Category Archives: Consumer

Possibly the best phone ever for older people. Plus how to really crack down on spam/phishing callers.

I don’t really get spam/phishing calls. At least, not yet. This is possibly because I’ve never been in the phone directory, I have a landline that is, primarily there for my internet, and I am very tech savvy at blocking such calls on my mobile if I get them.

However, whenever I was round at my mum and dad’s their phone would regularly ring with phishing/spam calls. They would be annoying, and of course I registered them for the Telephone Preference Service but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Some of the calls were simply annoying “do you want double glazing” etc. Some so obviously scam calls as to be not a threat. But all meant my mum had to stop what she was doing and go and answer the phone.

The obvious thing is to to get an answerphone and screen calls. But here’s the thing. Getting a separate, mechanical answering machine that works with an existing phone and is not hugely expensive, is virtually impossible – I’ve tried. You can get integrated answering machines, with cordless phones, but this would mean a change of phone for my mum, which is okay, but the phones that come with integrated answer-machines tend to have small fiddly numbers; and my mum likes a corded phone so it can’t get lost/run out of charge.

BT’s Call Minder, which you access via your handset and is ‘remote’ is an option, but she didn’t like that as it’s too confusing for her. So an answer machine or an answering service wasn’t really an option. And anyway, a very sophisticated caller, such as she eventually came across, would have not been put off by such a device and they would have left a message, lending credibility to their call.

(Anyway I think even a fairly simple answering machine would have been frustrating for my mum to master and why make her feel crap about not being able to do something when she is so good at so many other things?)

Because, one day, my mum got a call of a very different kind. Very sophisticated, believable and distressing; I won’t go into the details here but, thankfully, at the last minute my mum pulled a blinder (you can take the girl out of Naples but…) and a very serious crisis was averted. (We reported it to Action Fraud.) But it got me thinking just how vulnerable some people are and I realised that something needed to be done. When I started telling people what had happened to my mum, the stories that came out were terrifying. I learned that someone I knew, with graduate parents (English their first language, quite unlike my mum), had been scammed of £5K.  Then another similar story, and so it went on.

My mum is not tech savvy. If you need to feed fifteen people with one stick of celery and a tomato, she’s your woman. Her vigour, energy, hospitality and inventiveness is gob-smacking, but she is a technophobe. So whatever I did had to be low-tech at her end and the tech burden had to be mine alone.  I also needed something I could monitor and tweak remotely. It was no use asking her to press button 1 to stop the last caller calling her again. She needed a phone, pretty much like her old phone, with buttons to press to dial someone.

This is what I did. It’s in two parts – the remote part and the actual phone.

First, BT launched something called BT Call Protect earlier this year. I knew about this but again though it would not work for my mum, but, with her permission I took over control of her account. It’s free, but you have to be a  BT customer (your phone service may offer something similar) and how it works is that, once activated, it has a pre-set list of known spam numbers, these are automatically blocked. But there’s more.

You can see who’s calling via the website or a phone app, and you can VIP these numbers – and name them so you recognise them again when you next log on – or block them. So now my mum only has to make a rough note of the time someone called if it was a bad call and I can, via my computer or the BT app, forever more block that number.

You can also set it so that it blocks all, eg. with-held or international calls. And of course if you fall out with someone, you can put them from the VIP list to the Blocked list. Imagine the power.

With VIP numbers you can control which times someone can call you, so that, eg, you don’t get disturbed at night, or so that they can ring you 24/7 – you decide. Useful if you have a relative who keeps different hours to you or you don’t want to be disturbed at night.

All of this I can do remotely for her and with her knowledge.

If you block a number, it goes to junk voicemail (which you access via pressing 1572 on the handset although, see below, I eventually got my mum Call Minder so I access this for her now) so there’s s safety net there in case it does turn out to be genuine (there was one casualty which was a long-lost friend from Rome, but, thanks to this I was able to get her message and let her know and what’s more, VIP her number for future calls).

Since I did this my mum’s spam calls have dropped to: zero. So far.

Then there’s the phone. It was long overdue that she be able to see who is ringing her. I also wanted her to be able to access important numbers really easily.

I’ve mentioned before that I got a mobile phone for my aunt from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) so I turned to them for a phone for my mum and found this one.

It is really excellent and here’s why:

It has a caller display which lots of phones do (although they tend to be cordless) but with this one, you can tilt it up for maximum visibility and also change the contrast* – it displays the number and, if you’ve input the person into the phone’s phone book, their name will also show. (You need a subscription to a Caller Display service for this to work.)

*Someone visually impaired would still struggle to see this however, so look at the RNIB’s shop for phones for them.

The call buttons are large and illuminate when you pick up the phone.

There are four photo-buttons so you can either put people’s photos or write their name in LARGE TYPE. You programme these so that you can simply press them to dial someone but not only that: THEY ILLUMINATE WHEN THAT PERSON RINGS. Which is really like Thunderbirds!

I programmed as many numbers in as I could for my mum, no mean feat when you consider the size of our family. This you have to do with the phone in front of you but once done no further teccy-input necessary.

The phone plugs in and also needs 4 AAA batteries as back up. This it needs for the illumination/phone box storage features. It is otherwise a corded phone.

Although you can use the phone book to ring people – i.e. without having to manually press the number-keys, my mum doesn’t do this as she likes to use the number keys to ring people. There’s a volume control and also a boost in case someone is hard of hearing. So it’s packed with really useful features, but otherwise it’s a normal low-tech phone.

So now, as an added safe-guard, if my mum doesn’t recognise a number, she doesn’t have to pick it up. I’ve also put Call Minder on her line so that if she doesn’t pick up a call and it’s genuine, the people calling have the option of leaving her a message.  I control this remotely for her by ringing into it once a day (you have to set a PIN on the actual phone, but once you’ve done this you can ring in remotely). I can also hear if any spam callers who have called and left a message or not left a message.

There are other options available for protecting vulnerable relatives, such as True Call Blocker, which has rave reviews and Fuss Free Phones, which sound like a great idea but would have involved too many changes for my mum.

Some other option may work for you. This is so far what’s worked for us. I did a lot of research to come to these conclusions and what is the point of it if it doesn’t also benefit others?

 

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Faux Christmas trees

I have been writing, professionally, for 23 years. During that time I have learned that two things are so emotive, I don’t write about them anymore:

Breastfeeding.

Anti-wrinkle creams.

I suspect this will be an equally divisive topic.

Last Christmas, I went to my friend Louise’s house. Louise lives in a beautiful house and she had, in the entrance hall, a beautiful Christmas tree. It was only on closer inspection, that I realised it wasn’t real. “Do you think it looks okay?” she asked. “I think it looks fabulous,” I replied.

I went straight home and bought one, after doing some sums – ours cost £318 last year, before Brexit and before the pound fell, like a snowflake from the sky. That’s not an inconsiderable amount of money to sink into a Christmas tree but given we were spending £40-£50 a year on one, I wish we had bought one ten years ago.

Coincidentally, my other friend Sandra, had bought one the week before – but it hadn’t really sunk in – and she said it had made her “truly happy”. Now, Sandra isn’t the sort of person to find happiness in Christmas foliage, usually. So I knew I was onto a good thing.

My partner took a bit of persuading because, every Christmas, we go somewhere in the Suffolk countryside and choose a tree. I say we, but they all look pretty good to me and he spends AGES choosing one and I find the whole selection process really stressful, and cold. Really bloody cold. I just don’t know why I find it stressful, but I do. Anyway, we bought one, he loves it. My children, after becoming hysterical at the thought (they thought it would be really fake looking) also love it. I grew up with a faux (okay, we called it fake back then) Christmas tree which is still going strong from when it was purchased by my parents – in 1963.

When I told a few people that we were venturing into fake Christmas tree territory, they went nuts. As if we were telling them something awful. “I don’t know who you are anymore,” joked (?) my friend Jo.

Here is the case for a fakey faux Christmas tree:

No more going out to buy one and spending £40 plus on one, or whatever it is they cost. No more jostling with people for the tree that looks great.

No more cutting down live trees.

You can put it up from 1st December and no risk of leaf fall.

No more vacuuming up pine needles.

Okay, no more real tree smell but you know, you can get that in a SPRAY from Jo Malone or The White Company (you can actually get very good pine smelly things which you hang on the branches, I got some from the supermarket which cost a couple of pounds and they were, incredibly, rather good).

We got one which comes with lights IN IT. No more untangling the lights, risking electrocution and finding that none of them work anymore.

It looks good all the way through Christmas, no more sad Christmas tree.

I am not trying to convince you, but if you are thinking of going faux, then take the plunge! We love ours and are putting it up as soon as the clocks chime midnight on November.

I’m mentioning all this now cos we got ours from Balsam Hill – also where my friends got theirs from – and the quality is superb. And there’s a sale on. We got one with a not-too-huge bottom to it (I love that you can choose the width, from a narrow tree if you don’t have much room to a more full-bottomed one). Go for the most realistic ones. I know they’re not cheap, but once you’ve bought one you have it. We got the Vermont White Spruce with ‘candelight’ lights which give a warmer glow.

The pictures were of our tree last year (forgive the scaffolding outside, we were having building works done) – I tried to take a picture of it looking as ‘real’ as possible, not with any funny filters on or anything (not, ha ha, ‘spruced’ up). And here is one of the branches close up:

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You’ll see we go for a white and silver theme…

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Pressure/Slow cooker

Earlier this year, just as we were emerging from the shuck of winter and blinking in the spring sunshine, with thoughts turning to light, easy lunches involving salads and grilled things, I decided to I needed to buy a slow cooker to cook stews in.

A slow cooker is actually a very good idea for someone like me, because I am a natural early riser and I am at my best, my most industrious, early in the morning. It’s all down hill from there. I am often too tired of an evening to cook, or think about cooking. In Italy, at least in my family, it is customary to largely prepare the main meal of the day (whether that be taken at mezzogiorno or a cena) in the morning. This is when people visit and the cook can chat, catch up with the latest gossip and prep a substantial meal. I would watch many such occasions as a child and marvel at how organised and easy it seemed.

(I would also marvel at just how much bitching would go on.)

But, I never managed this level of organisation and I thought the slow cooker would help. As these things go, I started looking at entry level slow cookers and before I knew what I was doing, I had ordered a top of the range slow cooker and pressure cooker combined – a huge hulk of a stainless steel beast, the Fast Slow Pro by Heston for Sage (before anyone thinks I am on a salary from them, I am not, this is literally only one of two Sage appliances I own, the other one being an insanely priced waffle maker which is brilliant but I don’t recommend anyone buy because no-one can like waffles that much.)

It is an electric model, so you can use it anywhere there is a plug (no need for a stove top).

Of course, the purchase of lots of books on slow cooking and pressure cooking followed and I realised that most people were either evangelical about one type of cooking, or another. But you can be a fan of both and this lets you be.

Slow cooking, in case you don’t know, is just like cooking something on a stove top or in an oven at a very low temperature for a very long time. The difference is, because the slow cooker is sealed, no moisture gets out so things stay very moist. I have done the best ‘roast’ chicken in this ever, you then reduce down the gravy, in the same slow cooker pot, using the reduce function which is the equivalent of a pan on the hob simmering away.

Moist is not a bad word.

Pressure cooking cooks things under, er, very high pressure so it cooks things very very fast. It is particularly good for cooking dried pulses etc.

The beauty with either is that you just put it in the pot, turn the lid and leave it. I can’t comment on other appliances but mine is all digital and you set a timer and it does it all for you.

I mostly use mine for making stock and bolognese, which is brilliant cos I chuck everything in and do it on a slow cooker 12 hour timer overnight. I use the pressure cooker for things like ribs (does them in an hour * they are literally falling off the bone when they come out which may not be to everyone’s liking) and pulses.  But you can cook loads and loads of things in it, I am only just starting.

*The pressure cooker takes time to come up to pressure and also to release the pressure so if it says it does it in an hour remember to factor in these things.

It’s also brilliant at reducing (you leave the lid up) as you can reduce, say, a stock on a timer and leave it whilst you do other stuff. Obvs you can do this with an ordinary sauce pan, on the hob, but you don’t have to worry about going back and switching it off.

It has a ‘keep warm’ function so once it has finished its main cooking, it will keep things warm for two hours. Great if you are a bit nebulous about a coming home time.

In short this is a brilliant bit of kit – huge so think about where you’re going to put it – and I’ve had it for several months now and I really rate it.

Post script, summer 2017. I have had this for about 18 months now and it is easily one of the best bits of kitchen kit I’ve ever bought. I use it loads and it is a marvel. Buy it.

Waffle maker

Some years ago, there was  a rival to Argos and that rival was called Shopper’s World. It was, I think, something to do with Woolworth’s because all the Shopper’s Worlds were in Woolworth stores.

It was from there that my sister and I purchased our first waffle maker as teenagers. We went home, gorged on undercooked waffles, felt sick, cleaned it up and returned it for a refund, figuring we’d never want to eat waffles ever again.

And, largely, I didn’t. Until now.

My eldest always begs me for a waffle when we are in London, where you can get them covered in cream and chocolate sauce and sweets. And I have never been a fan of hot cake – which is what waffles seem to me.

Let me make it clear that I think waffle makers are pretty much up there for unessential gadgets in the kitchen. You can only make one thing with them and they don’t really earn their keep. So it’s pretty stupid, I think, to buy a waffle maker.

So I bought the most expensive one I could find: The Smart Waffle Maker by Sage.

I actually saw this waffle maker a while ago in Selfridges or John Lewis (the only London stores I ever go into) and thought “what nutter would spend THAT MUCH on a waffle maker?” And, it later transpired, that would be me.

I did lots of research, of course. The thing with cheaper waffle makers is that they don’t heat up hot enough to give you really crispy waffles – hence the undercooked waffles of yore which made us feel sick. Also the ones with removable plates – which seem so sensible – can’t heat up hot enough for really crispy waffles because of the way the heating element is placed (or something).

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There are two waffle makers in the Sage range: the No-Mess and the Smart Waffle. Have a look and see which one you think would work best for you. The No-Mess is significantly cheaper, has less features and make different shaped waffles but is, I’ll bet, still a brilliant machine. The Smart does all sorts of fancy pants stuff which you probably will never use.

I haven’t had one single failure in this machine. The moat is brilliant (why why why do all waffle makers not have this??). You can experiment with all sorts of waffles in the safety of your own home: gluten free, wheat free, fun free – if that’s your bag. Me, I just tried to make waffles as healthy as possible whilst still retaining their waffley-ness. (Recipes to follow.)

My eldest has, of course, completely gone off waffles since I bought this. But I can make a batch and freeze them, take one out about ten minutes before I want to eat it and then pop it in the toaster. Thus there are always waffles to eat under piles of yoghurt and berries and a dash of maple syrup. I now eat lots of waffles.

Pros of this machine:

Fool-proof. I think even if you put wallpaper paste in there you’d get amazing waffles.

The moat is brilliant

Wonderfully crisp waffles

Really good (but few) recipes come with the instruction book

Solidly built

It looks great

The non-stick is really non-stick

Cons

Eye-wateringly expensive

You will try to waffle everything for the first week you get it

You will get fat

 

 

 

Hinza bags

I love a bag, and these are great. They are Hinza bags, which were designed in the 1950s in Sweden.

They are basically a trug in the shape of a bag. Completely impractical in lots of ways:

The strap digs into your arm if you have carry it in the crook of your arm.

A total pick pocket’s delight as everything is easily accessible.

No interior pockets so everything is chucked in together.

But also totally brilliant in lots of ways:

Because they are the same colour in, as out, you can easily see everything in your bag.

Everything is somehow easier to find as it’s chucked in together and no zips or flaps to undo.

You can sit on a beach and know they won’t get a soggy bottom.

You hose them down if they get dirty.

Really easy to carry in your hands.

They sit where you put them.

You can just chuck everything in.

They are really jolly. This matters.

They come in two sizes and lots of different colours. I got mine (the small) from Hus and Hem, which is a fabulous Scandi website and it cost £18. The service was amazing. I had barely pressed ‘confirm order’ and it arrived. But you can also get from little independents. I saw some in Burnett & Company, a lovely interiors shop in Aldeburgh, last week. (46 High Street, IP15 5AB.)

 

Microplane foot grater

I think it’s about this time of year that people pull the sandals out and realise that they have neglected their feet all winter.

I have always looked after my feet. This is a legacy of a) never being allowed out of the house until I was 18, hence having lots of time on my hands to spend on my feet and b) I never wore high or restrictive shoes as a teenager so my feet were pretty nice and I wanted to look after them.

This ‘foot grater‘ however, takes things to a whole different level. I bought one about a year ago and the reviews warned “take care as it’s so addictive, you can end up with really sore feet”.

“What idiot would do that?” thought I, as I watched foot shavings fall off my feet. The next day I went to Orfordness on a massive walk and realised my feet hurt and that I was that idiot.

So be careful. What you do is basically grate the hard skin off your feet – it’s that hardcore but leaves your feet really soft – if you don’t overdo it. Nothing works as well as this – forget all other foot buffers/pumice stones etc. It is addictive and the little shavings do look like parmesan (sorry if you’re eating whilst reading this).

Whatever you do, don’t store this grater in the kitchen with your other Microplane graters. I think that’s why Microplane helpfully make it in pink.

This cream is really nice to rub in afterwards.

One of the best things I’ve ever bought – a headset with fixed mic for my mobile phone

In the 90s, I used to work at the Independent on Sunday (RIP). This was back in the day when computers were largely for writing on, and phones were for making and receiving calls. My deputy editor had an office next to mine and he would spend a lot of time swiveling his office chair side to side and talking on his headset, which was plugged into to his desk phone. This headset had a fixed band which went over his head and a mic which stuck out in front of his mouth. I’m sure you know the ones.

I spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone, as I researched my pieces and my column (Dear Annie, which was a fashion column and answered readers’ problems), so I asked if I could have a headset and lo, I was able to order one from the stationery department. So I looked like someone from a call centre with this head-set on and a microphone pointed at my mouth. But it was brilliant, as I had both hands free to type or eat a banana or communicate with my colleagues in sign language.

Then mobiles came along and everything changed. We all, largely, started talking on those. Even if you want to, they are impossible to jam betwixt cheek and collar bone, such as you could with a traditional corded phone, and I find the ‘headsets’ that come with that are fine for a brief chat but you have to hold the mic near your mouth and people often say “are you on hands free, I can’t hear you very well?”

And, for long calls, I really hate having my mobile next to my ear for extended periods, as it makes my ear hot.

I still spend a lot of time on the phone interviewing people for my job, so a few months ago I wondered if such a thing as I once had, existed for my mobile (I have an iPhone) and lo, it did. It took a bit of searching but I bought this one which cost me just under £20, and it really is one of the best things I’ve ever bought. I make all my calls using it now (unless I’m out, because I feel like too much of an idiot, but I hardly make calls when I’m out anyway, because I feel like too much of an idiot..) and no-one has ever asked if I’m on hands-free, or underwater, or anything like that. It frees you up to type, essential when interviewing people or when on the phone to friends, you can do your nails, hang out washing or do the ironing, all of which I’ve done.

It plugs directly into your phone, it has a headband which fits over your head, one ear piece, one mic, and a volume button with (I think but have never used it) an on off button for ending calls.

It’s brilliant.