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.

How to unravel at half term.

I didn’t realise how tired I was until the first Saturday of half term. As an early riser I’m normally fine with being out of bed and able to function at the very least. But not on that Saturday. I still dragged myself out of my warm bed, but in truth I could have stayed there for a few more hours at least.

I’ve spent the rest of the week, from that point onwards, slowly unravelling. It’s the following Friday and I can’t recall having felt more like my age than I do now! My knees ache, my shoulder is still sore – a now months old injury that still hasn’t quite healed – my back hurts and of course I’ve managed to develop the traditional teacher’s holiday cold on top of all of this! With a list of jobs to go at, it’s been just great to feel so terrible!

One of the jobs on our list was to have my daughter’s bedroom painted. It was something I’d started a few months ago, when she was away for the weekend doing her Duke of Edinburgh expedition. So, the hope was that finishing it off wouldn’t be too big a job. Turns out that hope was – and pardon my turn of phrase here, but in my defence it couldn’t be more accurate – a load of bollocks.

Years ago I’d vowed to just steer clear of my daughter’s room. It was, in short, a shit hole – again, the most accurate term I can find – and I just got to the point where asking her to sort it out or trying to do so myself was causing too much conflict, so I stepped back. I also vowed never to have a hand in decorating it either, such was my level of dissatisfaction. But, in a moment of weakness I stepped up to the plate and began the task. Now I needed to get it finished.

I’ve tried. And I’ll keep trying. But short of taking every last bit of furniture and tat out of said room and then just painting non stop for a good couple of days, it can’t be done. If you could see said room you’d understand my reluctance to move everything out as well. I have a genuine fear that I’ll reach to get something and be bitten by some kind of small animal. Or become trapped in a giant hair ball, ending up feeling physically sick, but with a great idea for a B-movie. So, let’s just say that progress has been slow. Slow in the sense of the movement of the glaciers as well, rather than just walking pace.

Stuff has got in the way as well. You know stuff, don’t you? Cleaning ,walks, trips to deliver things to charity shops or pick up prescriptions, that kind of stuff. Not to mention ridiculous shopping trips where you stand in a shop debating whether to buy a 6ft tall light up, inflatable snowman before leaving with no snowman but the bonus of three Christmas gonks and a mirror. I mean, we’ve all been there…

I must admit that my body and mind unravelling and shutting down has made ‘stuff’ unavoidable. So, as much as I’ve reminded myself that I need to finish decorating or I need to mark books or plan some lessons for Year 11, my aching shoulder or the fact that every time I get up I get shooting pains through one of my knees, makes shopping for Christmas gonks or family sized bags of crisps all the more appealing. And before you know it you’re 4 days into the week and nothing’s got done! But your Christmas gonk game is the envy of all of your friends, who are now frankly playing gonk catch up.

On Thursday we went to a theme park in a desperate attempt to inject some fun into our week. And it was fun…for three quarters of the family. However, it felt like purgatory for me. In short, I’d prefer to spend the day working in a Siberian salt mine than being at a theme park, but sometimes you’ve got to bite the bullet and go along to please the family. And I couldn’t get a flight out of Leeds/Bradford airport to Siberia at such short notice anyway.

I’ve never understood the thrill of theme park rides. To me it’s just a terrible feeling of being completely out of control and deliberately making yourself feel sick. There is no thrill. And if there is – and there isn’t – you have to stand in a massive queue for ages for the dubious pleasure. Add in that this was a theme park in North Yorkshire on a cold and windy October day and the fun was even more minimal than usual for me. I even wandered into the zoo section of the park at one point, while my family were queueing for yet more thrills and having wandered around for a good 10 minutes, I made my way back into the park having clapped eyes on not one solitary animal. Everything was sat inside where it was no doubt warmer than me. Meanwhile, my mind was unravelling, just like my body had been for the previous few days.

We did manage to order a cooker earlier in the week, so a major item was being ticked off a list there. But then we had to refuse delivery this morning when we discovered that new gas fitting regulations would mean that we couldn’t actually have it fitted! So just when it looked like we’d achieved something quite major, we had to reverse our decision at literally the last second, as the delivery men were unloading the cooker from the van! And as I stood explaining myself to them at the bottom of our drive it began to rain heavily.

All in all, it’s been a fairly forgettable week. Instead of a glass of wine at night, or a beer, I’ve sat in front of the telly more than once nursing a cold and flu drink. My daughter’s room still has work to do. And it’s still a shit hole, whatever the colour or state of the walls. We couldn’t replace the cooker but managed to waste a good 10 hours or so researching one and then buying it. And , of course we also had that day at a theme park which three of the family really enjoyed while the other member slowly froze while getting ever more bored and confused. But there were gonks…Christmas gonks. So you know, it’s swings and roundabouts isn’t it? Isn’t it?

As a kind of post script to this post and week, let me tell you about the latter part of my Friday afternoon. Determined to shake off the feeling that my body had been broken by 7 weeks at work, I went out for a run. It really hurt. Towards the end I could feel pain in my right ankle, my asthma was kicking in and making me wheeze a little bit and my hamstrings were beginning to cramp up. I was fine with this though as I had ran the furthest I’d ran since the middle of August when my shoulder injury kicked in and stopped me altogether. I was delighted. So delighted that I decided to cook a fresh pasta sauce for my tea in the spirit of health and fitness. Fresh garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, some sausage and some fresh chillies. The week was finally taking a turn for the better. And then, while chopping the chillies I managed to squirt quite a bit of it into my eye. So now that doesn’t work either…

It’s not been the week I expected.

Poetry Blog: Forbidden

This feels like an ambitious poem. For me, that is. I doubt actual poets would feel anything like as intimidated by it as I did. In fact, such was the level of ambition and intimidation, it was a poem that I almost didn’t even take on. But in the end, it was a subject matter that interested me so much that I just thought I’d like to write a poem about it.

So the poem is about the mass repatriation of Zainichi Koreans who were (and still are) ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Between 1959 and 1984 93,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan were repatriated to North Korea, despite the fact that lots of them were of South Korean origin. Furthermore, among the 93,000 were over 1800 Japanese women who had married Korean men. Many of these women had previously faced the opposition and disapporval of their families, such was the ill feeling towards Korean immigrants in Japan at that time. Now they faced an uncertain future in a land where they knew nothing about.

The repatriation was disastrous for many as the promise of a new life and the optimism that brought just didn’t work out in a North Korea that was heavily damaged by war. Later, as North Korea became more and more closed off to the outside world, the women were denied the chance to visit family and ‘home’ in Japan. My poem is written from the point of view of one of these ‘trapped’ women.

Forbidden

When we married, we dreamed of a future together in our home, 
like everybody does, I suppose. Something modest.
Having fought for just each other, we didn't need the world.
But it took only months to leave those dreams behind
and look towards others on another shore that we imagined as home.

Too young to know better, to argue, to question
we boarded a ferry to our brave new world.
Promised the dream of paradise, we told ourselves that we weren't being forced,
that this was our decision, that our nerves would give way
to delight at what our future could, would become.

But our future wasn't bright at all. Instead it was the sombre
tones of mines and factories where we made our lives,
as had been their plan all along. Our utopia disappeared,
in time becoming nothing but a prison where we shed
tears for our loss, tears for our betrayal, tears for our home.

I clung, steadfast, to memories, allowed my senses to take me home,
closed my eyes to reality in order to see the acacia in full Spring bloom,
allow the smell to envelop me, stay there for a time bathing in the warm air.
In my mind I would walk pavements in parks with him,
cherry blossom breaking over us like gentle April waves.

But none of it would be real life anymore.
When we were forbidden from visiting our parents' graves
sadness turned to loathing. Those who frowned upon our youthful choices
were now just ghosts of the past and we could not mourn
the loss of our very beginning.

Instead we were forced to mourn the loss of our very freedom, our existence,
our souls, culture, identity
and, given no reason why this should be we could only feel more detached
than ever before, disillusionment disintegrating into numbness.
We were driftwood, pushed along by the sea, forgotten by the land.

Now, it feels like I have spent my life staring blind from this window
scouring the landscape for the past that I can no longer see,
searching through the coastal mist for a home no longer on the horizon,
imagining one last glimpse, one last memory, one last conversation,
while knowing all senses are lost like our identity.

We are widows.
Abandoned, forgotten, homeless, but never hopeless,
yet cast adrift, a life not lived,
forever seeking the answers to how and why.

I hope I’ve managed to do this topic justice. As I said earlier, it was something that I read about – and have read more about since – that just gripped me. For want of a much better way of putting it, I just felt such sympathy for the women that I read about. Some of them talked about how they married their Korean partner, despite pressure from their families and how despite not regretting their choices, they were forced to live with the eventual reality that they would never see their parents again. The stubbornness of youth leading a lifetime of feeling incomplete.

The stories possibly resonated with me because at the time of reading, in the middle of the Covid crisis, I had begun to wonder if I’d ever see my parents again. Their age combined with their vulnerability to the virus made for some very difficult times and although I wouldn’t dream of thinking I’d had it as bad as the Japanese women I read about it piqued my interest in their story.

I think I quite like what I’ve managed to write. I found it difficult to write as someone else, but I’m fairly sure I haven’t made a complete mess of it. I hope you like what I’ve written too. As ever, please feel free to leave a comment.

The long, wet summer just passed me by…

I’m very lucky, in many ways, to be a teacher. Forget things like pay and conditions – which in actual fact, aren’t that bad – there are lots of things to be thankful for in my profession. I get to work with young people full of ideas, emotions, hope, naivety and energy for one thing. I get to help kids produce amazing things. I get to work alongside them and many brilliant colleagues and I have to admit that I get to have what can feel like endless laughs.

All very nice, right? And now you’re thinking, here comes the bad stuff? Make way for the abuse, the long hours, the meetings, blah, blah, blah. Well, you’d be wrong. What I wanted to mention was the summers. The teacher’s summers. Because after a couple of decades of teaching, it’s still the summer holidays, those six blissful weeks, that are the most attractive feature.

So, I thought I’d go through a quick review of my latest summer holidays.

After all of the build up, I’m not going to lie; this one’s been pretty damn poor in many ways. One of my favourite things about summer is standing in the garden early in the morning, hanging out washing on the line, looking up at a blue sky, feeling the sun on my face and just thinking about the fact that the rest of the day is stretching out in front of me, as is the rest of whatever remains of my summer. Bloody wonderful.

Except, that hasn’t really been the case this summer. As the rain fell and just continued to fall and fall and fall, I distinctly remember that our washing basket was positively overflowing. In fact, I remember my son telling me that he’d ran out of underwear at one point! So, it’s safe to say that the weather this summer has been really underwhelming. And that, ladies and gents is more than enough to make your summer…well, a bit of a bummer. Not only does it impact on one’s leisurely laundry fantasies, but it means that days out, gardening, and any outdoor jobs and projects that have been saved up for these precious 6 weeks, just sit there, undone and nagging at you. As a result, I have to say that in many ways it’s not been the best of summers.

One thing that we have done that’s really maximised the fun we could have over summer is to take a couple of holidays. I say holidays; one was a three day break that was then followed by two days in Newcastle seeing family and friends, so that was a holiday in a kind of left field way.

I’ve blogged about our main summer holiday in North Wales, so I won’t dwell on that here, suffice to say that we had a lovely time in a truly special part of the UK. We left the day after the end of the academic year and it felt absolutely amazing to be wandering around on a beach, escaping the stress of work life so quickly after leaving my classroom.

Our other holiday was a bit different. Firstly we spent three days in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. We stayed in a nice guest house, spent some time on the beach and spent a whole load of time in arcades – having raided our coppers jar for 2 pence pieces in advance – while also upholding the family tradition of having dad (me) hold the bags while mum and the kids go on some rides! It all felt really relaxing.

Straight after returning from Scarborough we headed to Newcastle for a couple of days for a break that we had all been looking forward to. The main reason for this was because this would be the first time we would see family and friends in 18 months (because of Covid, not out of choice).

Again, we had a lovely relaxing break, meeting up for coffee with our closest friends on the Quayside in Newcastle, going out for tea with my parents and then out for a nice walk with them the next day. We also visited an excellent gluten free bakery which happened to be in a part of the city where I’d spent a lot of my childhood, but hadn’t been back to in probably over 25 years. So that was a really interesting thing to do, not least because it allowed me to show my own children these places. Interesting to note that in what we might call a slightly rougher end of town, within seconds one of my children was asking if we should be locking the car doors!

When we returned home after our breaks in Scarborough and Newcastle we were exhausted and apart from getting through a veritable mountain of washing, we made sure that we relaxed and did very little for the next few days. And I suppose this is an excellent example of the privilege’s of a teacher’s summer; there often isn’t any sense of urgency. Whether you go places, take on projects or extend yourself in any way is entirely up to you – you do not need to give work or going to work even the briefest of thoughts for whole chunks of your summer. Ask most teachers and they’ll tell you that there will always come a point in every summer where they genuinely don’t know what day it is.

By this point I’d also managed to do myself an injury which did its best to curtail my summer fun. Maybe it was the sense of freedom that did it, but while throwing myself around in goal during a training session for the team that I coach, I damaged a nerve under my shoulder and found myself in quite intense and constant pain for a while. And because visiting a doctor during these Covid times is quite a drawn out affair, it took far too long to get proper painkillers. Thus, my decorating slowed down, my enthusiasm for anything remotely physical waned and my mood took a bit of a beating.

A planned break in the Lake District was duly postponed – too much to do at home, too tired from galivanting around the country for the previous few weeks – leaving us to see out the last couple of weeks of our summer together with the odd day trip and catching up on some of those long put off jobs around the house. The weather didn’t help the appetite to leave the house as the British summer petered out and seemed to surrender far too easily to autumnal conditions. And before I knew it, I was doing the usual of kidding myself that it was a good thing that I still had3, then 2, then 1 day left at home.

I can’t complain too much. Even the weather doesn’t get in the way of the fact that I can spend 6 weeks not having to wear a suit and tie and that my shirt ironing is down to a bare minimum. It’s also 6 weeks of leisurely cups of coffee, of an extra hour in more in bed, more late night television and best of all, 6 weeks of possibility where work will hardly ever get in the way.

So while Summer was wet and seemed to pass by far too quickly, it was still peaceful, it was a considerable amount of fun and despite the injury still hanging around, it was still, in many ways, pain free.

I hope you enjoyed reading and as ever, feel free to leave a comment as they’re always appreciated.

Book Review: ‘The Honest Truth’ by Dan Gemeinhart

It might be argued that there’s no more honest truth than the fact that you’re going to die. I mean, I’d like to hope that – inspired by the theme tune to ‘Fame’ – I’m going to live forever, but you can’t escape the honest truth though, can you?

Mark is a young boy who’s facing up to a whole lifetime’s worth of problems, only they’ve appeared in the shape of just the one big problem. And with that problem comes his honest truth. It’s looking pretty much certain that he’s going to die. I mean, that’s a big old problem when you’ve not even made it to high school age . And Mark’s facing this problem…by running away to climb a mountain.

Mark has had cancer for most of his life. He’s battled to stay alive, battled to fight off the cancer and just be a normal child. But however many times he fights it off, it keeps coming back to have another go at him, as is the way with this horrible disease. In running away, he now hopes to just die and end all of the heartache for not just himself, but his parents and his best friend Jess. While he’s at it, he hopes to climb a mountain like his grandfather asked him to just before he himself died. In short, Mark is a boy who has simply had enough of the hand that life has dealt him.

The subject matter of ‘The Honest Truth’ isn’t what you’d call particularly nice. The death of a child, even a child with a terrible illness, is never pleasant. As a parent, having one of my children in hospital for any length of time and for anything at all, is a real nightmare. But Dan Gemeinhart writes about Mark’s situation with a wonderful balance of optimism, humour and of course a tinge of sadness. It all makes for a compelling story and right up until a few pages from the end, you’re never quite sure how things are going to work out for Mark.

‘The Honest Truth’ is probably what we should be referring to as a YA novel. But, even at my age, I still love reading novels from this genre. I have a bit of an excuse, given that I’m a high school English teacher. But regardless of what it is and where we squeeze it in, ‘The Honest Truth’ is an excellent story and at not much over 200 pages, a really quick one to get through too!

The story is intriguing as Mark runs away with the intention of dieing on the mountain, while dodging a missing person’s investigation that has been publicised on every format of media you can think of. As a reader I felt like any second now, he’d be found. I mean you’d imagine people would be on higher alert than usual keeping their eyes out for a little runaway, stricken with cancer. But, with the help of his dog Beau – the kind of amazing, loyal canine companion we’d all dream of having – he seems to stay at least one step ahead of it all, despite becoming increasingly sick and increasingly slow in his ‘escape’ to the mountain.

In all, ‘The Honest Truth’ is a just fantastic read and I was gripped from start to finish, torn between wanting Mark to get his final wish and wanting him to get caught and taken home to his parents and best friend, Jess. Whichever way it ended, it almost wouldn’t have mattered and surely that’s the sign of a truly wonderful story.

I’d give ‘The Honest Truth’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Dad

I wrote this poem fairly recently and although the circumstances have changed for the better since then, the sentiment behind it remains very much the same.

It’s a poem about my dad, who at the time of writing, I hadn’t seen for 18 months. I hadn’t seen my mam either, come to think about it. Because they live together, which is usually the way when you’ve been married for 50 odd years. But it was speaking to my dad that prompted me to write.

Speaking to him shocked me a little bit, despite the fact that I was aware of probably a lot of things about him from the 18 months when I’d not been around him. I was also very much aware of his age and this should have been an indicator of the fact that he was getting old. And yet, speaking to him and hearing what sounded like a very old man on the other end of the phone, gave me a bit of a jolt. He sounded not only old, but frail, perhaps even ill.

It led me to sit, worrying, before then spending time reminiscing for most of the rest of the day. So having thought about my dad a lot afterwards, I sat down and wrote the following.

Dad

The drudgery of another working week done and I'm preparing for the next one
as my phone alerts me to the terror of a voicemail.
You sound urgent, but noticeably frail, more my grandad than my dad.
"When you get this, call. Straight away."

I sit down nervously, to return the call, pre-empt the bad news,
aware of hospital appointments, complaints, tests.
I needn't have bothered as the 'news' is nothing at all,
just a parent checking in. But still you sound different.

I'm reminded that, despite middle age, I'm still 'the bairn'
and continue to be wrapped in cotton wool, drip-fed information
on a 'he doesn't need to know' basis.
I can't trust your reassurance, but can't question it either.

You sound different; where once there was the toughness
of teak, now in its place squats a weakness as the ravages of
age take hold and remind me that you won't be here forever.
You're failing, ever so slightly, when I never thought you would.

That night, I can't escape you as you take root in my head.
The sound of you; segs on concrete, returning home with the paper.
Clearing your throat at 6am, tapping a razor on the sink, 
oblivious to those of us trying to sleep. Later you'd leave the car running
on the drive to warm up, just in case anyone hadn't yet been woken.

I see you emerging from the car after the Cup Final, crestfallen,
unwittingly signalling my own life of sporting misery.
Drunk on New Year's Eve, incongruously dressed in a kilt,
jiving with our neighbour on another package holiday; mesmerising.
Coming through the front door, hands black after another day running the yard.

Later, I feel you chasing me up the stairs, when my smart mouth ran away,
smell the sharp tinge of metal on your work clothes, 
the fug of flatulence as I open our living room door and the smell
seems to slap me in the face.

I smile at the pints we shared, the fish and chips, taste the 
cheese on toast you volunteered me for at the lull in Sportsnight,
hear your laugh, bellowing, a crude comment, a ruffle of my hair,
remember how you reduced me to tears telling your friends of your pride in me,
your son, the clever bugger. I see the picture of you
with your grandson and those tears burn my face again.

We haven't awkwardly hugged in far too long. 
I'm not ready for what inevitably comes next, even if no one will tell me
until the very last minute anyway.

The poem’s about just sitting thinking about my dad and the way I remember him. These are memories from along time ago and it seems obvious that he’d be very different now. So I suppose, it’s a poem about a number of other things too. Growing old, change, personality, perception. Certainly my perception of my dad has been that he’s invincible. While he wasn’t a hero figure growing up, he still just seemed to have a solidity about him. Speaking to him that a few weeks ago, he seemed to have lost that solidity.

I’ve since been able to visit my parents and although it wasn’t an upsetting visit – in fact it was truly lovely just to be able to be in the same room as them again – it was was a bit of a shock. The reality that my dad is now an octogenarian was unavoidable. And while that sounds silly, it was something that I hadn’t given too much thought beforehand. My dad was just my dad.

When I was younger my dad always seemed old. Anyone who’s been your typical teenager will recognise that feeling! So seeing him hit 60, retire and being the age he is now, didn’t feel like a big deal. He was old, just like he’d always been. It’s funny how just the sound of someone’s voice on the phone can shake you to your boots. Writing the poem helped me deal with how it all made me feel.

One last thing; the line about the sound of his ‘segs’ on concrete. That’s one that will mean something or absolutely nothing to readers. To explain, ‘segs’ are/were the little strips of metal that would often be on the soles of shoes and boots, I guess to protect said soles. They made a very satisfying noise when a person walked, a kind of scraping click. I don’t even know if ‘segs’ is the right word for them, but my dad’s shoes and boots always had them on throughout the 70s and 80s.

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Maybe it made you think about your own parents. Hopefully it provoked happy memories. I’d love to hear what you thought.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

Facebook memories rarely fail to raise a chuckle from me. Some, I will share, without fail, every year. Others, just gain a laugh and then get scrolled through. Recently, one came up that makes me smile every time. It was the third year anniversary of me and my kids completing a 5km fun run. It made me smile for a number of reasons; firstly because in the three years since it happened my children have grown up so much and secondly because we all look so very pleased with ourselves!

This year though, it made me smile all the more because it came up on the exact same day that I completed a 10km race; the Pontefract 10k. It was the progress that pleased me so much. Not that I was now able to run twice the distance, but because of what this shift represented to me personally. It’s around 3 and a half years since I had to go into hospital for heart surgery, so while completing the 5km fun run was a real boost, this latest run has really cemeneted the feeling that I’m a whole lot better, fitter and healthier these days.

I entered the race partly because it was a goal that I set myself and also because a friend from work invited me to give it a go. He probably won’t remember, but around 3 years ago he asked me if I fancied doing a different 10k and I had to turn him down because I knew there was no way I’d be able to do it; no way that my body would have got through 10 whole kilometres! I felt terrible – like I was just being anti-social and making excuses. But it nagged away at me and then at the turn of this year, with a fair few 10km training runs under my belt, I made it my business to enter an actual race. So thanks Shaun, for the inspiration!

In the run up to August 1st though, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to complete the race. My fitness had dropped due to a period of isolation when my son caught Covid and then a series of niggling injuries interrupted my running even more. Self doubt, my old lifelong friend crept in and installed himself on a shoulder so he could readily whisper in my ear. He was there as I walked around the supermarket, there whenever I trained and my legs felt a little tired and more to the point, there when I lined up at the start of the race.

My aforementioned friend actually passed us – me and my family – as we waited by the start. I deliberately stood under a tree and hid a bit, just to avoid having to talk about what the next 55 or so minutes might hold. I was ridiculously nervous. The whole time that we stood there I glanced furtively around, knowing that there were at least two other people I knew, knowing that I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Ridiculous really! As I stood and then stretched and checked that everything was just the way I wanted it to be, I grew more nervous and more grumpy with my family, who had very kindly got up at 6.30am on this particular Sunday in order to be with me at the start line for 9am.

And then, before I knew what to moan about next, we were on the road and the race was starting. A word about a word. When I say ‘race’ please understand that out of the over 800 people who entered the run, only some of us were racing. Probably a few hundred, maybe more. But I’m sure for a lot of people the object was just to get around having had a bit of fun along the way.

It surprised me how quickly my mood changed once I got into my running. The race started in a park, running down the driveway entrance before a sharp right turn took us up what looked like a steady, but never-ending hill. Within a few hundred metres I was running steadily and feeling strong. The run from the Facebook memory had been one of the the last times I’d ran in a field of other runners and it surprised me how quickly I felt comfortable after so many solitary – but never lonely – training runs.

Running up that first climb, with a friend’s description of the course as being ‘undulating’ now ringing in my ears, I felt good. The nerves had settled, the feeling of being some kind of imposter had disappeared and here I was fit, healthy and passing people. Others had the audacity to pass me, but it didn’t feel like it mattered. My plan was for a fast final mile or mile and a half and so I felt sure that my time would come.

I ran wearing a smart watch and also with my Strava app running on my phone and found myself glancing at Strava more than ever before. I think the fact that it informed me I was running at 7.30 per mile pace and at times below alarmed me a little – I’m usually up around 8.30 at this stage of a run – and so I ran while battling to focus on slowing down and not getting carried away and also checking the app to see my progress. I seemed incapable of slowing down for around the first 3km though and was sure that I’d grind to an almighty halt at about 7km! It didn’t get quite that bad though.

The undulating nature of the course would take its toll though. Through 4, 5 and 6 kms, I slowed. I’m aware that we did run down some hills, but it just seemed like the uphill sections kept appearing in front of me, relentlessly. I dug in, tried to relax and just kept running, but it wasn’t long before it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d passed anyone. Runners were passing me though. Not in their droves, but every so often one would glide past and despite my best efforts I just couldn’t keep up! But I wasn’t dropping too far though, so I stayed calm and just relied on the fact that I felt like I could summon some strength up and have a better final few kilometres.

My mind began to wander though and I started to think about my operation three years previously. I thought about being admitted initially and the loneliness of the night in hospital wondering if I might die. I thought about hugging my wife and kids the next day, once I’d finally got home. I thought about waiting to be called on to the ward about a month later when I was operated on and I thought about the operation itself. The last thing I thought about before I snapped myself back to the matter at hand was my cardiologist giving me the all clear about a year later. I began to feel quite emotional, but knew that I had to pull myself together and get back to focusing on the running. Imagine the horror of running past some red-faced, sweaty old bloke who was weeping quietly to himself, snot and tears streaming down his face! Clearly though, this run was more important to me than I’d imagined.

A couple of minutes later, with my legs not feeling too bad – despite my pace slowing – I concentrated on distracting myself and for a few minutes at least, tried to just spot things to look at, like a nice house or the view. I made sure to reply to everyone who was supporting from the side of the road, again in an attempt to stave off mental fatigue and would occasionally take a slog from the water I’d picked up at the last feeding station.

It didn’t take me too long to pull myself together and be able to focus again and when I did, I began looking ahead and trying to focus on people that I might be able to catch and overtake. My legs still felt like they had some life in them and by the time I’d got to the 8km mark I’d been able to progress through the field a little bit. I decided that once I’d got to 8 and a half km I would up my pace some more and that for the final mile I’d be trying to run at something like 7 and a half minute mile pace.

But the hills Just seemed to just keep on coming. I knew I was nearly done though and by this point I was just determined to have a strong finish.

Halfway down the final hill and running fairly strongly, something brilliant happened. As I looked down the road I spotted my wife and children. I think I spotted them before they spotted me and so I gave them a wave. Once they waved back, it was my cue to quicken the pace again. The bottle of water that I was carrying was by now getting on my nerves, so I positioned myself near the kerb and when I passed them made sure to hand it to my daughter. Their whooping and screaming and clapping was brilliant to hear though and really spurred me on. I knew that I was within a few hundred metres of the finish now.

At the bottom of the hill we turned left and were back on the drive of the park with a slightly uphill dash to go until the finish line. Despite a sudden feeling of nausea I began to sprint – as much as a nearly 50-year-old who’s ran almost 10km could sprint – and was soon passing people. I really didn’t feel strong at all and was pretty certain that I was going to be sick, but it was just a case of digging in and getting through it. To my left I could see my wife and kids cutting over the grass from where they’d been on the roadside so that they could get to the finish. My son called out, ‘Go on Dad!’ and coupled with just seeing them there, it was enough to push me over the last few yards.

Me, knackered, attempting to power my way to the finish!

Right on the line, while I was concentrating on not throwing up, two people passed me. I spotted them in my peripheral vision, but it was too late and I didn’t really have the strength to react. I wasn’t particularly bothered though; I’d done what I’d set out to do and when I glanced down at my phone in order to stop Strava, I was thrilled to see that I’d ran the course in a little over 51 minutes, which from memory was one of the best 10km times I’d ever ran.

As I collected my water, medal and t-shirt I was in a bit of a trance. The medal quickly went into a pocket and the t-shirt got draped over my shoulder while I downed the water. I felt exhausted, but thrilled to have finished at the same time.

Within a couple of minutes I’d located my family who greeted me like I was returning from climbing Everest! We stood and chatted for a short while, but then with rain looking absolutely certain, we decided to head for the car and get home. Time to relax, have something to eat and maybe scroll through my phone for Facebook memories!

Later that day I found out that I’d finished in 271st place out of 813 runners and I have to say I was really pleased with that. My official time was 51 minutes and 51 seconds, my second fastest 10km run, so despite my mid-run lull, I’d managed to keep going pretty well.

I’m looking for more races to enter now, although with the football season starting soon, I’ll have to avoid clashes. The race has definitely whetted my appetite for more and I’ll continue going out training and trying to improve both my times and my fitness. I’ll definitely be running the Pontefract 10k next year too!

Book Review: The Knot by Mark Watson.

If you’re from the UK, you might well know Mark Watson for his stand up comedy or even his fairly frequent appearances on panel shows. A distinctive looking fella and very funny indeed. What you might not have any knowledge of are his novels. If this is true, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been missing out.

The Knot is the second of Watson’s books that I’ve read and it’s reminded me that I need to get my hands on the rest.

The front cover of The Knot tells readers that Dominic Kitchen is hiding a secret and that it’s one that he has carried all of his life. So you immediately know that there’s something not quite right and that this secret must be something pretty serious. So, in a way, we’re hooked from the off. And believe me, when you find out the secret, it really is the kind of thing that would stop any one of us living a normal life.

The novel is set mainly in the latter decades of the 20th century and Dominic is the youngest of three siblings, brought up in a middle class family in London. Dominic’s older brother, the somewhat domineering Max, graduates from Oxford and goes on to become a successful sports agent while his sister Victoria marries a famous cricketer. Meanwhile, Dominic seems to simply tootle along, never really sure of what he wants to do with his life. He stumbles upon a talent for photography and together with crazy Irishman Daley, makes a living from that. But nothing ever seems simple for Dominic. We find him approaching middle age, but are frequently taken on flashbacks to his earlier formative years. And with this technique, his terrible secret is drip fed to us. I had an inkling of it early on but found myself regularly thinking, ‘no, it can’t be that’. Until it was…

The secret is the cause of the knot, a feeling that plagues almost everything that Dominic does and even though he seems to be managing to live a happy enough life, it is always there in the background, eating away at him. Can he ever really be happy? Will he be able to make his marriage to Lauren and career as a wedding photographer work? And even if he does, will the dreaded secret do the seemingly inevitable and come back to ruin everything? After all, some things just can’t stay hidden.

The Knot really is a good read. The storyline is certainly original and there are moments of jaw-dropping drama as well plenty of the kind of comic moments you’d expect from a writer who doubles up as a stand up comedian. Dominic is a character that I think a lot of us would be able to relate to – not sure of where he wants life to lead, unable to move on in the way that he might really want to because of a lack of confidence and an enormous mistake and just not really coping as an adult. The secret that blights Dominic’s life is really quite shocking and even though it becomes a little more acceptable later on in the story, neither Dominic or ourselves as readers can ever really recover from it. But you will find yourself on Dominic’s side, despite the nature of his mistake.

I’d absolutely recommend The Knot. If you enjoy a good story, well written characters – some you’ll love, others you’ll hate – and life changing dilemmas that you can get your teeth into, then it’s a novel that’s worth picking up.

I’d give The Knot…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

My Hopes for Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started