Lisa Markwell: Grannies mobilise to take a bite out of the sandwich generation

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"We'll just drop her round at 8am, OK? And be back around seven..." Sound familiar? The deceptively casual arrangement that sees grandparents acting as unpaid nannies for their children's children is endemic in this country, with one in three working mothers depending on their parents for childcare, and we're not the only ones. In Spain, almost half of all grandparents provide (free) help with the kids, but, in a development that will be greeted by parents across the EU like a nappy explosion on a cream-coloured sofa, they are being encouraged by a general workers' union in Andalucia to go on strike.

Picture it: legions of militants in wide-fitting slip-ons and comfortable windcheaters chanting: "What do we want? A fair wage. When do we want it? When we've had a nice cup of tea and a sit-down." But because it would be a very cold-hearted relative indeed that abandoned the little ones for a day on the picket line, the strike is unlikely to get any traction.

Grandparents agree to help because they want to support their harassed offspring and bond with their grandchildren. Parents are thankful that they don't need to trawl Gumtree for a nanny, and set up a TeddyCam to make sure Chloe or Archie isn't coming to any harm.

But it's a complex, very tenuously calibrated arrangement. Who decides the hours, and are they stuck to? Do the GPs get any payment, or is the promise of a family holiday (for which read busman's holiday) all that's on offer?

It's possible that we've got here thanks to the so-called "sandwich generation". So many of us have left childbirth until our thirties that one adult in 10 is now helping their parents financially while raising children. Is it any wonder that we want to get some free childcare in before the balance tips and our mentally or physically incapacitated parents need our care, or a care home?

All this, of course, makes one slice of bread in the sandwich thicker than the other. Men and women are working (and childcare is work) well into their eighties, if the anecdotal evidence of my fortysomething peers is correct. Only a few have formal arrangements: one colleague was careful to specify the hours with his mother before things got started, and she is paid. At the other end of the scale, a woman of my acquaintance has her 78-year-old mother catch a train from Suffolk to London every week to do school runs, cook supper and fit in a spot of light house-cleaning, gratis.

Somewhere between exploitation and emancipation lies a happy medium, and the unlikely scene for it is Cuckfield, West Sussex. On 9 October, the first of a planned series of "granny graduate" courses takes place, in which refreshers in discipline and learning are taught. Organisers Grannynet hope the classes will develop into a support network for the vast, unrecognised, unpaid community.

Parents may quake at the idea of silver foxes comparing notes on hours, pay and conditions. But, as my 79-year-old father is already on "the Facebook", it's possible that the grey army is already mobilising. The planned National Insurance credits that child-caring grandparents will be eligible for next year can't come soon enough.

What goes around comes around – and stripes do too

Fashion is cyclical. The general timescale of these changes is at least six months, to give us poor women just enough time to get our eye in and our bodies in something approximating the right shape for maxis/minis/whatever. But now Miuccia Prada, doyenne of directional fashion, has changed the playing field.

The jaunty nautical look, for which the signature item is a striped matelot top, has been big this summer. Fashion bellwether Alexa Chung championed it, and women in the real world quickly found that horizontal stripes were – shock – flattering. But with the arrival of autumn came news that polka dots and leopard spots are in and that we must banish our hoops. Except that, at last week's fashion shows in Milan, contrary Mrs Prada put stripes back on the catwalk.

Can the cycle have speeded up to the point that we don't notice a full circle? Or is it proof that since there are no new ideas in fashion, we have permission to keep wearing our favourite styles, safe from the sniggering of the style police?

Live large and spend, spend, spend

Mark Zuckerberg, an unprepossessing, whey-faced youth who looks as if he just rolled out of bed, is 26. He's also worth £4.5bn – made by creating Facebook, as if you didn't know. A critically acclaimed – and decidedly critical – cinematic portrait of him, The Social Network, is about to open in US cinemas, with Zuckerberg emerging from self-imposed obscurity to come over all philanthropic, donating £64m to the New Jersey education system. Wrong, Mark, wrong. Stop trying to emulate Bill Gates. Just paaaaarty. If you must wear pyjamas, at least do it while jet-skiing round St Tropez, à la Puffy. What we want from our young billionaires is something to aspire to, and envy. By all means donate eye-popping amounts to charity, but do it quietly. Live large... and don't forget to post the pictures on Facebook.

Katy's sexy-me street

So, Katy Perry has been edited out of a guest appearance on Sesame Street for wearing a racy dress. Cleavage is not entirely appropriate for pre-schoolers, apparently. This is daft – when you're little, bosoms are food providers, not sexual come-ons. Last year Sesame Street ran a spoof of the noir-ish Mad Men, and the show is about to screen a hand-puppet True Blood (that blood-soaked soft-porn vampire show). Last time I checked, most three-year-olds weren't aware of either adult show. The makers of Sesame Street are, perhaps, well aware that its audience is made up of two parts: the toddlers and the stoners and skivers. With wry adult humour, bright colours and upbeat rhymes, it works perfectly on two levels, so let's allow Katy her trademark jiggle. Oh, and keep the spelling songs in: both sets of viewers could probably benefit from them.

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