Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Play time in Hackney

One of the unexpected consequences of the demise of Woolworths just over a year ago has been the effect on independent toy shops.Woolies was once the biggest retailer of toys in the UK and that gap has to be filled somehow.

Luckily for those of us who like to see our high streets filled with something other than identikit chain stores, local toy shops seem to be flourishing in Hackney. Three in particular come to mind:

Buggies and Bikes in Broadway Market

The Toybox in Victoria Park

Three Potato Four in Newington Green

The great thing about these shops is that they all have a character of their own. Without wanting to sound too poncey about it, the owners seem to care about toys and almost curate their stock rather than simply ordering from a giant toy catalogue. The selection of toys is individual to each, so you don't get that sense of deja vu when you walk in the door.

I remember how magical I found toy shops when I was a child. There was a great sense of the importance of every purchase - carefully weighing up what you could afford, whether it was going to impress your friends, and whether your parents would let you buy it. (Mine had a thing against 'plastic rubbish' which was quite odd as my dad was foreman in a plastic injection moulding factory that made a lot of Fisher Price toys. These were not classed as rubbish, but the competition inevitably was.)

The Toybox is probably our favourite as it is the shop we visit most often. My son loves a little table of Wow trucks and lorries that is a honeypot for all the children who visit. Wow toys themselves are quite expensive, but the shop has lots of great pocket money purchases, including a range of collectable wooden fruit and vegetables that are displayed in a cute greengrocer's rack. Overall the shop appeals to children's imaginations with toys that will stand the test of time.

Another interesting aspect of these new toys shops is that they are not just toy shops. Partly out of economic necessity I suppose, they have added other aspects to their business models. With Toybox and Three Potato Four, it's children's hairdressing. Buggies and Bikes runs a range of classes and activities for parents and kids that makes it more of a destination for parents.

Another shop that is worth a visit is Merry Go Round in Clarence Road. Not strictly a toy shop, it stocks second hand children's items from clothes and buggies to books and toys. It's amazing to see how much you can save by picking up something nearly new. Somebody's trash can be your treasure.

Play is an important part of childhood and it's not all about buying stuff. A visit to a great toy shop can be a stimulating experience in its own right to a two year old.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

No coincidences in Sinclair world

Local author Iain Sinclair was signing the paperback copy of his book Hackney, That Red Rose Empire outside our local bookshop at the weekend. However I missed it due to an antenatal class at Homerton hospital. Well, my wife attended the class, while I walked the corridors of the spookily empty hospital explaining to our two year old the various things we saw.

(We're at the endless questions stage. "What's that daddy?"
"It's a chair."
"But what is it daddy?"
"Well, it's a chair actually."
"What does it do?"

Actually, come to think of it, the experience was quite Sinclairian.

It was a shame to miss it though. Firstly, I wanted to see if he actually made it, or was blocked from Broadway Market by the council's henchmen. Apparently they took offence at his dim view of the Olympics and barred him from speaking in council venues when the book came out in hardback. They took a dim view of a lengthy piece he'd written in the London Review of Books voicing his concerns about the 'Lympics.

Secondly, having read the book I feel like I'm sort of stalking Iain, or he's stalking me. It's an odd sensation to have your stomping ground mapped so assiduously. My history in Hackney is just over ten years, whereas Iain's dates back to the Sixties or Seventies. We've both seen changes.

This was brought home to me the other week when I was browsing a book of photos of Hackney from the early Eighties. One of the black and white shots was of the playground next to the Pub on the Park. This is a favourite of ours and somewhere I've seen Iain Sinclair a couple of times with his wife and grandchild (I told you this post was stalkerish. In my defence, he mentions his grandchildren in the book, and their birth in Homerton Hospital. He is also highly visible in Hackney as he walks constantly around the borough).

Anyway, the playground in the picture was a rather depressing and bare place with a slide and some swings on a patch of scruffy grass. See Iain, some things do get better over time.

I suppose the point I'm working towards is that there are no coincidences in Sinclair world, so it was probably just as well that I didn't make it to the book signing. Who knows what might have happened. The earth might have folded in on itself or something.

The book itself is fascinating, although being so familiar with the area, I found that his slightly dyspeptic view of the borough didn't chime with my own. This hasn't been the case when I've read his other books - it's his unique perspective that I enjoy. But if his philosophy is about anything, it's about how we relate to our surroundings, and I guess I'm a bit of a happy, clappy Hackney champion. Hell, I even think the Olympics will be great. Yes the Lea Valley will have lost an urban wilderness, but it would have been developed sometime and somehow. At least with 2012 there is something of a grand plan in place, and I'm a sucker for those.

Maybe I'm too literal in how I think of psychogeography, but I was surprised that he didn't mention the effect of the borough's murder rate on Hackneyites. In the relatively short time that I've lived here I'm struck by the number of places that I now associate with death. Within a few hundred yards of here in any direction there are places where, usually young men have died. In front of the town hall, London Fields, Dalston Shopping Centre, Amhurst Road...

As I walk the borough I find it hard to dissociate myself from this violence, and yet I remain a great fan of Hackney and its people. It's a complex place.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

How musical bumps saved me from the recession

I've been slightly distracted over the past 18 months, what with bringing up baby and being a semi-stay at home dad. In an earlier post, I'd predicted that it was maybe a good time to ease back on work commitments, as there wasn't much of it about anyway. Hmmm, that one's come back to bite me on the bum.

The thing I've found about trying to combine childcare and work is that you have to be careful that you don't end up shortchanging both. There have been times when I was crying out for somebody to take J off my hands for a little while (and I was lucky enough to have a friend who did just that on a few occasions - thanks Alecia. Unfortunately she's gone back to Australia).

You can end up rushing work, or not giving it the mythical 110 per cent. Sometimes that doesn't matter - good enough can be good enough. At other times, I wonder if I've put myself back in the pecking order, or completely dropped off people's radar. It's not a good time for that to happen.

Splitting your loyalties means that you sometimes end up resenting your child because you can't devote extra time to a project, but it has also been a great release valve. As work slowed down, I found that the days when I was full time dadding were very calming. I came to realise (and was told in no uncertain terms by my wife) that that was my priority. There's no point sitting around feeling sorry for yourself when you have a toddler to entertain. It's a lot easier for everyone if you just leave your work baggage at the door of musical bumps, or whatever class, playgroup or kiddie event you are attending and just get on with it.

It seems counter intuitive, but I'm sure that I would have been a lot more stressed if I didn't have a child as I watched work drain away during the recession. I've always felt that I was doing something worthwhile, even if the pay was lousy.

Now, however I'm back to being available five days a week, and my wife is on maternity leave with pay that will not last forever. I really have to pick up the slack. Luckily, I feel slightly tempered to the new reality of work. There's really no point getting uptight, especially with another one on the way. That will be stress enough.