Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

The Inspiration of Vivian Maier

IMG_0280 (2)There are often places and times during one’s life that things seem to stem from, or grow from.  I wrote about 1986 a few weeks ago as a seminal time in the genesis of my adulthood, and the things that I’ve become.  Equally, events in Chicago in April 2011 were pretty special too.  My wife and I, along with our daughter, who was then just coming up to two, were staying there for a week before flying to San Francisco for a short stay with friends.  Our daughter caught chicken pox, which meant we had to stay a further four days in Chicago and, to be honest, it was the best thing that could have happened.

Our daughter wasn’t too distressed by being ill, and the fact that we had a suite in a hotel meant that we had somewhere quite spacious to stay in central Chicago.  Because one of us had to stay with our daughter whilst she was quarantined, it meant my wife and I had our own space to do exactly what we wanted in this fantastic American city without trying to please a toddler.  Chicago gave rise to the London Letters idea that I’ve been pursuing as a business since early 2012, and it also allowed me chance to appreciate some great architecture and experiment with my photography.

I’ve always had an interest in photography since my teens and was always taken with the social history captured by the likes of John Gay and Oscar Marzaroli and I’ve increasingly become interested in the street photography movement, in awe because I don’t seem to have the courage to join it.  It was during our stay in Chicago that I became aware of Vivian Maier and her extraordinary life and extraordinary street photography.  I was reminded of her legacy by the Imagine documentary shown this week by the BBC.

Maier died in 2009, having spent over 40 years working as a nanny in the city.  She was a strange, reclusive woman by all accounts and kept herself to herself.  However, she was rarely seen by those who recognised her on the city streets without a camera, and during her life, she took over 150,000 pictures.  Many of them were not seen or uncovered (even by her) until her possessions were sold from a locker she owned, whilst ill and in arrears in 2007.   The photographs were split between two principal owners who have each promoted the pictures relentlessly since – I caught the second exhibition in Chicago in April 2011 – the first having been a four month stint at the city’s Cultural Centre – and the London Street Photography Exhibition in Kings Cross in July the same year.

He photography is captivating.  Many are simple shots of events in the city – profiles, clinches, street activity, hobos, everyday transactions of emotion and material possessions.  But they are beautifully exposed and captured, each warranting more than just a passing inspection.  More than this, they capture the growth and change in Chicago during the period she was taking pictures, and that social and economic transition is as fascinating as the depth of character depicted within the images.

For me personally, I also like to try to capture the mundane and ordinary in a new and different way – I hope that my letters series is a testament to this – but it is very challenging to be a distinctive photographer in an age where most people have very sophisticated cameras in their phones and when photography is everywhere.  I try not to waste pictures and I also like to experiment taking photos of the things we see every day – the image above is of people milling around a bus stop, taken from the roof of a car park.  Maier is an inspiration to me, and her life is an enigma.  She never knew the worth of her pictures and we will now never know just what she felt about her work and what motivated her to deliver it, and pass it on, in such a fashion.

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KT Tunstall, Islington Assembly Hall, June 20, 2013


Tunstall in Chicago, 2011

Islington Assembly Hall is a small events venue on Upper Road, just beyond the Union Chapel and connected what is likely to be to the posh bit of the London Borough of  Islington’s property holdings.  It’s an unlikely event for a rock gig on account of it looking like an ornate school hall, an effect that the lines of municipal, faux velvet covered metal seats did little to put pay to.  During the course of her hour and a half on stage, KT Tunstall made several remarks about the beauty of the venue, so I expect that from the front of the hall, high up and on stage, she got a better impression than I did, sat underneath the balcony next to the makeshift bar and sound deck.  The gig was also being recorded for release as an album, so I expect she was keen to ensure that her appreciation of the place was also recorded for posterity.

Tunstall’s new album, Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, was released a week before this short, intimate tour of the country.  It’s a fragile and delicate thing and, one suspects, deeply personal to her following the death of her father and break up of her marriage.  It harks back to the gentler elements of her debut, Eye to the Telescope, and follows on where The Scarlet Tulip EP began, a stripped back sound reliant on plucked strings and a strong voice.  It would be interesting to see how she’d perform live, alone – how much of this new direction would be performed, how much would she rely on the old favourites and how would she deliver the set without a backing band?

Following the able support of Brian Lopez, a contributor to IE//CM, KT walked on stage before the lights dipped, causing a little confusion and a delayed round of applause.  Once acknowledged, she introduced the ‘gateway’ track to the new record, ‘Invisible Empire’.

Always a consummate performer and entertainer, KT did not disappoint through the set, which was indeed largely drawn from the new record.  She was characteristically upbeat in between songs, but generally sombre in delivery. She introduced ‘Carried’ as a ‘song about death’ and looped a wonderful version of Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’.  The five hundred or so within the venue whopped and hollered thoughout, creating a great atmosphere for the live recording.  ‘Black Horse’ received the loudest cheer, and morphed into ‘Seven Nation Army’ in it’s closing salvo.  ‘Funnyman’ some pace, with KT acknowledging a debt to Austrian pop monkey, Falco.  Was she for real?

Of course, there was a deserved encore, and a turn at the keyboard for ‘Crescent Moon’ and ‘Through the Dark’ before a beautifully delivered ‘Chimes’ which was allowed to echo and fade as KT left the stage to much love and deserved warmth.

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Gradual Imprints


(from the Toddle in the City blog)

One of the joys of having children is witnessing the gradual imprints that they make on the world as they come to understand it and begin to learn about what it might all be about.

Toddle in the City has been a small part of this process with my daughter as she’s carried her camera around with other children of different ages looking around the place around her.  Not only is she learning about the place around her and the city she lives in, but she’s learning a new skill with the camera as well.

Father’s Day came and went this Sunday, and my daughter was a little more aware about what it might mean.  She’d prepared a couple of cards for me, and gave me them in the morning with a small present.  But the day was really about her.  First, in the morning, we took her to her first football skills lesson, prompted by a boy in her nursery who was also going to go.  She’s always been willing to kick a ball around and the lesson provided a structure to do that, again with other kids.  She really loved the hour lesson, and it proved to be the highlight of the day for her.

After a trip to the market for some bread, and then lunch, we prepared for an afternoon playing on the street.

We have a lively little community in our street.  A number of neighbours have got together to help to make the street better, and in the last year have successfully brought about improvements in litter collection, in the road markings (it’s a one way street where people frequently go the wrong way) on the street and to the maintenance of the trees.  This particular Sunday, in the wake of the Council refusing our request to close the street for three hours on a Sunday to allow kids to play without the risk of traffic, we had organised a chalking event.  In short, parents provided chalks to the kids, parents watched their kids, stewards watched the traffic and kids chalked the pavements.

Despite they threat of rain at the start, kids came from many houses in the street to decorate the pavements.  My daughter was happy milling around with the other kids, expressing herself, being drawn around, writing her name, scribbling with colours and generally having a ball for three hours outside.

It’s constantly on my mind that I should be seeking to stimulate my children as much as possible far beyond the easy option of being indoors, having the television on and staring at their parents’ face the whole time.  They have to find a way to adulthood where they can function and take part, contribute something.  Whilst my daughter seems to love to draw and chase a ball around – amongst other things – exposing her to different people, different experiences and different activities should help to ensure that she can understand and interpret the world around her and be more accepting of its opportunity and it’s threats.

We all know that childhood is a wonderful learning experience.  I’m learning that parenthood is a pretty cool one, too.

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Stylus Stories

I saw a great poster in a store in Hornsey recently advertising an evening in a High Street pub.  The evening was called ‘Stylus Stories’ and it invited people to go along with an old piece of vinyl and tell the story associated with it.

Now, this idea really appeals to me, but I’m never going to tell it personally in a group of strangers in a Hornsey pub for many reasons, but I can write about it here.

I think that 1986 was pretty much the making of me.  It’s a time I can track a lot of stuff back to, and stuff that still relates to me as I am now.  I was in my ‘O’ level year, and as part of our preparation, our school invited us to take up a post in the workplace as part of a week’s work experience.  My early teenage years were rather over-egged with trains, and journeys across the land to spot trains.  I thought my perfect work experience would be at Lancaster station, and so I spent – in hindsight – a rather depressing week from Monday, October 6, selling tickets, sitting in the train workers office and watching parcels.

As coincidence would have it, ‘Scoundrel Days’, the second album by Norwegian band a-ha, was released on the Monday of that week, and being in Lancaster I was able to trot down to DMC records on Cheapside and bag a copy.  I’d been a fan of the first album, so much so that I’d worn the tape in the middle of ‘Love is Reason’ which made it virtually unplayable.

During the week, I got a message from a classmate, Stephen Deering, that I’d attracted the attention of a girl in my year at school, and a hot date had been set for me at Crystal T’s night club on Friday night.  To be frank, this socially uneasy, train spotting boy was rather alarmed at the idea of having a liaison with a girl arranged without my input, but I was also rather too feeble to resist it.  I guess that I was rather more scared than excited.

The passage of time has revealed that a-ha’s second album really set out and established their rather misunderstood melancholic sound, their sometimes odd approach to English lyrics and cemented a visual style, all wrapped up in timeless and accessible pop.  Even if you only got the latter, the quality of the output over 25 years meant that the other three elements really didn’t matter.  I now have that same vinyl album on the wall, protected by a heavy plastic sleeve.

The night at Crystal T’s remains vivid and awkward.   However, from that first night grew first love.  The train spotting fell away into something of an embarrassment and I think that first relationship – three years it lasted – taught me an awful lot about being with a person, enjoying time together and sharing life with other people.  It also fuels my nostalgia and fosters strong memories that I can see, hear and touch, and it provokes plenty of ‘what if’s’. Though that relationship started over 25 years ago, it feels close to how I am now.  The same is true of Scoundrel Days, a-ha’s legacy and the places and people these evoke.

A week in October, 1986. So much to answer for.


A story about politics

There’s an alternative world I know where there’s a decent hard working politician. He lives in a place where there are 100 houses. Somehow, he’s become embroiled in a heated campaign against Hitler. Obviously, Hitler is being quite underhand, shouting and screaming and generally being a bit unreasonable about who he wants alive and who he wants dead. Most people think Hitler is a bit of an arse, actually, so much so that they feel it’s quite ridiculous to even make the point that he’s being an arse. Some feel a bit intimidated at his manner and pretend to agree with him just to get rid of him.

Nonetheless, our hardworking politician knocks on all the doors and makes his case. He’s all for community and doing good things. He finds all that violence and divide and rule a bit distasteful. Everyone he speaks to says that his ideas are okay, on the whole and, on balance, much more preferable to Hitlers. Some people ask him questions, and one or two say they prefer Hitler, but most people give the strong impression that he’s doing fine.

He doesn’t get an answer from all of the doors in the place, but he does see most people. Just before election time, he realises that 56 people of the 100 have given him their support. They’ve done that by signing their name. He also notices that 9 out of 10 of those he actually spoke to have given him their support. He feels that his hard work has paid off.

The winner of the campaign will be decided by a committee he’s never met. The committee aren’t going to tell anybody who has objected and who has supported, but they do see the strong evidence in favour of our man, and they’re given evidence that Hitler has been intimidating and threatening, and has pinned vulgar and abusive posters in the place. They can see that our man has strong support from the signatures he has collected.

However, the committee decide that Hitler should win. It seems shouting loudly, being threatening and obnoxious and intimidating people is a more favourable approach than actually having people behind you who understand your aims and objectives. The committee writes a short and dismissive letter that doesn’t explain their decision or acknowledge the case made. The decent politician wonders why on earth he bothered.

Luckily, in the real world, this never happens.