Posted in Family

Bowled Over by Fond Memories of My Grandma

A set of six washing up bowls

I really didn’t need six new washing up bowls. I didn’t even need just one. But there was something so appealing about this neat nest of bowls, quite apart from their low price, that made them irresistible.

Of the two of us, I’m usually the stronger one going round Lidl. Whereas my husband cannot exit the shop without another household tool or gadget, I’m happy to leave with just their fruit, vegetables and chocolate.

“It’s only a bargain if you actually need it,” still echoes in my head: sage counselling from my best friend’s mother, probably the most sensible person in the world.

But I pick up these bowls and turn them round in my hands, pondering why I’m so drawn to them. It’s always a mistake to handle something you’re trying to resist buying. It’s known in the trade as “puppy dog selling”: the tactile experience makes you keener to buy than if you’d just looked. (Ironically, my husband once used this technique to convince me to adopt a kitten.)

And then the penny drops. It is a Proustian madeleine moment. For these simple plastic bowls whisk me back to my grandma’s kitchen. Or rather, her scullery, as she always called it. Born in 1900, she had grown up with a smattering of Victorian vocabulary that never left her.

Old photo of Grandpa and GrandmaTo Grandma, her small terraced house would have seemed modern, being built around 1930, when Sidcup was starting to segue from a Kentish village into a London suburb. For decades, Grandpa walked to the railway station for a civilised 30 minute commute into the City.

The house may have been modern, but it was also compact. The scullery was no more than a narrow galley, with cupboards and appliances down one side and a slim glass-fronted  cupboard mounted on the wall opposite. The appliances were few: a rounded, low, old-fashioned fridge; a small gas stove and a wall-mounted gas geyser to heat the water, its pilot light permanently glowing blue until you turned the tap, when with a whoosh! a little row of blue flames came to life to heat the water as we needed it. A slightly intoxicating smell wafted out as the hot water ran, though not as pungent as the paraffin heater in the bathroom.

Beneath the geyser was a big old white sink, and in the sink lived a plastic washing up bowl. Grandma’s preferred colours for the plastic washing up bowl were a deep rose pink and a peach, which, if melded together, would have combined to make her favourite colour: flame. The washing up bowl of the moment provided a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise grey and shady space, matched only by three bright Melamine cups and saucers in the wall cupboard, where they lay in wait for when my brother and sister and me came to tea once a week. My sister’s cup and saucer were rose pink, my brother’s mocha and mine was tangerine.

In this narrow space, Grandma would potter up and down, busy but contented, reminding me of Mrs Tiggywinkle in her pinny and hairnet. Every day while I was at primary school, I came home to Grandma’s for lunch, looking forward to what she’d produce from her scullery. Her considerable culinary skills had enabled her to feed her young family through the rationing of the Second World War and it was simple, healthy, delicious food. Everything in the scullery seemed old and well worn, from the wavy-edged pyrex pudding bowls to the tin pie-dishes that gave her delicious gooseberry tart a tingling metallic after-taste. I loved them all. Years of having to make do and mend meant nothing was wasted; things were only replaced when really necessary.

old photo of my GrandmaLike the washing up bowl. Grandma showed me how after so many uses the smooth bowl would start to roughen. Eventually little whitened tags of plastic would stick up as the plastic  wore thin. At a certain point – probably every three or four years – she would decide enough was enough, and splash out, so to speak, on another. The purchase of a new one was a significant occasion that made a big impression upon me. I’ve never liked waste ever since – one of the many valuable qualities that I picked up from my dear  Grandma.

But now, thanks to the temptations of Lidl, I am the proud possessor of not one but six new plastic washing up bowls. In Grandma’s book, that would count as a wild extravagance. But I think if she knew the reason I succumbed, it’s an extravagance she’d find very easy to forgive.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy this one about Grandma’s economic policy for her retirement: A Two-Sheet Solution or this one about her old piano: Tuning Grandma’s Piano: The Antidote to Chopsticks

Posted in Personal life

All Washed Up Without A Non-Stick Sponge

sponge cake (for groc)
All sponges were not created equal (Photo credit: Rakka)

There are very few items on my shopping list that are indispensable. But of this I am sure: there is no susbstitute for a non-stick washing-up sponge. J-cloths, stringy things on sticks and those flat, dimply sponge squares just WILL NOT DO.

I have strong evidence that many people share my view. Nearly every time I try to buy some non-stick spongers, they are inexplicably out of stock. No matter which supermarket I choose, passing through the socio-economic spectrum from Lidl to Waitrose, there is generally a gaping hole in that part of the dishwashing supplies section. Piles of sticks and cloths on surrounding shelves taunt me with their abundance. Rough-edged scourers and Brillo pads mock me with their determination to remove the non-stick from my omelette pan at twenty paces. But non-stick sponges are there none.

Brillo Pads Ad, 1950
Brillo Pads Ad, 1950 (Photo credit: alsis35)

What is the meaning of this chronic shortage? In these heady days of near-perfect stock-control, empowered by barcode-reading tills, how can all the supermarket chains get their supply of this item so consistently wrong?

It’s not as if non-stick sponges contain a rare or seasonal ingredient. They don’t require a long and complex manufacturing process. Nor is there an irregular, seasonal pattern of use to make stock control more difficult. Surely pretty much every kitchen sink sees a similar throughput of washing-up, week in, week out? My only recourse is to stockpile whenever I find them. I guard against a crisis by buying two or three twin-packs at a time.

I’m therefore irritated today to discover a failure in my own stock-control system. When I go to get a new one from the broom cupboard, there are none. I determine to buy a whole shelf load of sponges next time I can track them down.

And then it occurs to me why they’re so hard to find. There must be thousands of shoppers all over the country who share my approach. It’s the stockpiling that’s causing the shortage. The minute a shelf-filler replenishes a shelf, someone dashes up to sweep the lot into their trolley.

photo of natural sponge stalls in Greece
No sponge shortage here (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like the great toilet roll crisis of 1973. Many people, like my friend’s mum, bought a car-load in a panic when they heard there was about to be a shortage. There wasn’t – before the stockpiling started. But then there was. (Sound familiar, Mr Cameron?) As an old school bursar used to say to me, shaking his head sadly, “There’s enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”

The answer, then, is clear. All I need to do is propagate a rumour that there’s about to be a j-cloth shortage or a new hyper-absorbency tax on those weird dimpled flat sponge squares. Gullible shoppers everywhere will forsake the non-stick sponges in order to stockpile these alternatives. Leaving all the non-stick sponges for me. Hmm, I think I could clean up here. Once I’ve got a new sponge, that is.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this story about another shopping crisis: The Perils of the Supermarket or this one about – or indeed this one about another everyday household item: Give Me a Wetwipe and I Will Clean the World.

Posted in Family, Personal life

A Two-Sheet Solution

English: Toilet paper 日本語: トイレットペーパー
(Photo: Wikipedia)

With just a week to go before I leave my salaried job, my thoughts have turned to our household economy.  I will have to find ways of saving money.  

This idea does not upset me.  In fact I am looking forward to the challenge.  Ever the optimist, I anticipate that I will find an upside to enforced frugality.  Already I have become addicted to a certain cut-price supermarket chain whose cheap goods have an appealing exoticism.  My weekly shop now feels like a lightning tour of mainland Europe.  It is exciting to pick up a product which lists its ingredients in 20 different languages.  It is refreshing to see that the manufacturer has not assumed that English is more important than the other, showing a sort of inverse imperialism.

Poring over the supermarket till receipt, I am reminded of a conversation with my grandmother who, in preparation for my grandfather’s retirement, was rehearsing aloud to me one day the economies that she planned to make.

“I will use two sheets of lavatory paper instead of three,” she confided.

Even then, at the age of 8, I was impressed by the elegant simplicity of this solution.  At a stroke, Grandma had sliced a third off her future toilet tissue budget.  This logic could be rolled out right across her storecupboard. Sharing a teabag between two mugs instead of allocating one each will halve your tea costs.  A level teaspoon of sugar instead of a rounded cuts a quarter off.  Substitute sherbet pips for sherbet lemons – my goodness, on a one-to-or one basis, you are  talking about an 80% saving at least.

I have always wondered why climate campaigners don’t adopt this sensible system for saving energy. If only everyone would just use less power, there’d be no need to do battle over controversial wind turbines or nuclear power plants.  It just takes a little effort and imagination.  There would be unexpected benefits too.  Turn off the lights while you’re watching television, for example, and you’d gain the atmosphere and excitement of a cinema.  Add a box of popcorn (home- made, of course, for a matter of pence  – and healthy into the bargain), and you’re set up for a very cheap and environmentally-friendly evening in.This system would work equally well with fuel.  Instead of keeping the usual three lamps on in the dining room, turn on only two – hey presto, a third off your dinner-time lighting bill.  Use an inch less water in the bath, and you’ve got a 10% cut  but you’ll still be just as clean.

I am therefore ready to embrace this economy business wholeheartedly.  At least, until my husband emerges from the bathroom that I’ve just stocked with multilingually-labelled toilet paper (10 rolls for £1, what a bargain!) “I hope you’re not economising on toilet paper?” he pleads, a pained look on his face. And I haven’t even told him yet that he’s only allowed two sheets.