Poetry Blog: Sixth on the list (behind key workers and various degrees of old people.)

I had my first dose of the Covid vaccine last weekend and it’s safe to say that it felt like quite a momentous occasion. As someone regarded as being vulnerable to the virus, it was something I’d kind of looked forward to since news of a vaccine first broke. Not in the same way as I might look forward to some beer and cake, a new Grandaddy record or Christmas, but I was looking forward to it.

It was done early on Saturday morning and I was in and out within about 20 minutes, including having to queue outside for around 10 minutes. Everything was well organised, the staff were friendly and helpful and it was a generally positive experience. Definitely something worth writing a poem about. And it would have been a bright and breezy, optimistic poem as well. But then the side effects hit on Saturday afternoon…

Anyway, here’s my poem about having the vaccine.

'Sixth on the list (behind key workers and various degrees of old people.)'

On a misty Spring morning the air fizzes with an optimism and good humour
that I can't remember feeling in a long while.
March gently attempts to wrestle February to one side 
and it's almost twelve months since the fear began.

Within minutes a smiling volunteer injects some fight into my
'at risk' body that signals hope, a way forward, a route home.
As I walk back, the town is waking up and as their day breaks
I feel I have a secret that I'd like to share with all.

I bury my bare hands deep inside the pockets of a jacket,
turn my collar to fight the chill and resist the urge to skip 
down the hill to my front door, safe in the knowledge that
I have at least half of the weapons needed for the rest of the fight.

The rest is a canyon sized unknown; I will suffer to feel good,
wait in the dark to feel better and then go through
it all again before I am able to even think about 
casting aside the unwanted cloud of our restrictions.

Over sixteen hours later, having grumbled my way through
discomfort, nausea, shivers, fatigue and pain, 
having shouted myself hoarse at a curse of Magpies, I will sit alone,
at the kitchen table, as the house sleeps around me.

I will try to find the words to make it all sound like a proper
opera, praying silently for sleep and the chance to shut down
the hell and then feel well again, but fail as all the while 
one inane thought gnaws away at my brain:

I didn't even get a sticker.

On the whole, I have to say that the whole vaccine thing was a positive experience. It wasn’t stressful at all, mainly because of the way it was organised and the staff, but my worries about the after effects would come true and then some!

For the first few hours, all I suffered with was a bit of a sore arm, but then gradually more and more went wrong. I was fatigued, felt sick, was dizzy, everywhere ached and I just felt incredibly rough, as mentioned in the poem. Strangely though, when it came to heading off to bed, I was wide awake and ended up back downstairs, where I proceeded to open a notebook and write this poem!

I managed some sleep that night, eventually, but didn’t really feel a great deal better on the Sunday. It doesn’t matter though. The fact that I’m safer now means the world and the fact that I may be able to see my family and friends again relatively soon, makes it all worth while.

As for the poem, it’s all quite straightforward, although there’s maybe a couple of lines in the sixth and seventh stanzas that are probably best explained. Despite feeling worse than I’ve felt for a long time, I was fully aware that my football team, Newcastle United were playing that evening, live on Sky Sports. There was no way that I was missing it, as long as I could keep my eyes open. Hence then the line about shouting myself hoarse at a curse of magpies, as if you don’t know, we play in black and white stripes and are known as the magpies. It’s safe to say that my croaky voice next morning had nothing at all to do with the vaccine. The other line that I wanted to explain was the bit about making it sound like a ‘proper opera’. That’s me laughing at myself as I wrote the poem. The opera reference, be it soap or the more theatrical version is me looking back and just wondering if I’ve made a bit of a big deal about it all! In my defence, it was particularly horrible though…

As always, I hope you enjoyed the poem and I’d be interested to hear any feedback you might have, so feel free to leave a comment.

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Blog Goals for March

I find running my blog incredibly fulfilling, yet extremely frustrating, all at the same time. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. What started as an outlet for some kind of creativity and initially to explain how I was feeling at a difficult stage of my life, has more recently become a little more serious and I would really like my writing to have a bigger audience.

I started my blog after having heart surgery. Writing a blog was something I’d thought about for a while, but it took what felt like a near death experience to give me the kick up the backside that I needed to actually start writing. It wasn’t really a near death experience, but it was a heart problem that required being admitted to hospital, then followed up with actual surgery, so there were lots of times when I questioned whether I’d get through it.

Once I was well, I started a blog, using my first couple of posts to write about what had happened to me. I suppose it was cathartic, but it was also my way of letting people know that I was alright. They’re on the links below this paragraph if you fancy a read. But then once they were out of the way, I began to write about anything and everything!

When did I get so old?

Conquering my fears. What’s the worst that could happen*?

Over 100 blog posts later though and I feel like I’ve reached a bit of an impasse with it. The blog is definitely growing in popularity, but at the pace of a glacier. Am I being impatient? I’m not sure. It’s fair to say that I only started taking things even kind of seriously since this time last year, when the pandemic meant I had a lot of time on my hands with which to write. But it’s definitely been a frustrating time over the last six months or so, when apart from one brilliant month, growth has been slow. So I thought I’d start to set monthly goals, in order to organise myself a little better and perhaps get some useful advice in response.

March Goals and Targets

  1. I need to find better ways of publicising my blog. I use social media and tweet about my blog quite a bit, without it being all I ever do on there. I also post on the blogging RT/community sites in the hope that I’ll gain regular readers, but despite a small amount of growth, it doesn’t really seem to work. I feel terrible, even in a comment post, when I’m commenting on people’s blogs, because ultimately it feels a bit desperate. I might as well just be saying, ‘Look, I’ve commented on your blog, so have a look at mine’ and I don’t like feeling that way. If it’s a specific subject of blog, like a sport or an educational blog I might tweet certain more applicable sites for a RT and this can work too, but I feel like I’m just relying on other people’s popularity and good will in doing so. My blog views for a typical month average around 400-500, which feels OK, but isn’t rewarding in terms of the effort I put in. I don’t know if I’m expecting too much, but then again I’ve read ‘goal’ type posts like this from other people before, moaning that they’re only getting thousands of people visiting their site per month. Looking at your stats on WordPress and seeing that another day has brought in 14 readers becomes no fun whatsoever after a while! I genuinely feel like I post my fair share of good quality posts and I’d love it to reach a bigger audience, but must admit, I’m pretty clueless! It’s lovely reading positive comments from people, but then again, I’ve visited blogs posts that consist of an inspirational quote (so, 12 words, let’s say) that get a load of positive comments and that kind of thing makes me wonder where I’m going wrong. Alternatively, maybe what I’m posting is utter rubbish! Whatever it is, I need to find some kind of answer in March!
  2. Stop posting utter rubbish! Just kidding; I have at least some faith in what I write. But that said, I want to write at least one post in March that breaks some personal records for my blog. Why not think big, eh? Whether it’s views, or likes, or just the number of people who read it in Luxembourg, I’d like to post something that captures the interest in the next month. I’ve had some that – for my little blog – have done really well and it’s a brilliant feeling that I’d quite like to replicate.
  3. Come up with better titles for poems and blogs. I seem to have no imagination for this at all. In the past I’ve written blogs called ‘I have some questions about music’, ‘Whatever happened to the mix tape?’ and poems called ‘Teams Meeting’ (about a Teams meeting), ‘Heart’ (about my heart operation) and ‘Early Morning Run’ (I won’t ruin the surprise with that one). It seems I’m very literal when it comes to titles, so maybe some snappier titles might bring those readers in!
  4. Write more poems (with better titles, of course). It took me ages to pluck up the courage to write poems consistently and then to actually post them online. They always get a good reaction and I love the process of writing them. It’s been quite a confidence boost. They generally come in bursts and I can write two or three, pretty much straight out in one go, in one sitting, but it’s been a while since anything new came along. I had an idea this afternoon, opened my notebook to write something then got distracted. A couple of hours later I noticed the open page of my notebook! Luckily I remembered what I had wanted to write about. I must try and make time to write more poems though and it would be good to find a proper place to showcase them too, as those regular 44 people that read them could be improved upon!
  5. This one’s not a blogging goal; more a creative one. I’d like to post more videos on social media. I posted one of me reading my poem ‘An Ode to Joe Wicks’ and it went down really well (relatively speaking; we’re not talking millions of views and instant fame here). More to the point, I really enjoyed doing it. It does feel like a real ego trip though – here’s me reading my poem, so watch! I struggle finding a reason why people would want to watch! But then, videos I’ve done for friends always get a good reaction. And I know that makes me sound like the tone deaf X-Factor contestant who tells Simon Cowell all her family tell her she can sing, once he’s finished laughing. I created a character based on every bad teaching stereotype I could think of and let friends see ‘his’ first video. Their reaction told me it has legs, so I’d love to see where that could go. I have lots of video ideas, mainly involving me making myself look like a complete knobhead (I’m a natural)…I guess I just need to find a way to link them to my blog now!

So there we have it. My goals for March and the kind of post that I think I’ll make a regular early in the month kind of thing. If you have any advice or would like to let me know what you thought, then leave me a message in the comments. Thanks for reading (you now know you’re one of about 35 in a rather exclusive club!)

Poetry Blog: Circle

This is a poem I wrote about a month ago and as such, it was based more on what I knew was going to happen, rather than actually watching it happen.

It’s a poem about watching the year pass, I suppose. It came about because where I sit at our dining table gives me a lovely view of our garden. So if I’m working there, I might well drift off to watching what’s happening, or in the morning I’ll quite often gaze out of the window if I’m waiting for the kettle to boil or the toast to pop up. So obviously, I see a lot of change during the year.

The poem came about because I was looking at a particular tree and reminding myself that it needs to be pruned. This is a thought I have from around January every year, as this particular tree can block out quite a bit of sunlight. So every year I vow that it’s going to get cut back. And every year I fail.

The poem starts in Spring. I love Spring. It’s the season that gives that suggestion of new life, year in year out. And with this tree, it’s the season where I either admit defeat or spring – no pun intended – into life and manage to cut back a few branches before getting overwhelmed by the amount of foliage I’ll have to compost or the amount of insect life that ends up in my hair, eyes and mouth.

I find that I’ve got through Winter, with it’s freezing cold walks and runs, its snow days and its lack of daylight and that everything starts to feel better with Spring. There are the obvious signs, like the shoots of plants emerging from previously frozen soil, blossom on the trees and that sort of thing. The weather gets better too. Usually, here in England, it gets better to the point where you begin to kid yourself that we’ll get a scorching hot summer, which as we all know, is never the case! But Spring is definitely a time for optimism.

So while the poem is about change, it’s more about one of the trees in my back garden and I guess, (if we’re going to try and intellectualise things!) the relationship that we have.

Circle

Every Spring you burst into life, disappointing me with leaves that will become back ache later in the year.
Your foliage, however, quickly becomes something more captivating than irritating,
teeming with life and becoming a canvas to admire, like a masterpiece in some far away gallery.

Your enthusiasm for life kickstarts mine and accompanied  by the sun, I am far more diligent in filling
up the feeders that bring birds to your branches, like day trippers to a Bank Holiday beach.
It will stay this way for months, as greedy beaks plunder your hospitality and we sit, camera at the ready,
awaiting a prompt for creativity.

Slowly at first, your metamorphosis begins, picking up the pace as the visits of the sun decrease.
And as they do, my own footsteps slow too. The birds too become a burden if it means a visit to a cold, wet garden.
Like an ageing film star your beauty fades with time and I turn my attention elsewhere,
knowing that before too long your leaves will demand it again.

And then, as the wind howls and the rain has nothing of yours left to spatter against, I am forced out to you
repeatedly in order to clean up your fallen grace.
When eventually my grudging enthusiasm withers, mutters and dies, a carpet of leaf mulch will form,
turning green to browns and blacks, but giving a squirrel a somewhat less than glamorous pantry.

While the light hours of my days are spent elsewhere you slowly spring to life once more as the circle turns.
As buds appear, I sense a missed opportunity and might even, in a frenzied quarter hour, cut away the odd branch
left at arm's length or those that a daredevil few moments on a step ladder may allow me to stretch to,
before nerves and a fear of falling get the better of me and I decide you look just fine.

But every year you escape to grow back those curls, welcome back an abundance of life and steal the light
away from late afternoons, sat in a favourite chair.
And with every passing year I will concede to another defeat and sit back, relax
and stare at all you bring to life.

There’s not much to add here. Not much to try and explain, as I think it’s a fairly simple and straightforward poem.

I called the poem ‘Circle’ because it’s quite a cyclical poem. It’s about the seasons; about a life cycle, I suppose. So, I arrived at ‘Circle’ because of that, but also because I begun to realise that I’m terrible at naming my poems. I’m also terrible at headlines for my articles and book reviews too. At first I called the poem ‘The Problem with Spring’ but then changed my mind when I re-read it and found that it wasn’t just about Spring after all. In my notebook it’s simply called ‘Tree’, but then I thought about trying to get people to read it and the tweet that would go out telling the world, ‘I wrote a poem about a tree’ and wondering why even less people than usual were reading! ‘Seasons Change’ was taken from a Buffalo Tom song, so I ditched that to avoid plagiarism. ‘Seasons’ was almost as bad as ‘Tree’ and ‘Cycle’ gave the entirely wrong impression, so I went with ‘Circle’. It’s still not great and I’m still not happy, but it’s done now!

The tree isn’t a particularly interesting tree. I’ve lived in the house for 23 years and I still couldn’t tell you what kind of tree it is, in fact! It’s not particularly striking or lovely. And yet, there are times, when the sun is streaming through the leaves and birds are hopping between branches, that it really is beautiful. In fact, it was probably one of these moments that led me to write the poem.

As ever, I’d love to know what people think of the poem. And the name, of course!

Steve Bruce…it’s time to go.

Another day, another 90 minutes, another desperately poor performance and another defeat. Newcastle United are, without doubt, hurtling towards disaster.

You might think that’s hyperbole in the extreme, but I’d disagree. It might well be next stop the Championship, but I’d join a growing band of supporters who believe that it won’t end there. If – and at the moment, when – we get relegated there will be no quick fix, no fun of a year spent invading small towns, beating teams left, right and centre and then celebrating as we win the league. In my opinion, and the opinion of lots of others that I’ve spoken to, going down will signal a much longer spell away from the Premier League. Relegation will be nothing short of a disaster.

Whether we ‘do a sunderland’ I don’t know. At the moment League One seems light years away and I feel that we’d have enough to compete in the Cahmpionship, but you never know.

We’ve been here before. In fact, take away winning the Championship twice and a fifth place finish in the Premier League a while back and the mindset’s been much the same at this time of year during the whole of our boot-leg jean wearing owner’s tenure. (It’s a sidenote, but please buy some clothes that fit, Mike). Mediocrity reigns, penny-pinching overpowers and any sense of optimism is squashed before it’s had even a chance of spreading. Joy, is a four letter word while hope isn’t even recognised as a word or a concept.

In the long term, Ashley must sell the club. But I for one am sick and tired of reading about that. I’ve had enough of people tracking helicopters, insiders on social media, informed journalists or the fact that Derek from Killingworth reckons he’s in a WhatsApp group with Amanda Stavely.

In the short term, Steve Bruce must go. He’s needed to go for around 18 months, but that’s besides the point. Getting him, Agnew and Clemence out of the club is the only chance we have of avoiding relegation and seeing the club saved from something more horrendous than Ashley and his lack of vision or ambition. If there’s not another viable option – and I mean not another serial failure currently on the managerial conveyor belt – give the job to Graeme Jones and let him have a go at getting the team organised enough to stave off the might of Fulham. Anyone but Bruce.

For me, I think that sacking Bruce is unnecessary. But this is only because I think anyone in his circumstances with any shred of dignity left would resign. I understand that he should be sacked, but it doesn’t look like happening any time soon.

I think it’s healthy to admit your failings. And Bruce has been failing for years and years. Look at the great Kevin Keegan when he managed England. It didn’t take him long to realise that he didn’t have the knowledge needed to make England successful. He couldn’t transmit what he did at club level to the step up and he admitted as much and resigned from the job. He told the press, “I’m not up to it. I can’t get the extra bit out of these players that I need.” Some called it cowardly. I call it honest, dignified. So if Keegan was honest and self aware about his capabilities in a job, it beggars belief that our present incumbent can’t be.

All Steve Bruce has to do is look at his record as a manager. When I looked, out of managers who had taken 200 or more league games his win percentage was 28.1%. From what I can see he’s won two trophies in his time as a manager; that’s two in over 20 years. Only once in that time has his win percentage exceeded 45%. I could go on. There’s no need. At the time of writing we’ve won 7 of 25 games this season. We’ve lost 14. The football has been generally awful. It isn’t working Steve. Any fool can see that. Oh, wait…

It’s easy to write about what we see on the pitch though. It’s far too simple to Google statistics, however much they prove your point. So let’s look at some other reasons why Steve Bruce should simply face facts, do the decent thing and walk away.

The Longstaffs. Prior to Bruce’s arrival we had, in Sean Longstaff, an academy graduate who looked like an England midfielder of the future. Better still, he looked likely to be a major part of our future. I wrote a blog about him as he broke through and the link’s below. We looked to have a player with a little bit of everything and one who was on a par with any other young English midfielder at that time. Under Bruce, he has gone backwards and his lack of form has been alarming to watch. He has looked nervy, ponderous and lacking in ideas. He has looked out of his depth and during the last transfer window he looked to be on his way out of the club. Any manager with any talent or skill would have been able to address such an alarming slide, yet Sean Longstaff is currently nowhere near the first team of a relegation threatened team.

Sean Longstaff & the Geordie dream.

Matty Longstaff actually broke through under Bruce and so his virtual disappearance from the group is unfathomable. Rumours of a falling out are rife, but again, any manager worth his salt could handle that. And I’m not saying that Matty Longstaff is some kind of world class answer to all of our problems. I just believe he’d do a better job than at least one of those currently filling the role. As it stands though, you or I have as much chance of lining up in that team as young Matty. And I don’t know about you, but both my knees are shot and my best days are so far behind me you’d need a telescope to see them.

For a moment though, let’s leave Steve’s failings alone. Let’s attempt some balance and try to see this from a human angle. A couple of weeks ago there were allegations of death threats from fans against our coach. The outrage was palpable and in many ways understandable too. It can’t be pleasant to know that people actively want you dead. And social media can be horrible sometimes, despite the fact that Bruce doesn’t have it and doesn’t read it. That said, as a father, he probably doesn’t want his family subjected to the bile and vitriol that comes with an anonymous online death threat. So, we can all hopefully empathise here and feel his pain, so to speak. There is one way out of it though. Resign. And I hope that doesn’t feel harsh or in any way that I’m justifying the threats; I’m not. What I am doing is saying that it’s understandable to walk away. It’s not weak.

And this leads me on to my next point. If he resigns, he not only frees himself from such hatred and stress, but as a man who has been richly rewarded during his years in the game, he can live a happy and comfortable life. I understand the competitive nature of professional sportsmen and women and the idea that they all have enormous self belief, but no one says you have to live like this continually. People in professional sport are still human; they can still make human decisions, like admitting to failure and walking away. Steve Bruce just has to look at the league table to see that he’s failing and if he really cares about his ‘boyhood club’ then he’d want better than this.

As for the notion that Newcastle United is his team, I simply don’t believe it. I never have. As far as I know, he’s never applied for the job. But I do know he’s turned it down before and some would say turned it down until it became too good to be true that at the back end of a less than average career in management, it was being offered to him again. This is not the dream job, Steve. You’re fooling no one. Something about Bruce just doesn’t sit right with me. I don’t hear or see the evidence of his support for my team. I recently watched a video from the half time analysis of a game between Newcastle and Manchester United and he was unerring in his bias towards his team. Only his team wasn’t Newcastle. When quizzing him about what the result would be, the interviewer even hinted at his background. Steve’s response? “Well, I’ve got to think about the family…” before tipping Man Utd to win. Nothing about his boyhood team. We’re not your team, we’re not your people and this isn’t your dream job. Walk away, Steve.

The team he’s produced almost defies belief. Bruce has overseen incoming transfers that other managers could only have dreamed about under the present regime and yet, here we are, 17th in the table and with the third worst goal difference in the league. Players like Fraser, Saint Maximin, Lewis, both Longstaffs, Schar, Gayle, even Wilson are underperforming and the manager doesn’t have the answer. Or if he has, it seems to be to persist with people like Jonjo Shelvey, Jeff Hendrick and Karl Darlow when they have clearly lost confidence, belief and the ability needed to play the game at the highest level. I can’t even bring myself to attempt to discuss Joelinton…but whatever he is, he’s on your watch Steve, so I think you know what I’m going to recommend.

The list goes on. Look at a player like Isaac Hayden; a man who has given everything this season and been one of few stars in the team – when Bruce has picked him. Here is a player schooled by Wenger and Benitez, who is now left jogging on the spot by Bruce.

Players don’t look fit. We can’t defend; there certainly isn’t the organisation created by the previous manager. We don’t score a lot of goals simply because we spend so much of games going backwards or sideways. Amazingly, we seem bewildered by the concept of a throw-in. But then again as Bruce himself once said, “I’m not really into tactics.” This of course explains why we’ve been out-thought at places like Newport, Sheffield Utd, Brentford and Blackburn this season as well as Rochdale and Oxford last year. (Yes, I know we won some of these games, but face facts; we were outplayed in all of them.)

At the moment, I look at Steve Bruce and see Joe Kinnear; just a shambles. None of the inspiration of a Joe Harvey, Keegan, a Robson or a Benitez. There’s not the confidence of even a Carver or Pardew, however misplaced that was. There is none of the quiet dignity and desire that we saw in Chris Hughton, the swagger, bravado or even track record of Allardyce, even the pride and talent (for a short while) of Roeder; just the breathless, thrashing for life and the semi-sane ramblings of a Kinnear, hallmarked by sulking with journalists, talking nonsense about false number 10s and criticising the fans.

Bruce is just a man railing at the modern world because he doesn’t understand it. Any pride or love of our club seems to be very carefully hidden, because there is never any indication of it. Compare Bruce to Sir Bobby Robson and the famous piece of film showing Gary Lineker around the improvements to the Milburn Stand. Bobby glowed with pride about everything NUFC – right down to the doors and the ‘architraves’. Can you imagine Bruce like this? No, of course not. Sir Bobby Robson understood. Steve Bruce does not.

Please, walk away from what you don’t understand, Steve. Resign and walk off into the sunset to enjoy what should be a pleasurable time of your life, enjoying things like your wealth, health and your grandkids. Give yourself and Newcastle United a chance of life.

How do you motivate a team who aren’t allowed to play?

If you read my blog regularly then you’ll no doubt be aware of my sideline (although I’m sure my wife would call it more of an obsession) as a football coach. If this is a first read, well then you just found out. I volunteer with a local youth team and coach one of their Under 12 teams. It’s the team that my son plays for and I ended up doing it when the original team coach was removed from his post. I’ll be honest; although I knew I’d be able to do a better job, I was also very much the only candidate!

I’ve written about my coaching before on here. It can be an absolute joy and yet can be a right royal pain in the backside too! At the moment it’s definitely on the latter end of the scale and this is largely down to the fact that we’re unable to actually do any training at the moment.

We last played a game on Sunday 6th December of last year. We trained a weekend later and then as January approached we were told that rising Covid cases meant that junior football was being suspended and that no one would be playing or training until further notice. That last training session had been a minimal affair as we tried to deal with low numbers, social distancing and Covid paranoia. It was undoubtedly a sign of things to come. However, we’d had a great session and were still optimistic that there would be a game the following weekend to look forward to. The optimism was short lived.

Well, we’re now half way through February and still waiting for that further notice. There has been a flurry of activity on social media lately, after the chairman of our league asked our opinions about how to move forward and this has led to a whiff of optimism, but still, there’s nothing concrete like a way forward or even a date. I’m not being critical in any way. I can see clearly that running these leagues and keeping everybody happy is a horrendously stressful job that I would not want. But I’m missing football and like lots and lots of other coaches, finding motivating my team a tough old job.

A little bit of background on my team. I think it’s safe to say that not everyone in the 14 strong squad is actually that interested in football. I’d even say that for my own son, who hasn’t kicked a ball for almost 2 months. There are easily five or six others in the squad just like him. I think football is just a means to an ends here; a way of getting lads away from screens and into the fresh air.

My lads are the second team in our age group at the club; often referred to as the development team, but not by ourselves. We play in Division 7 of 8 in the league, so perhaps that tells you something about ability. Please don’t get me wrong, I think we have some brilliant little footballers and excellent athletes, but when you watch some of the teams in the higher divisions it gives some perspective. I’m not hugely interested in ability. I want to develop footballers and help create good people. I love to win, but I realise that it won’t be possible every week. I don’t accept it, I don’t like it, but I realise that there are better teams than us and also better coaches than me. As long as my players are enjoying what they do, that’s enough.

And that fact leads me nicely on to what I wanted to look at with this piece. I think I’m a good coach, who tries to set a good example, tries to have fun and tries really hard to look for areas in a kid’s game that can be improved. I think, over the last few years of coaching the team, I’ve been successful in doing that as well. What worries me though, is how to keep players motivated when I can’t see them, can’t work with them and am juggling a busy work and family life in amongst all of the stress and pain of a global pandemic.

We have a WhatsApp group for coaches and parents in the team. This has been our exclusive avenue of dialogue over the last couple of months, but I feel like it’s failing. I’m failing. I worry that the majority of my team will not have kicked a ball over the whole of lockdown. I worry that they’ll not have worked at all on fitness and that when they return to football they’ll be ridiculously unfit. And I worry that some won’t return at all.

We’ve tried a number of things to keep our squad engaged and motivated during the lockdown. But I don’t think they’ve worked.

During the previous spell of lockdown in the U.K. we started a running challenge, setting up a Strava group for the players with the challenge that they try to run 5kms per week. Over half of the players and their parents signed up and things looked good. I felt optimistic. However, the results were sketchy at best and most of those who signed up simply stopped running or walking after a few weeks. I found it incredibly sad that a group of 11 and 12-year-olds couldn’t bring themselves to walk or run 5000 metres across the course of a week, especially when it could be done in stages and was going to help them represent their team. It was disappointing, but in actual fact, they maintained enough fitness to be able to win the game that was arranged when we came back to football. It was worrying though and a sign of things to come.

Another lockdown was always inevitable given the instability of the times we find ourselves living in. We added a skills challenge as a means of keeping the boys involved while also having a bit of fun. It felt simple. Attempt the skill, film it, post it and we’ll choose a winner each week. Two of the players posted a video of themselves taking on the challenge and then, nothing. One of those players was my son, and I’d be lying if I said his participation wasn’t almost wholly motivated by me! Another failure.

We even introduced the incentive of a prize for both the running challenge and the skills challenge and both fell flat. Clearly mobile phones and X-Box were winning out!

Our club committee, recognising that this could be a terminal problem, then got involved. Unfortunately their first idea was a running challenge and we know how that one had already panned out with my lads! But then Zoom football quizzes were organised and despite having spent the best part of three lockdowns avoiding these things like the they themselves were contagious, I promoted it and duly entered myself and my son. I mean, I had to be the one setting the example, right?

Come the morning of our Zoom quiz and I was full of optimism. The squad would be ‘together’ once again and it would be great to see their faces and to find out how everyone was doing. I was confident that given my own knowledge of the sport, me and my son might even be up for the win. And then, after one or two technical problems, the gallery screen came into view. Apart from me and my son, there were three other players. Two of the three were twins and the other one was the son of my assistant coach. So essentially, one household without a direct club connection had joined in! We’d failed again. In fact, only three players from the other team in our age group joined in as well. Seven players from two squads numbering 28 players. And to top it all, me and my son didn’t even win the quiz!

So we’d tried to embrace technology and a world that 11 and 12-year-olds were familiar with and couldn’t make it work. The whole thing was becoming incredibly frustrating. As a kid – and frankly still as an adult – I was obsessed with football. I wanted to be outside with a ball at my feet as much as possible. In fact, on the day that I was discharged from hospital having undergone open heart surgery, aged 6, I attempted to cry my heart all the way back out again because my parents wouldn’t let me go outside and join in a game that was being played on the patch of grass opposite my house. For a kid not to want to be involved with football was almost beyond my comprehension, especially when said kid was actually part of a football team.

I’m not stupid. I understand that there are a lot of distractions nowadays. I know that football – whether it’s our national sport or not – has a lot to compete with. But I don’t buy the idea that it can’t compete. While I was obsessed with football as a kid, I did other things too. I – don’t judge me – spent hours sitting in the library (the local one, not the one in the east wing of our house or something) reading books. I collected records, I played other sports, I had a PC and played games on it. But football was my ultimate love. There was never any trouble engaging me and I always found time to play. So, I don’t buy into the idea that we should blame other distractions.

All of this makes the lack of engagement of my team all the more puzzling and frankly, upsetting. I’ve questioned myself, my sessions, my relationships with members of the team, my enthusiasm, my manner with the kids. But even as my own harshest critic, I can’t simply blame myself.

So it’s a question of where do we go from here? I must admit that this week we’ve had a bit of a breakthrough. Having re-visited the Strava group and the idea of a fitness challenge, I came up with the 50 Mile Challenge. The simple concept is, can we all walk or run enough in a week to get to 50 miles between us? I was inspired by the Proclaimers song ‘500 Miles’ and then began reducing the mileage when I realised how far I was expecting each of us to run or walk! I’m saving the idea though and might try to turn it into some sort of sponsored event in summer, if Covid allows. I mean, I had plans to make a video and everything!

When I put the idea on the WhatsApp group I had to wait 24 hours before anyone even reacted. Again, I was left feeling down, especially in those first 23 and a bit hours! But then when we recorded our own first run, I scrolled down our club Strava feed. People had been running! Not everyone, not by a long way, but people had been running. Our team were engaged and working on their fitness! By the time a day had elapsed we’d combined to run or walk nearly 16 of our 50 miles. And now, at the time of writing, 8 players, 2 coaches and our referee have recorded a grand total of 56.16 miles in just four days. My response? A congratulations note on the WhatsApp group followed by another challenge! I’ve asked if we can make it to 100 miles by Sunday night! Well, I might as well exploit that momentum!

The next challenge will come with next week. I’m keen to keep these shorter challenges going, so I’ll be posting on Sunday evening and asking if we can at least outdo whatever amount of miles we manage this week. I’ll be challenging those that haven’t joined in as well. I’m tempted to set a challenge of 150 miles, but might stick to 100, just to be on the safe side and step things up gradually. Experience tells me that initial enthusiasm doesn’t always last!

The lack of enthusiasm has really made me think about how to engage the team when we’re finally able to play again. I’m already sketching out ideas for simpler training sessions where we mix the right amount of fitness with a bit of competition and a short sharp game at the end. I’ve tried to cram as many drills as possible into sessions in the past, in order to work on various aspects of the team and players, but I’m definitely going for a leaner, meaner approach. Hopefully, they’ll be sessions that can cut out the messing about and keep every player engaged enough to want to be there every week.

I also have a couple of much grander plans for later on in the year. Firstly, I’ll be trying to get a group of players and coaches together to do some kind of sponsored activity. I’ve a couple of causes I’d like to help, but I’d also like to try and do something to raise money for the club as a whole. Above all of that though, I think doing something like that as a team will help to build some sense of identity and spirit within a squad that is made up of kids from 4 different high schools and that is still very cliquey.

Alongside that, I’d also like to do something that helps within the community. I’d hoped to do something over the Christmas period, but Covid got in the way. It’s still not a very well developed scheme, but I hope that with the involvement of our coaches and parents we can come up with an idea that makes a difference to people in our community and of course, our team. It might just amount to delivering supplies to the elderly or collecting shopping or donations for a foodbank , but I think it’s the kind of thing that young people should do in order to help build a bit of character and just open themselves up to what’s actually happening in their community and the kind of difference that they can make. Whether people will get on board with any such ideas, who knows?

I’ve found it really tough to motivate or engage my team over the last two months. It seems that the default approach at the moment is to take to a screen and that makes me feel really unhappy. And it’s disconcerting – and I won’t lie, a bit of a blow to the ego – when you feel like you’re doing your best and no one seems interested! We might just be getting somewhere though, but if you’ve enjoyed reading and have any suggestions, I’m all ears!

Book Review: Anti Social by Nick Pettigrew

I thought I knew what an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer was before I read this book. I had them pegged as being akin to a Community Support Officer in the police and so I imagined this would be the book version of shows like ‘999 What’s Your Emergency?’ The odd fight, neighbours who play their music too loud and a lot of time wasters. And then I read the book.

Nick Pettigrew fell into a career as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in the way that many of us have fallen into a career. He came out of university with the kind of degree that doesn’t have an obvious next step (bloody English!) and before he knew it, was taking a job that he didn’t know a great deal about. Lots of us have done it. I did it. Over two decades after leaving university I’m still in a job that I once told my wife I’d “probably give a couple of years”. Fortunately, I love what I do, so although I can’t help but wonder what might have been if I’d have had an actual plan, there are no regrets. But then, my job doesn’t involve regularly dealing with problems ranging from noise nuisance to crack addicts.

‘Anti-Social’ is Pettigrew’s memoir of his time in what sounds like a tremendously testing and frequently unrewarding job as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in a local authority in London. A job he fell into and then gave his all to for over a decade before finding that he could no longer cope with the conditions in which he worked every day. And these weren’t what some of us might call ‘testing’ conditions, like having to sit on an uncomfortable chair or huffing and puffing about the fact that the stationary order was taking a bit long in arriving. No, Pettigrew worked with and represented some of the most vulnerable members of society in one of the busiest cities in the world.

So while some days were dominated by what Pettigrew might call routine investigations, inspecting flats and collecting evidence of noise nuisance, many others were spent trying to help the neighbours of drug dealers or battling to save the tenancies of incredibly vulnerable people with appalling mental health problems. Put simply, Pettigrew often gave every ounce of his energy and time helping those that wouldn’t admit they needed help or those who simply couldn’t help themselves. In fact, his diary tells us that his working days were often spent in vain, trying to help people who were a dangerous combination of both.

‘Anti-Social’ is a book that should shock you. In fact, if you think you have problems with every day life, then this book might just provide the antidote. While I probably spend too long moaning about life’s smaller problems, some of the cases that Pettigrew documents here left me in tears. Some of the powerlessness and some of the blatant exploitation of society’s most vulnerable is truly haunting. And all the while Pettigrew struggled with his own mental health, as documented at the start of every monthly chapter when he indicates to the reader his own current medication, accompanied by his newly changed and usually deeply ironic password.

The book is brilliantly written. Obviously the real life nature of it lends itself beautifully to an ever more engaging narrative, but what makes ‘Anti-Social’ stand out is its dark sense of humour. Often, the same tale is likely to have you tearing your hair out and close to tears while at the same time laughing at the way it’s told. There’s a certain dark irony in a lot of the problems that are discussed that makes the book both addictive and alarming in equal measure. And while ‘Anti-Social’ will introduce you to a dark side of society that you were perhaps unaware of, it will also expose human stupidity at its most hilarious with a deadpan tone that will help you to smile or laugh your way through the horror that is often unfolding on its pages.

If you enjoyed ‘This is Going to Hurt’ by Adam Kay then ‘Anti-Social’ is a logical next step. Similarly funny, maddeningly frustrating, but also fantastically engaging. The kind of book where what you’re being told makes you want to put it down, yet not put it down at all.

In what some all too often refer to as dark, desperate times, ‘Anti-Social’ should be a wake-up call to all of us. Yes, a series of lockdowns caused by a ham-fisted reaction to a global pandemic has made the last year or so undoubtedly tough. But if you’ve still got a job, can get out for a walk every so often, can afford to just sit and watch television for any length of time or you just still have your health in some semblance of working order, then you probably don’t know you’re born. Reading ‘Anti-Social’ might just help you stop feeling so sorry for yourself. Thank Christ for people like Pettigrew!

I’d give ‘Anti-Social’ by Nick Pettigrew

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: ‘Snow Day’

This was a poem I wrote after a couple of days recently where it snowed heavily. On both occasions our school closed and we reverted to remote learning from home. Sadly, I only stayed away from work on one of them. But more of that later.

I wanted to write about the sensation of a snowy day, rather than just pointing out lots of things that would be happening. I think there’s something still very special and almost magical about waking up to discover that there’s been snow and better still, it’s still there. Even as an adult, I still find it quite a captivating time and it definitely makes the place look a lot better, if only usually for about 24 hours. There can never be enough snowy landscape photos!

So, when you think about how beautiful the snow can make a place look, add in the anticipation as you notice that the sky is ‘full’ – because we’re all weather experts when it looks like it’ll snow – the sensation of the cold of a snow day – I always find it’s a different kind of cold when it’s snowed – it all makes for something very poetic. It was only right that I attempted something.

I found as I got part of the way through, that the notes I was writing from seemed to have a mixture of ideas; some about being a kid and others about being an adult in the snow. Two very different things! As a kid you just want to be out there without a care in the world, not feeling the cold or worrying about having any kind of accident. As an adult, I’m often completely on edge about the journey to work and getting stuck! So, I adapted as I wrote and ended up with a poem that contrasts those experiences instead of the one that I set out to write!

So here’s what I ended up with.

Snow Day

An eerie light creeps from outside.
It seeps under the blinds and reaches out, grabs you attention. The first hint.
Then through an opened window the glorious realisation, 
still the same rush as when you were a child.
Snow.

Today, you could be a child again.
The yelping toddler and the carefree teenager all rolled into one glorious experience
for an hour or a day. It doesn't matter.
A blanket of white wraps round you and keeps you safe and secure, 
blocking out the strain of the everyday, of adulthood.

Instead, you brace yourself, take crunching baby steps down the path,
clear the joints bwween doors and doorframes, the freezing of a finger in vain
as a sliver of snow slides onto the diver's seat.
The first part of a treacherous journey will be spent fighting the cold from every angle 
so you pray to someone's god and just keep moving.

You should be sledging, with the rush of a chill wind on your crimson cheeks,
the daring of your youth flooding back as you race down the snow covered hill,
clinging on for dear life, unable to control the smile and the happy noise that escapes.
For a moment, you don't care about what happens between here
and the well trodden flat at the bottom.

Back in the real world you hunch over the wheel
unable to take in the beauty of a landscape turned white by feathery flakes.
Adrenalin coarses as you slide to the side and you let out a sigh at every stop.
A warning light alerts you to approaching danger as you here an engine's struggles
and set you sights on simply cresting the next wave.

You wish it was possible to go back to the fearless child, 
whooping down that bank again, taking the shorter route left in a moment of doubt
or, more likely, tackling the whole run, head on, all the way 
down the hill on a sheet of plastic bag, spinning, out of control
until you stop, trudge back, delirious and dice with death time and time again.

But, in the furroughed brow of the here and now,
fun seems an eternity away as you fight against the same roads as every other day
your heart beating, like someone pressed a button that
changed the level on the video game and every bend and hill mus be aproached with 
a caution never seen before. That front door will never look so good again.

This was a very different poem to write. In terms of how it looked on the page of my notebook, it was like something I do at work. Lots of snippets of lines, bullet points, snatches of poem written wherever I could fit them and arrows joining some if not all of it together.

As I wrote it I changed my mind on what it was going to be and as I stated above, I included some stanzas about adulthood. However, I only had two half formed ‘adult’ experiences down at that point so had to write more and try and form a logical kind of ‘narrative’ as I wrote. In that way, it was a really tricky poem to write. I hope it doesn’t sound too cobbled together!

The whole adult experience with snow was summed up in January this year when one journey home from work in the snow ended up taking over six hours. So, I suppose it’s a good thing that the poem reflects this side of things too and the dread that snow can bring nowadays.

One other thing to point out is that I deliberately tried to include lots of sibilance and enjambment in there. The sibilance was there to try and replicate the sounds of sledging (there I go again!), the hissing and swishing of the plastic against the snow. The enjambment was there to pick up pace as I wanted to get across the recklessness of sledging as a child and the speed that you would pick up as you went down a hill. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious, but I wanted to at least explain what I was trying to do!

As ever, I’d love to hear what people thought, so feel free to let me know in the comments.

Remote Learning Diary – leaf blowers, toilet requests and possible psycho killers.

It’s been over five weeks now since the new school term started. Under normal circumstances, us teachers would be tired, but with the end in sight and a week’s half term break to come, we’d be sure that we could make it through. Although, in truth I think I’d probably be acting the drama queen about it all and making sure that everyone was sure about the exact level of my exhaustion. Unfortunately though, circumstances have been anything but normal and as we lurch towards that half-term break, it feels like we’ve rowed across an ocean, climbed a mountain, been thrown to the lions in the Coliseum and then locked in a room, waterboarded, lashed to a settee to be the meat in a double Nigel Farage sandwich and subjected to the non-stop playing of NIck Knowles’ Greatest Hits. Safe to say, it’s been a tough one.

It started simply enough. Personally, despite the government leaving the decision to close schools until almost the last second, I thought teaching remotely would be quite good. I enjoy my own company, am comfortable in my own skin and so I imagined it would be quite a lot of fun just talking to my class through a screen every day. That lasted about an hour into the third day, when I realised that without the human interaction and the showing off aspect of my job, well, I don’t like my job anywhere near as much.

But that’s not what I’m here for. I can moan about things another time, I’m sure. The idea behind this blog was just to make it a kind of remote learning diary (hence the oh so imaginative title), but with a selection of high and lowlights, rather than a day by day account of every last detail. In the main, I wanted a chance to record what went on in order to capture it for posterity. Something to look back on in years to come, if you will.

What’s probably surprised me most is my willingness to just go into work every day. I know what I’ll be faced with, which is an empty English corridor most days, an almost empty school, just me in my classroom faced by a load of desks that still have the chairs up on them, barely any human interaction and almost zero movement, yet every day I trail in. Having spent years envying those who have been able to work from home, I’ve found I can’t really bring myself to go for it! While part of this is down to a mistrust of home technology, it’s strange to think that mainly, my reason for going into work is just that I like the familiarity of the surroundings…even if they’re not that familiar at the moment. I keep everything familiar too. I start every day with a ‘To Do’ list – boring jobs are carried over from days and weeks before – , I check emails, turn on the heating, activate SIMs and usually join my own call very early in order to get everything in place. It’s still difficult to make it feel ‘right’ though. This is anything but normal.

I do actually have a little bit of company in my room during the week. Some of our more vulnerable students who are in school prefer the familiarity of the classroom and so when I was asked if they could join me, I thought why not. The chance to exchange even a few words with people has benefitted me and if the students are enjoying school a bit more by being in their classroom, well who am I to deny that? But it’s given me a situation that acts as both a lowlight and a highlight because these boys seem blissfully unaware of their propensity for farting! And so, a couple of times a week, I’m treated to something akin to the accompaniment of a brass section parping away very much in the foreground of my lesson as I try to make myself known to the other students at home online. It’s safe to say that it’s 60% amusing 30% smelly and 10% worth of worry that an online student picks it up on the mic and thinks it’s me. I can only imagine the texts pinging around the school community about Mr. Crosby’s guffs. Well, at least I know the truth and what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom!

One of the biggest downsides, across the board for teachers and students, has probably been how bad it all is for the eyes. Lots of my colleagues have complained of headaches and migraines and I’ve found, the longer I’ve sat at a screen, the worse the headaches have become. On a few occasions recently I’ve even experienced a bizarre fuzziness around the edges of my vision, almost as if my eyes are slowly shutting down and my field of vision is shrinking; it’s not at all pleasant. But I’m guessing that’s what spending so long in front of a screen will do for you. Our school have introduced longer breaks, but even then, such is the pressure you put on yourself to produce work of some kind, I rarely leave the screen. It’s been an unexpected side effect for me, but the fatigue at the end of each day is a real concern. I genuinely thought that with students not in the classroom taking away the draining effects of dealing with in class behaviour, life would be a lot easier. Little did I know. Everyone I know that works in education seems exhausted and it seems we’re all going to end up wearing jam jar glasses as well!

Another of the quirks of working in a school that’s closed is the intrigue caused by a fresh face. Sadly, the fresh faces generally all come in the form of tradesmen, but beggars can’t be choosers. Over the course of the last 6 weeks I’ve had several blokes join me in my room in order to fix or check something or other. The first was a man who, during the first week of January, popped in to check the fire exit and who seemed genuinely offended that I had the heating on. He actually shook his head while informing me that it was “hot in here”, while ignoring the fact that it might be something to do with him having just walked in from outside. I’m not sure why he seemed to think I should be working in the cold, but on second thoughts, you’re right mate; I’ll just sit here trying to make myself understood through all the shivering and chattering of teeth.

In another heating related visit, one of our caretakers was summoned to the classroom next door in order to sort out their air conditioning and having wrestled with it for a few minutes, simply knocked on my door and asked if I knew what to do! Fortunately, having being summoned by my friend next door at least once a week to sort the same thing for the last 5 years, I was able to make a difference! (On an unrelated to lockdown note, the best heating problem is when someone asks for help and I go in to find that they haven’t actually turned it on!)

The other notable tradesman related tales were the timing of the man who turned on an industrial sized leaf blower, just as I started my lesson recently – it could be heard by the students on the call! – and the man who seemed to be out to kill me. No, really. This was the bloke who was fixing something on the neighbouring building and kept either staring in my window while working or staring while walking past. Whatever the location he seemed to have taken an instant dislike to me and just stared with the dead eyes of a shark who wanted me dead. I’ve not seen such levels of disdain for me in…minutes. Equal parts unnerving and amusing and an incident that led to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer being the earworm of the day. Well, I suppose if there’s no in class behaviour to worry about, I can always rely on tradesmen to keep me on my toes!

Technology has been a constant irritation. And not just because in general, I can’t use it. One of the main features about having to rely on technology for so long has been the amount of times when it just goes wrong. But at least that can be solved. Usually, if there’s a problem with sound or what can be viewed on screen, if the student leaves the call then returns, it’s problem solved. So, we’re relying mostly on the remote learning version of turning it off and then back on again!

It’s a more human problem, that can really get in the way of the technology though. It’s safe to say that we’ve all had some bizarre interruptions to our lessons. For instance, despite the fact that our pupils are generally working from home, you’d be surprised by the amount of requests I’ve had for pupils wanting permission to go to the toilet. And while I see that this is common courtesy on their part, I have to admit to at least once telling them, “It’s your toilet, you don’t need my permission!” Perhaps I’d been asked one too many times at that point! Another friend has had requests to leave the lesson from students on one occasion because their budgie had escaped and on another because the kid’s puppy had just decided to use his bed as a toilet.

And while other colleagues have enjoyed the relaxed dress and hair code they can adopt at home, others have been on the end of some rather harsh feedback from students. A friend working at home while looking after her toddler subsequently found out through the Comments on the lesson that her students had nicknamed said toddler ‘The Beast’. Another was asked, “For real miss, are you okay, ‘cos you sound off” which I suppose could have been worse if they’d said she looked ‘off’. And then another friend was recently asked if she was okay because she looked ‘poorly’. My friend tells me that she’d made an effort to actually put the webcam on that day in order to give the kids someone familiar to look at, a bit of normality in these strange times and being asked if she was poorly was her reward!

I think I may well speak for the majority of teachers when I say that the lack of face to face communication has somewhat hampered progress. The level of miscommunication has been ramped up beyond belief. During an assessment recently, a student waited for 30 minutes before telling me they’d been reading the wrong text for the first set of questions, despite reminders as often as I could possibly give them about what to read and when. The information was also on the slides that we’d been looking at for weeks in preparing for exam tasks! Similarly, a friend relates a tale of telling a class the number of paragraphs they’d need to write – three – at regular intervals and also having the instruction on the relevant slide, only for a kid to ask, “do I do three or one?” Another pal explained the same assessment for 20 minutes without interruption and 7 minutes into writing one of her students confessed he’d forgotten what he was doing! It’s safe to say our students need that face to face interaction!

While there have been numerous stressful parts to the last 6 weeks of remote learning, I can’t deny the highs. Although some of them haven’t quite worked out as well as they could have. An excellent example of this was our recent Wellbeing Wednesday which was brought in to give people a rest and keep them away from screens for a few hours. The timetable was suspended for the afternoon session and pupils were just set assignments to complete and hand in. Lots of staff went home early, went on walks, did activities like yoga, spent time with family and stuff. Me? Well, Wednesday is a free afternoon for me, so I wasn’t gaining anything really. Normally I’d just spend the afternoon planning, marking or researching. I just knew that if I went home I’d waste the time and discover it was 5pm and that I’d done nothing. So I stayed at work to get ahead, but was adamant that I’d leave early. I didn’t manage that bit though, as I lost track of time feeding back to students on work that they’d done. So not a lot of wellbeing taken care of, but it’s my own fault. And I bet I wasn’t alone. I subsequently dedicated that evening to my wellbeing by drinking a bottle of red wine and passing out on the sofa. I didn’t really, that was a joke. My wellbeing is…well, don’t worry.

Another high this term was organised by one of our SLT. We were invited to a staff meeting on a Wednesday morning, during week 5, but with no real idea why? When we logged on there was a slide informing us that a secret email had been sent to students and that they were being asked to send in positive messages for staff. And then, for 10 minutes, we sat back and watched as the messages rolled over the screen; loads and loads of them. They even played the theme from The Golden Girls in the background! Sadly, just the once and not on a ten minute loop. I’m not a particularly sentimental person, but even I have to say that it was amazing. I sat there expecting to see nothing about myself, but was thrilled to bits (secretly and in a really cool way!) to see my name pop up on a number of occasions. Everybody likes a pat on the back occasionally though, right? It was a fantastic idea and the member of staff who organised it said he’d been overwhelmed by the amount of emails that were sent back. It was certainly proof that I work in a special place and a really timely boost just when I felt like I was flagging.

Strangely, as someone who always thought he’d be fine with just his own thoughts for company, I’ve found my own headspace a bit much to deal with at times. Even today, I was the only member of staff on our corridor and if I allowed myself to consider that too much I might start to feel ridiculously isolated and even a bit lonely. And it’s not as if it’s the first time this has happened. Yet, I’ve still not quite got used to it.

The boredom can be a bit of a problem too. With no face to face interaction, often, as we set a class off working on something, we’re left in a bit of a void. You’re still on the call and available to help, but you’re faced with a wall of silence. In class, I’ll wander round, keeping myself active and being readily available to help, but that doesn’t really work when it’s all remote and you’re the only person in the room! Instead, often I bring up another tab and start working on something else; some planning or some admin task that’s been on a ‘To Do’ list for weeks. I’ve also found another Teams related way to amuse myself, which is to change the backgrounds to my image on camera. It’s something that I occasionally share with my classes, but it’s mainly there to make me smile, although I have sent some of the images to friends via social media as well. You can see some of the results below.

As we limp to the end of the term, I think everyone is exhausted, including students. It’s safe to say it’s been a real learning curve and a very intense experience over these last 6 weeks. I’m sure other professions have had it even harder across the whole pandemic, but as someone who’s been in the eye of this particular storm, I thought I’d share a bit of what it’s been like.

Who knows how long we have left working like this. March 4th has been floated around speculatively as the date when schools re-open, but I’m not holding my breath. Best just to keep the mindset exactly the same, keep the head down and get on with it. After all, there are far worse off people in this pandemic, than people like me who still have a job and are being asked to do it in a different way. If you’re a teacher or anyone else who works in a school, or even a parent or child involved in home-schooling; keep on going! It’s all we can do!

Poetry Blog: Big Garden Birdwatch.

Ornithology. Birding. Twitching. Whichever way you look at it, it amounts to the same thing. Bird-watching. And whichever way you look at it, it’s what’s led me to this. The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch; an annual event where those who take part log the birds they spot in their garden across an hour of one of three days in January. What is the world’s biggest bird survey, is something that we’ve taken part in, as a family, for several years now and it never gets any less tense. What should be a bit of fun, counting and identifying the birds in the garden, can actually play havoc with one’s heart rate and blood pressure. Surely, I’m doing it wrong?

While we’ve done it for quite a few years now, we’ve rarely had a really successful one. And by successful, of course I mean dramatic exciting, like an emu leaping the fence and having a go on the trampoline. (Well somebody needs to; ours is reduced to garden sculpture status these days). However, some would say that you’re missing the point if you’re only in it for the drama. The whole point is just to log what you see, however big or small the numbers or birds because that’s what helps the RSPB out. But as with anything, it’s always nice to stand out a little bit.

We have had some more remarkable birds in our garden in the past, but never on the day of the Big Garden Birdwatch. We’ve had a kestrel perch on our fence right next to the window as we were eating dinner at the table. I think we once, briefly, had a sparrowhawk, but its identity was shrouded somewhat by a huge camelia at the back of the garden (get me with my subtle garden based bragging!) and a heron landed on a neighbour’s roof one day. We sporadically have a Great Spotted Woodpecker that visits too. But we’re ‘reduced’ to our regulars more often than not on the day of the BGB. And rightly or wrongly, I’m always a little disappointed.

However, it’s always a bit of a thrill to take part and this year I felt inspired enough to write a poem.

Big Garden Birdwatch

Drawing the curtains, more in hope than anything else,
I'm bouoyed by a blackbird, rallied by a robin.
We plant the feet, scan the immediate horizon and stay as still as we can.
Away we go. A tense hour awaits and maybe this will be all we see.

Armed with a poster to confirm our bird spots and two pairs of binoculars at hand
we scope every inch of the  garden for more.
Every so often something flits across our line of vision, but it's difficult to tell
if it's in our trees or those in the fields behind. This struggle is real.

But then, the pulse rate quickens at the sight of something on a feeder.
We struggle to focus our sights, finding it, but losing it just as quickly. 
And then. There's yellow, no mustard, a black marking...
We check the poster to confirm a coal tit. I was hoping for a vulture.

A period of silence then ensues and we exploit this, taking turns to make breakfast,
keeping one eye, at least, on the prize at all times.
Within minutes, a burst of activity scatters toast and brings a clutch of sparrows,
but no sparrow hawk, a lone blue tit, but no blue macaw or kingfisher.

Suddenly they seem to be everywhere; sparrows scattered around the branches
Only everywhere's a slight exaggeration, but we almost have a five bar gate.
Close, but no cigar. Near, but still a bit too distant.
We mark them on our poster and frown, underwhelmed by our visitors so far.

We scan the garden for anything we've missed. Minutes tick by with nothing but hope.
And then one of our ubiquitous woodpigeons thunks on to a branch gaining our attention.
As I go to make a note a flash of red pulls me back.
A focused gaze shows not only red, but yellow and black - we've struck gold...finch.

These two have strayed from nearer the estate's equator to the frozen North of our silver birch
Never once seen before and probably never to be witnessed again.
From that mighty high, it's all downhill from here.
Typically, a magpie lands and no other species dares enter our birdwatch for the remainder of the hour.

We pack away our equipment and return to the more uniform duties of the day,
the birdwatch over for another year, but a moderate cause for celebration.
No doubt now an eagle will land, perhaps a dodo even,
But outside of our golden hour, although a thrill, none of them would count.

Hopefully, that gives an idea of not just our experience, but the large majority of Big Garden Birdwatch experiences. I imagine lots of us set out hoping for something that we deem ‘exciting’ to happen and in a way, miss the point of the whole thing. It doesn’t matter; I still I’ll always retain that approach!

I think in many ways, that’s what made the appearance of the two goldfinches so good. As I mention in the poem, if I head further down the hill on our estate (south towards the ‘Equator’ if you will) there are certain places where you’ll see them in the trees. But we’ve literally never had them in our garden before. So what a time for them to arrive.

A few notes, if you like, about the poem by way of explanation (or perhaps I’m just trying to sound like a proper poet). I deliberately used alliteration in the second line to convey the sense of excitement in our house at that moment. Myself and my son were first downstairs and we knew we’d be doing the birdwatch, but having done it before and spent an hour seeing two or three birds enter the garden, it was a genuine thrill to see two within a second! So I thought the alliteration there was apt.

The line, ‘The struggle is real’ is sarcastic. I’m laughing at myself a bit there as I do get a bit carried away with BGB day and actually, I shouldn’t be quite so serious as to be surveying the entire family as to whether or not ‘that bird’ is in our tree or another that’s beyond our fence. It’s a dig at my seriousness as much as my eyesight! Middle age means that I can’t accurately see which branches belong where nowadays! A little later on, the lines about a vulture, macaw and kingfisher are the same; me gently mocking myself (and possibly lots of us who do the BGB) and my hopes that something rare will suddenly decide that it needs to visit my particular corner of the planet so it can get ticked off on a survey. I don’t know if I think I’ll achieve some kind of fame and notoriety by being the bloke who spotted the particular bird that no one else saw!

Two other things to explain: the ‘five bar gate’ in the 5th stanza is just a way of keeping score. Four marks on a page and then when you get to a fifth, you cross the four to make a gate. The other thing was the ‘thunk’ of the woodpigeon. This is the noise I like to imagine these ‘thick set’ birds make. I know it’s not as they’re actually quite graceful in real life.

So, I hope you enjoy the poem and I hope that if you are someone who participates in The Big Garden Birdwatch year after year, you can recognise certain things in it. And I don’t just mean birds. Hopefully, the excitement and element of competition is not just to be found in our house!

Book Review: Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo

They say that everybody makes mistakes. I only have to think of a few haircuts from my twenties and several outfits from the 90s to realise that it’s likely to be a fact. Come on, we’ve all done it. From one night stands to long term relationships and choosing Betamax over VHS, we’ve all made mistakes. And while the consequences range in levels of seriousness, it’s rare that our life is put in serious danger.

In ‘Midnight Sun’, Jo Nesbos’ hapless hitman, Jon has made a big mistake. In fact, to paraphrase Julia Roberts’ Vivian in Pretty Woman, it’s not just a big mistake, it’s “Big. Huge.” But unlike Vivian, he won’t get to go shopping. You se, Jon has double crossed Oslo’s biggest gangster, The Fisherman. When his trigger finger didn’t want to work, Jon agreed a deal with a small time criminal in debt to the Fisherman and like most hastily arranged plans, it didn’t work out. Like I said, big mistake. Big. Huge.

‘Midnight Sun’ is set in the remote, icy wastelands of Finnmark in the north of Norway. The title refers to the fact that for certain months of the year, the entire place has continuous daylight, 24 hours a day. This is the most northerly part of mainland Europe; perfect if you’re thinking of running away, have a high boredom threshold and don’t mind the cold. Surely even a man with the reputation of the Fisherman can’t find you here? Although, let’s face it, that continuous daylight thing isn’t exactly going to help.

Midnight Sun is something a bit different for Nesbo. No multiple gratuitous murders, not so much of the ultra violence that we might find in some of his other novels, no particularly complex criminals and not even a hint of his infamous hero, Harry Hole. Sure it’s pretty heavy on the underworld and the seedy side of Scandinavian culture, but it’s a lot more of a simple tale than we’re used to. A cut and dried thrill of the chase kind of novel with a man on the run and the ever present threat of the bad guy hunting him down. And despite the fact that Jon runs to the middle of nowhere, you’re always aware of the fact that he can run…but he can’t hide.

There are the usual quirky characters as well as a girl for our hero to fall in love with. Both seemingly staples of Nesbo’s writing. Because the novel is set in the Finnmark region we find a clutch of Sami people – the indigenous people of the area – although the main character does seem a bit of a caricature, despite my lack of knowledge of the Sami. We also find Lea, a beautiful, mysterious and, it would seem, decidely off limits woman, being as she is, married to the local gangster. So not only does our hero Jon appear to have someone hunting him down, he also has to switch off his feelings for the woman that he inevitably falls for.

It’s sub-plots like this that always make Nesbo’s writing a little more interesting. While reading you’re always waiting for an explosion of action or violence, for a character to make the wrong decision or to be somehow outwitted. And it’s this type of thing that makes Midnight Sun such a good read. The main character is flawed – a hitman who can’t bring himself to ‘hit’ and who has messed with the wrong people. His back story reveals a motivation for the path that he took and so, as a reader, we can live with his mistakes. It seems inevitable that he will pay the price for his mistakes, but Jon is human enough for us to be on his side, despite his flaws and you’ll find yourself willing him to live, despite the inexorable nature of his fate.

Midnight Sun has everything you want in a thriller while retaining something a little bit different. There aren’t bodies everywhere, but there’s just enough jeopardy to keep you on the edge of your reading seat. And when violence does rear its head, it’s shocking, yet believable; Nesbo doing what Nesbo does best. The setting isn’t somewhere that the vast majority of us will be familiar with, but Nesbo captures the area’s stark beauty brilliantly and during my reading, I could easily envisage the town and the wilderness where Jon sets up camp. The ever-present sun lends the whole place an eerie quality that simply adds to the danger that our hero finds himself. He’s a sitting duck, resigned to his fate. But can he escape a fate that he seems perfectly willing to accept?

I give Midnight Sun…

Rating: 4 out of 5.