Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

This is how you feel when a community is torn apart

News came through this morning that a good friend and companion was severely ill, and would die next month.  To be honest, I hadn’t realised that we’d grown so close until I heard that they’d no longer be around.  Like many of the shocks we receive in our life’s journey, my mind has flitted back to the news all day as I try to come to terms with it as best I can.  I just can’t believe that The Word magazine is to close.

I first picked up Word (as it was then known) at issue three, probably in 2003.  It was a new music magazine, with bits on books and films and culture.  Blur were on the cover; I was on holiday in Norfolk, and I wanted something different to read.  At that time, I was a devotee of the long running Q, but even then it was growing tired and repetitive, a trick it has kept up to the present day.  Right from this point, Word was fresh, incisive, intelligent.  It was more in depth, covered topics with passion, and included within its pages opinion and advice, recommendations and interviews.  Even where I approached topics or artists with caution, the writing somehow drew one in and entertained.

I bought the magazine every month, eventually becoming a subscriber.  I was drawn into debate on the website, listened to the websites, found my letters published and my recommendations for the monthly CD taken on board (as far as I’m concerned, Stephen Lindsay has me to thank for his inclusion).  The article maintained a high standard, and the regular features, such as Best and Worst and 99% True never slipped in quality.  Slowly, a community was developing.  What was even more amazing was the knowledge that this mini-miracle was the work of a small, dedicated and talented team lead by David Hepworth and Mark Ellen.  During the nine years, I’ve had personal responses from the former, most recently when my attempts to get into writing lead the great man to gently turn my article down with constructive criticism, some of which is applied in the title above.

And so this morning’s announcement came, via Twitter, and there was an immediate outpouring of sorrow, disappointment, anger and, yes, grief.  By the time I got to The Word website, there were nearly 100 comments; I checked an hour or so ago and there was approaching 400.  Simon Mayo and Danny Baker are among the well known readers who have added their thoughts, their praise and their tributes.  The Telegraph and The Guardian have posted articles on their sites about the loss of this great magazine.  Why such an out-pouring?

For me, The Word was a perfect magazine.  It covered music and entertainment, but didn’t pander to the middle of the road or to commercial pressure or trends.  It wrote and commented on where it’s own zeitgeist existed and it drew its readers in.  It respected the past, it had a handle on what was fresh and interesting.  It had knowledge and experience, but wasn’t flash or showy about it.  It found the promise and the potential in the mountain of information that the Internet and the social media world throws at us each day and made sense of some of it.  Reading The Word once a month, and receiving and enjoying the weekly email, Something for the Weekend, lifted the spirits, let you see the sun’s rays through the gathering clouds and cleared out the clutter of thoughts about the modern world that really needed straightening out.  It was a reliable friend in a complicated world.  A hand on your shoulder.  It felt like they spoke directly to me, and I know that other readers felt the same.

Ultimately, it seemed that there were not enough like minded souls.  I can’t recall anyone I talked to about The Word ever having heard of it, though my father-in-law subscribed on my recommendation, and he loves it too.  I can’t see why there wouldn’t be a market for beautiful, clear, unprejudiced honesty about music and the people who make it, with bits on the cultural world for good measure, but I guess we passed demanding quality over quantity some years ago.  Ho hum.

So, in the absence of some miracle, we say goodbye to The Word with the last issue dropping through the letterbox in a couple of weeks.  I suspect the mourning will be long and drawn out, but the sweet experience of past issues and the legacy will linger much longer.

And as I write this in Starbucks, Palmers Green, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ has just come on over the  PA.  How apt.

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What Ricky Gervais and Nora Ephron tell me about life and death

I’ve been strangely interested in the death, in the last couple of days, of Nora Ephron.  I was well aware of her work and her name – our wedding ceremony included two of our guests acting out the final scene of ‘When Harry Met Sally‘ – but I have been impressed with the humour and honesty of her writing, reflected in the many opinion pieces that have appeared with her passing.

One of her remarks that particularly struck me was that you should, ‘eat delicious things while you can still eat them… go to wonderful places while you still can …not have evenings where you say to yourself…why am I here? I am bored’.  It seems to me to be logical, yet so often ignored in our day to day existence.

Unrelated to this, I’ve been watching Twitter in the last days, as I often do, and Ricky Gervais responded to a comment sent his way, presumably in relation to his religious/atheist views.  He tweeted that death would be much like the 14 billion years before you were born, and so provided little to be worried about.

Both are about the fleeting presence we spend on the planet, and the fact that we only have one go.  In my life, it’s taken the death of my first wife, then making a decision to move on, followed by a new marriage and the birth of my two children, to appreciate that what we have today might not be there tomorrow, and that what might be here tomorrow is possibly unexpected and maybe  rather wonderful.  I think I am more productive in my days as a result of these experiences and I hope that I am more likely to do the things I want to do, rather than do the things others want me to do.   I suspect that this will be more fulfilling in the longer term.

The fact that I think, hope and suspect suggests that even I haven’t really grasped completely the finite nature of life, the unpredictability of the final days, and the changing tides in which we swim.  I’m glad of the timely reminders, from Ricky and Nora, that we should make the most of life before the inevitable long term absence we will endure after dying.

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Carr Tax

There’s plenty in the media at the moment about tax, largely on the back of our Prime Minister’s decision to drag one person’s tax affairs into the national spotlight. This has prompted thoughts on whether this was right (eh, no), whether rich people should pay more tax (well, probably), and whether more of us would seek to avoid paying tax if we could (well, probably, again).

I’ve been an employee for most of my working life, and have had the good fortune to have had no periods of unemployment.  As such, my tax affairs have been relatively straightforward, and I’m no tax expert.  Having formed a new company recently, this has all changed.  I am now liable for Corporation Tax, but not for a little while, and this is dependent on the company running a profit.  Having formed a company, I do have to get an accountant to verify my accounts when I submit my returns.  I have sought to find one, and in doing so, I have already been advised on how I should structure my accounts in order to minimise the tax burden, all of it legal.

But it is not paying tax, or the legal processes that are available to minimise tax, that perplex me.  I’m not even that concerned that there are slightly dodgy means – seemingly still legal – that wealthy comedians and others might use to limit their tax obligation still further.  There are two things that really perplex me.

The first of these is rather dull.  I do wonder why we need a higher tax bracket to capture more money from the higher earners, just because they have more money.  Surely if everyone is taxed at the same level – say 25% – then this would be a fair and equitable method that no-one could feel aggrieved by.  The contributions are then proportionate to earnings, whatever those earnings are.

But secondly, I can’t for the life of me work out why the bigger earners feel that they have to find ways to reduce their tax burden.  They are, by definition, the people who are most able to pay it.  People in this country (perhaps grudgingly) work to ensure that they pay their dues and understand that the tax burden is there for the good of society as a whole, even if this means scrimping and saving from month to month.  Most people get by on what they can earn and put aside.

What’s really depressing is that people who earn millions, and clearly are successful and able to live without financial concerns, are seemingly so petty and greedy that they have to find ways to keep more of their money, money they may not even need, thus denying the country and it’s infrastructure the funds it needs to make improvements for the benefit of everyone.  What is it in the mindset of some wealthy folk that they feel justified in doing this?  And whilst some super-rich will pay their taxes, and give generously to charities, this doesn’t soften the impression that those with means way above the average person will seek to deny society to ensure they keep much, much more.

I sincerely hope we see more grovelling apologies from people who were quite happy to avoid tax, but who are suitably embarrassed because they’ve been found out.

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Keane, Brixton O2 Academy, 8 June 2012

Back in 2007, Keane curated a gig at Brixton Academy for War Child.  It was their first gig as a quartet – Jesse Quinn added as bassist – prompting the then rather odd sight of a guitarist at a Keane gig, the trademark piano sound having become almost ubiquitous after their debut, Hopes and Fears, in 2004.

Back at the Academy in 2012, Quinn is now well practised and slaps the bass with gusto through several anthemic crowd-pleaders during this two hour set, though the spotlight is always with self-pleased front man, Tom Chaplin. Chaplin soaks up the obvious enthusiasm of this sell out crowd, right from opening track, You Are Young, also the opener to new album, Strangeland.  He acknowledges the ego-boost half way through the gig, urging the audience to carry on cheering; not that he needs the boost, or the audience need the encouragement.

The confidence the band have in the new album is evident, with ten of the twelve tracks featuring in the set list.  On The Road is an air punching rally cry, whilst album lynchpin Sovereign Light Café seems destined to become a new Keane classic bathed, as it is, in seaside nostalgia.  Whilst the remainder of the show is peppered with the warmly received, but well trodden, hits – notably Everybody’s Changing and the rather tedious Bedshaped – the new songs are rapturously cheered, suggesting some longevity yet.  But, curiously, the band chose to overlook the experimental Night Train from 2010 and, for the most part, the brash, neon retro-pop of 2008’s Perfect Symmetry, though the sound of Chaplin tearing his vocal chords on the baiting title track suggests this song still means much to the band.

For the most part, the sound is slick and uplifting, but maybe too comfortable, playing into the regular criticism of Keane that they play it too safe.  The reflective nature of the new album, with the feeling that they have gone back into Hopes and Fears territory rather than further exploring what they’ve been capable of recently may not heighten anticipation for their next steps. But in the meantime, judging by the Brixton crowd, Keane can expect to remain one of the country’s most bankable bands.

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The secret of a good marriage (when faced with cake)

It’s been a lazy Sunday, one of those where nothing was really planned, but where the day tripped along quite merrily – an hour or so in the garden, a nice lunch, a spontaneous walk and cup of tea at the local tea shop.  It’s been the four of us.  Toots has been animated and buzzing around, choosing and completing jigsaws, watching a bit of telly, scuttling around the garden with her watering can, watering the same thing over and over again.

This afternoon’s walk took us all down the high street.  Toots took her scooter, and scooted most of the way.  Bub was in his pram, resting, taking his afternoon nap, though he stirred in the tea shop and came onto mum’s knee.  Toots was keen to have a high chair, but also keen to come in and out from the cafe garden.  The movement of the kids meant we had to check out the cakes at the front of the tea shop separately.  My wife tootled off to the front and came back, explaining that there was a choice of three – a Victoria Sponge, a coffee cake or a chocolate cake.  A nice choice, but a bit limited, I thought.

The tea came, the cake was lovely, Bub stayed quiet and relaxed, helped by a little feed, and Toots helped herself, rather cleverly, to half of dad’s cake and half of mum’s.  I heard, from a table near us, a desire for the carrot cake.  My ears pricked.

“I wasn’t offered carrot cake,” I remarked to my wife.

“Yes, there was carrot cake.  There were loads of cakes,” she chirped.

“But you said Victoria, coffee or chocolate”.

“Yes, that was my choice, not the whole choice”.  I suspect I looked a little grumpy.  “You know the secret of a good marriage,” she laughed.  “Communication!”

I shook my head.  “Tolerance,” I countered.

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That screaming. That’ll be colic.

It’s surprising how much of the early days of fatherhood has evaded me, or left me, in the three years since Toots was born.  It seems that the days go by, and there’s a gradual shift  in her as she grows and learns and achieves ever more, and a shift in the way in which I am comfortable with her growth and her development into a fully functioning person – albeit, one who remains a toddler.

I mention this because I would have thought that having a second child, now around the ten week mark, would remind me of having a baby the first time.  However, as it happens, it still is the case that the early days of fatherhood either evade me, or have left me, and I find it really hard to remember how awkward it was in those early weeks.  It may be that they were so awful that my brain has erased the memory almost entirely, but it is more likely that it was such a blur of late nights, screaming and adjusting to a totally different family regime that individual events are difficult to pick out of the bones.

Toots was better than most, or so other parents tell me (though I remain convinced that nurture has a significant impact one way or another on nature), but it seems to me that Bub, our number 2, is having more problems than number 1 – though the lack of any clear evidence from memory is hampering any objective comparison.

At the moment, we do appear to be having trouble with colic.  Bub has, rather suddenly, decided that the evenings are just not the time to be sleeping and has taken, instead, to screaming for long periods (five hours is not uncommon), resisting sleep despite being tired and looking for all the world like he has a sore tum.  For the remainder of the day, he can sleep, he feeds well, he’s calm and happy and he poops like a proper kid.  All the reading we have done to try and resolve the problem – reading which has come after the soothing, the shushing, the rocking, the changing of clothes, the cooling, the warming, the swaddling, the rubbing, the bouncing and the feeding, all of which has had no effect on the screaming – suggests colic.

I have to confess, as a rather dim and slow witted parent, I thought colic referred to an actual condition with a cause, symptoms and a cure.  It appears, however, to have none of these things, although medical types seem to want to attribute stuff into each of those categories.  Colic, it seems to me, appears to be a posh word for uncontrollable and irrational screaming in a toddler during the evening and, it also appears, this will generally go of its own accord by month 3 or 4.  It allows a doctor, many of whom are consulted during these intense screaming periods, to say to a distressed parent that this thing has a name and, to some extent, relieve the suffering of the parent.  So at least, in this respect, I am a little reassured that what Bub is suffering is normal enough, and that it should resolve itself in time.

However, I was also alarmed to read that colic is a significant cause of marital stress and relationship breakdown, a contributor to sudden infant death syndrome and to child abuses, the latter two coming from the parents’ distress in having to deal with the condition.  I am calm enough, I think, to deal with this little episode in Bub’s short life so far, and put the current difficulties down to colic, but I can really understand the problems that it causes and the rises in certain circumstances that colic brings.  And it needs a wider discussion and recognition, I shouldn’t wonder.

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Am I the only one who cares about song lyrics?

My journey into pedantic and head-crunching middle age continued last week when I found myself shouting at the television at another dim-witted daytime telly quiz contestant.  To be fair, I felt that this time I was justified.  Asked to name a famous John from a list of clues to many famous Johns, this young lady only knew one and, even then admitted to only making an ‘educated guess’ that John Lennon was a member of The Beatles.

I was pretty much of the opinion that, when it came to modern music, The Beatles are up there with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry on the top table, everything coming from there and traceable back to there.  John Lennon is iconic, even for me – someone who wasn’t that au fait with his later output or a fan of his solo stuff.  How can it be that a women able to stand, breathe, manage a lovely head of hair and form sentences cannot be sure that John Lennon was part of the biggest music phenomenon of the last century, even after being given his first name.  You can see, I hope, why I felt justified.

But then, we are of an age where Simon Cowell dominates the contemporary musical world, and digital downloads and the instant accessibility of music is absolutely taken for granted.  Simon Cowell is a man who recently disclosed to a national newspaper, via David Walliams, that song lyrics meant nothing to him; they were just words.  This is why he doesn’t blink when an 11 year old belts out Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’, a song so heavily doused in emotional oil that it would destroy a city if someone lit a match, a song so heavy with the bitter experience of love that it’s hard to see even how Adele, in her early twenties, was able to write it down in a form that was quite so accessible.  The songs lyrics, their meaning, the incongruity of it being sung over and over by anyone and anybody, is lost on Cowell.

Further, we’re in an age where anyone can have whatever music they desire easily, often at the click of a button.  The magic of music before this point was not only in the poetry of the notes and words, strung together, expressed and heard, but in the expectation, the searching, the anticipation, the gradual building of a song you loved into something that everybody loved as word of mouth spread, or that you cherished as a rare and unknown nugget.  Songs like New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ developed over years; REM released several fabulous albums before their real breakthrough in the late ’80s with Green. Tracks would gradually creep up the pop charts week on week, and there’d be a genuine excitement about what would do well and what would fail.

And music in the past could have an impact simply because it was able to hang around.  Protest songs could prosper.  The words and meanings of songs could be debated.  From Dylan, through punk, the massive famine and poverty relief efforts in the eighties to, perhaps, the wave of left of centre artists cheer leading the incoming Labour government of 1997, music was able, on it’s own terms and merits, to influence thinking and sway opinion.  Can music form a protest and influence politics and protest now? I suspect not, not in the same way.  Perhaps this is why the very successful musicians – with Bono leading the charge – have to engage directly in politics, rather than belting out another ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.

It’s not altogether a grumpy old man rant.  The world is not what it was, and music isn’t the great provocateur it once was or I think it should be.  There are still great writers writing great emotional, thought provoking, challenging songs. The beauty of today is that everyone can find their niche and there is room for many musicians and artists.  Those wanting to avoid Cowell and the charts can do, without really missing anything of great note.  Mainstream music has, certainly, taken a nose dive but with the benefit that niche music can prosper.

But I still find it very sad that a woman exposing her general knowledge on national television also exposed the fact that John Lennon is becoming a distant historical figure despite his profound influence on music, the way we live and the way the world operates today.

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Gambling on community concern

The sun has faded following the hot days and bright afternoons of the last days of May.  But now, on the first day of June and on the eve of the Diamond Jubilee weekend, there is a reason for metaphoric brightness – a local campaign has seemingly brought about the demise of a proposed planning application for a betting shop.

Palmers Green, a north London suburb nestled between Southgate, Winchmore Hill and Wood Green, is a buoyant and lively shopping area with a fair split of independent and high street traders, a mix that is endeavouring to survive the economic gloom.  But another foe has emerged, not unrelated to our ecomomic troubles – the betting shop.  Two betting shops have opened on the high street in the last two months, replacing a restaurant and a video hire place, both of which had been there for years.  Now, an application sits with the Council to create a further betting shop on The Triangle, the perceived heart of the town centre.  This would make 8 such shops in a quarter mile strip.

Local MP, David Burrowes (Con, Enfield Southgate) has stepped into the fray, hastily organising a protest in front of the unit in question.  Despite only giving 18 hours notice of the gathering, come 9am this morning, there were around 40 people huddled around him, expressing their feelings.  This included representatives from local businesses, local residents and representatives from local organisations such as the Fox Lane Residents’ Association and Palmers Green Community, organisers of this month’s Palmers Green Festival.

Mr. Burrowes spoke in an informed and passionate way about the damage that a betting shop can do in terms of undermining the confidence and character of the high street, about the prospect of lobbying the Council to establish an Article 4 direction in the area to restrict certain types of permitted development, but also made it clear that he had understood why the betting shops were attracted to local high streets – though he couldn’t understand the business case.  He also referred to the Government’s recent Portas Review, which had sought to bolster high streets and address their issues (Portas had raised the effect of betting shops on the high street and proposed a separate use class for them), and stated that he had discussed the matter with minister responsible, Grant Shapps.

He also listened as traders expressed concern about the effect that betting shops have on forcing rents up for existing traders, and listened to residents concerned about the decline of the shopping environment and the impact this could have on quality of life.  He urged those present to object to the Council themselves and copy in their responses to him.  And with a sense of apparent solidarity and good will amongst these objectors word came through from the landlord of the unit which is the subject of the change of use; unconfirmed reports that the application has been withdrawn.  This public pressure, combined with the concern up to that point had seemed to have won out.

The community – by which I mean the wider community of traders, residents, shoppers, visitors and anyone else with a stake in Palmers Green – will need to be vigilant on how this one develops in the coming months, but the MP agreed that this is where a line has to be drawn.  We watch and wait and wonder.  A battle is won, but the war wages on
.

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