Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Intense and Inspiring..The Beatles by The ComaTones

HWNL logo II’ve just had the pleasure of listening to a reinterpretation of ‘All You Need is Love’ by The Beatles.  The track begins with a Spanish guitar before a gentle female voice recites a poem about being knocked off her feet 18 years ago.  The repetitive strain of ‘All You Need is Love’ follows – love, love, love – before a series of voices list some of the more uplifting Beatles titles – Come Together, Here Comes the Sun, Please Please Me – in a joyous rap; then an oddly enchanting Bowie impersonation cites another personal poem over the continuing loop of all consuming love.  It’s genuinely powerful and cleverly, beautifully put together.

The track – recorded by seven members of local charity Headway North London in four afternoons during August – is the culmination of a  music therapy summer project in conjunction with the Nordoff Robbins charity.  All of the members taking part are brain injured; that is, they have all suffered from some event in their lives which has affected the way their brain works which has, in turn, affected profoundly the way that they can live their lives.

Julie, the owner of the gentle female voice at the start of the track, was indeed knocked off her feet 18 years ago, but rather than it being by love, it was by a car.  She was left comatose and, all these years later, she’s still fighting to ensure that people like her – now brain injured and coping with it for life – are able to take part in society, maintain their confidence and self esteem and offer something to the world as a whole.

Talking to me, Julie describes the four afternoons as, ‘inspiring and intense’.  For her, just organising herself to be in a place for four consecutive days is a challenge.  The effort involved in coming up with ideas for a song, facing the pressure to sing and perform and play instruments – all in front of other people and in the presence of music professionals in a recording studio – and trying to remember to bring her harmonica for the sessions adds many layers to an already crowded and potentially confusing few days.  It would be draining for anyone, but brain injury brings with it all sorts of side effects, such as tiredness, deprivation of senses, emotional problems and a fragile self confidence.

But in recalling the experience and listening to the song now, she reflects on a hugely rewarding and powerful week, not only for her but for her band mates – she calls them The ComaTones and already dreams of a tour and merchandise.  Almost overcome by fear of his ability, the Spanish guitar player has to gather up all of his courage to play the introduction, despite being talented enough to feature in a BBC4 documentary; the opportunity drives one member to make the tortuous and difficult trip from his house to the studio each day; despite not having musical backgrounds or a singing voice, all contribute with apparent gusto, playing the bass, percussion and singing and speaking the chosen words.  During a heated debate about what they might sing, one member steps aside for a rest and sits at the piano.  Not having played since his brain injury, he belts out the theme from ‘Chariots of Fire’, silences the rest of the group and is amazed by his latent talent and probably reintroduces to his life the love of playing an instrument.

Brain injury is hidden to most people and misunderstood by those who might have heard of it.  You can’t see it, or put a plaster over it.  Some of those affected by it don’t even know they may have it.  Brain injury can come about by way of a road traffic accident, or an assault or a fall; or through disease such as a tumour or a stroke.  Brain injury is very common – it changes a person, their thoughts, their moods, the way they feel about themselves.  It is hard to acknowledge and virtually impossible to heal.  But with charities like Headway North London and Nordoff Robbins, the issues facing those with brain injuries can be addressed.  As with anything, you only need to provide the right tools in life to make ANYONE shine.  This is what these charities do, day in day out.  The wholly uplifting stories coming out of this short week for seven such people is small testament to that.  Why not check them out, and even help them out too?

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Epic Dad Day Out

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The fine weather has meant a great summer time with the kids.  Being a weekday dad as well, I often have the opportunity to get out with the two of them in the periods when a lot of other parents are working.

The very hot weather we saw in late June and early July can also bring its problems. I’m not a big fan of heat, and the kids can start to wilt and become irritable as well if they’re not cool and happy.  In addition, just recently, I’ve become aware that my youngest has never really had the days out into the city that my oldest had when she and I spent our weekdays together.

With another hot day looming one Friday, I decided to set out with pair of them – ignoring the heat, the difficulty of being a lone parent with two children in London’s public transport and the prospect of early fatigue – and do an Epic Dad Day Out.  It had echoes of a great day out last year…

My plan was to do the usual local library sing-song in the morning, take the train and tube to Piccadilly Circus, walk to Trafalgar Square, over Hungerford Bridge and end up at/in the fountains at the Royal Festival Hall.

It was indeed a good day, full of excitement for the kids, stuffed with London sights and concluding with a good soaking.  We started with a meal at Pizza Hut – not a classic as far as I’m concerned – but a perfectly good way if ensuring that kids eat something vaguely wholesome. It was only let down by the wholly inadequate baby change area.

IMG_1853From Haymarket, we wandered down into Trafalgar Square , chased the pigeons, climbed on the lions and investigated the fountains.  Now my youngest is toddling with confidence, chasing the pigeons proved to be the best fun, if largely unproductive in terms of capturing the pesky feathered creatures.

My daughter has a great book, A Walk in London, and whenever we go into the middle of town, we point out the things in the book and put them into context.  Trafalgar Square features, as does Charing Cross, and we walked through the station from Trafalgar Square and onto Hungerford Bridge.  With the boy now having an afternoon doze, my girl took her time lingering on the bridge, watching the boats on the river, waving at their passengers, listening to the buskers on the bridge and looking out at the view towards the City and the Shard.  We gradually edged to the other side, the South Bank, and the excitement of the fountains.

On such a hot day, water is almost a necessity.  The fountains were in full effect that day, and we’d come prepared with towels and swimsuits, but many kids – of all ages – we wearing what they thought best, whilst dancing between the shoots of water and giving the impression that they were bothered by getting wet when, in the majority of cases, it didn’t seem to bother anyone.  There was a healthy throng of people there for the hour my kids spent diving in and out of the streams, mixing with others, laughing, strutting and celebrating the cool water on a hot day.  Tourists mixed with locals, toddlers with teenagers, sightseers with office workers.  Everyone seemed happy on the bankside of one of the greatest cities in the world.

We’re obviously very lucky in London to have such resources, such choice, such diversity and the benefits of getting there and sharing an hour in the fountains with the kids more than counterbalances the struggles of getting there and back with a pushchair, two kids and all the necessary food, nappies, drinks and other essentials travelling short distances with kids bring and doing it in the heat and the rush hour.  It doesn’t always.

I firmly believe that getting children out into the world and seeing what’s there, the beauty and the danger, is an essential growing experience and, in time, they’ll hopefully appreciate what a great place they live in and the necessary importance of living life to the full with other people in a place that allows us to do that so freely.

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A Child Like Ability for Learning

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Having been involved in the built environment profession for nearly twenty years, I have seen many a consultation exercise, many an engagement process, many a community workshop.  For every one of these I have been involved with, organised, sat through I have seen disenchanted and disillusioned participants.  Extracting the intelligent views of representative people on proposals for new development, or plans for new development is notoriously difficult.  Not only can such events draw in the same old people with single issues, but they can also be dominated by fruitcakes and empty vessels.

That’s not to say that all events are like this.  I’ve always held that the most satisfying part of working in planning is the opportunity to widen a person’s understanding of the practical and political processes around policy making and the joy of knowing that whilst they still object to new housing abutting their back fence, they now do so with legitimate, objective and sensible reasoning, reasoning that can at least be taken into account in determining or advancing the proposal.

But for the most part, consultation and engagement – or whatever it might be called in an overly sensitive world – often excludes children and young people, and it does so to its detriment.  A couple of roles I’ve held in the past have made it their business to actively engage primary and secondary school children in the consideration of the changes taking place in their neighbourhood.  In my experience, this has been eye-opening, rewarding and beneficial to the place and the kids.

The first of these was aimed at teenagers.  The aim of the project was to introduce teenagers of around 14-16 to the idea of change in their neighbourhood, to explain how the process of change worked, to let them contribute to that process and allow them to speak about what they thought was best for them and the place.  The young people approached this task with enormous enthusiasm and intelligence, and contributed valuable lessons to elected members and officers in the Boroughs which had volunteered for the project.  Teenagers are often perceived as irresponsible, lazy or lacking motivation or care, but the experience in this work was very much the opposite.

The second project I wanted to mention involved a primary school in a deprived part of a Midlands town.  The school had a very poor environment with a very poor educational reputation.  Our organisation was asked to work with the school kids on raising awareness of the changes going on around them (the estate was to be the subject of some fairly major regeneration over the following ten or more years).   The tool for doing this was a game, played a day a week over six weeks, in which the kids each built a little circular house and were asked to place it in a made up environment with a river, a forest and some meadows.  They were asked why they placed it where they did, and asked to chose a profession (the boys wanted to be soldiers, the girls wanted to be shopkeepers – but some had to be priests and hunters).  They were asked to trade and choose leaders; some trades were riskier than others and the leaders had to make tough decisions.  Eventually, their community was invaded by people who wanted to change their livelihoods, and they were asked if they wanted to go with it or resist.

During the project, the kids were excited, focused and responsive; even those with a bad reputation played the game week on week.  They remembered the game through the week and looked forward to it, playing out their roles in the playground with classmates and teachers.

What they learned about this community they built was then related to their own environment; they told their parents about it and their friends and neighbours.  It was a highly effective and highly successful little project that amazed many adults with its ability to engage young minds that were thought to be rather closed to education.

Both these projects, along with the Toddle in the City project, have opened my eyes to the ability of young people to take complex ideas and express themselves within and around it, provided that the information they are using to do this is appropriately weighted and presented.  Any young person can offer a unique perspective on the world which has the power to astonish, bewilder and influence.  We should give them the credit to do this and not be so willing to dismiss young people on the conformist, cynical, structured and stereotypical views and opinions we often hold as adults.

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