Monday, December 09, 2013

First week of Advent Streak

Alf Tupper: my running inspiration
Well, this has been interesting. As detailed in my last post, I'm doing an advent streak this year, which is committing to running every day up to Christmas. I'm not sure whether this includes Christmas Day, or is that a day off for good behaviour?
My goals, such as they are, are very low. As long as I run a mile a day, then I'm ticking off the runs. However I've actually done a bit better than that. Two miles is my low benchmark and I haven't failed to hit it yet. Some days I've done a bit better. Overall I'm gradually increasing the distance, but slowly so I don't put myself off.
The first week wasn't as bad as I thought as I seem to have a better underlying level of fitness than I thought. The cycling I have been doing over the past year or so has obviously helped, as does the overall body workout of having two young sons.
I've been progressively less out of breath as the week has gone on, and less stiff. Days three and four were a bit hard as I was seizing up a bit, but I think I've got through it. My right knee remains slightly sore, but once I get going it's okay.
Even though it's only been a relatively short period of time, I've been really surprised what's happened to my body. With just a small amount of exercise and no real change to my diet, it's been very noticeable to me that everything has tightened up quite quickly. I feel quite toned - like!
I have even invested in my first ever pair of running tights and high vis top for night runs. I'm used to running in any old gear I have around, so for me this marks quite a commitment to professionalism. I'm sure Alf Tupper will never forgive me though and I might have to trade in my Green Flash next.
Apart from that it's just one man in tights plodding round the park - no Nike+, no GPS apps, no split times. I don't know how fast I'm running - not very is my guess, but probably getting a little bit faster each time. I was set to do a Parkrun last Saturday, but bottled it at the thought of running with people who were a bit more race ready than me. I did my own 5.5K later that day just to see that I could, but don't think I'll be in a state to go against the clock in the next couple of weeks - see below.
Will I keep going? I don't see why not. Apart from the very windy day last week, I've been lucky with the weather, which can be off putting. A big challenge will be running through a hangover. I haven't had one of those yet, but there are a couple of Christmas bashes coming up which I can't see being lemonade shandy affairs, and I'm not a shandy kind of guy.
There are some limits to the pursuit of fitness.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Can a month of running change your life?

I am a one for obsessive behavior, so when I heard about the advent streak it sounded like a great challenge.
The idea is that in the month leading up to Christmas Day, you undertake to run every day. For someone like me who is constantly looking back wistfully on the carefree, pre-children days when I was in superb physical shape (time does play tricks on the mind I know), it seems an opportunity to kickstart a bit of a fitness regime.
This is a theme that has emerged throughout my life. The first time I can remember getting serious about fitness was when I was about 12 or 13 when school sport started to get more competitive. Although I took part in school sports and played for school and club football and rugby teams, there was always a feeling that in order to get to the next level I needed to be doing something more off my own bat. I think I'd seen too many Rocky films.
I had a friend Paul who was forever talking about "getting superfit" and who would take himself off on evening runs to this effect. Before long I was trying to do the same. Throughout my life it has always been running that seemed to hold the key to mythical superfit status. Maybe it's because it allows you to push yourself to a point where you really feel you have nothing more to give. It must be doing some good!
The problem for me is that I've never been that good at running distances. I'm the wrong shape really - short legs, bulky, more of a sprinter I used to think until Usain Bolt came along and blew that myth out of the water.
I have tried over the years to push on through the burn, but it's never come easy to me, even back in my peak running days - pre-kids and pre-marriage, natch - when I could push out a 5 mile run round the parks and canals of Hackney with relative ease. However I never felt there was much else in the tank - certainly no marathon on my bucket list.
In recent years I've gone completely off running due to (perceived?) lack of time and foot problems which the rare bout of running did no favours. But since number one son went to school I've been doing cycling, initially pulling him by trailer, and that was a pretty good daily work out. Now that he can ride himself, that's gone, since he doesn't want to cycle all the time. We do the school run by car most days.
So, advent streak!
Basically you commit to running a minimum distance every day. I've set the bar very low at one mile. I've worked out the point in our local park that I have to get to before I can quit. I'm happy to say that so far I've exceeded it - only by another mile, and I'm only on day three, so let's not get carried away.
But it feels good! My legs have been a bit stiff, but nothing I can't handle, and I anticipate this will ease. I also anticipate that I'll build my mileage to get in a longer run or two during the week or at the weekend. Again, I'm taking it easy because I want this to be the start of something longer lasting.
Which brings me back to the question posed in the blog title. Can a month of obsession change your behaviour?
My personal experience here comes from repeated no booze Januaries, something that I've done for so long that I can generally, and fairly smugly breeze through it. There's something about the process of denying yourself that I find quite gratifying, but at the end of the day it has not tempered my taste for alcohol. Nothing tastes so sweet as that first pint in February, unless its the subsequent three or four in the same session.
In some ways, the fact that I usually have a month off at the beginning of the year allows me to ignore how much I drink for the rest of the year. My behaviour becomes ingrained.
So, we'll see with this running thing. I'm keen that it will help me become more active generally, and perhaps lead to more social running. I've always viewed running as quite a solitary affair - no partner, no earphones, just man and his creaking bones against the march of time - but I know some guys in Colchester who run together. Perhaps I'll get to a stage where I'm good enough to join them. If not I'll be happy to keep plodding my weary mile until my knees really do give out.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Where now for the all day drinker?

When I first lived in Hackney, my mates and I used to have a little game of dare where we would pick a pub that we considered a bit rough and see if we would risk having a pint in there.
Now, none of us were G&T drinkers, just ordinary lads who liked a pint, but there were some pubs that you would thing twice about before going in. Some of them had dodgy reputations for being bars where you would get a doing if you looked out of place. Some of them were just dirty and horrible, where the beer tasted as if it had been watered down with Fairy Liquid. At any rate, they were 'rough'.
It seems quite a nostalgic thing now as I see that yet another of these hell holes has turned over a new leaf, or gone over to new management, and in the process has set its sights on new customers.
I'm doing some research on beer at the moment and noticed that The Cock Tavern on Mare Street is now a brewpub.

The Cock!

This pub, once home to the most pungently over-deodorised loos in Hackney - the smell of lemon toilet blocks would hit you as soon as you walked in, and stayed lodged in your throat throughout the course of your pint of Fosters - is now home to the Howling Hops Brewery. Here you can sup a Pacific light ale, a chocolate stout or the obligatory new take on porter (smoked, natch).
Don't get me wrong, it sounds like a great pub and one that I wish Colchester had. It's just slightly comical to see how Hackney has gone from being the home of artisan baking to the home of craft beer so quickly.
As well as having an almost unfair share of microbreweries such as the London Fields Brewery (which has its own tap), Hackney Brewery and the new Truman's brewery, it has some great pubs, hardly any of them rough.
And that's my slight (first world) problem. There's a shattering lack of variety in the pub stock of the area, particularly for the old punters who used to be the lifeblood of many of these boozers. Where do they go to drink now?
Looking at the list of pubs I remember from my not so distant Hackney past, it's amazing how many of them have changed:

The Cock - see above
The Ship - previously a basic boozer which has gradually upped its game to a more leather sofa-ed vibe
The Spurstowe - on my old street. This used to be the lock in pub - just tap on the door. The last time I was in, it was a suis generis gastropub with overpriced food, snooty bar staff and unbearable customers. (Yes, I know that makes me sounds as old as I really am)
The Prince Arthur - this used to be an almost underground phenomenon where ageing single gentlemen would meet to compare 78s and listen to Radio 2 (I'm not making this up). Now, it's another gastropub of good quality if limited appeal for just drinking
The Cat & Mutton - rough pub that previously had football shirts hanging from the ceiling - probably torn from the lifeless bodies of those who'd come in wearing the wrong colours. Now a gastropub for the Broadway Market set
The Pembury Tavern - I have to admit that I don't remember this place under former management and it's actually got a great set of ales. However it takes Bitcoin payment so must be labelled 'achingly hip'
The London Fields - I once spent a frightening St Patrick's Day in here being assailed by drunk and threatening regulars wanting to know where I was from - England was the wrong answer, luckily for me. Now, it seems to be a DJ-infested drinking joint. Sigh!

I'm sure there are still boozers where I would take my life in my hands if I asked for a tasting stick, but they're increasingly few and far between.
Maybe it's better that pubs are saved by appealing to a new and hipper audience rather than becoming bookies as so many have, especially in East London. 
However, it's also another example of how quickly Hackney is changing and I'm sure it's not something that everybody is comfortable with.
Wake me up when Wetherspoons rings last orders.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Will you just behave...

My latest column from the Colchester NCT magazine, by the miracle of cut and paste.

No respect: this is what I'm talking about
As all parents know, children don’t come with a manual. Despite the number of ‘experts’ who try and convince you otherwise, you are largely on your own when it comes to working out what works for your own set up. Everyone is different, and everyone finds their own way.
That isn’t to say that we don’t all face common issues, such as how to bond with our children, how to get them to sleep when they should, how to potty train them, and how to get them to listen to what we tell them at least some of the time.
Behaviour can be one of the toughest areas to get right in parenting. If you’re too tough, you can stifle your children and damage your relationship with them. If you’re too lenient, then you’re not doing them any favours in the long run. I know that there is a belief among some parents that saying ‘no’ to children is unnecessarily negative and that you should find more imaginative ways of diverting their attention.
My attitude is that there is a whole world of ‘no’ out there, and that the sooner they learn about it, the better prepared they will be.
Whoops! I’ve outed myself as tough, inflexible dad already. Except I’m not really. At least not all of the time. Like most parents I suspect I’m a mix of good cop and bad cop, sometimes inconsistently so. I love my children, but I want them to be well behaved, whatever that means.

Feet up: an example of bad behaviour
Because when it comes to behaviour, it’s not always clear what is ‘good’. What you classify as high spiritedness, might be completely unacceptable to another parent, and vice versa. We also tend to change from one day to the next. Jumping on the bed is fine when it’s the weekend, but not when you’re looking forward to that last 15 minutes of kip before sloping off to work.
There are times when my two are driving me insane that I definitely snap into bad cop mode and start issuing summary justice – no TV today… or tomorrow, that toy is confiscated, and go to your room!
Then when my wife asks what the problem was I’m forced to admit that it was something fairly trivial – they were shouting or being annoyingly boisterous when I was trying to read the paper. “They are five and three,” she will patiently explain, putting me firmly in my place.
As a parent, you have to ask what it is that you expect of your children and why. Some basics are fairly universal: don’t hit other children, don’t tell lies, be polite, and so on. Others are more mixed up with our own attitudes and beliefs. Twenty or 30 years ago, children were probably expected to be a bit more ‘seen and not heard’, but do many people subscribe to that now? We may have different expectations of our children than our parents did of us, and that includes behaviour.
One of the challenges for many dads is that they may work during the day, so they aren’t around when behavioural issues arise. As such, they can feel out of the loop on decisions that have been made. There is also the danger that dad is cast in the ‘wait ‘til your father gets home’ role. No dad really wants to get in after a day at work to find themselves as the moral arbiter when they just want some family time, however that can be the nature of the parenting team.
Where there are two parents, instilling good behaviour and tackling behavioural problems is a question of teamwork. Both of you need to be consistent in your approach because it can take time to change behaviour, if that is what you are trying to do. Small children forget things. They’ve got a lot going on in their lives, so constant and gentle reminding is important, if a little wearing for parents.
As can the continual refrain of “Why?” Although the temptation to yell, “Because I say so,” can be overbearing at times, you should always explain why you want children to do something. Children can have a strong sense of what’s fair and unfair, so you need to make sure that they know why they are being asked to do something, or told off.
You also need to be sure why you are doing it. Is a child’s behaviour an issue because it is dangerous, selfish or discourteous, or is it just annoying or embarrassing you at this particular moment. What’s to be gained from making it a big issue? Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
Similarly, parents can’t be hypocrites as this is soon picked up by their offspring. There is no point telling your children that something is wrong if you do it yourself. From reading at the table to shouting and bawling around the house. If it’s a house rule, it should apply to all. Dads should be role models.
When behaviour is becoming unacceptable, don’t suddenly snap. Let the children know that what they are doing is not acceptable and that if they continue to do it then something – spell out what – is going to happen. Be proportionate with your punishments. There are only so many times you can cancel Christmas, especially if you start in February.
If you do bring in a penalty, then be prepared to use it. There’s no point backtracking as it will only leave issues to be dealt with later.
Of course behaviour is as much about the carrot as the stick, probably more so. Praising good behaviour and letting your children know that you have noticed them doing a good or thoughtful thing is the most powerful tool in your box. And it’s a lot more fun than having to be ‘bad dad’.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bye, bye Colchester giraffes

Tall story: a decorated giraffe
It was a sad day in town today as we noted that Colchester's much loved Stand Tall giraffes have been moved on.
For the past couple of months Colchester has been dotted with an array of fibreglass statues of giraffes decorated by local artists and school children. The initiative is to tie in with the 50th anniversary of Colchester Zoo and to raise funds for its conservation work - the statues are now to be auctioned.
The campaign resembles Cow Parade and Spirit Bears in the City which have used a similar approach. However Colchester Zoo and its agents must be congratulated for an ambitious approach that has really brought a lot of fun to the town over the summer.
It has worked on a number of levels. Firstly, I think it's great that a town as relatively small as Colchester has got this off the ground in the first place. The other campaigns mentioned have been in larger cities, and as we all know, despite its best efforts, Colch still resides in the town category.
There were 29 2.5m tall giraffes and 82 smaller, 1.3m versions. The simple logistics of finding willing parties to decorate the statues, distributing and collecting them, and making sure it was all done to a timetable, must have been quite daunting.
The statues were dotted around Colchester and some outlying towns such as Clacton and Romford. The most interesting aspect of the campaign is how it used social media and a Stand Tall app to encourage 'collecting' of all the giraffes. This was done through scanning a QR code with your phone. Throughout the summer, children of all ages have been busily tracking down the giraffes using an app map and swiping them. It was very addictive, and a great activity for parents and children to share. It encouraged you to get out and explore our town and has led me to parts that I was unfamiliar with (but then again, I still think of myself as a newbie).
A further layer of engagement was added by a number of third party deals from local businesses - free coffee, free toys, free use of meeting rooms, free paint testers etc - that has hopefully provided them with a bit more footfall at a time when they could all do with it. It won't save the high street, but it has given people another reason to be there. Retail theatre, they call it.
The large giraffes are being sold as a fundraiser, but the smaller ones will go back to the local schools who decorated them. My son was very excited to point out the leaf that he painted on his school's giraffe - he did find it! 
So, to recap, Stand Tall has:
  • raised awareness of Colchester Zoo's anniversary
  • raised funds for its conservation work
  • given a showcase to the area's artists
  • provided a fun summer activity for parents and kids
  • brought something different to the town centre
  • encouraged us to get out and see more of Colchester
  • given schools a nice hook for learning
  • brought more people into local businesses.
I don't know if all of these were on the original brief, but any marketer would be proud to stand up and present that list to his or her superiors. I hope the hard stats make as good reading. And I hope that the Zoo realises what a potentially award winning piece of activity it has on its hands. They should be preparing the award entries now and looking forward to more plaudits in future.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dalston Peace Mural

Worrying news that the Dalston Peace Mural is considered to be threatened by Hackney Council's leasing of the building it adorns to a private developer.

This might not be cause for concern, were it not for what some see as the Council's past rather laissez faire attitude to development in Dalston. The tale of the Dalston Four Aces theatre, which was across the road from the mural will live long in local memories, as will the fates of Tony's Cafe and Spirit's grocery in Broadway Market. Some see it as another example of high-handed disregard for local heritage, while others see the new development as inevitable on a slightly moribund site.

What is clear is that the mural has long provided a splash of colour in one of Dalston's least inspiring areas. Many passengers waiting for the 38, 30 or 277 bus will have cast a glance at it. The mural was designed by community artist Ray Walker and painted in 1985 by his wife Anna Walker and colleague Mick Jones after his death in 1984. More recently it has featured on the cover of the Home album by Hackney band Rudimental.

Plans for the the building and its neighbours include the inevitable bar and restaurant to service the upwardly mobile community attracted by the trendy new flats that dot the area. Despite the ire of some in the community, this may be the saving of the mural, which is the kind of feature that any developer would be mad not to make the most of. Better lighting, seating, and an information board would easily add to the its utility.

It would be a shame to lose the mural, and I'm sure that won't happen, but the buildings on that stretch are well overdue some TLC. I can remember waiting for a bus there a few years back and a window pane fell out of the flats. It was a wonder nobody was killed, but being Hackney hardly anybody blinked after a momentary 'Tsk!' skywards.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A message home

One of the joys - and occasional pains - or working from home is that I get to see lots of my two boys. It has really spoiled me as it makes me quite unused to not being around them.

This week I was in Frankfurt with work. It's an annual event for me and one that I quite enjoy. However I'm conscious that me being away for a few days seems like quite a long time for them. It probably seems even longer for my wife who has the wrangle them single handedly for a week.

Last year I hit on the idea of leaving them a little daily message, just a little hello, a bit of Clip Art and cryptic clue pointing to a little treat that I had left them (not that cryptic - they are five and three). The treat can be a craft item from Wilkinsons, a few sweets or a Lego Minifigure (top prize for the day before I come home). It's as much for their mum as for them. They get inordinately excited at such little things at their age and it buys her a little extra time and niceness from them before they hit the cranky stage in the day.

Clip Art: kids love it
This year I've been Skyping them for the first time. I've never really bothered before as the phone seemed contact enough. I think they liked the experience although I could tell they were more interested in seeing themselves onscreen than me. I'm not as entertaining as Messrs Maker, Tumble or Bloom, the characters they are more used to seeing on screen.

It's also a little embarrassing when they call during the working day and you have to go from kicking ass and taking names boss to being Silly Old Daddy. Actually, who am I kidding? I loved it, and it was almost as much of a stress reliever as a large glass of fine German beer.

Almost. Prost!

Thursday, April 11, 2013


There was a time when news of great import was broken with gravitas. TV programmes simply shut down. There was a breathless message from a faceless announcer of special news whereupon the BBC's spinning globe, or its successors appeared before Huw Edwards, John Humphrys or Angela Rippon appeared on screen looking as nervous as you suddenly felt.

What had happened?

Monday's news of Margaret Thatcher's death broke like a damp squib. To me anyway. In the modern manner I was alerted by a Facebook status update:

"Thatchers snuffed it." (No apostrophe! At a time like this).

Three words. 18 letters. No possibility of any misunderstanding.

In some ways it's like she's been dead for more than 20 years anyway. After she was shuffled out of Downing Street she didn't hang around in the public eye much. Not in this country anyway. Although for successive Tory leaders she remained overly visible. A reminder of what they wanted to move on from.

Even Cameron, in his eulogy to her outside Number 10 admitted she was a divisive figure. It was practically the first thing he said. Admittedly he became more gushing after that, but I bet her legions of fans among the Tory faithful were marking him down as a traitor for even hinting at less than complete devotion to the legacy of the leaderene. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would have been more unequivocally positive.

There has been acres of newsprint about Thatch in the past few days, lots of it very thought provoking. One of the best pieces I've read was Russell Brand's article in the Guardian which had quite a personal perspective. Good and also a bit annoying as I was planning to write something from a similar angle examining what I remember about her and what I thought of her.

I don't think I have the energy for that now and since Russell has beaten me to it, there's no need. Just read what he said. My piece would have been almost as good I'm sure, but I was churning out turgid copy for cash while he was conjuring metaphors on his chaise longue, sipping mint tee through a silver straw.

So, well done Russell - you win.

The 1979 election that brought Thatcher to power is the first I remember very well. The Tories actually did pretty well in Scotland - 22 out of 72 seats. However I can remember Thatcher already being extremely disliked North of the Border. Part of this was traditional anti-English sentiment, and part was misogyny, but there was another element in play.

Mrs T wasn't very likable, and to a Scots mindset, she was even less so. The hectoring school teacher tone, the lack of any discernible sense of humility, the lack of a sense of humour, and the patent arrogance all cast her as a villain from day one.

It's been interesting hearing recordings of the best of Thatch in the past week, to be reminded how unlike politicians of today she was. She really didn't care what people thought of her - or at least that's what it sounded like. It's no wonder that she periodically creeps up as an icon in punk. They may not have liked her, but they liked that she didn't give a fuck. No wonder John Lydon is sticking up for her today.

But it was quickly apparent that Thatcher wasn't a Prime Minister for Scotland, or for the North of England for that matter. Or for the working classes. Or for the poor. Or for young people. Or gay people. Or ethnic minorities. The list goes on.

She was PM from when I was 12 until I was 23. That's a long time to feel you don't matter. My family didn't even benefit from the much vaunted sale of council houses. We moved from our 'coonsell hoose' in Scotland to England in 1979 and couldn't get another council house. Instead we were renting from a housing association, which were still fairly novel at the time I think. It was a fairly nice house on a pleasant estate with lots of other young families, but my dad wanted to buy his own place, like we were all being encouraged to do. Renting was dead money. But prices kept rising and we never managed it while he was around.

Bedfordshire, where we lived, was a Tory heartland and I grew up thinking the Tories were unassailable. Even when the economy was down in the Eighties and people in their droves were handing back keys to houses they could no longer afford, I couldn't see anybody else breaking through. I never really understood the SDP. They were just the party that was made fun of in Not the Nine O'Clock News. I understood the Labour Party, but I understood that they were unlikely to break through the Iron Lady's carapace. Not then.

Even when they ditched her in 1990 and Kinnock's Labour seemed on the verge of power in 1991, I couldn't believe that the Tories would ever be removed. It took five grey years of John Major hanging on by his finger nails, the death of John Smith and the rise of Tony Blair before I started to think that change could come.

And I wasn't alone. I can never be as harsh on Blair as some people will always be, because he really was the future once - as Cameron will be too when his cheap line is forgotten. He did seem like a new dawn. Some of it was spin and presentation but I have never doubted that the aspirations of New Labour aligned more closely with me and mine than Thatcher's ever did.

Thatcher's biggest legacy for me was the way she snuffed out the hopes of large swathes of the population of the country she purported to love. In doing so she sowed the seeds of political apathy that we see today. Politicians of all stripe find it very hard to turn back the economic clock in areas that she consigned to the economic dustbin. It's much harder to create jobs than to destroy them. Britain did have to move on from the Seventies, but it could have been managed so much better.

I'm not dancing on her grave, but I won't miss her.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The last post

Remember these?
I was clearing out a drawer at the weekend and found a sheet of unused stamps from the Christmas before last. My first thought was to wonder whether they can still be used since they were bought at one price and second class postage has since increased in price. It seems that they are, and an inflation busting investment at that. Second class remains second class no matter what you originally paid for it.
My next consideration is more problematic. When am I going to use them?
Stamps used to be an essential component of a well run household. You needed them on hand for birthday cards, thank you notes, letters and for paying bills.
You could even, as David Brent pointed out, use them as legal tender. I did this a few times myself in my teens before I had a bank account, sending off for badges of bands I liked through dodgy small ads in the back of Sounds magazine. You could get a postal order, but they seemed a bit more faffy, and I didn't want to ask my mum to write me a cheque as she'd inevitably want to know why I wanted a large embroidered patch with 'Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell' on it anyway.
I had money, thanks to my paper round, but no means to spending it beyond face to face transactions in my immediate vicinity. Stamps did the trick. They were almost like a precursor to Paypal, enabling micropayments for the financially disenfranchised.
When I went to university, stamps became an even more important currency, enabling communication with my mates who had been scattered to the four corners of the UK.
I don't think I've ever written as much as I did in my first year at college. Despite making new friendships, I missed my old buddies and longed to stay in contact with them, and to share some of my crazy and delinquent goings on with them.
Looking back, I think I was quite lonely, even as I seemed to have an active social life. But the initial friendships I made were fairly shallow and it's telling that only a few college friendships have really stood the test of time (hello Andrew, hello Mark).
So I reached out towards the people I'd known from my teens. I think a lot of them felt the same given the tone and the frequency of the correspondence from them.
Letter writing became quite addictive once you realised that when you shared your feelings with someone you would get a response in kind, a few days later, or maybe after a few weeks depending on the diligence of your correspondent.
Like so much of the near past, it almost seems like another age now. Nobody I knew had a phone in their student digs, let alone a mobile. There were about 20 computers in the whole of my department and none of them were hooked up to any sort of information superhighway that we could access - this was 1985. Crikey, it seems so near, yet so far away in many ways.
Communication came in three modes:
* a personal visit. (Either back home to your parents for a feed, a delousing and a machine wash of your humming clothes pile. Or a visit to another student friend which would inevitably be a massive piss up that would carry through into a several days to shift hangover.)
* a reverse the charges phone call. (These could be sporadic. I remember one time my mum had to send a letter to find out if I was still alive, it was so long since she had heard from me. Another time I stood in a phone box for about five minutes failing to remember my own home phone number, which is still one of only a handful I can remember.)
* a letter.
The latter was the most popular because it was the cheapest. Especially if you put sellotape over the stamp making it impossible to frank properly. The resulting stamp could then ping pong back and forwards between correspondents until such time as it became indistinguishable.
I well remember the thrill of finding a letter, or even two or three in my postbox at halls of residence. You could never expect the immediate response of today's email, text or instant messaging conversations, and it was all the sweeter for it.
Waiting was part of the thrill.
It wasn't just the fact of receiving a letter. The content was often pages and pages of funny, heart rending, satirical, annoying and surreal stuff. The kind that you can only really write when you are in your late teens.
I still have a bag full of letters from friends, and one in particular (hello Trevor, wherever you are) who was as verbose and as prolific as I was. They read like strange, one-sided conversations where the points in your previous letter are replied to sandwiched between flights of fantasy, and the latest tales and triumphs, real or imagined, .
It's such powerful stuff that I don't look at them very often. It's probably mainly rubbish and I don't especially want to tarnish the memory of what it was like by reading between the lines.
Letter writing continued for a good few years after university. Friends were still fairly dispersed. None of us were that well off, so often didn't have phones, or didn't want to run up big bills. People went travelling and writing remained an important connection to friends and family.
Do young people still write?
I'm sure they must, although they don't need to in the way we did.
My son, who is five, is starting to become quite the scribe. As his language improves he is discovering the joy of putting his thoughts down on a piece of paper. He can make people laugh, puzzle them, and make them like him. Powerful stuff.
Will he be doing it in his teens and twenties? I doubt it actually. And even if he is, I don't think it will have quite the same effect on him as it did on my generation because there probably won't 't be many elements of the message that haven't already been leaked to him across the other media platforms that he will undoubtedly use.
But times change and I don't doubt that his generation's form of communication will be every bit as compelling to him as mine was to me.
They'll probably write about many of the same things: loves and hates; friends and foes, hopes and dreams.
Some things don't change.
Now, who wants a handwritten letter?

Friday, February 01, 2013

Thank you for the music

I'd forgotten that hi-fi smells.
My mum had wanted to throw out my dad's old separates system when she moved house about three years' ago. I can't blame her. It was a tower system encased in a smoked glass cabinet which would have completely taken over her new living room.
At any rate it had sat unused and unloved in the corner of the room since I'd moved out of the house. She'd traded down to a small integrated unit that my sister had no more use for (and which is now in our front room - I'm the electronics hoarder in our family).
I couldn't bear to see it thrown out though. I remember my dad buying it from John Lewis in Milton Keynes about a year after we'd moved down from Scotland. I guess he must have had a bit more disposable income and fancied splashing out on something nice. It was certainly a pretty big investment, but I reckon he was given the old soft soak treatment by the hi-fi sales guys. He was taken into one of those glass-fronted rooms where they sit you down and play different combinations of units to you.
"Sir will notice the subtle difference when the Speculum A430 amp is teamed up with the Bumf turntable."
*Dad nods vigorously*
Like many working class guys, he aspired to be a man of wealth and taste. He just needed the wealth bit.
At any rate he must have been feeling a bit flush that day as he bought a turntable, amp, tuner, cassette player - all Sansui make - as well as the aforementioned smoked glass tower and a pair of B&W DM10 speakers.
I can remember listening to our not very big music collection on it: The Drifters Greatest Hits, War of the Worlds (taped by somebody from his work), The Corries, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Elton John Greatest Hits (the first one), Billy Connolly Live ... it was an eclectic mix.
The system really did sound great. I was amazed that you could pick out individual instruments so clearly, something that was hard to do on the rudimentary integrated system we had before - Elizabethan if anybody remembers that brand.
The hi-fi was another symbol of the way things were getting better for us. We'd made the traumatic - for me initially - move to England the year before and it really was like another world in some ways. We'd come from a one shop village of council houses, a real monoculture where I was happy but which in retrospect seems like the most boring place in the world. Vandalism was about the only outlet by the time you were a teenager. You had to get out.
We moved to a small market town called Leighton Buzzard, but it might as well have been Manhattan compared to what we were used to. Life was richer. The food was different. People did different things. Pubs had garden areas so families could go to them together. There were more opportunities for all of us.
And dad was on more money, hence the swanky hifi and his first ever new car (although the latter was purchased from the money he was putting aside for a deposit on a house, something that eluded him as prices were starting to outpace his earnings in the Eighties housing boom).
He probably only enjoyed the system for around a year, maybe two before he died. After that, it was always dad's hi-fi. He liked having nice things and he liked them to be looked after. They had to be for people like us.
It's more than 30 years since he died and since he bought his musical pride and joy. Last weekend I dug it out my mum's garage and brought it home. This evening I opened the box and was hit by that smell... the circuits? Whatever it is, it took me right back to the time when he'd be cueing up a record and sitting back to enjoy it.
It still sounds great dad!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dads in the kitchen (what am I gonna do)

Happy New Year and all. I've been too busy denying myself alcohol this month to write anything meaningful or otherwise. Normal service will be resumed etc.

So apologies dear reader for yet another cut and paste from my Colchester NCT magazine column - available in no good newsagents. This issue we're pondering the politics of food preparation a.k.a. who's making the flipping tea tonight.

Fruity platter: digital media, £45,000

When I was a child I reckon that about 90 per cent of my meals were provided by women: my mum; my gran; aunties; friends’ mums, and school dinner ladies. My dad could cook, but he kept his powder dry for special occasions, such as the Sunday roast, Christmas dinner and barbecues. He also had a penchant for exotic new dishes, such as spaghetti bolognaise, which was about as far out as things got in the area of rural Scotland where I grew up. Maybe it still is.

The everyday grind of turning out breakfast, lunch and dinner was given over to my mum, despite the fact that she also worked. It was just the way things were in those days.

As a consequence I was largely brought up on convenience food. My mum was one of the first generations of women to benefit from the widespread availability and relative cheapness of processed food. She was also a sucker for TV advertising. My sister and I used to joke that whenever there was a new product advertised on TV, we would be seeing it on our plates next week. We were brought up on fish fingers, potato waffles, crispy pancakes and frozen pizzas. Whatever veg we shuffled to the side of our plates inevitably came from a tin.

Well, it never did me no harm!

Fast forward 30 years or so, and haven’t things changed! Thanks to Jamie, Gordon and a host of other TV chefs, cooking has been reinvented as a suitably male friendly activity – it’s competitive, has lots of gadgets and even more swearing - and the kitchen is no longer a place where we dads fear to tread. Dads are as likely to be hustling everybody out of the kitchen to make room for their cheffy touches as they are to be banging cutlery on the table and demanding to be fed.

But it’s no longer enough to shuttle a frozen offering from freezer to microwave, et voila, dinner is served! Nowadays, parents can spend as long fretting about the provenance of the food they serve their children as they do cooking it. Is it local enough; is it GM free; is it Fairtrade? And that’s before it has even felt the hot side of a frying pan.

I’m as guilty of this as the next new man. I’ve certainly gone down a different route to that taken by my parents. By and large we cook meals from scratch, try and use fresh vegetables as much as possible, and try to all eat together. And I do a lot of the cooking. It’s something I love to do.

One of the reasons, besides innate greed, is that it’s a great way of bonding with our kids. Like many NCT parented children, both of our boys were breast fed, for the first year, which seems to have given them a great start.

It does however limit a dad’s involvement in the early stages of childhood. Unless your wife or partner is expressing milk, or you are mixing feeding, there isn’t a lot dad can do to interject into this cosy little relationship.

So the introduction of solids is a happy time for dads, as they can start to become more involved with feeding. This is probably of great relief to partners as well, as they can share a bit more of the burden. It’s a time for dads to step up to the hot plate and start showing off their finely honed chef skills.

Or maybe not. In as much as cooking for children can be fun and fulfilling, it can also be a soul destroying affair. There is little appreciation of your efforts and little discernment. A carefully crafted, nutritious, homemade meal will inevitably be trumped by a turkey twizzler and chips. Kids don't really care about provenance or how long it took to make. They care about having something that they recognise and having it now, or five minutes ago.

Food in the early stages of weaning also bears little resemblance to anything you might want to eat yourself. I couldn’t believe it when our eldest actually liked Annabel Karmel’s misleadingly named ‘lovely lentils’. There was little to love as far as I could see, but as he seemed to appreciate them, I cooked up a vat and froze huge quantities for future meals. Job done!

Except that as quickly as he’d taken to them, he went off them. I still recall the look on Jamie’s face as he decided to eject them from his mouth – never again. I can’t remember what we did with the rest of the batch.

Tastes change though and soon enough children start to eat similar foods to us. It’s not just food as fuel though. Food is also part of bonding. I used to take Jamie to a singing class when he was a toddler. Afterwards we would head to the local playground and then to a lakeside café where we’d always eat the same thing – a shared plate of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on toast. I was inordinately pleased at his sophisticated tastes. I had no idea that salmon came in any other form than canned until I was a lot older. Each time we went to the café he’d eat a bit more and I’d have less.

As the children get older, cooking becomes another of the activities that we enjoy together. Just occasionally mind you. I’m too much of a prissy chef to let them run riot too often. Cakes are a favourite, unsurprisingly, particularly licking the spoon and bowl clean. What child hasn’t enjoyed that?

For dads who work unsociable hours, cooking is a great way to show that you know that family meals are important. Doing a bit of cooking can give your partner a break and brings you closer to your children. Even if you’re not much of a cook you can rustle up a signature dish or two that only you can do just how the children like it. As much as the temptation may be to sit back and wait for somebody else to cook the bacon you have brought home, it can be much more fulfilling to prepare the food that your children are going to eat.

And if the resulting mealtime is loud, chaotic and messy, who’d have it any other way?