Jaynehowarth’s Weblog

Journalist and writer

Archive for December 2009

A #WordlessWednesday festive song

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Altogether now: all I want for Christmas is ....

Written by CommonPeople

December 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

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A meeting with Santa: at his own home

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“I’ll never forget this trip as long as I live,” said my little boy, giving me a hug.

That solitary comment certainly made it worthwhile: we were on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Lapland to see Santa. That’s right: the real Big Fella.

It was a magical trip and one the children will look back on with fondness.

After weeks of reading up on the different companies that offer Santa trips, we chose Esprit. It had a good choice of trips, wasn’t the cheapest or most expensive but – most importantly – has a good reputation and offered a private meeting with You Know Who.

There are choices of day trips, two night stays and three night breaks. The thought of flying three and a half hours into the Arctic Circle, only to return after 48 hours was too much.

For us, Santa’s Spectacular was the best option: a three night stay in the delightful town of Saariselka, staying in the Hotel Riekonlinna.

There would be an activity day, a 25 minute coach ride away from the resort, where we would enjoy a short husky ride, a reindeer sled ride, play ice hockey, toboggan, do a spot of ice fishing, watch a traditional Saami ceremony and drink enough warm berry juice to keep the cold at bay.

There was also a chance for the children to show off their artistic talents and do an ice sculpture and enjoy a spot of skidooing.

Of course, the extra day meant we had lots of free time. For us that meant tobogganing – seven hours. That’s a lot of trudging up Europe’s longest tobogganing run (1.2 km if you climb right to the top). But we did it because it was free.

We could not justify forking out for optional trips. A one-hour husky sled ride cost £89 per adult and £65 per child (aged 2-11), while one and half hours’ snowmobiling would have been an extra £370.

But tobogganing was such fun, I frankly didn’t care. Ploughing face first into a four foot deep snow pile because you can’t control the small plastic tray you sat in produced streams of raucous laughter.

The snowsuits, thermal socks, gloves, hats and boots handed out upon arrival kept us toasty warm and as they got rather damp from the snow ploughing, snow angels and snowball pelting it was great to have the drying cupboard in our hotel rooms.

The Hotel Riekonlinna stands at the end of the tiny town’s high street, close to the toboggan run. It is cosy and friendly with a bar that serves expensive drinks (a small local beer costs €5.30. Finland is notoriously pricey).

There is also a restaurant that serves a half-decent buffet breakfast – the usual array of breads, cereals and fruit, as well as a hot selection – but dinners didn’t hit the spot with many of the guests.

The choice was limited and strict vegetarians might get very hungry. And only one pudding.

The bedrooms, although in need of modernising, were spotless and very comfortable. A bit too comfy: who’d have thought I’d have had the window open all night in the Arctic Circle in December?

But the children didn’t care about any of this. Why would they? What they were interested in was seeing Santa.

As we travelled in a sled behind a snowmobile on our activity day through a forest to Santa’s house, there was evidence that elves were definitely up to no good. Abandoned gifts and a tipped up sleigh gave the clues, but soon we saw them outside a festive-looking wooden chalet.

After a minute of play – with them stealing our hats and having snow shoved in our faces – we were ushered in to a lovely, warm room, festooned with decorations and gifts. And there he was. Santa. And he had my children’s letters to him in HIS HANDS.

As he walked through the door, he exclaimed their names and they could barely speak. My son (8) was in total awe. How on Earth did Santa get our letters?

My daughter, who is ten, was rendered completely confused by the experience. As a Year 6 pupil, she is *on the cusp* with Santa. But there is no denying she loved the brief two-minute meeting with Santa – as well as the lovely gift of a reindeer in traditional Lappish costume.

So, was it worth it? It’s a heck of a lot of money for we grown-ups and I wouldn’t do it more than once. But it’s a lifetime of memories for youngsters – and that’s priceless.


Jayne Howarth and family paid for their three-night Esprit trip to Saariselka, flying from Manchester to Ivalo.

They stayed at the Premier Inn, Manchester Airport prior to the 6am flight to Ivalo.

Written by CommonPeople

December 21, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Where’s my sense of humour: it’s behind you! (pantomime review, Cinderella, Wolverhampton Grand)

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The auspices for the evening were not good.

We were getting ready to go out and do our bit for the Great Panto Review for www.havealovelytime.com, but son (8) was intransigent in his desire not to leave the house – unless he could take his DS.

“It’ll be boring. You’re just saying it’ll be funny,” he whined.

“Cinderella is FOR GIRLS.”

I relented, the DS was shoved into my bag.

But guess what happened? Within the first three minutes of the curtain rising at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, he was on the edge of his seat. Within five, he was smiling from ear to ear.

Ten minutes in and he was rolling in his seat.

His older sister – who harbours dreams of being an actor – was similarly struck.

Yes: they laughed and laughed and laughed.

Janette Krankie and Ben Stock: Buttons and Ugly Sister. Photo, Alan Wood

Panto is a British tradition: old fashioned entertainment with plenty of innuendo for the adults and toilet humour for the younger people in the audience.

Without doubt, the star of the show was Janette Krankie, who played Buttons.

A veteran comedian of the stage, she is a star ad libber and even when corpsing was able to come up with some show stopping remarks.

The children were screeching when Buttons sang his song He’s Always Picking On Me, thanks to the liberal use of face pulling, eye-crossing and gesticulations.

(At this point, I’d like to point out I have never been a fan of the Krankies and always found the little boy routine unnerving.)

Stefan Dennis – who played Paul Robinson in Neighbours – was the evil Dandini, a facially-twisted baddie with designs on being King, while Tamworth’s 2007 X-Factor semi-finalist Niki Evans played the Black Country Fairy Godmother with considerable aplomb.

Stefan Dennis as the dastardly Dandini. Photo, Alan Wood

Cinders was the sweet Danielle York – a charming young woman with a sweet voice who was dwarfed by the giant Nic Greenshields, Prince Charming.

But, of course, humour is the name of the game, rendering the actual story fairly redundant. We were bombarded with jokes and japes, thanks not only to Buttons and her uncanny impersonation of SuBo and Ozzy Osbourne, but the superlative Ugly Sisters Trinny and Susannah, played by Ben Stock and Nathan Kiley, whose costumes became more outrageous as each scene passed.

As tradition dictates, we had the audience participation (“Oh no, it isn’t!”, “Behind you!”, “No, don’t go there!” etc), the “fandabbydozy” from the Krankies, the local jokes (Why is Telford like Mars? It has no atmosphere. *Badum tish*) and topical references (Jedward).

Oh – and apparently some commoner girl ends up marrying a prince. Who’d have believed that?

Fact box

Jayne Howarth and children were guests of Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, Lichfield Street, Wolverhampton. 01902 429212.

Cinderella runs until Sunday, January 31, 2010. Tickets cost between £11.50-£23.50.

If you have enjoyed this post, please consider donating to our Great Panto Review charity fundraising initiative. You can do so here.

The idea is to raise money for a charity called NACCPO, which helps provide respite and support for families with children with cancer.

Written by CommonPeople

December 19, 2009 at 6:09 am

Please, sir, I don’t want anymore…return of the junk in school dinners

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Today is Christmas lunch day at schools in Walsall. Tuck into turkey and trimmings (including sprout purée, although I’m fairly certain it isn’t meant to be puréed) and Christmas pud.

Unless you happen to be veggie (and not really vegetarian, either). For today, your Christmas meal will be the delightfully unfestive breaded small fry.

Merry bloomin’ Christmas to you, too.

A bit of effort would have been nice. Even a Quorn fillet as “pretend” turkey would have been good. After all, the authority uses the mycoprotein in other dishes for non-meat eaters throughout the year.

What would Jamie Oliver think?[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=school+dinner&iid=3407920″ src=”b/3/8/c/Awards_Room_At_d08a.jpg?adImageId=8340050&imageId=3407920″ width=”234″ height=”343″ /]

He spent months campaigning to get local authorities to ditch the junk – the turkey twizzlers, the smiley faces, the processed rubbish that required heating up and no skills.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=school+dinner&iid=1333634″ src=”9/7/4/4/Pupils_Make_The_e5b2.jpg?adImageId=8339988&imageId=1333634″ width=”234″ height=”162″ /]

Instead, he called for wholesome dishes: more meat and two veg; more pasta with homemade sauces; risotto; homemade burgers with salad. It was as cheap to produce as the junk, but better for the children – and for the cooks who could use their aptitude in the kitchen once more.

Out with junk

Walsall embraced this in September 2008. Out went the pressed-into-shapes cheap meats, the chips, the waffles and smileys. It blazed a trail. Approximately 15 per cent of youngsters in the borough are overweight, of whom four per cent are obese.

Something had to be done – and schools were in a good position to contributing towards a healthier borough.

Salad bars started to appear in schools, menus were devised that were not only healthier, but looked good and tasted good (nutritious vegetable curries; spag bol with hidden veg; pizza with homemade tomato sauce and more hidden veg).

In with junk?

But, a few weeks ago I spotted something: what was this? Waffles? Smiley faces? Sausage rolls? Back on the menu? Why would this happen?

The number of free school meals is rising in the town – there are now 4,620 children receiving free meals.

According to the report, Walsall Council Leader, Councillor Mike Bird said: “As a borough we have been particularly hard hit by the recession. A good nutritious meal at school is sometimes the only warm meal some children will have.”

That’s right, Mike. The only warm meal some children will have.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=gruel&iid=2544682″ src=”4/a/3/d/Gruel_Rations_95f3.jpg?adImageId=8340112&imageId=2544682″ width=”234″ height=”165″ /]

The authority serves about 7,000-8,000 meals a day. Isn’t it important, therefore, that the authority ensures the maximum nutrients per school meal? Wholewheat pasta bake? Good quality meat and well cooked vegetables? Filling rice dishes? Warming baked potatoes and a filling?

I was given a list of stats that showed the analysis of a three-week menu cycle, showing the proportion of key nutrients. It appeared to show that iron, vitamin A, fibre, protein, folic acid levels exceeded recommended guidelines over the three-week cycle.

I’m not a nutritionist,  but I did wonder why the analysis was not per meal, rather than an overarching view over three weeks. And does the nutritional value depend on what a child has chosen from that day’s particular menu?

But why processed smileys? Why processed waffles? Aren’t we reversing the good work of the past 18 months?

Apparently it is because pupils from ten schools were invited to suggest which food they would like to see on the menu. And – guess what? Smileys and waffles were requested.

The man who says “yes”

Guess what? The council said yes.

Chris Holliday, head of leisure and culture for Walsall Council said: “We’re always looking at ways of making school menus more appealing and nutritious. The menus for schools in Walsall meet all of the 14 nutrient standards for an average school lunch.

“We approached the manufacturers who were able to produce a waffle which is not flash-fried and can be served in compliance with the nutritional based standards. The smiley faces are flash-fried but we’re allowed within the standards to serve two flash fried items per week.

“Both items are oven baked with no additional fat. Waffles appear once and smiley faces twice in a three week cycle but children are offered a potato and bread option.

“We have at least two choices of vegetables that are provided each day and children can eat as many portions of vegetables and salad as they wish.”

Headteachers and cabinet members, however, were not consulted. I was told this was because the authority used a recognised nutritional programme and is guided by the School Food Trust.

One school cook I spoke to was concerned about the number of pastry dishes on the menus and the odd combinations of foods that are considered “balanced” by the authority.

Carb-busting cheese and potato pie and smiley faces anyone? Pizza and roast potatoes? Where’s the balance in that? (And why, while we are at it, are spaghetti hoops and beans – both carbs – considered to be be vegetables?)

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=gruel&iid=2544608″ src=”9/a/3/f/fe.jpg?adImageId=8340193&imageId=2544608″ width=”234″ height=”158″ /]

Can I have more? No thanks.

We have a duty to offer the best food we can afford to our children in the borough. If it is the only hot meal they are having a day, then for goodness sake make it wholesome tasting and looking. And get rid of the junk once and for all.

Written by CommonPeople

December 16, 2009 at 12:41 am

A polished performance? Fingers crossed

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It’s over and it couldn’t have come a day too soon.

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=sitting+exams&iid=7029050″ src=”a/7/a/e/South_Korean_Students_8eb1.jpg?adImageId=7996220&imageId=7029050″ width=”234″ height=”157″ /]

All we have to do now is wait. And wait. And wait.

Yesterday, after months of preparation, my daughter actually sat the entrance exam for the grammar school she wants to attend.

She has worked hard for it, too. Since August, she has been seeing a tutor so she could get to grips with the verbal and non verbal reasoning questions that these school tests ask.

Starting from a low-ish base, the trajectory of her understanding has been steadily rising until – at last – she really felt she could tackle most of the questions.

My friend, whose son sat the exam and managed to attain a coveted place at the boys’ school a few years back, warned me how I would feel on the day of the test.

“You will feel dreadful,” she said.

I laughed. “Of course not,” I replied. “It’s just a test.”

She was right.

Yesterday morning I sat at home with the sickest of feelings. My guts lurched when I thought of it, even though I knew – deep down – that my feelings were faintly ridiculous.

My daughter was allowed the morning off school and didn’t see my wan face. Thankfully didn’t suspect my nerves and had no inkling that my stomach was doing a darned fine impression of a washing machine.

She didn’t even click when I asked her in a wobbly voice – an hour before we were due to leave the house to find a car parking space in town – if she was OK.

As cool as a cucumber, she turned away from the Nickelodeon channel and said yes. And carried on painting her nails (she wanted to look good for the test).

Painting her nails!

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=painting+nails&iid=4268397″ src=”7/4/b/7/RAFW_SS_200708_ab39.jpg?adImageId=7996187&imageId=4268397″ width=”234″ height=”175″ /]

Thank goodness she had that attitude.

I’ve heard horror stories of girls and boys being harangued by their parents about the importance of the grammar school tests and how they are EXPECTED to pass – or else.

My daughter reported that there were a handful of girls weeping as they sat the test, most probably because the formula had changed and the questions were nothing like they had seen or practised before.

She and her friends were all worried about their performance because of the surprise change in questions, but we parents reassured them that all 800+ girls who were competing for the 96 places would have had the same concerns.

So, it’s done. Over. The £26 a week tutoring is finished with (thank heavens). Results are out on March 1.

To celebrate the end of this stressful three-month chapter we ordered pizza. It was pulled at delicately, though: she didn’t want to spoil her French polish…

Written by CommonPeople

December 3, 2009 at 5:05 am