Poetry Blog: ‘Distance.’

This is a poem that I rediscovered while going through a notebook recently. It’s about my sister and our relationship. I wouldn’t say that we’ve had a difficult relationship, but it’s not one that’s been particularly straighforward. It’s not that we don’t get on; it’s just that we’re quite different characters. I’m sure lots of siblings are exactly the same.

There’s a six year age gap between us and so, at times growing up it felt like we had little in common other than parents. It was just too much of a difficult age gap. There was and still is no shortage of love, but we just turned out very different and I think that meant that the bond wasn’t all that it could have been. I got thinking about it recently when I heard that my sister was ill and it led to me writing the poem and in a way reassessing how we are with each other and also realising how lucky I am to have her and how important she’s always been for me.

Distance

From the line where we started there was always a distance.
You were independent, strong, theirs long before me.
Later, when fate made me weak, doctors kept us apart and the distance grew.
You closed the gap as we got to know each other better,
looked after me, a fierce lioness to my runt of the litter.
Teenage kicks widened the gap again to a chasm 
and you were out more often than in.
Your influence remained even when you weren't around
as your music became mine, throwing me those White Lines
and an everlasting Motown lifeline.

Around this time you revealed to us your terrible taste in men
as a series of terrible choices took you away some more
and made you seem like a stranger.
No longer the apple of anyone's eye, especially not mine,
who, worldly wise at the grand old age of twelve was the perfect judge;
a pre-teen with a puritanical moral compass.
How that would change as we grew and underwent a role reversal.
At twenty one the bad choices still hung around as you set off, 
no more than a child, to become an adult,
from Miss to Mrs in the blink of an eye, my fierce, happy lioness just gone.
You were there, but not really...

My own growth widened the gap some more; a Grand Canyon of taste, 
culture, views and choices. And despite your own bad record, 
you were there to pick up the pieces when I made the wrong choice myself.
And, when I was too young to cope with loss you scooped me up, held me so tightly that it physically hurt yet emotionally helped and I endured the pain just to feel safe again.
Eventually it was geography that would create another mystery; the one that says
you cannot close a gap when neither of you will pick up the phone.
It's one we're still trying lazily to unravel.

Now the first knock on a particular door, the one that we were scolded just for mentioning when we were kids, brings the news that we had always expected with age and I'm a kid again,
grasping for words, gasping for air, unable to cope and looking to you for comfort me,
unfailingly, predictably.
The realisation that those gaps need to be closed hits me like a sledgehammer.
Forget the choices, forget the gaps, move on from the past and hope
that we can make the best of whatever future might remain.

I’m not sure there’s much else I can say about this poem. It feels like quite an emotive thing to write about and as such, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m not sure it really matters whether I think it’s good or bad, but I hope it does my sister and our relationship justice and I think it’ll be a subject matter that I’ll return to.

I’d love – as always – to know what people think, so feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: Jigsaw

So this is a bit of a strange poem. Maybe I’m going through some kind of arty phase or perhaps just trying something different. Maybe I’m trying too hard…I don’t know. Let me try to explain.

This is a poem that came from a couple of different places. It started with some words that I didn’t really know what to do with. A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a lesson on creative writing, specifically narrative form. We were looking at the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ and not being too obvious with description. So rather than saying that your character had laughed, you might write about the smile spreading across their face, their shoulders shaking and so on.

As part of the lesson we watched a clip from ‘The Woman in Black’ as the protagonist enters Eel Marsh House and wanders slowly around. I let the class watch the clip a couple of times as it was only a few minutes long, and then got them to write some snippets of description. While they were doing all of this, I got a scrap of paper and wrote some description myself. Once I’d done, I had a quick read through – I liked it, but had no idea what to do with it. So, I folded it up and put it between pages in my notebook, resolving to have another look at it later and try to work out how to use it. To be honest, I thought I’d just write a poem about walking through an imagined creepy old house.

Later that day, I was checking my emails and saw that I’d had an alert from a company called Ancestry.com who I’d been tracing my family tree with last year. It had been a frustrating process. I’d mainly wanted to find out about my father’s side of the family, as I never really knew my paternal grandparents.

Anyway, the alert told me I’d had a DNA match and so I opened it up quite excitedly. The excitement lasted all of 60 seconds or so as the alert that proclaimed to be about a second cousin turned out to actually be my own grandad on my mother’s side. So, not a second cousin at all and actually someone I knew pretty well as well as being someone that could be found on my family tree…on Ancestry.com. It got me thinking about my mysterious paternal grandparents though.

Later that evening I was watching one of my favourite programmes, American Pickers (one day I’ll write a blog about these programmes because I think it’s quintessential middle aged telly) and they were looking around the home of someone who’d collected antiques all his life. His son now didn’t know what to do with all of this ‘stuff’ after his dad had passed away. In turn, this brought to mind the entirely fictional idea of clearing my wife’s grandmother’s house when she died. And then, this poem clicked into place and it became clear, if a little weird, what I was going to attempt to do with my ‘show don’t tell/Woman in Black’ notes.

So the poem is basically about what I imagined it would be like to go and clear my own grandmother’s house and how, if I’d been able to do it, I might have been able to find out more about her. Hence the jigsaw puzzle reference. I mean, up until about a year ago I didn’t even know her name, so there were a lot of pieces missing. There still are. and I suspect they always will be.

Anyway, here’s what in one corner of head is my pretentious poem. Don’t worry, in another corner of my head – which isn’t actually square before anyone gets worried – I actually quite like the poem and am quite pleased with the whole idea behind it.

Jigsaw

A kaleidoscope of light streams through stained glass
as particles of dust waltz eerily across the room.
This is not what I remember.
Instead, you are fragments of a jigsaw puzzle,
too many pieces missing to ever be complete.
Today may fill in gaps, but I feel I'll never know you.
Perhaps it's because you never wanted to be known.

In my head I'm clearing your house, a house I never knew,
hoping for some of those lost pieces.
A stuffed bird, incongruous, gazes across the room
as an ancient rocking chair teeters back and forth without explanation.
I never imagined you as the type who had time to relax,
all of those children would put pay to that,
but perhaps you're there now, assessing another that you never knew.

My feet pad across a well worn rug, the latest in a long trodden line.
I trace my fingers over the top of a low table, idly making patterns in the dust,
imagining you and chunks of a family, maybe even my father, 
fighting for food and attention.
A wall is littered with portraits that trace my progress around the room.
I wonder who they are, speculating that one might even be you
which prompts a pang off loss for someone I never had.

Snapped back to the here and now, I resist the urge
to uncover any of the unknown items being protected from a lifetime of dust
by dull shrouds, brace myself
and place a tentative toe on the first of the stairs,
not knowing who or what I'll find, but hoping 
for something to fill in the gaps and solve at least some 
of this decades old puzzle.

I’m pleased with the way this poem came together. It’s something completely different for me and very much fictional. I think I surprised myself by being able to use the description I wrote in such a way. With that in mind, I suppose it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. It also pleased me because I have plans for another fictional – but based on true events – poem that I’m trying to write, but from the point of view of someone else entirely. Writing ‘Jigsaw’ makes me believe I can write this other poem, which feels like quite a big step.

I only have one memory of my grandmother and it’s vague to say the least. I remember being taken to a house on the other side of Newcastle by my father and him telling me we were going to visit my grandmother. I couldn’t have been any older than 6 or 7. I remember that it was pouring with rain when we arrived and I was very aware that this was somewhere I’d never been before, despite having a huge family that would’ve lived in and around the area. My dad left me in the car while he ran across the road to knock on the door of a big, imposing old house. I remember thinking that my grandma would come to the door and my dad would just come and get me and in we’d go. Pop and cake would inevitably follow.

I was wrong. Someone came to the door, there was what looked like a tense and brief conversation and then my dad headed back to the car. Seconds later we drove off, my dad telling me we couldn’t go in because grandma was ill. My ancestry research tells me that this was a nursing home and she would have died days later. There would be no pop and cake. The woman at the door wasn’t even my grandma. However, I think the house in the poem is the house I remember.

And that’s it! The fragments of a jigsaw puzzle that I refer to in the poem, well they’re actually one piece, I suppose. I wish I knew more. It’s not a particularly sad thing though. Lots of people have relatives that they never knew and in truth, both of my paternal grandparents just make me curious, really. My curiosity has led me to ask my dad about them, but – and this is the sad bit – he really doesn’t seem to have known them. My grandfather in particular seems to have been a very transient figure and in fact, one of the most frustrating things researching my family tree was the amount of addresses he seemed to have had that were different to the rest of his family! He was either what some people refer to as a free spirit, what others call a rascal or just a bit of a dick. Whatever label I settle on, I’ve made a note to write a poem about him too.

I hope you enjoyed this poem. I hope to God it isn’t too pretentious for words. Woe betide it might seem that I’m disappearing up my own arse! It was just an idea and one that I hope worked. For the record, I think I’m happy with it.

As always, feel free to let me know what you think. I’m always interested to hear what people got out of reading my poetry. Oh, and as always, thanks for reading.

Film Review: Good Boys

Sixth Grade is a tough time for any kid. Hormones are starting to fly around, you’re finding your way in life a little more and seeking independence from your parents, while at the same time still seeking solace under their protective ‘wings’. And all the while, you’re forming friendships that are likely to last at least up until adulthood, if not for the rest of your life. Sixth grade might just be the making of a person.

Such is the situation for Max, Lucas and Thor (The self titled Bean Bag Boys and the heroes of Good Boys), three 6th grade friends living in a smart suburb of an unnamed American city as they prepare for their first ‘kissing party’. Sadly though, their preparation doesn’t go smoothly, leading to a series of misadventures that although often bordering on the ridiculous, are highly entertaining.

‘Good Boys’ is a coming of age adventure with a healthy slice of slapstick thrown in for good measure. Having been invited to their first ever ‘kissing party’ by the school cool kid, Soren, the boys set out to do some research. After all, if you’re heading for a kissing party, you’d better know just how to kiss, right? And Max is smitten with classmate Brixlee and desperate to grab a smooch with her.

So, in the name of research and with no thought whatsoever for privacy, the boys borrow an expensive drone from Max’s dad and set out to film a neighbour kissing her boyfriend. So far, so good…nothing to see here! Surely, nothing can go wrong? But the Bean Bag Boys’ drone experiment in fact goes badly – and oh so predictably – wrong and as a result they inadvertently make enemies of their neighbour Hannah (she of the kissing with the boyfriend) and her friend, Lily. Even though the boys eventually get to their kissing party, they are forced to learn some harsh lessons from their mistakes in the days afterwards. This is often to hilarious effect and although at times the humour is near the knuckle and perhaps a bit silly, I found myself laughing along all the way through.

Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, known for their work on The Office, deserve great credit for the words that they put in the mouths of babes here, as it’s often brilliantly incongruous and hilariously – and deliberately – inaccurate. Seth Rogen, one of the producers of the film, has clearly had a chunk of input here too. The boys’ take on various aspects of sex and drugs is a hilarious mix of total myth, complete rubbish and dangerous stereotypes which is guaranteed to raise more than the odd chuckle.

In their quest to replace the expensive drone – which is inevitably destroyed – and avoid their now mortal enemies, Hannah and Lily, the Bean Bag Boys find themselves thrust into several dangerous adventures that are navigated with typical pre-teen innocence so that they can reach an out of town mall. But it’s not just these trials and tribulations that make up the coming of age story and as a result of the kissing party the boys learn some things about friendship and each other that they would have never suspected in their previous lives sitting in their ban bag den playing games.

Good Boys is a great, feel-good film. The comedy here is sharp, the characters well written and if at times the twists and turns of the narrative are nothing short of ridiculously unbelievable, it doesn’t matter. Good Boys is one of those films where you’ll need to suspend your sense of reality and just enjoy the action, however daft it might get. Ultimately you’ll want the boys to get the drone, stay friends and keep the feel-good factor…but once all of their escapades are over, will there be a happy ending for Max, Lucas and Thor?

I’d give Good Boys

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry Blog: ‘Snow Day’

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

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

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

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

So here’s what I ended up with.

Snow Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry Blog: Transition.

This is a poem I wrote a while ago now, late August in fact. It was around that time that we were preparing my son – our youngest child – for the step up to high school. In the U.K. schools had been closed for months, but he had gone back to primary school for the final half term, as the government opened them up again to Year 6 students in a bid to make transition to high school that little bit easier. It didn’t work, but that’s besides the point.

I happened to be looking through some photographs and found one that my wife had taken of our son at the start of primary school, as he headed to his first day of Reception class. She’d stood behind him and having let him walk a few steps further down the path and – no doubt crying – had taken a photo of him as he walked off. Every visible piece of uniform is just too big and his backpack takes up his entire back. He looks tiny and vulnerable and not ready for school at all. Suffice to say that while the image always makes me smile, it still makes me feel sad too.

At the time, we’d briefly debated not sending him to school. We genuinely didn’t feel he was ready for it at all and so we’d even gone as far as tentatively researching moving to Scandinavia where children don’t start school until later. I think (my wife especially) we just didn’t really want to let go. In the end, we relented and sent him. But every time I see that picture I can’t help but feel we made the wrong decision!

As I looked at the photograph last summer it brought the memories flooding back, but it also made me think about how quickly both my children seem to have grown up. Within a few weeks of that moment they would both be high school students and essentially a large chunk of their childhoods were over. And specifically where my son was concerned, my precious little boy was no longer the tiny child in the photograph. With time on my hands, I wrote the poem you’ll find below.

Boy

That picture will stay with me as the summers fade into autumn. You, walking ahead of your mum, in a uniform that you’d grow into eventually and an over sized backpack straining at your shoulders. Your jumper a red light telling us to stop and let you go into a bright new adventure.

We’d thought to avoid this moment by moving somewhere where the monster didn’t want you for another couple of years, but stayed, defeated by normality and a system that we did not like; school became an enemy that we felt we couldn’t fight.

Your mother returned to her car and cried that day, her body inert as the tears tumbled silently down her face, mourning the loss of her sunshine. I spent the day thinking of the three of you – my big, brave boy, his sister there, determined as ever to look after you and your mother; robbed, cheated, bereft. How could I protect you all?

For years from this moment you’d tell us, ‘Did you know?’ tales at the table, your new found knowledge taken, processed, committed to memory, worn like a brand new suit and then shared generously like your cuddles. Parents’ Evenings revealed what we already knew; everybody loved you, fell under your spell, like insects stuck in a web.

Years later, and a day after my heart broke down, I sat weakly watching you perform in your school play, expecting to cry uncontrollably, but instead mesmerised by your voice, your courage, your talent, and as our eyes locked I wondered if my wounded heart might now burst with pride.

Now, you prepare yourself to face new questions, leaving your cocoon to become a magnificent butterfly one day. Your mother has already shed the expected quiet tears, sought solace by burying her head into my chest, while I held her tightly without possession of the balm of words that might soothe.

Before we know it there will be another photograph and it will hurt to look at that too, You, in a new uniform that still won’t fit, walking headlong into the next five years of your future, stoic despite the nerves, wiser and still eager for more ‘did you knows’.

I will fret daily until I know you’re safe, drift off thinking of you and your new experiences and race home nightly to steal a kiss or lie beside you, clutching your shoulder while you let me in on your brave new world.

I have watched, awestruck as you’ve grown, felt my heart ache as you blushed at your achievements, daydreamed about the impact you might have on the world. Now, I urge you, with every ounce of strength I have, to conquer new worlds, open yourself to those new experiences and grasp at all of the future offers that may come your way.

My son didn’t seem ready for high school, unlike my daughter who three years previously had been desperate to move on. I worried about them both though, fretted through minute after minute of my working day, desperate to just walk back through my front door and see them, ask them how it had all been.

Both have had interesting ‘rides’ through high school thus far, as probably any kid does. They’re doing well though and both survived those first days! As did their parents! My son isn’t quite so full of wonder as he had been at primary school and is perhaps finding the transition quite tough. We suspected as much, given that he missed nearly all of the last 6 months of primary school and Year 6 and didn’t get any real transition between the two schools due to Covid-19. So all the worry that is conveyed in the poem wasn’t misplaced.

It’s a very personal poem and although I talked about him heading to high school quite a bit with my wife, my son and some friends, this was my main way of opening up about it all and probably where any actual emotion came out. I think my wife showed enough devastation for both of us at the time, so it felt important that I stayed strong. I can’t remember too much about it all now, but I imagine, writing late at night that I must have shed a tear or two. It’s such an emotive photograph!

I hope that if and when other parents read it they’ll perhaps recognise their own feelings and experiences in there too. It’s a longer poem, but I’d like to think that’s alright, given the subject matter. I won’t explain any intricacies of the language in there as some of it is personal to both my wife and son and their relationship and it’s probably not my place to share so fully. On a similar note, I’ve not used the photo that I tried to build the poem around, as again I don’t think it’s one that needs to be shared with the world (or the few people who’ll read this!). So the child in the image accompanying the poem isn’t mine! He just looked small enough and vulnerable enough to represent the subject matter!

Most of all, I hope you enjoy the poem. I hope it doesn’t bring back too many traumatic memories in any parents who read! When a child moves up to ‘big school’ it really is quite the event and I felt it was just too much to deal with unless I got it down on paper. Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

Whatever Happened to The Mix Tape?

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

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

Photo by Dmitry Demidov on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.