How to have a nice time at Ikea

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

"Hey, Mummy, look at meeee!” Larry spins around in a bright-orange, toddler-sized bubble chair. Larry, Moe and I are having a day out at Ikea. Admittedly, before having children, this would not have featured in my list of top-ten days out. I hate mass-produced furniture. I hate strip lighting. More than anything else in the world, I hate retail parks. They seem to me to represent the death of everything good about humanity.

“Now I’m going to jump off this one, look!” Larry flies off the top of a bunk bed and crash-lands on an immense beanbag. He loves Ikea. At home, there is no room to run around and I constantly have to prevent him from jumping off the sofa for fear of dislodging our downstairs neighbours’ light fittings. Here, there is almost limitless space, plenty of furniture to leap from and – joy of joys – a mini-workbench with dinky wooden hammers and screwdrivers to bang around.

And meatballs. We like the (horse?) meatballs sold in the Ikea restaurant for £1.99. As long as I manage not to buy anything (and I DO NOT need another Nyttja picture frame, even if it is only £2.50), we can happily spend a whole morning and lunchtime in Ikea for less than a fiver. There’s no need to cook, no mess to tidy up . . . It’s an unexpected kind of bliss.

I prise Larry away from the children’s section and we trundle with the buggy over to the cafeteria. Cling-film-covered plates of drab smoked salmon and browning salads glisten in refrigerated rows. I order the meatballs and then progress to the dessert counter. What shall our treat be this time – a cranberry cheesecake or a Chelsea bun?

Larry is jumping up and down excitedly. This is the high point of his day. “I want chocolate cake and I don’t want to share it. I want it all to myself.”

I hope my children will grow up with fond memories of eating chocolate cake in retail parks. At their age, former generations might have been running around in meadows or playing wholesome games of cricket in the street. There’s little point in harking back to all that.

For me, the biggest challenge of being a mother is coming to terms with the yawning gap between my fantasies about what might make a lovely childhood, which include meadows and street cricket, and the grubby, grasping, polluted, retail-park-strewn reality of my children’s lives. It is hard to accept that no matter how much I love them, I can’t conjure up meadows and cricket where there ain’t none.

In short, I have to make the best of our little lot, which has never been my strong suit. But I am determined to try.

I take one of the immense slabs of chocolate cake out of the refrigerator and put it on our tray for Larry and me to share. Then I add extra ice cream. And sprinkles. I banish thoughts of child obesity from my mind: today, I just want to have a nice time.

What the hell, I might even buy that picture frame.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage