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!

As if by magic, I’m the dad of a school leaver…

A few weeks ago now, I passed through another milestone as a father. I didn’t do anything special and there was no great effort on my part. In fact, I did nothing at all. What happened was that my daughter left high school.

Now if you’re sitting reading this as a non-parent or a parent of a much younger child, then you won’t bat an eyelid, as they say. It won’t seem like much and describing it as a milestone may seem strange. If you have younger children, you might acknowledge this landmark moment, but feel safe in the knowledge that for you personally, this is ages away. Well, don’t. Because it isn’t. It happened to me and I almost didn’t see it coming.

My daughter was born at home in our bed. She’s part of the reason that we still have the same bed, as my wife can’t bear to get rid of it. It’s a good solid bed as well though. We’ve always been reluctant to move house for the same reason. But the fact that she was born in our house makes her a particular kind of special too.

If I close my eyes I can still still see her clear as day, in those first few minutes and hours of life. Tiny and while not quite fighting for life, not quite ready for it either. The pregnancy was full term and yet she had to have premature baby clothes as she was so small. Back in those moments nothing seemed at all certain and the idea of her growing up to be the smart, capable cookie that she would be at sixteen would never have crossed my mind.

What I do remember is that very early on in her life I worked out how old I would be at certain landmarks in her life. Thus, I knew that I’d be 50 by the time that my daughter turned 16. So, given that my 50th birthday was earlier this year I should have seen this one coming. But I guess it seemed so very far away when she was so young.

I won’t lie and paint a picture of my daughter as a bundle of joy her whole life. Even though she’s an amazing kid and I’m extremely proud of her, she hasn’t always been so nice. In fact, there have been some pretty awful times along the road to sixteen. But then again, I won’t lie about my opinion on myself as a dad either. I’m better now, but like many I’d say I struggled with things like patience and probably all of the other skills needed to be a dad. For years I just felt like I wasn’t making a very good job of it all. And yet, here we are; the school leaver and her father, with what I’d describe as a lovely relationship.

As a teacher, I’m well aware of how quickly year 11 seems to pass. I tell my students all the time that before they know it the final exams will be upon them and their time at high school will be almost over. So it’s an odd thing that until a couple of weeks before her final exams, I hadn’t really given the actual fact of her leaving school much of a thought. I’d fretted about exams and her revision, kept everything crossed for every exam, attempted to boost her confidence and helped with revision, but the end product of it all (or at least one of them), that she’d leave the cocoon of high school on the verge of adulthood, hadn’t really fully established itself in my head.

And now, weeks later, I’m left still somewhat reeling at it all. There’s no more watching her squeal with delight at simple things, no more being cool dad by letting her walk through streams in her wellies or holding her hand while she walks on the top of ‘high’ walls and no more slinging her up on to my shoulders when we’re off on a walk. My little girl is, in many ways, no more.

Of course, I subscribe to the dad friendly logic that she’ll always be daddy’s little girl. But deep down, now that she’s left high school and is taking those first tentative steps into a much greater independence afforded by the much more adult way of life that further education brings, I know that she’s not that little girl anymore. And it all feels like it happened in a heart beat.

I’m sure these next few years will bring fresh adventures and exciting experiences, as well as the kind of traumas that us parents don’t want to face up to. There’s already a boyfriend and although he seems like a lovely lad, I’m watching like a hawk! Whatever other new experiences we get to go through though, they’ll be different to ones we’ve had before.

So, if you’re a parent reading this I’d say savour every last moment that you get with your kids when they’re little. Before you know it…well, they’re not anymore.

Poetry Blog: ‘An Observer at the Theme Park’

This is a poem that I wrote the bones of and then lost in Spring last year. I recently discovered it again when looking through documents on my phone. I was looking for a birthday present list for my wife, which I thought I might have made on my phone. I found it, but I also found some ominous untitled documents. Most were useless, but one of them was almost a poem.

I’d written this while we went around a North Yorkshire theme park on a day out, which for me is an oxymoron if ever I heard one. Unfortunately, I am in no way, shape or form any kind of thrill seeker or adrenaline junkie (what an awful expression that is, by the way). Thus, I found myself standing at the bottom of many rides, rapidly tiring of people watching and running out of the guts I felt I needed in order to tread my book while others queued up for the kind of fun that I didn’t understand. People were beginning to point, children were beginning to laugh…

And so, as far as I can remember, I began to think about how I must look to other people around the park. That is, if they even noticed me. If they did though, I imagined people were nudging each other and whispering stuff like, “There’s that bloke with the book again.” I was also in a perfect position to take note of all of the different kinds of people around the place. Very lonely bored looking bloke here was only one of a ton of different sights and sounds to be had and so my discomfort was eased somewhat by the fact that maybe people had other things to occupy their time. Not wanting to lose any ideas, I started to type them into my phone. Barring a few revisions made when I rediscovered it a year or so later, these notes were what became the poem.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there can be no lonelier place than a theme park for the man who does not seek to be thrilled.
Wandering aimlessly around in the cold, of this Yorkshire spring will make an outcast out of any man. 
Children's screams far outweigh the fifteen seconds of fear that Andy Warhol might have said we should all experience, 
wasps hang around menacingly, seeking one last victim before buzzing off south for a proper summer, 
and fathers stand stock still, balanced and anchored,
readying themselves for the thump of returning children from rides
with tales of adventures from the moderately high steels.
This is a resting place for cheap summer leisure wear
and incongruously A-list sunglasses,
where gangs of girls from the caravan park roam, arm in arm,
almost identically dressed, looking for the thrill that could be found
either at the top of a rollercoaster or in the arms of a visiting stranger from a far of land in another part of Yorkshire.
A man in camouflaged trousers walks past and I consider 
that with my imaginary special forces training, I may be the only one who sees him.
I wonder if the same applies to me; not camouflaged professionally,
but somehow hidden in plain sight on a bench near a queue,
reading a book like persona non grata in this particular place.

There’s certainly a lot to see when all you have to do is watch! It was a fascinating day in many ways and yet, criminally dull in others. I tried to just be diligent and read my book, as I’d planned. And of course, I did go on some of the rides. I do kind of see the point in them! But eventually my day just descended into watching life go on around the park, hence the poem.

I’d love to read any comments, so feel free to leave them.

A spanner in the works.

It’s been a bit of a strange week in our household. It’s revolved around me, but it’s affected the four of us and probably spoiled everyone’s half term break in some way or another.

Last Sunday I had a bit of an unwelcome visitor. My heart problems resurfaced. Not in a big way, but big enough to completely stop the day and have me worrying for the rest of the week. There was no hospital visit this time so it was a lot less dramatic than four years ago, but it served as a bitter reminder of my age and the fact that, deep down, I’ll always be worried about my heart health.

We’d been visiting family in the morning and everything had been fine. I did feel a little bit grumpy though, but I put that down to hunger as by the time we left it was past dinner time. I felt tired too, but assumed that was just a hangover from the day before when I’d pushed myself far more than I’d intended when out on a 5k run that turned into a 10k one.

I can’t quite remember when I first felt my heart racing., but it was Sunday afternoon and I was conscious of the fact that it wasn’t right. However, I was confident that it wasn’t going that fast; just faster than it should have been. I put it down to the previous day’s running and decided that no one needed to know as it was sure to calm down soon. I then spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the settee watching TV, afraid to move too far and fully aware that my heart was still racing. After a few hours I was starting to worry.

We were supposed to be going out that night. My wife had booked tickets to see the Alan Partridge tour as part of my 50th birthday celebrations and tonight was the night. As the time approached for us to be getting ready, nothing had changed. My heart rate didn’t seem to be any worse, but it wasn’t any better. And then I went upstairs to get my clothes ready.

At the top of the stairs I suffered a terrible spell of light-headedness and I kind of staggered into our bedroom and grabbed onto the window sill to keep myself upright. I scrunched my eyes closed, seeing stars as my legs turned to jelly. After a few seconds I sat on the edge of our bed and put my head between my knees. My heart was now thumping and had quickened up noticeably. Stupidly, I decided to just sit tight and see if it would stop. That’s stop as in calm down, rather than just stop. I figured that could be a problem with my heart!

After a few minutes, it went back to just racing. I took my heartbeat via my smart watch – 105 bpm, not too frightening. So, I went back downstairs.

Thinking about the stairs in Leeds Arena – venue for our night out – I knew that I probably couldn’t go out, so when my wife headed upstairs to get changed I followed. And at the top of the stairs it happened again. This time, I told her.

She got me to lie down on our bed and said that she could see my whole body shaking through my clothing, that she could see my heart thumping through my t-shirt. I could see this too and I didn’t really want her to have noticed, but it was ever-so-slightly obvious! We decided pretty quickly that we wouldn’t be going out, but then when things didn’t calm down, we packed a bag for hospital. Last time they’d admitted me really quickly as I have previous for heart problems – oh, and they thought I might die at the time as well – so we decided we’d head to A&E a bit more prepared. We told the kids and there were tears.

In the meantime though, my heart rate felt like it had dropped. My watch was measuring it at various speeds now, but none over 100. It was fluctuating, but I’d stopped shaking and sweating. After about half an hour, we headed downstairs, more settled and prepared to wait this one out. Probably ten minutes later, while sitting on the settee again, I had another awful dizzy spell. It made me feel sick and was so violent that it sort of forced me forward in my chair. I saw stars again and I gritted my teeth hoping that it would pass with me still conscious. My main thought was that I was not going to hospital in an ambulance! I didn’t realise that my daughter was sat opposite and witnessed the whole thing.

As it passed, I reassured her that I was OK. I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to worry her. She sat with me as did my wife when she came downstairs. I told them that I just needed to rest and so we just sat. Something was different now though.

After a few minutes I realised that my heart rate was completely back to normal. No racing whatsoever and when measured it was going at 49bpm! And that was that. The end of an episode that had ended up with me terrified by my heart once more, but in actual fact, entirely back to normal. I was absolutely shattered though and secretly frightened at the prospect of being back in hospital again.

Almost a week on and, as I said, it’s been an odd week. The next day was a write off and the two after dominated by visits to the doctor. But by Wednesday I’d had an ECG and blood tests and they’d declared that there was nothing to worry about and provided no explanation of what might have happened. That’s not a criticism either. I mean, how would they know? But I’d gone there hoping for a clear answer and left with nothing but a sore arm from needles and an itchy chest from the fact that they’d made me shave it for my ECG!

I’m back to work next week and I know that I’ll have to be careful. I’m forcing myself to rest and have told myself that there’ll be no running for a while longer. I continue to plan my next run though, while continually considering the fact that I might just get away with it in the next couple of days. I have to keep reminding myself of my daughter’s reaction as I nearly passed out in front of her as well as the fact that up to Thursday I was knackered all day every day.

I’m hopeful that this was just a scare and that it was simply the result of pushing myself far too hard, followed by not recovering properly and not keeping hydrated. I started this blog as a result of being hospitalised four years ago. I have no wish for any more cardiology ward blogs!

Look after yourself, folks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Leeds Knights vs Raiders IHC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go Leeds Knights, let’s go!

Poetry Blog: ‘Absent Friends’

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

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

Absent Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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