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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Cat Game: points mean pussies!

Cats, for cat-people at least, tend to make life a little more bearable.

You may think that Mermaids, being of a somewhat pescarian nature, might not appreciate the feline form, but you'd be quite wrong. Many Mermedonians have catfish as pets, for example.

But back to the subject of this blog. Mr Mermaid and myself often play a game to make our perambulations a little more interesting.

It's called the Cat Game, and it goes like this.

Can you see this cat? 
Basically, if you see a cat, you call it and get a point. Even if the other person doesn't see it. But it is an honesty game so it has to be a real cat, and you have to be 100 per cent sure it's a cat, otherwise bad luck will befall you.

The person who has the most cat points at the end of the day wins.

If you falsely call a cat and it proves to be a black bin bag, for example, or it turns out to be a cat statue, then you lose a cat point.

In England, most cats are secretive, domesticated, indoor creatures, barely seen except in a glimpse in a window as they look wistfully down on plebeians strolling by. Or they're collared, cut and snipped, microchipped garden brooders, squatting like cat loaves on shed roofs or balancing on fences.

In Athens, however, cats are a whole different species: semi-feral, exceptionally fertile, un-neutered, un-chipped, homeless scavengers. These cats tend to be grubbier, thinner scaredy-cats, sneaking around bins en masse while embarking on shady crepuscular activities.

Cat Loaf  position 1
Those cats which are not skulking in corners, performing cat-loaf impressions in grassy areas, or shooting anxious, upward glances at passers-by, tend to be boisterous, bossy kitties, mouthing loud mews and coming up for grub and love. (Always happy to oblige with love).

As you can imagine, with the amount of stray cats wandering completely unchecked around Greece, there were many to count on our walkabouts. We also saw two dead strays lying in the road after being run over by cars.

Cats on food patrol near the Acropolis

There are speed restrictions, but my relatives claim few Greeks bother with these as the government cannot be bothered with enforcement.

(This also explains the horrendous amount of ugly graffiti everywhere - appalling!! Like something out of a 1980s London slum).

The suburbs have their own kitties to count, but the area around the Acropolis and the Agora - ah! That's the place to go to play the Cat Game.

While Mr Mermaid and I were walking around the Acropolis, we reached a bumper crop of cats. I had seen 46 and he had seen 42 (and stroked as many as wanted affection) so we decided to pool our resources and see if we could reach 100. It's a challenge never before attempted during the Cat Game

I can haz noms? 
By 8pm we had got 90 cats under our metaphorical belts (do Merpeople wear belts?), and thought 'that's it, no more'.

But then on the way to the graffiti-infested Metro station, we saw a benevolent citizen had left a full bag of kitty food for the strays - and there were seven adult cats and three kittens nomming away (while giving us scared glances). A full 100!

Getting off the train we were met with Disney Bonus Cat.

In other words, a stray floofy-bummed kitteh ran in front of us, scratched a tree frantically like a wide-eyed furry weirdo, and then bounded off in a zig-zag across the road, with its ears flat back and its tail all puffed.

101. One hundred and one. Like the 101 Dalmations, only with cats.

And that's the story of our cat count game.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

NS&I: not so attractive now?

National Savings and Investments has always been a stalwart of savers in the UK, with millions of people taking out premium bonds or one of its other savings products in the expectation that the government will always pay out.

However, National Savings and Investments is now looking a little less rosy as a place for canny savers to put their cash savings, with rates being reduced towards the sort of poor levels seen in high street banks and building societies, and the payout ratio on the Premium Bonds looking less attractive.

According to National Savings and Investments (NS&I), this followed the reduction in interest rates across the savings market after the Bank of England’s reduction of the base rate by 25 basis points, to 0.25 per cent in August 2016.

Previously, the bank base rate had been at 0.5 per cent since March 2009.

The variable rate changes will apply to Premium Bonds, Direct ISA, Direct Saver and Income Bonds, coming into effect on 1 May 2017.

Further, this means there will be fewer Premium Bond prizes in each draw. The big one - £1m - will have the same number of winners but further down the scale, fewer and fewer prizes will be announced each month.

According to Steve Owen, acting chief executive of the NS&I, he appreciated "savers will be disappointed".

He told the press: "Savers will be disappointed, but we believe that the new rates present a fair offer to customers, who will continue to benefit from our 100 per cent HM Treasury guarantee on all holdings, as well as tax-free prizes for Premium Bonds."

The number of tax-free prizes is also set to go down on NS&Is Premium Bonds, however, which means the number of £25 increments I get (they're giving me the £1m bonus prize, but in £25 increments over my lifetime, evidently) will decrease.

Essentially, the government is screwing us slowly and imperceptibly.

And not everyone was as sanguine as Mr Owen. Danny Cox, who is a chartered financial planner for Bristol-based advisory firm Hargreaves Lansdown, called it "another devastating blow for millions of savers".

He said: "NS&I will remain popular for their cast iron security but lower interest rates and rising inflation will test savers’ patience and I expect more people to look to the stock markets for some of their cash to improve their long term returns."

NS&I Prize breakdown: Then and Now

Value of prizes

Number of prizes in February 2017
Number of prizes in May 2017 (estimate)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Horse Mask Escapades

This guy has just won the internet for today, people.

And probably life as well. Yep, this guy is winning at life.

Imma get me a horse mask.


Source: - Crafted from the finest Internets.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

How to save money on train fares

Five top tips for saving money on ever-expensive train fares

Save money on train and travel fares
Southern, Thameslink, South-Western and, in fact, most train operators on commuter trains in and out of London have achieved something pretty special the past couple of years.

They have been able to run an ever-depleted service, with more lateness and cancellations than before, and still put the price of tickets up for the hapless commuters relying on them.

Today, for example, we have heard Thameslink excuses of: "signalling problems" and the driver has also blamed the underground strike. Which is a new one one me.

The other day, it was simply Southern's industrial action; a few days ago it was lack of stock... The list of daily excuses must be running short. I wonder if management at Govia, which owns Thameslink and Southern, just use an eight-ball every day to conjure up an excuse for their shoddy service.

"Can you afford to keep giving £342.80 away to TFL - especially considering the service you are getting from your train provider?"

The icing - a bitter, sugarless, hard-as-nails sulphuric icing - on this cake for commuters was the fare hike this January.

A monthly travel card from Zone 5 (where houses once used to be affordable) into Zone 1 (Central London) now costs £215.90. It was approximately £212.00 last year; that's a £46.80 annual price hike for those buying each month. This might not seem much, but when the service has been little short of Dante's fourth circle of Hell, even a £3.90 per month price hike is akin to a kick in the infernal regions.

So here are some tips to help minimise the pain and maximise your gain.

1) Time it right
Essentially, before the start of the new year 2018, find out on what day the train fares will rise. Start saving up now to enable you to buy your annual season ticket before the fares rise.

For example, in 2017 the fares went up on 2nd January; I bought on 1 January on the old prices and paid £2208.00 for my 2017 season ticket on the old prices. Had I waited until 2nd January when the travel fares rose, I would have had to pay £2248 - a saving of £46.

2) Buy annually not monthly
It always makes sense to buy annually - you essentially pay 10 months' worth of travel instead of 12 so it makes absolute financial sense to buy annually instead of buying monthly.

It might seem like a lot more money upfront but the savings are phenomenal. Let's break this down. An annual Zone 1 to Zone 5 travelcard in 2017 costs £2248 a year, which divided by 12 (the number of months) equates to a cost of £187.33 a month.

However, if you buy monthly, you will have to pay the 2017 monthly cost of £215.90. By paying monthly you end up giving Transport For London £2590.80. That's an extra £342.80 that you could use. That's a long weekend away in Paris.

Can you afford to keep giving £342.80 away to TFL - especially considering the service you are getting from your train provider?

3) Workplace travel loans
If you cannot save up c.£200 a month for a year to put aside towards your annual season ticket, and do not have the readies, ask your workplace for a year's travel loan. You basically make the savings outlined above on your train/tube fares, and the money comes out of your pay packet each month automatically. It's worth it for the savings.

I used our household account - transferred the money into my own account, then set up a Standing Order to repay it over the course of 18 months.

Overcrowded, underground, Wombling free?
4) Work out and walk out
One of the best forms of exercise is to walk - and in London, stations are so close to each other it might make sense for people living on the edges of certain zone boundaries to consider walking to or taking the bus to the next zone.

For example, I could walk to a Zone 4 station (or take the bus, as there are no zones for London buses) each morning, and walk home from it each night. It would take me 20 minutes to walk. However I am a mixture of lazy and romantic - lazy because I will make excuses for not getting up 20 minutes earlier, and romantic because I get to travel into and home from work with Mr Mermaid.

However, if I were not lazy or romantic, I would be saving myself a whopping £356 a year on my annual ticket. I might actually do that next year (and will encourage Herr Mermaid to consider this with me as a means of getting fit and having £360 or so more in our pockets each year).

Incidentally, one year (2010), I was not only made redundant but I did not claim any benefits while searching for work - so when I found a new job (basically my old one from 2006 back again at £8,000 less than I had been earning in 2010), I was flat broke. I ended up walking to London Bridge and back again for two weeks in a row until I got my first pay cheque. That was seven miles there and back from London Bridge to Streatham. Approximately two hours each way. I was fit as anything but unless it's summertime and you don't have any other responsibilities, as I now have, I would advocate not doing this!

5) Name it and claim it!
I feel hypocritical saying this because I only claimed once and never used the ticket, but I have started to do so this year each time the train is delayed more than 15 minutes. Which as we are using both Thameslink and Southern Rail (owned by Govia - pronounced 'Go-F-ya' in less polite circles), is quite often.

Mr Mermaid has been brilliant at this and has managed to claim back about £220 (approximately 10 per cent the cost of his annual travelcard price) for the past couple of years.

Heck, we let Govia get away with it day in, day out, by merely moaning on Twitter and never making them pay out. Hit them where it hurts - their pay cheques. Claim it back.

How much can I claim?

This depends. According to National Rail Enquiries, you can claim back 100% for the cost of a cancelled train if you end up not travelling as a result.

Each train company sets its own level of compensation, as set down by the company's Passenger's Charter. But usually the compensation level can be guesstimated by the following:
  • Single ticket, or return ticket if both legs are delayed – 50% of the price paid
  • Return ticket with delay on outward or return journey – 50% of the price paid for the relevant part of the journey
  • Season Ticket – details of arrangements for Season Ticket holders are set out in each Train Company’s Passenger’s Charter.
It's so much easier now to claim back than even two years ago, when many rail operators only accepted forms by post (which were laborious). Now you can do it online simply by scanning in your Ticket, your Receipt, and by taking careful note of how late the train has come in.

Southern and Thameslink now refund for a delay of 15 minutes - which on our average daily commuter trains so far means that they owe us for 6 delayed trains out of a total of 18 so far - 1/3 of all the trains in and out so far this year have been delayed over 15 minutes. Three of these were delayed over 40 minutes. Only four were actually on time. The rest were a few minutes out. 

If you consider how many times a week you take trains - 10 times a week in my case, there and back again - and extrapolate this into, say 11 months of commuting into work (assuming a month's holiday), then that's approximately 440 trains a year (assuming just four weeks each month for 11 months). 

Given current conditions, I can expect one-third of these 440 trains to be delayed more than 15 minutes. So I can claim back on 146 trains. Thameslink's passenger charter says I can claim back on an annual season ticket 1/464 x total ticket price. (This charter is subject to change). So approximately £4.75 for a 100% delayed journey or c. £2.40 for a 50% delayed journey.

Say all my refunds are about £2.40 on 146 trains - I could expect approximately £347.00 in refunds over the course of 2017, unless Govia suddenly improves its service standards, which we all very much doubt.

If everyone who was delayed made claims - to which everyone is entitled - Govia would have to start improving its service. I am ashamed it has taken me so long to get this sorted - and I have only committed to doing this because Mr Mermaid has helped me, and I have seen the financial benefits of him having been conscientious enough to do this over the years. 

Have you got any more tips? Please share them in the comments below!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Southern Rail causes house price drop

Southern Rail's complete and utter inability to put its house in order has caused house prices to slow down across the network, research by online estate agent, has proved.

The research has found that house price growth across the Southern Rail network has increased at a slower rate than England as a whole; all the while this network covers some of the most popular areas to live for commuters into London.

This means we Greater Londoners and Home Counties commuters are essentially paying over-the-odds for property near a train line that isn't going to help us get to work on time.
Commuters looking for missing Southern Rail trains

A year ago this month Southern Rail was voted in the top three worst rail providers by commuters. It's hardly a surprise.

Even two years ago when London Bridge was undergoing repairs, Southern trains were delayed getting into the station. Sometimes they didn't leave the station.

On more than one occasion, I remained sitting on a train to go home, waiting for 10, 15 minutes before we were told there was no available driver and therefore the train was cancelled. (Next one in an hour's time). Sometimes they had locked the doors with us on a train that was going nowhere. Such fun!

Since then Southern Rail and its fatcat owner Govia has undoubtedly become Britain’s most hated, with commuters unlucky enough to have to rely on their service becoming subject to more than nine months of commuting chaos since the strike action really kicked in.

Why are they striking?
I can't blame the Southern drivers for striking. There are meant to be three drivers available to cover each shift. One to drive, one to be on call and one to be on a day off/holiday. This means if driver A is sick, driver B can take over. 

However Southern Rail's nasty, greedy little bosses decided to run this on a shoestring and reduce available driver cover. I've got several driver friends who have been on annual leave and called up and asked if they can cover for someone. One of my friends was in SPAIN and received a phone call asking them to cut their holiday short and come to work.

Meanwhile, overtime pay has been cut. So drivers have had to be working extra shifts with no money. Add to this Southern Rail now wants to make drivers responsible for doing the job of a train/platform guard and watch the doors.

Instead of putting extra carriages and hiring more staff (they've pledged just 100 staff for more than 2,400 trains a day on the network), they want drivers on 40% (900) of their trains to do a double job.

Essentially, instead of the driver concentrating on the signals ahead and getting the train ready to leave the station, he or she also now has to make sure doors and yellow lines are clear. 

How can a driver look at the signal ahead AND look at the monitors to check people are not standing in front of a yellow line? This is a HUGE health and safety issue

They are right to strike. It's really annoying and making it a misery for all of us, but when you consider the seriousness of this, it's understandable.

And no, you don't get paid for strike days. You get that money deducted from your payslip. So they're not getting paid for striking.

Anyway, enough of the boldification of phrases. Apologies for getting all Moran-ish. No need for such sulky English prose.

House prices

But back to house prices. Some employers have already refused applicants using a Southern Rail service as the reality is that they will often arrive to work late. Thank goodness I have an understanding boss (who uses Southern herself).

But not only are commuters’ professional lives being impacted, it would seem property prices along Southern Rail commuter lines are also suffering.

It might look idyllic but there's little joy for people living near a Southern Rail train line
Using data from Zoopla, eMoov collected the average price paid and value change surrounding each station across all nine of the Southern Rail network lines. 

The research looked at the price growth over the last 12 months, as well as the last six, comparing each line on Southern Rail and the network as a whole, to price growth across England during the same time periods.

The research by eMoov shows that house prices across England have increased by 7.6 per cent  in the last year. But for those living across the Southern Rail network, property price growth reached just 6.5 per cent in the same period.

More notable is the difference in growth in the last six months alone. Across England, homeowners enjoyed an average increase of 3 per cent in property values. But those unfortunate enough to live on the Southern Rail network saw the average property price growth fall by more than half, increasing by just 1.4 per cent overall.

But the salt in the wound is the cost of the property itself. With an average price of £447,539 across the Southern Rail network, homeowners are paying far above the national average of £222,300 (according to data from the Halifax), only for its potential to be blighted by an external factor such as an inadequate train operator.

I've seen this affect two properties on the Southern Rail route already. Here's a salutary tale. Last year, my friend in Sutton put her house on the market at £420,000. 

Despite Sutton being one of the most popular places over the past year or so, the house has dropped in price twice - and is now at £380,000. That's a £40,000 drop in the past few weeks as people put commuting time and ease higher and higher up their list of priorities.

Russell Quirk, the founder and chief executive of eMoov, said: "This research really highlights the impact external factors can have on a property’s value in the market. Often, the close proximity of good commuter links into London, in particular, can help increase the asking price of a property.

"In this instance, strike action, poor service, cancelled trains and long delays have had the reverse effect to property prices on the Southern Rail network. It is worrying to think that something outside of your control can not only be detrimental to your work life but can also spill over into your personal life as well.

"Southern Rail staff must forgive UK homeowners for remaining unsympathetic to their cause when their selfish actions are inadvertently depreciating the most expensive asset they are ever likely to own."

When I wrote a news story about this earlier today, it got a lot of traction on Twitter. As one person commented: 'How about Southern Rail compensate people for the loss of house price growth?'


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Tag time!

Christmas has come and gone, and for the past two days I have been studiously taking down lights, decorations, ivy and trees, putting them away for the next 11 months.

But inevitably, the Christmas clean-up reveals the papery and glittery detritus of the season, with wrapping paper, shreds of Christmas crackers and a hoard of Christmas cards left over.

I say left over, because in our house, we keep everything we can in order to reuse and repurpose. One of the things I like to do is to salvage decent leftover papers and ribbons to save money on gift tags.

Christmas cards can be cut up into several decent tags for gifts; I don't mean simply snipping and sticking with a piece of sellotape; oh no, in our house, the Mermaid makes the most of everything to make the tags as pretty as possible.

Using a hole punch, ribbons from used Christmas crackers and a corner trimming punch, you can create some rather pretty recycled tags.

Here's a sample of my card haul! 

Ribbons from Christmas crackers

A cracking lot of ribbons!
I simply punch one hole in the top of the tag when I've cut it into shape, feed through one of these ribbons (which are too bent and twisted from being on a cracker for so long to be useful for anything else), tie it up and trim the corners with a corner rounder punch.

The corner punch I have is very similar to this one (but very old now!) and it is great for rounding up the corners and hiding any uneven edges:
Corner rounder for paper crafting

Et Voila! Some very easy but highly cost- and environmentally efficient tags, ready for next year!
Hand-made gift tags

If that really does seem like too much hassle, and you do not particularly enjoy card craft or paper crafting, or even if you do not tend to send or receive Christmas cards, then I would urge you to get down to your local supermarket as soon as possible to get a bargain before the sales end and all the shelves are replete with Valentines' Day and Easter fare! 

For example, from Sainsburys I picked up a 4m roll of Christmas wrapping paper for 50p, and packs of gift tags for just 10p each. The original price of the wrapping paper had been £2.00 and the tags had been 50p per pack. Happy days! 

Bargains from Sainsburys
Of course, you may like to hoard all your cards - but eventually space will be needed and it is so much better to reuse in a systematic and fun crafting way, rather than having to throw cards en masse into the recycling when you just haven't got any more room to store them.

And then there are some cards, like this one from my crafting queen friend Jan, are just far too excellent to carve up!

Nodding Kitty:
Card craft extraordinaire!  A Nodding Cat Christmas Card!
In the desire to save money and the environment, I would advocate refraining from blithely cutting up all of your most recent Christmas cards from December 2016 ready for December 2017. 

Many years ago when I started to repurpose old cards, I discovered that I'd cut up the last ever card someone I cared about gave me, for they died that year.

Therefore, I save my cards so that I will be using December 2015 and corporate cards delivered to the office for December 2017's gift tags, just in case I have to say farewell to any dear family and friends this year and regret not having a card from them as a memento.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Blogger news

Gone but not forgotten. Rest in Peace, Nick
While going through my comments-awaiting-moderation (which I thought I had turned off), I saw a very sad notification from October. 

This was to inform me that one of my first ever followers on Blogger, Nick Kennerley, has died (far too young), and had a service on 13 October last year.

Another 2016 death, and a sad one for me personally at that. We had prior to this been emailing about a possible meet-up with Electro-Kevin and another Blogger chum. 

It is so sad to hear about this - and sad too that I missed the notification. I don't know why this was held up in my comment filters on Blogger, because it was sent to me by a trusted follower (Electro-Kevin).

Nick was such an entertaining, larger-than-life fellow, whose blog posts pretending to be that ranter-in-chief Hitchens (aka "The Hitch") provided much hilarity.

In recent years, this blogging dwindled into bonkers, tongue-in-cheek and cheeky comments on our Blogger sites, along with some random, stream-of-consciousness emails that would have made Virginia Woolf nod in appreciation at the structure before frothing at the mouth at the content.

Perhaps strangely enough, his later life conversion seemed to tie into his lack of virulent blogging, and he became quite caught up in church life, which he said had given him much peace and a sense of belonging that he'd not had before in his personal life.

Nick, we never got around to having our end-of-year catch up and now I know why. So sorry to hear of your passing, but I hope to meet up with you one day, being bonkers and winding up St Peter with your awful puns.

Rest in peace, Hitch. 

Monday, January 02, 2017

Boots points: top tips for Christmas spending

Christmas comes but once a year, but for many families, the associated expenses that come with Christmas can sometimes be overwhelming.

Christmas dinner, presents, travel, drinks, decorations and all the traditional trimmings - not to mention Christmas jumpers - can put a huge dent into people's budgets - a dent that sometimes cannot be filled out for several months to come in the new year.

According to The Guardian, the average UK household is expected to have spent £800 in 2016 on Christmas alone.

This is much money for things that may not last, or even be remembered come Christmas 2017. It's also so much stress for a season that is meant to be about joy, peace and happiness, a time to be with our loved ones, not shoulder-barging thousands of other shoppers in a mad panic, buying Christmas presents at sky-high prices.

Several years ago, I vowed to make Christmas more about the real season and less about the rush and stress that comes in the few weeks' build-up. This came after I collapsed during a Christmas dinner I was hosting; I had lost nearly a stone in the few weeks ahead of Christmas Day with all the shopping, cleaning, clearing, decorating, partying, preparing and baking.

As a result, I vowed to enjoy Christmas more and worry less.

Around this time I was also made redundant during the financial crisis. I had been relying on my Nectar or Boots points cards to help me through each month. But I decided to stop spending my Boots points on smaller things throughout the year; instead I would save them all up and buy Christmas gift sets in Boots' half-price sale come January. I realised this would save me money and stress.

Since then, this has proved to be a wonderful money-saving idea as well as a great time-saver at Christmastime.

During the year, I have made the most of Boots' generous bonus points scheme. I ensure I wait for the things I need to buy from Boots so that I can maximise all the points-generative specials and weekends the company holds in order to get even more to use towards the January post-Christmas spendathon.

This year I had £83.71 on my Boots Points card. I visited the Sutton Boots, which is not only a large enough store to have plenty of choice available, but also boasts a genius store manager. Each January, the store packs out a whole 'room' with Christmas and other half-price gift sets. It's a store card shopper's wet dream.

Surprisingly, I did not spend the entirety of my points; in our seemingly everlasting quest for a child (IVF has failed twice now), I have been concerned to make sure I set aside £30 or so on my Boots and Nectar cards to help cover the cost of the newborn we hope will be with us this coming Christmas.

I did spend £49.00 worth of points however, and received the following gifts. Some of these will be Christmas presents for next year; some will be Mothers' Day presents, birthday presents and gifts for the Greek family when we go to visit at some point this year.

Boots Haul 2017
Twenty-four glittery Christmas cards for £1; measuring cup spoons for Mothers' Day gifts; cute candles for half-price and the photo frame for even less than half-price. I have already earmarked all these gifts for various people and I hope they love them!

It's not just about a bargain, despite the fact I got all these things from Boots for free with my points card:

It's also about thinking strategically and lovingly about how to find the perfect gift for the perfect person. I know who will love those Soap and Glory crackers. I can't wait to see her face when I give those to her. I enjoy giving to other people and getting nice things for them.

Personally, I am not against re-gifting per se. I know this can be a good way of recycling unwanted gifts, but I prefer to keep what people have given me as it reminds me of them. It also reduces the likelihood of re-gifting to someone what they gave you the year before. Where we have re-gifted is when duplication has happened; for example, two people one year both gave the same Lynx set to my husband for Christmas.

Yes, re-gifting can help save the pennies at Christmastime; but I prefer using points schemes. I hope it works for you as well! To recap, here are Seven Top Tips:

1) Make sure you register your card. If you lose it and your card is replete with points, you could lose everything.
2) Try to only use your Boots card when there's a 4x points or 3x points or bonus points day or weekend on. For example, if you know you need to get shampoo or vitamins, etc, keep an eye out for stores that are doing points specials, and do one big shop at that time.
3) Make the most of any vouchers that come with a purchase. Sometimes these have a two to three-week shelf life and these can be exceptionally points generative.
4) Keep an eye out before Christmas for particular gift sets that you might like to get for friends and family and make a note of these ready for the January sales.
5) Avoid the temptation to use your card during the year. It's a savings plan, if you like, not easy-spend cash.
6) Don't forget some prescriptions such as contact lenses. These also count for Boots points so make the most of these, as they can be high-ticket items.
7) Lastly, smile at people. Okay, this is a bit of a cheeky tip but it might just pay out for you. Let me explain: I once smiled at some guy with his friend who was trying to buy make-up for his wife at a counter in Boots. The two men were making jokes and glancing at me for approval. As he was paying, the assistant asked him if he had a points card. "No", he said, and turned to me. "Young lady" (now there's a compliment I don't get much these days). "Can I borrow your Boots card?" He then proceeded to give me his 500 points (which were doubled to 1000). All because I smiled at his jokes.

Good luck and happy hunting!

Friday, September 23, 2016

IVF and Equality

There's nothing like going through IVF, ICSI or similar treatment to highlight the yawning gap between the sexes. 

For example, I have to take drugs that make me bloated and put on weight. The hubby meanwhile is managing to lose weight and while I am lamenting the loss of my figure, he's buying clothes.

My hormones are raging, my estrogen levels are rocketing and my mood swings are immense. 

Hubby maintains calmness at all times, even when playing Battlefield while I attempt to get an early night (but fail to benefit from said early night because of the quintuple visits to the bathroom).

But the gap was brought home most fully today when Mr Mermaid got a beautiful, large hamper from East India Company as a prize for winning a competition.

East India Company gift
It was replete with teas of all flavours, different bars of chocolates, assorted jams, pickles, spreads and mustards, crackers, biscuits, fruit infused syrups and delicate glassware for teas and lattes, all packed in a gorgeous box adorned with a silken ribbon.

Today I also got a hamper. It was full of syringes, tablets, pills, phials and a gel to stick somewhere unmentionable, all presented in a tightly packed white box, adorned with some clear sticky tape.

ICSI medication
#Equality. Or in the case of Mr Mermaid, equali-tea. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

All Clear

All Clear...

Those were the lovely words I heard after my trip to the Royal Marsden last week.

All that worry, waiting around, poking and prodding the lumps and bumps and fretting over the blue circles drawn on my boob in blue felt tip - just hormones.

The IVF treatment I'm going through is playing havoc with my hormones. It's already played a mean trick on my waistline, giving me a flabby belly and wide water-retaining hips (and the hips don't lie, man!).

Now it's playing games with my boobs, ducts, glands - anything, you name it.

However it's better that my strange bumps and lumps are just a reaction to the hormone-stimulating drugs than anything more sinister. Hoorah!

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Royal Marsden here I am...

Royal Marsden's Surrey waiting room is a relatively cheery place, considering. It has the air of a 1990s country B&B and temperate air conditioning. There are only a couple of people here on their own, like I am, as most people have come with a partner or friend or relative for moral support. 

I have also just signed a consent form for any tissue samples to be used for research. Not sure if I will have tissue removed as pretty sure I just have cysts brought on by the IVF treatment  but I have never had a breast x-ray or mammogram before, so I am naturally both curious and a little ... nervous? No, not nervous. Excited isn't the right word either. Intrigued maybe. 

Apparently a mammogram is not an all-singing birthday woolly elephant. Must remember that next time I send my friends one to surprise them.

No; a mammogram is a breast x-ray. I do not think I will have this as I was told by my GP I was still young enough to have an ultrasound done. I am expecting cold gel on ma boob ('maboob' apparently means 'love' in Arabic. Well, I do love ma boobs) and a small hand-held x-ray type device like they do for baby ultrasounds. 

Hopefully my boob is not having a baby. Apart from the Martian in the original Total Recall, tri-boobed individuals are not considered attractive.

So here I sit, typing away, waiting to hear someone attempt to pronounce my name and then watch them look surprised when they see a blatantly Anglo-Saxon Englishwoman (myself) respond to them. Nobody expects me to answer to my name. 

Oh well I have to get my kicks somewhere, for in about five minutes I will be having my boob squeezed and prodded by some well-meaning mammary expert in latex gloves. To think some people pay for this. NHS does it for free. Bless the NHS! 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Lift etiquette: What not to do in an elevator

Lift etiquette: are you the button monitor?
Lift etiquette has bothered people since the first commercial lift – or elevator, for our American friends – was put into operation by Elisha Graves Otis in a New York department store in 1857.

Since then, there have been countless commentaries published to explain to the unwary how to act in a lift.

Rules can be obvious: no farting, burping, violent sneezing or coughing fits. Basically, don't be anti-social and disgusting, especially if you are at work and the boss is in the same lift. (Unless you hate them and want to drop one silently and run).

Other rules are less obvious. These include:

Button Monitor
If you are by the buttons, you are ‘button monitor’. This is an unofficial rule. It becomes your responsibility to push the button for other people. Don’t let this responsibility go to your head. Do not ask for tips. Do not pretend you’re in the Science Museum and make noises for each floor number you press.

Coffee King
People do have to bring coffee into lifts if they’ve bought it outside of the office. Keep it close to you. Nobody wants your latte down their best suit.

Phone calls
Most lifts do not have cellphone reception but if yours does, please don’t regale your lift buddies with your previous night’s exploits. It doesn’t make you look cool. It makes you look like a Neolithic jerk.

Let people out first
This is something that should not need to be explained. Yet every time I step to the right to allow people to leave the lift when it arrives, colleagues stand right in front – and then act surprised when people try to get out of the lift. It’s simple manners and every day I see morons forgetting the simple fact: people get out of lifts, as well as into them.

Two-floor rule
If you only work on floors 1 and 2, and have no medical, baggage, or age-related reason for not walking, walk up the stairs instead of being a lazy nuisance. All you do is make your lift colleagues going to floors 4 and above resent you for stopping the lift and delaying them getting to their desks.

If I am having a quiet conversation with someone and continue this in the lift, I expect to carry on this conversation in low, hushed tones, with that person. I do not expect people I do not know to join in. If you know me, fine, I’m in a shared space with you, but for the sake of a few seconds’ space-sharing, please do not butt into something to which you have not been invited. If we wanted your opinion, we’d ask for it.

This has happened twice today at work, in fact. People I’ve never seen before felt comfortable offering their thoughts and opinions quite freely. One didn't join the conversation but dropped a passive-aggressive 'aside' to me, before running out of the lift before I could respond. The other just blithely gave a running commentary on What'sApp to two people who were not interested. Lady, I don’t care to hear your commentary. 

With both these interruptions happening at work today, I felt it worth double-checking with colleagues and online-based etiquette gurus. William Hanson was kind enough to respond to my tweet:

Apparently, it IS rude when you don't know the person, at least in England, although as Mr Hanson says, it could vary from culture to culture.

So, when in the office lift, please stop butting into other people's conversations. I don’t interpose in other people’s conversations so don’t feel free to blunderbuss your way into mine.

However it is also worth mentioning it could be best and more polite to put all conversations on hold in the lift to avoid giving someone else the opportunity to barge in uninvited, and bear in mind the lift is a shared space.

It goes without saying this all only applies if there is anyone else in the lift with you.

If you are alone, or with one other like-minded individual, and there is no camera in the lift, you are quite welcome to play ‘Lift Chicken’.

Lift Chicken: The Rules

Lift Chicken: Solo
If you are on your own, and the lift slows to stop at a floor other than the one you’ve chosen, the Game of Lift Chicken is officially on.
Strike a ludicrous, exaggerated pose right by the doors.
See how long you can wait in that position as the doors open.
If you bail out before the doors even slightly part, you’re a chicken.
Don’t get caught by the boss.

Lift Chicken: Two people
As before, but the winner is the last one to cave in to decorum before the doors open.

The other is the ‘chicken’.

Don't be chicken - play Lift Chicken to win!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Entertainment on a budget

This year has been pretty tough, physically and mentally and emotionally.

One could also suggest financially, as we are spending so much money on IVF treatment and associated costs that we have not had much chance to take a couple of long holidays and two or three short domestic breaks as we would usually. 

We have also curbed food and entertainment spending drastically. First world problems, right? Some people can't even take a short domestic break so I accept we have been really blessed.

However we have been able to meet all our bills this year thanks to wise storing in the good years, and even with the cutbacks, we have been able to enjoy several low-cost or even free outings to give us a break from the stresses of work and my treatment.

For example we walked over the O2 dome and saw Bryan Adams for free with loyalty points.

Star Wars Celebration - we paid for these tickets but mostly brought our own food to avoid the costly concession stands.

Lambeth County Fair - free to enter, only cost was food on the day. Too hot to bring a packed lunch all the way via church!

A few restaurant evenings and lunches with my gal pals (some meals using discount vouchers)

CountryFile Live at Blenheim Palace ... A free ticket plus one! Hoorah! What a bonus.

Films we have seen at Cinema using Groupon vouchers (Batch of 5 tickets for £20 - bargain)
X-Men Apocalypse
Tarzan remake
Independence Day sequel - George went by himself

Bourne - again, George went with our friend Geoff on a freebie jolly so nobody paid anything!

Films I would like to see:
The Jungle Book 2016 remake
Ghostbusters 2016 remake with all-female cast. 
Captain America - Civil War
Star Trek - whatever it is called. I lose track at my age.
Through the Looking Glass.
Independence Day II. But maybe not at the Cinema. Apparently it is not worth a full-price ticket. Or paying for. But George said he "didn't hate it". So that's alright then

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Zombies: 20 things to take in event of an apocalypse

Twenty things to have in the event of a zombie outbreak
1) A six-seater pick-up with coverable roof and a full tank of gas
2)A shotgun
3)A rifle with a silencer
4)A pistol with a silencer
5)A crossbow and quiver
6) Knife 1
7)Knife 2
8)A guard dog
9)One rooster
10) Hen 1
11) Hen 2
12) A crate of bottled water
13) a saw
14) an axe
15) 100m of thick strong twine or thin rope
16) a he-goat
17) a she-goat
18) Proper first-aid kit, including supplements and ladies things
19) blanket
20) big box of matches 

People to take
Steve & family. Fit and fearless and he's a fireman so would be useful.

Get out into countryside
Raid small stores on way for food, clothing and pet food
Siphon off petrol into empty cans where safe to do so
Collect wood, pallets, crates 

Find remote spot with remote farmstead or small holding 
Fortify with fences and barricades
Fortify places for hens, goats and any random farm animals in vicinity
Fortify places of entry into farmstead with high walls, barricades, etc.
Fortify the house itself.

Hunker down amd wait for the helicopters to airlift.