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My name is Graham and I’m part robot…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bloke in possession of what he thinks are a perfectly good pair of legs, will NOT be allowed to walk up to a cardiology ward from his A&E bed, no matter what reason he gives or how ‘ok’ he feels. And so it was that I found myself clinging to an overnight bag while a porter wheeled me through the eerily quiet hospital corridors up to my new temporary home.

Having spent around 7 hours working my way through the various stages of A&E, I’d almost got sent home. Almost. Then, minutes after the cardiologist doing my ‘final’ echo scan had mentioned discharging me, he found a problem and performed a rather neat about turn, admitting me to a ward.

So, having had my sleep disrupted on several occasions during the night, either by a nurse checking a monitor or taking my blood pressure or by a fellow patient making loads of noise in their sleep, I woke next day to the wonderful hospital sensation of a nurse turning on all the lights, yanking the curtains open and asking if I fancied tea or coffee! This would be the first of several occasions that I’d be woken from a slumber, hospital wards being both great places to nap and probably even better places to get woken up.

Now this was most unexpected when I started my working week. I thought I’d just be clinging on for Friday to arrive, as usual, and now here I was clinging on to the hope that I might still go home with just some tablets to take.

However, as the day went on things just seemed to get gradually worse, culminating with the visit of the head cardiology honcho, who broke the news that I’d be having a pacemaker fitted. Despite my relative youth for such a procedure, my condition just meant that it was the common-sense decision. Staggering. A pacemaker wasn’t on the menu as far as I was concerned; not for at least another 20 years. Yet, when everything was explained, it made perfect sense. I could either carry on not knowing when I might black out again – and have my driving license taken away – or I could have a pacemaker.

I was told that I’d have the operation that day, meaning that I could even be home that night. But in the end I never even got my next echo scan and so was told that there’d be another night in hospital.

To be fair, this didn’t much bother me. I think I was still quite stunned by what was going to happen to me and so the thought of having a bit more time to think was quite welcome, really. So, the rest of my day was spent mulling things over, reading, napping and snacking until it was time to go to sleep.

I got to sleep that night without a problem. Truth be told, I was shattered. The latest episode with my heart had worn me out and the news that accompanied it had been mentally draining. However, it wasn’t to be a quiet night and I was woken up by a new patient being admitted to the ward. Clearly drunk, my new Slovakian friend veered between laughing or crying hysterically, insulting the staff and praising them and telling anyone who’d listen that he’d been homeless for the last 6 nights as well as having been wrongfully imprisoned at the same time. Welcome to the ward my friend! I felt sure that I’d never get back to sleep, yet I did.

The next day was a whirlwind of activity that will stay with me until the day I die. And for a short time, it felt like it would be just that; the day I died.

Having had some breakfast, I was taken down by the now familiar wheelchair to another part of cardiology where I would have my pre-op echo scan. On my return to the ward I imagined that I’d have a bit of a wait for my operation, so I called my wife just to explain what was going on. However, within about a minute a nurse appeared with a gown for me. It was pacemaker time!

Thankfully, for this operation I managed to avoid the paper underwear that the NHS usually insist on, but even wearing my own pants, the gown and NHS slipper socks didn’t really do a great deal for my dignity.

The operation itself was successful – or at least it seemed so from my experience – so I won’t bore anyone with a blow-by-blow account. Rather, let me tell you a few interesting things that either struck me while I was there or have done since.

  1. It always surprises me how many people are involved. Mine was quite a routine operation, but I swear there were at least 8 people present. In fact, at one stage a random man appeared in an adjacent room and began talking to my team via some kind of intercom. It was a bit like he’d just wandered in to have a look, like a competition winner. Perhaps someone on the team had told him, ‘Hey, we’ve got that bloke from the Middle Age Fanclub blog in again’ but I highly doubt it.
  2. The sheer talent of these people is awesome. At one point they were chatting about the songs on the radio while one of them had my chest open and was concentrating on turning me into a robot. Meanwhile, I still stick my tongue out of the side of my mouth while concentrating…on anything.
  3. My gown made me look like something from the hot counter at Greggs, such was its colour and design. I’d like to think that the operating team also had me down as something from the hot counter. Again, I very much doubt it.
  4. Knowing that the area around my scar was numbed, the surgeon just kept dropping his instruments on to my chest. It wasn’t that numb and I felt every pair of scissors as they hit my collarbone!
  5. They have to make a kind of pocket in your flesh to put a pacemaker in. To do so, they drag your skin and flesh around like you’re a particularly heavy and stubborn bit of furniture and although it’s not painful, you are fully aware of what’s happening! So, you’re kind of lying there thinking, ‘Ooh, he’s ripping my flesh!’
  6. While pulling stuff around in my chest, I could feel the sensation in my throat. My voice has changed slightly since my op. No, really, it has! I take it this is not a coincidence.
  7. They cover you up completely in a kind of big sleeping bag and have you face the right, leaving a gap you can see out of. It’s to protect the wound from your own germy mouth!
  8. While looking to the right through my sleeping bag gap, I could watch my own heartbeat on a monitor. It goes unrecognisably mental when the pacemaker is switched on and looks nothing like a heartbeat anymore. I was also able to watch – in some horror – while my heart stopped a few times as the pacemaker started to get used to its new home! Coupled with the fact that, prior to the op, my cardiologist told me, “You’re heart stopped for 4.2 seconds this morning”, this was a development that I didn’t need to see. Indeed, it was at these points where I had the dubious pleasure – and not for the last time that day – of quietly telling myself, “Just breath and you can’t die”.
  9. My feet were freezing for the whole op.
  10. The whole thing took around 45 minutes, during which time the team involved chatted, danced (I think) and sang, while also telling me exactly what was going on and why. These people are incredible.

It was a relief when I got back on the ward and I was fairly sure that they’d send me home within a few hours. But not every story has a perfect ending, does it?

Having messaged a few people to tell them I was back on the ward, I sat back in my bedside armchair to relax. But, in what now feels like some kind of twisted tradition, my heart had other ideas.

Without warning, my heart began to race again and it didn’t feel like it would stop. I told myself that my pacemaker would kick in and take over, but that didn’t happen either. Suddenly the alarm on my heart monitor was going off and within seconds there were nurses and doctors at my bedside and the curtains were being frantically pulled round. If you’ve ever watched a film that has any kind of hospital-based emergency, it was just like that. Bodies everywhere!

No one was panicking, but clearly there was a problem. And I was it.

My heart wouldn’t slow down. In fact, it was getting quicker. A doctor told me that they were in touch with the people who’d fitted my pacemaker, whose customer service was thankfully as good as their operating skills, and that this would be sorted out and my heart would be slowed down. In the meantime, it seemed that lots of them would ask me how I was feeling, and I would reply as calmly as I could, that I was ok. I wasn’t ok, I was terrified and reduced to telling myself that I couldn’t die if I just kept breathing. So, I kept breathing.

Sadly though, my eyes were still fully functioning and the last time I saw a monitor my heart was hitting 209 bpm. They took the monitor away after that, but I’m led to believe that it went higher.

The ending of this particular episode still seems slightly surreal. After what seemed like a couple of hours, but was probably only 7 or 8 minutes, a man from the pacemaker team arrived at my bedside and ushered everyone else away. Then he uttered something incredible in both its calmness and ridiculousness.

“Hi Graham. I’m Dan from the pacemaker team and I’m just going to have a chat with your pacemaker.”

I think I laughed, which in the circumstances was great, given that I was fairly sure I was going to die, whether Dan was going to have a chat or not.

But then, he got to work. Dan pressed a few keys on what I swear looked like some kind of Fisher Price My First Laptop and then strolled around my bed doing I know not what. As he went back to his laptop, I noticed he’d placed some kind of device on my bed. It looked just like e Wi-Fi router. Then, he said,

“OK, we’re going to chat to it wirelessly now”.

After this he tapped a few keys on his Fisher Price toy and within seconds I could feel my heart slow down. So, I told him I thought it was working, to which he replied – cool as you like – that he knew it had worked. At this point I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d made himself a martini.

The rest, as they say, is history. I think I had a major brush with death. Dan from the pacemaker department probably hasn’t thought about it since. However, for at least a few of those minutes I thought my time was definitely up. I didn’t panic, I didn’t see any light (people have asked!), I didn’t cry or shout. I just kept thinking that I should keep breathing.

My cardiologist decided that they’d keep me on the ward for the night, so that everything could be monitored, so again it meant that I wouldn’t be going home. For once, I was delighted. The ward was safe. The ward had Dan or a Dan alternative that could sort me out if anything happened again. So, I called my wife to let her know what had happened before having a bit of a nap. When your heart’s been beating at over 200bpm, you’re going to get tired out.

I’m now a few weeks down the line in my pacemaker journey. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, by the way. It’s not been easy. I’ve not spoken to many people about exactly what happened, because it’s quite a difficult thing to talk about. Easy enough to write about and crack the odd joke about though. I can’t do much and what I can do tires me out. I feel guilty for not working and I miss being around my ‘big sisters’ and my students. I can’t hug my wife and kids and I’m not allowed to kiss them as I can’t shave and have grown a very tickly beard! And I really feel for them, because none of this is easy for them. I hope none of them ever finds themselves wondering when the next episode will happen, but I think they will and that might just be the saddest thing to come out of all of this.

On the bright side, I’m alive. I have a future, even if I don’t really know what it looks like yet. There’s thinking to be done. I also have a couple more stories to tell and a lump in my chest where me pacemaker is, meaning that in years to come I can lie to anyone and everyone about what that is and how it came to get there. Live a day in my shoes and then tell me that’s not one of the best things ever!

Be thankful for what you’ve got, tell people you love and cherish them daily, listen to your body and try to enjoy life as best you can. Stay safe everyone.

Doctor, doctor…I wish there was a joke to finish up with!

So, there you are, a forty something year old man, living your life, minding your own business when all of a sudden, your heart decides to stop working properly. While at hospital, you think you might die and when you don’t, one of the things you decide to do is start a blog. At the very least you’ve got a sob story to tell…

Fast forward four years and hundreds of blog posts later and everything seems peachy. You’re fit, healthy, love your job and family life, you coach a football team and really enjoy going out running. It’s like some kind of Disney film, if you want to watch a Disney film that’s probably in black and white and is about a bloke with a very normal life who occasionally pushes the boat out and tries out stuff like smiling and having useful ideas in those meetings where he’s not in a semi-comatose state.

Then, a few months after your 50th birthday, you start to realise that you don’t feel that well. Work leaves you almost constantly tired. You’re having to cut down on the running. Your heart’s beating a bit funny and you’re lying awake at night listening to it do just that. You see a doctor, go to a hospital and have your heart monitored, but the results are pretty inconclusive.

Fast forward some more to October half term. We’ve booked a very last-minute holiday to Majorca, hoping to soak up some sun and just relax. Having not felt well for weeks, this felt like the right thing to do. Just go and sit by a pool and laze around on a beach, with not much pressure to do anything else. And that’s exactly what we did.

However, this was partly because I think we all felt too scared to attempt anything else.

At Manchester airport I’d felt rough, but had kept quiet. I figured that we were almost on the plane and that a little bit of sun would make me feel a lot better. And then, it happened. One minute I was in the queue for security and shuffling forward while my wife tried to retrieve the passports from her bag. Next minute, everything went black.

There were voices disturbing my dream. And they were getting louder.

“Are you alright mate? Are you OK?”

I wasn’t sure who they were talking to, but he wasn’t responding. It didn’t matter though, because I was asleep and still dreaming.

“Are you alright, mate? Do you need help?”

Suddenly, I could see my wife and kids. But why was I looking up at them? Why was the voice still asking those questions? Why did it sound like more voices had joined in? And more to the point, where was I?

It took a short while to figure things out but it turned out that I’d blacked out. I remember feeling dizzy and trying to hold onto a wall for balance, but nothing else. The airport ambulance was called for and we were reassured that we’d still make our flight if I was ok. We were moved over to one side and the queue diverted in the other direction while the security staff got me a seat and some water. Then, when the ambulance staff couldn’t attend because of an emergency, we were allowed through security on the understanding that if I felt poorly, we’d ask for help. We made the flight, but it’s very much a blur as I slept for much of it.

A few days later, there was another dizzy spell and although we had an amazing holiday, I felt poorly for much of it. I just hoped that it would pass and that I’d get back to work and begin to get better. I did manage to cop for a few emergency ice creams as well, so the dizziness wasn’t all bad!

Back at work, I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. Sorry pals; that didn’t turn out to be my best decision, did it? But I didn’t want anyone to worry, and I really don’t like a fuss. Pretty selfish and pretty stupid, eh?

I think I failed with the fuss and the worry stuff as well.

On the following Monday, I was giving out some texts at the start of a Year 10 lesson, when I felt the now familiar dizziness. I knew before I felt it that my heart would race and I crossed my fingers that it would be over within seconds. Not long after common sense prevailed, which it doesn’t often do where I’m concerned. I got myself sat down and continued on with the lesson while writing a short email to my department. Someone needed to come and help. I couldn’t black out in front of my students.

It felt like hours before someone arrived, but it was probably less than a couple of minutes. I closed the door on my classroom, quickly explained what was happening and then headed into our main building, not knowing what I wanted to do. I did know that I felt awful though. I was too hot, dizzy and felt sick.

I don’t remember much after that. I know that I saw my friend Gemma (yes, she of ‘Educating Yorkshire’ fame) and that in our office people rallied round and made stuff happen. I also know that I was apologetic and just felt really upset with myself. And I do know that I’m eternally grateful to everyone who helped me out.

As I sat there, I was still hopeful that it would all fade away and that I’d be back at work by the Wednesday, but my friends insisted that I was going home and that I shouldn’t worry about work. They also stopped me from driving home; a good idea given my dizziness and the fact that I’d have tried to concoct a story about not feeling that bad to tell my wife when I arrived home.

Instead, I was made to call my wife and confess! Not long after she collected me and, after we’d called at home to change my clothes, we headed into Leeds to go to A&E.

Once there, there was another dizzy spell and a bit of a fall into a nearby seat, which actually righted my heart rate. But I wasn’t getting out of this one. Instead, we were taken through various stages of Accident and Emergency and tended to by several amazing people. And just when it looked like I’d be able to head home, a last echo scan revealed a problem with my heart – a leaky valve apparently – and I was told that I’d be admitted.

This made me feel equal parts sad and relieved. I’d told my wife that I didn’t want to be back on a cardiology ward, but the news that I was going to do just that meant that whatever the problem was, it was hopefully going to get sorted out. But it was incredibly frustrating to know that my heart was letting me down once again.

The next day, after more monitoring and scanning, my latest wonderful cardiologist broke the news that I’d be fitted with a pacemaker and I have to admit, it felt like my world was crashing down around my ears! My heart’s abnormal rhythm would need to be controlled and a pacemaker was the answer, despite my age. But, pacemakers are for pensioners and here I was in the prime of life! But there was no point wallowing in self-pity. After all, what did I know about heart health?

It’s a bit of a big one to write about just now, so I’ll do the detail in my next blog, but it’s safe to say that it’s been a weird last month or so. On October 9th I ran a 10k race here in Leeds and ran it well, feeling fit and strong throughout. Just over a month later, I was on an operating table having a device fitted to control my heart for me. Writing about that another time isn’t some dramatic cliffhanger ploy, it’s just still a lot to take in. And I’m too knackered to do much at the moment!

For today, I just wanted to write something to update people and to say a heartfelt thanks to the friends and family that have got me this far. So, from the bottom of my poorly, electronically controlled heart, thank you! And sorry for not saying anything sooner. Boys will be boys though, eh?

Until next time…

Book Review: ‘The Last One’ by Alexandra Oliva

You know that feeling when you walk into a room and feel that you might just have missed something? Well, Zoo hasn’t just missed something; in a way she’s missed pretty much everything. The world has changed catastrophically, and she’s been focused on other things.

Having met the man of her dreams and set off on a life together with him, Zoo finds that she’s not yet quite satisfied. She yearns for a little taste of her old life. And so, before they start a family together, she feels the need for one last challenge.

‘The Last One’ begins by focusing on Zoo’s participation in the reality show ‘In The Dark’. As such, we learn about how twelve contestants are battling through an unnamed wilderness on a survival challenge that will test them more than they’ve ever been tested before. It’s a real mix of people too; some who possess the kind of skills that will be vital for their survival but mixed in with others who have clearly just been picked for their entertainment value. So, a bit like Love Island meets SAS Who Dares Wins, but with more clothes and less clashes.

As the action unfolds though, it’s clear that all is not well with the world. People are dying and it has no connection with the action on screen. The only snag for Zoo is that she has no idea what’s going on in the wider world. Such is her focus on the competition and all of the drama that it brings that she is blissfully unaware of the apocalyptic goings on in the wider world. So, while Zoo moves closer and closer to her survival goals, a deadly virus is taking hold of the population and wiping them out in huge swathes. Thousands are dying and Zoo has no idea. And while she fights to win the show and get back to the love of her life, we don’t even know if he’s managed to survive.

‘The Last One’ is action packed and full of twists and turns. We enter into reading about a reality game show – the kind of thing we’ll all have watched time and time again – and waiting for the inevitable conflict, before being slowly drawn into a pandemic, that until recent years was completely alien to us. So, what might well have once seemed far-fetched quickly becomes eerily familiar and is all the more exciting and readable as a result.

I enjoyed reading for a few different reasons. Firstly, I love an apocalyptic scenario. I don’t care how ridiculous it might seem; give me the fact that the world might be ending and I’m hooked! And Zoo’s confusion about the reality of her situation makes this particular end of the world all the more intriguing.

I enjoyed the mix of characters in ‘The Last One’ too and it was easy to visualise them, particularly the contestants on the show. And while I guess it’s not that difficult to write such characters given the amount of reality TV out there to ‘enjoy’, they were well written, all the same.

The twist in the plot also made ‘The Last One’ stand out from the crowd. This could have easily become some kind of ‘Hunger Ganes, lite but the story within the story lifts it away from such a fate, in my opinion. And you can see exactly why Zoo wouldn’t take the hints that keep getting dropped about the fate of the continent. Such is her paranoia about what the show’s editors are putting in front of her that she suspects everything is a trap, so even when a desperate virus survivor tries to join up with her, she is determined to ditch him in order to get to the finish line.

‘The Last One’ is an excellent read, chock full of the adventure and excitement of Zoo’s quest to survive the whole game show experience, while retaining the ever present under current of tension brought by a mystery virus. Nothing too high brow, but a gripping tale all the same, so if you want a bit of a page turner, this could be the one to pick up.

I give ‘The Last One’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: 24 Hour Hearty Person

This is another poem about my health, which over the last few years seems to be absolutely fine for just about long enough to lull me into a false sense of security before – metaphorically – jumping out from behind a bush to scare the living daylights out of me again. Middle age is proving to be a cruel mistress at times!

In summer of this year my heart decided it was time for a bit of fun and began to play up again. Having been admitted to hospital over four years previously with heart palpitations that led to enough tablets to sink a boat and then an operation a month later to resolve it all, I thought me and my heart were done with our difficult relationship. It turns out I was wrong.

In July, I had a mini episode when my heart began to race and stayed that way for around 5 hours one Sunday afternoon. I tried to hide it from my family, but eventually had to admit there was a problem after my complexion had gone grey and you could see my body shaking through my clothes. Dead giveaway, really!

In short – because I’ve already gone through this in a previous blog – I ended up being referred back to the cardiology department of Leeds General Infirmary and then referred on again for a 24 hour ECG. It found nothing at all unusual, but made for an eventful couple of days…and a poem.

24 Hour Hearty Person

Summoned to an inconvenient hospital you've never heard of 
your first impression is of a relic from a different time,
a bit like yourself, you think, and smile to seem brave.

The clouds have returned again though, as the heart acts up,
like a toddler seeking attention, giving a firm 'no' to all of your requests
and striking with a clown-like tantrum, shaking its head at your every syllable and making you feel that you're not as in charge of things as 
you thought you might be.

Once again, you'll notice every flutter, every beat, every time you're
out of breath.

So, here we are again.

A hot summer's day when you shouldn't have a care in the world,
even if you're stuck at work,
but instead, you're stepping tentatively through the automatic doors,
outwardly confident you hope, but inwardly full of fear.

A receptionist greets you, smiling through the Covid mask,
takes your details, asks the all too familiar questions about symptoms and tests and then motions you over to the exact place to where you will sit and wait...

A few minutes pass like a decade and despite the hustle and bustle
you're alone with your thoughts, your confusion and your paranoia.

Child again.

Then, your name is called and, still smiling you step into a glorified cupboard.
Pleasantries exchanged, seats taken, your next 24 hours are explained
and before you know it you've lifted your shirt without even being paid a compliment, let alone the offer of a drink.

The inevitable question of the scar comes, like night follows day
before you're scrubbed within an inch of your life and sticky patches are applied.
You instantly vow to be brave and rip it off without a sound when the time comes to leave it behind.

Next, the tiny machine that will shadow your every move is prepped and plugged and you're briefed about exactly what it is you'll need to do.
And then, when it's time to go, you clip it to your belt like a pager last seen on an 80s trading floor and off you go, back out into the sunshine to have as normal a day as you can while your every heartbeat is recorded and scrutinised in search of an abnormality that you'd rather they didn't find.

It was a strange couple of days while I wore the portable ECG machine. It makes you quite self-conscious, the fact that you’re attached to a machine that’s liable to make itself known to people if you move in a certain way.

After the hospital, I went back to work where those in the know were surprisingly eager to see my ECG machine (although secretly I’m sure it was a sneaky look at my abs they were after!). I’m sure that it was as disappointing a sight as could have been expected; the machine and the abs!

Having been at my appointment for a while there wasn’t a lot of work left, but it was simply a case of doing what would be normal in order to see what my heart did. And this continued when I went home before getting up the next day to have some breakfast and head back to the hospital to give the machine back!

As it turned out, there was nothing overly worrying found in the results of the ECG and the blood tests I’d had, other than the need to hydrate myself about 100% better than I do. So, it turned out to be quite a worrying time that led to no real answers, which is never what we want when we visit the doctors or the hospital, I would imagine.

I’ll end with a word about the title, which if you didn’t know, references the Happy Monday’s classic made popular in the late 80s and early 90s. Although the song is about doing drugs and staying out raving, adapting the title to fit the poem just felt like it worked, even if the drugs are purely prescription and the partying has very much slowed down these days! Regardless, I hope you enjoyed the poem!

Parenting: The Ghost of Halloween Past.

It’s coming up for one of the best nights of the year: Halloween. Parents everywhere will be busy trying to put together costumes for excited children wanting to turn into ghosts, witches and even walking skeletons. The supermarkets are crammed with pumpkins of all shapes (don’t try to tell me they’re all perfectly round!) and sizes as well as millions of bags of sweets, the nights are drawing in and lots of us are looking forward to the big night and a bit of harmless trick or treating.

Sadly though, for me this year things have changed. And they’ve been changing for the last couple of years, to the point where this year might be our final year of trick or treating and Halloween fun.

The simple fact is my children are getting to an age where they don’t want a family Halloween anymore. My youngest is 13 and while I’m yet to hear his plans, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he’s feeling far too old to be going round our area, dressed up like a zombie and knocking on doors in order to get a bucket load of sweets. My eldest, now 16 and an A-Level student don’t you know, definitely won’t be with us and has already driven us to distraction with her plans and demands for a Halloween dress to customise for a party with her friends. So there’ll be no spending time with the family then!

It took me a little while to get into the whole Halloween thing as a parent. As children, my sister and me weren’t allowed out trick or treating. I’m not entirely sure why – although I do have a sketchy memory of my dad grumbling about it being ‘begging’ – but while friends may have been out ‘terrorising’ the neighbourhood, I was sat indoors dreading the inevitable knocks on the door that may have friends or just one night only spooky visitors that my parents would send packing with not even a sniff of a sweet.

In some small defence of my parents however, I could point to the fact that this was the 70s and 80s where Halloween and trick or treating was not the commercial behemoth that it has since become. In the UK, we left that to the Americans and watched ET go out trick or treating with Elliot and his pals with a mixture of fascination and befuddlement. So perhaps Halloween was just another night in front of the telly for my parents.

Consequently, I carried a bit of this attitude into my own parenting. It was wife that started the ball rolling where Halloween was concerned, taking our two out for a brief wander around the closest parts of the neighbourhood to scare some friendly folk into giving them sweets. I stayed behind, probably making the excuse that dishes needed to be done or something else enormously mundane.

The next year, it became a bigger deal as they were both old enough to stay up a little later. Out they went with mum to find a whole new trick or treating world where some of our community had gone all out to create amazing scenes in gardens and sometimes in entire streets. Again, I stayed at home, but this time only to answer the door to any of our own scary visitors. And that was when the spirit of the whole thing grabbed me. The combination of my own kids’ excitement – and how cute they looked – and that of the visitors to my door had me almost hooked!

From then, it grew and grew. I joined in the trick or treating, cajoling the kids to go and knock on doors and glowing with pride at people’s reactions to how good they looked or their mock fear at these two terrifyingly cute monsters! Year upon year, prompted by my fantastic fun-loving wife, we decorated the house and the garden, leaving ever growing buckets of sweets outside the door for anyone who might call while we were out.

I’d estimate that we’ve spent a small fortune on costumes, sweets and decorations over the years. I’ve even managed to allow myself to be talked into dressing up on a few occasions when we’ve held our own family parties. But, if you’re reading this and you know me, no, I’ve never ever ventured out on to the streets in a Halloween costume. You already knew this without me having to tell you!

It’s fair to say that for me there’s been a complete transformation in terms of my approach to Halloween and I’ve gone from being an out of place Grinch to a somewhat awkward, but enthusiastic(ish) zombie. I’ve taken a huge amount of joy from watching my kids – and my wife – throw themselves into the whole trick or treat thing for years now. Even last year, when my daughter decided that she was too old and it was too cold for such frivolity, we went out with my son and his two friends, trudging around the streets for hours, admiring the amazing decorations and gathering more and more sweets as we went. It was pouring with rain and yet we still had a brilliant time! In fact, the rain meant that we were almost the only ones out on our estate, meaning triple helpings of sweets and chocolate! I don’t think I’ve ever seen those lads happier!

This year promises to be a much quieter affair. And having only just got into the swing of all things Halloween, that makes me feel quite sad. I no longer have the cute, carefree kids that would dress up as a character, fully made up and stride up to door after door to scream “trick or treat!” like their very lives depended on it. A bit of the sense of fun has now gone. I expect that we’ll still go out trick or treating with my son, but it won’t be the same. And by this time next year, maybe it’ll be at a complete end.

So, I’m left feeling a little mournful about the past. It’s getting to that stage of my children’s lives where they’re beginning to leave certain things behind. Halloween now and probably things like our traditional egg hunt at Easter next. I can see why people might be tempted by the thought of just having another child, even if there’s no way that I’d make such a decision!

Obviously, what’s happening in our family is inevitable for every parent and their children. You can’t stop them growing up, after all. I’m glad that I softened my stance on Halloween though, because it means that I have memories that are impossible to forget. Maybe one day I’ll take my grandchildren out trick or treating. But for now, I imagine we’ll just have to make the most of the upcoming one, while we still can!

Cramp, a head like a tomato and lots of aches and pains – an introduction to running in middle age.

What do you do when you wake up one day and realise that you’re now somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50 and you have no idea how it all happened? Well, there are of course lots of answers to that question. If you’re a man, you may consider some form of mid-life crisis, be it buying a sports car, dressing like a teenager or flirting with people half your age. Actually, if you’re a man you might well do all three and then some, pushing hard to ruin your life! If you’re a woman, you might feel regretful about missed opportunities or low about your appearance, but ultimately you’ll be OK!

Whatever you are, you might want to make positive changes and a really popular change is to start becoming healthier. With the hedonism of your twenties having taken its toll and the hard work of your thirties now bearing fruit in the form of a mortgage, kids and an expanding waistline, you may well decide that you want to reclaim some of your youthful good looks and energy.

There are lots of things you can do. You may go back to a team sport like football, rugby, hockey or netball. You may try a new sport like squash or tennis. You might even fling yourself into the kind of pursuits you’d so far avoided like the plague, like yoga or pilates. Or, if you’re like me and many others in their middle age years, you might just go out running.

Running and health and fitness have been a major part of my blog. They’ve also been a huge influence on my middle age. The two things collided when I fell ill with heart problems aged 44. They advanced somewhat during lockdown and now, six years on, they’re a major part of my life.

So how might you get started with a pursuit like running when you’ve hit middle age? Well, I’m certainly no expert, but let me offer a few suggestions.

The first thing that I would recommend is a change of mindset. I see a lot of people, especially on social media, bemoaning the fact that they ‘can’t do’. That might be because of time and the perception that they’re too busy or because they feel that their fitness is too poor to try. When I was younger this was always my mindset. I wanted to get fit, but would tell myself that it was too rainy, too windy, my back hurt, my knee felt niggly, I was too tired and found it really easy to convince myself not to run. Even when I went out I’d hear a tired little voice in my had telling me I’d done enough and then I’d convince myself that I’d ran a few miles, when probably what I’d managed had been a very slow mile. Often, I’d not even make it out, convincing myself that I’d go when I felt just right. All too often, I’d find another excuse not to go or I’d go out and find myself settling for just a section of a planned route.

Needless to say, it didn’t work and I rarely found running a pleasure. My fitness didn’t improve and as a result, my running dropped off until it was non existent.

I started again following a health scare a few years ago. Despite telling myself – and probably anyone who’d listen – that I was ‘naturally fit’ I found myself in hospital with heart problems. It terrified me and speaking to a patient who had suffered multiple heart attacks seemed to flick a switch within me.

Once I was fit enough again I went out running with my kids. My mindset at first was that we’d run as far as I could. To start off with that’d be 10 minutes and I learnt to love the fact that I was able to do even that. But, by changing my mindset, I managed to keep making progress. I’d celebrate our runs, often posting on social media and I’d tell the kids that we had to run further next time and not just another minute or so, a decent amount. Within a year we did a 5km fun run in Roundhay Park and I’ve never cherished a finisher’s medal so much!

Nowadays, I don’t allow myself to have excuses. Reasons are fine; so recently I’ve been struggling with a back injury and was able just to tell myself to rest. I know I’ll be back out soon enough. Similarly, if I’m too busy, I’ll find time, even if it’s just 20 minutes. Unless it’s ridiculously windy or rainy, I’ll force myself out, whether I feel like it or not. My changed mindset says it’s a huge positive to get out and run. So, my first tip would be to change your mindset – don’t allow excuses and see every step and every minute as a positive. You could say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

If you’re beginning to run in middle age you’ll also need to set yourself small goals. At first that might be a lap around the block or a circuit of the park. You can build from there. When I ran with my kids we had a circuit around our estate and we’d always end up doing laps of the football field. Our goal was to do another lap every time, more if we felt we could manage. It worked. If your goals are realistic, you can reach them every time and it’ll feel great. Have a plan, set a small goal and then…out you go.

A good way of setting goals might be to download a running app. I use Strava and while I’m running I might well be thinking of other roads on my route that I could run down in order to lengthen my run next time (a good trick to keep your mind off how your legs are feeling, that one!). Failing that, I’ll look at the map on the app when I’m finished and target a route for next time. And 9 times out of 10 I’ll set myself a simple goal of running just a little bit further next time.

In terms of starting off and setting smaller goals, the ‘Couch to 5k’ app looks ideal. It’s free, easy to use and automatically sets the goals for you, working you up to a 5km run in manageable steps, which at our age is a really good thing!

Another good tip is to invest in some decent gear to go running in. When I first got back to running, aged 43, I simply bought a cheap pair of Nike runners from an outlet store without any real thought about what I was buying. They were there, they were in my size, they were cheap. They actually lasted me for a decent amount of time and were falling apart by the time I replaced them.

This time though, I’d done some research and read up on what I needed. I still didn’t shell out a huge amount of money, but made sure that I read reviews and took into account things like cushioning, weight and the heel to toe drop. The results were great. Firstly my times improved, but much more interestingly, especially given my age, my recovery time between runs got noticeably better. My legs ached a lot less and I wasn’t frequently waking up in the night after a run with shocking cramp! Furthermore, I didn’t feel 30 years older the next day either. So, I’d thoroughly recommend doing a bit of research and spending a bit more money on trainers that are going to be of more benefit to you.

This led to me spending a little more money on kit like shorts and running tops, which if I’m honest just make me feel better because they fit better! As a middle aged runner whose face turns tomato red after about a mile, having nice kit could be an essential distracting factor as I run past people in cars. In short, if my kit’s better, they might not notice my hilarious face! That said, even having better running socks feels like it’s of benefit, so a slightly bigger spend is a great idea. And if you’re worried about money then just keep an eye out for the sales when it’s easy to grab yourself a bit of a bargain. Oh, and buy shorts with a pocket; handy if you’re taking a key out or you just want to take a bit of fuel. I always make sure I have pockets to put some jellies in, which I find give me a much needed sugar rush at certain points in my runs!

As a new, middle aged runner you’re possibly going to feel a bit self conscious. I’m not a fan of my body and it’s safe to say that it’s got worse as I ticked over into my fifties. So, the idea of the horror show that is this tall, skinny middle aged man with a little pot belly running around the streets clad in clingy material haunted me from the word go!

One good idea for this problem would be to find some like-minded individuals. You might have friends who are keen to start running, but if not, there’s always a running club that you could join. A quick Google search is almost certain to reveal some kind of running club in your area and from what I understand, they’re always a friendly bunch. Being a bit of a grump, I still run on my own, but even I can see myself joining a club at some point. It’s got to provide a boost and maybe looking forward to meeting up with your running pals might help you resist the urge to stay in watching telly and resting your still aching muscles! Running as part of a group is also a lot safer too, so it’s definitely a good idea if you can find the right people.

The final piece of advice I’d give you if you’re starting to go running in middle age is to listen to your body. I’ve found running to be quite addictive, particularly as I’ve got fitter and been able to achieve certain goals. But I’ve really had to temper that readiness to go out running. The simple fact is that if you’re starting to run in your middle age, your body isn’t going to bounce back like it used to do! Rest is absolutely vital at this time of life, particularly if you’re pushing yourself. And the more you ignore your body, the more likely you are to pick up niggling injuries that will only get worse. So my advice would be to enjoy your running, but make sure that you not only give yourself good recovery time, but recover properly too; drinking lots of water and getting the vitamins back into your body is vital to being on top of your fitness when you go back out again. I find that eating cranberries or bananas gives me back that limited feeling of vitality that I have in my fifties!

So, there you have it! Hopefully that might give some people a bit of a push or maybe even some inspiration. Personally, I can’t recommend running enough and I genuinely feel like I’m, in a way, revitalised by going back to it in middle age. And given that none of us are getting younger, maybe we all need a bit of revitalisation!

Autumn Bucket List

A new season means changes in everyone’s lives. Be it easing away from the t-shirts and shorts of summer into longer sleeves and layers or just the fact the the days are getting shorter and we have to adjust to longer, darker evenings, it’s all change as we slide into Autumn.

With that in mind, I thought I’d write an Autumn Bucket List for parents with younger children. There are loads of things that you can do with kids in Autumn, but I thought I’d pick out a few that either my own kids enjoyed when they were younger or those that I have some experience of.

Go and kick some leaves around. The first item on my list is really quite simple and doesn’t take a great deal of time or effort. It’s not one I can really go and do now as my children are probably a bit old to be doing it, but they loved it when they were little. There’s a lot to be said for simple, free fun like this.

When my two were younger we’d often go out on Autumn walks to local parks or beauty spots and the joy they would get from heading out in their wellies and kicking piles of fallen leaves around the place was amazing. It was a joy to watch and if I think about it, I can still hear their giggles and squeals of delight! They used to like making big leaf piles and then jumping in them from above, as well as just picking handfuls up and throwing them up in the air too! And there are two benefits here – it’s free and while they’re jumping around, they’re staying warm! Watch out for hedgehogs in the leaves though. We never encountered any, but you never know.

Speaking of those spikey little creatures, you could attempt to make a hedgehog hotel with the little ‘uns this Autumn. And if not with them, then for them, as keeping an eye out for the hedgehog could well develop into a game all of its own for a short while!

This isn’t one I’ve ever done, but it was regularly on the lists when my children were younger. It seems quite simple. You’ll need an old box, but a sturdy weather-proof one, something like a wooden wine crate or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could make one out of plywood or just adapt something else. I’ve seen them made out of upturned basket and even lumps of thick polystyrene packaging.

Then you’ll need something to make a tunnel – more plywood or maybe an old cut off length of pipe – for the entrance and also a hole in your box so the tunnel has somewhere to lead to! You’ll need to make another, smaller hole for ventilation too.

After the box is finished and a lid put on, you’ll need to fill it with dry leaves or even straw and then place it somewhere hedgehog friendly like underneath soil and leaves. Just make sure that the entrance and the ventilation hole aren’t blocked. And there you go; you have a hedgehog hotel! All you need now is an occupant!

A similar, but larger scale idea, is to go den building with the kids. This is also a lot of fun for adults too and I’d often find that while my kids had lost interest, I was still lugging logs around or trying to make the perfect roof out of foliage and twigs!

Quite a few parks and forests have cottoned on to this as a good way of attracting visitors and often have areas where there are plenty of logs and fallen branches to build with. Failing this, you could just scour an area of the woods for fallen branches and just start building. As long as it’s off any kind of pathway and you’re not harming the environment, you’ll be fine. Don’t resort to pulling branches from actual trees though, but I guarantee that you’ll have an excellent time den building!

Another fun thing to do this Autumn, especially if you have kids is to collect your pumpkins for Halloween. Now, I know that it’s far easier to just buy them in a local supermarket, but a lot of places like parks and farm parks make a bit of an event of it nowadays. So, not only can you wander through a field of pumpkins, carefully eyeing up the perfect specimen to go outside your front door, but you might also get to take a tractor ride, get a lesson in carving your own pumpkins or just draw your face or pattern out for someone who’s a little bit more of an expert to carve for you. If you’re really lucky there might even be a cafe on site for you to relax and take the chill out of your body with coffee and a slice of cake!

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

We did pumpkin picking a couple of times when our kids were younger and just the sight of a huge field of pumpkins left them in awe! The fact that they got to draw their designs on and then help to carve it out made for a fantastic morning. We even managed to get their pumpkins home in one piece too!

Sometimes though, it’s the simple things that make Autumn fun. And what could be better than wrapping up, getting their wellies on and going for a bracing Autumn walk? These are best taken on those lovely crisp, sunny Autumn days and if there’s a park or a forest to explore, then all the better! You can get some exercise and some fresh air and the Autumn light might help you get some brilliant photos as well. And the beauty of this type of pastime is that it can be kept going even as your little ones get older. My two are 16 and 13 now and, although they might grumble a bit, we always have a nice time on our Autumn walks. I think the ice cream van at the end of some of the walks help, but either way, myself and my wife really enjoy getting out on this type of day.

Scarecrow Festivals seem to be a very British thing. So, if you’re reading this outside of the UK you’ll either find them extremely strange or you might be inspired enough to start your own version where you live! It was something I first became aware of around 20 years ago, when I started teaching at a rural school near Halifax. I distinctly remember driving home one evening and repeatedly spotting novelty scarecrows in people’s gardens, in the windows of shops and just in many of the fields that dominated the area. Shortly afterwards I would find out that this was all to do with the Norland Scarecrow Festival, which still continues to this day.

The fun of a scarecrow festival comes in how the scarecrows are actually made and dressed and participants tend to go to great lengths to come up with imaginative ideas year upon year. Over the years I’ve seen lots of Star Wars characters, Darleks, Super Mario, firemen, Minions, Roald Dahl characters…and even just scarecrows!

Often there’s something like a scarecrow trail to follow and this is always something that younger kids love to do, especially if there’s a list to tick off and maybe even a prize of some kind at the end! The bigger the festival, the more there is going on though, and if you’re lucky there might even be a scarecrow building event. Who knows, you could be building your own scarecrow to be included in your local festival before you know it!

So, there you have it – hopefully, a stress free and reasonably cheap Autumn Bucket List. I hope you enjoyed reading and that it gives you plenty of food for thought. Feel free to let me know what you plan to get up to or even if you agree with any of my suggestions!

The Morley 10k

Bright sunshine, blue skies, a chill in the air and a slight breeze. Some – including me – would say these are perfect conditions for running.

And so it was that on Sunday 9th October, 2022, in bright sunshine, myself and my family left our house at just after 8.40am to make the short walk down to the start line of the inaugural Morley 10k.

Despite my usual case of pre-race nerves and self-doubt – usually put down to having hairy skinny legs and combining them with shorts while other people are around – I had an inkling that this was going to be a good race as soon as we arrived. As I’ve already mentioned, the weather was lovely, but it was the atmosphere that struck me more than anything.

Whether it was because I’d never seen this stretch of road so busy, I don’t know. But there was an unmistakable buzz about the place. As well as race officials and over 700 chattering runners there were lots of spectators at the side of the road, people in their gardens, others just sitting on their front step with a cuppa, all combining to make for a really positive atmosphere and sight.

As 9 o’clock struck, the race was started and off we went on the steady climb up Middleton Road that would mark our first kilometre. Spectators continued to line the road, some out of curiosity (probably just to find out who in their right mind was out running so far on a Sunday morning) and many there to support relatives and friends that were out there having a go.

Personally, as a keen runner, I’d ran the course a few times and so I was able to make a steady enough start, easing my way past a few slower runners as I went, while allowing others to pass me by. After all, at my age there’s no point whatsoever in a fast start when I know that there’s an enormous hill at the end of the 10 kilometres!

Morley town centre marked the start of the second kilometre and there were more people milling around and clapping our efforts. The course then swooped down a big hill where I was careful not to get too carried away for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these big hills can see a runner topple over, unable to handle their own momentum and secondly, with a while still to go and a long uphill section ahead of me, energy preservation was at the forefront of my mind!

At the bottom of the hill lies Morley Bottoms, so named because…well, you can work it out, surely? We would cross this point a further couple of times but there were already plenty of people around, which again was a lovely boost. Every so often there’d be a friendly marshal telling you how well you were doing too, which as someone who’s generally a solo trainer was a nice change. Normally I just have people like dog walkers staring at me, no doubt wondering why I’ve chosen to make myself look so knackered, sweaty and red!

Around the next mile or so would be spent running uphill and while this was a steady rise for the most part, I knew that it was going to be quite challenging. When you possess legs like mine – imagine a stork in trainers – then hills are going to be an inconvenience at best! However, I must admit today surprised me and when I got to the top of the climb and we turned to head back down – hurray – I was still feeling strong. The nagging injuries I’d taken into the run weren’t troubling me, which was a relief, but I was still careful to take things fairly steadily back down the long stretch of hill to the 3 mile point.

I knew that my family would be waiting for me back down at Morley Bottoms, having walked round from the start. And given I’ve lived in Morley for around 25 years, I thought I might see someone I knew too. In short, this meant that as I got there I was running at a pace of a minute quicker per mile than I would have liked as excitement got the better of me!

Emerging at the bottom of the hill my eyes darted everywhere, searching for my wife and children or even just a friendly face. But at first, when I couldn’t find them, it was the noise that hit me. It felt like half of the town had come out, all armed with bells, whistles, tambourines and anything else that they could make a racket with! It felt fantastic running through! And then as we ran through the crossroads I spotted my family – I heard my kids first, in truth! – and now, having ran just about half of the route, I was flying! That is, flying in terms of a tall thin, 50-year-old man flying…so probably moving at a fast jog to those who saw me!

The next part of the route took in a stretch of road where I regularly run, so I was comfortable here and began to try to move through the runners as best I could. However, as we turned to head down Middleton Road towards MacDonalds, the fact that this was a long hill that I’d be running straight back up, was at the forefront of my mind! I knew that this was the place on the route where I would probably begin to feel it in my legs…and of course the rest of my ageing body, lucky me!

Heading back up towards Morley was very much a case of trying to stay smiling and keeping my pace somewhere near respectable and I tagged on to the back of a much younger, much taller runner on this section just to give me something to concentrate on. Then, as we turned again to head up Albert Road and I knew I was close to the final mile, I realised that my legs still felt reasonably good. I got myself to the 5 mile mark and decided that with just over a mile to go, I was going to pick up the pace, while still keeping in mind the mountain that we’d have to climb near the finish!

As I approached Morley Bottoms again for the final time, I’d increased my pace and although my legs were now understandably a little shaky, I was confident of a strong finish. Morley Bottoms was still completely alive with noise and I must admit to feeling a little bit emotional as I ran through, listening to cries about how well I was doing and encouragement to keep going. As the road curved left though, I allowed myself a little look up, just to confirm how steep this final hill was. Sadly, nothing had changed…it still looked huge!

I’ll confess to feeling sick as I got close to the top of the main part of the hill. And, as I suspected they would, my legs felt a great deal more jelly-like! But, with the magnificent town hall now in my eyeline and the finish only a few hundred metres away, I knew I needed to grit my teeth and finish as strongly as I could.

My family were stood opposite the Town Hall – there’s a video where my son shouts, ‘You don’t even look tired’, bless him and his terrible eyesight – and again their support gave me a massive, timely boost. In fact though, there were people everywhere at this point and the support was wonderfully loud. It was at this point that I realised that I was completely on my own in the race. A quick glance over my shoulder showed the nearest chaser about 50 yards back and the next runners on from me were slightly closer.

I pushed myself to what I’ll laughingly describe as a sprint finish, almost catching a few people in front of me on the line. It was a blessed relief to get there though, so gaining one or two extra places didn’t really matter. I’d done exactly what I’d set out to do, finishing in 54.34, almost a minute quicker than I’d ran the course before. The winner finished in 34 minutes, but let’s not dwell on that too much…

It was wonderful to see so many people come together on the day. Hundreds came out to shout themselves hoarse and encourage a load of people that they probably didn’t even know, to run a distance that must have seemed like some kind of madness, so early on a Sunday morning! The race was a victory for community spirit and I’m really thankful for those that had the idea and then put all the hard work in to make it a reality. I really hope that the race goes from strength to strength, year upon year. As we try to forget a pandemic, isolation, austerity and the fact that everything in our lives may just be getting harder and harder to afford, this was the type of thing that the town needed and maybe the kind of thing that we all – runners or not – needed too.

Huge thanks to @morleyrunningclub and Morley Town Council (and anyone else involved that I don’t know of) for all of their hard work. The inaugural Morley 10k was an absolute triumph!

Newcastle United: What did the takeover ever do for us?

As I write, it’s been almost a year since our beloved Newcastle United was taken over by the Saudi PIF group, Amanda Staveley, Mehrdad Ghodoussi and the Reubens brothers. Almost a year since #cans became a reality. So naturally, and I imagine like many, many others, I found myself sitting reflecting.

I think we’d all share the view that it’s been an incredible year. And while there have been some nay sayers and doom merchants, I’d prefer to just file them under the headings of either ‘Idiots’ or ‘Attention Seekers’. So, if you’re sitting there still quietly seething at the fact that we haven’t bought Haaland, Mbappe or Neymar or even that we didn’t just fund the invention of robot footballers so we could win the league by Christmas, this isn’t the blog for you. Maybe shout down and tell your mam to get a wriggle on with your tea or do something else that you class as productive. Anything that makes you feel right, I suppose.

So, what did this takeover ever do for us then?

Well, I think the first thing we got was hope. As the saying went, ‘we don’t demand a team that wins, just a club that tries’. It was never all that much to ask really, was it? Surely the whole point of any sporting club is that it tries to compete? And yet, for 14 years we clearly didn’t have that. Cup competitions were deemed a waste of time and the stock line that came – infrequently – out of the club was that our season was about survival and that we couldn’t compete.

The takeover changed all that. And while the talk is quite rightly of evolution, not revolution, it would be easy to argue that after so long without hope and belief, to now have it once again is pretty bloody revolutionary! A year ago, the majority had decided that this was the year we’d be relegated again and almost all hope had gone. In fact, all we had left was the hope that it would all be over quickly. Now, by contrast, we simply hope it will never end! Many of us have rediscovered our love of the club, having had that feeling numbed by a bored owner who had more interest in balance sheets than anything positive like entertainment, love or glory.

The arrival of the new owners basically booted the club awake. Changes were made more or less immediately and the owners showed that they knew the value of easy wins. So surfaces were re-painted and what felt like 15,000 gaudy Sports Direct signs were consigned to the skip. A smart move; as a fanbase we were now even more onside with the owners.

No one can describe us as sleepwalking anymore. We are very much alive and one of the benefits of the last year has been that all of us can dare to dream again. However, it’s better than that just being something for the fanbase. The management have bought into the dream, the players sense incoming success and the owners are backing these dreams on what feels like a daily basis, while also living the very same dream and backing the team regularly, in person. Our owners are no longer reminiscent of the Ghost of Football Past.

Suddenly, there is a renewed professionalism about the club, a drive and a desire from everyone connected to it and these ingredients have built up over the past year, leaving even the most hardened cynics having some sort of tangible sense of belief. I’ve experienced too much Newcastle United flavoured heartache over the years to get too carried away, but even I’m beginning to think that given time we could be a trophy winning football club once more.

The past year has witnessed the addition of a certain level of quality and class that had been absent – or at least only ever seen fleetingly – over the previous 14 years. The most blatantly obvious sign of that has been the players that we’ve signed, with seasoned internationals like Kieran Trippier being joined by the likes of Bruno and Alexander Isaak; the like of which we all probably thought we’d perhaps never see again in black and white. But class comes in different forms too and so while we’ve signed some excellent players, Eddie Howe has brought in some excellent people too. Think of players like Dan Burn and Matt Targett and I can’t be the only one who thinks they seem like great blokes too?

This idea of class and professionalism extends to the bench and the backroom too where sometimes it can feel like we’ve appointed someone new on a weekly basis. Dan Ashworth was the classic example. A man at the absolute top of his game, in a great job who we decided we wanted and went after patiently but with focus, until we got him. The biggest compliment I can pay that particular appointment is that it’s a whole world away from the likes of Kinnear, Jiminez and Wise. And then you think about the owners. I mean, can you imagine them taking the players out for cut price pizza and then giving fans the sly Vs as they leave in the back of a car?

The coaching team seems big too. Only this week I read an article where Craig Bellamy pointed this out – there’s just more staff, which, when you think about it, makes perfect sense given the size of the squads involved in football these days. Then behind the scenes. the medical team has grown as well as areas like the Sports Science team and while I have very little idea of how it all works, the impression that I get is that it’s a whole lot more professional these days. Again, you get the feeling that the club is being run properly once more. And when you think about what the future might hold in terms of the playing squad and staff involved in helping them out, the mind might just boggle!

Those of us of a certain age might remember The Fast Show and a character played by Paul Whitehouse called ‘Brilliant’. His thing was to walk across varying landscapes extoling the brilliance of anything and everything, usually beginning with a line like, “Aren’t *insert brilliant thing here* brilliant?” And then he’d be off on an enthusiastic riff about said thing being brilliant and the many, usually inaccurate, reasons why it was brilliant. He’d end by simple shouting, “Briiiiiiilllliiiiaaaaaaannnnttt!” Funnier than I’ve made it sound, I assure you! Well, supporting Newcastle United for the last year has been just like being ‘Brilliant’.

Aren’t Newcastle United brilliant?

Imagine you’re ‘Brilliant’ and then just have a think about what you could shout about. It could be an endless sketch, couldn’t it?

“Aren’t Newcastle United brilliant? Black and white stripes like zebras, brilliant! Kieran Trippier over the wall, Amanda Staveley, Wor Flags, Jason Tindall’s tan, brilliant. Team photos, laps of appreciation where they walk around the pitch…appreciating. Bruno’s f***ing magic, Alexander Isaak, so many As in his name, it’s brilliant! Full stadiums, Maxi’s volley against Wolves, mackems fewmin’, who’s that team we call United? Brilllliiiiiiiaaaaaannntt!”

The takeover has also managed to bridge a gap that was embarrassing, but could have got to shameful levels. The womens’ team was left to their own devices under Mike Ashley and as a result it looked under-funded and it under-performed. There seemed to be a general lack of interest in the whole thing. In fact though, it was a team that had been going for ages and been ignored and neglected by the club for most of that time.

It’s to the owners’ credit that they have now brought the womens’ team under the wing of the club. It’s something that could easily be viewed as a PR exercise, but you get the impression that our owners are actually fully behind the team and want it to work.

It brings back memories of Sir John Hall’s ideas about Newcastle United Sporting Club and I personally see it as a good thing. It’s certainly managed to add to the general good feeling about the place and earlier this year the Lady Magpies, as they’re known, smashed their own attendance record when playing at St. James’ Park. The interest is clearly there so it’s just another good thing that we’re all operating under the same roof, so to speak and also another sign that the penny-pinching of the previous regime, has gone.

Speaking of penny pinching, the arrival of Matt Targett got me thinking about the benefits of the takeover in a slightly more subtle way. Matt is not the star name that some would have wanted. You’ve only got to cast your mind back to the summer speculation about Renan Lodi to see that, with social media pundits going mad for a man that probably 80% of them had never heard of. However, we signed Matt Targett. Now, some of us will remember that Targett was meant to sign for us when he was a Southampton player, but we missed out on him and he ended up on loan at Fulham. A familiar tale, sadly and no doubt another last day of the window rumour put out as a smokescreen for our usual level of inactivity. Once again, this was down to the owner’s unwillingness to spend money and we’d have been fed the usual line about ‘just not being able to get it over the line’, so it’s a subtle reminder of the changes that we eventually got him after all, regardless of what some may have made of the signing!

I’d find it hard to believe that anyone could have any real problems with how things have changed in the last year. We may feel conflicted by moral issues connected to the owners, but looking at what they’ve done for the club in the last year, any complaining would be churlish. Where a storm had been raging over Newcastle for years, these new owners have been a breeze that cleared the clouds and brought sunshine where there had been rain. It’s safe to say that it’s been a hell of a year, but it’s almost as much of a sure thing that the next 5 or 10 years promise much, much more.

So, after a year of living the dream, it’s definitely time to look forward, but also to say thank you, because we’ve got a hell of a lot to be grateful for. So far, it’s been an amazing ride – here’s to the future and whatever treats it might bring!

Film Review: ‘Nobody’

Hutch Mansell is your everyday Joe. An unassuming, regular guy who appears to be stuck in a dead end job and a loveless marriage, almost like he’s just waiting to die. Hutch, it seems is not particularly satisfied with life. He’s ordered around and stuck in the same bland everyday routine, without it seems, any means to escape. Worse still, he doesn’t particularly seem to care. But when his house is burgled, everything changes.

With the help of his son, Hutch seems to have caught the burglars in the act, until his seemingly meek and mild personality intervenes and the burglars are allowed to escape. Hutch, it seems just doesn’t have that killer instinct even when his family is threatened, a fact that is backed up when he manages to track the burglars down the next day, only to forgive them when he sees the conditions they live in and the fact that they have a sick baby.

But when a group of drunks begin to threaten people on the bus he’s riding home on, he simply snaps. What follows is thoroughly ridiculous, yet hugely entertaining. Implausibly, one of the drunks was the younger brother of a Russian mafia boss (don’t they always take the bus?) and when the mafioso sends his goons to Hutch’s house we find out a little more about Hutch’s former self and his true, but hidden identity.

‘Nobody’ is a chaotic tale of vengeance and how we shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover. Hutch is actually something very different to the absolute beast that is awakened by what happens on that bus and you’ll watch on in awe and horror at some of the ultra violence that is perpetrated as the film goes on. A lot of what happens is truly unbelievable and at times a little bit funny as a result, but then isn’t that exactly what action movies are all about? And when you find out that ‘Nobody’ is from the writer of John Wick then a whole lot of stuff just falls into place!

Bob Odenkirk is brilliant as Hutch, selling us the idea that he really is just ‘nobody’ at the start of the film before then spending much of the rest of the time on screen shooting up bad guys like he was born to do it. There are also excellent cameos by Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s seemingly retirement home-bound father and RZA as Hutch’s former colleague and their final scenes together are an absolute joy to behold!

If you’re looking for a film to test your intellect and maybe force you to ponder the meaning of life, then ‘Nobody’ just isn’t the one for you. However, if you want a rip roaring action thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat, quite possibly cheering on Hutch’s every move, then this one couldn’t be further up your street if it tried! And let’s face it, sometimes it’s a blessed relief to just drop the question of what’s believable or educational and just allow yourself to be entertained. I’d definitely recommend that you ride the rollercoaster that is ‘Nobody’.

I give ‘Nobody’

Rating: 4 out of 5.