Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

#58 Dad

In Family on September 13, 2010 at 2:14 pm

This week’s post is dedicated to one of the world’s most successful skinflints: my dad. Read the rest of this entry »

#41 Be nice

In Family on April 19, 2010 at 11:24 pm

I have, back in the employed day, been lucky enough to stay in some fancy places in my time.

When I wrote for Wallpaper* in its early days, I got accustomed to their prolific spending on unnecessary extravagance. I’ve gone four-star in Hamburg and Milan, and stayed in the hotel the Queen visited in Innsbruck.

When I got married we honeymooned for a night in a London hotel (the one where Pete Doherty got arrested) rather than going to the Maldives; and when the first of my best friends got married, she put all of her bridesmaids up in the RAC Club and I still regret not taking advantage of the famous swimming pool.

Needless to say, hotels have not featured heavily in my life of late. I’m more likely to be found flat swapping or house sitting, and even on one occasion camping. But a big family occasion last weekend necessitated the booking of overnight accommodation in Manchester. In the pictures, the City Inn (pictured) looked scarily expensive – lofty atrium, sculptural floral arrangements, Macs in every room – but in fact it turned out to be an exercise in how to create the illusion of grandeur through modern design and good service.

In contrast to the budget hotel I visited at Christmas for another big family get together, City Inn eschews patterned upholstery and soft focus prints of crocuses in favour of clean lines, neutral colours, and sans serif fonts. The all-inclusive breakfasts were superb (with some impressive egg poaching and a tasty kedgeree), much better than the more expensive joint on the other side of the city centre, and the service, from staff stylishly clad in black, polite to the point of putting John Lewis to shame. Aside from the Macs, everything is in fact quite pared down, but it still managed to feel sumptuous.

Of these, the biggest value added component was the one that cost the least – polite, efficient staff who knew what they were doing and, most importantly, were nice to you. This is going to sound glib, but sometimes the cost-free commodity of people being simply being nice to you can outweigh any number of marble-lined bathrooms or silk bedspreads when it comes to making you feel special. And when you’re down on your luck, feel taken for granted by your children, are sick of domestic chores, or even (as I know those who still have jobs are) just working your ass of for an ungrateful boss because half the team have been made redundant, then it’s really nice to be looked after. And even better when that niceness is also displayed by the tram operators who bought my ticket for me, siblings buying me lunch, and strangers allowing us to gatecrash their table football game.

I’ve just read my ex-Wallpaper* boss Tyler Brûlé’s recent FT column on how joyful he felt staying at the Hôtel des Bergues in Geneva. While I wouldn’t turn down a business expenses trip to the Hôtel des Bergues, on our more meagre budget we managed to capture the same joys of Spring at 1/6 of the price, albeit with a view of Piccadilly Station in place of the Alps. But then I suppose luxury is relative – I don’t expect M. Brûlé would normally have to wash school uniform or clean his own toilet.

My six-year-old son, who had already had an emotional weekend watching his team lose in the 93rd minute, almost cried when it was time to check out.

#20 Family

In Family, Save cash on December 24, 2009 at 12:25 am

At this time of year, it is customary to think of one’s family. Personally, I think of my Spinster Aunt and Glasgow Granny whose distinctive approach to gift giving is legendary among my siblings and cousins.

When we were children, the Christmas cards we received were traditionally the fronts of those from previous years detached from the bit with the signature of their original giver, and re-imagined in postcard form. Granted, my six year old recycled 2008’s Christmas cards this year, but at least he cut them up and made his own collages. And besides, I don’t give him any pocket money so he can’t buy his own cards. The more charitable might see my relatives as being ahead of their time, a vanguard of the eco war; more likely it was just a case of good old Scottish tightfistedness.

But it was their presents that were truly memorable. Usually these were free gifts obtained with cereal or un-pc pots of jam; occasionally they did splash out and one year we all received a book of second-class stamps. I didn’t use one.

This year I have become an ardent admirer of the art of belt-tightening, but my aunt and grandmother’s rational for their pursuit of it is less clear. Though by no means wealthy in the Tory-shadow-cabinet sense of the word, they were nevertheless a solidly middle class mercantile family who bought shares, sent their children to public school (at least until my father disgraced the family name and was swiftly removed), spent time in the colonies, had a billiard room, and ran an account at RW Forsyth. [Needless to say, two generations of layabout writers and theatrical types has ensured rapid downward mobility.]

And yet they never made home improvements or even installed central heating (which has meant the family home is now a rare example of perfectly preserved Edwardian domestic architecture, barely habitable but a fascinating historic record), bought job lots of everything when they saw it on special offer (even shoes) resulting in 50% of the food in their cupboard being well past its sell-by date (in particular a tin of WWII powdered eggs that by now must surely be worth something), and sat in one room of the house all evening to conserve electricity (in fact I doubt that billiard table was ever used for more than storing wine). Even pushing 77, my Aunt still travels by overnight coach rather than splash out on a train ticket, and part of her Christmas present this year is a laminated picture of herself and five loose crackers left over from a charity dinner. And I had to go to meet her to save on postage, though to be fair, she did buy me a sandwich.

I suppose the lesson is ‘look after the pence, and the pounds will look after themselves’. Plus, contrary to popular belief, expenditure on education does not equate to having lots of ready cash (all available cash having been spent on the education). Or perhaps it’s just that spending money was considered vulgar. My late father always said you could tell how posh someone was by the state of their furniture – the more battered the armchairs, the more old school their owner. A new three-piece suite, on the other hand, was a sure sign of being nouveau riche. Maybe that’s why we never got a new sofa.

My mother’s side of the family, on the other hand, lived in a (nice, neat) council house with an outside toilet and a tin bath (as opposed to an Edwardian bathroom suite with a shower that sprayed from the sides). Their husbandry took the form of growing their own vegetables, making their own cupboards, knitting their own clothes. This grandfather, Andover’s most sought after painter & decorator, didn’t trust banks, passed up the opportunity to start his own business, and refused to buy his own house when the council offered. Their currency of choice was Co-op stamps, which kept them in electrical appliances, and instead of a billiard room they had a shed. Whenever we went to stay for our annual summer holiday, we’d eat fluffy potatoes and succulent green beans; there’d be cake at tea time, and every Christmas (until arthritis got the better of my gran) I’d get a lovingly knitted jumper and a hand painted toy or picture.

Though as a child I obviously favoured the family who gave me the best presents, my older self has learned to be less judgemental, to accept that people have complex reasons for behaving as they do and to love them anyway, to realise that they all loved us equally, and to smile fondly at my relatives’ idiosyncrasies while exploiting them for anecdotal purposes.