There is always jam

Preserve making with the Saturday Telegraph magazine, and the darling Oscar

Preserve making with the Saturday Telegraph magazine, and the darling Oscar

I am allowing myself a lull. I’ve stopped writing my regular column for the Telegraph and started having bonfires, hoping to find some room for inspiration as I clear out the contents of my office. It’s a distracting job. And although this second I feel at the bottom of the creative pit, it turns out I have produced a few rather nice features over the years. In this piece, published nearly 6 years ago, and which I had quite forgotten about, I bang on about the joys of making jams and jellies as home made presents. I think I will take my own advise and give it a whirl. After all, the sun in shining, the trees are dripping with fruit, and for once in my life I don’t have a deadline….

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Half term activities is here to help you stave off the half term melt downs

Just when the new term feels properly underway, half term peers its head around the corner, reminding anyone attempting to have a professional as well as domestic life that children, when not at school, have the potential to stifle it. And while I am all for leaving them to their own devices and allowing boredom to stimulate some creative thought, it is not so easy to leave them lolling when you live in the city.

If you have not discovered it yet, I urge you to look at, a website which lists a carefully edited selection of children’s after school, weekend and holiday activities in London and beyond. The section on half term activities is inspired.

I met the founder, Yasmine Mahmoudieh, and wrote a piece on her for the Telegraph Magazine in January:

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Doll Boy

Mac, the knitted boy doll from Red Nose Day Dolls

Not having dolls in the house is possibly the best thing about not having girls. No scary glass eyes to turn to the wall at bedtime. No grubby plastic contortionists flashing their pink jointed bits from beneath the acrylic blankets…
But, have you seen Mac, the knitted boy child of queen crafters Rose Badger and Emma Mitchell, one of 4 hand-sewn dolls to go under the hammer for Red Nose Day? There is a virtual frenzy of grown-up excitement around them ( check out their Facebook page and blog not least because they are being kitted out by twenty of the country’s most talented crafters. Mac has his own Shetland wool jumper, sleeping bag, and dog, no less. He has even posted a camping video on You Tube.
All four dolls, plus their miniature crocheted dresses, tulle underskirts, needle felted wirehair fox terriers, and teeny tiny patchwork quilts go under the hammer on Red Nose Day’s official Ebay site on March 15th. With such a good cause in mind, there is no need even to pretend you are bidding on behalf of anyone but yourself.

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Shopping for Boys

I knew that boys didn’t like clothes shopping before I spent 2 hours proving it in Brent Cross. Two hours of trying to avoid the Arsenal shop, bribing with Nando’s, and apologizing to everyone who was tripped up and bumped into. But Boy 2 has been complaining at his lack of clothes, and more curiously, about his ‘look’ so I thought I would give it a whirl.
I write about children’s fashion for a living, and the high street’s paltry boys’ offering is nothing new to me. But I was stunned at the lack of choice, harassed by Angry Birds at every turn, and depressed that once a boy goes beyond the realms of cute (which mine certainly have) they have little alternative than to dress like a seventh division football manager. There was nothing to buy until Boy 2, by then sulking furiously, spotted a shiny navy suit. He has wanted one since Sky Fall, longing to look smart when all around him is in chaos and Dri-Fit. He tried it on. His brother said he looked like the head-master, but he was too busy styling his hair to listen. He grinned and I bought it, of course, triumphantly sharing in the fleeting retail thrill.

Suit trousers, £19.99,

Suit jacket, £39.99,

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Chaos theory

Disorder and chaos

A few years ago we had a party. Knowing that everyone coming would have small, fidgety people in tow I decided to nail up the toy cupboards. It was bliss. And the cupboards stayed sealed for the whole summer.

Children have too many toys. The urge to shower them with plastic seems too strong to over-ride. My 6 year old has 2 enormous plastic dustbin lorries which sing, if he holds them steady, in hideous unison. TWO. Neither were presents from me. Neither will submit to the charity shop collection.

I had thought that moving to a bigger house with lots of cupboards would help, but the toys seem to have swelled behind closed doors and chaos is upon us. I met a pair of architects last week, living in an open-plan flat in London in apparent harmony with young children. There were, I realised, no cupboards. Everything was consciously on display, and therefore everything was ordered and valued. They admitted to frequent ‘toy culls’, and stuck to strong Montessori principles of only letting their children play with one toy at a time, and insisting they put it away nicely before getting another one out. “If you see everything, you remember to use it- whether it is a toy or a kitchen spice,” one of them told me from her beautifully ordered kitchen. “Children respond well to order and structure. They need to learn to  value their possessions, and that means looking after them carefully.”

Returning home, and wading through the deep litter of Lego and toy soldiers that carpet my 10-year-old’s bedroom, I could not help but feel I had missed a trick. But as I opened the toy cupboard doors, determined to begin the cull, an entire box of Playmobil fell onto my foot.  I hopped off to look for the hammer.


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Alternative realities

William gets a taste of reality

give a boy an ipod and they will sulk in their room; give a boy a kindling axe and he will feel like a man

There was a pick axe moment last weekend: either they came outside to help with the wood, or the ipods would be for the chop. There were complaints, excuses, delaying tactics, but once outside and put to task they were soon pink-cheeked and back to the violently physical, deliriously happy boys I thought I knew.

There is nothing like a hot ipod to tell you that your son is lying. Somehow the electronic devices that Boys 1 (10) and 2 (8) have patiently (and admirably) saved for have become the source of almost every argument (bar the one about flushing the loo). They say they are brushing their teeth when in fact they are playing Minecraft. They spot my laptop and beg for apps, seeking boyish fulfillment in Heligunners and Ishotgun Pro.

These shiny, long-coveted devices have become portals to an alternative reality, one which can make real life boring, and engaging seem far too much like hard work.

We now work on a rota of confiscation. Boy 1 lost his within days of buying it, got it back and then swiftly lost it for an entire week. For lying. About his Ipod. Boy 2 is fairing slightly better, if only for tempering his stories.

Boys need exercise. They need danger. They need to be challenged physically and mentally. You need to be brave to give a child an axe. You need to be clear with them about how to swing it, how not to hit their brothers, how not to take off their own fingers. But give them some real responsibility, in this case in the shape of a kindling axe, rather than fobbing them off in front of a screen, and they will shine. Mine did, and my log pile is now wonderfully large.

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Here we go again

boys in the kitchen

Keeping it real in the kitchen

Having spent the past few weeks trawling for craft ideas for my Telegraph page, and with Christmas nipping at my heels, today I confiscated the boys’ ipods and goaded them into getting creative. Without shouting. And curbing my stifling will to art direct their every move. The eventual result, through the over-turned felt tip box, the spilt water, and the whisk licking, was two boxes of chocolate brownies, two and a half jars of very crumbly fudge, and a quite nicely coloured-in robot mask.

Doing almost anything with three growing boys at the moment involves embracing the chaos whilst staying resolutely in charge. And remembering to breath. But they need to learn that life isn’t all about instant gratification, that not everything comes in app form, and that often the most satisfying things are the ones you work unexpectedly hard for. The disciplinarian in me might have been in over-drive today, but the brownies were delicious and the washing up was done by a very willing 10 year old.

Chocolate Fudge Brownies fit for a 10 year old

Melt a WHOLE pat (250g) of butter over a low heat with 275g dark chocolate (about a bar and a half of Bournville). In another bowl whisk together 3 eggs, 275g castor sugar and a splash of vanilla essence, then pour into the chocolate mixture and combine. Stir through 225g plain flour and a pinch of salt, pour into a lined baking tray and bake at 180 for about 20 minutes until just set.


Out of the chaos came something very delicious: Chocolate fudge brownies

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Against all odds

In the garden the combined force of three brothers has met its match, as Spring continues to assert itself on and off the football pitch, despite their best efforts to trample it back into the earth. Beneath the thawing snow the ground had been recovering from the wounds inflicted by blades and bikes, spades and balls, and now that it has gone there are clumps of impossible snowdrops between the goal posts. I have taken these pictures as I suppose they will be trodden into the mud by the end of the weekend, but for now I feel that I have found an ally in Mother Nature.

impossible snowdrops in goal

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Notes on Pocket Money


Money and boys is a limitlessly torturous combination. What could be worse than an indecisive, under-financed eight-year-old in a shop full of toys? Possibly an over-stimulated, furious, tractor-weilding younger brother. Or both, screeching in unison as you bolt for refuge in haberdashery. In trying to give my older boys an understanding of the value of money, I introduced the idea of pocket money (£2 per week) and it has got me exactly nowhere, bar intermittent trawlings of Poundland, and routine fury. These days they save, or rather we all forget, for months on end, and then I am suddenly, without warning, held for ransom for an Ipod Touch. The whole thing is impossible and I would whole-heartedly recommend steering well clear for as long as you can. I wish I had.

If you do give them money, make sure they have something very good to store it in. I had thought our best were two terracotta piggie banks from Brazil, given to the older ones when they were tiny, when the only currency money had was its potential suck/ choke value. Last weekend they went under the hammer (literally) as the nagging was starting to gnaw away at the potential enjoyment of just about anything done as a family. The haul from the middle one’s far out-weighed his brother’s: cue mumbled confessions about stealing loose change, moral outrage, fighting, and raging arguments about ownership, crime, and punishment.

As I said, best avoided, but if for the  sado-masichists out there, here are three of the best money boxes I have come across in my research for my column:

Better still, go to the bank and get some plastic coin bags for free…

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Food flasks


between meals

Having stuck to my guns for four years, I have given in with my youngest boy and let him take a packed lunch to school once a week. And while I have tried to keep them as unappetizing as possible, in the hope he will revert to a full week of school dinners, the guilt about his Thursday diet of stale bread and cold pasta has consumed me and he now skips smugly off to school with a flask full of something hot and hearty.

Here are my two tried and tested favourites:

Thermos CoolKidz

Thermos CoolKidz Steel Food Jar (290ml) £17.67

This is the one the older brothers fight over to fill with hot chocolate and take to rugby. It does leave it a bit stinky though.






Thermos Foogo Insulated Stainless Steel Food Jar (290 ml) £17.99,

The flask of choice for a five year old. The grippy lid is easy to unscrew, and the styling is slightly too babyish to make is something older brothers will steal.

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