Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Baby Change Rooms: Tips for childless interior design graduates

There are many reasons to love or loathe the Westfield shopping centre at Stratford.  It’s glitzy and modern, packed with top end retailers, but it lacks any character or warmth.  My wife works in Stratford, and enjoys not travelling through the centre of London to get there, and there’s no doubt that, for us in north London, it’s easily accessible from the Overground and provides an alternative destination from the West End and Brent Cross.

But strangely, the biggest attraction for me about Stratford Westfield are the baby changing facilities.  They’re well located , spacious, accessible, unisex with good clean facilities.  The nursing tables are well orientated for changing nappies and there’s a comfortable sitting area, toys, a TV showing CBeebies, microwaves and facilities for heating milk and private feeding rooms.  Within the same space are the disabled loos, which are also large and well stocked.  It means, as a man, taking two kids of different ages in for a rest and recuperation is a pleasant experience completely free of difficulty and embarrassment.

I was reminded of Westfield last week when I tried to change my youngest’s nappy at Pizza Hut in Haymarket, central London.  On my own with a four year old and a 15 month old, I found the baby change at the back of the restaurant, between densely packed tables, down a narrow, steep staircase and part of the female toilets.  There were no separate toilet facilities in there, so once I’d changed my youngest, put up with the funny looks of women coming in and out of their toilet visits, I had to carry both my children into the men’s to take a pee myself.  Then, back up the stairs to hope that the pushchair was still there with everything on it.  It was hardly convenient or pleasant.

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered wholly inadequate baby changing facilities.  For the most part, I’m pleased to find them, particularly if I have a toddler with a nappy full of the latest evacuation, but my some of them are a trial.  Recently, I’ve struggled with the Tate Modern (inadequate lifts, queues for the disabled loos where the baby change facilities are, a broken baby table leading me to balance Bub on a precarious ledge, unpleasant environment) and John Lewis at Stratford which seems to have learnt nothing from their much better facilities on Oxford Street.

So, for the record, here are my top tips for junior interior design graduates with no children who seem to be gainfully employed designing baby change rooms:
1. Some parents are male.  If you do insist on putting baby change facilities in the female toilet, or in a room that requires access through the female toilet door, at least provide the same facilities in the male toilets.
2. Some parents have more than one child.  If you’re going to have baby change facilities in a regular male or female toilet which makes parents think that it was a half-baked add on at the end of the design process, at the very least think about how the space might be used by three people who might not themselves need to urinate.
3. Some parents do occasionally need to piss, and find it convenient or efficient to do this at the same time as changing their family members who have a more limited capacity to hold their bladder.  Always – always – put a loo with the baby change facility.  Bear in mind points one and two.
4. Bearing in mind point three never, ever, make a parent change the baby in one room and then make them have to find their own toilets in a completely different room, especially if that involves carrying children, or shepherding more than one child, through the same route.
5. Some parents make it easier to push children around by using a wheeled device called a pushchair.  This often needs to come into the changing room as well.  Avoid stairs, self closing doors, narrow entrances and double sets of doors (particularly if they involve stairs, narrow entrances and self-closing doors).  And remember some parents will have double pushchairs.
6. Toilets can be dirty, smelly, unhygienic places.  Why not pretend that the toilets are part of your shop?  You wouldn’t sell food or clothes in a place that smells of piss.  Why make parents change their kids in such places?  Keep them clean, stocked and mend stuff that breaks.
7. Or just go and visit Stratford and then do it properly (which includes you, Westfield, as your White City changing rooms are no patch on Stratford).

That should sort it.

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A Generalisation on Stupid Male Assumptions

There have been a number of stories recently that have piqued my interest as a father. A couple of weeks ago, Guardian family ran a piece about the lip service paid by fathers to sharing the burden of childcare. I have to say that in my experience of this, I share some of the opinions of the writer, and I have experienced many a group during the week with my two under-5s where the dominant sex is always women. There are some fathers I know who have stepped out of full time employment, but the majority don’t – instead they talk about the ‘sacrifice’ of making it home to (say) bath their kids and put them to bed, and of making up time with them at the weekend. Some men I know can’t even be bothered, it seems, to make it up at the weekend.

On a totally different track, but equally serious in a world where the two female finalists on The Apprentice are touting business plans promoting baking and botox, the BBC covered Jade Beall’s project to change the perception of the post-pregnancy female body. We seem to have been gradually shifting the amount of superficiality in the western world that we’re prepared to live with (i.e. we’re living with more and more), and a significant problem has always been the value placed upon the physical aspects of a woman. Are you listening, John Inverdale. Like our obsession with the connection between material possession and happiness, the connection between a woman’s beauty and the interest society places in her is something that the Beall work – or the confessions of Dustin Hoffman – are likely to do anything about.

But most relevant for me has been the emerging revelations of Yvette Cooper about the way her employers treated her whilst she was on maternity leave from the Communities department. The story will emerge again, I’m sure, when her full interview goes out on Woman’s Hour on August 16. I have had direct experience of Ms Cooper in the past; she delivered a keynote speech at a conference I attended when she was the Minister for Planning in the early part of the last decade. She was a strong minister, well liked and came across as warm and human. I’ve admired her since, and her admissions about her experience of maternity leave only serve to strengthen that feeling.

As a man, I’ve been casually aware of women leaving the place in which I work for months on end. On their return, speculation is often rife as to whether they’ll go part-time or be really up to their old post, almost as if this is some kind of expectation; the assumption is that perhaps their dedication to work is somehow diminished by bringing life into the world. Having now witnessed my own partner in this situation, and the appetite she retains to continue ambitiously in her career, my stupid male assumptions are all wrong. What’s more depressing is that many employers act in a male way and have also got stupid male assumptions (even if many colleagues and managers are women) and seem to want to treat returning women as Ms Coopers employers treated her.

There are obvious repercussions to treating a woman returning to work after any length of maternity leave as some kind of soiled product with her interests firmly outside of a successful career – her future job prospects, the relationship with colleagues who hold dumb perceptions, the trials she may have to go through to prove her value again and the damage that such processes might have on any working relationships of value.

But further, in my family, I have stepped out of full time employment to spend an equal proportion of my time as my partner caring for the children; time that our society still tends to impose fully on the woman. As a result, I have a more limited income by virtue of working part time. Our choice is to maintain that pattern of work-life balance that puts both of us equally responsible for childcare. Our quality of life is also dependent on the incomes that my partner and I can pull in through our part time roles. If a woman’s income is to be threatened by demotion, redundancy or lower pay – crowbarred in under the blanket of maternity leave, on the premise of stupid male assumptions – then that potentially also threatens the type of family set up – like ours – that isn’t primarily dependent on the full time employment and income of the male. And gender inequality continues. As we all are secretly aware anyway.

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The Ache of the Old, The Shock of the New


This blog was originally written for Toddle in the City

There is no doubting that London is a great city, brimming with wonderful places, fine buildings and an intricate and fascinating story on every turn. 

Well, that’s perhaps only half true, depending on your outlook, your definition of London and most of the other adjectives in that sentence.  For the most part, the centre of London, where the tourists go, is densely diverse and absorbing and it will leave you wanting more having spent an intense two week holiday here. For those of us who live here, yes, London does reward greater scrutiny and turning over the rocks on the city’s surface will reveal the minutia of its history that is buried beneath.  But, as humans, we often lock ourselves into our little worlds and become oblivious to the wonder around us; the daily routine, the trudge to and from work and the familiarity of our neighbourhoods can lead to complacency and boredom.  Of course, every place has its rich past – we just have to pick up those rocks.

Having taken my kids out into the big world, often with a camera to record their trips, I’m looking to interest them in what they see.  I want to inspire them as well as them being able to inspire themselves about the place where they live.  I want them to feel connected and have the capacity to dig deep into the world that is their home and their community.  The way we treat our world, and the way we protect and develop it is important to new generations, and is part of our sustainability.

For the past two years, I’ve been creating a ‘London Alphabet’ from photographs taken around Greater London.  The idea was inspired by the city of Chicago and, back here in London, I search places hoping to find shapes and patterns in the built environment that will suggest letter shapes.  I’ve complemented this by looking for unique letter forms and fonts.  In this two years I’ve taken around 500 pictures and completed around 10 full alphabets.

People who see the letters – and I sell them as cards and prints – love the simplicity of the idea.  I make a point of telling people where the images are captured.  If a person knows that place, they may then recognise where the picture is taken, or want to know where it was taken.  If they don’t know the place, it brings it to their attention, widening their knowledge of the city.  I like to think that my images draw out the distinctiveness in places, drawing out the tinier elements that make communities unique from other communities.  I think everyone has a little sense of ownership and pride in their part of London, and I think that people do respond to that.

What is also compelling for me is the sense that modern buildings and modern architecture are less distinctive than their older counterparts (and I’d use The Great War 1914-1918 as the dividing point).  This might seem obvious from the perspective of buildings, but it’s also true from the perspective of the finer details in buildings.  Newer buildings – on the whole – are less rich, more monotonous and less inspiring.  There are obvious and numerous reasons for this, and the less wealthy parts of London suffer the most.

 In compiling my photographs, I know that if I go to better off, or more creative, neighbourhoods I will find a greater respect for the detail in shop-fronts, for the rhythm of the patterns in housing, for the treatment of streets and street furniture, in the quality of public and street art.  I also sense that there is a general reduction in the importance placed on the fragments of craftsmanship that go into making one high street different from the next.  London is a less rich place because of it.


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Ryman and Ryboy (in a Buggy)

I’ve tried to talk a lot on this blog about the experience of being a father in London, and I appreciate that at times the content may have strayed excessively from this original premise.  Part of this has been brought about by the need to balance a number of interests in my life, and each of them having some bearing on my general annoyance, to the point where the blog has provided a useful place to pour out some frustrations.  The other reason has been the arrival of child number 2 – now over 15 months ago – which has changed my habits in respect of being a father, primarily in feeling less able to explore the city with two, rather than just the one.

I did have the opportunity to get into the centre of London this week, however.  My wife had to work on Monday, meaning I was thrust into child caring duties for the day (as well as Friday – two days of joy for me this week!).  On Mondays though, our daughter goes to pre-school, and after dropping her off, I was left with just my son to look after, and I took the opportunity to take the train into Oxford Street.

 I can’t really remember having a day together with him, on our own, with the city stretched out before us, whereas I can remember many days with my daughter.  It was good to get him out of his pushchair on the train, to sit him on my knee and to point at the things we passed.  It was also interesting to see that he was so different from my daughter – not watching the world go by outside, but more interested in what was going on inside the train.

In the centre of town, I had a couple of things to do, and we spent some time in Carnaby Street and in Soho.  We lunched at Pizza Hut (where the all day buffet is by far the best value meal in town, particularly if you can blag a little free pasta for your young son who, ‘really doesn’t eat much’) and headed off into Seven Dials and back to Holborn for the train ride home.

 I’m used to the trails and tribulations of having a baby and buggy with me for the duration and was prepared for the stairs in the underground, the time consuming effort in finding the lift to upper floors in unfamiliar places and the shortcomings of badly stocked parent rooms.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever had to leave a shop because I couldn’t actually get in.

I was after some stationery on my trip out, and knew about Ryman on Long Acre.  I thought I’d pop in on the way back to Holborn.  The shop is quite tight, but I was unprepared for the shelf units virtually blocking the door and the stock, particularly on the lowest shelf, overlapping it’s limits so contributing to the obstruction.  There were three shelves in the middle of the floor in the entrance, and their presence made negotiating down the side and into the shop impossible.  With the clutter of new stock and the presence of other customers, it was clear to see that the shop was not going to welcome me and my boy in his buggy.

It was a huge disappointment to have to leave, not only because it meant I’d have to find somewhere else to buy what I wanted, but also because I know that Ryman is owned by one of the ‘Dragons’, Theo Paphitis, who always appears so open, warm and accommodating of people, and is something of an inspiration in my own business.  It’s frustrating to know that, with all the other barriers to moving young children around the city, shop managers feel fit to add another – the insensitive internal layout of their shops – to the trials of that process.

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Ten Overrated Things

In no particular order:

Leggings, or jeggings.

Ugg Boots.

Cheryl Cole.

Cheryl Cole’s hair.

Hot weather.

Sean Connery (with the arguable exception of Bond).


The X-Factor.

3-D films and television.


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Bananas and Technology

There will be those of you who will quite strongly believe that I am a Luddite of some principle and I do fear an increasingly pointless existence trying, and failing, to get to grips with the latest gadget, gadget upgrade, app or social media essential.  Perhaps some of this is down to age, perhaps some of it is down to a comfort in midlife existence, but a lot of it is down to an inability to see the point in constant change when all the stuff I’m used to generally does the job I want it too perfectly well.

I have now embraced the iPod (which now appears to be on the wane itself), the iPhone and the iPad (both in formats that could be considered prehistoric already) and have accounts in Facebook, Twitter, Linked in, Pinterest and Red Bubble with Hootsuite overseeing the whole kit and caboodle.  I upload my pictures to Flickr, and I manage two websites on behalf of my business and I, so suddenly I don’t look massively behind the times.

However, I did stop listening to the Top 40 and Radio 1 some time ago, enjoying instead the comfortable debate of Radio 4 or Radio 5.  I cannot bring myself to watch reality TV, especially if someone is being chosen for their special talents in order to sell us their stuff on the back of their win.  I can’t see the point of sat navs and Kindles (why sell us hardware for hundreds of pounds when the traditional alternatives are under a fiver?), and the wide spread of social apps is so tedious as to be boring and pointless.  And I still insist on buying CDs and, occasionally, vinyl (but I think that still makes me cool).

I write about this because I was watching Greg Wallace tell us all about the secrets of supermarkets on the Beeb last week.  There was much to be amazed about, not least the quantities in which food has to be processed in order to get it to us on a daily basis; for instance, as a country, we consume 47 million bananas in 3 days.

This banana mania led Greg to Tesco, where he was being told that the staff wear ‘smart badges’ so that, in the event of no bananas going through the till in a five minute period, the till could send a message to the badge and tell its wearer to go and get some more bananas.  I think that the point of this was to make us gasp in awe, think that this innovation was the bees knees and that Tesco really are on the cutting edge of technological advance.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the till has to allow a five minute wait before sending a message to some dweeb that it’s not beeped any bananas lately, that probably means that there have been, or are, shoppers bemoaning the lack of bananas (this given fruit and veg is usually the first thing you come to in a store and that  it takes about 15 minutes, if not more, to get to the till after that  – unless you just want bananas, in which case you’ve already stormed out).  I thought it might be marginally better to have that badge wearing dweeb looking at the fruit and veg once in a while as part of his/her job, and when those bendy, yellow things start to run out, then they go and get some more.  How’s that for an earth shattering advance?

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Petty psychopaths are all around us

When I was brought into the world, my mother and father had a lodger. She was outwardly beautiful and pleasant natured. She shared our house for all I remember of my early childhood. Everyone in our house loved her, and accepted her being there, but she had funny ways. For instance, she wouldn’t let me touch her at all, and would get very aggressive if I tried. She would think nothing of physically hurting you, but moments later would be expecting you to treat her nicely, as though nothing had just happened.

I don’t know how much this early experience affected me. This particular person died when I was about seven, maybe eight. Living with a knowingly manipulative person can be quite traumatic.

In the many years that have followed, I’ve met similar people – outwardly charming, attractive, beautiful – but actually aloof and aggressive beneath the surface – people who are friends to many but emotionally attached to no-one. Their behaviour is almost psychopathic, yet because of the outwardly soft, characterful, placid appearance – even playfulness – others are drawn into their presence, and like having them around. It seems to give these people a warm feeling of supremacy.

In recent times, I’ve become more aware of people like this; our neighbourhood seems to be awash with them. Sure, I’ve seen them relaxing, sitting in the sun, causing no bother to anyone and looking at peace with the world. But I know that they happily traipse over people’s property, pick fights, dump their detritus in gardens and tip over pot plants. I’ve heard them screaming and shouting in the middle of the night, tearing up the tranquil suburban nights and waking up young children. They’re not averse to frightening small animals and pissing wherever they like.

And yet, these people seem to think that life owes them something. They seem to live charmed and uncomplicated lives; doors are opened and gifts are offered, despite the very carnage they are causing. Like the person from my childhood, I’ve tried to reason and educate, even to discipline – but in many of these people, their arrogance means that they continue their anti-social behaviour regardless. They seem to have no ability, or desire, to learn or empathise.

There aren’t many things in life that I come close to really having a dislike for. Cigarettes I feel pretty passionate about, and drugs. I hate a disrespect for general politeness. But this broad group of people – the shameless, arrogant manipulator in the guise of a devoted, charming, talented and intelligent individual – really make me seethe.

Did I say people? Sorry, I meant cats.

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