Poetry Blog: ‘The cold does not embrace you.’

I’ve written about sleep and sleeplessness quite a few times before. It’s a topic that I keep returning to because every once in a while I’ll find my sleep pattern disturbed and often for a few nights in a row I’ll find myself either lying awake and unable to focus on sleep because my mind is racing or just out of bed, sitting downstairs in our house, wide awake.

This is a poem that focuses on the former of those two scenarios, although as a result of my mind racing, I eventually got out of bed and wrote the poem. It was a night where, if I’m honest, I’m not sure whether I was awake or sleeping fitfully and suffering with nightmares. One thing’s for sure; it wasn’t a pleasant night’s sleep and there was a lot that disturbed me. You think that nightmares are things you left behind in childhood, but then get reminded that you’re sadly mistaken!

The cold does not embrace you
yet, for a short time its shiver soothes your skin
like a smooth palm comforting you through illness, fear.
An uneasy dream shifts and your thoughts are strangers
caught in the void between the fevered images of disturbed sleep
and the disquieting thud of your heart as you realise you're awake again.
Without warning, the rough skin of working hands grabs at your jaw,
takes hold, clutches.
A strangers eyes stare out from a familiar face,
gripped by a mood you know all too well,
before one last squeeze,
then the calloused hand, shoves your face away viciously,
like an imperfect toy on a production line, rejected
not good enough to be loved.
You blink to try and wake only to find another face now,
her hot breath invading your nostrils,
her gibberish bringing spittle to your skin,
her disapproval at the runt of the litter writ large
in neon across unloving eyes and twisted expression
informing you again of what feels like their hatred,
before words are put in your mouth and you flounder,
helpless against a place you don't belong,
a jigsaw you don't fit.
Shaking free, you brace yourself, 
turn your collar against the piercing winter and stumble forward,
in search of somewhere warm.
And while these ghosts will always haunt you 
with their chill,
every once in a while the winter sun will warm your skin.

It feels like there are two antagonists in this poem. The first I’m not sure of and it would be unkind to speculate. However, the second is definitely my grandmother, who was someone that I had a fractious relationship with, at best. She was a woman who never seemed to display any warmth whatsoever to me, which as a child was quite perplexing. In company with my many cousins, I remember she’d frequently refer to me as ‘this one’ while everyone else got called by their name. Let’s just say that it was clear I wasn’t her favourite! I can’t say that her treatment of me didn’t bother me, as it did. But as I got old enough to make my own choices, I just decided to avoid being in the same room as her. Even now though, there are occasions when she comes to mind and it’s never pleasant. Hence, the words in the latter half of the poem.

I tried to end the poem on a more positive note, just explaining what I’ve just mentioned, really. Childhood memories will always be there and will always crop up and affect your day. But there’s always a positive to be found.

I hope you enjoyed the poem or at least it had some kind of effect on you as a reader. The memories I’ve written about were incredibly vivid and I hope that feeling is conveyed by what I’ve written. As ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Review: Leeds Knights vs Raiders IHC

I first got the ice hockey bug on a holiday to Canada. We were in Toronto visiting friends and the local team, Toronto Maple Leafs were heading for the NHL play-offs. We watched a game at our friend’s house and I fell in love immediately with the pace, the action and the atmosphere (of the game, not my friend’s house).

On the same trip, we travelled across Canada to Vancouver and one night, as we were heading back to our hotel, there were thousands of people on the streets and cars everywhere honking horns with people hanging out of windows. It felt like the kind of scene you’d only witness in a film and it took a while to work out what was happening. However, the Vancouver Canucks had just qualified for their first play-offs in a long time and Vancouver was very much in celebratory mood! So, ice hockey had just added another attraction in terms of the fans.

From that moment on it was something that I always intended to make more of an interest, but due to any number of reasons, didn’t really manage to fulfill. Despite being a major city, Leeds didn’t have an ice hockey team and having to follow the progress of the Leafs from afar, I didn’t want to do it again for an English team, so my ice hockey watching plans went on the back burner.

And then, in 2019 as a new ice rink was built in Leeds it was announced that we would have an ice hockey team; the Leeds Chiefs. However, Covid put pay to my hopes of attending games and while I might have fairly regularly driven past the rink, I never visited. In the meantime there was a change of ownership and the team were re-branded as Leeds Knights.

On Saturday evening, thanks to my wife buying me tickets as a birthday present, we attended our first ever ice hockey match; Leeds Knights versus Raiders IHC a team based in Romford in Essex. The whole family went along.

I think I’m probably too old to get overly excited by anything at all nowadays, but I was definitely looking forward to going to Planet Ice. Ice hockey is very much an all-action sport and so I knew we’d be sure to be entertained. Other than that, I didn’t really know what to expect, which I suppose is a good thing!

Having parked up, we made our way to the ice rink, which was only a few minute’s walk away. This being a fledgling sport in Leeds, there wasn’t an enormous queue like you might find at the neighbouring Elland Road stadium on a matchday, and so we were ushered in and pointed in the right direction for our seats within a couple of minutes. After a quick glance at the merchandise stall we made our way up the stairs and into the stand above the rink. I’ll buy a scarf or a puck next time though!

The players were already warming up as we sat down and again, this was very different to what I was used to at football. Only the goalkeeper (the net minder?) seemed to do any stretching at all and the rest of the squad just seemed to skate around at high speed or whack pucks towards the net! A much more dynamic way to get warm and it was something I watched in complete awe. I’ve always been fascinated by people who can skate or ski as they just seem to make it look so effortless and incredibly graceful. I’ve never skated before – I mean, if you can avoid car crash, you’ll just avoid it, right? – but have skied and I never felt like I had any control whatsoever. I make young Bambi look poised.

A word of warning if you’re planning on going to watch ice hockey and something we discovered within minutes of our arrival. Watching ice hockey is not a warm experience! Luckily we were aware of this and attended with several layers of clothing in place, but it was still oddly cold. Not oddly as in, where’s all that cold coming from, but as in it was only really certain parts of me that got cold. I mean, I suppose my toes would be obvious, but my knees? My knees were almost frozen – maybe some hastily improvised knee pads will be an option next time! I’d brought gloves, but my hands never got anywhere near cold enough to wear them, so it was rather strange indeed.

As the face-off/puck drop got closer the mood in the arena built. A countdown clock will automatically raise tension anyway, but when the lights dropped and the opposition emerged from their dressing room to line up, things were beginning to get exciting. I’d expected entrance music and a burst of Leeds Knights racing onto the ice, but instead the announcer gave each individual a build up and they came out alone. After this was done, another surprise, as the teams and fans stood for a burst of the national anthem, which I really wasn’t expecting. And then, the puck was dropped and away we went!

I won’t attempt a match report, given the sheer amount of action and my somewhat ‘relaxed’ grasp of the rules, but suffice to say the game was a real experience. The action itself was almost non stop and even when there were stoppages for various penalties the PA would play a burst of music, meaning the whole crowd were kept positive. Actually, not the whole crowd. We counted 16 Raiders supporters and broadly speaking, this wasn’t a positive night for them. Leeds Knights dominated the game and ran out convincing 7-3 winners, with well over 30 shots at goal. And if 30 odd shots isn’t a great advert for hockey, then I don’t really know what you want our of a sport!

Each period of play is 20 minutes long, followed by a 20 minute break. I didn’t understand the need for such a break until watching the sheer speed of the game. The six players from each side on the ice are frequently rotated and it’s only when you watch the intensity of what they do that you realise why. There’s literally no chance for a breather in ice hockey. I have to say that it all combines to make the game utterly gripping.

We went with our two kids, aged 15 and 12, and both really enjoyed themselves. From the drum-led chanting of Leeds Knights fans, through the adrenaline of the game itself to the frequent bursts of music during breaks, my two – usually found attached to some kind of mobile device – were totally involved. The atmosphere was really family friendly too and smiles were very much the order of the day. There was none of the anger, edge and foul language that I associate with football, where I feel like I’m having to protect my kids rather than just relax and enjoy the game.

I’d thoroughly recommend a trip to the ice hockey, if you have a local team. It’s still very much a niche sport in the UK, but I reckon if you go along you’ll be hooked pretty quickly. We’ll definitely be back to watch the Leeds Knights before the end of the season, hopefully more than once. The four of us thoroughly enjoyed what we encountered and felt absolutely welcome alongside punters who were obviously far more regular watchers than ourselves.

Let’s go Leeds Knights, let’s go!

Poetry Blog: ‘Absent Friends’

This is a poem that I wrote around Christmas time and then spent far too much of my time either poorly, relaxing or just eating and drinking to remember to write it up properly for my blog. As a result, it’s a little out of date, but I think the sentiment holds up, whatever the occasion.

It’s a poem about reflecting back and remembering those that we’ve lost, which I suppose we tend to do at important points in the year. We do it all year round, I suppose, but at times like Christmas and birthdays, when you’re maybe at your most relaxed you’re more prone to thinking about how much a particular person is missed or maybe even just how much they themselves would have enjoyed that occasion, it’s a little more pertinent.

Absent Friends

Absent friends sparkle even more at this time of year
and we raise a glass to remember more intensely now
than over the passing months,
more distant now, yet somehow our focus tunes more 
than before and we toast our absent friends,
tears punctuating what is still a celebration,
staining cheeks and mixing incongruously 
alongside cracker borne paper hats and party poppers.
our absent friends are guests once again and we all see
those smiles, hear those voices, cradle each other in arms 
used just hours before to shatter anticipation and tear at wrapping
covering all manner of happy shapes.
Now, a moment hovers longer than a moment, 
sharper than the year before until you can almost see them,
almost touch them, hold them again as they stand in the kitchen,
glass in hand nodding wistfully, gone but only a thought away,
yet agonisingly too distant for one more conversation.
And all we have left is love...

I must admit that when I looked again at the draft of this poem in my notebook, it didn’t make a lot of sense. The start of it, anyway. It was another poem that I’d written in the early hours and given that the first couple of lines didn’t seem to make any sense, perhaps I was more tired than I thought! After reading the rest of the poem a couple of times I was able to re-draft and change those lines in order to give it some clarity. I was tempted to leave it as it was – poetic license and all that – but decided that something that made sense was better than something so confusing. I’d love to know what I meant with the initial first line though!

‘Absent Friends’ is a product of both Christmas and New Year. I think we’re more likely to look back at New Year, but I know that having lost a close family friend relatively recently, our thoughts were with them on both occasions, both this year and last. I suppose it’s natural that we look back at these times. As I said earlier, it’s obvious that when we’re relaxed and happy we might reflect on those that aren’t around anymore and what they would have made of the situation that we happily find ourselves in.

In a different way, we found ourselves explaining to our children about another absent friend this year. The absent friend in question – still alive, but moved overseas – lived in the UK as a student teacher years ago and joined us for Christmas Day as he had no family around. He’s from Australia – hi Andy, if you read this – and so everything he knew and loved was on the other side of the world. As our mate, it was only right that he joined us and it was a fantastic day. We still think of him every year at Christmas and this year it was lovely to re-tell the tale of that particular Christmas Day, even if it left our kids quite perplexed as to why we chose to share our day with anyone else, when we always just have Christmas as a family these days! It was funny to hear their almost outrage at the fact that our guest wasn’t grandma or grandad, uncle or auntie, but Andy!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the poem and that, if it brought any memories back, they were fond ones rather than bad ones. Sometimes, despite the obvious pain that it can cause, it’s just a nice, warm feeling we get when thinking of those absent friends.

2022: Letters, a gammy toe and a fake adopted cat. My New Year’s Resolutions.

I wasn’t going to write this post. I was reasonably determined not to write something so predictable. I mean, I pride myself on trying to something at least a little bit different and surely every blogger going is banging on about their resolutions? Nothing wrong with that. But I wasn’t going to do it.

And then I woke up just before 3am on New Year’s Day having had around an hour and a half’s sleep. I thought I’d just roll over and slumber on, but no. It’s quite a regular thing for me to get an idea stuck in my head at this time of day and so when it happened this morning, there wasn’t a lot else to do but get up.

I also had a pounding headache, not from the drink I might add. So, I’d go downstairs, have a glass of water and some paracetamol and scribble some things down on a bit of paper. I WOULD NOT stay for long. Just over an hour later and I had written a huge bullet point list of resolutions, a first draft of a poem about resolutions, drank a pint of water, taken two paracetamol and tidied quite a few things away in an attempt to start my resolutions early, even though said resolution (Just pick stuff up, regardless of who left it there) wasn’t actually on my new list.

Here are the results. Some of this is simply exactly what I wrote down, while other bits have been added to because it’s clear even to me that they should get explained. I don’t want people to worry about me. So, in no particular order…

  • Learn to moonwalk. I will study YouTube and then astonish/bore to death anyone within my moonwalking eyeline.
  • Write my YA novel and Christmas story. I started the first of these around this time last year and then ran out of wherewithal. It’s still there, in my notebook and I still like it. It has been a lifelong disappointment to me that I’m not related to Bing Crosby. Imagine the money White Christmas makes every year. My Christmas story is one of many attempts I’ll be making this year to make enough money to speed up retirement. It’s also a good idea, if I say so myself.
  • Research and eat more heart healthy foods.
  • Be a better husband, father, son, brother. There are times when I think that I’m pretty shit in all of these roles. I tried to ring my mam and dad this morning, but they were out. By my estimation, this means that I’m already smashing this one, as the young people would say.
  • Modify my Duolingo use. That’s what I wrote down. I’m not sure what it means.
  • Write more teaching and football content for my blog. These subjects always get more people reading, which fascinates me as even after 22 years of teaching I feel like I don’t really know a great deal more than talk a lot and write stuff on the board. I make a mean display when I can be arsed though. Did I ever tell you about the Andes mountain range that I drew on a huge display board? It was the size of something you’d find in a major art gallery. People gasped when they saw it. I don’t like to talk about it much though…Perhaps I’ll write an epic poem about it…
  • Stop buying crisps. They’re like heroin to me.
  • Attempt to get a six pack – I’ll settle for four – while refusing to give up beer and chocolate, in moderation. Did I ever tell you about my lockdown six pack? Probably not…I don’t like to talk about it much.
  • Speak to people more. People must think I hate them and that I’m just really miserable. I’m not. I’m actually very shy and genuinely can’t imagine that people will want to talk to me. I regularly imagine their thoughts as I drone on about football. As a result, I’ve most likely uttered one word to at least 60% of the people I work with over the last year. That word is ‘Alright?’
  • Play more board games with my wife. She loves them. Be a better husband, see? Seriously, I’m like a freight train once I get going.
  • Mow my lawns more regularly. It looks better and would surely annoy my neighbours, right?
  • Run more. Take part in more races and get back to Parkrun.
  • Amuse myself by telling people I’ve adopted a cat and named it Fellatio Nelson. I might write some spoof adventures of said cat. All because the name amused me. This is genuinely the resolution that kept me awake and got me out of bed, by the way. Some insight into the mind of an idiot there…
  • Make more videos. I created a teacher character called Damian Malarkey in the first days of lockdown. He was the kind of arsehole I really don’t like and as such, made me laugh a lot. My colleagues enjoyed the video and this tells me that Damian deserves another airing. I’ve met quite a few Damian’s in my time in teaching, so I know him well. I also secretly worry that I’m turning into him. For ages I’ve also harboured the idea of videoing myself dancing to certain songs, not because I’m a good dancer, but because it makes me laugh. I do it all the time. I’m like a shit Mick Jagger, I hope. I also mime along to certain songs and have what I think is a brilliant idea for one of these mimes. It’ll no doubt be shit. I’ll laugh though.
  • Start a podcast. I’ve mentioned the idea to my best mate. I repeatedly let him down by floating these ideas and then not being able to find time. I think we’d just chat about middle aged stuff. You know, just moaning and stuff?
  • Get sponsors for a run. Try to raise a silly amount of money. I’ve got a lot of people to be grateful to.
  • Write to the boy I sponsor more often. Over the past 22 years I’ve sponsored two separate children in South America, yet probably only written to them half a dozen times. This is something I hugely regret. (Now you can all join my cardiologist in knowing for certain that I actually have a heart).
  • Make up German words and phrases for things and pass them off as actual fact. “Oh, the Germans have a word for that. Yes, you’re experiencing schencillpumpenhooff.
  • Get my toe treated before it either falls off or I turn into a hobbit or a troll. One toenail is black and has some kind of crust under it. It doesn’t hurt, so what with lockdown conditions and social distancing, I’ve just put up with it. No doubt the Germans have a word for that. If they don’t I’ll make one up for when I go to see the pharmacist.
  • Write a Eurovision entry. I’ve wanted to do this for years. I have the bones of one written down somewhere and it wouldn’t take much to finish.
  • Write at least 2 Christmas songs. One spoof, one real. That second home by the sea won’t buy itself.
  • Start to note down things that pupils and colleagues say. I’ve wanted to write a ‘Things I Heard in Class’ book for years. And boy, do I hear some things.
  • Learn some new words.
  • Invent new words and phrases to impress gullible people with.
  • Use the phrase ‘amuse bouche’ more. I don’t really know what it means, but doesn’t it sound nice? See also words like ‘journey’ and ‘vision’, but only inappropriately. E.g. ‘I’ve just finished reading a book about teaching. I’d like to thank the bedside lamp for all it’s support while I’ve been on this journey.
  • ‘Discover’ new music. Not new like bands containing teenagers, necessarily. More bands that I should know, but haven’t really listened to over the years. I recently discovered James Taylor, someone I’d been fully aware of for years, just by asking Alexa to shuffle some of his songs. I’ve undoubtedly benefitted from this. More please!
  • Stop grumbling at people when I hear them walking past our back fence. Better still, stop this behaviour in supermarkets. Face masks are not soundproof.
  • Write my Diary of a Middle Aged Singleton blog. A spoof, inspired by someone who lives close to us.

The final resolution doesn’t get a bullet point as it is simply to write further blogs updating your good selves on the progress of my resolutions. Some of these are just to amuse myself but plenty of them are deadly serious, which I think is the point of these type of things. In total there are 28 resolutions, plus the promise to keep the blog up-to-date on their progress. I’m genuinely hopeful that I can keep some of them up!

Christmas 2021: Some thoughts…

It’s just gone 3am on Sunday 26th December 2021 and despite a long Christmas day and the fact that I could have crashed out on our settee at around 4pm, I am still very much awake. I think I dropped off into a fluttery eyed sleep of sorts somewhere between quarter past midnight and quarter to one in the morning, but after that I was wide awake.

My wife chatted sleepily to me for a short while, but then as her deep breathing told me that I was now alone, I just got back out of bed and headed downstairs.

And then I wrote. A long poem that on first read back seems like something that I really like, another that I’m not that sure of, the premise for a children’s book about Santa and Christmas – because I’m told that the two generally go hand in hand – and then an A4 page of bullet point notes about Christmas that will make up the bones of this very blog. After that, at around 3.20am, I went back to bed. I was still awake enough to glance at the clock later and see it reading 3.45am. Suffice to say, I’m a tad tired this Boxing Day morning.

So far, it’s been a strange old Christmas. Some family – and some people in general – are insisting that visitors take a lateral flow test before visiting, emphasising the odd shift that Christmas has taken in the past couple of years. I think they’re right to do this, by the way. If you’re shielding someone vulnerable then why put them at risk? And if you’re unwilling to take a test in order to see family, then what kind of person are you? After all, Christmas is about family, so if sticking a glorified cotton bud up your nose is enough to put you off, then I hope Santa avoids your house just to make a point.

For me personally, I’m left questioning what will happen with my parents once again. In summer I saw them for the first time in over 18 months, thanks to Covid and now, having tentatively planned another post Christmas visit, it looks likely that we won’t get to go. My mam and dad are just getting over some kind of winter bug – referred to by my mam as ‘this chest thing’, like I’d be fully acquainted with it already – and combined with the omicron variant currently doing the rounds, visiting them seems a bad idea for all of us. But then, can we afford to wait? Not really the thought process you ever want, let alone in the season to be jolly.

When we visited in summer I had a moment of clarity while out on a walk with them and started taking furtive photos of them both. I didn’t want anything posed, just images of them chatting, looking at each other and things like that. And I got some lovely ones, but now, in the very early morning, thinking about everything while wide awake, I regret not taking dozens more.

Away from the serious stuff about Christmas we had a lovely moment yesterday that really took me back. My son – aged 12 – burst into tears upon opening a present. It was a gaming desk – or as people of my vintage call them, a desk – and he was so delighted and so surprised that he ran across to his mum, hugged her tightly and just sobbed. It was the kind of thing that would happen every year and on birthdays when our kids were younger, but not so much anymore and I must admit, it brought a tear to my eye. As commercial as Christmas is, it was just a really lovely moment.

Christmas takes a lot of balancing. As someone who didn’t always have a lot when I was a kid, I always vowed that when I had my own they’d always have good birthdays and Christmases to remember. But I never wanted them to be spoilt. So we’re always working with a balancing act in that aspect of Christmas. So the joy brought about by some flat-pack furniture made the day, really!

Another area of balance is with the indulgence of the whole period. The chance to eat and drink a ridiculous amount of deliciousness is almost too much. But then I think about fitness and my middle aged body as well as heart health and Christmas becomes a real battle between my ego – I mean, you try catching sight of your little fat, hairy belly in the bathroom mirror – , your health – I still want to be able to exercise regularly – and temptation; show me someone who can resist pigs in blankets and I’ll show you a wrong ‘un! So the past two days, with their wine, Christmas dinner, cheesecake, chocolates and crisps and the next week or so of all the same stuff and then some, is going to be difficult, especially when quite a few of my presents have been either alcohol or chocolate related!

The lead up to Christmas continues to be a royal pain in the backside. It shouldn’t be. We should finish work and be able to take ourselves off out, doing bits of last minute Christmas shopping and maybe rounding things off with a visit to the pub or a meal out. In actual fact though, what happens now is the ‘deep clean’. And judging from things others have said, it’s not just us. Everyone is working day and night to get their house spotless…in order to then scatter wrapping paper, boxes and opened presents all over the place.

In the lead up to Christmas we washed the windows, transported all manner of stuff to charity shops, recycled like never before, scrubbed floors, made every part of the bathroom shine, washed down walls and kitchen cupboards, hoovered repeatedly, dusted, wiped down skirting boards and just generally found new homes for all manner of things. As a consequence, I’m absolutely shattered by the time we get round to Christmas morning. Is it any wonder that I’ve not exercised since Tuesday and that in actual fact, indulgence is winning when it comes to what I’ll be doing with my days!

So now, on the evening of Boxing Day, it’s all well and truly over. And there are a couple of things remaining to tell you about in terms of stuff I realised or discovered yesterday. The first was that Christmas crackers are utter rubbish and almost a complete waste of time. I’m not a party hat wearer, the jokes are awful and the gifts are an absolute waste of time. I got yet another set of tiny screwdrivers yesterday and they now reside in a cupboard with all the rest.

The other thing was the realisation that charades is an absolute winner. Inhibitions suitable loosened by a glass of wine, I get to show off and act like a knobhead, thus playing to all of my strengths without ever having to truly exert myself. And all within arms reach of another glass of wine!

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed Christmas, the holidays, the festivities…whatever you refer to it as. All in all, as the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of year; I wish I got to see more people, but I know I’ll still have a lovely time! See you in the New Year!

Poetry Blog: Christmas Lights

So this is a poem I wrote a few weeks back. It’s seasonal and inspired by the sights around the town where I live, particularly in the centre where the Christmas tree was put up and decorated a few weeks ago now and the town had its annual ‘big’ lights switch on.

I think the other thing that inspired it – apart from Christmas itself – a time that I’ve always loved – is the way that people celebrate the festive period with lights on houses, trees visible in windows and various ornamental features around the gardens. I know some may think it’s tacky and cheap, but for me it’s always felt just a little bit magical. As I say though, I’ve always loved Christmas.

Anyway, it got me thinking and then inspired me to scrawl down some stuff in my notebook. From there, well it became a poem.

A Town at Christmas

For weeks the town's lights shimmer a symphony,
spotlighting the drizzle of a northern sky and somehow warming the air of frozen nights.
The town hall clock seems to reach for the sky even more keenly than before at this time of year,
its stately architecture contrasting sharply with the fact that spirits are lifted more by oversized, synthetic snowmen, baubles and Santas 
flanked by grinning cartoon reindeers.
Every walk home brings a new discovery, 
a rueful smile and outside, adults are kids again, footsteps lightened, strides widened by this special atmosphere.

It’s funny how, the same old places and the same old sights can be transformed at this time of year. There are certainly more beautiful places and even at Christmas, more beautifully decorated places. But I don’t think it matters. Wherever you live can feel utterly transformed as each day of December passes and more decorations appear. Throw in the sound of Christmas songs and what I suppose we have to refer to as a dollop of Christmas spirit and it really is the best time of year and you could be living anywhere.

Well, as I write we have a few days until Christmas. In our house there’s still a lot to do in order to be prepared for the big day. Family to visit, tidying to be done, last minute shopping and wrapping and of course relaxing and watching Christmas films. Hopefully, if you’re as flat out as we are, it’ll all be worth it and you’re still finding time to enjoy the kinds of things I’ve written in the poem!

Have a great Christmas everyone!

Christmas Gift Guide: What the middle aged man about town might want this Christmas.

I’ll be honest with you. I have no real idea what the typical middle aged man might want this Christmas. So, if you’re looking for a guide that might prove to be of some use, this might not be the read for you, although as a middle aged man I may be able to offer some useful advice. I mean, I’ve been middle aged for a while now and run a blog called Middleagefanclub; I can hazard a decent guess, right?

My first gift recommendation can be both practical and stylish. It’s slippers. Now, I know, I know, I know that slippers seem to be the most stereotyped middle aged man gift going. And perhaps they are. But I’ll tell you what; they’re practical too. In fact, all you need to get some use out of slippers is feet. On an even more practical level, us middle aged men have gotten to a stage in life where circulation isn’t quite what it used to be. And it’s our hands and feet that will suffer, so in order to keep some feeling in those feet on those long Winter night, you could do a lot worse than buying the middle aged man in your life – dad, husband, brother, uncle, whatever – a nice pair of slippers.

Now slippers can range wildly in price. Like anything, really. So, if you’re working with a budget, you could pick up a pair in a supermarket such as Asda or Sainsbury’s – or whatever the popular supermarkets are in your country, global ‘fanclub fans – for as little as £7 and even get the more toasty warm boot style slippers – you know, if the target of the present has literally no sense of style whatsoever – for around a tenner.

However, there is a luxury end to the slipper market as well. I spotted some online recently and, as a confirmed slipper wearer they got my interest. For starters they didn’t really look like your traditional slipper. There was a bit more style and originality and the colour choice was a bit more daring too. But the price was an immediate stumbling block. Howver, dear reader, if you’re feeling flush and have enjoyed my writing over the last few months, well a pair of Mahabis at up to £75 would be very much appreciated and they’d keep my toes from getting numb too!

Books are always a good purchase for the middle aged man in your life and especially at this time of year. And fortunately, there are a lot of books released at this time of year too. A trip to your local supermarket over the next week or two will reveal all manner of newly published work and the good thing seems to be that the quality of these books seems to have improved in the last few years. A book isn’t a very difficult present to buy either and while it’ll give the middle aged man in your life something to concentrate on for a while and an excuse to sit on an armchair or lie on the bed, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, as once read it can be passed on to charity.

A quick look at the shelves of my local supermarket revealed the scope of choice, just for non fiction. There were books by Mel Brookes, Will Smith, Billy Connolly, Bob Mortimer, Louis Theroux, Freddie Flintoff and Dave Grohl. And for those who aren’t really that big on reading, there were also books by the likes of Paddy McGuiness, Alison Hammond and Ant Middleton (who has a disturbing amount out, as it goes). I imagine there’s more pictures in these ones.

Boxer shorts/underwear are always a sure fire winner with your middle aged man. Now, It’s not an area I’ve surveyed a lot, but I’d like to think that the majority of discerning men of a certain age are in favour of boxers. Without putting you off your next meal, I know I certainly do. Much more comfortable. And while I’m not being paid to mention them, my recommendation would still be that you try http://www.myoddballs.co.uk as their range is excellent. They’re also very comfortable, make donations to testicular cancer charities as well as raising awareness and their designs are such that it’s safe to say they’ll put a little more funk around your junk, so to speak. And it should still be important to look good at our stage of life. Oddballs also do other products such as socks and sportswear too, so you could find yourself really treating that middle aged fella!

As for buying budgie smugglers for middle aged men; listen, if you know anyone still wearing them, run!

Alcohol is always a good gift, although it’s obviously dependent on a middle aged man’s relationship with booze, I suppose. But, if you know someone who likes a drink – occasional, steady or just a raving session drinker – then these days the choice is amazing. It’s fair to say that beer has undergone a bit of a revolution in the last 5-10 years with the emergence of craft beers. Small, independent breweries, tap rooms and beer shops have sprung up regularly and there are some real gems to be tasted. It might be that you simply buy a gift pack or hamper online from a site like Honest Brew, Flavourly or Beer52 or one of the craft breweries. Even if you’re not sure where they are, a quick Google search of ‘local craft breweries’ should do the trick. And even if they don’t do some type of pack or bundle, you could always just put a hamper together yourself. You could revolutionise someone’s tastebuds.

If beer isn’t the thing for the middle aged male target of your gift giving, how about whisky, gin or rum even? There are always packs of small bottles available in supermarkets and of course online and a bit like with beer, the emergence of many small craft distilleries over the last few years means the choice is great. Failing that, your local supermarket will most likely have a vast selection of all manner of spirits and you can usually pick up a decent bottle for somewhere around the £20 mark. If you’re not sure, go online and look for reviews.

If the middle aged man in your life likes to exercise, then there’s always a gift to be had. Maybe it’s something they’ve been doing for years. Maybe, they’ve decided to look after themselves a bit better and want to embark on some exercise. Or maybe they’re just having a mid-life crisis and have decided to launch a crusade to look better and – in their dreams – snare themselves a younger partner! Whatever the reason, exercise gear could make a great gift. As with a few other of the suggestions above, there’s a huge range of things to choose from and a huge range of brands too. Whether it’s a new pair of trainers, an exercise top, a base layer for those colder times or a pair of shorts, there’s plenty of choice and gear to suit all budgets. If you’re in the UK places like M and M Direct always have sportswear at decent prices and even shops like B&Ms and The Range do exercise gear. You’d be surprised what you can find. You never know; your gift of some sort of exercise gear might just open up a whole new world for your middle aged target!

If you’re going down the exercise road with your gifts then one thing I can highly recommend is a massage roller. These are brilliant for soothing those aching muscles and, as a middle aged man myself, I can vouch for their positive effects! My wife actually bought me one last Christmas as I was having problems with my calves after running and it was an absolute revelation. You put the roller in the freezer and when you need it, it’s ice cold and ready to work its magic. Roll the metal ball over your aching muscles and it will really help recovery. And believe me, us middle age geezers need all the help we can get! The two that I’d recommend would be the Murlien Massage Roller Ball (the one I’ve got) and the Fitness Cryosphere Cold Massage Roller. Both are available in various online outlets and are reasonably priced too!

My final recommendation is ideal for the middle aged man who’s just waiting to move into the realms of being a pensioner. Get him a pipe! If he doesn’t use it now, he’s sure to reach for it within the next few years!

Well, I hope my gift guide gave you a little bit of good advice. If not, well I hope it gave you the odd chuckle. Happy Christmas to you and the middle aged man or men in your life!

Poetry Blog: Fragment

I’m returning to familiar territory with this poem; sleeplessness. It’s something I suffer with every once in a while, so it’s not a terrible problem, but it can leave me feeling absolutely exhausted for a few days. As a result, I often find myself somewhere between a zombie and a purely functional human being, particularly at work.

This was a poem I believe was written a few months back. In fact, to begin with it wasn’t a complete poem as it was a kind of ‘something’ that I found on the bottom half of a page in my notebook , sat beneath a different, finished poem. I didn’t even notice it when I went back to write the other up for another blog as it just looked like 10 lines worth of notes. Thankfully, I found it again when flicking through the same notebook a few weeks ago. Once I’d given it a read I decided that I’d have to sit back down and get it finished.

I have a vague memory of finishing the poem at the top of the page and deciding to head back to bed. However, before I’d gotten up out of the chair another few lines arrived in my head and I sat back down to see what I could put together. I imagine it was another half an hour before I headed back upstairs. Anyway, it turned into the poem below.

The sounds of your sleeping collide with that of the pulse echoing around my head in the otherwise silent room. Awake again.
It prompts me to move, eventually, sleepily, stumbling out of the room.
On the landing I freeze at movement in an adjacent room
as someone stirs.
Trying not to wake them, I imagine their panic and confusion in a darkened room, perhaps abruptly departing a dream
and still myself for a moment while they return once more to their slumber.
Toes curled over the edge of every stair, I descend cautiously, robotically
before brutally puncturing the silence with electronic noise and light
as I disable the alarm, listening for a stretched out moment
before silently opening a door to pad across the pitch black front room.
The irony is not lost on me as my eyes refuse to wake fully,
my vision comfortably blurred around the edges as I finally sit
and wonder what to do now.

I like to take myself off downstairs when I can’t sleep. First and foremost it means that I’ve got less chance of waking of the rest of the family. One of the main reasons for getting out of bed in the first place is so that I don’t wake my wife. The other reason is that I enjoy the silence of the downstairs of the house. Eventually I’ll settle at the dining room table either to get some ideas down in a notebook – if it’s ideas for writing or lines for a potential poem that have woken me. And this was what happened here.

I called the poem ‘Fragments’ for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because that’s what it was when I found it; just fragments of an idea. Lines scribbled down underneath a completed poem like I’d just had enough and wanted to just get some sleep. I also called it fragments as a reference to my sleep at these types of times. Sleep is fragmented when I’m like this. I’ll usually sleep for a little bit and then wake up, unable to get back to it. It’s then that I find myself getting up. Even when I eventually head back to bed I often can’t sleep and will wake up regularly when I do.

As usual I’d love to read any comments about the poem. I hope you enjoyed it.

Book Review: ‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

Every now and again, a newspaper or a magazine that I read will publish a list of some kind of essential reads. It might be an end of year poll or just something that links to a particular time of year, but for as long as I can remember I’ve cut these lists up and stashed the cuttings elsewhere as books that I will mean to get around to buying and reading. ‘Marriage Material’ was published in 2013 and was found on such a list and then, years later, recovered from whatever receptacle it had been stashed in. I finally got round to buying it last year! And I have to say, it’s the kind of book that makes me thankful for my hoarding!

‘Marriage Material’ is a novel that is predominantly about families. From the love and the tenderness through to the irritations, the regrets and the great big falling outs. But it’s about much more than that too. Set largely in the West Midlands from the 1970s and 80s right through to the present day, the novel has culture, prejudice and division at its heart and for those of us who grew up in these times – if not the precise location – it makes for a really interesting read as well as one that brings back times that were a lot darker in their attitudes to anything or anyone that was deemed ‘different’.

The book tells the tale of Arjan Banga and his family with the story being told via a dual narrative taking place some years apart, before the two sides come together in an interesting twist. I loved the narrative style here as it left me not only trying to follow the story but also trying to work out the connection between the two. I think I was a little slow on the uptake, if I’m being honest, as it wasn’t actually that hard to work out, but for the first third of the book I must confess that I didn’t make the connection!

The family are immigrants to UK, so as the story is set in the 1970s and 80s, the book covers the ugly racism prevalent in our country at this time. However, I’d say that Sanghera treats these issues with a light touch and is prepared to write with humour when tackling some of the notable instances of prejudice in the book, such as the geographical inaccuracy of most of the insults hurled his and his familys’ way. It certainly puts the ignorance of his abusers into perspective and Sanghera’s observations made me smile on more than one occasion.

As the two narratives collide the story picks up pace. When his father dies Arjan heads home and immediately feels family pressure to take over the business. But he desperately doesn’t want to slip into the kind of stereotyped life he’s worked so hard all his adult life to avoid. However, seeing his mother again leads to him worrying about her health as well as her ability to run things and he’s is forced into a couple of decisions that will have a huge impact upon his future. One of these decisions is to track down a long lost relative and her impact on all of their lives has mixed, but ultimately positive results.

Rather than returning to his far more cosmopolitan life in London, he opts to stay at home to help run the business, as well as looking after his elderly mother. However, with a fiancé patiently awaiting him back in London and old acquaintances vying for his time in the Midlands, his life just gets more and more complicated. Inevitably, Arjan messes things up!

Marriage Material is a great read. Arjan’s life veers from one catastrophe to the next and as a reader you can’t help feeling sympathy, even when it seems abundantly clear that he must know he’s making a terrible decision. There’s a real humour – often quite dark – to the book and though at times it seems seems like Arjan’s life is spiraling out of control, you can somehow still laugh at his predicament.

In the end it all works out for the family. But not without the kind of scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tarantino film near the end. But just when you think it might all end in the kind of tragedy that none of us saw coming, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. A happy ending of sorts and certainly not in the way that you might have predicted when you first picked up the book!

A funny, engaging and just all-round excellent read, I’ll give Marriage Material

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: ‘As he fell…’

As someone who lives away from their home town and family home, I find it difficult to keep in touch. Sometimes that’s down to having quite a busy life. Family life can take over at times and then there’s work; having a job that is regularly the wrong side of hectic can mean that it’s tough to find time for a moment to relax, let alone time to think about who I need to get in touch with.

Sometimes though, I have to admit that my lack of phone calls home is just down to sheer laziness. When I finally get the chance to slump on the settee in front of some mindless television the last thing that I want to do is pick up the phone and make the inevitable and somewhat awkward small talk with my dad, asking and responding to the same questions that we always ask each other. A lot of our chats are just us counting down the minutes until we can tick a box marked ‘Chatted with dad/Graham’ and pass on the baton on to my mam.

A recent phone call got me thinking about the relationship I have with my dad though. Although I don’t think I’d ever describe us as being very close, my dad has always been a bit of a hero to me and always been someone that I’ve wanted to impress. My dad has always seemed invincible to me as nothing ever seems to really stop him in his tracks. He’s a typical Northern bloke, not given to outbursts of affection or praise and so it’s always felt like I haven’t really impressed him very much. That’s not me reaching for sympathy, it’s just the way things have been. I can’t say it’s ever stopped me from getting on with life.

There have been sporadic moments of affection and expressions of pride along the way but I think it’s best not to be greedy or needy. I’ve learnt to be happy with myself or proud of my own achievements and my relationship with my dad has been largely based around chatting about the football, something that I don’t imagine it’s unusual to build a father son relationship on!

A recent phone call led to my dad revealing that he’d fallen off a ladder and hurt himself quite badly. It was almost a throwaway conversation for him. No fuss, no need for sympathy, just very matter of fact. But it shattered my thoughts of him as being somehow invincible. He’d managed to hurt himself quite badly and had to go to hospital – of course he’d driven himself there – to get stitches in a leg wound and everything else checked over. He’s in his eighties now though and the incident and the way he reported it in our phone call made me think about him and I suppose his life expectancy a lot. And so, I wrote about it.

As he fell...

As he fell it was nothing that flashed before his eyes
and after the whump of the ground
and the surge of air that left him
all that remained was one, over ripe question mark.
Lying voiceless, his only thought formed as slowly 
as a child colouring carefully to avoid breaching the lines;
if this is how it all ends, was there ever really any point?

Flat on his back, doing whatever it is
one does when you cannot even manage to gasp,
he relaxed, rather than gave way to panic,
revelled almost in the moment that told him to do nothing,
prone in the hinterland somewhere between life and death,
looking serenely skyward while the now fallen ladder
balanced awkwardly across his chest
and wondered what was meant to happen next.

A faceless nothing seemed to silently gaze, take him in,
measure him up and contemplate his place in the world
before deciding that the time was not yet right
and placing him back carefully, like one would a
freshly unhooked trout spared the pan
and allowed to feel a freedom that would for now
be marked by the pain that besets the old fool
who overreached and fell from the ladder.

Breath returned, he gathered his thoughts,
dusted down his creaking bones
and swam tentatively back through the lake 
in search of not just sympathy and the inevitable scorn,
but a familiar face who would narrow her eyes 
and pass her shaken headed judgement ,before gently tending his wounds
and share not just his tale of woe and bloodied laundry,
but everything that life had, could and would throw at them
for their eternity together, and now for at least another day.

In order to write this poem I tried to imagine how my dad must have felt. All he really told me was that when it happened he lay there for a while to kind of gather himself before getting up and making his way slowly home. So for a bit of an uncomfortable while I had to try and inhabit my dad’s mind and think about what he’d have done, how he’d have felt and kind of join the dots about what had actually happened, because he’s very much an octogenarian of few words. Has been since he was about 40, I think!

He was actually in his allotment pruning a hedge and overreached. Subsequently, he lost balance and over he went. But given his time of life I imagined that he’d have felt quite bewildered by it all and having fallen from quite high up on the ladder I thought it might have knocked the stuffing out of him and left him not only in pain, but groggy, confused and possibly…possibly, even as a big tough, gruff Geordie, a bit scared.

Speaking to my dad that day he was resigned to more or less giving up on his allotment, admitting that it had gotten too much for him. He’s 82 after all! But there was a definite sadness in him about that as it’s something he’s toiled away at for probably well over 20 years now, since they moved from the family home to where they live now.

I ended the poem with a little bit about my mam. They’ve been married for around 60 years and it’s always funny to watch them together. For every small tender moment there seem to be a thousand gripes and snipes and they argue like, well like an old married couple. But I know that she worries about him and as an ex nurse, I know that she’ll have tried to clean him up and get him to just sit down and take it easy. There wouldn’t have been a great deal of explicit sympathy, but I think she’d have been scared by it all too. He actually managed to slice his leg open and only noticed a while later when his leg felt damp and he thought he’d had another kind of accident altogether.

I hope I’ve done them both justice with this poem. I wondered what must have gone through his mind as things failed him again. He’s always been so strong and just tough, so I think this latest age episode must have been strange for him.

As ever, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment. It’s always good to read people’s thoughts, particularly when what I write is as personal as this poem.

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