You get what you pay for, especially vacuum cleaners

Vacuuming – how dated is that? Actually shoving some massive, noisy, heavy machine over every inch of floor to suck up dust.
Why, in the 21st century, isn’t there some laser wash that vapourises the dirt and turns it into rose-smelling smoke? Surely Amazon can come up with this, and schedule it to clean your home at 4am, leaving you with nothing but a hint of roses and an Also Recommended For You hologram?
We had a Dyson, when they were a new thing, and it was brilliant, really sucky and good. But after years of misuse hard work it started to flag a bit and I decided it wasn’t worth the cost of replacing the filters and the hoses so we tipped it.
I also decided that seeing as it was years since smug James Dyson had come up with the bagless revolution, every other vacuum manufacturer must have caught up and probably gone one better. So instead of taking out a second mortgage for a new Dyson, I got a cut price Vax.

What was I thinking??

***Rant Alert***

‘Let’s get started’. Let’s not bother, eh?

It sucks. Figuratively and literally. It sucks the grime, which is the only positive thing I can say about it. It also sucks rugs, cables (including its own), dressing gown cords, tubes of wine gums (still bitter about that) – anything within a two-foot radius it grabs and mawls. When it does this a red light blinks on and it cuts out and you have to stop and pull your shredded rug or charging cable out of the sweeper head. It oversucks. It totally sucks.
It also weighs three tonnes; fills up too fast; gets you filthy when you have to empty it; has a short, useless hose that keeps falling out; needs totally dismantling when you need a longer hose; has nowhere to store the stupid tools that come with it – which is actually fine as the stupid tools don’t fit on the hose properly and split and fall off all the time anyway; it can’t cope with any kind of change in height, so you have to pick it up and drop it down every time you go from carpet to floorboard (we have a lot of floorboards because we can’t afford carpets they are stylish and cool).
And, cardinal vacuum cleaner sin, the cable winding hook thingie isn’t big enough to take all the stupid cable, so it falls off in the cupboard and trips people up and gets wound round the ironing bag and sweeps all the shoes off the shelf.
Last week it sucked up some Black Jacks and got jammed. I needed to take the hoses off and ram a skewer up it, but they wouldn’t come off. So I spent half an hour looking for the manual (thinking all the while of the old faithful Dyson, which you dismantled in trice with the charming help of a 2p piece, no screwdrivers required).
When I found the manual there was no clue as to how to pull it apart, so I used brute force, eventually unjamming it and covering myself in fluff, loom bands, hairballs and sticky Black Jacks in the process.
Then, as you do, I texted my husband to tell him all about it.

I want one of these (the maid, not the machine)

That night he came home with a Dyson, a cordless, rechargeable one. It is a thing of beauty, despite only having 20 minutes worth of charge and costing the equivalent of two months’ groceries. Vacuuming now has to be planned and timetabled, so I can get the best out of the Dyson in between charges, with the hated Vax picking up the slack. But it is so much better.
My lesson is learned. For so long we have this idea that you are being made a mug of if you pay over the odds for something. Find the top price and the top brand then keep downsizing and downsizing until they are paying you – and its just as good, yes?
This works for Jaffa Cakes and Lidl coffee but not much else.
My father in law is a master at this, combing Amazon and eBay for cheap knock-offs that are – he claims – as good as the branded ones. They aren’t. Last year it was a smart watch, ‘just as good as an Apple – you can check your emails on your wrist’. Thing is, he doesn’t need a smart watch, Apple or otherwise. Six months later: “Do you want the smart watch? The strap isn’t very good, you can’t read the screen and it isn’t compatible with anything, but you can check your emails on your wrist!” Same thing went for the cut-price fake Go-Pro camera thing (“the picture isn’t great, and you can only record 30 seconds of footage but it is splashproof!”) and the £25 tablet (“it’s a bit slow, it keeps turning itself off and the charger is dodgy – but you can check your emails on it!”).

Things it is worth paying top dollar for – a list born out of bitter, bitter experience

  • Dyson vacuum cleaners. See above.
  • White Company bedsheets. Oh the sheer luxury of sliding between posh cotton sheets. So much better than anything you will get from Argos. You will sleep better, you really will.
  • Yankee Candles. Fifteen quid for a scented candle! But they last for months and smell divine. None of the cheap knock offs come close, and I have been through them all.
  • Hotel Chocolat. Thorntons seems greasy, Cadbury seems sugary, everything else seems bland after you’ve scoffed a box of these.
  • Dulux & Crown paint. Others are much, much cheaper. They are cheaper because you need twice as much to cover the same area, and then they peel off. Come and look at my stairs if you don’t believe me.
  • Apple Macintosh 1 computer

    The first and still the best. Couldn’t afford one then, can’t afford one now…

  • Apple iPads, iPhones, iMacs and Macbooks. Design classics, cost far too much but so much better than anything else. The first computers I ever used were Apples, and I’d still rather have them than the clunky Windows laptop I am stuck with now.
  • Antler luggage. Bust the overdraft eight years ago to buy a set of bright red luggage, which cost more than the clothes I packed inside it. They came with their own dust bags. Dust bags! They have been used dozens of times, for everything from cruises to Brownie camping trips, and are still rock solid and because they are bright red they never get lost at baggage reclaim.
  • Ghd hair straighteners. They cost five times as much as other brands but they get your hair six times straighter and sleeker, and in a sixth of the time.

Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #11: American Gods

Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday in American Gods

Big Neil Gaiman fan here. I especially liked Ocean At The End of the Lane and Neverwhere. I bloody loved Neverwhere. I never read American Gods though, so apart from a big bowlful of magical realism, I didn’t know what to expect.
I still don’t know what to expect.

The thing that I suppose has put off anyone trying to adapt American Gods before, is that it isn’t a start to finish story but a massive ever-evolving circle.


This is Czernobog and this is his hammer

Nothing is explained, and at the start you have to just sit back and enjoy the road trip.
It is the stunning cinematography that kept me watching at first; one tiny but exquisitely crafted scene saw a road map of Illinois swivel and transform seamlessly into the lock on a motel room door.
No-one strikes a match in American Gods without the scene slowing down and zooming in so you can see every particle of the match, hear every crackle of the tiny flame.

The plot is a road movie crossed with a fantasy quest: An extraordinarily dense ex-con called Shadow Moon is taken up by a mysterious con-artist called Mr Wednesday.
Wednesday is travelling through middle America visiting oddballs and persuading them to meet him in Wisconsin for a war.
They – or, to be precise, Shadow – are pursued by some Bad Guys who take over TVs and talk in riddles.
It takes Shadow a long, long time – the whole series in fact – to suss out that Wednesday is recruiting a gang of old gods to fight the new gods and that his boss is one of the original old-style war gods, Odin himself (the clue was in the name – Odin/Woden’s day = Wednesday).

Put like that, it sounds a bit like a Marvel super heroes movie, but it’s not even on the same planet.
In Gaiman’s world, gods aren’t buff do-gooders with a paper-thin backstory. Instead, they rely on worship – on people praying to them, sacrificing to them, building altars to them.
Once they are forgotten by their disciples, they die. In modern day America, the gods are now technology, media and globalisation, and they are vast and powerful, taking over many of the old beliefs and forging them again – like turning Easter into a chintz-fest of white rabbits and pastel-coloured macaroons.

Is your heart heavier than a feather? Well, is it?

The old gods are muttering in damp apartments or desperately flicking through Tindr in search of worshippers. They were brought to America by settlers, and some of the best scenes in the series depict how this happened.
A boat of early Viking raiders summon Odin, and leave him there when they decide the New World is a bit too rubbish. An Irish woman sentenced to transportation brings with her belief in the little folk; a Muslim woman who heard tales of the Egyptian dieties from her mother holds them in her heart when she moves to America; Ghanian teller of tales Anansi, the spider god, arrived with slaves in the sweating hold of a Dutch cargo ship.

The clincher as to whether I loved this series or just sort of admired it came at the start of episode three. The Egyptian woman – now living in Queens – falls off a rickety stool, dies, and is visited by Anubis, who weighs her heart and invites her to choose which door she will pass through into the underworld. This small scene was breathtakingly beautiful. The camera falls dizzyingly down through the apartment block, then journeys back up the fire escape to a sun-crossed land of ancient deserts. The woman’s face is careworn but beautiful, the colours are like a hand-tinted sepia film reel. I had to watch it three times.

Laura Moon

Laura Moon. Dead wife. With flies

If there is one thing American Gods has, it is depth. We don’t need to see the goddess Bilquis absorbing people into her vagina (yes, she actually does that. Loads of times). We don’t need to hear Anansi, Ghanian god of storytelling, tell it like it is to a sweltering hold of African slaves. But they give the series a boundless horizon, a sense that anything could happen.

And we will have to wait until the next season to find out exactly what is going to happen. Series one ends with nothing resolved and everything still to play for. I can’t wait that long – I’ve started reading the book.

Things I think about as I colour-co-ordinate my pegs

  • If Shadow’s dead wife Laura Moon is brought back to life what will happen to her half-rotted body? And what about the fact she has no organs? How does this resurrection stuff work anyway?
  • She tried to kill herself with fly-spray and is now surrounded by flies attracted to her rotten maggoty flesh. I see that. But don’t get it.
  • And why is Laura so superhumanly strong now she’s dead? OK, enough about Laura now.
  • Shadow Moon is really a bit of a docile thickie, so why are the nasty new gods so keen to recruit him? Why does everyone already know who he is?
  • Is a leprechaun a god? I thought they were just like Little People from the land of faerie, hanging about around rainbows and stuff.
  • That bank job Wednesday pulls, acting like a security guard. Would that work? (Asking for a friend).

Just say so

So, I inhabit a shadowy netherworld (Lincolnshire) where the latest trends and high fashion passes me by, or arrives thirty years late (our local Co-op doesn’t stock ‘posh’ avocados and I still haven’t seen Frozen – although I feel it often enough).
But even I can’t help notice the amount of times people are starting a sentence with ‘so’.
It started with radio interviews, usually politicians, but now it is everywhere. Whenever anyone is asked a straight question, they start their answer with “So, blah blah di blah blah…”
It makes no grammatical sense. It is bloody infuriating. But it spreads, like fidget spinners or loom bands (see, I do keep up with some trends). And, a bit like fidget spinners, no-one seems to realise they are doing it, and that makes it even more annoying.
My research (Google) says it began in America with techie geeks back in the 90s, who used it to give themselves more time to answer, possibly because English wasn’t their first language.
It is also used as a way of engaging with the questioner, making them think you are weighing up their query and then ignoring it and answering a totally different question – the question you wanted to answer in the first place. This is usually something like ‘why are you and your political party so great?’

And so say all of us

So far, so good

Saying so is also thought to indicate the speaker has been coached in interview techniques. It sounds more definite than ‘er’ or ‘um’, as if a more serious, thoughtful reply is about to follow.
Tony Blair, the ultimate media manipulator, started his replies with ‘well’ a lot, as a way of giving weight to them. Also popular, but slightly more aggressive, is ‘anyway’.
When the speaker drops the ‘so’ and plunges right in you know you have got to the real answers, without the media training.
I’m not buying this – I think verbal tics spread, like nits. You pick them up off someone and they are almost impossible to throw off.
When I went to college there was a big contingent of Northern Irish students. Within a month us English teenagers were unconsciously mimicking their accent. I shared a house with a couple from Down South and I found myself speaking as if everything was a question – that upward intonation at the end of every sentence that Australians and some Americans use.
Remember a few years ago, when everyone said ‘like’ or ‘you know what I mean’? (David Beckham was terrible at this). Phrases spread too: ‘How are you?’ ‘Oh, I’m good, thanks.’ ‘Do you want to play with this fidget spinner?’ ‘Ah no, I’m good.’
Good? As opposed to bad, or naughty? Who says you’re good, your mum?
Hand and the words 'so what?'

Just so

Similarly, when I started watching Elementary back in 2012 I was perplexed to hear the police (I mean cops – this is America) talk about ‘reaching out’ to someone. I imagined an outstretched hand desperately grasping for a drowning soul.
But no, they meant call someone. Like, on the phone. “Americans, eh?” I shrugged – but I have heard people talk about reaching out this year, in this country.
I mean it when I say it is contagious. Someone offered me a drink and I shook my head and told them I was good, before biting off my tongue. I start sentences with ‘so’ all the time, and even when I know I’m doing it, I still do it.
We want to be part of the pack, say the psychologists. Sharing language traits shows we all belong – to a flock of parrots, presumably.
So, you know what will happen now? You will all start hearing the word ‘so’ at the start of sentences ALL THE TIME. And then you will all start unconsciously doing it too.
So be it.

A day in the life of a polling station in the sticks

Polling Station sign

I live the centre of a large village in Lincolnshire. On election days, the village hall is the polling station. This happens to be close to my house and through my study window I can see everyone who arrives to vote.

For the General Election I was working; first sewing, then actual work, then titting about on Twitter and ordering miracle creams from Holland & Barrett admin stuff. I spent most of the day in the study watching people come to vote – and it was fascinating.

First up, from opening up at 7am until about 8amish, the voters were women in sensible office garb, nipping in and out in zippy little cars before heading for work.

Older men in chinos carrying newspapers – the active and early retired maybe – then arrived, but by 9.30am they had given way before the constant slam of car doors and whizz of mobility scooters that heralded The Pensioners.

polling cards

We were told to destroy our cards at home after voting, which was v exciting

There were hundreds – possibly thousands – of these, and they came and went all day. Most parked as close as possible to the door, levered themselves shakily out of their cars, then tottered into the village hall, which they probably haven’t visited since attending a tea dance in 1957.

They then emerged, blinking at the effort of having to open the door, and stopped to chat, before wandering off in search of their cars. Some looked ancient – 130 years old at least, and for a couple of hours I was sure there would be an accident, as they obviously haven’t left the house since the introduction of double yellow lines.

In the meantime, dog walkers called by, looping the leads over the railings outside the library. One poor border collie howled mournfully while its owner was inside. Probably knew he was voting Tory.

This is the time people I have never seen before (because they were so weird I would remember) appeared. The man who looks as if he has spent the last five years sleeping in a pile of damp leaves; the 7ft tall bulging-eyes man in a sky blue sports jacket and grey jogging bottoms; the impossibly (for Lincolnshire) glamorous woman with blonde hair piled on her head carrying a chihuahua; the troglodyte couple in matching brown hessian. Where do these people live? Why, in my 20 years in the village have I never seen them before?

polling station

These railings have been used for dogs, shopping baskets and sundry children

Mid-afternoon is peak time. The pensioners are still staggering in, and this coincides with the mums popping in on their way back from school, kids swinging on the railings outside, as well as the men in vans pulling up. These will be the plumbers, builders, electricians and refrigeration engineers who started work at 7 or 8 and are calling in before heading for home. Things heats up as the 8-4 shift hits town and, the day’s work done, everyone lingers outside to chat. A vaguely holiday atmosphere permeates the library steps.

There is a flurry of teenagers, some of them on bikes, all loud and a bit self conscious. They have had time to get home from college, get changed into cool gear and head off out again. Next stop, the bench next to the war memorial.

After 6pm it goes dead. The odd car pulls up, grown-up couples stride in and out, but no-one lingers and there are no more dogs tied to the railings.

After seven the people in suits arrive. This always bemuses me, as I thought my husband was the only person to wear a suit in a twenty-mile radius. Who are these fleece-less, overall-less, uniform-less people? Where, in our resolutely lower middle/upper working class village, do they live?

polling station

I have been staring at this entrance ALL DAY

They are joined by grown-up families, all strolling out together after dinner (not tea), and chatting to other grown-up families. After 9pm they peter out and it is single males in dusty cars and white t-shirts, and young women with brutally straightened hair, usually in pairs.

At 9.30pm an official from inside the village hall takes in one of the Polling Station signs. I’m not sure if this is allowed before 10pm, but no-one is about, and by 9.55pm they are all packed up ready to go. By 10.10pm the lights are off and the car park is empty.

The day has been punctuated with car alarms. I don’t know why this is, but more car alarms went off in the village today than in the whole of the past ten years. I would come up with some clever metaphor about it being an alarming portent of the election result, but I don’t have time; I have a night of exit polls and marginals to prepare for…

It’s the year of the Sats

stripy heart-shaped lollipops

A heart-shaped lollipop with her name on; an owl made out of shells; a collection of painted pebbles stuck on a slightly bigger pebble with the sign ‘Rock Concert’; a pencil, ruler, rubber and sharpener set and a pair of ankle boots with a two-inch heel.

This is what my daughter got for practising an 11-plus paper every day of the summer holidays last year, including when we were actually away on holiday.

rock concert pebbles

Cute AND witty – what’s not to like?

You may sniff at bribery and instant rewards but they worked; it was the hardest she has ever studied for anything, but it scraped her into grammar school.

It was a good lesson. If you work hard, if you make a sacrifice, if you put in the hours then you get a reward. At the time, getting into a good school wasn’t exactly her idea of a glittering prize. But the rock concert pebbles? That really did it. Even if she didn’t get a place, she’s still got the pebbles and the owl.

shell owl

The prize for doing a mock exam every day of the holidays. I know the value of a good bribe

When my stepdaughters tackled their GCSEs and A-Levels, they had grown past the heart-shaped lollipop stage. For them, getting good grades was the reward. These were the hard-won tickets to the next stop in their education, the key to opening the door to the next step in their lives.

This is why we put ourselves through exams, to achieve something, to move onwards and upwards, to make our families proud and boost our own self-esteem.

Except, of course, when it comes to bloody Sats.

The Sats – Standard Assessment Tests – are supposed to measure how your child is doing in maths and English, and how they compare to ten and eleven-year-olds in the rest of the country. This is important, apparently, to the Government, to the education authorities, to the schools and to the teachers. But not the poor little sods who actually have to take the bloody tests.

black ankle boots

Inappropriate for an 11-year-old? I DON’T CARE

My daughter’s teachers have been banging on about Sats since last September. They have been holding maths booster classes instead of music lessons, handing out holiday revision packs and conducting mock exam after mock exam. A friend was taken out of her beloved PE class in order to practise joined-up writing; three years ago my son had to give up his hugely enjoyable violin lessons to concentrate on arithmetic. He never picked up an instrument again. Waytogo, Sats.

Parents were invited to a special evening where we were given advice on how to remember grammar rules and told to bring our children in for the tests even if they were ill. “One class I had were struck with food poisoning from a party the day before so we had sick buckets all around the classroom,” one teacher told us proudly.

Sats suck. The stress is terrible, with some children in my stepdaughter’s year working themselves up into such a state they were shaking before they went into school. Preparing for them overshadows the last year of primary school to no purpose, other than ensure the school has a half-decent league table ranking and the teachers hang onto their jobs. It leaches away the sheer joy in learning that children have at that age, and replaces it with the need to understand the pluperfect tense.

A Sat exam and a broken pencil

Sats suck

Children have enough exam stress waiting for them when they get to senior school; 11 is too young to be worrying about making the grade. And what possible benefit can there be in telling a 11-year-old they aren’t as clever as most of the other 11-year-olds in the country, that they are ‘below average’. It doesn’t get them extra tuition or sent to a different school. It just makes them feel a failure.

And if they do come out above average, what’s the point, apart from making the headteacher feel smug? They don’t get a certificate, a bang-on job or letters after their name. All that hard work, all year, for sod all.

There are a lot of things you can work your backside off for that ultimately come to nothing, such as weeding ground elder, ironing sheets, getting through level 147 on Candy Crush or knitting socks (too big. Always too big). All of them are more worthwhile than Sats.

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public” – Winston Churchill.

Why do our brains want us to be fat?

Runners in the London Marathon

Some new research has shown that regular exercise not only staves off heart disease, diabetes, stroke risk and some cancers but also helps keep your brain healthy, so you are less likely to succumb to dementia.
This isn’t really news – scientists and doctors have been banging on about the amazing benefits of regular exercise for generations.
With this in mind, I watched the London Marathon at the weekend and then heard that a friend is now in training for an ultra-marathon (50 miles).

Marathon bar

For those of you that didn’t know what Snickers used to be. Don’t get me started on Opal Fruits

Why? We all chorus. Why do they do it? I’d rather eat a Marathon for 26 miles than run one (that’s a joke for everyone over 45).
But we all know why – being fit makes you feel bloody brilliant. Your sleep is better and you need less of it; your energy levels are higher and stay higher; you automatically eat healthier food and – and here’s a cracking bit – you can get away with eating more, so can shrug off the odd shashlik chicken or plain chocolate Bounty. Aches and pains melt away, you get up from a chair without saying ‘oof’ and can run for a bus, the school pick-up or last orders without being sick.
On top of that is the mental benefits. I don’t mean the amount of oxygen in your brain means you are likely to be staving off Alzheimer’s disease. I mean the sheer, heartwarming smugness of knowing you are in good shape.
Better shape than the cow-flanked families queuing into the car park at McDonalds; better than that bloke at work who has a Wispa and two cans of Coke for his breakfast and whose breathing sounds like a rusty old boiler; better than the expanding backside of the woman rolling down the supermarket aisle, trolley loaded with fun-size Bounty bars and family pack Doritos.

Look how happy she is – how healthy, how charmingly smug

You are slim; you are fit; you wear trainers and leggings because they are your workout gear, not your couch clothes – you are better than everyone else in the room.
It’s a no-brainer that being fit brings nothing but good. Only it isn’t. A no-brainer that is.
Because, if it was, we’d all be running marathons and chomping on bananas instead of Bounties. And we aren’t, because our brains don’t let us.
You can rationalise it much as you like, read up on the medical evidence, imagine yourself two sizes slimmer and eight sizes smugger, but it doesn’t stop you ordering chicken korma with rice and a side of Bombay potatoes and a peshwari nan and poppudoms and dips. For the fifth time in a month.
And anyone who has staggered their way through a run, or cycled round the park, or got to the end of an exercise class knows without a shadow of a doubt how good, how euphoric you feel afterwards. For a long time afterwards too, right into the next day when your stiff legs and aching arms are a cause for secret smug smiles.
But, as far as your brain is concerned, none of this trumps the ten minutes of pleasure to be gained from shoving a bowl of profiteroles down your neck. And even that isn’t unadulterated – you are wracked with guilt, or anger or misery at having given in. Yet still you do it.
Why brain, why?
Why isn’t the brain strong enough to say no? To remind you how much better everything is when you are fit, and how shit you will feel afterwards? What’s going on with evolution that the dubious short term delight of a tub of Ben & Jerrys with squirty cream and Golden Syrup will have you dumping the diet? Shouldn’t the threat of diabetes and heart disease have bred this need out of us?
A green apple

You should be reaching for this…

…instead you want this. And you want it SO MUCH

So why is it hardwired to go for the sugar and fat option? Does this go back to the Stone Age? Were there fur-loincloth wearing fatties, spreading their grilled dandelion leaves with mammoth fat and dipping their fingers into honeycombs? Can’t see it somehow – you needed to be fit and thin to run away from rampaging mammoths and swarming bees.
Or have we short-circuited nature with our statins and heart bypasses? Does our brain know, deep down, that it doesn’t matter if we spend our lives porking out in a chair because Medicine will sort it all out?
But even if this is the case, being fat and unfit feels shite, and being fat and unfit and sick feels even shitter. And your brain knows this, as it persuades you to drive to Pizza Hut instead of the swimming pool.
I have come up with two possibilities: The first is that our brains simply hate us. They tell us what we should be doing to make ourselves feel great, then go and make us do the opposite. Our brains want to upset us, to make us depressed, to feel like failures, to get ill.
Or: Our brains are really stupid. They want short-term gratification, to live for the day, to be comfy. They want profiteroles.