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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.