Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Buy my greetings cards!

Image_7Anthony Horowitz wrote a little piece in the Telegraph this week about greeting cards.  It was rather curmudgeonly.  Not only was he curmudgeonly about having to buy his presumably long suffering wife a Valentine card – he seemed at huge pains to go out and look for one – he was also curmudgeonly about the cards on offer in the high street shops.  And on the basis of this unenthusiastic escapade, he decided to write an article that poo-pooed the idea of sending cards and the greetings card industry.

Now clearly, I have a vested interest here, being a greetings card publisher who has so far failed to get onto the high street (but would secretly love to be there) but the article was hugely unfair, not only to greetings cards but also to the industry.

I’ve been producing my own cards, based on my photographs (see image), for about nine months, and I’m exhibiting at this years Progressive Greetings trade fair in London this May.  My cards have been selling well locally, online and at markets, and they’ve got a bit of a following.  I’ve been trying to expand my reach into shops with more than just a single branch and have found it very hard.  To take the shops on the high street as a barometer of the whole industry is a huge mistake – the high street sells in bulk to lots of people and, within each ‘market’ or socio-economic group, they need to sell to the common denominator.  This, frankly, leaves many people wanting something better, and can effectively leave them without any choice on the high street.  Hello, Mr Horowitz.

Now, I agree that the high street – and particularly the chains – offers possibilities that are a bit bland and lack a bit of spark.  I too hate vintage photos with humourless captions, cartoon animals making fart jokes with googly eyes and the whole Keep Calm and Carry On trend has really run its course.  Scribbler is far too profane for my palate and Clinton, despite the rebrand, still retains the Forever Friends and helium balloon naffness that it always had.  Paperchase I can tolerate, and I’d merrily shop there, and I’d frequent Smiths and Waterstones for their blank art cards, but that’s just me.  No doubt, they are there because they meet a demand.

Beyond this, there are so many talented artists, illustrators and photographers out there making cards that are beautiful, funny, elegant, characterful and inspiring.  They trade on Etsy, Folksy and other online stores; they’re found in your local independent bookstore, in your tearooms, in your local card shop, at markets and fairs all over the country.  They make great stuff and they’re often not selling enough to encourage them to make more – so we risk losing them altogether.  They can’t get into the big stores because they can’t get to the buyers or the agents or the owners; or they’re frozen out because they’re not part of Woodmanstere or Medici or some other massive distributor.

So, Mr. Horowitz, the problem is partly with the high street seller, but not with the industry.  Also, the problem is partly with you.  The right cards are out there for you (and your wife), and the choice might even revitalise your love life.  You’re just looking in the wrong places.  You might even like my cards, but you ain’t necessarily gonna find what you want on the high street; dig a little deeper.

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White Canvas, Slender Frame

IMG_3978I was transported back in time last night.  I was lucky enough to be on the guest list for a private viewing of Stian Anderson’s photographic exhibition at the Strand Gallery in central London.  Anderson toured with Norwegian band a-ha for the final couple of years of their life as a band, and was engaged in some of the artwork for their first albums after their hiatus in the early noughties.  The exhibition is something of a retrospective of his time with them over these years.

Anderson was present at the exhibition event, and was animated and jovial, and he was accompanied by Magne from the band.  We were treated to a-ha tracks over the PA, and a harpist playing instrumentals of some of the bands more elegant compositions, notably from the Lifelines album.  And there was free beer, and another hero, Mark Ellen was wandering about.  It was an evening spent partly in quiet awe.

IMG_0158My excitement was indeed on a number of levels.  It was certainly exciting sharing a small room with one of the members of a band that has defined much of my life, since I was 15.  It was also exciting, as a keen photographer myself, and with a love of trying to capture moments of music performance (that’s one of mine, above), to see shots composed by a professional with access both to decent equipment and the front and backstage areas.   Not only this, Anderson had been working at three of the last concerts a-ha played in London, including the Albert Hall in 2008, all of which I was also at.  Indeed, the first shot opposite the door to the gallery shows the band on stage at the Albert Hall, a shot that – if it wasn’t dark and grainy – I’d have no doubt been visible in!

Anderson’s shots were varied; the posed promotional shots were crisp, colourful and technically excellent, making the most of the looks of the band.  The live shots varied between the atmospheric,  symbolic arena moments and the more intimate close ups of the band mid performance, but it was perhaps the more reflective backstage shots, before and after shows and on the move between studio sessions that were the more revealing.  Whilst a-ha have maintained a musical relationship of some stature for 25 years, there has always seemed to have been significant artistic tensions between the band members and, in the second half of their career they have often been apart; separate rooms, separate drivers, separate spaces.  More remarkable than their creative output, their collaborations with artists, their growth as performers, their worldwide following and their ground-breaking videos (and you have to include the likes of Celice and Lifelines alongside the well known Take on Me in there) is the way they have maintained such a long consistent career whilst their friendship has perhaps dwindled.  Much like their music, there’s melancholia and poignancy about it.

Anderson’s career has been long and varied, and the a-ha exhibition is well worth seeing.  It runs through the first half of March and is free to enter.

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Music Review: Sadie and the Hotheads, Union Chapel

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I was in an easy-going mood as I entered the Union Chapel on Sunday evening for the latest gig of the Sadie and the Hotheads tour.  I’d bagged free tickets, and looked forward to some half-decent, laid back country tunes in the company of Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora.

For those needing a catch up, whilst Elizabeth McGovern has become a familiar face through the increasingly bewildering, but doubtless popular, Downton Abbey she also harbours a not-so-secret desire to be a rock chick, and is currently touring the Hotheads’ second album, How Not To Lose Things.

A by-no-means packed Union Chapel witnessed McGovern sashay onto the stage at around 9pm, looking rather beautiful in a red and black lace dress, and throw herself into One Thing Leads to Another, supported ably by her accomplished and experienced band.  Whilst all thoughts of Lady Cora were banished by this lovely vision (My Debt Collector alludes to her great legs, so I don’t have to), one still had to endure the sound of a voice warming up, and the occasional clichéd rhyming couplet; three or four songs in it could have all gone as flat as the some of the notes.

However, the band launched into The Cow Song and all was saved; it bounced along heartily, full of delightful imagery and humour, and the audience rewarded it with the night’s biggest cheer.

McGovern formed the Hotheads in 2007 having received guitar lessons and an encouragement to write, and her songs seem to draw largely on her experiences as a mother and wife, whilst confusingly also making a short stop in West Hollywood.  She introduced each song with a little story, but almost seemed self-conscious being herself, oddly recalling Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings.  The band, on the other hand, were having a ball.

There was just enough variety and wit in the remaining songs to keep it interesting – Drops of Rain was a poignant reminder of the short time we have with our children, and Wedding Song put us in the shoes of a bride and groom on their big day. Perhaps it the variance of lyrical and musical styles on display that kept it fresh – the country feel predominated, but there were small servings of  jazz, pop and folk woven into it.  Just as things were getting soft and warm, with McGovern herself easing into the role as well, they announced their last song and were off, only to pause for the shortest possible break before delivering a final encore which gave each of the band members the moment to shine in their own solo.

Over a wine in the bar after the show there was time for reflection – a solid show with strong tunes delivered with enough charm and good intention to overlook any deficiencies in the strength of the voice or performance of the central draw.  McGovern wandered into the bar later to meet and greet, whilst her nephew circled the room with a stack of CDs for sale.  Even the big stars, it seems, need their nearest and dearest to help make ends meet.

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Sometimes, things happen

IMG_0099One of the challenges of having two children at home through the week and through the winter is keeping them occupied through the day.  My wife and I have been lucky enough to have time with our two both at the weekends and, for the time being, on Monday and Tuesday, but it can be difficult knowing what to do with them without resorting to the television.  This is heightened in winter, when the weather can be bad, and when many attractions remain closed until the spring.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you should get out of the house with them, but it can be difficult to find somewhere new to go which is entertaining for them as it is for you, and which doesn’t cost a fortune.  Last Tuesday, we decided to take the train and tube to Covent Garden to see what that brought us.  At the very least, there’d be stuff to look at.

Covent Garden was indeed busy on a cold day.  There were the usual street entertainers between Neal Street and the market (40p contribution for Beth to have a photo taken); there was the Lindt Egg Hunt, with 101 giant painted eggs hidden around the market (no spend required, but free chocolate given out) and the usual shops and markets with unusual things to look at and investigate.  Toots ran around the cobbles of the market with boundless energy.  She even found a painted egg that matched her dress.

For lunch, we escaped to a nearby Pizza Hut for the buffet – not perfectly healthy fare, but some veggies were put away and we were all heartily fed for just over £6 each, and got a free balloon.  After looking in a few shops for mummy (warm and lots of colours) we retreated to Monmouth Coffee where the communal tables meant we chatted to a man called Cheddar, who looked like Daniel Craig, and a group of female Cordon Bleu students who were giving out their chocolates (and there were LOTS of them) that were the product of a recent class.

We had most of the day out, and after the previous week’s expedition to wander round Harrods, we felt we’d had another day of adventure in the big city whilst keeping costs to a minimum and giving the kids something to do and something different to look at.  In a place the size of London, anything can happen at any moment; you can meet anyone and have a small moment of magic that lingers.  It’s always better to go out and see if you can find it.  And those free chocolates were fantastic.

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Whitby, January

Whitby, mid-January, saw the town ghostly and devoid, it seemed, of inhabitants.  You could lick the blanket of grey drizzle that hung in the air.

I find the melancholia of the English seaside irresistible during the long winter.  The challenge is seeing the light beyond the damp gloom, sensing the faint optimism for the long-off summer, feeling mesmerised by the flicking lights in empty amusement arcades.

After finding our hotel – The Marine; a tight maze of rooms and corridors, tiny restaurant with grand piano, room generous and contemporary; roof-top views over Whitby’s higgledy-piggledy form – we set out.

Dusk encroached; the sky turned purple.  Climbing the steep, cobbled path to the dark, brooding Abbey, the lights below us tentatively illuminated.  Returning, there was time for a hot teacake in an empty caff, and a drink in The Pier.  Draped in fish-related paraphernalia, the pub was barren, save for two other lost souls engaging the landlord in shallow banter.  Eating late at The Marine – lively with locals; a good sign – it satisfied with well cooked local fare.

We were awoken by shouts at the adjacent fish market as the morning catch was landed, and a convoy of vans took it away.  Winter life in Whitby is most frenetic at 5am.

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Later, along the stone pier, the sun broke low over the river, casting long shadows over the western side of the town, promising a crisp morning.  We walked back past the shove penny machines, stopping to feed them with 2p pieces in the hope that a few would drop into the shiny metal pockets beneath, making us millionaires.  On the whole they didn’t; too cold to stray from their copper huddles.

Rising above the river on the west, the heady mix of charity and independent shops were enough to take us through to lunch, by which time there was a resonant sense that the place had hit the peak of its waking activities.  Java, on Flowergate, did panini in northern portions at northern prices.  It put the alfresco fish and chips we’d anticipated out of minds for the rest of the day.

Despite everything – dampness, darkness, wetness, nothing vaguely touristic open – we had a smashing time.  The bracing wind and fading light is tempered by winter sun, warm pots of tea, stoic locals.  The sense that all this is yours and yours alone make the melancholia magic.

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