Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Hugs in an envelope

As a greetings card publisher – that is someone who designs and makes greetings cards – Christmas is a pretty busy time of year.  Traditionally, it’s the time when most people buy and send cards and, before the advent of online technology, people did just that.  In the last few years, this long established tradition has, like so many physical things – shops, books, magazines and physical music – started to dwindle and die.  And the world is always a lesser place because of it.

Over the past three or four years, I’ve noticed more e-cards, more physical cards with nasty printed messages that people have typed on a computer before sending their card via Moonpig out of Guernsey and more apologetic standard emails from friends explaining that they’re not sending cards at all and, hey, Happy Christmas!  Receiving any of these things, as a person who has dedicated much time and effort making unique cards (and I confess I have a vested interest), is terribly depressing.

E-cards are probably the worst; cheerless animations with twinkly jingles that go on for ages but serve only to block up your inbox with all the other unsolicited crap that you have to delete on a daily basis because unsubscribing is a gloomy and monotonous task.  The other two just miss the point of going out and choosing a card, writing a message in it and sending it to someone you care about.  Receiving a card is one of life’s very small pleasures, and the selfless nature of sending is manifested in the fact that the sender doesn’t even get to see that joy.

There are lots of reasons for not writing Christmas cards, not least the time and the effort involved and, having written mine this year, I appreciate the argument.  In addition, it’s becoming expensive with the rising cost of cards and postage.  Further, the advent of technology does allow mass communication much more easily, though technology also makes us a lazy bunch.

But I see it like this.  I don’t tend to give cards to people I see every day – work colleagues, my wife, people I’ll see during the festive period – because that seems a bit silly.  But I have family and friends dotted all over the country and in other parts of the world that I never see from year to year because of those constraints of time, distance and resources and because with our other commitments the days seem to go by so quickly.  If, however, I cherish those relationships, friendships and links and I haven’t nurtured them all year, the least – the very least – I can do is find a card they’d like, write a few well chosen and individual words inside and send it to them to let them know that I’m thinking of them.  I don’t think spending around £1 per card – probably less – is particularly excessive to do that.

The feedback I get when I’m selling cards at markets and events is that, on the whole, customers buy them for other people.  They tend to take time to think what a person would like, and might be drawn to my cards because they think the recipient might like it.  They often take care and consideration to get it right. Cards are happy things – we like to give them and we like to receive them.  They are simple, well understood and appreciated.  They are a hug in an envelope.  I think we should make the effort to send them.


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The gathering case for street play

I had a little moment in the sun today, as I shared the bill – along with a neighbour of mine – with Diane Abbott MP at a national conference held at City Hall in London (and, yes, Boris popped his head in as well).

My neighbour and I had been invited to address a conference organised by London Play and Play England about our experiences in organising a play street over the past few months and, in particular, the opposition we’ve faced from an aggressive minority in doing this.  Our experience, it seems, is fairly unique.  Most streets wanting to allow more time and a safer environment for their children to play out in seem to have a relatively simple ride in achieving this, and the events themselves – which involve closing local residential roads to through traffic for a short period to allow supervised play for kids – have been popular, successful, happy and neighbourly events that those who engaged with wanted to repeat.  Our experience – in which our efforts have been so far scuppered by fears about paedophilia (which raised a laugh from today’s audience), abduction and damage to property – is the exception.  By contrast, the Borough of Hackney have now organised 17 play streets, had over 2000 children engage in it and 1800 adults involved, with only 3 complaints.

And it appears that momentum continues to gather about the benefits to everyone of giving more time to children to play outside their houses.  All those involved in street play report better neighbourhoods, new friendships, happier children mixing with kids of different ages, and children being creative with open space, making noise and having everyday adventures.  Diane Abbott referred herself to the British love affair with cars which overtook our love of our children sometime in the 1980s when, as London Play’s Paul Hocker explained, play streets disappeared from our country after being a familiar and valued asset for nearly 150 years.  Another commented that children playing in the street was a fundamentally social activity.  Driving cars in streets made them dangerous, noisy and dirty – in essence, driving was anti-social.  Logically, it should be drivers that are limited from driving in streets – not kids banned from playing in them.

We have the fattest kids in Europe.  About 25% of kids in Hackney are obese by the age of 11, and a further 16% are overweight (Enfield has a higher rate).  Fat kids generally make for fat adults.  Obesity can cause problems with diabetes, heart problems and cancer in later life, and diabetes now accounts for 20% of the national NHS drugs budget.  We have to get our kids out and exercising; we cannot continue to engage them in sedentary activities and leisure pursuits that require them to consume or to provide instant gratification.  Kids, by their nature, run around, make noise, explore, make up worlds, find each other.  One of the best places to do this is their own street, where they can explore risk, cross boundaries, be creative, become familiar with the wonders of the world and the value of their own communities and environment.  It’s illogical to think any other way.

The vote for our play street ends on December 9.  We hope to get a ‘yes’ vote, but even if we don’t, we’ll be carrying on extolling the benefits of kids playing out until we do.  And after today, I know we have plenty of weight behind our case.

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