Poetry Blog: Awake

I wrote this poem recently when England was in the grip of a recent heat wave – maybe not by most standards, but believe me, 25 degrees is a heatwave here – that as ever, brought the country to a shuddering halt.

Living in England and I’d guess may parts of northern Europe, we seem to spend a lot of time wishing it was sunnier and hotter, only to find that it’s all too much when we get the weather we wished for! It turns out that we’re not that good at handling the heat and even trips out to the seaside at these times will inevitably just end in some ridiculous traffic jam where lines of people sit and bake in hot car shaped ovens. It’s what we Brits often refer to as ‘Bank Holiday Fun’.

The worst thing for me though is that it affects my sleep. It’s not that major a thing, but I do find that when it’s too hot I’ll be up out of bed and sitting waiting for sleep to come at least once a week. Sometimes that might mean that I just have to spend 20 minutes reading a book, but on other occasions I can be up for hours before crashing out on the settee. It’s never nice waking up the next day and realising that you had three hours sleep!

I wrote this poem on such an occasion recently. It was the second time I’d gotten out of bed that night and in the end I just started writing ideas in a notebook until I had enough for some kind of coherent poem.

Awake

Heat strangles sleep, rendering you a passenger on board a fragile boat adrift in the storm at night.
Mind and body unable to do what is needed, natural,
so instead you prowl in search of some remedy to calm the stomach's churning,
soothe the skin where beads of sweat sheen and shimmer,
bridge these troubled waters and allow you to return once more to a slumber,
less fitful, that will only see you disembark,
blinking across the landing as morning breaks and day calls.
Instead, above, floorboards call out to indicate that you're not alone in this struggle.
So you slump, uncomfortable, yet cooler,
you sense the boat breaking so you cling to driftwood and hope for the best,
undecided if you'll sink or swim.

Having written this poem and the bones of another, I looked at the clock to find that it was just after 3am. For someone who gets up for work at 6am, this was not a nice realisation!

I just felt like a passenger on this particular night. Like I had no control whatsoever over whether I’d get to sleep or not. This came out in the poem as feeling adrift, almost letting the current take you wherever it was going. I knew I wasn’t going to just drop off to sleep, so had to fill my time and the thought about being adrift prompted the whole poem. At one point I heard someone else get up and hoped that I hadn’t disturbed them. It made me try to go to sleep, but again it was unsuccessful!

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this poem and as ever, if you have any thoughts on it then feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: End of Term

A hastily written poem this one. I had a few lines running round my head one evening in the final week of term and thought it might be worth seeing what happened if I tried to join the dots.

It’s about…well, let’s not treat people like idiots here, it’s about what it says in the title. As many of you know, I’m a teacher and so this time of year is very special to me – and all teachers, I hope – and it always prompts a great deal of thinking. What will next year be like, how will I get on, what’s kid X going to be like in Year 9, do I think I’ll get along with this class next year, etc. And that’s before you even get to thinking about how tired you are and what you’ll be up to over the 6 blissful weeks of summer.

The last week of the academic year is always quite a strange time. For me personally, it always feels like a week too far and I know that’s silly really. There has to be a final week and, as I’m reminded of regularly by people who clearly never went to school, I have a lot of holidays. On a side note, I’ve never figured out why people who moan about teachers’ holidays don’t just solve the issue by becoming teachers.

The last week generally sees a small dip in the student population, a smattering of unauthorised holidays being taken, sometimes a downturn in behaviour and eventually, a slackening off in the quality of lessons. The weather seems to always be ridiculously hot – relatively so; this is the UK after all so we’re not claiming European levels of scorchio – and so it becomes a case of trying to evade some form of heat exhaustion too, for teachers and students.

So anyway, I wrote a poem about the whole phenomenon.

End of Term

A strange mix of exhaustion, excitement and familiarity drifts around for days.
Every morning is greeted with half closed eyes and a walk that has more than a hint of Marley's Ghost 
You trudge out of the door, drag yourself through each day,
tolerate those you are faced with and smile through gritted teeth,
as if that alone will make the clock go faster.

From Monday through those last five days, classrooms will echo to a familiar refrain;
'Can we watch a film?'
And you brawl with your conscience hourly to stop from caving in.
The minutes fail to fly as you attempt to solve the mystery
of how to craft one more lesson on a text long since finished and tired of.

Outside the sun shines without mercy, turning the classroom into an oven
that bakes until all enthusiasm is burnt and thoroughly dried out,
like last night's re-heated lasagne.
Windows and doors are propped open and you battle with all on the corridor to be heard,
while your voice gives way and your feet grumble dolefully.

After a week that felt like a year you arrive on that final day,
too shattered to appreciate the glee that greets no uniform.
You smile weakly at the fashion show and finally put on a film, while your class complains 
that this one's boring and that the teacher next door brought sweets for her class.
Summer can't come soon enough.

It’s been a very difficult year in schools. Things have been different to say the least. Covid has changed everything and this year has featured a heady mix of room changes, teaching in bubbles, watching on not really knowing how to react when pupils have been taken out of class to be sent home for dreaded periods of isolation, bubble collapses and whole year groups going home, split starting times, dinner times and finishing times, Teams lessons, Teams meetings, school closures and teaching to an empty room, and of course more hand sanitiser than you could ever imagine!

It’s been a year to test the resolve of teaching and non teaching staff as well as students, parents and guardians. As a result, as the final line of the poem says – and with more emphasis than perhaps ever before – Summer can’t come soon enough.

As ever, comments are always more than welcome. Thanks for reading!

My Hopes for Summer

It’s been a strange old year. The academic one, that is. I’ve found it a bit of a struggle, but always try to keep stuff to myself – he says, writing a blog that thousands hundreds fourteen or fifteen people will read – and so I don’t think many people would realise. Apart from a few people that I’d class as relatively close to me, who either notice that I’m not myself or that I might just confide in.

It’s cliched, pompous and pretty poor form for me to say that I’ve been to Hell and back, mainly because I haven’t. But I think it’s fair to say that I’ve boarded the bus to there a few times in these last twelve months or so. I just got off a few stops early.

I won’t divulge much by way of detail, but a lot of my problems have been either work related or age related and despite the presence of more than enough good people in my life, I’ve felt very alone at times. If you know me, please don’t mistake this as a cry for help; it’s not. Imagine the mess I’d make of one of those! But, I have felt alone. It’s no one’s fault. Worse things probably do happen at sea, as they say. I mean, imagine who you could get stuck next to on a deckchair on your dream cruise for instance. That’s if cruises even do deckchairs. I’m aware that everyone has their problems though.

Given the age nature of some of my problems, you could be excused for mistaking this for a mid-life crisis. It isn’t. But if it was, I think only I could get it so badly wrong. No Porsche, no ponytail, no piercing or ill judged tattoo and no cringeworthy flirting with younger women as I struggle to cling on to my youth and masculinity. No, if it has been a mid-life crisis, I did it by writing a blog and some poems. Trust me to err on the side of a cautious crisis.

With all of this in mind, my summer break can’t come soon enough. Six weeks of not going to work but getting up in the morning with each day stretching out in front of you and a lot more possibilities than usual. Bliss. I’m even looking forward to the mundanity of jobs around the house and garden. Anything that takes my mind away from the type of things that I find are bugging me on a daily basis at the moment.

So what do I plan to do with my time? I always imagine that the summer holidays is some kind of blank slate upon which I will write a novel, do some sketching, do more running and fitness, watch some football, do some decorating, but in fact life gets in the way. The mundane still needs to be done, so there’s food shopping twice a week, days out to places I don’t really want to head to, but have to in my role as dad and husband, shopping trips for uniform and school shoes and endless talking and planning about jobs that we need to get done, but run out of time to do. So it’s a balancing act between idealism and everyday life.

A friend used to say that, as teachers, our summer holidays were worth £10,000 a year and I have to say that I’ve always agreed. I can live without the extra money, but don’t even think about taking my holidays away.

I imagine that at this time of year every teacher is simply hanging on in there for the end of term. I’m exhausted and I need to know that there’s a block of time when I don’t need to be up and out of the door before 7.30am five days a week, I don’t need to be dealing with the demands of 30 pupils and everything else that comes with working in a modern academy trust.

Most of all I need the time and space to be able to think. I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years now and have found things a little stale this year. At the very least, summer gives me time away form it all, enough to be able to re-charge my batteries, so to speak and to work on regaining some of my old enthusiasm.

I have some serious questions to ask. I need to think about retirement plans because ideally it’s not that far off and I want to be well and truly prepared so that I can spend it doing stuff that makes me, my wife and my family happy.

I also need to give thought to my present role. While I don’t feel tremendously unhappy, I also don’t feel tremendously fulfilled and it’s clear that something needs to change. Whether that’s where I work or just how I go about doing my job, I don’t know, but it needs some serious thinking time. I still have ambitions as a teacher and I think I’ve let things drift a little off course. I love my job, the school that I work at and the people that I work with, but something still doesn’t quite feel right and at least this summer gives me time to figure things out. Summer might just give me time to relax and be able to start all over again in September refreshed and raring to go.

I started writing a novel during lockdown. I know, I know…half of the population started writing novels and screenplays over lockdown. But I genuinely felt that what I was writing was good. It was a fully formed idea, rather than just something half baked that I believed I could make into something as I went, but it got shelved somewhat once I returned to work. It is without doubt something that I’ll be revisiting over summer, with the intention of getting at least a first draft finished. I figure all I’ll need is a typical British summer with just enough rain to keep me indoors for long periods of time and I’ll have the timeframe needed! It’s definitely something that I feel positive about though, and definitely one of the most exciting aspects of my summer.

There are lots of other things that I want to achieve over summer, as well as the kind of things that just need doing and can no longer be avoided when everyone knows you have so much time on your hands!

I’ll be looking to run more and get fitter and I think that will involve as many early mornings as I can manage as I just love the freedom and solitude of being out running at that time of day. I even have a race to take part in in early August and I’m looking forward to testing myself against others again. It’s been such a long time since I ran among lots of people, so it’ll be very strange, but I’m sure hugely exciting too. If nothing else there’s a blog that’ll come out of it! Once I get that out of the way, I’m hoping that there might be the opportunity to compete in at least one more as well. I think I need to get back to fitness workouts too, so if nothing else I’ll be revisiting my old friend Joe Wicks’s YouTube channel and flinging myself into that!

We have a holiday to go to as well. We’ve managed to book a week in North Wales, despite rising costs and demand, post Covid, and it’ll be lovely just to relax on our favourite beach. It’s always a good place to do all of that post work reflection!

I’ve also considered taking in a bit of sport. I don’t think it’ll be football, as I think I fancy something different. Before lockdown I was looking into going to watch our ice hockey team, Leeds Chiefs (now Leeds Knights) but Covid scuttled that plan. I think it’s something I’ll revisit, but the season doesn’t seem to commence until September. I’m considering taking in some games in the upcoming new format of cricket in the UK, The Hundred. We have a team based in Leeds and I reckon that the shorter format might be enough to keep my son’s interest, so I may well have a look.

But it can’t all be exciting over summer. There are a lot of humdrum jobs that need to be caught up on. I have a back garden that resembles a jungle and is in need of major maintenance. My wife seems to have big plans that centre around the movement of some long standing shrubs – and we’re talking plants that are my height and above here – and I would imagine that this will end up being a time consuming job.

Summer always sees decorating rearing it’s ugly head in our house too. My daughter’s bedroom – recently started while she was away on her Duke of Edinburgh expedition – needs to be finished. Our kitchen and dining room still awaits and our bedroom could really do with updating as well. And I see that I’m stretching myself quite a bit here and that there’s quite possible no chance at all that these rooms will all get finished, by the way! But if we can’t be optimistic at this time of year, then when can we be?

I hope to be able to visit my parents for the first time in something like 20 months, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’ll be able to happen. Having spoken to them, they still seem very reticent and fairly paranoid about Covid. Despite us being double jabbed, I think that my mother in particular would rather avoid contact and I have to respect that. There’ll no doubt be conversations to be had, but I’m starting to wonder if the thought of hugging my parents once again will remain just that for a while longer yet. Hopefully I’ll have some nice weather to offer some comfort instead…

So, with a few days still to get through at work, my summer holiday feels like it’s more important than it’s perhaps ever been. Clearly, I’m going to benefit from the time, but hopefully I’ll find lots to do and be able to enjoy lots of it with my family and friends. I’ve no doubt there’ll be a few unexpected surprises; there usually are, but in all, I’m just hoping to feel a lot more settled about everything by the time September rolls around again. I feel that I need to be coming back to work feeling an enthusiasm that not only gets me through the first week, but keeps me going for long enough that I’m not starting to feel restless again.

Whatever form it takes and whatever you’ve got planned, enjoy your Summer everyone!

Poetry Blog: A future awaits…

I feel I should start this particular blog with an apology. I’ve written another poem with a terrible title, I’m afraid. It’s a common occurrence. A lot of the time for me, writing is instinctive in that I might be thinking about something and a line pops into my head. This is a common starting point and it’ll often see me scrawling in a notebook and finalising a poem fairly rapidly, without a great deal of drafting. However, what it also leaves me without is a decent title. I tried a few, but in the end just plumped for a phrase from the poem. A proper cop out if ever there was one! Sorry.

This poem came about when I was considering a few things to do with my future. It was mainly to do with work and my profession, but I was also thinking about the future in terms of the coaching I do and also my parents, who are both elderly and not in the greatest of health. It led me to considering what the next few years might hold for me. It’s a subject I’ve written about before and one that I’ll think I’ll return to as well. Here’s the terribly titled poem though.

Alien thoughts dominate; an invasive species not indigenous to these shores 
nudges you off an axis you've been comfortably balanced on for years.
Simply what to do is no longer the question,
but what to do with the rest of your life.
How to bring back purpose, like light to a darkened room,
heat to a vacant house.
If this path has run its course, you'll endeavour to have faith
that another will emerge from the undergrowth that currently crowds
your thinking, blocks your way.
A future awaits, not immediately demanding your attention,
but tugging at your sleeve every once in a while, reminding you that it's there,
that you keep it in mind.
Its patient nuisance can wait for now, but won't let you ponder forever.

This one is undoubtedly a poem born of middle age, but I don’t doubt that pondering one’s future is exclusively a middle aged thing. Sometimes, whatever your age, it’s a good thing to ponder what next. I suppose it helps you feel stable, prepared. And that’s part of what this poem is about. There are certain things in my relatively immediate future that I feel are inevitable and that will shake me to my boots when they happen, so to speak. So giving it some thought, although not usually my favoured course of action, is likely to be a wise idea.

As a younger man I imagined that this time in my life would be very different and that I’d have everything straight in my head by now. It’s funny how it all turns out!

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Maybe it prompted a bit of thinking of your own. However you felt, I’d love to hear it, so feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

Euro 2020 Diary: The Final Instalment

Ah, the morning after the night before. For completely different reasons, had England won the final of Euro 2020, this would have been a difficult entry to write. As it goes, on the back of such a cruel loss, it’s tough to know where to start.

In fact, I started by staring at this keyboard. For quite a while. Then I flicked tabs on the internet to have another look at the BBC Sport football page. Then I looked at social media on my phone for a bit. It didn’t change very much.

I’ve tried to avoid writing too much about England as I’ve written these diaries. And although I’ll abandon that stance quite soon, I’ll think I’ll revert back there to start with.

It’s been a helluva tournament. A month’s worth of football and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, until around 11pm last night that is. What’s occurred in and around stadiums has been an absolute spectacle though and it’s been wonderful to indulge my love of the game.

  1. I’ve done a bit of freelance scouting for my team. Every football fan does this at major tournaments though, don’t they? We all watch the games with half an eye on our club side, searching for the diamond in the rough that, in our heads, we can recommend to our club side. We all know that we have no influence whatsoever and that said rough diamonds are probably playing beyond their ability just because of the lift that a tournament gives, but we still do it.

This time round my keen eye has picked out a few Italians, Elmas the attacking midfielder who plays for North Macedonia, the Welsh lad Ethan Ampadu and a few others. As ever, I’ve found that most play for big clubs and would cost way more than Newcastle United’s budget, but it hasn’t stopped me looking and playing the ‘expert’.

Sadly, I imagine our manager will be scanning the list of free transfers and players available for loan as we speak. Alas, my role as Head of European Scouting was fun while it lasted.

2. Why would you go to a game in fancy dress? Come to think of it, why would you go anywhere in fancy dress? Even a fancy dress party is about a dozen steps too far. During this tournament I’ve witnessed German fans dressed head to toe in lycra as the German flag. French fans dressed as Asterix and Obelix, Dutch fans dressed as oranges…oh wait, that’s just the colour of their football shirts, England fans dressed as St.George and actual lions and during last night’s final there were Italian fans dressed as Mario, a pizza and even the Pope. Some Scotland fans even attended games in skirts.

I don’t get it. Given the heat which has been a fairly regular feature in the tournament, I get it even less. But imagine simple logistics like sitting down in an Obelix costume. Imagine the conversation stopper that is, ‘Lads, I’m thinking of going to the final dressed as a pizza’. And the feeling of looking like an even bigger tool when some bloke a row down from you steals your thunder by dressing up as his actual holiness the Pope. I understand the excitement and the fact that people get carried away, but fancy dress? Never.

3. Why have England fans been booing national anthems? I mean, I know what reason most will give for booing the German anthem, but I think it’s time to leave this behind lads and lasses. In fact, go to Germany. Spend some time there. Immerse yourself in wonderful things like trains that arrive on time. Visit the museums, sample the night life, enjoy the people who are truly lovely, sit in an enormous beer garden and feel stunned at how friendly it all is. Don’t boo and hate because of ancient history. Don’t boo any nations anthem. Just rid yourself of your small mindedness and show a tiny bit of respect. And listen carefully; some of them – as I’ve pointed out in an earlier diary – are absolute bangers!

And why are people booing Denmark’s anthem by the way. We’ve all stood barefoot on a piece of upturned Lego in our time, but it’s hardly worth all that energy on an anthem that is a little bit rubbish and means literally nothing to you.

4. We couldn’t quite bring football home, could we? But that’s OK. We’ve been not bringing football home for years.

It was heartbreaking to watch the final as an England fan. We started so well, scored early and offered hope for a while. It looked like we might finally see a tournament through. But, to cut a long story short, we were beaten by a better side on the night.

While I’m beyond disappointed this morning, I’m going to try to be positive. We have a young, vibrant, gifted squad of players with more waiting to come through and represent their country too. The future looks bright. The experience gained last night could and should stand the team in good stead in future tournaments. We’ll have our day, I’m sure of it.

Mistakes were probably made last night, if we’re being honest. Most notably with the penalties. As a result of missing some penalties, the now usual barrage of racist abuse has appeared from a spiteful, hate filled, thick as mince underclass and this kind of thing clearly needs to be dealt with. But just for now, let’s applaud the courage of those that stepped up. Bukayo Saka, who took and missed our final penalty, is 19 years old. At his age I was frightened to talk to new people, shy beyond belief. I wouldn’t put my hand up to answer questions in university seminars, hated going into the pub on my own to meet friends, blushed noticeably if a girl spoke to me and was just too immature to appreciate the opportunity afforded me in being able to go to university and study for three years. Bukayo Saka stepped up to take a crucial penalty in front of a packed Wembley Stadium while 30 million people watched on telly. I bet he’d have no bother walking into a pub to meet his mates and he’d be at ease in a seminar. Give the lad some respect and some love. And give the rest of the squad and the coaches and officials exactly the same while you’re on.

The England team have left us with even more amazing memories. They’ve beaten pretty much whoever has stood in front of them and it’s been absolutely brilliant to play a tiny part in it all as a fan. That overrides a missed penalty kick. So while I’m disappointed this morning, I see no point in apportioning blame and forgetting how much enjoyment this tournament and our teams has given me and countless others over the last month or so.

5. Finally, spare a thought for Jordan Pickford. Jordan is a Sunderland fan and I’m a Newcastle fan. We don’t know each other, but I get the impression he wouldn’t like me just because of my allegiance. I’m not a big fan of him because of his allegiance either. He is however, the England goalkeeper.

Jordan Pickford was magnificent in the penalty shoot out last night. He didn’t deserve to lose after saving two Italian penalties and I felt heartily sorry for the lad. And while I’m hopeful that he has his usual meltdown if he plays against Newcastle next year, I hope he has a brilliant season.

So that’s me signing off on the Euro 2020 diaries. It didn’t quite go our way, but I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. Here’s to writing about it all again when the World Cup in Qatar starts at the back end of next year!

Poetry Blog: Euro 2020 – A short anthology

As a football fan, I’d forgotten how much I missed tournament football. I’ve detailed lots of factors in my Euro 2020 Diaries that I’ve been writing for the blog (links below if you fancy a read), but it’s safe to say that simple things like the noise and the colour have been amazing and it surprised me how much it affected me when seeing it all in full flow again.

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 1

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 2

I think the first time it really struck me was watching the first of Hungary’s games and realising that they had a full stadium. I actually commented to my wife about what a remarkable thing it was, both of us knowing all too well, that I’d been in many, many a packed stadium before.

When the tournament was cancelled due to the effects of the first wave of Coronavirus I didn’t give it much thought. It didn’t bother me at all. Despite football’s importance in my life, life itself took prominence at that point. The realisation that I was at real risk of something that might well kill me stopped me taking football too seriously. Funny that!

However, fast forward a year or so and I am once again fully immersed in watching football. It doesn’t matter that I’m largely watching players I’ve at best only vaguely heard of; I’m loving every minute. It prompted me to write my blog diaries, but then one day I was hit by the urge to get all poetic. I was thinking about the remarkable on-pitch events surrounding Christian Erikson and the subsequent rallying cry of what seemed like the entire Danish nation. And it got me to writing. And once I stopped, well it wasn’t as if I couldn’t stop, but I found myself writing four poems there and then. So, I suppose I did stop after all.

The first is my poem about the remarkable story of the Denmark national team and I suppose those who represent the Danish nation at the tournament. To quickly fill in a few blanks, their star player suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch during their first game. He survived and the team have been battling on ever since. So here you go…

A Modern Fairytale

From that moment something changed in all of us and a modern fairytale was born.
Derided for our tribalism, mocked for our predictability,
now our unity would surprise.
As headlines were made and news spiraled around the world, 
we were focused.
Shaken from our reverie, shocked by what we witnessed,
old memories long since committed to the backs of minds, awoken once more.

And so, we adopted you. Tuned in, crossed fingers, sat tensed, silently praying
to someone or something in the hope that you could find
'us' some justice.
As best we could we shared the early elation, 
giving not a second thought to our own nation,
then returned to heightened tension, pacing floors, shouting
at screens and watching, forlorn as you ran out of steam
and didn't quite have enough.

As the whiff of a final chance floated through the air
and you gathered for one more time, the atmosphere crackled
with pride, optimism, anticipation.
That image, still fresh, would spur on a nation and its adopted
sons and daughters and we punched the air, as one, 
as the net bulged again and again, edging you closer to a triumph 
that was surely written in the stars.

As you celebrated, a wall of red, white and blonde
our game once again reminded us of its power,
producing joy where once there was fear, shock and mourning,
we will always remember these moments of unity, 
when once, we were all Danish, weren't we?

Shortly after writing my Danish poem, I watched the last North Macedonia game. It turned out to be the final international appearance of Goran Pandev, a player I’m well aware of, but also one I’d lost track of somewhat – I mean, I follow football, but you can’t know every player’s every movement, right?

Pandev was substituted late in the game and given a standing ovation by the crowd as well as a guard of honour by his team mates. The game literally stopped while this happened. Once play re-started the crowd chanted his name for a good few minutes too. I just thought it was a wonderful few moments and something that said a lot about our game. So I wrote a poem.

Goran Pandev

If there is a word for a figure that is not quite a legend, not quite an icon, 
then it is needed for times like this.
A celebrated career, yet only known to those of a particular ilk; dedicated, obsessive,
those who glory in the fact that the devil is in the detail.
Born to a nation that many could not find on a map,
scorer of goals that most cannot recall, let alone say that they saw,
it is all the more remarkable that as you leave the field,
for what many would not realise is the final time,
there is a guard of honour, a standing ovation and a rousing, hearty chanting of your name.
A tribute, not just to you Goran Pandev, but to all of football.

England versus Scotland was always going to provoke something in me. As a proud Englishman, it’s a fixture I love, regardless of the sport. It’s the one that both sides always want to win and dared not lose. A classic, bitter, historic rivalry.

As it turned out, the match was largely a non-event. England, overly cautious and perhaps overawed by the occasion, Scotland, performing above the sum of their parts, but still only arguably the better of a bad bunch. The teams shared a point, before ultimately going their separate ways; England qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament, while Scotland would fail to get out of the group stage.

On England v Scotland

The oldest fixture in football.
This is not just a game, yet not the war that some would have you believe.
There is a hatred on both sides, a mistrust, a pride, an ancient grudge 
that will forever break to new mutiny at the mere mention of the fixture.

All common sense, rationality and right thinking is cast aside
as Edward's army, Hadrian's Wall, devolution, independence,
invading Celts, broken crossbars and of course, 1966, dominate our thoughts,
our conversations.
Bitterness, nationalism, the iconography of two flags, tartan and St. George are
forced to the fore. Nails are bitten, alcohol consumed,
friendships cats aside, a nation even more divided
and for 90 minutes it feels like we hold our breath
and watch through our fingers, faces covered, limbs tense,
a calm exterior a thing of the past.
Our capital invaded, our stadium full, our heroes reminded of their history, their duty.
And yet, on this occasion it will not matter. One side deflated,
the other, seemingly elated; neither wins the day.
Wherever loyalties lie, we'll meet again, we'll see your like again.

I’ll finish this blog with a very short poem concerning the England player Jadon Sancho. Sancho is a young player who has achieved a great deal in a short time, having moved to Germany to ply his trade. And yet, for the first three group games of the tournament, he didn’t get a sniff of action on the pitch. For the first game, he didn’t even make the matchday squad and as a player with such obvious gifts, this became a talking point. He’s since agreed to join Manchester United for something like £73m and has actually played one game in the tournament. The team however have played six. So, like most of the country I was a bit puzzled. Unlike most of the country I wrote a poem in his honour.

Jadon Sancho

You could have been at home,
socialising, enjoying the typical efficiency
of Tuetonic transport systems
or sipping a smoothie or even a beer 
in a Dortmund park.
More likely, you could have gone on holiday,
said '(Foot)balls to isolation', 
but no. You're here, under-used,
cast aside, destined to warm up perpetually.
What a waste.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these poems. If you haven’t, don’t worry, Euro 2020 will be over soon and life can move on. Don’t give up on me! I could well write something that’s right up your street very soon!

Euro 2020: Fan’s Diary Part Three

I write this as we’re a day away from England versus Germany. Superstition tells me to make no predictions, while England’s form suggests that we may never win a tournament in my lifetime so whether it’s Germany or Guernsey we’re playing doesn’t really matter. History reminds me that we’re never comfortable against the Germans.

Asides from the inevitable discomfort produced by the Germans, it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable tournament so far. It’s been brilliant to see fans in stadiums once again, despite the limitations on crowd size. And as ever with tournament football there’s been no shortage of drama, tension and upsets.

So here’s what made the cut into diary entry number three.

  1. Fans make all the difference. The sights, the sounds and notably the colour have been an absolute delight. Whether my senses have been heightened by the fact that I’ve got used to watching football played out in empty and therefore soulless stadiums, I’m not sure, but fans have brought an HD element to our viewing.

There aren’t many better sights in football than the delirium of fans celebrating a goal. ‘Limbs’ I believe is what the football hipsters refer to it as. I watched the Czech Republic beat the Netherlands last night and the sheer ecstasy behind the goal for both Czech goals was fantastic to watch. Keep your perfect volleys, your overhead kicks and your rabonas, what I want to be watching is shirtless, out-of-shape blokes hugging each other screaming and tumbling over in celebration. That loss of self control doesn’t seem to happen in other sports. And neither does the need to shed ones’ shirt in order to watch the match.

Another almost minor and obvious detail about the fans that has been brilliant is just the colour. Be it a wall of red for Spain, Switzerland or Denmark, a chunk of orange for the Netherlands, masses of yellow Sweden shirts or a block of white for England v Germany, it doesn’t matter. It’s always a startling sight and it’s often very much a tournament thing.

2. Why do TV editors cut away when fans spot themselves on camera? OK, I think I already know the answer to this one. But let’s treat this as very much a rhetorical question. They cut away to avoid people mouthing obscenities or perhaps making offensive hand gestures. But aside from the fact that there’s no harm in any of that really – and they could cut away as they do it – why bother? Every time someone spots themselves on camera via the big screen in the stadium they’re absolutely thrilled. So don’t cut away! Let them have their few seconds of fun! I personally love it when people see themselves. The waving, the laughter, the jumping up and down or grabbing the badge – surely this is showing fans at their best? Why not enjoy that? Why not savour it? After all, we heard enough foul language from players when crowds weren’t in, but I’m not sure it damaged anyone. I absolutely loved hearing Matt Ritchie ask the linesman, “How have you given that, you wee prick?” when he gave our opposition a thrown in. It made me and many others laugh out loud.

So why can’t we see a father or mother with their kids enjoying the sight of themselves on camera? There’s no harm here. One minute I’m watching people enjoying basking in the limelight, smiles everywhere and then the camera cuts away only to repeat the whole process another four or five times. It’s just weird.

3. Sometimes watching the national anthems is as good as watching the match. And sometimes, it’s actually better.

As a football fan, I want the players representing my team or my nation to be passionate about it and we see that regularly with the anthems. One of my favourite bits of the whole tournament so far has been watching the Italians singing their anthem. Firstly, it’s just a cracking tune. Secondly, they love singing it and they mean every word (I looked it up and some of the words are ‘Brothers of Italy…Italy has awoken’ so that sounds passionate!)

Alongside the Italian anthem I’d put those of France (chooon) and Wales (just seems to be shouting, hey what shouting it is!) as some of my favourites.

I must admit that our own anthem – ‘God Save The Queen’ – struggles to keep up in terms of its immediate appeal. But I still love singing it or more likely just standing up for it. I think our players are awful at it, but I still love it. It makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. I know a lot of people struggle with it because of their opposition to the royal family, but I don’t have a problem with them. If someone gave me several castles to live in, I wouldn’t think twice about it! I just think that, in terms of sport and identity, our anthem isn’t a great fit. But certainly, it provides yet another wonderful experience alongside everything else in tournament football.

4. There are some dreadful hairdos at the tournament. OK, so footballer’s hair has long been known for erring on the side of bad taste. If you know your football, think Chris Waddle’s mullet or Carlos Valderama’s afro as featured below.

However, I’ve noticed one or two that rival even classics such as these. Step forward, Croatian defender Vida, our own Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik and of course, the German manager Joachim Low.

I’m no hairstyle guru – in fact way back when I copied the Chris Waddle mullet when he added the twist of perming only the back of it – but for grown men to be wandering around football stadiums looking like this, well, at the very least it needs to be gently mocked.

5. England beat Germany and I had to fight back the tears. It’s been 55 years since England beat Germany at a tournament. Longer than I’ve been alive. There have been some heartbreaking moments in that time, as well as some embarrassments. We’ve beaten them in friendlies and qualifying games, but not in a game that actually mattered for a long, long time. So it was bound to be emotional.

It wasn’t during the match. When we scored my son jumped into my arms both times, but we just kind of jumped around screaming. There were no tears; not even hints of tears. Bizarrely though, after the match had finished and as the BBC pundits were reacting I found myself immersed in the moment and realising that I might cry.

I didn’t. I fought them back, but boy was it close! Proof once again that football, derided by many as boring, is actually powerful, thrilling, emotional and vital to some people.

So with another week to go I’m hoping for more excitement from the tournament. I feel sure we’ll get lots.

Oh and…COME ON, ENGLAND!

As always, I hope you enjoyed the blog. Feel free to leave a comment.

‘I got 99 (middle age) problems…’

My attention was caught early a few mornings ago as I got downstairs and opened the kitchen curtains. Sadly, it wasn’t some miracle of nature that greeted me. Nor was it the latest in a succession of bright summer days. No, it was a tarpaulin. And it was an immediate reminder of how taxing middle age has felt over the last few weeks. But we’ll have to come back to tantalising tales of tarpaulin later because it’s a bit down the list in terms of my recent middle age problems.

It’s been a busy few weeks. This time of year is always busy in our house as we have three birthdays and Father’s Day to contend with across June and July. And yes, I do mean contend with. None of it is hugely enjoyable due to the stress and the effort that comes with preparing for them. To clarify, Father’s Day isn’t stressful, but given that this year it was the day before my wife’s birthday, it did come accompanied with feelings of guilt!

This year my daughter is also off on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition in late June too and the sheer level of preparation needed for this has been ridiculous. It’d be a ridiculous amount of preparation if it was leading to her first attempt at scaling Everest, but she’s not attempting that just yet. Instead, it’s a hike from somewhere in Dewsbury to a mystery destination in Huddersfield, where the biggest danger they’re likely to face is the fact that it will probably rain all day and they might well moan each other to death.

Suffice to say, with two birthdays out of the way, I’m already knackered. I’m quite sure it wasn’t always like this. In my twenties and thirties I reckon I probably crammed more into life and bounced back twice as quick. Middle age is taking some getting used to.

Recently, the aches and pains have intensified. It’s strange because whenever I go our for a run I seem to manage just fine. We isolated during May and that made me a bit rusty for a while, but I was still able to get out and run a 10k fairly soon after. Standing around for any length of time though; that’s a different matter. When I coach my football team twice a week a lot of it sees me standing around and maybe punctuating this with a bit of shouting perhaps a quick demonstration of what I want to happen next. But mostly, it’s standing around. So why does the next day always, without fail hurt so much? I’ll tell you why. Middle age problems. I genuinely think it’s my body just seizing up.

The same has happened with work. I’ve been a teacher for over twenty years now, so I’m used to whatever gets thrown at me. And for a long time, I’ve coped fairly well. I’ve rarely been ill and despite the highly stressed environment I’ve not quite lost my mind.

Summer term is always difficult. It seems to take an entire decade to pass for starters. And then you have to factor in things like end of year assessments and the cavalcade of fun that is getting a year 11 class ready for their final exams. In my thirties we also had the added bonus of getting coursework ready, but although it was tiring work I always managed. And then Year 11 would leave, you’d have extra time on your hands and you’d enjoy a well earned rest. Goodness me, many moons ago I wrote an entire manuscript for a book using Year 11 time once they’d left and still didn’t really feel it!

This present summer term feels like it might kill me off. For the past few mornings I’ve woken up confused, grumpy and feeling like my head had been packed full of cotton wool. Or soup. Or cotton wool soaked in soup. Either way, it’s showing that middle age isn’t being overly kind to me. I seem to be waking up, barely able to walk let alone make breakfast. Tying my tie is taking longer as I struggle to get the length just right; something I’ve been doing for work for about the last 25 years. I even forgot to make my dinner last night and had to stand making sandwiches at 7.15 the next morning instead. And all the while, I’m just waiting for students to start asking, “Can we just watch a film?” as the end of the school year plods ever closer. I mean three weeks to go is close enough for us to get started on watching films, right? Hmmm…

I can see the faint glow of retirement somewhere on the horizon, but I’m not sure I can make it that far! And that’s a real middle age problem. I think that my body is ready to give up work, but it’s arrived at that particular station at least a decade too early! And at the moment it feels like my brain’s not that far behind it. Life’s not fair sometimes.

Lately middle age has reached my eyes as well. I’ve had glasses for a couple of years now, but not always needed to wear them. Recently though we’ve reached crisis point. As a teacher, some of my job involves reading and it’s not been an entirely lovely surprise to find that I often can’t read the words in a book without my glasses on anymore. The same applies when reading the paper. And is it a middle age thing that means my eyes don’t wake up at the same time as the rest of my body?

Middle age problems have led to a new set of situations as well. My parents – both well out of middle age and into the category of ancient relics – have been preparing their wills of late. This has meant that myself and my sister have been called upon to sign the forms giving us Power of Attorney (I don’t know whether grammatically that needs capitals, but in terms of how adult and grandiose it sounds, it’s getting them). I’ve never felt so old and it was all I could do not to phone home and plead with them not to give their son this responsibility as he still has the same mind he had aged 17.

It’s obviously led to lots of thoughts about things I didn’t really want to think about, but it’s made me feel especially old too. And despite being fully aware of exactly how old I am, I haven’t felt grown up enough for it at all!

I’ll end on a lighter note and return to this morning’s tarpaulin. Tonight my daughter is having a birthday meal with friends and then afterwards they’re heading back to ours for a little gathering in our back garden. You’d think that was simple, wouldn’t you? Well no. No, it’s not. The discussions alone have left me on the edge! She’s requested alcohol, which isn’t strictly legal, but understandable. And they don’t want to drink until they pass out; just a couple of drinks each. But the thought of my daughter drinking has only helped the middle age fatigue and dread!

Then there has been the planning. Oh, the planning. Snacks to suit all dietary needs – 104 different ones and counting, I think – , where they’ll sit, what they’ll sit on, play lists, volume of said play lists, a table for drinks because the table in the garden is what they’ll be sitting around, not what a selection of drinks and snacks should go on (don’t ask, me neither), the neighbours and then finally, as if all of that wasn’t quite enough to induce some kind of middle aged nervous breakdown where I walk out and just sit on a roundabout for the next three hours, the Great British Weather popped up. Hence the tarpaulin, which presently covers our garden furniture but later will be involved in an almighty struggle with this middle aged grump so that I can erect a makeshift shelter in case of rain!

My 18-year-old self, full of hopes and dreams, wouldn’t believe it. My 30 year old self would have taken it in his stride. My 49-year-old self is only prevented from chopping up the garden furniture to make a bonfire by his ever aching limbs and the fact that he’d most likely lose a finger or two in the chopping due to the fact that his eyes are failing too.

Poetry Blog: Around Town

This is a poem that was prompted on an early morning run. I’d already written a poem about this particular sensation – being sweaty and knackered in the freezing cold of a winter’s morning – before, so although the idea was there, the concept was not.

I’ve taken it upon myself to take photos while I’m running. We have a number of lovely old building in Morley and it’s the ideal time to take photos of them when the place is deserted. But it seemed a bit of a waste just to stick them on a Facebook post about how far I’d ran and how tired I was.

In time, I thought I might start writing the odd blog about some of the different places in and around the place I live. The sign as you drive up to Morley has us billed as a ‘Historic Market Town’ so I wondered what mileage there’d be in writing about some of the places I found interesting.

My poem – ‘Around Town’ was more just about observations of what was going on as I ran past. While I was running around the town where I live as it was waking up, it felt like the perfect time to be viewing it. It’s quiet, yet in little pockets of town, busy all at the same time. Needless to say it put lots of ideas into my head as I ran.

Around Town

The vitality of the bright sunshine and the stillness of the hour
mean that town looks different today.
Sounds different too.

The solitude is punctuated by a few hardy souls
setting up for the day, their moods bouyed by the
immediacy of the light, the warmth of the air.

The majesty of the town hall is amplified tenfold
by a peerless blue sky that frames it perfectly
as the clock tower stretches like Icarus for the sun.

Elsewhere vans decant high viz clad bodies
to breathe new life into decadent old buildings,
boosting the heartbeat of the place where we live.

Further out of town, the cricket club looks primed for action,
as if everything has had a scrub and a fresh coat of paint,
yet because of the hour, not a soul treads the outfield.

In the park early morning dogwalkers amble
to start their day; no one commutes, but a 
light breeze rustles through the blossom, to remind us that it's there.

Emerging through the gates and onto the main drag 
that acts as a spine between two busy towns, 
reality bites and the slumber of the silence is smashed.

Down the hill home beckons.
Soon, outside will be swapped for in and the day will begin again.
Different sights, different sounds, same town, different life around town.

A few things to point out about the poem. Firstly, everybody’s town looks better in the sunshine and of course an early morning brings a quiet that won’t last. I was getting at the different feel of a place in the early morning sun as well though, with that first stanza.

I had to mention the Town Hall as it’s a place I regularly run past and it is an amazing old building. That’s it in the photo at the start of the blog. Furthermore though, it’s what prompted me to think about an About Town blog as mentioned at the start of this one. I think lockdown opened my eyes to quite a bit about the town where I live. I was able to explore and exploit the largely empty streets and discovered not only lovely buildings, but lots of completely unexpected things like a miniature railway covering someone’s entire back garden (which was massive, by the way). These are the kinds of things I look for now when I’m running, not least because they take my mind off feeling tired!

With both the cricket club and the park that are mentioned, it’s surprising how close they are to a major road. And yet, both have a feeling of peace to them, not only in the early morning. They make running around town quite a lovely thing to do.

I hope you enjoyed reading and as ever, would love to hear what you thought. Feel free to leave a comment and, if you’re feeling relaxed like I was running around in the early morning, you might be kind enough to let someone else know about the blog!

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 2

I cannot express my love for tournament football strongly enough. The sheer joy of watching several games in a day or even the challenge of trying to keep up with the events of a 2pm kick off while you’re still at work; I’m not sure it can be beaten. Whether it can or it can’t – seriously, it can’t – here’s my latest Euro 2020 Diary and some observations I’ve made over the last week or so.

  1. England v Scotland was as frustrating as ever. So much ground to cover here. Let’s start with the fact that it was an awful game and that much of the blame here lies with England. We were truly awful, although if you’re looking for plus points, we gave a masterclass in sideways passing. So if UEFA can tweak the laws of the game to include two new goals at either side of the pitch, we’re in business and that long wait for success might just be over.

Other observations? Harry Kane might be pregnant; certainly his movement is that of someone not far off giving birth. England fans seem incapable of providing an atmosphere unless it’s via social media and Gareth Southgate’s coat was horrendous. In fact his whole sense of style suggests he’s discovered a time portal that allows him to visit C&A back in about 1985. (C&A was a fashion retailer way back when, notorious for terrible clothes). I never imagined I’d long for the return of the World Cup waistcoat.

2. The Fourth Official in the England v Scotland game had a look of Alan Shearer about him. Except no one in our house agreed. And we still couldn’t win. Look at him though…definitely a hint of Shearer.

3. I love the concept of different host cities across Europe. I’ll be honest, when I first heard of this I thought it was a terrible idea dreamed up by an idiot. The kind of thing that gets dreamed up in education while I sit there thinking, that’s awful, who’s going to go for that before hearing that everyone else loves it. However – unlike in education – it works. Who knew Baku was such a great place and had such an ace stadium? Seeing the Allianz Arena in Munich on TV gave me a real kick as I’d been there myself. And did you know that there’s a railway in Budapest that – apart from the train driver – is run by children? I mean, apart from the fact that the stadium there has been full for games and it’s looked and sounded incredible, it’s got a railway run by kids!

Then you’ve got Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Glasgow, London, Rome, St. Petersburg and Seville – an incredibly diverse selection of European cities. And let’s face it, this could be done every four years for the tournament with a fresh selection of cities each time, without it ever becoming dull. Covid allowing, this is definitely one to add to my ‘To-Do’ list; even if it meant experiencing the inevitable disappointment of following England, I think it’d be quite something to do in a few different cities. In fact, it’d possibly be even better just going to games that didn’t involve England, just to enjoy the cities!

4. I’ve started writing Euro Poetry! As anyone who puts themselves through the chore of reading my blog regularly will know, I write a bit of poetry as well, usually publishing it as a blog. Well, I’ve just started writing some poems inspired by the Euros. It started because the whole Denmark story just felt very inspirational, so I wrote a poem about what they’d gone through – players, staff and nation – and the somewhat glorious outcome. After that things just spiraled and I wrote more and more. So I’ll be putting them on the site soon and hopefully I’ll be able to write some more as well.

5. I wonder if other nations cheer so much for the underdog. In the UK, it’s well documented that we love an underdog story. In football, every year produces several underdog stories as David meets Goliath (if you’re reading outside of the UK, neither David or Goliath are actual teams) in the FA Cup and we adore it. At the Wimbledon tennis championship, where British success has depended on Andy Murray for far too long, we’re used to cheering for our underdogs.

At any major football tournament smaller nations have a habit of capturing our imagination. But it has made me wonder if other nations do the same. Are the Germans willing Finland on? Do the Spanish cheer for plucky Wales? Are there Argentinians watching Rwanda in the World Cup, desperate for them to do well? And are the Italians hungry for Hungary?

The obvious underdog story during this tournament has been Denmark and it’s reduced me to tears as well as having me jumping around my front room, fists pumping and cheering like a lunatic. It’s not my nation and I have no known connection. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Similarly, I’ve been desperate for North Macedonia to do well. Again, no connection, just a need to see the underdog give the big boys a tough time.

Tournament football always produces underdogs. Indeed this very tournament has been won by underdogs over the years with Denmark and Greece springing to mind. They are part of the fabric of the sport and I don’t think I’ll ever stop taking an interest.

As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article. As the group stages end we move on to the knockout stages of the Euros. I can’t wait and I’ll look forward to finding more to write about.