Heart ops, Strava groups and 7am starts – how I fell in love with running again.

Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.

I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.

I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.

In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.

To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.

Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.

Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.

Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.

When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.

By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.

Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!

After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!

Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.

Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!

The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.

We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!

Yes, of course I chose my longest run to screenshot!

So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.

Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!

The start of a beautiful sunrise during one of my early morning runs.
But sadly, it’s not always as lovely!

If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.

It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!

Poetry Blog – ‘Lockdown Museum’

This was a poem I wrote during our first period of lockdown. It was early summer and I sat down outside with an idea for a poem; something to remember lockdown by. Now, when you think about it, we’re not going to need anything to remember lockdown by. I think, for most of us, it’ll be firmly etched on the mind forever. For some of us lockdown brought the heartache of not being able to see family and friends, alongside thoroughly bizarre sights like fleets of empty buses on the roads, pubs and shops remaining closed and the sight of an oncoming family during your daily exercise stint striking fear into your heart as you played a strange game of chicken about who would cross the road first. And then there were the sounds…oh wait, with everyone locked away there were hardly any sounds!

For other people lockdown quickly lost its importance because apparently they weren’t allowed their human rights. Human rights such as being able to get ridiculously drunk in pubs every weekend, being able to walk down supermarket aisles any way they wanted and having to forego their right to ignore people’s personal space in shops. The term Covidiot quickly became a tired label, but it never lost its accuracy. It’s a hard life for some.

I decided – for some unknown reason – that I wanted to use rhyme in this poem, which is something I rarely do. It was a bit of a challenge to come up with rhymes that didn’t feel forced and, as a result, the poem took me a lot longer than usual. Another result, in my opinion, is that it sounds like I wrote it in Year 8. Sadly, I didn’t. So, a glowing reference for the poem from its writer then!

Anyway, here’s the poem, so I’ll let you judge it and its merits. You, dear reader, might just prefer a bit of rhyming…

Lockdown Museum

With 2020 fast being referred to as a hell of a year I’ve come up with my own commemorative idea. A grand exhibition with a pandemic theme, I’ve decided to create a lockdown museum.

With schools closing in early March, some educational artefacts would really look the part. Board markers, a highlighter, some stickers for praise, my own now redundant planner to prove I worked some days, a well worn copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a metaphor for the tragedy, disruption and the stress.

For the NHS and all of the intrepid frontline staff there’s PPE, rubber gloves and the obligatory mask. A child’s painted rainbow and a Thank You sign, pots, pans and applauding hands to represent that time, a video of Captain Tom, later made a knight, a latter day icon to help ease the nation’s plight.

A plethora of lockdown paraphernalia would make up all the rest unusual items that helped every day as the virus put us to the test. A beer pump, idle, to mark that pubs were closed, A ‘No Entry’ sign for supermarket aisles as well as empty roads. A ‘PE with Joe’ T-shirt and trainers for the boom in exercise recordings of Zoom quizzes, Teams meetings and House Parties arranged and on a giant TV screen, those daily briefings play to remind us that everything changed.

And perhaps, if hearsay’s true and this virus means there’s a new normality, our museum will grow and never be complete until a vaccine sets us free.

So there it is. A poem, that now I’ve read it through a few more times, I’m a little more proud of. I hope it captures the tone of those times, although I don’t think it quite cuts it where our second period of lockdown is concerned due to the sort of half baked nature of it all. Clearly, the first lockdown was very different.

I feel that there are some references that might need explaining, as I’m aware that not everyone who reads my stuff is from the U.K. So here we go.

Firstly, let me assure you that the first rhyming couplet works. The words ‘year’ and ‘idea’ clearly rhyme and I’ll have nothing said against it, even though if I read it in my accent it clearly doesn’t rhyme at all!

Then, in the second stanza, the reference to my ‘redundant planner‘ is there because just before schools closed I was sent home as I was classed as vulnerable to the virus. I didn’t work again until this September, spending 6 months attempting to work from home and fighting with a particularly unwilling and rebellious laptop. Thus, my planner was largely left unused. Oh, and I’m a teacher by the way, for those who didn’t realise.

The ‘pots, pans and applauding hands’ refers to our weekly clap for the NHS, performed at 8pm in doorsteps all around the country. To show appreciation for their heroic work people would stand outside their houses and clap for two minutes. This then quickly took on a new dimension as people added bashing pots and pans, bin lids etc to the noise they’d make to show their appreciation. Very, very British if you ask me!

‘Captain Tom’ from the same stanza was a 99 year old, retired soldier who took it upon himself to perform a sponsored walk of laps around his garden in order to raise money for the NHS. His aim was to raise £1000, but as his efforts became bigger and bigger news, he ended up raising £30,000,000 instead and was later knighted by the Queen. Arise Sir Tom and God Bless us all!

The penultimate stanza then references several things that stood out about everyday life in lockdown, my favourite being ‘PE with Joe’ – the fitness expert Joe Wicks would run exercise classes every morning via his YouTube channel and even on a quiet day thirty thousand people would be squatting in unison! What an endearing image! I personally became borderline obsessive about this – exrecise in general, not just squatting – even going as far as writing a poem about my bromance with the man himself. You can read it on the link below.

Poetry Blog – An Ode to Joe Wicks

So there we have it. Hopefully it’s an upbeat poem that brings back some more tolerable and perhaps even happy memories about a remarkable time in all of our lives. I hope you enjoyed it and feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: ‘English in the Tech room’.

Some of you will already know that, when I’m not writing the type of nonsense that regularly populates these pages, I’m a teacher. I teach English in a high school. So far, so straightforward, right? Well, no. This is the bit where things get a little complicated.

Unless you’ve been time travelling or hiding in a cave for the last year or so, you’ll be aware of Coronavirus or COVID-19. You’ll also be aware that it’s caused quite a lot of disruption to our everyday lives. (Someone get the Understatement of The Year klaxon, quick!). So it’ll come as no surprise to non-teaching readers to learn that life in schools has changed massively.

I wrote about some of the changes in my previous blog about our second lockdown so I won’t bore you with it here and now. However, one thing I didn’t mention is that because of the introduction of Covid-safe year group bubbles in school, our kids stay in the same area for each day and us teachers have to go to them. Oh, the joy of not having a classroom of my own again! Lugging everything you need for a whole day to the other side of school – one of the rooms I have to move to is literally as far away as I could go while still in a school building – and then invariably realising you’ve forgotten something 5 minutes into a lesson, dropping books along the way, forgetting to go via the one way system and finding that nothing IT-wise works when you get there. Yep, it’s been a tonne of fun!

Anyway, two of my lessons are now in Science labs, while another is in a Tech room, as in the kind of room where people make stuff out of wood, metal or plastic using dangerous tools and great big machines. It was here I got the idea for a poem. I mean, this wasn’t really the ideal place to be teaching Priestley or Dickens! Then again, I do love a challenge!

‘English in the Tech Room’

Beneath the desk I’m immediately struck by the presence of a pair of rig boots, loitering. Handy, I think, if I’m carrying the complete works of Shakespeare; such a weighty tome could break these toes currently entombed in just a pair of brogues. Handy too if this pandemic takes a bizarre twist and we move to zero gravity.

My students are perched uncomfortably on stools surrounding wooden work benches adorned by vices, And thus, the reading of any text, from Dickens through Owen to Heaney will inevitably be accompanied by an incongruous metallic jangle as child spins handle, or whatever they call that bit.

Further distraction will come in the form of various examples of heavy machinery. A lathe, several nasty looking drills, an enormous cutting tool… Dickens would spin in his grave as we learn of Scrooge’s redemption surrounded by the collected works of Black and Decker and every kind of saw that man could care to mention.

Warning signs will catch the eye, while shavings of wood and a range of glue assault our nostrils, making concentration a bit of an afterthought. But then a friendly baked rock cake, delivered on a tray from the adjacent cookery room serves to change the teacher’s tune and lighten up this lesson’s mood.

When all said and done, these alien surroundings may not actually matter if we just allow the words to do their work. These benches are our stalls when sharply written literature calls and in these extraordinary times this slight adjustment we must make shouldn’t be a bind. As every English teacher keeps in mind, the words win every time.

So there we are. A poem about sacrifice or just a poem borne out of an old bloke having a bit of a whinge because he’s been told to move from his precious classroom? I’ll leave you to come up with an answer. And whatever the answer might be, I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I’ve enjoyed putting myself to the test against whatever the virus throws at me, workwise. Feel free to leave a comment and if you liked it a lot, having a little click at some of the posts below!

Lockdown 2 – the sequel no one wanted!

As the UK enters its second period of lockdown due to a disturbing rise in numbers of cases of Covid-19, I’ve found that there’s a hell of a lot to think about. And rather than throw myself into a world of sleepless nights, I thought I’d write about the current situation.

I spent the first lockdown isolating because of a couple of underlying health conditions which marked me out as vulnerable. This wasn’t something I was particularly comfortable with, but I had to swallow my pride and live with it. I’ve always thought of myself as fit, healthy and strong so the label ‘vulnerable’ doesn’t sit well with me. They’ll be labelling me as ‘not altogether that butch after all’ next! Anyway, in the end I was away from work – as a teacher – for 6 months.

This time around lockdown seems distinctly different and it makes me feel more than a little scared. The one major difference, for me personally, is that I will be spending this period of lockdown at work. This alone is responsible for a great deal of lockdown stress! Schools aren’t closing and whatever our views on that, it makes me anxious about coming in to work, where before Covid I looked forward to almost every day and almost very minute spent in the building.

Since September though, I’ve felt safe and largely looked after at work. My employer – being a school – had done their homework, so to speak. A risk assessment was prepared for myself and any other vulnerable members of staff who would be returning to work, so I was familiar with the way things would be before I had even entered the building. And I’d had a couple of ‘how are you’ type catch up calls and Teams meetings too.

We’re actively guarding against the virus. We wear masks, we wipe surfaces down before and after use, we have hand sanitiser readily available, we are socially distant where possible, we keep the kids in year group bubbles and a common sense approach has been employed across the board. I’ve felt safe. And you’d think that’d be the case across the board with schools, but I’ve heard tales of places where such protocols are simply not followed.

Things are different now though. It feels far more like the situation we encountered in March with rising positive cases, rising death rates and a general sense of confusion that is frankly quite frightening once again. And let’s face it, we shouldn’t still be confused about something that’s been around for such a long time. It’s not the fault of my place of work, but now, every day it’s a case of gritting my teeth and getting on with it in the face of quite a bit of trepidation. It’s practically the only place where I mix with people and although in theory we’re safe, it’s beginning to feel like keeping schools open might not be such a great idea.

Away from work though, it feels like a general sense of boredom and, dare I say it, a sense of entitlement is beginning to rule people’s thinking. You could feel it towards the end of the first lockdown. People had had enough of the same four walls and unfortunately it started to manifest itself in a lot of stupid behaviour.

Despite the one way systems in shops, the obvious need to wear a mask and the constant knowledge of what social distancing was, people decided that there was no need for any of it anymore. In the town where we live, as bars began to open again people began to congregate in ridiculous numbers both inside and outside of the premises. The message seemed to be ‘sod the virus, I haven’t been tanked up in a public place in far too long’. And while I’m no prude, it all just seems incredibly selfish. Is an afternoon drinking really worth it? The ignorance of people that can recognise what two metres looks like for only a certain amount of time is quite something. And they’re attitude to the one metre+ rule is just staggering. Rather than stand a decent distance away from someone or maybe just refrain from going out for ten pints, it just seems to have become easier to blame semantics and say that you can’t imagine what one metre+ looks like because it’s not an actual measurement.

As we settle into Lockdown 2 I fear that the attitude will continue. I wonder if people will reject the lockdown for the simple fact that it has an end date. I mean, what’s the point for four weeks, right? If you listen carefully you could probably hear someone saying it right now. I can imagine people doing four weeks very much on their own terms; like only locking down properly until the boredom sets in.

Then there’s the approach of the festive season – which isn’t actually that close at all. I feel certain that there will be a raft of people who decide that their pre-Christmas socialising is far too important to give up, even though we should be out of lockdown in time for it to commence at the right time anyway. Any excuse for a barbecue in the garden with your friends though, especially when your precious human rights have been infringed for so long! And anyway, you’re outside so it’s all OK!

It’s the thinking of simpletons and it worries me that I could be even more vulnerable to the virus because of this type of selfishness.

The second spike of the virus means that things that are dear to us all will continue to be out of reach too. Gigs, football, theatre to name but a few; they’re all out of reach. Then there’s loved ones. I haven’t seen my parents (or my sister for that matter) since December of last year. I don’t feel that I can visit as they’re both extremely vulnerable and with three of us in my immediate family mixing with lots of people in schools every week, going to see them would be utter stupidity. It hurts not seeing them and it hurts them too. But my parents are sensible enough to say that we shouldn’t visit, even just to stand in the garden and I’ll be respecting their wishes. But at the back of my mind, as things continue to get worse, I do genuinely wonder if I’ll ever see them again. They live over 100 miles away, so even going round to stand in the garden is a bit of a trek. It’s a thought too horrible to dwell on, but it’s the kind of thing that makes me even more angry at those who are determined to just carry on as normal and either deny that this thing exists or make excuses about the number of deaths.

Recent reports of a new strain of the virus make things worse and yet there are still people – and there in fairly large numbers – who happily deny its existence. There’s not a lot I can say about that that’s probably not already been said or that would be original, but it’s a frightening thought. During the first lockdown I overheard a conversation between two neighbours in their gardens blaming Bill Gates – apparently as it was his fault he “needed stabbing” – and was just astonished. These people are real! At one point they even blamed Brexit and even though I heard the explanation I couldn’t really work out what they meant. I imagine the idea of a second lockdown is being swiftly rejected by them and in fact a couple of days into it they were in their garden, mixing with another member of the family not in their bubble, letting off fireworks!

The long and short of this story is that Coronavirus isn’t going away. We’re not controlling it, we’re not coping with it and in fact, some people seem to be totally ignoring it. At the start of it all I laughed out loud at people panic buying toilet rolls, before being left without a smile when I was sent home from work as I was too vulnerable to be there and was subsequently away for 6 months. Now, as we get back to lockdown, there’s nothing about this virus that can make me smile.

Poetry Blog: An Ode to Donald.

It’s been roughly a couple of hours or so since the news broke that Joe Biden was being declared the new president of the United States of America. I’d started a poem so I sat down to finish it as quickly as possible. I mean the subject matter means it’s too hard to resist, right? And there would be little point in giving it too much thought and then putting something up on the blog in a couple of days. No, better to strike while the iron’s hot.

Now I am in no way a political expert. In fact, I get so frustrated with the general dishonesty and lack of thought from politicians that it just wears me down giving it much thought. But Donald Trump is just one of those characters that piques the interest. Just when you think he’s conquered Mount Ridiculous, he finds a new way to climb it. It’s safe to say that he doesn’t seem like a particularly nice human being. In fact, it’s safe to say quite a lot of things, but I’m not here to offend. Bit of a dick though, isn’t he?

Anyway, I wrote a poem about him and I hope you like it. Or hate it…nothing like polarising opinion!

An Ode to Donald

Donald. With your explanation defying hair like genetically modified Shredded Wheat and that red MAGA hat ruining any attempt to look neat, your last four years like the proverbial bull in a china shop, it’s probably only fitting that they might have to restrain you to get you to stop.

After all, what’s a supreme court challenge because you didn’t get your way, when you’ve spent your whole term in office denying that porn star roll in the hay. With over four hundred White House staff lost there’s been quite some drama, and that’s before we even think about the memoirs of your First Lady, Melania.

Many’s the weekend you’ve spent playing around at Mar-a-Lago, when perhaps the best idea might have been giving running the country a go. Instead, there was that crazy business about building a wall, Four years? I know a bloke – cheap, reliable – could do it in no time at all.

What with frequent cries of fake news and disinfectant cures for Covid-19, grabbing pussy, Twitter outbursts, what a four years it’s been In the end, it was not so much ‘Houston we have a problem’, more, ‘Washington, wave goodbye to that doylem’.

Hope you like the poem. Hopefully people don’t take it too seriously because really, when it comes to politics my views don’t matter. It’s just a bit of fun, albeit at the expense of a complete mentalist. I’m sure he’s got enough money in the bank to enjoy retirement and not get too worried about a daft poem. That said, feel free to let me know what you think…and that includes you too Donnie.

Poetry Blog: Red Kite

Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve loved watching birds. It started when, as a kid, I helped a friend with his birdwatching badge for Cubs and was hooked. We spent a large chunk of an entire summer wandering our local area, spotting birds and recording them in some kind of journal. I didn’t get a birdspotting badge because I wasn’t in the Cubs – too cool for school from an early age, me – but it didn’t matter. I was hooked. As a family we’ve been RSPB members for years and are fairly regular visitors to our two local sanctuaries.

I first noticed ‘our’ red kite a couple of summers ago. I think I first spotted it over our football pitch while taking training with the junior football team that I coach. I didn’t immediately know what it was, but was confident enough to hazard a guess, especially when I saw the red hue of some of its feathers in the light. I looked it up in our RSPB big book of all the birds (not it’s actual name) when I got home and confirmed that it was a red kite.

I then started to see what I assume is the same bird – I don’t imagine we have a gang of them locally – going past our house and it seemed to be around the area on a regular basis. It may go missing every once in a while, but we still see it fairly regularly. It feels like we’re forever chasing it round, in pursuit of the perfect picture, but sadly it seems quite camera shy and always seems to avoid our lenses! On the occasion I’ve written about it flew right above me while I was in my back garden. I ended up writing two poems about it, which I’ll explain later. For now though, here they are.

Red Kite

On a cloudy weekend morning, pegging washing on the line, something catches my eye. A dark shadow drifts and looms above me, dominating the sky. I sense drama, threat, majesty. Looking skyward I am at once transfixed by this giant, dwarfing nearby gulls. The threat remains, intensifies in fact for a moment, as the red kite drops a little in the sky, perhaps spotting me and weighing up his chances. Uninterested though, he drifts on, effortlessly, scanning the land beneath for a moment of opportunity.

I continue to gaze, rapt, in awe as the light above picks out every speck of colour on this enormous wingspan. Looking as if painstakingly painted by the careful brush strokes of an artist they propel him over houses in seconds. Scanning the landscape for something there is no sense of urgency or desperation; only a calm grace that means that although my attention has been grabbed and kept, probably no one else has noticed. No call, no hovering, no swoops or aerobatics – the sky is yours and with one magnificent movement you are propelled forward and out of my sight. The memory, however, will take a little longer to leave.

Red Kite

A cold, wet Saturday morning’s predictability is interrupted joyfully by a shadow overhead. Spotted from the corner of my eye and then focused on fully with an upturned look, the red kite drifts majestically overhead, the king of this sky.

Given the sight, my smile is easy and wonder assured, and yet, it is momentarily replaced by a frozen, fearful gaze. We lock eyes and the hunter briefly drops towards the ground, perhaps spotting some hidden prey, but for an uneasy moment leaving me wondering if I am the dish of the day.

A gentle swat of the giant wingspan and it has passed over my head and onwards. The bird bored by the human; the human still rapt. For a second or two sunlight bursts through clouds and the kite is lit up from above, its vivid rust coloured tail and white feathers in deep contrast to the coal coloured tips of its wings.

All too soon it is gone, leaving behind a sense of loss that will battle with the brief flutter of excitement for the rest of the day.

I ended up writing two poems about the exact same thing. It was only seconds, but it made a real impression on me. Our red kite was possibly the closest I’ve ever witnessed and I got ridiculously excited. How I didn’t drop our clean washing, I’ll never know!

The first poem was written straight from my laptop – a method I don’t usually use. I’d usually scribble ideas down in my notepad first, but this time felt compelled to just write and the laptop was the first thing that came to hand. As a result it was a poem that I came back to and re-drafted a couple of times; again a process that I don’t often bother with. I’m usually happy to scribble out the odd word and leave the poem where it ends. This time though, I made a few visits to the laptop over a period of days to try and get the poem I wanted.

The second poem came as a result of not being sure about the first. So for that one I just scribbled it down in a notepad. I must have felt happier with this one as looking at it now, there are only 5 words crossed out in the entire thing.

Having read both poems back, I’m now puzzled by which I like best or even whether I’m particularly happy with either one! So while I hoped to create something that I was happy with, I’m not sure I succeeded! Anyway, I hope at the very least, I managed to get my excitement and sense of awe across. As ever, I didn’t have a camera or my phone on me so I couldn’t get a picture to remember the moment, so I hope my words do it some justice; especially as there are two attempts at conveying it! I’d be interested to hear what people think.

Poetry blog – ‘This trend for naming storms is fooling no one…’

I’m not particularly sure how it all started, but at some point, somewhere, someone made the decision that we should start referring to storms by name. Human name. It wasn’t really a new thing; we’d been doing it with hurricanes for years, but this was just going to be for high winds and heavy rain. Whichever way I looked at it, it all seemed a bit unnecessary. I mean, if the weather presenter told me that we had to stay indoors because Storm Graham was on the way, I wouldn’t worry at all, which I’m guessing isn’t really the point.

Apparently there is some reasoning behind the naming of storms. The Met Office claim that the naming of storms will aid communication about the storms. Apparently, if it has a name we’ll be better prepared when it comes to keeping property safe! And if you don’t believe me, you can go to the Met Office website and have a read for yourself. Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but if a weather warning was issued and it said that a terrible storm with very high winds was going to hit my area, I’d be fully aware of its potential to cause damage.

Name or no name, the storm was going to do some damage. It wasn’t any more accesible because it had been in some way humanised. I wouldn’t be able to stand in my garden and plead with Gareth, Clive, Grace or even Serenity to not blow my fence down. The naming seemed like a nonsense. Surely, if you’re going to name the very dangerous storm then at least give it a name that did it some justice. Storm Mad Bastard, Storm Angry Nutjob, Storm Violent Fencekiller – surely they’re far more effective in getting the point across? I’d definitely be more wary of Storm I’m Gonna Blow Your House Down, than Storm Terry. Anyway, I wrote my thoughts down in the form of a poem.

This trend for naming storms is fooling no one…

Despite the efforts to make you seem more warm, friendly and cartoonishly cuddly, this trend for naming storms is fooling no one. You’re still a storm after all. You still bring a garrulous reign of terror, like you’ll never, ever shut up. Alphapebtising you and christening you with Disney monikers like Elsa, Mary and Hamish does not lessen your power to disrupt my day. Sleepy, Dopey and Bashful wouldn’t even help as far as that’s concerned.

Bernard still has the potential to severely damage my fence, bringing with him the middle class nightmare of finding a tradesman. Margaret is also no friend to my shrubbery, deflowering as she does the camellia, the hyacinths and God forbid, the showpiece rhododendron. And Theodore, you can be sure, will up-end potted plants, seedling trays and even a half-full water butt, blowing them right across the patio or maybe even as far as the neighbour’s drive, bringing the need for fawning apologies and a false face of shame.

This no doubt, focus group, think tank driven naming ceremony will not lessen your power to keep us indoors for days and, I’ll have you know, something else has already taken care of that so in continuing your path of destruction, with or without a name, frankly you’re taking the piss. It will not help me sleep through a wind that sounds like waves crashing on a shore I hitherto knew nothing of and during the cleaning up process afterwards, it will not allow me to take solace in the fact that it was all caused by a Samantha, a Florence or even an Alice.

I don’t think a great deal of explanation is necessary for this poem. It’s a bit of fun, really. I think the explanation given for the naming of storms is a bit of a nonsense and I hope the poem makes that quite clear while retaining a bit of humour. After all, there are worse things in life that we should be worrying about.

So, as always, I hope you like the poem. I’m sure there’ll be another one along soon. Let me know what you thought in the comments and thanks, as ever, for reading.

Book Review – The Boy on The Shed by Paul Ferris

Paul Ferris was a young man who had it all. The looks, the intelligence, the talent and the style. Okay, maybe not the style, given that this was the early 1980s where style was confined to the drawer marked ‘Things that the 80s forgot’. None of us had style in the 80s. Put the phrase ’80s style’ into Google Images if you don’t believe me. The results are like those in a ‘Who can mix the worst colours in one outfit’ competition.

But back to Paul Ferris. His autobiography tells the tale of a lad who had it all, only to lose it cruelly on more than one occasion. And while this sounds like quite the heart-breaking read, it actually makes for a brilliantly original book and one that I’d wholly recommend people pick up.

Ferris should have been someone who scaled the same footballing heights as his one time team mate, Paul Gascoigne, a player often described as the most naturally gifted footballer that these islands have ever produced. Such was his talent – and his country of birth, being Northern Ireland – that comparisons were also quickly drawn with the legend that is George Best. He was gifted, dedicated and eager to learn, and so when he was scouted by and eventually signed for Newcastle United, his future looked bright.

Paul’s story was never going to be simple though. Brought up amongst sectarian violence in the city of Lisburn south of Belfast, there seems to have always been an edge to his childhood. Add to that his worries about his sick mother and you’ve already got an engaging story. But, surrounded by love and encouragement, Paul flourished. His natural talent with a ball at his feet soon became clear and suddenly he was faced with a choice – stay at home and pursue his education or risk everything, including the love of his life, and move to England to follow a dream and escape the troubles of his home town.

‘The Boy on The Shed’ is simply brilliant. Undoubtedly a book for football fans, but at the same time the kind of tale that anyone will enjoy. This is so much more than just a sporting autobiography. Ferris seems to have the world at his feet and yet every time he looks like making a big breakthrough – and not only in football – a cruel twist of fate appears to slap him round the chops. Undaunted, he keeps on getting up and fighting on, even when the setbacks seem like they’ll leave him with little or no fight left.

Ultimately, ‘The Boy on The Shed’ is the classic underdog story. And it won’t spoil your enjoyment to hear that there’s a happy ending. But along the way Ferris’s life seems to be blighted by pitfalls, tragedy and simple bad luck. Just when you think he’s going to catch a break another setback appears and he’s back, unfortunately, to whatever you call the bit that comes before square one! In a tale and a career that takes in professional sport, medicine, law and even writing novels, all you want for Ferris as a reader, is to be happy. And at times it seems like he never will be. Delightfully though, he makes it in the end.

‘The Boy on The Shed’ is a joy to read. Brilliantly written with intelligence and good humour and crammed full of the kinds of stories you’d expect from a life spent in and around professional football, it’s a must read. Whether you’re a sports fan or not I’d urge you to pick up this book. It’s the kind of story that has you rooting for the protagonist – and in this case it’s a real life that we’re reading about. Paul Ferris may not be a name that you’ve ever heard of, but he’ll become a person that you end up caring about. A likeable underdog who gets there in the end.

I loved ‘The Boy on The Shed’ so I’m giving it nothing short of…

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Feel free to leave a comment – I’d love to hear what you made of the book if you get around to picking it up.

Whatever Happened to The Mix Tape?

The mix tape. In a sense, a history lesson needs to be given before this piece can really get going. So here goes…

For the younger reader – I’m talking late teens to adults in their twenties and onwards, not toddlers – the mix tape was a thing of beauty. It was literally a blank cassette tape, often known as a C45 or a C-60, and then you’d record some of your favourite songs onto said tape, for a variety of reasons which we can go into later. A cassette, by the way, was actual tape that recorded the sound, on two spools encased a a plastic rectangle. Like this one below; glamorous, huh?

Photo by Dmitry Demidov on Pexels.com

Us older people would make mix tapes by playing music from another source – maybe the radio, another cassette or vinyl – and then recording the tracks straight on to the tape. In many ways we were pioneers, early superstar DJs, as long as you ignored the quality. And the superstar bit.

This blog was prompted by a BBC 6Music programme that I listened to one weekday morning, a while ago now. It was Lauren Laverne’s mid morning show and she was talking to a guest, the writer Jane Sanderson. Jane had written a book called ‘The Mix Tape’ and so the interview concentrated partly on the book (which sounds great, by the way) and partly on the idea of mix tapes, while also getting Jane to contribute a mix of songs that she herself would put on a mix tape. I scribbled down some of the ones I liked, but as I was working during a free period, it made it difficult to keep up! I’ll include the list at the end of the blog for you though, dear reader, and perhaps you might want to check them out.

Of course, the interview got me thinking about the days of mix tapes and my own experiences. For me, mix tapes had a dual purpose, as I suspect they did for many others. At first I’d share them with friends as we discovered new music. Usually this would be either purchased from our local record shop – Music Box in Blaydon – or borrowed from the library. Both places were like a kind of Mecca to me in my formative years and I’d happily spend hours in either, perusing what there was on offer, searching for new sounds that I’d read about or maybe even taking a gamble that would invariably not pay off, by rooting round the bargain bin! And while this makes me sound like a very lonely individual, I wasn’t. I had genuine friends. No, honestly, I did. Real, tangible human ones, not just voices in my head or shadowy figures at the bottom of our garden!

Anyway, once sourced I’d tape this new music, adding it to what I laughingly referred to as a ‘mix’, on yet another blank cassette, even though there was no mixing; just the end of the track and the clunk of the stop or pause button, followed by a similar clunk and a hiss as I started recording the next track.

Part of the idea with mix tapes was to offer a taste of new music to the recipient. Us mix tapers somewhat automatically set ourselves up as experts and svengalis who would open the minds of our devotees with the startling choices we made; the musical gems we unearthed. Often the idea would be to try and outdo each other, in a kind of ‘I’ll take your lo-fi garage band mix and raise you my underground East coast hip hop.’ And we would outdo each other with music that we loved, not simply something that we hated, but knew that the other person wouldn’t have ever heard of. In many ways we were a bit sad, but not that sad! Sometimes though it was a simple case of hearing something that you loved and knowing that the person on the receiving end of the mix tape would love it too.

Mix tapes would also be a good way of communicating with the latest object of our affections too. Music was something that I knew quite a bit about and something that I soaked up as much as I could. So it was a subject that I could talk about with at least a bit of authority and hopefully not sound too dull. And a good job too, because my other area of expertise, football, was not of much interest to the girls of 1980s Newcastle. But as quite a shy boy, who inhabited a world of self-doubt, the mix tape was an in with girls. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t some kind of predator; often it was just a good way for a girl to get a free cassette and that was where our interaction ended, but on some occasions it actually worked! On one occasion the girl I fancied payed back my gift of a mix tape full of songs I thought she might be interested in, with a copy of Pretty Woman on VHS, leaving me puzzled as where she saw our potential relationship going. It turned out that she simply loved the film and seeing my enthusiasm for the music, thought she’d reply with something she also loved. And despite our obvious unsuitability, a brief romance ensued. It didn’t end very well, but it definitely started! And all because of a mix tape!

My approach to mix tapes became more sophisticated as I got older. As well as developing my musical tastes, I also developed the look of my mix tapes and started to design front covers for them rather than just presenting them to the recipient with an inlay card containing names of tracks and artists. When I say ‘designed’ it would often amount to cutting pictures from a magazine that might fit with the general feel of the mix tape and manipulating them into the cassette case as neatly as I could. Sometimes though, when my confidence was at its medium level best, I might do a sketch and use that as the front cover. So in some ways I was trying to create some kind of art, I suppose. And until now I’d thought that I hadn’t been remotely pretentious in my teenage years!

However, I suppose what my ‘artsy’ period shows is exactly how seriously we all took mix tapes. Not only did people spend hours carefully selecting not just the tracks to go on the tape, but also what order they would go in to have the best impact on the recipient. Then on top of those hours we’d also add more, collecting images that might look good in a cassette case and even more going through said images in search of exactly the right one for whatever mix tape we were creating at the time. But it wasn’t in any way a laborious process. I’m sure I speak for many of us who ‘curated’ such tapes when I say that it was massively enjoyable. Mix tapes were that important that at times they took over our lives and would often consume entire days. And all in the hope of some kind of connection being made.

As I listened to the interview that prompted this blog, once I’d got past being nostalgic, I began to think about who I might send a mix tape nowadays and what tracks I’d want to include. The whole process would be undoubtedly made easier now because of the internet and things like Alexa. Our playlists are there permanently and waiting to be explored and even a Luddite like me can navigate them.

My obvious recipient would be my wife, but the snag here is that we share a lot of the same musical taste and, having been together for such a long time, there’s very little that we don’t know about each other’s playlists and tastes. Although only very recently she surpised me by being wholly unaware of the song Super Freak by Rick James, preferring to believe that it was MC Hammer who was playing on the radio. For the same reason I’d have to rule out some of my friends. I think I’d still exchange mix tapes with those that I’d class as proper music fans though – David, Andy, Pricey, Emma, Kath, to name but a few. And I’m sure I could put something of meaning together for my wife as well.

After a bit of thinking though, I think the first person I’d want to send a mix tape would be my sister. We’re two very different characters and not the closest of siblings. But I’d like her to know how much of an influence she had on some of my tastes while we both still lived at home together and I’d like to try and bring a bit of sunshine to her life with a few decent tunes. I don’t have an entire mix tape planned out but some of the tracks I’d definitely include would be ‘White Lines’ by Grandmaster Flash, which she introduced me to as a teenager and I’d hope would remind her of better times. Now if you know the song, that might seem like a bad one for a teenager in the 1980s to be aware of, but I can assure you I had no idea what they were rapping about; I just loved the song! Then there’d be ‘Loaded’ by Primal Scream, because I’d bet she’s never heard it and that’s a crying shame (plus I think it might be the kind of track she could do with listening to at the end of every day) and ‘One Big Family’ by Embrace because I think sometimes we need a reminder that we’re actually brother and sister. After that, I could add all sorts of interesting tracks for her to give a listen to. Because of course, that’s the beauty of a mix tape.

In her interview, Jane Sanderson was asked to give 6music a mix tape of her own. Of course, it wasn’t via cassette, but it was a great mix of songs. Unfortunately for me, I was listening during a free period at work and so, had to tune out when it came to teaching again. However, if you’re interested – and you should be as there are some ace tracks – the tracks that I made a note of were, Northern Sky by Nick Drake, I Close My Eyes by Dusty Springfield, Thinking About You by Frank Ocean and I Didn’t See It Coming by Belle and Sebastian. Maybe they’ll be the first four on my first foray back into the world of the mix tape?

Listening to Lauren Laverne and Jane Sanderson got me thinking about the possibility of a cassette revival. After all, we’ve witnessed it with vinyl where after 12 continuous years of rising sales, over 4 million LPs were sold in the UK in 2019. Similar digging for figures revealed that there was a 103% increase in sales of music cassettes in the first 6 months of 2020 with 65,000 cassettes purchased in the first 6 months of the year. Clearly, people are buying cassettes again. Could we see the return of the mix tape? I hope so. How long before I can start sending them out again? Surely it’s only a matter of time! Ladies and gentlemen, we could be witnessing the rebirth of a veritable cultural phenomenon!

As ever, let me know in the comments what you thought of the post. I’d be really interested to know about other people’s experiences of mix tapes too. I’m sure there are some brilliant stories out there!

Poetry Blog – Teams Meeting

This is a new poem about a fairly modern topic – the online meeting. Now, I understand that they’ve been around for a while, but my point is more that they’ve never before been so widely used. As Coronavirus struck and lockdown ensued across the globe, businesses and other organisations were forced to find new ways of keeping in touch with employees and clients who were now being forced to work from home. And thus, words like Teams, Zoom and House Party, among others, all took on a new meaning.

I’m generally left deflated by even the mere mention of a meeting and, probably as a result, I’m inclined to simply drift off. I’ve fallen asleep in more than one. But if people insist in reading entire PowerPoint presentations back to me, word for word, then I reserve the right to get bored.

Lockdown and working from home felt, as much as anything else, like time off from meetings for me. And then someone mentioned Teams and Zoom. And so, as I sat in my first ever Teams meeting I made sure that I was paying attention – they could all see me, after all, but kept a notebook out of site after realising that there could be a poem in this! So here you go – the secondary result of my first couple of Teams meetings.

Teams Meeting

A little blue circle floats and spins, taunting me with my lateness. Usually, said circle is laughed off, commented on with a half-baked witticism, something like, ‘It’s thinking about it’ accompanied by a knowing smile, a raised eyebrow. But not today. Today’s blue circle is a slow death, evoking only many muttered expletives.

After what feels like hours, but is probably only minutes faces emerge, framed in their own rectangle and assembled in front of you like a gameshow panel in a strangely decorated studio. There are welcoming smiles and the possibility of others yet. Who knows amongst an array of webcam settings? A nose here, a chin there, the very top of someone’s head. Who knew that a chair could be sat on in so many ways?

It’s orderly at first. One voice with instructions, an agenda and, worst of all, jobs to delegate. Maybe that explains the top of someone’s head? A cunning attempt at work avoidance that clearly I should have thought of first. I consider sliding down into my chair until I’m sat beneath my table.

Virtual hands are pointed out, to wave at the thought of a question. Mine will therefore be very much more virtual than others. Some things never change. Despite virtual hands, still a tangle of voices ensues as we relax into the familiarity of it all; the agenda temporarily capsizing in these rapids while the meeting floats aimlessly downstream. Familiar voices bring warmth, a smile and I consider something juvenile to get noticed, extend the laughter and take the meeting out of reach and off towards the sea. But order resumes, our professional heads fixed firmly in place as the bullet points are ticked off and a department is run at a distance safe enough for all. Strategies discussed, ideas shared, virtual hands waved and questions asked. After such a long time, even meetings can be enjoyable.

But all too soon it’s over and we settle back in our home ports, perhaps, like me, wondering what the next weeks and months hold and longing, ever so slightly, for just a few moments more.

I thought I’d conquered Teams after dipping my toe – my real one, not virtual – for the first time and being able to use it with ease. The first stanza tells you that I was wrong. Teams took forever to connect for my second meeting and I actually ‘arrived’ late, which in truth is much more like the real me anyway. In this instance though, it was nothing short of torture.

Once I was in attendance I took a look at my colleagues – the ladies I refer to as my big sisters – who I hadn’t seen in months. And while it was great to see faces, it was a veritable puzzle working out why they couldn’t use a webcam! It meant that for a good portion of the meeting I was just puzzled and distracted by the fact that someone was sat with just the top of their head in view, while others were so close to their webcam that I could just see a nose or an eye!

Despite the presence of virtual hands for people to raise when they had a question, our meetings would start in an orderly fashion, before descending ever so slightly into a gaggle of voices talking over each other. As usual in meetings, I kept quiet and observed from the safest distance I’ve ever managed in a meeting. But I realised, after a short while, that just being in the meeting was lovely. These were not just colleagues, but friends with familiar faces and voices that just relaxed me and made me feel quite normal for the first time in the months of lockdown. Even when we got back to the agenda I was enjoying the meeting.

In fact, I’d enjoyed it so much that when it ended and faces began to disappear from the screen, I felt more than a little bit low. And then it was back to isolating and trying to find enough things to do in order to keep myself from going mad.

Feel free to leave a comment about the poem and if you really enjoyed it you might like to click on the links below to have a look at some of my other stuff.