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Christmas Films: Five Underrated Gems.

It’s that time of year again. The nights have closed in, there’s a fair chance of snow and really, you should be out doing some Christmas shopping. But, out there in the not too far distance you can hear the annual call of the Christmas film. Or, if you’re American, the Christmas movie. It’s telling you to ease your way down onto the sofa, snuggle in with family or the dog, grab some snacks and something warm and cast those eyes over something you’ve seen umpteen times before.

So off you go, repeating all of the catchphrases in Elf, signing along to The Grinch and howling at the festive funnies in any or all of the Home Alones. But what do you do when you’ve exhausted those old favourites? Allow me.

I thought I’d offer you some Christmas film options that you might not have heard of or even have rejected if you’re one of those people who rely on reviews. Here, in no particular order are my 5 most underrated Christmas films!

  1. A Christmas Carol (U). Yes, I know that this is not an unknown film. I’m more than aware of the popularity of the film and of course the Dickens novella. However, I’d suggest that you watch a different version of A Christmas Carol than you possibly already do. Lots of people will watch the animated version with Jim Carrey being brilliant as Scrooge or even the Muppets Christmas Carol. Plenty more will enjoy the brilliant old Alistair Sim version too. But what about the 1984 made for TV version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge and Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present? I mean, the bloke who played General Patton and the bloke who played the original Equalizer! What’s not to like? Scott plays Scrooge perfectly; gruff, cold and with a little bit of a sadistic twist in the way that he seems to thoroughly enjoy telling people “Humbug!” or when he’s just scaring the bejeezuz out of random children on the street. Better still, Scott is equally brilliant in redemption, carrying Tiny Tim around town on his shoulders and laughing like a drain! And then there’s Woodward playing his ghost like some kind of deranged Yorkshire Santa Claus! Trust me, it’s great stuff and well worth a watch.
  2. Daddy’s Home 2 (PG13). With a 6.0 out of 10 rating on IMDB and a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 21%, you might well ignore this one. But, in my opinion, you’d be missing out on some fantastic comedy and a bit of a classic Christmas tale. Co-dads Brad and Dusty (Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) take their families away for Christmas, along with their own dads Don and Kurt, with disastrous and often hilarious, if a little bit predictable results. If you’re a fan of Will Ferrell, you’re going to get what you’d expect here and alongside the comedy, there’s a heart warming Christmas tale, just as soon as everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. A must watch for us, every year!
  3. Fred Claus (PG). Another one where you’d be better off ignoring the reviews. This one is another 21% scorer on Rotten Tomatoes and only gets 5.6 on IMDB. However, all I can say is that the ratings are wrong. Vince Vaughn plays Santa’s slacker older brother Fred, who couldn’t give a figgy pudding for Christmas, but ends up in the North Pole against his better judgement. And just when it looks like that Christmas spirit might fall flat, Fred is there to save the day and see the light. Another family film with a big chunk of redemption running through it. A comedy with some interesting takes on what Santa’s home and workshop at the North Pole might actually be like. The kids will love the elves and hopefully you’ll laugh along too.
  4. Arthur Christmas (PG). This time, we’re focused on Santa’s son, Arthur, who while he’s a well meaning, friendly sort of chap, is a bit of a disappointment when compared to his dad. Mind you, who wouldn’t be? So when Arthur and a team of oddballs end up on a mission to deliver one last forgotten Christmas present at the last minute, perhaps this is the very time that he proves himself worthy of the Claus name. A fantastic cast, an excellent and at times ridiculous story and some amazing animation. This is a funny and original feel good film that puts a twist on the Santa Claus story and comes out as a classic underdog tale. Well worth your viewing time.
  5. Bramble House Christmas. A bit of a different one to end with. I suppose that in amongst the cheesiness in this film, the overall message would be something about showing good will to all men. But in between that, this one’s got a lot going on. When a wealthy man leaves his young nurse a big chunk of money in his will it leads to suspicion, fear of treachery, a mystery Christmas trip to what would appear to be the perfect town and at then end of it all, a love story. In the end, Christmas cheer is the big winner and your cheeks might just ache from all of your smiling if you’re so inclined! I like this one – even though I’m not that big on smiling – because although it’s a little bit cheesy and a little bit predictable, it’s just a nice, harmless film to watch at this time of year. A good one to watch with the kids too!

Hopefully, there’s at least one film on my list that you’ve so far overlooked, meaning that you might get the chance to add a little bit of variety to your Christmas. So here’s to, picking one out, settling down with some hot chocolate and snacks and enjoying a good, new Christmas film on me!

Fighting Fit: an occasional diary (volume 2)

With time on my hands following heart surgery, last week I started writing an occasional diary. It seemed only right, especially after more than one person (including myself) joked at the time of my latest cardiology drama, that I’d do anything to get something to write a blog out of! Well, the joke’s on them; it’s very much more than one now!

Not a lot has changed in my routine this last week. It can’t really, as I’m just not capable of doing a great deal at the minute! I am now managing to walk every day though, without fail. I don’t go far. I’m not commuting out to beauty spots and hiking for untold miles across rugged terrain. Rather, I’m shambling my way around the streets where I live and making sure, that if I take an occasional selfie if it has a field or a tree in the background, so that my life looks slightly more interesting.

The positive with my walks is that they are edging ever further in distance. Or rather, I’m taking more steps each time. I haven’t yet recorded one on my Strava app as I feel pathetic enough as it its, without recording it on a form of social media that shows a map of my route and the invariably embarrassing statistics that yell, ‘Hey everyone, Graham used to be really fit, but now he can walk just short of a mile in 40 minutes!’

It feels quite lovely to be out though. I’d hesitate to say anything about how it feels to still be alive, but there is a small element of that. While I haven’t found myself standing marvelling at the magnificence of trees, I do feel quite lucky. And actually, last week’s diary did blather on about how dramatic the fog was!

In other news, I’ve grown a beard. This is largely down to circumstance, as I can’t really lift my left arm up for very long without it really hurting because of the scarring from my op. It’s also just an action that I’ve been told to avoid for something like 6 weeks, while my pacemaker settles into my chest, so the action of stretching my skin with my left hand while shaving with my right is a bit of a no-go area. Hence, the beard.

I’ve never had any inclination to grow a beard before. However, despite its whiteness, I’m quite pleased with it and for the near future at least, it’s staying. My wife and children don’t like it so much. It tickles when I’m near them. I’m certain that my parents will hate it too. Others have said it looks good though. I worry I might be turning into Roy Keane, while hoping that I’m actually morphing into George Clooney. Who knows what the truth is? Actually, me and it’s not the Clooney truth! I actually quite like it though and I’m surprised with how much I’ve taken to it.

As time has moved on and I’ve felt less pain, I’m writing more too and as well as some blog posts, I’ve written first drafts of four or five new poems. It’s very tiring though and so there’s only so much that I can do. I suppose I need to find some kind of balance between resting and trying to do more, while also kerbing my urge to just get stuck back in again at full pace. Some days I long to be back at work, but for once I’ve been sensible enough to listen to what the professionals have told me and stick to getting the rest that I need. Hopefully it’ll pay off and everything will get back to normal given time.

I worry that all I seem to write about is being poorly though. I suppose it’s obviously still fresh in my head, but while I had a tentative brush with something serious, I really don’t want to bore people to death about it now! With that in mind I’ve made a list of things I can write about so in the coming days I need to find the energy to research a couple of things and possibly write some Christmas themed posts.

The final thing that has been on my mind this week is my lack of sleep. Since leaving hospital I’ve managed one unbroken night of sleep. And by unbroken, I don’t just mean not waking up. I always wake up on the night. What I mean is not having to get out of bed.

Almost every night for over a month now has been punctuated by an extended amount of time out of bed. The pattern seems to be that I sleep for anything up to an hour before waking up, unable to get back to sleep. This then usually means a couple of hours or so spent downstairs, reading or doing a bit of writing. I even did the dishes at 1.30am the other day! I’m hoping that I can find a way to sort this out!

Overall, this week I feel noticeably better. I still get tired out easier than I’d like, I’m still bored a lot of the time and I still miss seeing people…but I feel more human.

Until next time…

Making the most of December.

It’s silly to ask how it happened. I get the concept of time and I know how it happened. Still though, time seems to have flown since the warmth of August. Summer feels like it was mere days ago and yet somehow, we’re already in the last month of the year. It’s time to make the most of December!

It promises to be an unusual December for me this year. Where usually I’m coming to the end of a gruelling half term at work, pushing classes like my Year 11s as much as I can with both a new year and their exams looming and trying to help with Christmas preparation at home, this year is really very different. I’m recovering from heart surgery, have been off work since early November and every day seems to just revolve around my daily walk and the number of steps I can take! Like I said, unusual!

Regardless of the changes, the need to set myself some end of year goals is still very much the same as it ever was. So, what am I targeting then?

  1. Fitness and strength – given what most of November involved, I’m in huge need of a great deal more fitness and strength. If you’re new to my particular brand of nonsense, you’ll have missed the fact that in early November I was fitted with a pacemaker to help manage the curious rhythm that my heart had decided to adopt. If you’re a regular reader, you can’t have avoided it. Apologies for that and the fact that I’m still banging on about it. Anyway, the whole thing has left me a bit short on fitness. And good health, I suppose. Where before I coached a football team and was a regular distance runner, with a healthy level of fitness for a man of my vintage, now I’m much more akin to a little old man. Since leaving hospital, for all but the first two days at home, I’ve managed to get out and walk every day. This started out with probably no more than a few hundred steps and I’ve built from there. For the rest of December I’ll be working on upping my walking distances, while always staying close to home. However, my real goal will be to start something else, which at the moment I think will be either yoga or working with resistance bands. The trouble with both is that I still can’t really use my left hand side that well, but I have to start somewhere. I fear that it’ll be uncomfortable, perhaps even a bit painful at times, but I have to have a go. My ultimate goal is to get back to running, but I fear that may be mid-January at the very earliest.
  2. Wrapping – as a well-informed man in the know, I can reveal that it’s Christmas soon. And that is the kind of nugget of insight that has you reading my blog avidly, dear reader. Anyway, every year – and I’m a bit ashamed to say this – my wife becomes Santa in our house. She doesn’t command a team of elves or reindeer or anything like that, but she does get busy with the laptop searching out deals and bargains so that our kids have a wonderful Christmas when it comes to presents. She usually does the lion’s share of wrapping them all too. However, this year, with an abundance of time on my hands, I’ve vowed to do a great deal more in order to take a bit of pressure off her. My left side not working as well as I’d like – have I told you I had surgery recently? – is a problem here though, yet not as much of a problem as the fact that I’m absolutely appalling at wrapping. So, while I’m definitely vowing to help out a lot more, I can’t say that I hold out a lot of hope for this goal. What I will say is that if there’s a sellotape shortage, it could well be me that’s to blame.
  3. Mental preparation for going back to work – I’m going to find this tough. In early January, barring some kind of disaster, I’ll be going back to work. Physically, I think I’ll just grind this out. No problem. Mentally, I might struggle. Firstly, I need to know what work will ‘look’ like for me. I’m hoping for some kind of phased return, simply because I’m wondering if I’ll cope with just being thrown back in to teach all of my classes full time, attend every meeting, do duty, attend training etc. So, while I’m fully aware that work have been great and that I will have had over a month off, I’m really quite scared about what work holds for me. The other aspect that worries me is still mental. I fell ill in my classroom, during a lesson. I then sat in our office surrounded by friends and colleagues who did everything they could to help me while I apologised for not telling anyone how poorly I’d been. Going back means revisiting that as well as fielding who knows how many questions from who knows how many people. I also feel guilty for leaving my friends and colleagues to pick up the pieces, as well as for just not telling them and possible giving them a bit of a fright too. And I feel guilty for leaving my classes. I’m going to have to be ready for all of this.
  4. Work out a way to pay people back – The British Heart Foundation has always been my charity of choice. When I ran my first Great North Run as a kid I knocked on every door of our local area to ask people to sponsor me and ended up raising quite a lot of money for them. As far as I was concerned back then, their work, along with the NHS, had saved my life. I’ve sought sponsorship on many occasions since then too and even make sure that everything we take to charity shops goes to the BHF. In the last four years I’ve had two lots of surgery on my heart and I think I owe them again. So, I’m going to spend some time this month having a think about what I can do to raise more money. No doubt I’ll try to get sponsored when I eventually get back to doing 10k runs but given that I have the whole of summer off I think I’ll be able to plan something bigger too. Time for a think…
  5. Enjoy the festive period – simple really. In terms of my health, it’s been a tough year, but there have been a few other things that have taken their toll on us as a family too. With just short of a month to get prepared, it’d be nice if we could just relax and enjoy the day itself and the time around it with smiles on our faces

I think it’s easy to have some time in front of you and then over extend yourself with the things you’d like to get done. So, I’ve kept my goals as minimal as I can. Essentially the next few weeks just needs to be about getting better. It’d be nice to be able to go back to work and just not be out of breath so much! Nicer still to be able to think that I was as ready as I could be, having had a good Christmas.

Enjoy your December and I hope you’re all ready for the big day when it comes round! And of you have any December goals of your own, then let me know!

Doctor, doctor…I wish there was a joke to finish up with!

So, there you are, a forty something year old man, living your life, minding your own business when all of a sudden, your heart decides to stop working properly. While at hospital, you think you might die and when you don’t, one of the things you decide to do is start a blog. At the very least you’ve got a sob story to tell…

Fast forward four years and hundreds of blog posts later and everything seems peachy. You’re fit, healthy, love your job and family life, you coach a football team and really enjoy going out running. It’s like some kind of Disney film, if you want to watch a Disney film that’s probably in black and white and is about a bloke with a very normal life who occasionally pushes the boat out and tries out stuff like smiling and having useful ideas in those meetings where he’s not in a semi-comatose state.

Then, a few months after your 50th birthday, you start to realise that you don’t feel that well. Work leaves you almost constantly tired. You’re having to cut down on the running. Your heart’s beating a bit funny and you’re lying awake at night listening to it do just that. You see a doctor, go to a hospital and have your heart monitored, but the results are pretty inconclusive.

Fast forward some more to October half term. We’ve booked a very last-minute holiday to Majorca, hoping to soak up some sun and just relax. Having not felt well for weeks, this felt like the right thing to do. Just go and sit by a pool and laze around on a beach, with not much pressure to do anything else. And that’s exactly what we did.

However, this was partly because I think we all felt too scared to attempt anything else.

At Manchester airport I’d felt rough, but had kept quiet. I figured that we were almost on the plane and that a little bit of sun would make me feel a lot better. And then, it happened. One minute I was in the queue for security and shuffling forward while my wife tried to retrieve the passports from her bag. Next minute, everything went black.

There were voices disturbing my dream. And they were getting louder.

“Are you alright mate? Are you OK?”

I wasn’t sure who they were talking to, but he wasn’t responding. It didn’t matter though, because I was asleep and still dreaming.

“Are you alright, mate? Do you need help?”

Suddenly, I could see my wife and kids. But why was I looking up at them? Why was the voice still asking those questions? Why did it sound like more voices had joined in? And more to the point, where was I?

It took a short while to figure things out but it turned out that I’d blacked out. I remember feeling dizzy and trying to hold onto a wall for balance, but nothing else. The airport ambulance was called for and we were reassured that we’d still make our flight if I was ok. We were moved over to one side and the queue diverted in the other direction while the security staff got me a seat and some water. Then, when the ambulance staff couldn’t attend because of an emergency, we were allowed through security on the understanding that if I felt poorly, we’d ask for help. We made the flight, but it’s very much a blur as I slept for much of it.

A few days later, there was another dizzy spell and although we had an amazing holiday, I felt poorly for much of it. I just hoped that it would pass and that I’d get back to work and begin to get better. I did manage to cop for a few emergency ice creams as well, so the dizziness wasn’t all bad!

Back at work, I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. Sorry pals; that didn’t turn out to be my best decision, did it? But I didn’t want anyone to worry, and I really don’t like a fuss. Pretty selfish and pretty stupid, eh?

I think I failed with the fuss and the worry stuff as well.

On the following Monday, I was giving out some texts at the start of a Year 10 lesson, when I felt the now familiar dizziness. I knew before I felt it that my heart would race and I crossed my fingers that it would be over within seconds. Not long after common sense prevailed, which it doesn’t often do where I’m concerned. I got myself sat down and continued on with the lesson while writing a short email to my department. Someone needed to come and help. I couldn’t black out in front of my students.

It felt like hours before someone arrived, but it was probably less than a couple of minutes. I closed the door on my classroom, quickly explained what was happening and then headed into our main building, not knowing what I wanted to do. I did know that I felt awful though. I was too hot, dizzy and felt sick.

I don’t remember much after that. I know that I saw my friend Gemma (yes, she of ‘Educating Yorkshire’ fame) and that in our office people rallied round and made stuff happen. I also know that I was apologetic and just felt really upset with myself. And I do know that I’m eternally grateful to everyone who helped me out.

As I sat there, I was still hopeful that it would all fade away and that I’d be back at work by the Wednesday, but my friends insisted that I was going home and that I shouldn’t worry about work. They also stopped me from driving home; a good idea given my dizziness and the fact that I’d have tried to concoct a story about not feeling that bad to tell my wife when I arrived home.

Instead, I was made to call my wife and confess! Not long after she collected me and, after we’d called at home to change my clothes, we headed into Leeds to go to A&E.

Once there, there was another dizzy spell and a bit of a fall into a nearby seat, which actually righted my heart rate. But I wasn’t getting out of this one. Instead, we were taken through various stages of Accident and Emergency and tended to by several amazing people. And just when it looked like I’d be able to head home, a last echo scan revealed a problem with my heart – a leaky valve apparently – and I was told that I’d be admitted.

This made me feel equal parts sad and relieved. I’d told my wife that I didn’t want to be back on a cardiology ward, but the news that I was going to do just that meant that whatever the problem was, it was hopefully going to get sorted out. But it was incredibly frustrating to know that my heart was letting me down once again.

The next day, after more monitoring and scanning, my latest wonderful cardiologist broke the news that I’d be fitted with a pacemaker and I have to admit, it felt like my world was crashing down around my ears! My heart’s abnormal rhythm would need to be controlled and a pacemaker was the answer, despite my age. But, pacemakers are for pensioners and here I was in the prime of life! But there was no point wallowing in self-pity. After all, what did I know about heart health?

It’s a bit of a big one to write about just now, so I’ll do the detail in my next blog, but it’s safe to say that it’s been a weird last month or so. On October 9th I ran a 10k race here in Leeds and ran it well, feeling fit and strong throughout. Just over a month later, I was on an operating table having a device fitted to control my heart for me. Writing about that another time isn’t some dramatic cliffhanger ploy, it’s just still a lot to take in. And I’m too knackered to do much at the moment!

For today, I just wanted to write something to update people and to say a heartfelt thanks to the friends and family that have got me this far. So, from the bottom of my poorly, electronically controlled heart, thank you! And sorry for not saying anything sooner. Boys will be boys though, eh?

Until next time…

Parenting: The Ghost of Halloween Past.

It’s coming up for one of the best nights of the year: Halloween. Parents everywhere will be busy trying to put together costumes for excited children wanting to turn into ghosts, witches and even walking skeletons. The supermarkets are crammed with pumpkins of all shapes (don’t try to tell me they’re all perfectly round!) and sizes as well as millions of bags of sweets, the nights are drawing in and lots of us are looking forward to the big night and a bit of harmless trick or treating.

Sadly though, for me this year things have changed. And they’ve been changing for the last couple of years, to the point where this year might be our final year of trick or treating and Halloween fun.

The simple fact is my children are getting to an age where they don’t want a family Halloween anymore. My youngest is 13 and while I’m yet to hear his plans, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he’s feeling far too old to be going round our area, dressed up like a zombie and knocking on doors in order to get a bucket load of sweets. My eldest, now 16 and an A-Level student don’t you know, definitely won’t be with us and has already driven us to distraction with her plans and demands for a Halloween dress to customise for a party with her friends. So there’ll be no spending time with the family then!

It took me a little while to get into the whole Halloween thing as a parent. As children, my sister and me weren’t allowed out trick or treating. I’m not entirely sure why – although I do have a sketchy memory of my dad grumbling about it being ‘begging’ – but while friends may have been out ‘terrorising’ the neighbourhood, I was sat indoors dreading the inevitable knocks on the door that may have friends or just one night only spooky visitors that my parents would send packing with not even a sniff of a sweet.

In some small defence of my parents however, I could point to the fact that this was the 70s and 80s where Halloween and trick or treating was not the commercial behemoth that it has since become. In the UK, we left that to the Americans and watched ET go out trick or treating with Elliot and his pals with a mixture of fascination and befuddlement. So perhaps Halloween was just another night in front of the telly for my parents.

Consequently, I carried a bit of this attitude into my own parenting. It was wife that started the ball rolling where Halloween was concerned, taking our two out for a brief wander around the closest parts of the neighbourhood to scare some friendly folk into giving them sweets. I stayed behind, probably making the excuse that dishes needed to be done or something else enormously mundane.

The next year, it became a bigger deal as they were both old enough to stay up a little later. Out they went with mum to find a whole new trick or treating world where some of our community had gone all out to create amazing scenes in gardens and sometimes in entire streets. Again, I stayed at home, but this time only to answer the door to any of our own scary visitors. And that was when the spirit of the whole thing grabbed me. The combination of my own kids’ excitement – and how cute they looked – and that of the visitors to my door had me almost hooked!

From then, it grew and grew. I joined in the trick or treating, cajoling the kids to go and knock on doors and glowing with pride at people’s reactions to how good they looked or their mock fear at these two terrifyingly cute monsters! Year upon year, prompted by my fantastic fun-loving wife, we decorated the house and the garden, leaving ever growing buckets of sweets outside the door for anyone who might call while we were out.

I’d estimate that we’ve spent a small fortune on costumes, sweets and decorations over the years. I’ve even managed to allow myself to be talked into dressing up on a few occasions when we’ve held our own family parties. But, if you’re reading this and you know me, no, I’ve never ever ventured out on to the streets in a Halloween costume. You already knew this without me having to tell you!

It’s fair to say that for me there’s been a complete transformation in terms of my approach to Halloween and I’ve gone from being an out of place Grinch to a somewhat awkward, but enthusiastic(ish) zombie. I’ve taken a huge amount of joy from watching my kids – and my wife – throw themselves into the whole trick or treat thing for years now. Even last year, when my daughter decided that she was too old and it was too cold for such frivolity, we went out with my son and his two friends, trudging around the streets for hours, admiring the amazing decorations and gathering more and more sweets as we went. It was pouring with rain and yet we still had a brilliant time! In fact, the rain meant that we were almost the only ones out on our estate, meaning triple helpings of sweets and chocolate! I don’t think I’ve ever seen those lads happier!

This year promises to be a much quieter affair. And having only just got into the swing of all things Halloween, that makes me feel quite sad. I no longer have the cute, carefree kids that would dress up as a character, fully made up and stride up to door after door to scream “trick or treat!” like their very lives depended on it. A bit of the sense of fun has now gone. I expect that we’ll still go out trick or treating with my son, but it won’t be the same. And by this time next year, maybe it’ll be at a complete end.

So, I’m left feeling a little mournful about the past. It’s getting to that stage of my children’s lives where they’re beginning to leave certain things behind. Halloween now and probably things like our traditional egg hunt at Easter next. I can see why people might be tempted by the thought of just having another child, even if there’s no way that I’d make such a decision!

Obviously, what’s happening in our family is inevitable for every parent and their children. You can’t stop them growing up, after all. I’m glad that I softened my stance on Halloween though, because it means that I have memories that are impossible to forget. Maybe one day I’ll take my grandchildren out trick or treating. But for now, I imagine we’ll just have to make the most of the upcoming one, while we still can!

Autumn Bucket List

A new season means changes in everyone’s lives. Be it easing away from the t-shirts and shorts of summer into longer sleeves and layers or just the fact the the days are getting shorter and we have to adjust to longer, darker evenings, it’s all change as we slide into Autumn.

With that in mind, I thought I’d write an Autumn Bucket List for parents with younger children. There are loads of things that you can do with kids in Autumn, but I thought I’d pick out a few that either my own kids enjoyed when they were younger or those that I have some experience of.

Go and kick some leaves around. The first item on my list is really quite simple and doesn’t take a great deal of time or effort. It’s not one I can really go and do now as my children are probably a bit old to be doing it, but they loved it when they were little. There’s a lot to be said for simple, free fun like this.

When my two were younger we’d often go out on Autumn walks to local parks or beauty spots and the joy they would get from heading out in their wellies and kicking piles of fallen leaves around the place was amazing. It was a joy to watch and if I think about it, I can still hear their giggles and squeals of delight! They used to like making big leaf piles and then jumping in them from above, as well as just picking handfuls up and throwing them up in the air too! And there are two benefits here – it’s free and while they’re jumping around, they’re staying warm! Watch out for hedgehogs in the leaves though. We never encountered any, but you never know.

Speaking of those spikey little creatures, you could attempt to make a hedgehog hotel with the little ‘uns this Autumn. And if not with them, then for them, as keeping an eye out for the hedgehog could well develop into a game all of its own for a short while!

This isn’t one I’ve ever done, but it was regularly on the lists when my children were younger. It seems quite simple. You’ll need an old box, but a sturdy weather-proof one, something like a wooden wine crate or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could make one out of plywood or just adapt something else. I’ve seen them made out of upturned basket and even lumps of thick polystyrene packaging.

Then you’ll need something to make a tunnel – more plywood or maybe an old cut off length of pipe – for the entrance and also a hole in your box so the tunnel has somewhere to lead to! You’ll need to make another, smaller hole for ventilation too.

After the box is finished and a lid put on, you’ll need to fill it with dry leaves or even straw and then place it somewhere hedgehog friendly like underneath soil and leaves. Just make sure that the entrance and the ventilation hole aren’t blocked. And there you go; you have a hedgehog hotel! All you need now is an occupant!

A similar, but larger scale idea, is to go den building with the kids. This is also a lot of fun for adults too and I’d often find that while my kids had lost interest, I was still lugging logs around or trying to make the perfect roof out of foliage and twigs!

Quite a few parks and forests have cottoned on to this as a good way of attracting visitors and often have areas where there are plenty of logs and fallen branches to build with. Failing this, you could just scour an area of the woods for fallen branches and just start building. As long as it’s off any kind of pathway and you’re not harming the environment, you’ll be fine. Don’t resort to pulling branches from actual trees though, but I guarantee that you’ll have an excellent time den building!

Another fun thing to do this Autumn, especially if you have kids is to collect your pumpkins for Halloween. Now, I know that it’s far easier to just buy them in a local supermarket, but a lot of places like parks and farm parks make a bit of an event of it nowadays. So, not only can you wander through a field of pumpkins, carefully eyeing up the perfect specimen to go outside your front door, but you might also get to take a tractor ride, get a lesson in carving your own pumpkins or just draw your face or pattern out for someone who’s a little bit more of an expert to carve for you. If you’re really lucky there might even be a cafe on site for you to relax and take the chill out of your body with coffee and a slice of cake!

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

We did pumpkin picking a couple of times when our kids were younger and just the sight of a huge field of pumpkins left them in awe! The fact that they got to draw their designs on and then help to carve it out made for a fantastic morning. We even managed to get their pumpkins home in one piece too!

Sometimes though, it’s the simple things that make Autumn fun. And what could be better than wrapping up, getting their wellies on and going for a bracing Autumn walk? These are best taken on those lovely crisp, sunny Autumn days and if there’s a park or a forest to explore, then all the better! You can get some exercise and some fresh air and the Autumn light might help you get some brilliant photos as well. And the beauty of this type of pastime is that it can be kept going even as your little ones get older. My two are 16 and 13 now and, although they might grumble a bit, we always have a nice time on our Autumn walks. I think the ice cream van at the end of some of the walks help, but either way, myself and my wife really enjoy getting out on this type of day.

Scarecrow Festivals seem to be a very British thing. So, if you’re reading this outside of the UK you’ll either find them extremely strange or you might be inspired enough to start your own version where you live! It was something I first became aware of around 20 years ago, when I started teaching at a rural school near Halifax. I distinctly remember driving home one evening and repeatedly spotting novelty scarecrows in people’s gardens, in the windows of shops and just in many of the fields that dominated the area. Shortly afterwards I would find out that this was all to do with the Norland Scarecrow Festival, which still continues to this day.

The fun of a scarecrow festival comes in how the scarecrows are actually made and dressed and participants tend to go to great lengths to come up with imaginative ideas year upon year. Over the years I’ve seen lots of Star Wars characters, Darleks, Super Mario, firemen, Minions, Roald Dahl characters…and even just scarecrows!

Often there’s something like a scarecrow trail to follow and this is always something that younger kids love to do, especially if there’s a list to tick off and maybe even a prize of some kind at the end! The bigger the festival, the more there is going on though, and if you’re lucky there might even be a scarecrow building event. Who knows, you could be building your own scarecrow to be included in your local festival before you know it!

So, there you have it – hopefully, a stress free and reasonably cheap Autumn Bucket List. I hope you enjoyed reading and that it gives you plenty of food for thought. Feel free to let me know what you plan to get up to or even if you agree with any of my suggestions!

Always look on the bright side: Things that made me smile.

Almost two weeks ago, it was time for me to head back to work. A new academic year has now started and having spent the whole summer free of this particular stress, I never take the return very well at all. Despite 22 years as a teacher, I never get used to going back and I never look forward to it.

That first week would also later turn into the week when Queen Elizabeth II passed away and whatever your feelings about the monarchy, it seems to have hit large swathes of people really hard, especially here in the UK.

While none of this made me hugely emotional, it all combined to make me feel low, quite sad and just a little bit like I could do with a boost. So, rather than wallow in the doom, I thought I’d think – and write – about some more positive aspects of the last few weeks, something that I started to blog about early on in August. Here they are in no particular order.

A few weeks ago I chanced upon an article on the BBC website, something that I make sure to have a look at every day. The article was about a restoration project with a difference – the re-planting of seagrass off the Welsh coast. Seagrass is, as the name would suggest, a type of grass that grows in the sea. Bigger than the type of grass you’d find in your garden, but grass all the same. Brilliantly though, a single hectare of seagrass can be home to 80,000 fish and 100,000 invertebrates. It also absorbs and stores carbon dioxide, making it a really important plant to have in our seas.

The project is taking place off the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, which is somewhere we holiday every year. Its aim is to plant seeds that will grow into a 10 hectare seagrass meadow by 2026. In the sea off our favorite beach, there is already an area of seagrass, which is revealed every time the tide goes out. So the story really resonated with me and I must admit, the idea of its benefits just really made me smile.

The next smile giver is a little simpler than the serious, but exciting eco-project I’ve just written about. We’re big telly watchers in our house, viewing a whole range of things from terrestrial channels, Sky, Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon. We even have ‘Family Telly’ time every day in our house, where we all sit down to watch something appropriate together. But it’s not a family friendly piece of TV that has made me smile recently.

‘All Of Us Are Dead’ is a South Korean high school zombie horror show and to be frank, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds! We started watching it around a month ago and, despite its obvious flaws – blood stains on the kids’ uniforms that have clearly been scribbled on with a marker pen, for instance – it is just a fantastic piece of telly. We’re big fans of anything apocalyptic in our house, so it was onto a winner from the start, but its jeopardy and originality really make it stand out. It’s dubbed, which might spoil it for some, but still if you enjoy the odd fright and a bit of a rollercoaster ride of a programme, then I’d highly recommend tuning in.

While not wanting to go into too much specific detail and attract any unwanted – and frankly unwarranted – criticism, my daughter’s GCSE grades really put a smile on my face. Our faces, in fact, because it was a boost for all the family. She’s worked incredibly hard over the last few years in preparation for them and in the end got very much what she deserved. It’s a set of grades that should help open some doors for her and hopefully help with her progress as she enters further education and even when heading into the world of work eventually. She has a habit of asking, shall we say, ill-thought out questions, as well as just saying ridiculous things, but it turned out that we have a very, very bright kid on our hands and her success made me immensely proud.

Football can be a very cruel sport. Especially when you’re particularly invested in it, as I am. In fact, football was very cruel just a couple of weeks ago, when my team Newcastle United lost a game in time that had been added on to the time that was added. In essence, we lost a game because the referee seemed to revert to playground rules, allowing play to continue until the home team scored the winner.

However, just before this game we had rescued a point in an away game at Wolverhampton Wanderers with an absolute wonder goal from Alain Saint Maximin, our maverick Frenchman. The ball was cleared from deep inside the Wolves box, going so high I expected it to come down with snow on. And what did Alain do? Volleyed it straight into the back of the net from around 20 yards out! Smile? It made me leap around our front room like a giddy teenager again!

The final thing that has given me a bit of a boost over the past couple of weeks has been the surprise I’ve had upon going back to work. Two weeks ago I was dreading returning back to work after 6 weeks of summer holidays. I always do and wrote a post about it.

Teaching: That first week back.

However, although I still can’t declare myself happy to be back working, I’m surprised by how smoothly it feels like I’ve got back into the old routines. I suppose, having been a high school teacher for quite a while now, I should expect just to be able to do my job with the minimum of fuss. But there’s still anxiety at this time of year, every year. Still though, although I’m tired beyond belief at the end of every day – age can be a cruel mistress, dear reader – I’ve not encountered any problems at all and have just been able to take up where I left off a couple of months ago. Definitely a reason to allow myself a bit of a smile!

More again soon on this topic. I’ve enjoyed writing about the things that have made me smile and I think it definitely helps with my mood! Feel free to leave a comment if you enjoyed reading!

Teaching: At times it’s just like riding a bike…

Last week I posted a blog about that difficult first week back as a teacher. The anxiety, the new classes, the lottery that can be a timetable, building relationships and even just having to get out of bed a couple of hours earlier. Having spent 6 weeks living life at a slower pace, it can all be a bit much.

However, every year I tell myself the same thing. I tell colleagues too. And I tell my long suffering family, who have had to live with this ‘even grumpier in September’ bloke for far too long: get the first two weeks out of the way and it’ll be alright.

That first two weeks essentially allows me to find my feet and reminds me that I can in fact do my job effectively, having spent the previous two weeks – without fail, every year – feeling like I’m going to stand at the front of the classroom, trying to teach, but just not remembering how to do it anymore. My students will talk over me until it all gets out of control and I end up in a tearful heap on the floor! It never happens that way though.

My first two weeks have been incredibly busy, hectic at times, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Really, it’s been OK. I feel like I’ve found my feet quite quickly and that the confidence that is needed at the front of that classroom has returned and allowed me to jus do my job without too much stress at all. I’m back in the old routine, using the same skills, adapting to different texts and techniques, learning some of the new names that I have to learn (this always takes me a while) and even managing to get through meetings without too many thoughts of simply throwing myself out of the nearest window. I knw that will come though!

There have been some minor challenges as well. Sadly, I’ve noticed that my eyesight has got a bit worse, meaning that I can’t read the register without my glasses and that certain texts have been a little more difficult to read through than they were a year ago. In vanity news, I have had to come to work for 9 days with hair that has looked like a hedge left to its own devices for a number of years until it has just become untamed. This, courtesy of my hairdresser who had the audacity to go off on holiday without warning…for a month. Until last night I hadn’t had a haircut for over 10 weeks, which was beginning to cause me some trouble!

In one of my classes I have a student with a hearing impairment, which requires me to were a kind of digital microphone that hangs round my neck like a lanyard. Much to the student’s delight, I forget about it, without fail, every lesson and she has to remind me. But even this is good in a way as it allows me to overact, like some kind of pantomime dame, and really ham it up about how useless I am and what a great helper she is. Sometimes, even the simplest of things can make a student smile!

So, while it’s been as difficult a couple of weeks as I’d imagined, it’s not been too bad and it’s funny how old habits die hard. As the headline suggests, it really is like riding a bike…provided you could ride one in the first place!

Parenting: It’s nearly time for results day!

It’s the kind of landmark day that you probably don’t give a passing thought to as a parent for quite some time. Not before your child is at least a decade old, I’d say. Until then, there are far too many landmarks to give thought to, meaning that those that are going to happen just as your kid is on the verge of adulthood (but still very much your little girl or little boy) won’t even occur to you. After all, with everything from emptying the contents of their stomach or bowels all over you to first steps, first words and first days of nursery and school, there’s a lot to think about. Your thinking time is pretty well taken care of for quite a while!

However, at some point, as I’m finding out in the next few days, your child will start to come up against potentially life-changing days and will either achieve things that you would have never thought believable or be forced to cope with the biggest phase of adversity that they’ll have had to face up to so far in their time on the planet.

Thursday is GCSE results day in the UK and my daughter, who at present is staring out at me across the kitchen on the side of not one but two mugs as a very cute, laughing toddler, will be faced with opening the most important envelope of her life so far. On Thursday, she will collect her GCSE results as the biggest phase of her education so far draws to a close, ready for the next one to start about a week later. It’s quite a concerning time for all!

As a parent, I feel quite calm and rational about it all. This is probably because wen I’m off pretending to be a proper adult, I’m a high school teacher. So Thursday won’t be my first rodeo, as they say. I know the drill and have worried about literally hundreds of kids and the contents of their envelopes over the years. So, in a sense everything’s zen for me personally.

However, while the above is very much true, it still promises to be a stressful day. Results day has never mattered this much. And while I’m calm on the surface and not a natural worrier, I’m still obviously feeling concerned and over-protective.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to worry at all. After all, my daughter is a bright kid who realises the importance of education and qualifications and has the will and determination to do well. She’s worked damned hard too, spending much of the last two years revising in her spare time, making notes, flashcards, doing online tests, battling through hours of homework, listening to podcasts and just generally leaving no stone unturned in her quest for success. The trouble is, it’s not a perfect world. She really deserves a good set of results, but there’s obviously no guarantee of success with exams.

There have already been reports that results will take a hit this year, due to the fact that they were viewed as being inflated during the two non exam years of the pandemic. So, there’s that to contend with straight away, before she even gets the envelope in her hands. And we’ve been contending with it. Such is the reach of social media and 24 hour news these days that kids see almost everything that’s out there. And of course, my daughter has read all of it, meaning that she’s thoroughly stressed out already. I really feel for her. In my day I had no awareness whatsoever about results and grade boundaries and everything else that goes into gaining a GCSE. Having scare stories thrown at you left, right and centre can’t be any fun and there’s very little we can do to protect her from it.

As a parent, I can’t help but hope that she just does really well. I understand that good GCSEs aren’t the be all and end all of things for her and that she got a lot of life to live, with a lot of opportunities to come whatever her results; but I’d still love to see her come home with a great set of results. Whatever her future holds, it’d be great to think that had a firm foot on the first rung on the ladder!

Despite our attempts to make her look into colleges and different types of courses, my daughter was very firm in her intention to carry on at school via 6th form. One of my biggest regrets is doing just that and while our schools are enormously contrasting (hers is good, mine was like a cross between a safari park and a prison), I wish she had at least assessed her options properly. Now – and this has been discussed and will be handled on the day by my wife who is heading to school with her – she has to make the final decision on which A-Levels she’ll be taking. She knows what she wants to do, but this will come down to results, which has meant more stress and more ‘what ifs’! We’ve talked about options though, so there’s at least a Plan A and a Plan B, which is two more plans than I had at that age!

I think the main point in dealing with such a big thing as GCSE results has to be reminding your kid of how loved and valued they are. While I’m desperate for her to do well, obviously in the main for her but let’s not deny that parental pride won’t come into it, this is merely a step to get over. If the results aren’t what she would have really wanted, then it’s still a world full of options and it’s still a house we’re she’s always made fully aware of how loved and supported she is.

Given how quickly things move, I suppose it’ll not be too long before we’re discussing her next steps. At the moment, university seems to be at the forefront of her mind and I’d love her to go, but I’m hopeful that with a bit more maturity, she’ll listen to as many options as possible. She has some interests where she shows a huge amount of talent and I’m quite hopeful that these may be areas that she can explore further in the future. It would be wonderful to think that her work was also something that she loved.

Before then though, we have two more stressful nights to get through. And then the drama will begin in earnest on Thursday morning! I’m hopeful that it won’t actually be too dramatic though. Whatever happens, as parents all we can do is to be as supportive as possible, listen carefully and try to offer useful advice, even if this is a day that we’d happily tucked to the back of our minds with the thought that it was far too far off to really worry about!

Fingers crossed that everything will turn out alright!

In lieu of a better title for a feature here’s ‘Stuff I enjoyed this week’.

So clearly being not very good at titles doesn’t just afflict me with poetry! But I’m hopeful that as a feature, not only will this grow and become regular, but I’ll come up with a better name for it.

Anyway, while I was sitting trying to enjoy the sunshine this week I found myself reflecting on stuff I’d enjoyed over the course of said week. That and worrying that I’d burn or just end up reduced to a puddle on my patio that would swiftly evaporate and leave my wife and kids forever wondering about the mystery of my disappearance! And so, I thought I’d write a blog about the stuff I’d enjoyed! It was a good excuse to get inside before I melted. So, here we go.

  1. Julie’s Facebook post. My friend and former colleague Julie moved all the way from Yorkshire to Devon a short while ago. It was a complete lifestyle change and a huge gamble and I was full of admiration for the bravery that it involved. Anyway, this week on Facebook she posted this and it really made me smile. Definitely some evidence to say that she made the right decision!

2. Sanding. Sad, but true. This week, in the midst of a heatwave, I got up early . and sanded all of our garden furniture down in preparation for applying some wood oil. I did wood work at school and always enjoyed it and there’s a bit of me that regrets not persuing this type of thing as a career. I always enjoyed it and was good at it too, but I guess it didn’t seem like the kind of career choice I could have faced my parents with, so there you go. The sanding was really hard work and I was far too pleased with myself by the time I’d finished. Probably far too sweaty and hot too! But it made me genuinely happy. Here’s one of our benches – have a look!

3. Nick Pope. On Friday, a Newcastle United site on Twitter (Toon Polls) set off on a mission to get the name of our goalkeeper Nick Pope trending. They replied to a poll on a Burger King post with the alternative answer of ‘Nick Pope’, who if you don’t know is a goalkeeper for my team, Newcastle United. Lots of Toon fans joined in and then after that it’s safe to say that things went a little bit mad as football clubs, global brands and celebrities got involved and it made me smile…even if my own attempt to join in was spoilt by predictive text on my phone. Not to worry, it made for a good day on social media and was a cracking effort from our fanbase ad the internet in general!

4. A conversation. A simple one this. On Wednesday after training with my Under 14 football team (I’m the coach, not a 13-year-old for those who don’t know) I had a lovely conversation with the parents of one of our new players. They’ve recently arrived from Armenia and it seems, are loving life in Yorkshire. I was really pleased for them. They were also asking for help in getting their son some friends, obviously through football and I promised to try and help. Again, it gave me a bit of a warm glow to think that I’m lucky enough to be in a position to be able to help.

5. A notification. Now these things can be the bane of all our lives, but this one made me laugh. It was a notification from my own phone offering me the chance to view highlights of my recent trip home to Whickham, which is the village just outside of Newcastle where my parents live. I’d gone to visit my mam because she’s been poorly for months and is housebound. So literally, all we did was sit in their bungalow drink coffee, eat and chat for about 6 hours! It was lovely, but I didn’t really see the need to view the highlights, not least because I was there! I had a lovely bacon sandwich though, which my timeline didn’t pick up on!

So there we have it. Five simple things that I enjoyed this week. Hopefully I can find some more for next week and hopefully I can come up with a better name for it all!