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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.