Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Lifts in Shops – a rant

I’m coming to the end of my time as a part time house-husband as the need for a bigger income because of increased outgoings starts to really bite.  I have to re-enter to world of the full time worker, which is a real shame as I’ve loved having more time than most dads do with my kids.

It was my last Friday with my youngest, on his own, last week.  I’d decided to go into central London on the train with a view to going to Spitalfields first, and then perhaps going on to the river or the South Bank.  As it happened, his sleep patterns changed and I altered my plans after Spitalfields to have a coffee and pick up some new socks and pants from Marks and Spencer on Moorgate.  I know; memorable.

I know this particular branch from past lives working in this general area – it’s a big branch in the heart of the City with four floors and a pretty full range of services available in store.  On entering with Bub in the pushchair, asleep, I noted that menswear was on the second floor and went off to find the lift.  I didn’t find a lift and asked back at the front of the store where it was.  There is no lift.  THERE IS NO LIFT!!  Retailers get pretty sniffy about pushchairs on escalators (most have a sign asking pushchairs to use….the lift, or ever worse, to fold the pushchair up – can you imagine!), and I was offered the service lift as an alternative, which I refused as being awkward, inconvenient and second class.

I’ve had my fair share of shoddy experiences with the kids in our fine capital city – the badly located shelving in Ryman, the poorly thought out changing rooms in Pizza Hut, overlooking fathers in Daunt Books – but this one is especially annoying as I expect better of Marks and Spencer.  But it masks a wider problem with lifts in shops.

Moorgate Marks and Spencers aside, most stores with a couple of floors will have a lift for people with buggies and for those with difficulties using stairs (I’m pretty sure it’s a requirement of the Disability Discrimination Act).  However, my experience is one of being largely inconvenienced by a lot of lifts.  Clothing and homeware store, Next, is particularly bad, with lifts often small and at the back of the store (whilst stairs are usually at the front), badly signposted and difficult to access because of the densely packed clothing racks – a recent example was the Marble Arch store.  The lift in the Brent Cross Marks and Spencer is by the entrance to the store, but if you come in via the wrong entrance or miss it because it’s a busy shopping day, the signage within the store is pretty poor.

Exacerbating the problem of lifts is the layout of stores.  Often childrens clothing is on upper floors or in the basement.  Clearly, people wanting to buy kids clothes are much more likely to have pushchairs than those who are not, and it seems ridiculous to require people with buggies to find the lift, wait for it and use it to access upper floors when having clothing on the ground floor would be much more practical.  The possible reason for not doing this is economic (i.e. the largest returns are from female fashion which is therefore placed in the most visible and accessible place)

And here lies a further problem; requiring people with buggies to use the lifts to access the clothes they need to buy often means that lift capacity is inadequate.  This will be increasingly noticeable in the run up to Christmas, but is apparent on many weekends.  The worst culprit I’ve seen in this regard is supposed British icon, Hamleys which, last time I visited, had totally inadequate lifts which lead to long queues and aisles stuffed with pushchairs waiting to get up and/or down.  The experience was horrible and has ensured that I’ll never go back.

I know times are austere, but the impression I’m left with is that people with pushchairs are secondary in the minds of those designing and planning retail environments.  Sure, many can point to the provision of a lift, but in practice it’s often a fraught process because of inadequate signage, inadequate capacity required usage and reduced mobility.  Moving about the city environment is hard enough with any number of kids and has many challenges.  It would be nice to think that retailers could have a go at making it that tiny amount more palatable by addressing some of the problems caused by the location and accessibility of their products to those with buggies (or in the case of Moorgate M&S, putting a lift in at all).

Leave a comment »

New and Original

I was looking for something to watch on telly last Saturday night, knowing full well that for several years Saturday night telly has been populated by the same old carbon copied garbage that’s been on for years.  I also know that criticising either the X-Factor or Strictly is incredibly lazy and will also invoke the ire of the millions who watch it and love it.  But here goes anyway.

My channel hopping was fruitless, and I did end up landing on the X-Factor for a few minutes.  I had caught some of the previous week, mainly out of an interest in seeing what Robbie Williams had to say about the six women who’d got through to the latter stages.  It meant I knew that this week was the first week of the live shows, and I thought it might have been interesting.  I was also intrigued with it being ’80s week; frequent readers will know I’m a bit of an 80s kid.

I happened to chance upon a boy band, Kingsland Road, which piqued my interest because I know Kingsland Road in Dalston very well.  The boys were larking around before they performed; a harmless, multi-cultural bunch with fluffy comb-over hair and nice smiles, they seemed anodyne and inoffensive enough.  Gary Barlow, their mentor, was apparently taken back to the first time he was in a band on seeing them.  Aww.  Gary built up the song and then, there they were, on stage, five boys behind microphones, dressed inoffensively in black and white, parping out a smoothed over version of Wham’s, ‘I’m Your Man’.  It was okay.  Nothing more.  (Sam Bailey’s ‘The Power of Love’ which I caught on Sunday whilst channel hopping again, was far superior.  And I really hated the original, not least because it kept ‘Take on Me’ off number 1).

Now, I’m no expert on music, but I do love it.  X-Factor frustrates me on many levels, not least because it pretends that it’s finding the stand out stars of tomorrow when, in fact, it’s making unchallenging, unmemorable peak time entertainment for a mainstream Saturday night audience.   Perhaps because of his role as mentor, Gary gushed about the boys.  He decided they were ‘new and original’, but I really couldn’t see it.  What on earth is new or original about five early twenty-somethings dressed in black and white and belting out a tune that’s older than them in a saccharine manner, in an over produced, over hyped environment?  Nothing.  The whole appeal of X-Factor is in the fact that it’s not new and original – in fact, it’s old and very familiar and totally unchallenging.

Witness Matt Cardle, who releases his third album this week.  Winner of X-Factor in 2010, his first single made number 1; his first album, number 2, was certified platinum.  His second album reached number 8 and was certified silver.  Lead single from the second album reached number 175, and whilst lead single from this third album got to number 14 (with the help of Spice girl, Mel C), it’ll be interesting to see how the album does.  He’s a typical former contestant of X-Factor who made unremarkable cardie and slippers music for X-Factor viewers and then discovered that X-Factor viewers aren’t really that interested in loyalty to artists or sustaining their art.

Also this week, new albums are released by Paddy McAloon and Anna Calvi.  Both gifted, musically talented and original (check out McAloon’s ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’), it would be interesting to hear Gary Barlow’s opinion of either.  Neither will sell well compared to the the winning act on X-Factor, but that’s also because X-Factor pretends that volume of sales is equivalent to musical integrity.  Of course, this kind of genuinely new and original stuff wouldn’t get very far on Saturday night telly and, with that, I rest my case.

Leave a comment »

Everyday Sexism

I see a lot in the media about the damaging effects of some magazines aimed at young men.  I’ve never bought the likes of Nuts or Loaded myself, so I have no great experience of the content of such magazines.  Indeed, I don’t even buy any of the sorts of magazines that are probably aimed at me – GQ, Esquire, Men’s Health and the like – because I find them overpriced and rather dull (and a bit too male).  I did buy magazines once, mainly about new music, but as a society we’ve decided we like the old stuff best, so no-one seems to be interested in writing those any more.

And I’m not hugely convinced that having semi-naked women in magazines does lead to a warped sense of what women should be amongst men, because men still walk around in the normal world, and I’d hope that most can distinguish real life from fantasy (sighs).  And besides, I remember Don Draper – of Mad Men – explaining to fictional colleague, Peggy Olsen, that thin, pretty women sell diet drinks to fat women not because they are the target audience for the sale of diet drinks, but because men like thin pretty, women and women want to be thin, pretty women.  And I’m not especially convinced of that either.

I’m not sure where this gets us, but I’ve always been alarmed by the superficial content of women’s glossy magazines and of the perception I have that thin, pretty (and often naked) women seem to sell stuff to other women as much as they sell it to men.  So, I dived into the November 2013 issue of Red, and these are the results:

362 pages of which 192 were adverts or promotions/product tie ins.  Of the 192 pages of adverts, and excluding Red promotions and its own back-slapping (41 pages), the top seven were fashion (23), perfume (20), skincare (20), hair (17), jewellery/watches (15); accessories (10) and make-up (8).  There were seven adverts for specific products, and these included Persil, Febreze, Ariel, Flash, Sebo (a vacuum cleaner) and Always.

Of the 170 remaining pages, 32 were essentially taken up by three fashion shoots, one of which featured Yasmin le Bon.  There were six features totalling 22 pages (22 pages!!), which included one on John Bishop and one on David Cameron and his parenting style.  There was a special report on anti-ageing, which included Thandie Newton, a whole load of product placement and four pages with a cosmetic surgeon.  A further 36 pages were taken up with zeitgeist tips/photos about fashion, beauty and accessories.

There were no pictures of topless oily male mechanics carrying two tyres, or firemen rescuing puppies.

Now, I’m not going to judge, but I suspect that women’s glossies serve only to reinforce gender stereotypes in the same way men’s magazines do.  So, women want to be beautiful, have glossy hair and shiny watches and dress impeccably well when they’re armed with their vitamins and Febreze, in the same way that men all have six-packs, drive red sports cars and gawk at breasts.

Back in the real world, I’ve written before about the troubles I’ve encountered in every day life being a father who takes time off in the week to be with his kids – bookshops that still have Mother and Baby sections, changing facilities that don’t cater for fathers in the way they cater for mothers and only last week I was outnumbered by women 26 to 1 at the toddlers sing and play at the local library.  With all we say about equality between the genders, and all our lovely laws about it, in practice there’s an awfully long way to go.

One of the columns in November’s Red was written by Emma Barnett, women’s editor of the Daily Telegraph.  She talks of the extremes of feminism – the bra burning, aggressive lefties and the power-suited, media hungry, female capitalists.  She calls for a more joyous feminism in the middle ground in order to have a more constructive debate about ‘everyday sexism‘; the sort of feminism demonstrated by Caitlin Moran or Sarah Millican.  I’m all for that, and I want to be a part of it.  But how long can we realistically expect a visible, sensible change to take?

Leave a comment »

Begging on a Train

I had one of those tiny incidents happen today that got me thinking about one’s lot once again, but it offered no resolutions or answers; just a stark realisation of the complexities of the world and how it happens to people and presents itself in all its forms to others.

I was travelling on the Overground from Highbury to Homerton.  It had just started raining; it was unpleasant to be outside on the station platform, even with cover.  The train arrived, I got in, and leaned in a space by the door continuing to read my book.  All the seats were taken, some people were standing and the train had that atmosphere of isolation in a crowd that trains in London have; anonymity in plain view of everyone, surreptitiously looking at people, whilst pretending to look past them.

The community-enforced silence was broken at Hackney Central, when a man got on and started to address the carriage.  His voice was quiet, nervous, but audible over the only sound, that of the wheels on the track as the train left the station.  He started by apologising for the intrusion, expressed a desire not to annoy or embarrass, explained he was homeless in London and asked for change or left over food or drink, especially water.

He stopped and, for an awkward few seconds, nothing happened.  I noticed his plain black t-shirt, the black frayed rucksack on his back with a scrunched up ‘Sun’ poking out of a torn and tattered hole at the top.  He wasn’t unkempt; his hair was tidy for instance, and he looked like many people do in terms of his dress, but he did look pale and tired.  He reached up to the orange handrail above him, and I noticed the black fingers and dirt round his fingernails and was suddenly vaguely aware of a stale wet smell.  I checked; it was still raining, and I thought of him caught in it with nowhere to go for shelter.  A girl who was seated reached out and gave him something.  A man gave him the remaining third of his bottle of water.  As the train pulled into Homerton and I left the train, he was negotiating with another for a muesli bar.

It is easy to be cynical about this encounter, and probably just as easy to be romantic.  I have no doubt that the Daily Mail would have hated him.  I felt that his appeal and what he told us about his circumstances was genuine.  I was suddenly struck by how difficult it would to be live life homeless in London with the slow, unpredictable, minutes ticking by, and what it might take to get onto a train of strangers, awkward in being passengers with each other, never mind responding to unsolicited requests from homeless people intruding and asking for money and food.  Could you be that person?  I imagine it takes courage brought on only by a certain level of desperation.

His approach – polite, modest and apologetic – at least brought him some reward and I was as impressed by the human response to him as much as the way he asked.

As is usual with my blogging exploits, I’m not entirely sure where this leaves us. However, being snapped out of a relatively cosy existence – with my concerns over a slightly inadequate jacket for a short walk through a passing rainy day and my consumption of a book that’s marginally too clever for me – into the far deeper troubles of another, if only fleetingly, is enough to make me think more widely for a moment, and this in itself feels like a good enough reason to share it with you.

Leave a comment »