doesn’t look like anything in particular, but in their heart they have a burning sense of doing what’s right and not considering personal pain.  I hope I have that should I be called on.

 

Good Old Muffin

Looking out of the window in my godson’s house I was amazed to see an almost life-sized Muffin the Mule staring back at me from the rear balcony of a London pub.  An incongruous sight, but it filled me with joy and reminiscence.  Alex was singularly unimpressed.  He didn’t even know who Muffin the Mule was, or that he ever played the fool.  To my surprise yesterday I read he is to be reinvented for a new generation.

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Those of us who do remember probably remember him fondly as being one of the earliest children’s TV ‘characters’ which we grew to love in the black and white days before Wimbledon in COLOUR.  Listen with Mother, The Woodentops, Bill and Ben are engraved on my memory.  We had no merchandise, no pyjamas or toothbrushes, or DVD’s.  Just the occasional treat on a grainy television. I wonder if today’s characters will be…

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