Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city


This weekend, I finally did it. I reached my goal weight and became a Gold member of WeightWatchers. Now, I haven’t exactly been publicising my attendance at WeightWatchers week by week, but there has been passing mention with people who’ve asked whether I have a terminal illness or whether my clothes were getting larger. Last January I was almost 16 stone (many thanks to those at the time who overlook my middle aged plumpness and said I looked fine), and now I’m under 13 and a half (not so many thanks to those who’ve said I’m now too skinny).

It’s been a bit of a journey. At the beginning of the year, I was a little concerned about a high blood pressure and a high cholestrol. I’d never really been that aware of either, but a little research made me realise that lowering one’s blood pressure to a healthy level can significantly extend your life (we’re talking many years here). With two kids now, and the age of 40 now becoming a distant memory, I was concerned that I might not see them marry or have their own kids. I decided some action had to be taken.

My wife encouraged me to go to WeightWatchers. She found the nearest class, down the road, and in the middle of January, I joined the class. I was wary of being outnumbered by larger women – which, to be fair, I was – and of feeling isolated or ridiculous in being outnumbered by large women, which I never felt. The group, it’s leaders and volunteers were fantastic throughout; the group was welcoming and accepting and I was made to feel a part of it over my 43 week tenure.

I have (largely) rigidly stuck to the diet, which uses a points system – essentially every food is given a points value, and you are given a points target to remain within each day – so you can continue to eat and drink anything, but are forced to moderate and eat foods with lower points value (like fruit and vegetables!). At the start of my diet, I had a daily allowance of 42 points; I soon discovered that my favourite Pret sandwich would take up nearly 20 of those points; fish and chips would take up 30. It was a significant shock to find out just how calorific most food bought in cafes and restaurants is.

The first half of the diet saw steady weight loss, and I was soon down to 14 stone. The second half I became a little complacent with what I thought was an easy diet – I became stuck between 13.9 and 13.11 for about two months and thought I’d never get below it. It took some firm words and renewed concentration to structure my eating and recording again, and I have lost five pounds in the last two weeks.

I am now down to a healthy weight for my age and height. My blood pressure has also dropped to a healthy level, and my cholesterol is also lower. I feel that I eat better and I’m more informed about foods – better portions, less snacking and healthier choices was my key to success – and I can have some satisfaction that I’ve made an effort to extend my life so I can get the most from my family and especially my young children.

None of my clothes fit any more, but it’s a small price to pay for a healthier and hopefully longer life. Thanks WeightWatchers; good luck to others trying to do the same and please try it to those who are hesitant.

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James Bond: A Troublesome Case

The mission was over for James Bond.  Whilst the quiet respite from killing people was welcome, there was one outstanding issue.  The case still bothered him.

He walked towards the front door, picked up a couple of take-away leaflets that had dropped through the letterbox in the last hour, and opened the door.  He turned to close it, pulling it towards him and listening to the satisfying click of the lock as it closed.  He turned to head out of the gate, and bumped into a woman coming up the path.  She was glorious; pert and young, a floral scent.  She had dark hair, piercing blue eyes, was tall and slim.  Bond raised a smile.  She thrust a card into his hand and retreated back to the gate, hurrying along.  His eyes followed her along the street until she disappeared.  She had a divine figure. He looked down at the card.  Her name was there; Tania.  Eastern European.  She offered cleaning services on flexible hours.  Bond wondered momentarily whether she had a hidden agenda.

His attention turned to his silver Aston parked in the street.  He remotely unlocked the car, walked steadily towards it.  ‘Alright, Jim!’.  It was his irritating neighbour, Lance.  He ignored him and opened the car door, got in and felt the soft leather supporting his muscular frame.  He put the key in the slot and turned it anti-clockwise.  The engine purred, and Adele fired up on the stereo.  M had recommended her latest album, 21.  It had been on heavy rotation ever since, the surround sound in the Aston making the most of her velvety tones.
Bond checked his mirror, indicated, and pulled out safely into the quiet residential street.  Within minutes he was on the dual carriageway.  The traffic was busier this Tuesday afternoon that he’d expected.  He danced the Aston between the white vans and the heavy trucks circling the city fringes and delivering to the industrial and retail parks along this vehicular sewer.  The road dipped through a tunnel beneath a busy junction.  The Aston’s lights came on automatically, and his eyes adjusted to the sodium light before he emerged back into the sunlight and the road rose over the next interchange.
Bond scanned the London skyline stretching out to the south, before catching sight of his destination.  Amongst the smoking chimney stacks and the waste plants in the urban wasteland stood the huge blue building, box-like and foreboding.  He checked his mirror again, indicated and slipped into the exit lane to leave the dual carriageway.
Moments later he was at the building’s boundary.  The traffic skipped around him, blocking his progress, but Bond knew another way round, and spun the car towards the service entrance.  The service road was quiet; he yanked the car right and under the building into darkness.  He looked for a safe place to park, avoiding the parent and child spots closest to the doors, and pulled the car over.  He stepped out, locked the door, and surveyed the scene.  It looked safe.  Customers milled about pushing trolleys and manoeuvring large boxes.
He adjusted the cuff link on his shirt, and strode toward the building’s primary entrance, soberly, unsmiling.  He could feel the standard issue MI6 pistol, cold against the rich cotton of his shirt and ultimately against his hairless skin.  He reached the automatic doors, and they slid silently open.  Looking around for international megalomaniacs, he stepped onto the escalator and rode up to the first floor.  Bond reached the top, stepped off, and saw a woman approach him.  She was radiant, dressed in blue and yellow.
“Welcome to IKEA”.  She smiled beguilingly and seemed genuine, but Bond didn’t trust her.
“I need a shelf for a case,” he said.
She smiled. “This way”.  Knowing the place was a maze, Bond followed the woman as she strode toward the lifts.
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Oh my, I think I killed my kid…

Regular readers will know that I have two children, Toots and Bub.  They have completely changed my life. They are the best things in my life, brought to me by my wonderful wife.  I have feelings and thoughts about them that are overwhelming and joyous, feelings that I couldn’t have imagined having before I had kids. It’s very strange, but probably not that strange at all.

But I have learnt that whilst you get all this good stuff, and start blubbing when your kids first sing along to ‘In the Night Garden’, you also become burdened with the most crippling worry. And that worry never disappears and gradually, almost imperceptibly, it  becomes bigger and bigger. I’ve been worried for a long time about Toots’ first boyfriend and whether I’ll like him (or her; she might be a lesbian), and whether she’s going to experiment with drugs and when she’ll first have sex. And she’s not four yet.  The recent case of April Jones struck a real chord, where before having children it would have just been another sad story.  I can’t imagine what I’d do if my kids were lost or hurt or taken away, and I can only imagine that this feeling deepens and strengthens as they get older (parents of teenagers may beg to differ).

And so it was, over the weekend that Toots had her first significant accident.  Whilst she followed me round the house cleaning up, I opened the back door to put some stuff outside only to step back inside, close the door and find Toots’ thumb between the door and frame.  There was momentary, split-second silence and our eyes met, hers looking pained and unsure.  And then the screams and the wails started.  There was a big red thumb, blood, broken skin, a purple nail and blood on the door frame.  She wailed for an hour, she visibly shook in pain, she couldn’t eat or drink and she was far from the relaxed, happy, easy going little girl that was my Toots.

And given this was a first significant accident, I didn’t know what to do as she wailed, shook, cried and failed to eat or drink.  I thought that she might go into some kind of apoplectic fit and die from the shock, though I’d never heard of death by apoplectic fit after trapping a finger and was fairly sure that trapped fingers was a fairly common child-related accident.  I Googled, ‘child crushed fingers,’ hoping very much that Google chose not to show me a number of small pictures of crushed fingers in the results.  I was reassured by what I read, but it didn’t stop me checking on her all evening once she’d gone to sleep, just in case she’d slipped from us at some point.  I could barely sleep overnight thinking about the pain that door closing would have imposed on a little finger, my demonstration to her of the danger of doors closing using a carrot only serving to make me more nauseous whilst seeking to drift off.

Of course, the following morning Toots was much better; the finger hadn’t developed into a giant swollen blueberry, and the nail was still attached and the finger was in fact less red than it had been the previous evening.  Toots even said it didn’t hurt.  It’s got better each day since, and she no longer holds the hand gingerly.  She’s been asking for a bit too much chocolate ever since, and my guilt has allowed her to have it.

So what have I learnt?  I’ve learnt that all of those feelings of losing one’s child, or one’s child coming to harm, are very close to the surface; I’ve learnt that we can jump to very wide conclusions about mortality resulting from relatively minor injuries, and that we (or, rather, I) can speculate rather stupidly about what might kill a child.  And I have learnt that children are human, but very resilient and robust ones who need to have experiences to learn about life, including bad ones.  And so do I.  Though I suspect that won’t change my overly-protective and overly neurotic response to something happening to my kids, and long may that last as well.

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The Atheist Religious Studies Teacher (or why laws shouldn’t be informed by religion)

I met a scholar in religious studies and philosophy over the weekend.  I was rather relieved when he told me he was an atheist. There seems to be something wrong about having a religious person teaching others about religion, given that the bottom line in religion seems to be converting other people to yours.  Some strategic objectivity would be good in a teacher of religious studies.  I am completely respectful of those that hold religious beliefs and live by them, and I’m often in awe of the fact that they have these beliefs to guide them and draw comfort from; and I think that the Christian lifestyle, and Christian teachings offer structure to children, and I say that having been exposed to these a child myself.  I am equally of the opinion that other religious teachings are likely to offer similar structure and be equally valid.  But religion has never been for me.

My atheism was strengthened when my first wife died from a brain tumour aged 40 after an 8 year illness, during which she lost her sight and her memory. She was a gifted teacher, an adorable person with strongly held views about many things, particularly animal welfare, and she was loved and admired by many. She would often take the opportunity to ask those with religious beliefs why she should fall ill and face death at such an early age. She was never given a satisfactory answer. She resisted visits from religious personnel close to her death, never claimed to have had spiritual visitations close to death and did not have a religious funeral at her own bequest.  Despite the fact that I think she’d want to come back and say hello to me once in a while these days, I’ve never heard a dickie bird from the afterlife. I remain, therefore, resolutely ambivalent to religion of any kind.

And of course, it’s impossible for me to avoid the apparent evidence that suggests that most of the conflict in the world is based on religion; people effectively fighting over who’s imaginary friend is best. It’s an absolute nonsense, and makes a mockery of the idea that religion teaches, amongst other things, love, respect, tolerance, understanding, forgiveness and acceptance of others. Some people with strongly held religious views can often be the antithesis of many of these things.

Two recent examples have caught my attention; the religious elements of both are not explicit, but they linger like a flickering apparition in the background. Firstly, Jeremy Hunt piped up to say that it is his view that abortion should not be permissible after 12 weeks, although he ‘thinks’ that the view isn’t held because of his religious views (which he’s not expressed in relation to this story). Secondly, the Marie Stopes organisation has opened a clinic in Northern Ireland, where abortion is legal but only up to 9 weeks and only in certain stringent conditions relating to the long term health of the mother.

Hunt’s statement about abortion is dangerous because in stating this apparently personal opinion he brings the debate into a political arena – and there are few things more dangerous than confusion over political views and those views in some way informed by a religious belief.  Public servants should not be allowing their personal opinions to be broadcast in this way.  The current guidelines allow abortions up to 24 weeks, after which the probability of viable births becomes greater than not according to most scientific evidence. Whilst most abortions occur before the 12 week mark, this is not a reason to reduce the legal limit. Whether or not this view is guided by Hunt’s religious beliefs, it would leave those women who, for whatever reason, sought abortion after that point (whether they themselves were religious or not) in a seriously compromised position. This is the reason to maintain the current limit.

In Northern Ireland, the law appears to be influenced by one particular opinion that abortion in any circumstance is wrong.  Northern Ireland is not covered by the Abortion Act and, because of the polarised opinions, there seems to be little political appetite to address it.  The criteria are so stringent that in the last year only 35 abortions were performed in the country, although in excess of 1000 Northern Irish women travelled to England and Wales to have abortions legally performed. The Marie Stopes clinic intends to offer abortions within the law, but also to raise awareness of the availability of the service within the province for those who want or need it – and there is clearly a demand. The law, however, seems to me to be the equivalent of putting one’s hands over ones ears and screaming ‘la la la la’.  It fails to acknowledge that some women (again, whether they themselves were religious or not) will want to abort some pregnancies, usually in distressing circumstances.

In this case, the law ought to reflect the needs of people given the evidence presented, so these people can feel safe, protected and understood – some of the virtues of a religious teaching.  The evidence in the Northern Irish case suggests a need and a scientific justification beyond 9 weeks.  However, this law, shaped to some extent by the strength of religious belief, makes women feel embarrassed, dirty, wrong and burdensome at a point in their life where they are not likely to be at their most joyous.

There are examples of the will of religion creeping into the lives of the non-religious everywhere, and we are fortunate to live in a country where the church and the state are (largely) kept apart – and long may it remain.  I, like many others, am not religious at all, and I have no desire to be governed by rules and regulations imposed on those who follow a religion.  If I wanted that, I’d join the religion.  Likewise, my daughter won’t go to a school with a religious element, though she is of course free to choose whatever religion she wants when she’s old enough to understand the implications.  And whilst I am perfectly content that people are religious, I don’t want to be imposed upon by it.  As soon as that starts, I’ll impose my music taste on everyone else, and that really will be horrible.

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Notes from a hipster

I expect that I was a rather impressionable boy in 1987.  It was the height of Thatcher.  There were strikes, unrest, changes in economic structure, increasing privatisation, growing wealth and increased polarisation with the poor, shifts in power, conflicts across the world and hunger.  But as a counterpoint, there was Timmy Mallet, Bruno Brookes, Sinitta and Howard the Duck.  In my own life at this point, I was taking my O-Levels, the last school year to do so, I was falling in love, I was spotty and I was trying to work out what to do with life.

I recall one Saturday morning watching The Wide Awake Club when a band came on to do the song at the end of the programme.  They were Deacon Blue, and the song was ‘Dignity’.  I have no idea how or why the song affected me so much.  I did buy the single, and I still have the gatefold 7″ that contained four Deacon Blue songs, including ‘Dignity’.  I remember, as well, buying the cassette which contained the song – ‘Raintown’ – in the Lancaster branch of WHSmith for £4.99 from a girl called Allison.  ‘Raintown’ was a great album – earnest, perhaps, but what’s wrong with that – and full of vivid images, stirring songs and outstanding lyrics from the pen, primarily, of Ricky Ross.  Obviously set in Glasgow, and telling ordinary tales of home, work and faith, the music and imagery of the album has not only accounted for a life long love of the band, but helped shaped my cultural, social and political opinions.

‘Dignity’ itself is an aspirational tale of a public sector worker who sweeps the streets and packs a lunch each day, but dreams of sailing around this country.  It’s my perfect anthem for driving through the northern parts of Lancashire where I was raised and where I’m still drawn back – home, the hills, the sea.

My highlight of ‘Raintown’ though is ‘Loaded’, a song which I like to think of as coming to terms with one’s place and one’s resources, being content in life without materialistic possession; ‘I have found an answer/I don’t think you don’t care/Just you laugh, cause you’re loaded’.  I recall my first Deacon Blue gig in Manchester in 1989; Ross dedicated the song to striking ambulance workers in Motherwell.

And so, I followed the band through the years to 1994, when they split.  The writing had remained consistent; the storytelling, social and political commentary, memorable lyrics combined with strong melody.  A experimental move into dance territory in 1993 jarred a little, but spawned the hypnotic, ‘Your Town’ (and the Perfecto Mix is utterly entrancing).  By this time, I’d completed my A-levels and finished two degrees in two northern universities.  I suppose politically I was still a bit of a mess, but leaning toward the left and contemplating work with a Council, but not as a street sweeper.   I was on the verge of getting married for the first time and buying a house.  Deacon Blue perfectly bookend the most impressionable part of my life, and etched themselves on much of what I do and think right through to the present day.  My musical tastes are rooted in Glasgow, Scotland, Country and Americana.  Even my daughter was born on May 1 – Labour Day and, astonishingly, the anniversary of the release of Raintown.

There were a couple of brief reunions between then and the present day, not least another album, ‘Homesick’, in 2001.  Ricky Ross has maintained a critically acclaimed, if not commercially successful, solo career, and recorded an album with his wife, Lorraine McIntosh, in 2009.

But as the 25th anniversary of Raintown comes about, we have a brand new Deacon Blue album, ‘The Hipsters’.  Reunions of old bands tend to be haphazard affairs borne out of nostalgia, desperation and a need for cash, and so it was with some caution that the news was received.  However, Deacon Blue appear to be wholeheartedly committed to the new music, and have dedicated much time and space to promoting the album and playing live, both as part of nationwide tour and as part of radio sessions.

And the album itself is an absolute pleasure.  Perhaps more upbeat and uplifting than previous albums, lyrically bright, reflective and tender.  ‘The Rest’ and ‘That’s What We Can Do’ both thunder along joyously, the latter mildly reminiscent of ‘Real Gone Kid’; ‘Turn’ has an angry underbelly and title track, ‘The Hipsters’ has a gently repetitive string riff which is instant, comforting and commercial, yet doesn’t become annoying.  There are familiar themes; the allure of the coast, the importance of home and friends; the draw of the city, and a recognition of the fact that Deacon Blue were never hip.  It’s goose-bumpingly good.

And with that, a relationship which was always present but infrequently at the forefront is pushed back out there again.  And I look forward greatly to what must be close to my 20th Deacon Blue gig at The Roundhouse in a couple of weeks.  More than I deserve, I’m sure.