The Brighter Side of Lockdown

Always Look On The Bright Side Sticker For Social Media Content ...

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Coronavirus has changed the way that we all live. It will, I imagine, change our lifestyles for a long time to come too. Here in the UK, we’ve been locked down, witnessed food (and toilet roll) shortages due to panic buying on a mass scale and queues to get into the supermarket, clapped in unison to show some kind of appreciation for the NHS and watched news bulletins in horror as the death toll rose from dozens to hundreds and into the thousands. We’ve also learnt a new world – furlough (And I refuse to believe you if you’re telling me you knew what it meant before this point in history)!

Lockdown has brought strain on families all over the planet and we’ve had to find new ways to ease our mental stress. Me? I’ve taken to sneaking off from the stress if need be. Sometimes I’ll simply retire to one of my kids’ bedrooms to read or quietly head outside into the garden to escape the arguments or the tension. Just don’t tell anyone! Stealth, that’s the key.

Away from missing family, friends, socialising, normality, pubs, restaurants, regular haircuts and all manner of other downsides, lockdown has had its plus points. There have been shards of light in amongst the dark of the chaos. So I thought I’d try for a bit of a list of some of the highlights of lockdown. The brighter side of the gloom, if you like.

First up in a list with no particular order, is a Twitter hashtag that has become something of a phenomenon. Let me do my best to explain. Tim Burgess is the legendary frontman with the British band The Charlatans. If you know of the band or have encountered Tim in any way, you’ll know that he’s simply a lovely chap and that The Charlatans are a fantastic band. Tim says he started the listening parties because he was struggling to write songs and since then it’s just grown and grown.

So what happens? Well, an album is chosen to be played and at a specified time, if you want to, you play it and listen along. Everyone listens together and if you want to comment on Twitter you just add the hashtag and post. The added bonus is that there will always be one of the artists responsible joining in and posting comments and anecdotes about the album as it plays. Genius really! A simple idea, but one that’s pretty much guaranteed to lift your spirits.

So far we’ve had artists from Blur and Oasis to Sleaford Mods, Orbital, The Hold Steady, Grandaddy, Glavegas and Aztec Camera. There’s always a diverse mix and on almost any night of the week you can find something that takes your interest. In terms of lockdown positives, it’s certainly up there with the best of them. I’ve ‘taken part’ in quite a few now and it’s a brilliant alternative to what have become lockdown staples such as sitting reading or just finding myself slumped in front of the TV again! It’s amazing what hearing an album in this context can do for your frame of mind and sharing your experiences or views on tracks is a brilliant way of listening. If you haven’t joined the movement, but fancy a go, go to http://www.timstwitterlisteningparty.com or follow @Tim_Burgess for updates to see if there’s anything that piques your interest!

I’ve wanted to listen to podcasts for some time now. However, a busy lifestyle combined with my luddite outlook on technology has left me extremely far behind. Now though, with added time on my hands and in the midst of the battle against boredom, I went and did a bit of reading in order to find out more about something that I’d actually discovered years ago. Turns out it’s been there, more or less at the click of a button, all this time!

So what have I been listening too? Well, being obsessed with football, I’ve been focusing there really. As a Newcastle fan it’s been interesting to tune into the ‘All With Smiling Faces’ podcast as well as The Athletic’s Newcastle focused effort, ‘Pod on The Tyne’. At the moment the club is in the process of hopefully being taken over by incredibly wealthy people and the boost to the local area as well as to the club itself have given the pod participants a lot to talk about. It’s intriguing also to listen for any insight anyone might be able to give on the aforementioned takeover.

I’ve also caught up with some of the very popular ‘That Peter Crouch Podcast’. As well as being something of a popular cult figure in Premier League history, Mr. Crouch is also a very funny man and his podcasts have been really entertaining, giving some light relief in these rather dark times. And then there’s the Match of The Day Top Ten podcasts, featuring Gary Lineker, Ian Wright and the greatest striker of them all, Alan Shearer.

My final podcast port of call so far has been Bob Mortimer’s brilliant ‘Athletico Mince’. What started off as a football podcast has now metamorphosed into something far more surreal. Listening to characters like the Alderman and Barry C Homeowner has definitely livened up my mornings and if you like a laugh, I’d definitely recommend it.

As lockdown enters whatever week it might now be – I’ve lost count – I’ll be searching out more podcasts to listen to. I mean, having spent years thinking that they were beyond my technological know-how, this particular gift still has a lot to give!

Curiously, for a teacher, I’ve found that home-schooling has been a highlight of my time spent in isolation. It’s not all been plain-sailing, but I’ve really enjoyed the adventure so far. I’ve mainly worked with my son, as my high school age daughter has been getting lessons sent through remotely, and dipping my teaching toe into the primary world has been quite illuminating. Suddenly finding myself faced with the kind of grammar tasks that I haven’t had to tackle in years has been a bit of a re-education in itself. As well as my actual subject – English – I’ve been teaching him History and Geography as well as learning Spanish with him via the Duolingo app. How’s the Spanish going, you say? Muy bueno, pero tengo un blog para escribir. (Very good, but I have a blog to write!)

Without such variety to my day I’m not sure I’d have been half as happy during lockdown. The draw of the TV is still strong in our house and that’s before you even think about social media. But no doubt, without home-schooling, I’d have been slumped in an armchair for far too long each day and possibly piling on the pounds!

Another lockdown highlight is linked to home-schooling and is also something that I’ve blogged about previously. I’m back on to talking about The Bodycoach, Joe Wicks, I’m afraid! Since the closure of schools I’ve completed a Joe Wicks workout on every weekday. As I write, that’s 44 workouts on the trot! (Update – I completed my 50th on Friday). I’ve surprised myself by how much I’ve enjoyed it. Some days it hurts and then on other days, it feels relatively easy. But I enjoy every one of them and once it’s done I’m finding that I’m set for the rest of the day and in general, feeling pretty positive.

I’ve been introduced to a whole new world and a whole new language too. While I knew of the horror of burpees from my school days, exercises and labels like Spiderman lunges, duck walks, up down planks and bicycle crunches have all been a revelation to me. Every morning I tune into YouTube at 9am and throw myself into whatever workout Joe decides upon. As I do it I’m scanning his front room for the Spot The Difference competition and wracking my brain to come up with the answers in the quiz. In short, I’m having loads of fun.

We’re into our 10th week of #PEWithJoe now and, as I’ve stated before in blogs, I’m just as determined as ever to keep going and get extremely fit. In the recent past I’ve suffered with a heart problem and so, as well as the virus, I feel like I’m fighting just to enjoy a better quality of life. The fitter I am, the better.

I’m seeing my body change shape too. Having winced at photos of me from past beach holidays, sporting more of a beer gut than I allowed myself to admit to, it’s miraculous to see actual stomach muscles emerging. Especially for a man of my age! Even my legs are getting bigger, which as someone who’d accepted his pipe cleaners as being as good as they were ever going to get, well it’s amazing. PEWithJoe, and on a few occasions with his wife Rosie and young kids, has been a real game changer for me and it’s safe to see that this highlight of lockdown has left me fitter, stronger and happier.

As dull as it’s been at times, I can’t deny that lockdown has left me with a lot of time on my hands. Even factoring in the time spent doing actual work, I’ve still had time to do lots of great things. And the bonus has been how simple they’ve been.

Initially, we were blessed with great weather. And so, in a flurry of activity I found myself regularly out in the back garden wielding a paintbrush and a pot of fence paint. In no time at all, my fence panels were looking shiny and new and my sheds were painted beautifully. Then it was time to start on the garden furniture, which was all sanded down ready to paint within days. My biggest error was to then switch my attention to the garden as several weeks later the furniture is still patiently awaiting a wax and probably needs to be sanded and washed again as a result! I’ll say it again though, time is something I’ve got lots of.

Having time on my hands has proved dangerous as well though. Not only have I written some very silly poetry, but I’ve also finally been able to find time to film videos; one of me reading one of my poems and the other a parody video of a teacher character that I’d written stuff for a while ago. The response has been great, to be fair, but I’m almost ashamed – again, as a man of my age – to say I’m spent hours filing videos of myself essentially messing about! Good fun though! And even though views were relatively modest in number, it was nice to see people sharing the poetry video and commenting on the fact that they’d really enjoyed it. I mean, everybody likes an ego boost, right?

Another brilliant development in lockdown has been the amount of time I’ve found to just read. It sounds nothing special, but it’s been genuinely refreshing. Usually, with a busy work and family life to contend with reading is literally squeezed in to merely a few minutes of the day. It’s not uncommon for me to be grabbing the opportunity to read a couple of paragraphs at a time. And I’m a big reader, always have been. So it’s been painful to watch as my ‘to-read’ pile has increased to around 5 boxes worth of books. However, I’ve always loved the look of books and even the feel of them in my hands. As a kid, when the other kids were out socialising and just generally being popular if I wasn’t playing football, I could generally be found in our local library, unless I was in the nearby record store! It’s terrifically sad, I know!

The last 8 or 9 weeks have meant that in the time it usually takes me to read one book, I must have read around 4 or 5. And my pile of newspapers and magazines has reduced dramatically too. I can’t begin to express how much of a luxury it is to have a spare half hour to just lie on our bed and read a book! It’s certainly made to being largely confined to the house a great deal more tolerable!

There’s no doubt that during the times that we’re all currently living through it’s important to try and find the positives. I’m usually quite a cynical person and definitely not an advocate of the idea that we should all be out relaxing and taking time to smell the flowers or putting candles on while we have a rose petal filled bath. However, I’ve found that lockdown has at least allowed me to pause a bit and in a strange way, enjoy life away from the pressures of work and deadlines and a hectic schedule. In the midst of a global pandemic, maybe just staying alive is really quite enough.

Another poetry blog – from sheds to ducks. The natural next step.

Another poem from my Lockdown Literature group today. This one came about around the start of lockdown, when it was all new and in a way, quite exciting. You know, despite the terror and all that less exciting stuff?

I’d noticed lots of people on Facebook and Twitter posting stuff about nature ‘returning’ and it made me chuckle a little bit. Especially the really earnest ones where people were claiming that nature was re-claiming the streets or teaching us a lesson because, as humans, we’d got it all wrong. It was none of this. Animals have been adapting to their surroundings for longer than we care to imagine. Most likely it was just that things were quieter and animals had noticed and got a bit bolder about where they were wandering and when. Lots of people seemed to be reacting quite hysterically and yet the only evidence I’d seen at the time was the video of some pigs walking through the streets of Bergamo in Italy.

We have bird feeders at the back of our garden in the trees and while we were probably seeing more birds than usual, I was yet to see an eagle, a condor or a Terrahawk (I know that they’re fictional by the way – that was the joke). Admittedly I’d gained a rat in my shed (sadly for comedy purposes, not my kitchen), but other than that, nature was definitely not trying to teach me a lesson by parading up and down our road. And so, I began to think about how ridiculous the posts could get and whether people might start to outdo each other. From this came the poem that follows.

Guess who’s back?

It started with those cute pigs in Bergamo.
There were probably some ducks somewhere as well. There’s always ducks.

And then…

A giraffe stooping to get into Bargain Booze,
An ostrich in Hyde Park singing the blues,
An antelope out for a jog,
A lion combing his mane with a perplexed hedgehog,
A wombat on a BMX giving a backa to a pikachu and the pikachu’s listening to DMX and just staring hard at you.
Nature’s back.

In the park, after dark there’s a gathering of starlings,
They’re meeting up with collared doves and riding penny farthings.
Nature’s back. And it’s brought hipsters.

Foxes sketching landscapes while hunt beagles go climbing at Go Ape.
And of course, there’s meerkats trying to sell you insurance while panda bears do triathlons to test their bear endurance.
Out the window there’s more nature hourly,
We’ve even had a brontosaurus in our cul-de-sac in Morley…

While we’re locked down, sick with cabin fever ready to attack,
Comfort yourselves folks, nature’s very definitely back.

Apologies if you find that one a little bit cynical. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, by July we’ll be overrun with wildlife carrying placards and marching through our city centres declaring that the humans should be made to pay! Maybe wildfowl will start looting supermarkets and electrical wholesalers after hours and setting light to stuff. And then I’ll be sorry, won’t I?

Anyway, I hope you like my silly poem. Feel free to drop me a comment or click the Like button. And if you really like your literature with a large helping of nonsense, the feel free to Follow. Thanks for reading!

 

 

X-Box, YouTube edits, Minecraft? Sorry, I’m just not game.

I’m starting to think I’m living in the wrong house. The more I hear the shouting, the stamping and watch the levels of concentration and frustration that go into looking at a mobile phone, the more I feel like an alien in my own home.

So what’s the problem? Has lockdown found us out? Are me and the wife no longer compatible after 25 years together and has everything just run its natural course? Have my children decided they want a cooler, younger dad and have I decided that, in fact, I just don’t really like them? Have they been mixing with the wrong crowd? Do they all resent my accent, my north-east roots and my football team?

Well, although my daughter especially would like a younger, cooler dad, the answer is no. In fact, it’s just a question of creativity and a difference of interests. There’s no major crisis; a marriage won’t end, there’s lots of love still to share and I’ll be dadding around these parts for a while yet. It’s just that I don’t understand all this gaming and YouTubing!

While I don’t live in a house of what you’d call obsessive gamers it’s fair to say that the other three occupants (wife and two children) play their fair share of games. My son especially, is worryingly keen on his X-Box. He’s ten and into things like Minecraft and Roblox, as well as being a fan of FIFA. My wife, while also enjoying the odd game on X-Box, is far more likely to be found scrolling around and tapping away on her phone playing Hay Day or word games, while my daughter is obsessed with making video edits. None of this makes any sense to me.

I think I probably gave up all things game related in my twenties. At that time I was hooked on Football Manager and would gladly spend hours buying and selling players and taking teams from non league through to European glory. I would spend so long playing, sometimes into the early hours, that it would cause arguments. And it became a real bone of contention in my relationship. So I stopped. Simple. I still have the odd urge to play, especially when a friend mentions the game, but I know that the demands on my time really won’t allow. And dabbling with such addiction is a dangerous game to play.

It’s not, however, the act of playing the game or making the video that I don’t understand. It’s the games and videos themselves. I don’t know as much about the kind of video edits that my daughter makes, so can’t really comment in any detail. I will though, of course! I’ve watched them and they made me feel unnaturally old! Images were cut together so quick that I couldn’t really tell what was going on, let alone see the point. The gaming however, is another matter.

The first thing that strikes me when I watch my son playing Minecraft or Roblox is just how primitive it looks. In an age where computer graphics look like scenes from life itself, these games are put together with blocks and they look like the kind of graphics and games I grew up with. But I can get over that. The thing that really puzzles me is what he’s actually meant to be doing.

Socially, it’s a nice thing, really. He’s there, headset on, controller gripped tightly, conversing with several friends and rampaging through some kind of landscape. But why? From what I can gather, on Minecraft if he’s not building something, he’s killing something. Unless of course he’s just running away from something that’s trying to kill him. And then there’s the fact that sometimes one of his friends might just try to destroy the thing he’s built, because that’s funny right? Nope, you’ve lost me. It’s like getting some IKEA furniture, but with added – and made up – jeopardy.

Then there’s Roblox, which seems to have several hundred different varieties of game to it. Sometimes he’s in a world – building, of course – while trying to find other gangs’ eggs and break them. Egg Wars, apparently. No, really. He’s just running around trying to smash eggs. He’ll be simultaneously trying to keep his own eggs alive. At other times he’s earning money to buy cars and then drive them down a hill, in what seems to be a huge garage, and crash them into the wall at the end. His character will just bounce out of the wreckage ready to do it all again. I’ve stood and watched this, transfixed, for a good quarter of an hour, and nothing changes. Drive, crash, drive, crash ad infinitum. I don’t understand. I watch, waiting for something to happen and yet it just doesn’t. And he keeps on doing it like it’s the greatest thing man has ever discovered. Weird. I usually walk off feeling like I might be going mad.

And then there’s the noise. The gaming noise. We have a wooden floor in our living room and when he’s playing X-Box the noise is just incredible. He doesn’t seem to be able to stand still. If his character is moving then so is he. Literally bouncing around the room, thudding off the floor with every step. While he’s doing this he’s invariably shouting nonsense into his headset’s microphone. Sometimes it’s sentences, commands, sometimes it’s just words, but more often than not it’s simply tortured noises. Like someone’s invited a zombie or a bear into the house. Or a zombified bear. Recently I made a video – a poetry reading – and while it wasn’t something deadly serious that I was doing, I didn’t want peoples’ main reaction having watched to have been wondering about phoning Childline because someone in Graham’s house was torturing a child or an animal. But despite the fact that I was in another room, and the fact that he’d been asked to try and keep the noise down for just a few minutes, there he was “Nnnnnghhhh”ing and “Aaaaaarrrgggghhhh”ing on in the background.

My eldest child also baffles me with her gaming choices. She’s a fairly avid player of the game BitLife, a life simulator where the aim appears to be to become a model citizen. Because of course actual life – not a simulation – is simply not enough when you’re thirteen. Again, I just don’t get it. She seems to spend her time on it aiming to become anything but a model citizen. If she’s not telling me that she’s got eight children by seven different dads, then she’s declaring that she’s lost her job or some other worryingly negative achievement, like having mudered someone. This is literally always accompanied by a huge grin.

I suppose some of the attraction here comes from the fact that teenagers need to feel more grown up. And we all wanted that when we were younger. Maybe BitLife should add a paying your Council Tax section or a ‘the top of the tap’s come off in the bathroom and there’s water everywhere’ bit. Add some more of the humdrum of actual real life in and let’s see how attractive it all is then!

Her other obsession is with video editing. Now I totally see the point here. It’s creative, it’s a skill that may well be useful in later life and given that she’s quite artistic it serves to sate some of that appetite. But then I watch some of her videos and I’m absolutely lost. When she was a lot younger they used to just be her dancing and flicking her hair to music. Not exactly interesting, but harmless all the same. And also ones to use during the Father of the Bride speech at any future wedding that she may have.

Nowadays, she seems to specialise in pictures of celebrities edited together with captions and music. People actually watch them! She’s also edited stuff together about celebrity news stories. And when I say celebrities, I mean absolute talentless nonentities. I watch them and, as well as being disorientated by the speed of the edits, I’m utterly puzzled as to who these people are. I never recognise anyone! My daughter just laughs at her middle-aged dad, face screwed up in concentration and failing to see the point, once again.

Lastly, we come to my wife; also a bit of a gamer. Now some of the time she plays what she calls ‘educational games’; things where you have to make words or do a bit of maths. She’s also topping up her German language skills via Duolingo. All fair enough. However, then we come to some of the other games that she plays. (And reading this back, that’s quite the terrifying sentence about one’s wife).

Now, to be fair, she plays each of the following games with one of our children. So, it’s a nice thing to do. A parent playing with their children. No problem. Until of course you look at the details.

I shouldn’t have a problem with this gaming. I could easily go somewhere else and do something else. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But in our house, that’s impossible, because gaming tends to take the form of sitting in the front room, using the big TV, clutching a controller while shouting at the other person in the room. Teamwork, in our house, certainly does not make the dream work. I have never heard arguments like these. Just the other afternoon, I had to stop making a series of work-related phone calls such was the noise below me in our front room. At one point, as one player let the other down and probably got them into a position where death was the only outcome possible, there was the most blood-curdling scream I think I’ve ever heard. I gave it a few more minutes and then just gave up. No one’s actually listening to what you’re saying when there might be a serial killer at work in the background.

The games have no appeal to me whatsoever. One of them is a Jurassic Park game – I have no idea which one. I watched them play a little bit of it just the other day and after a while just had to walk off bewildered, as usual. For a good ten minutes all they did was manoeuvre a jeep around a landscape – probably called Jurassic Park now I come to think of it – before stopping to take pictures of dinosaurs. It seems to be that these photos could be ‘sold’ for money in the game, but as far as I could tell no one had any idea what constituted a good photograph and thus the value of them just kept coming up way short of what was needed. What a waste of time and effort.

Next, we have two more games – Plants vs Zombies and Garden Warfare II. (I had to ask for the names, by the way – as if I would’ve known about the existence of Garden Warfare, let alone the follow up!) Now, I’ll confess, I don’t know what the latter one is. But a part of me hopes it’s the battle to get plants in to the garden in order to annoy your neighbours. The other one is simply plants fighting zombies. They seem to just take a side and then shoot at each other. Again, it usually involves my wife and son and again, more than anything, it seems to just be a case of screaming at each other for doing it wrong. Meanwhile, a zombie has just killed one or both of them. Now maybe I’m too practical, but when I see them playing it I just can’t get past the fact that plants can’t run around and zombies don’t actually exist, and that even if they did I’m not sure they could fire a gun.

I suppose this just shows that, in terms of games and gaming I’m very much a fish out of water. This often leads to our front room being very much a no-go zone for me. Really, I shouldn’t criticise as in a way the gaming that goes on in my house is just another form of creativity. It could be worse. The rest of them could all hate football or music and then I’d be truly lost. So, I can be thankful that it’s just a small difference. That said, I don’t think it’ll ever be a world that I really set foot in. And that includes as a plant, zombie or a strange figure made up entirely of squares.

Book Review: ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ by Jon Ronson

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Public shaming is big business these days. I don’t mean in financial terms, but in terms of there being a huge amount of it; an appetite for it that is in some cases insatiable. Everybody seems to be at it. Be it disguised as so-called banter or outright abuse, people are into shaming others left, right and centre. On the likes of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook it seems the keyboard warriors are constantly waiting to hurt someone. Gone are the days of writing to your MP or the classic ‘Dear BBC…’ letter. Nowadays, what starts as a throw away remark often ends with the person doing the typing being hunted down and targeted with the most vile abuse. If you’re name is trending on Twitter, It’s generally not a good thing. In all likelihood, you’d better watch out.

Ronson tackles internet shaming by exploring life changing stories where a mixture of public figures and everyday people have made what they thought was the right decision or simply a silly joke before finding themselves the target of hideous abuse. It might have been a photo or an ill-judged remark, but it opened up a whole new negative world to the person who pressed ‘Tweet’ or ‘send’. While I was fully aware of the existence of the so-called internet trolls, I didn’t realise that there were entire communities of them, getting together online to, in a sense, hunt people down. And while some victims of such trolling are really quite deserving, Ronson focuses, on the whole, on far more innocent victims.

‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ explores a decidedly dark world and is a well written investigation by an intrepid, determined writer. Ronson doesn’t judge. He is reflective about the problems encountered and about how he himself has reacted to such mistakes in the past. For him, people make mistakes and it’s important that we aren’t too quick to judge too harshly.

Throughout the book we are introduced to people like Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco and an IT worker called ‘Hank’ (not his real name); all in many ways ordinary people with one thing in common. They’d made a mistake. Some of their mistakes were more honest than others and all probably deserved some kind of condemnation. However, all of their mistakes would change their lives beyond recognition. All would be publicly shamed in the most horrible of ways. They would be threatened. They would be horrendously abused. They would be left to pick up the pieces of their lives, jobless and hopeless in some cases because of an ill-judged joke or a photograph.

‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ is a harrowing read at times. You wonder what you’d do and how you’d feel in the position of someone like Lindsey Stone, who posted a photo taken by her friend, explaining ‘It’s just us being douchebags’ only to find herself jobless and quickly on the end of a nationwide hate campaign. I mean, we’ve all posted photos and remarks while thinking pretty much the same, right? The book gives us an insight into a side of society that many of us may not have known existed. The terror created by online shaming sites is laid bare, making this an incredibly interesting, enjoyable and thought provoking read.

In the end Ronson himself is the victim of a public shaming, giving the book an extra sense of authenticity and leaving the reader in no doubt whatsoever that no one is immune to the phenomenon of public shaming. This is an excellent book and a compelling read. It may not be for the faint-hearted, especially if you’re a regular Twitter user, but I’d thoroughly recommend that you pick it up and give it a go.

Verdict – I’d give ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ 4 out of 5 stars!

 

Lockdown Literature – my stab at a poetry blog.

 

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Shortly after our state of lockdown was declared I received an invitation to join a group on Facebook. A friend of mine – Helen, an Art teacher – was setting up a creative group for people to post their art work. It seemed a good way to help squash lockdown boredom and I had been fairly keen to start sketching again for quite a while. My daughter is a gifted artist as well, so I thought it would be nice to post some of her stuff. I could also involve the kids through Art lessons during home schooling. So off I went…

A couple of days later and having watched numerous people posting their artwork I had an idea for a literature version of the group. If people were avidly sharing their drawing and painting, surely I could get some to post poems and writing in my own group. After consulting my friend Laura about whether it was a good idea, I formed the group, invited a ton of friends and Lockdown Literature was born.

It had been a while since I’d written any poetry, but the group inspired me. It wasn’t long before I was being kept awake by ideas and lines from potential poems.

It was on the very afternoon that the group was formed, while pegging my washing out on the line in the sun, I found myself staring at the behemoth in my neighbour’s garden. Bigger, cleaner, tidier, better than mine. What I then wrote has no intellectual value whatsoever. There is no literary genius here or any great amount of thought. It’s not any kind of metaphor for anything else, just a poem about sheds and me feeling a bit jealous. The result of my envy – a silly, sarcastic and frankly daft poem – is below.

My Neighbour’s Shed

My neighbour’s shed has electric lighting.
It has those plastic boxes on the wall containing nails, screws, hooks and all manner of shediphanalia.

My shed is packed with football gear.
It’s a mess and makes me feel like a total shed failure.

My neighbour’s shed contains a high-viz jacket.
Placed neatly round he has a vice, a work bench, a grinder, a sander and drills, drills, drills aplenty.

My shed has some shelving full of spiders’ webs, grass seed, wild bird feed and a stain on the floor that’s a bit cementy.

My neighbour’s shed is a hive of activity – just like good sheds should be.
It’s been extended – by him, the smart arse – and it’s made safe by alarm led security.

My shed has bikes balanced on one wheel perilously, a lawn mower jammed underneath a Halfords roof box and it smells of whatever the opposite is of purity.

My neighbour’s shed is a lockdown dream. Clean, ordered and full of interesting tools. The biggest tool in my shed is undoubtedly me.

I hate my neighbour’s shed.

So, there you have it. My first poetry blog. I will post other poems and give people a little bit of insight into what I was thinking when I wrote them. I think I mainly write things that are supposed to be mildly amusing but some are actually quite serious! As for what I’ve just posted, I’d be interested to know what people think, so feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

How lockdown helped me contract the exercise bug.

It started, like many things do, with an idea that felt like a bit of a dream, especially given the chaos that was about to erupt. It turned out however, that one particular kind of chaos would be all of my own making. The chaos brought about by a gradual obsession with exercise. While avoiding the virus, I’ve caught the exercise bug.

Initially isolated and then days later placed in lockdown, I was intent on going for a run every few days. That was it; simple. Just the odd run to make myself feel a little bit better, gather my thoughts and cling on to my sanity. I hadn’t ran for a while – a combination of a busy schedule and the usual winter health issues taking their toll. Now, with possibly a huge amount of time on my hands I was going to exploit it and gradually get fit.

However, almost before the plan was hatched tendonitis in my achilles stopped me in my running tracks and so I resorted to walking. Easier on the body. On my first day of isolation, bored, determined to get exercise and feeling down about the fact that I couldn’t go to work, I walked for miles. My watch told me that by the end of the day I’d done just over 23,500 steps. My head told me I needed to calm down! The next day, a Thursday, I’d toned it down a bit and walked a little over 18,000, but this was still a ridiculous amount and I knew at the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up.

By the time Friday rolled around the Prime Minister was announcing that the country was going into lockdown and that schools would be closing. This would mean another change of plan. We were to be allowed out only for one exercise session per day and in my case that would have to be taken with the rest of my family. There would be no more walking around for hours. Instead, there would be a daily walk for an hour, close to home and spent in the midst of family bickering, most likely prompted by one of my children while almost certainly involving the other one and requiring one or both adults to referee. It seemed that the part of me that was going to get the most exercise would be my jaw and I could wave goodbye to any peace and quiet. This virus was going to test both my physical and metal health!

On the same day I made what could be a life-changing discovery. Perhaps ‘life-changing’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s definitely changed things for me, so you know, go along with my positivity here! I’ve already blogged a bit about this and also written a poem inspired by it as well, but in terms of this blog, it needs another mention. Or a paragraph or two.

Joe Wicks, otherwise known as The Body Coach, announced to the nation that as part of the home schooling effort in the UK he’d be taking a PE class via YouTube every morning from 9am. After a little hesitation I jumped in. I was going to have to home school my son anyway and so, #PEWithJoeWicks would become the start to our day. I never imagined I’d get so involved!

Since that first Monday I’ve taken part in the workout every day. As I write I’ve done 30 workouts, taking the weekends to rest. I’ve tried hard to be as strict as possible with the workouts too. Each exercise is done in 30 second bursts and so I make sure that I’m doing everything with maximum effort and not slacking off for the last few seconds in order to get an extended break in between. It would be easy at my age to just motor through things at half pace, blaming wear and tear on the joints and claiming to be looking after myself, but given that this may well represent the most dynamic I’m going to get in any given day, I’ve been making sure that I put in a lot of effort.

The exercises range from easy things like jogging on the spot or throwing 30 seconds worth of imaginary punches right through to planking, squat jumps and old school favourites like burpees. There’s also an element of fun brought into it, because after all, this is meant to be a kids’ PE lesson. And obviously fun is where I come into my own. Ahem.

It’s easy to see how Joe Wicks has made his fortune through exercise. Even when you take away the looks, the hair and the perfectly sculpted abs, there’s a lot left to admire. He’s enthusiasm personified for a start. Even when he’s telling you how sweaty and worn out he is he’ll be letting you know in the next breath how much he’s enjoying himself. And because he’s having fun, invariably we are too. It’s a relentless mantra – exercise is great, this is doing you good, stay positive! And if you’d told me before I’d tried it that I’d be smiling along with someone telling me this kind of thing and actually believing it as well, I’d have asked if you’d ever met me before. Exercise as fun wasn’t supposed to be my thing.

The actual exercises themselves are made fun too, although I’m never 100% convinced my legs are in agreement. When I’m doing kangaroo jumps while pretending to carry my imaginary joey or doing bunny hops with my hands on top of my head to represent my bunny ears, I must be enjoying it otherwise there’s no way in the world I’d bother with these extra details! My son Dylan, my regular exercise partner, certainly loves it as he’s often adding sound effects in as he goes! And we haven’t even got onto squats that lead into jumps where you shout out ‘Pikachu’ at its climax.

Like a lot of other people on lockdown I’ve stopped worrying about style and how I’m dressed. Nowadays, wearing jeans is classed as dressing up. I blame Joe Wicks as well. And while we’re on the subject I’ll be cutting my own hair soon as well, but I digress.

We do #PEWithJoe every morning at 9am. After that we continue our warm-down in the back garden with a little bit of football and by the time we finish that it’s usually around 10am. Then I’ll get changed. And this is where my style lockdown comes in. It just seems pointless changing out of shorts and some form of exercise top to get into jeans and maybe a t-shirt or a shirt. I know that I’ll be back out exercising or in the garden at some point during the day. And so, nowadays I just sling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, usually the type of thing that I wear for running. In other words, I’m almost permanently dressed in leisure wear these days. It’s bad enough that I’ve not worn a suit, a formal shirt or a tie in around a month due to not being in at work, but now, even a pair of jeans feels unnecessary. It seems like some form of exercise is always lurking just around the corner.

Our daily exercise isn’t just limited to a half hour workout in the morning though. Oh no, we’re going for gold in our house. Every day – and I mean every day – we subject ourselves to a three mile walk. Socially distant, of course, and just around the locality that we live in, but still it’s a daily three miles.

As a middle aged man three miles a day is quite the big ask. I’m 48 years old for goodness sakes! Less than 2 years ago I had heart surgery! But let’s trail ourselves around the local area for three miles per day. That’s over 20 miles a week!

To be fair, there are times when I love it. Everything feels good and it’s fantastic to be out in the fresh air. The weather has helped too. In our part of the U.K. we’ve been having wonderful weather – beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies – and so, to be out walking in it has been fantastic. But sadly, I’m getting no younger. For every night where I’m enjoying myself, there’s one where I am nothing short of knackered. We live in quite a hilly area and there are times, when stood at the bottom of an enormous hill, and my legs are like jelly before we’ve even moved. In my head I’m ranting – ‘Why the **** are we doing this?’ – but outwardly I’m smiling and insisting that everything’s fine and that I must have just overdone things earlier in the day. I’ve never failed to complete the distance, but I’ve lost count of the times where I’ve questioned my sanity! Still, at least I’m in good shape. Especially for a man of my now advancing years!

I know that the exercise bug has truly taken hold for another reason as well. Despite sticking strictly to lockdown conditions, I must admit that on several occasions recently I’ve considered getting up really early and sneaking out for a run. I stress that I haven’t done it, but it still feels like such a good idea. I imagine there’d be no one about, which in terms of running for me, is a really good thing. You see, I have a tendency to attract the attention of small dogs and on more than a few occasions have tumbled over them as they’ve jumped up at me. The last time saw me literally somersaulting through the air and left me battered and bruised, so avoiding that particular type of thing has real appeal. But as much as more exercise is a temptation, I know I’ll be avoiding it. Better to be slightly less fit than catch the virus because of my own stupidity. Or take a tumble while trying to avoid yappy dogs.

So lockdown, despite its very obvious drawbacks has had its benefits. I’ve become more obsessed than ever with keeping an eye on my steps via my watch and making sure I’m as active as possible, but boy am I fit! No doubt the eventual return to work will make the kind of exercise I’m doing regularly almost an impossibility, but for now I’m going to keep on acting like I’m preparing for some kind of middle-age Olympics!

 

Things My Parents Used To Say

photo of a boy covering his eyes
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

I miss my parents. There’s no panic, they’re both still with us and in fact are on the end of the phone should I need them. But the global Coronavirus pandemic and the fact that we’re in lockdown has meant that there’s not a hope of actually seeing them. I can’t visit as I live over 100 miles away and while the frequency of phone calls home has increased over these last few weeks, I still miss them. This is weird because, if I’m honest, the distance between us has always felt quite convenient before now.

The whole situation has made me think about them a lot more than usual. I guess, if I’m being honest, part of that is to do with having so much time on my hands. I certainly don’t normally think so deeply about my parents and for so long. In fact sometimes, with a busy work and family life balance, my parents can seem a bit of an irritation. And while I feel guilty typing that and reading it back, I doubt any of us could look at it and not think the same for at least some of the time. If you’re busy, stressed out, hitting deadlines ad trying to be a good husband and father, checking in with the parents can feel like a bridge too far.

My mam and dad are getting old now. My father is eighty and my mother, despite her dogged attempts to keep the actual number quiet, is in her late seventies. In short, they’re vulnerable to this virus. And so, worrying about them, thinking about them, talking about them and even almost succumbing to random acts of abandon like driving up to stand outside their house and chat to them have come quite naturally of late.

One of the things that I’ve thought about most – and one of the things that automatically makes me smile – has been the kind of things they say or more accurately, said when I was growing up. You see, parents speak a different language. As you grew up they seemed almost alien and even now, in middle age I can say that they still speak a different language. So let’s have a look – in no particular order – at some of their stock phrases and hopefully it won’t be just me who’s transported back in time.

  1. It’s reasonable to assume that every child will frequently ask ‘What’s for tea?’ (or dinner, if you’re posh or just plain wrong). My parents never seemed to tire of not giving me the correct answer. As a pair they seemed to have one stock, prepared answer each; a personal favourite, if you like. Firstly, my mam would regularly reply to said question with ‘Shit, with sugar on’. Often, if he was around my dad would then add to this nonsense by informing, in a posh voice ‘but divinely cooked.’ His own answer, for the times mam wasn’t around or found herself too busy to answer was to tell me that it was Dried bread , jammed in the door.’ Hilariously here, not only was the bread stale, but he was insinuating that the nearest I’d get to jam was to stick it in the door. I didn’t even like jam! It’s safe to say that I was often a confused child around meal times and as a fussy eater, disappointed too.  Why wouldn’t they just tell me the answer? And why, oh why give such a bizarre response. Frankly, if Childline had been around when I was growing up, I think I’d have had more than enough reason to give them a call.
  2. Closely linked to number one is the fact that because my mam didn’t like to swear in front of us (apart from when she was giving a witty answer to the tea question) she’d often substitute words for swear words, especially when exclaiming in frustration or anger. The stupidest I can remember is her habit of saving our delicate ears from foul language by shouting ‘Tish’. It’s a tough one, but can you guess what she was really wanting to say?
  3. A stone cold favourite, possibly in every house up and down the land next. Imagine the scene. You’re out in a shop, possibly you’ve been in many more than just the one. At some point you will have seen something that takes your fancy. Tired out, bored and probably fed up, you forget manners and exclaim ‘I want insert item here’. What were you told? Altogether now, ‘I want never gets!’ Every. Single. Time. And always said with total and utter enthusiasm and smug self satisfaction.
  4. Another that has caused much beffudlement over the years comes from a different source, but a parent all the same. This one comes from my wife’s late grandmother who was as Yorkshire as they come. When I first noticed her using this expression she had got to that age that some people get to where they no longer care what people think of them or what they’re saying and so this expression would come out in all sorts of places, to the amusement and sometimes mock embarrassment of my wife. I never knew what it meant or even, it transpires, what was being said. It was only in thinking about this blog and doing some loose sort of research that my wife explained it. The expression in question was ‘warn o’ my arse’. Warn would have been pronounced waaaaan, by the way. Apparently it means ‘worse than my backside’. So when someone would ask her what she thought of something, Nelly (the grandma in question) would often – just it seems for the fun of it – reply ‘warn o’ my arse’. So, for example a meal might be ‘worse than my arse’. Charming.
  5. A response to the question ‘What’s up?’ was always one that left me frustrated. It showed how desperately uncool my parents were. So to place you at the scene, so to speak, imagine a young lad asking his dad ‘What’s up?’ It may have been a question of concern or just one making a general enquiry. Either way, let’s see it as the intended starter of a conversation, remembering that it’s good to talk. So imagine the mounting teenage angst when the response to my ‘What’s up?’ was regularly, ‘The sky…do you want it down to play with?’ My response of a groan, a thousand yard stare and leaving for another room probably said a lot about my relationship with my dad!
  6. My dad however, provides the final two of the memorable things my parents used to say. This particular one is one I’ve to this day never been able to explain. My dad has explained it but it still makes no sense at all. Let’s try it for size, shall we? If you ever got something wrong and tried to explain your mistake away by saying that ‘I though it was…’ you’d be met with the following. ‘You know what Thought did, don’t you? Followed a shit cart and thought it was a wedding.’ Poor old Thought. Left with so many questions, not least ‘What on God’s green earth is a shit cart?’ And let’s not even think about the wedding in question.
  7. Finally comes a tale of short trousers. And by short trousers, I don’t mean shorts. I mean trousers that are too short. Half masters we call them. A boy on my street was notorious for his short trousers. He just never seemed to have jeans that reached down to his shoes. And so, whenever he walked past the window he was like a magnet for my dad and one of his favourite expressions. Dad never seemed to tire of telling us that Jamie needed to ‘put some jam on his shoes and invite his trousers down for tea.’ Much to the embarrassment of my own kids, I have adopted this particular phrase and still use it to this day.

So there we have it. Parents, especially mine, are a curious breed who at times have a language of their own that appears to be mainly made up of absolute nonsense. Feel free to leave any of your own parent’s sayings in the comments box or let me know via Twitter, where I’m @grahamcrosby and Middle Age Fanclub.