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!

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!

Newcastle United: Some reasons to feel the love.

It’s been an incredible season. A season that started out cloaked in a sadly all too familiar pessimism, has somehow (almost) ended in an almighty celebration. No trophies – and you’ve been following the wrong club if that’s what you got into it for – and nothing hugely tangible to show for it, but still every cause for celebration.

But this isn’t an article about the takeover. Nor is it about being ITK and pretending I’ve got the inside track on some stellar summer signings. There will be a bit about our owners and their takeover, but largely this is just inner workings of my mind whenever I think about Newcastle United at the moment and the fact that not so long ago I’d almost fallen out of love with them. It’s about the little things. And the little things are often the best (or so the anti erectile dysfunction advert campaigners say). So here’s a list of 20 little NUFC related things to make you smile.

  1. The owners – meeting and greeting anyone and everyone, smiling, engaging with the fans, going to the games, trolling each other on social media, looking like they’re pleased to be here, enjoying the club and the city and setting about running our football club professionally and like they care. And it’s been that way ever since Amanda Staveley emerged from a hotel in Jesmond smiling and waving to everyone there. God bless the bloody lot of them!
  2. Team spirit – it looks like a joy to play for our football club again and I for one can’t remember a team spirit like this. No bad eggs and no scurrilous stories in the tabloids. The squad and everyone around them have big, beaming smiles on their faces and it’s just utterly refreshing.
  3. Eddie and his staff – for the first time in a few years we have a group of people running the team that take great pride in what they do, see it as a privilege to work at our club and are more than willing to go the extra mile in order to bring us some kind of success. Eddie and his staff obviously appreciate the fans too and I think that to a man, woman and child, we love them right back!
  4. Player Renaissance – under the previous regime it felt at times like we had a squad full of players who were rapidly falling out of love with the game. Many struggled for form. It almost felt like paddling pool recovery technology, wheely bin ice baths and a sulky, face pulling coach just weren’t enough inspiration anymore. However, since the dawning of the Eddie Howe era several players have scaled new heights. Ryan Fraser, Fabian Schar, Sean Longstaff and Emil Krafth are all good examples of players who’ve discovered scintilating levels of form since January. But of course, we can’t forget Joelinton; a man who has found himself receiving nationwide recognition for the upturn in his form. I’d add more, but you can read precisely what I think on the link below.

“He’s Brazilian…” – The Remarkable Rise of Joelinton.

5. The future – I mean. I wouldn’t class myself as any kind of optimist, but it’s bright isn’t it? 6. Bruuuuunoooo – it’s been a while since a player of this quality graced our team. It’s all been said by others, so I won’t write too much, but the boy’s a bit special. Cabaye is probably the closest we’ve seen to someone of Bruno’s class for a long time, but I truly think that those comparisons do him a disservice. A current Brazilian international who scores back-heeled volleys and sings his own terrace song around the house – Bruno is the stuff that dreams are made of. 7. The return of Wor Flags – again, it’s all been said before really. But what a spectacle! What a place St. James’ Park is again! And let’s not forget there’s a ‘BMX4sale 42 kwid o.n.o’. Genius. 8. The Jealousy of other fans – Look, there are certain issues involved in the ownership of our club that people are going to pick up on. Rightly so, too. But in many cases it’s just the green eyed monster. The amount of fans of other clubs who seem to have developed an overnight social conscience is only just dwarfed by the amount that didn’t realise how transfer window worked up until January. And you can bet that these are the same people who said we’d be the richest club in the championship too. Get used to it fellow Newcastle fans; these people are going to be crying river after river after river for years to come! 9. Shearer’s statue – the victim of another petty decision by the previous regime, Shearer’s statue is back inside the boundaries of the stadium, where it always belonged. It was an easy win for our new owners, so they did it. Seems simple really, doesn’t it? What a shame Ashley never understood. 10. Team Photos after a win – the target of hilarious snide comments from fans of other clubs, but the thing that we love to see. Birthplace of our knowledge of the Burn/Fraser bromance, while also humiliating those of us that carry a little bit more timber than we’d like with just the sight of some of the abs on show. I mean, Paul Dummett…who knew? Eddie’s simple idea is another thing that has made us fans fall back in love with the club (those of us who fell or almost fell out of love with it anyway) and I for one have looked forward to them after every fantastic win that we’ve been able to put on the board! 11. Sean Longstaff’s defence of Joelinton – straight after the home draw with Man Utd, after Joelinton had been awarded Man of The Match, the interviewer told Big Joe, “I didn’t realise you were that good.” After Joelinton’s cheery but bemused reply up stepped Sean. HIs defence of Joe was fantastic and showed the spirit in the camp, something that has deserted Newcastle frequently over the years. Longstaff said that the treatment of Joelinton had been disgraceful, revealing that everyone wants to be on his team at training because that means they’ll win! In an age of media trained monotony, this was refreshing and would have had many of us Toon fans shouting at the telly! 12. Big Dan Burn – put simply, I’m not sure there’s much better than a successful Geordie coming home story. 13. The Fraser/Burn bromance – with their immediately noticeable difference in height, I’m sure Ryan and Dan were the first to find those pictures funny. Surely standing together during those team photos was done on purpose? Same with the order in which they come on to the field. It’s a beautiful thing! More than that though, I hope it’s a sign of the spirit in the squad – two players prepared to have a laugh at themselves in order to promote a bit of harmony. Alternatively of course is the fact that they might just really get on and that their height doesn’t affect them being mates whatsoever. Still, it’s put a smile on more than a few faces. 14. Sam Fender offends mackems – a home town gig, Wor Flags and Local Hero. Cue social media meltdown on Wearside. Apparently though, they didn’t like him anyway (presumably they stumbled into a ticketed gig by mistake, having boarded the Metro to Newcastle by mistake), he was far too full of himself, there was no place for flags at a gig (maybe atmosphere’s not a big thing in Sunderland?) and where Sam was from wasn’t allowed to matter to him…just them. Very strange. But remember, we’re the ones that are obsessed. 15. Actual transfer windows – for much of the last 14 years these have been the stuff of legend, the place where other football clubs did business and bought players to improve things. For us, these were pretty desperate, yet predictable times. Lots of futile speculation, little or no action. The birthplace of the phrase, ‘we just couldn’t get it over the line’. January showed us how things could be and this summer promises to be memorable to say the least. 16. Jason Tindall’s tan – often to be found standing near to Eddie in a technical area, Jason is the tall, dark, handsome one whose skin tone resembles lump of teak. A thing of beauty. 17. Bruno referring to Joelinton as “bastard” on social media – it doesn’t seem to happen too much anymore, but for a short while it was funny and showed that Bruno’s English lessons, although a bit left-field, were paying off. It made me think he might have been taking Spender as his English inspiration. 18. Hawaiian Joelinton shirts – a stroke of genius really. Castore could learn a thing or two from those lads. 19. Owners’ kickabouts – it’s almost like they’re enjoying owning the club. But surely that can’t be right? I mean, Mr. Ashley made it sound like really hard work and now these lot are out after the game having a kickabout and filming it for social media. I do worry about their expensive shoes on that pitch though… 20. No more Sports Direct signs, talk of ground expansion and training ground improvements – there’s a lot that could be said about this, but for me it just shows that a top flight football club should be loved and invested in and not just treat as the world’s biggest billboard. Our owners seem to have fallen in love with the club and they are more than keen to improve it. It’s the stuff of dreams!

So there we have it. 20 daft things to love about the Toon. It could have been a ridiculously long list as well. For the first time in well over a decade times are good at Newcastle United. I hope you’re enjoying the ride!

The Last Day of Term

I’m starting this blog at break time, which is mid morning on the last day of our half term. Some of you will know this already, but I’m an English teacher in a high school. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but the day starting as it did I felt I had to in the interests of sanity. Some of you – fellow teachers – will read this at the very least with a knowing smile on your face, while others will have their eyes opened at least a little bit about what can happen in a classroom.

It’s been a tough half term. We’ve been busy preparing classes for GCSEs, which is taxing to say the least, but obviously then you’ve got all your other classes and day to day dramas on top of that. For me personally, it’s been a stressful week; three sets of assessments to mark, pre-exam sessions with my Year 11, after school sessions too and the sheer unadulterated fun of a fairly vicious fight happening in my form out of absolutely nowhere!

So today, the last Friday before a week off, should be about tying up loose ends relaxing at least a little bit. So why am I finding myself so wound up? Well, let me tell you a story…

I teach a lovely Year 7 group and they are the start of my worst day of the week, which is Friday. Friday’s timetable is book-ended by my Year 7s and my nice Year 8s. In between I teach my bottom set Year 10s twice and then my bottom set Year 8s. Both provide, shall we say interesting lessons.

However, today it seems even my Year 7s have been sent to try me!

It should be simple. Today we’re improving on a recent assessment; a process we call EPIC time. Basically, using feedback given on their assessments the pupils improve on a new topic, but the same type of writing. So their assessment was a newspaper article on one topic and now they’re doing one on a different topic. Simple, right? No actually. You’re wrong.

I start by getting them to copy down the date, title and learning purpose. I tell them to do it in purple pen, adding more than once that everything we do today should be done in purple. Cue the first question.

PUPIL: “Sir, do we write that in purple” ME: “Yes, like I said, everything” PUPIL: “Oh. I’ve written it in black.”

And so it begins. I must have been asked about purple pens at least 8 times after this. It felt like it would never end, despite the fact that every so often I’d remind them that EVERYTHING should be written in purple.

A similar theme emerges when we have a couple of small worksheets to fill in; one as a recall Do Now task (we stick them into books every lesson), the other a checklist for the task. These small loose sheets need to be stuck into books. I tell them this. I tell them again…oh, you get the idea. Still, they ask if they should stick them in. One even informs me that they’ve stuck one of the sheets next to their assessment, which must be 4 pages further back from what we’re doing today.

I’m beginning to think that today is going to be one of those days…

Having completed their assessment a couple of weeks ago, it means that the class will have to turn back some pages if they need to refer to it. So I tell them the date that we did it. Friday 13th May. Maybe I was asking for trouble, eh? Still some can’t find it, but they eventually do, leaving just one who is adamant that it isn’t in his book. After much to’ing and fro’ing about the date I head across to his desk, where I promptly find said assessment. The assessment is on the page that has the date Friday 13th of May on it. I resolve that these things are sent to test us and move on…very quietly grumbling to myself.

With 35 minutes of the lesson remaining, we’ve covered all of the input into their task and it’s time for them to write.

I am able to relax for approximately 4 minutes before, despite trying to encourage their independence since September, a barrage of questions. I’m asked what emotive language at least 3 times. I’m asked to spell every word in the dictionary, despite the fact that they’d all been given a dictionary as part of their equipment about two weeks ago. I’m even asked what my favourite cheese is? Not really, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise.

My next two English lessons are with the same group – my lower ability Year 10s. They’re what you might refer to as ‘hard work’ and although there are only 12 of them, they’ve kicked hard against Macbeth for the last month or so. Behaviour has not been good and at times I’ve ended their lessons exhausted.

Today, I decide we’re going to do a big timeline of important events in Macbeth with key quotes added. We’ll do it via my whiteboard, which is actually three put together. The students will contribute via questioning and hopefully a bit of their own volunteering of information. It’s quite demanding doing it this way because as the teacher you’re driving everything forward, doing lots of writing, prompting with questions, key words and hints, while hoping that they don’t notice how hard they’re working and how much they’re writing. And you’re doing it with your back to the room for large chunks of the lesson, which with this group is a bit of a risk. Especially if one of them’s brought the darts again. Just kidding.

To my great delight it works. Have a look for yourself.

However, it’s not without its hitches. I have to stop within about 5 minutes as two students have copied what’s on my board exactly. So not only has their A3 sheet got a big timeline horizontally, but they’ve also copied the edges of each board – remember there are 3 put together, so my one big board space has two vertical lines down it. Rather than a timeline they’ve got a grid and when I ask why they tell me it’s what I did. They’re staggered when I tell them it’s the edges of two of the boards. They’d thought that I’d drawn on the vertical lines and despite the fact that they’d always been there, they hadn’t noticed them in almost a whole academic year! As horrified as they are and as amused as I am, it only takes a fresh couple of sheets of A3 and they’re good to go again.

By the end of the two hours though every student has an A3 timeline chock full of Macbeth flavoured goodness. They’ve enjoyed doing it, they’re telling me that they understand the play more now (even if it’s just what happens) and they have a good 15 or so quotes to learn/ignore. Maybe the day is taking a turn for the better?

After some dinner I face up to an hour with the class that is easily my worst behaved. Another low ability group, this time Year 8. They’re finishing off some non-fiction work and will ultimately design a poster persuading people to stop using single use plastics. There are too many ‘events’ to go through here though, but by the end of the lesson they all have a poster which consists of the word PLASTIC (their choice) in bubble writing done by yours truly and some facts about single use plastics scattered around. We’ll file them under the heading ‘Last Day, Not Very Good’.

Four hundred hours later – give or take an hour or so – it’s time for the final lesson of the day. Again, it’s Year 8, but a different group. Again, they’re working on an EPIC of an earlier assessment, so we’ve come full circle, which is nice. Workwise, they’re great. But our rewards system provides a couple of interesting moments.

Good work, behaviour, telling me they like my socks or that I’m just generally great is rewarded with tokens. Tokens can be placed in a box marked with whatever whole school reward they want at the end of the half term. Most tokens wins. Today, every kid is getting an ice lolly during the final period of the day. They’re delivered by a member of SLT called Emily Smellyfartpoo (Her 2nd appearance in one of my blogs and once again I’ve changer her name; she’ll never know it’s her). Her real surname is Shittyarseface. It’s not, I’m just kidding. It’s dafter than that.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with two gems that come out of the mouth of the same student as a result of an ice lolly. Firstly, when he takes a nibble from the lolly he literally screams before declaring ‘It’s cold!’. He’s really not messing around. This is genuine shock. I mean, the clue’s in the name, kid. Then, while everyone else is managing to keep working while they eat their lolly he claims that he can’t eat it with his left hand, so must do so with his right, his writing hand. He ends up spending a little bit of time with me in a short detention at the end of the day!

So there we have it. That last day is never as easy or straightforward as you’d like it to be but I hope you enjoyed the end of term as much as I did!

Poetry Blog: To a terrifying mouse.

Spring brings with it many jobs, especially if you have a garden. And it was while embarking on some jobs in our back garden that I encountered a somewhat unwanted visitor, just the other day.

As I’m currently on holiday from work – it’s our Easter break – I thought that it was about time I got stuck into some of the more difficult jobs that needed attending to. Principal among them was cutting our back lawn, which I had allowed to get to an out of control kind of length. I do this every year; tell myself that it’s too early for mowing the lawn when it’s reasonably dry in March and then watch on in relative horror as it rains for weeks and the lawn grows and grows. By the time I’d got the lawn mower out last week, it was around a foot high in most places, meaning that this would be a big job!

I’d actually prepared fairly well for this task, making sure that our garden waste bin had been put out for collection the night before, so that it was completely empty when I started the job. However, as I repeatedly emptied the basket on the mower it looked more and more like I was going to run out of space. I turned to our compost bin but that too began to fill up quickly.

I then began to push the grass cuttings down, hoping that such compression would create the space I needed in the garden bin. It didn’t work. And then I was struck by what I thought was a very clever idea. Taking the lid off our compost bin, I got the garden sheers out, inserted them into the pile of grass cuttings and trimmings from various shrubs and began to chop away. It worked and the level of the ‘compost’ began to drop. But not nearly enough.

Warming to my task, I went to the shed, got my garden fork as well as a weed digging tool and began to push them down into the compost, twisting and turning in order to mix it all up and hopefully make some of it drop downwards. Again, it worked and this time well enough to allow me to get carried away, delving the tools repeatedly down into the bin. And then it happened…

To a terrifying mouse

I have climbed mountains,
clung on as if my very life depended on it while others screamed with joy
on rollercoasters,
peered nervously over the edge of perilous waterfalls,
flown in a seaplane very much against my better judgement,
hurtled headlong down steep, snowy hills
on a makeshift tarpaulin toboggan,
faced down bullies,
been confronted by an angry rattlesnake,
had desks thrown at me by frustrated pupils in a failing school
and argued with an Ofsted inspector, despite being warned never to do this by those who knew better than me,
but I have never felt fear like that felt when a tiny mouse scurried out
of our compost bin and escaped over my foot.
No more than three inches in length
from snuffling nose to tiny tail,
as I cowered, this timorous beastie,
no doubt far more scared of me than I of he,
disappeared behind a pile of bricks to sanctuary,
whilst I screamed like a child, yet cursed like a pirate
and promptly cut my finger on the edge of the compost bin,
on reflection a fair penance for my ridiculous behaviour.
Later, as I slept, it crept into my dreams,
turning them into nightmares,
leaving me to smile ruefully next morning at the memory,
while silently hoping to never encounter it again.

I’m slightly ashamed to say it, but I got the shock of my life when I realised what was happening. I spotted the blur that turned out to be a tiny mouse out of the corner of my eye. Then I felt it run across my foot. It couldn’t have been there long however, due to a combination of the speed of the mouse and me leaping into the air in shock!

Later, after I’d told my wife and children about our little garden visitor, I started thinking about how I could turn the whole encounter into a piece of writing, settling on a poem. By the time I’d got to the writing things down stage I’d decided that I’d start with a list of scary experiences, then compare this to what had happened that afternoon with the mouse. I sat listing things I’d done that had caused me tension or fear before thinking about how I’d get on to the mouse.

The one thing that sprang to mind was the first line of the poem ‘To a mouse’ by Robert Burns and how he described the mouse as a ‘beastie’, which made it sound much more scary than it was in his poem. I liked the idea of my mouse being a ‘beastie’, just because it gave me some such a shock and so I decided to use that line, but play around with it a little bit. So instead of the mouse being ‘cow’ring’ I thought it would be better used to describe me and just left the mouse as a ‘timorous beastie’ like Burns had.

The fact that I then dreamt about the mouse that night helped me confirm my thoughts of it as threatening! In the dream I could almost feel the mouse on my feet and it actually woke me up! It definitely made me smile the next morning and had to be included in the poem once I wrote it up as some kind of first draft.

I’m pleased with how this poem has turned out and I have to say that I really enjoyed drafting it and then putting the finishing touches to it. I hope you enjoyed it too!

How old do I feel?

A funny question, this. And one that is quite close to my heart really. You see, I started my blog shortly after recovering from a heart operation having been admitted to hospital a month or so earlier and being told I was lucky to be alive. Among many things that were brought to mind around this time was the question of feeling so old. That, coupled with the realisation that I really was now middle aged and the desire to write prompted me to write a three part blog about the troubles I’d encountered and the realisation that I felt very old indeed.

You can read that very first blog on the link here that asks When did I get so old?

In truth, the question of how old I feel has been a regular topic in the vast desert of my mind ever since. Surgery was a wake-up call; I needed to be healthier, fitter, stronger – I needed to live.

Since then, I’ve made changes – not perhaps as dramatic as I’d like to make, but everything’s in transition at my time of life – and am able to give a far better answer to the question these days! So when asked to write something about it https://billswritingplace.wordpress.com/2022/01/01/how-old-do-i-feel/ by my very good internet pal, Bill of ‘A Silly Place’ fame, I leapt at the chance.

Like Bill, I’m approaching 50. In fact, I’m 50 in February (which leaves plenty of time to organise some kind of gift, dear reader!). I really don’t feel it though. If others are to be believed, I don’t look it either, which is something I’m truly grateful for! Without sounding too big-headed or pleased with my little self, I’m comfortable in my own skin and to a point, with my own reflection in the mirror. But ultimately, this isn’t really important in terms of how old I feel.

So, if I had to nail it and put an actual number on how old I feel, then I’d plump for 18. Not bodily. Running and football and having two kids – I didn’t actually birth them, but sweet Jesus, they’re exhausting – have definitely taken their toll. However, in my head, I feel 18.

There’s a brilliant song by The Courteeners called ‘Not 19 Forever’ and while I love the song, I’d argue vociferously against the title and its sentiment. I won’t reach 19, because I am 18 forever!

So, why do I feel so young? Well, it’s not as positive as it sounds. I feel 18 because I retain a fully formed sense of silliness. Just as I did at that age, I really don’t take things too seriously. I like to have fun and I’m happier than ever when just larking around and having a laugh. In short, I suppose that makes me immature, but they do say that boys take a while to catch up, don’t they? So, I’m only doing as I’m told really. But even as I hurtle towards 50, I still don’t feel that I’m a very good adult. In fact, I’m just a much better kid.

“But dad, I don’t want to form a band!” “Why not? I’m still young and hip and down with the kids, maaaan!”
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

Part of feeling 18 is that I have the same kind of daft ideas that I had as a kid. A fair few of my blog posts will prove that. My recent New Year’s Resolutions post included ideas like learning to moonwalk and adopting an imaginary cat with a rude name, all very much the ideas of an overgrown child. Last summer I bought a Snoopy t-shirt and I still have a Hong Kong Phooey one and while I know these are not the attire of an almost 50 year old bloke, I just really like them.

Eighteen year old me still regularly plays both kitchen disco and kitchen band while doing the dishes. In fact, I like very little more than the chance to mince and mime my way through songs, just simply because it amuses me greatly. In my head on these occasions I’m a combination of a young Mick Jagger, a Jackson 5 era Michael, James Brown and Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, the frontman of Swedish band The Hives. In reality I’m likely much more a slightly out of shape, yet curiously skinny bloke with greying hair and a few moves, none of which are actually that great. But I’m bloody well 18!

“OK Wembley, this is the last song of the night. You’ve been a lovely…oh hi kids, dad’ll get your tea soon…he’s just…working…” Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

I think that part of the reason I still feel 18 is that I spend a large proportion of my time surrounded by young people. I’m a high school teacher, so I’m in the presence of people from 11-16 five days a week. And although this could well be the reason that I’ve developed nervous ticks and often wake in the night in a cold sweat, screaming, I think it’s kept me young, so to speak. I’m obliged to see things from a pre-teen and teenage point of view, I’m informed of the latest trends and I’m haunted, daily by their language! I suppose I’m inspired by their energy as well. For all the mini battles we might have with behaviour, attitude and application, there are a million more inspiring, positive and fun interactions to be had and it keeps a smile on your face as well as giving you the motivation to get out of bed and get into work every day. In my case, it feels like it keeps me young too!

As well as teaching, I coach a youth football team. This definitely helps in the feeling 18 stakes! At least twice a week I’m actively playing football and because I’m very competitive it means I throw myself into it…like a kid, really. It’s something I’m really enthusiastic about; not just getting to kick a ball around, but working out how to inspire our players, how to develop their skills and get the best out of them. It’s tiring, but it’s also another aspect of my life that means I really don’t feel like an almost 50 year old. However, there are occasions when it can have the opposite effect and leave me feeling like I’m nearly 90, not 50! A few months ago I injured my shoulder because I thought I’d go in goal during some shooting practice. The more I saved, the more competitive it became and the more I threw myself around! It was loads of fun, but I regretted it the next day – and for months afterwards – as I’d damaged a nerve in my shoulder. It led to a miserable summer of being in constant pain and frankly, I’ve never felt so old.

Mainly though, I genuinely feel young. Of course, I get more tired than before, but I’m not one for napping or just sitting about. I think because my job requires a lot of energy and my coaching and interests do too, then I retain that (almost) teenage energy, a lot of the time.

My name is Graham and I’m an almost 50-year-old man. I have some wrinkles and some grey hair. In my head, I’m still 18, although I’m not sure my knees agree…

Poetry Blog: Christmas Do

It’s that time of year again, isn’t it? Where entire offices, factories and other work places worth of people pour into bars and clubs to celebrate the festive season together by getting drunk beyond belief and ending the night making friends with the toilet. If they make it that far. Because, of course that would be what Jesus would’ve wanted.

And although these ‘dos’ are under threat again as yet another variant of Covid rises and takes hold, some people still won’t be stopped in their quest for Yuletide humiliation. Some in fact, will have already set off on their quest having been out for the first, second or even third of many such ‘dos’.

It’s been years since I bothered. So many in fact that I genuinely can’t remember the last one I went on. I’ve been on loads of them though, so speak from experience, but I think I just got to a point where I couldn’t be bothered any more. I know in part this was down to the fact that where I worked and where I lived were just far too far apart, making going out with those I worked with impractical at best. Maybe I just grew up a little bit as well.

Anyway, I wrote a short poem about them.

Christmas Do

For one night only, rival factions might just lose their friction,
conversations blossom, gropes and saliva are traded with imperfect strangers.
All in the name of the Christmas Do.
In a corner Elsa from Frozen snogs the face off an elf
as different office fancy dress parties collide,
and while love won't blossom, regret will thrive
as, in another part of the bar, a wobbly one-kneed proposal is hugged away, laughed off in the hope that all the morning brings is amnesia and a sore head,  perhaps, at worst, an oh-so-distant memory that will remain unspoken.
In every corner someone is crying while no one really knows why,
but despite the season to be jolly, tears will flow like waterfalls
Elsewhere, the inevitable scuffle jars against festive frivolity,
briefly shattering the good will to all men, until all unwise men are dragged away to consume even more of what seasoned their aggression in the first place.
He's not worth it, Darren, because it's Chriiiiistmaaaaas, Darren
As tradition demands, the night will end with a raucous singalong as groups come together to link arms and drag each other around the dancefloor roughly and without any sense of rhythm or in fact any more than a quarter of the right words to the song.
And then, it's off into the night, until next year when they'll Christmas Do it all once more.

When I initially wrote the poem I was quite happy with it. I liked one or two of the reference points and thought that in some places I’d nailed the idea of the Christmas Do. However, a few days later when I came to look at it again, I was unhappy with the length of it. So – and I must say it was in haste, so forgive me if it doesn’t quite work – I added some lines and fiddled around with others. This was all done while various family members kept asking me to do stuff, so maybe the thought process wasn’t particularly flowing either. As a result, I’m not quite sure about some of it, especially the end, which changed on more than one occasion. But, if I continued drafting it would likely be January and what use is a Christmas themed poem at the start of the year?

So there you have it. Hopefully I’ve captured most, if not all of the horror of these nights. All in the name of Christmas, but often without even a hint of good will in sight. I think that many of the references in the poem are very British. Certainly, I hope that other countries don’t do Christmas nights out in the same fashion that we do.

Book Review: ‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Library Visit

This is a poem that came into being while I was sitting with my Year 7 group during a library visit. We have a thriving library in the school that I work at and at Key Stage 3, English classes are booked in for regular visits in order to renew loans, browse or take out new books. It was on one such visit that I scribbled down the bones of a poem, putting it together as the finished thing later that day.

What prompted me to write was how amazingly fussy the students were. On top of this it felt like they hadn’t listened to anything they were told in what was obviously a carefully planned presentation. Their behaviour made me smile in part, but also brought out my sarcastic side, which to be fair is never far from the surface anyway.

Library Visit

If you are 11 or 12 it would seem to be impossible
not to fiddle with a plastic wallet when given one.
A temptation surely proven by science as unavoidable.
To crinkle, to flatten, to rustle and crackle,
might as well be written down as law,
with a sub-section of said law regarding the unavoidability
of crinkling, crackling and or flattening when the librarian 
is addressing the room.

The same rule seems to apply when it comes to sitting 
on an assigned chair,
especially if this process involves sitting next to 
a member of the opposite sex.
Those who will take on, for most, the very properties
of a magnet in just a few short years are for now,
strictly persona non grata 
and to park one's arse within a few inches is viewed as
an absolute, unspoken, unwritten non starter.

Silent browsing is now also beyond the wit of
the pre teen human. Instead this almost instantly provokes
inane chatter and a convergence around any available
window in order to gawp longingly at an outdoor PE lesson.
And so, the sanctity and stillness of the library
lies largely ignored, broken; the resistance of an enormous SILENCE sign
is futile and a thing of the past, long discarded and tossed unwanted 
into the depths of a stock room, a relic of a lifetime ago.

What is certainly not impossible is the ability 
to ask ridiculous questions.
Common sense flies out of the window,
somewhere on the corridor on the way here,
having the common sense to know that it will not be needed
in the next half hour.
Even organised, alphabetised shelves full of writer's names
will not reveal where to find the R of Rowling,
the D for Dahl,
and so ordered thinking gives way to questions that,
with a few seconds more thought, need never have been asked.


It’s funny how these library visits regularly pan out in exactly the same way. Our students are more than happy to revert to stereotypes when they’re left to their own devices at these times. So rather than scrutinising the shelves we’ll see groups of boys congregating by the windows in order to either gaze out of them or just stand there whispering.

The stereotypes continue as there are always boys loitering around the non fiction section grabbing books about cars so that they can sit back down and point at the glamour on the pages in front of them with their friends.

Similarly girls will wander around in groups, choosing books before sitting down and dutifully reading them. Because they’re good at doing what they’re asked to do.

It wasn’t a stressful library visit. In fact, if I could have predicted how it would go I’d have been pretty much 100% accurate. But it never fails to amaze me how classes don’t listen when they’re told where to sit, how boys seem almost allergic to sitting next to a girl or how even though someone is addressing them, some kids will fidget with something in their bag or pencil case. And so, I wrote the poem…

I hope you enjoyed what you read. If you work in education you might know exactly what I’m talking about or if you just remember such visits from school, it might have brought back some memories. I’d love to hear what you thought though, so feel free to drop me a line in the comments.

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