Book Review: The Knot by Mark Watson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d give The Knot…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ironically, it’s not been a positive week at all.

It’s been a ‘helluva’ week. I know that’s not the correct spelling or grammar, but it’s how the cool people would have put it, I imagine, so I thought I’d give it a go.

So let me tell you all about it…

Firstly, we’ll cut to the chase (cool language again, I know). On Wednesday night my 11-year-old son tested positive for Covid-19. Then, feeling poorly overnight, my wife took a test on Thursday morning and also tested positive. Now, I know they’re not the first people affected by this. It’s been quite the big thing, as I recall. But it’s never got so personal until now and it’s kind of disrupted the week! The thing we had feared for over a year finally happened, just when it looked like there wasn’t much chance of it happening anymore!

It’s now Saturday, so for three(ish) days I’ve been running around trying to look after the poorly people in the house as well as my 14-year-old daughter. I’m knackered. They’re knackered too, obviously.

Chronologically speaking, we started the week on Monday. Not just us, by the way. You too, dear reader. Everybody. I’m definitely not claiming any exclusivity on Monday as the start of the week. As it is, Monday came and went quite well really. I did a day at work in a job I love, taught two of my favourite classes and then had a reasonably early finish and headed home. I suppose there was a sign of the week to come when the student teacher I’m mentoring didn’t come into work and neglected to tell me she was absent. Damn my psychic powers. They obviously don’t kick in until Tuesdays when you get a bit older. Positively though, we had fish fingers and chips (and beans, as you ask; you have to have beans in that particular mix) for tea and selfishly, my son showed no signs of Covid. Clearly he hasn’t heard of the idea that forewarned is forearmed.

So undetected were his symptoms that he played a full game of football for our team on Tuesday night. This was another negative moment in our Positive week. It absolutely threw it down with rain. We were playing the team that are currently second top of our league and who had previously beaten us 7-1 earlier in the season. Inevitably, we lost. We were absolutely magnificent and perhaps could have won it, but we lost. And we all got soaked. Despite wearing 5 layers on my top half and two on the bottom (steady on ladies…and gents…it’s 2021 after all) I was soaked to the skin. I assume everyone else was too, but it seemed like too much of an intrusive question to ask. And to re-iterate, my probably Covid carrying, yet no symptoms son ran around like a mad thing for an hour, getting pushed and kicked every few minutes by members of a very physical opposition.

He felt tired and sick the next day – no Covid symptoms though – and so when we did our lateral flow tests that night, it was quite a shock to see his read as positive. He’s tiny. He’s eleven. He had contracted a virus that kills.

And so began a whirlwind of activity. Myself and my wife – herself now starting to feel tired and sick – rang, texted and interneted (I don’t know if that’s a verb, but if it isn’t, I’ve just invented it) and organised a PCR test for my son, as well as informing the school of the positive and several parents that their kids would be most likely be isolating for the next ten days. It all felt great. (That’s sarcasm by the way. It actually felt shit.)

I slept on the floor that night with just a duvet and some blankets for a mattress and some dressing gowns for blankets, having forgotten that our blow up mattress was in the shed. I’ve slept on the floor – albeit with the mattress – since (organise my medal now someone; I have been a very brave boy). Each night, when I’ve woken I’ve headed upstairs to check on my two patients, such is the worry that this while thing brings.

On Thursday morning, feeling very unwell, my wife did a lateral flow test and, surprise, surprise, it came back positive. We promptly organised a PCR test to confirm it, but couldn’t get the same venue as for my son’s. Heads spinning – not literally; don’t worry it doesn’t do that to you – we headed out to get to the first test. And in yet another positive, we ended up at three centres after the first one was shut for use as a polling station for local elections and the second one couldn’t fit my wife in (to their schedule, not their room, she’s tiny). So we headed for an entirely different town, getting lost in the one way system first of all before eventually, hours after we’d first set out, my wife and son were able to take their tests.

At a couple of points on Thursday I went to check on my wife to find her literally collapsed on our bed, like she’d been sitting up, but passed out. On one of those occasions, such was her body shape, that all it would have taken was a chalk outline and some stripy police tape to make it look like a convincing murder scene. Scary stuff. Friday was much the same. Oh and I had to make dinner and tea on both days, so could someone organise another medal for me, please? I mean, I’ve been forced to drink beer every night, just to cope…

So caught up in it all was I, that on Friday night, I forgot that my football team were playing and only tuned in to watch about 25 minutes after kick-off. Excuse my language, but we were fucking wonderful. However, when each of our four goals went in, I was forced to completely subdue my usual loud celebrations for fear of hurting the poorly heads of our two positives. Whoever’s organising the medals, get me a trophy as well.

And now, it’s Saturday. It’s throwing it down with rain again and no one’s had any fresh air as a result. The other three members of the household are occupying themselves in various ways, so I thought I’d write this. I hope you enjoyed my week a bit more than we did.

Film Review: Good Boys

Sixth Grade is a tough time for any kid. Hormones are starting to fly around, you’re finding your way in life a little more and seeking independence from your parents, while at the same time still seeking solace under their protective ‘wings’. And all the while, you’re forming friendships that are likely to last at least up until adulthood, if not for the rest of your life. Sixth grade might just be the making of a person.

Such is the situation for Max, Lucas and Thor (The self titled Bean Bag Boys and the heroes of Good Boys), three 6th grade friends living in a smart suburb of an unnamed American city as they prepare for their first ‘kissing party’. Sadly though, their preparation doesn’t go smoothly, leading to a series of misadventures that although often bordering on the ridiculous, are highly entertaining.

‘Good Boys’ is a coming of age adventure with a healthy slice of slapstick thrown in for good measure. Having been invited to their first ever ‘kissing party’ by the school cool kid, Soren, the boys set out to do some research. After all, if you’re heading for a kissing party, you’d better know just how to kiss, right? And Max is smitten with classmate Brixlee and desperate to grab a smooch with her.

So, in the name of research and with no thought whatsoever for privacy, the boys borrow an expensive drone from Max’s dad and set out to film a neighbour kissing her boyfriend. So far, so good…nothing to see here! Surely, nothing can go wrong? But the Bean Bag Boys’ drone experiment in fact goes badly – and oh so predictably – wrong and as a result they inadvertently make enemies of their neighbour Hannah (she of the kissing with the boyfriend) and her friend, Lily. Even though the boys eventually get to their kissing party, they are forced to learn some harsh lessons from their mistakes in the days afterwards. This is often to hilarious effect and although at times the humour is near the knuckle and perhaps a bit silly, I found myself laughing along all the way through.

Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, known for their work on The Office, deserve great credit for the words that they put in the mouths of babes here, as it’s often brilliantly incongruous and hilariously – and deliberately – inaccurate. Seth Rogen, one of the producers of the film, has clearly had a chunk of input here too. The boys’ take on various aspects of sex and drugs is a hilarious mix of total myth, complete rubbish and dangerous stereotypes which is guaranteed to raise more than the odd chuckle.

In their quest to replace the expensive drone – which is inevitably destroyed – and avoid their now mortal enemies, Hannah and Lily, the Bean Bag Boys find themselves thrust into several dangerous adventures that are navigated with typical pre-teen innocence so that they can reach an out of town mall. But it’s not just these trials and tribulations that make up the coming of age story and as a result of the kissing party the boys learn some things about friendship and each other that they would have never suspected in their previous lives sitting in their ban bag den playing games.

Good Boys is a great, feel-good film. The comedy here is sharp, the characters well written and if at times the twists and turns of the narrative are nothing short of ridiculously unbelievable, it doesn’t matter. Good Boys is one of those films where you’ll need to suspend your sense of reality and just enjoy the action, however daft it might get. Ultimately you’ll want the boys to get the drone, stay friends and keep the feel-good factor…but once all of their escapades are over, will there be a happy ending for Max, Lucas and Thor?

I’d give Good Boys

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Remote Learning Diary – leaf blowers, toilet requests and possible psycho killers.

It’s been over five weeks now since the new school term started. Under normal circumstances, us teachers would be tired, but with the end in sight and a week’s half term break to come, we’d be sure that we could make it through. Although, in truth I think I’d probably be acting the drama queen about it all and making sure that everyone was sure about the exact level of my exhaustion. Unfortunately though, circumstances have been anything but normal and as we lurch towards that half-term break, it feels like we’ve rowed across an ocean, climbed a mountain, been thrown to the lions in the Coliseum and then locked in a room, waterboarded, lashed to a settee to be the meat in a double Nigel Farage sandwich and subjected to the non-stop playing of NIck Knowles’ Greatest Hits. Safe to say, it’s been a tough one.

It started simply enough. Personally, despite the government leaving the decision to close schools until almost the last second, I thought teaching remotely would be quite good. I enjoy my own company, am comfortable in my own skin and so I imagined it would be quite a lot of fun just talking to my class through a screen every day. That lasted about an hour into the third day, when I realised that without the human interaction and the showing off aspect of my job, well, I don’t like my job anywhere near as much.

But that’s not what I’m here for. I can moan about things another time, I’m sure. The idea behind this blog was just to make it a kind of remote learning diary (hence the oh so imaginative title), but with a selection of high and lowlights, rather than a day by day account of every last detail. In the main, I wanted a chance to record what went on in order to capture it for posterity. Something to look back on in years to come, if you will.

What’s probably surprised me most is my willingness to just go into work every day. I know what I’ll be faced with, which is an empty English corridor most days, an almost empty school, just me in my classroom faced by a load of desks that still have the chairs up on them, barely any human interaction and almost zero movement, yet every day I trail in. Having spent years envying those who have been able to work from home, I’ve found I can’t really bring myself to go for it! While part of this is down to a mistrust of home technology, it’s strange to think that mainly, my reason for going into work is just that I like the familiarity of the surroundings…even if they’re not that familiar at the moment. I keep everything familiar too. I start every day with a ‘To Do’ list – boring jobs are carried over from days and weeks before – , I check emails, turn on the heating, activate SIMs and usually join my own call very early in order to get everything in place. It’s still difficult to make it feel ‘right’ though. This is anything but normal.

I do actually have a little bit of company in my room during the week. Some of our more vulnerable students who are in school prefer the familiarity of the classroom and so when I was asked if they could join me, I thought why not. The chance to exchange even a few words with people has benefitted me and if the students are enjoying school a bit more by being in their classroom, well who am I to deny that? But it’s given me a situation that acts as both a lowlight and a highlight because these boys seem blissfully unaware of their propensity for farting! And so, a couple of times a week, I’m treated to something akin to the accompaniment of a brass section parping away very much in the foreground of my lesson as I try to make myself known to the other students at home online. It’s safe to say that it’s 60% amusing 30% smelly and 10% worth of worry that an online student picks it up on the mic and thinks it’s me. I can only imagine the texts pinging around the school community about Mr. Crosby’s guffs. Well, at least I know the truth and what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom!

One of the biggest downsides, across the board for teachers and students, has probably been how bad it all is for the eyes. Lots of my colleagues have complained of headaches and migraines and I’ve found, the longer I’ve sat at a screen, the worse the headaches have become. On a few occasions recently I’ve even experienced a bizarre fuzziness around the edges of my vision, almost as if my eyes are slowly shutting down and my field of vision is shrinking; it’s not at all pleasant. But I’m guessing that’s what spending so long in front of a screen will do for you. Our school have introduced longer breaks, but even then, such is the pressure you put on yourself to produce work of some kind, I rarely leave the screen. It’s been an unexpected side effect for me, but the fatigue at the end of each day is a real concern. I genuinely thought that with students not in the classroom taking away the draining effects of dealing with in class behaviour, life would be a lot easier. Little did I know. Everyone I know that works in education seems exhausted and it seems we’re all going to end up wearing jam jar glasses as well!

Another of the quirks of working in a school that’s closed is the intrigue caused by a fresh face. Sadly, the fresh faces generally all come in the form of tradesmen, but beggars can’t be choosers. Over the course of the last 6 weeks I’ve had several blokes join me in my room in order to fix or check something or other. The first was a man who, during the first week of January, popped in to check the fire exit and who seemed genuinely offended that I had the heating on. He actually shook his head while informing me that it was “hot in here”, while ignoring the fact that it might be something to do with him having just walked in from outside. I’m not sure why he seemed to think I should be working in the cold, but on second thoughts, you’re right mate; I’ll just sit here trying to make myself understood through all the shivering and chattering of teeth.

In another heating related visit, one of our caretakers was summoned to the classroom next door in order to sort out their air conditioning and having wrestled with it for a few minutes, simply knocked on my door and asked if I knew what to do! Fortunately, having being summoned by my friend next door at least once a week to sort the same thing for the last 5 years, I was able to make a difference! (On an unrelated to lockdown note, the best heating problem is when someone asks for help and I go in to find that they haven’t actually turned it on!)

The other notable tradesman related tales were the timing of the man who turned on an industrial sized leaf blower, just as I started my lesson recently – it could be heard by the students on the call! – and the man who seemed to be out to kill me. No, really. This was the bloke who was fixing something on the neighbouring building and kept either staring in my window while working or staring while walking past. Whatever the location he seemed to have taken an instant dislike to me and just stared with the dead eyes of a shark who wanted me dead. I’ve not seen such levels of disdain for me in…minutes. Equal parts unnerving and amusing and an incident that led to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer being the earworm of the day. Well, I suppose if there’s no in class behaviour to worry about, I can always rely on tradesmen to keep me on my toes!

Technology has been a constant irritation. And not just because in general, I can’t use it. One of the main features about having to rely on technology for so long has been the amount of times when it just goes wrong. But at least that can be solved. Usually, if there’s a problem with sound or what can be viewed on screen, if the student leaves the call then returns, it’s problem solved. So, we’re relying mostly on the remote learning version of turning it off and then back on again!

It’s a more human problem, that can really get in the way of the technology though. It’s safe to say that we’ve all had some bizarre interruptions to our lessons. For instance, despite the fact that our pupils are generally working from home, you’d be surprised by the amount of requests I’ve had for pupils wanting permission to go to the toilet. And while I see that this is common courtesy on their part, I have to admit to at least once telling them, “It’s your toilet, you don’t need my permission!” Perhaps I’d been asked one too many times at that point! Another friend has had requests to leave the lesson from students on one occasion because their budgie had escaped and on another because the kid’s puppy had just decided to use his bed as a toilet.

And while other colleagues have enjoyed the relaxed dress and hair code they can adopt at home, others have been on the end of some rather harsh feedback from students. A friend working at home while looking after her toddler subsequently found out through the Comments on the lesson that her students had nicknamed said toddler ‘The Beast’. Another was asked, “For real miss, are you okay, ‘cos you sound off” which I suppose could have been worse if they’d said she looked ‘off’. And then another friend was recently asked if she was okay because she looked ‘poorly’. My friend tells me that she’d made an effort to actually put the webcam on that day in order to give the kids someone familiar to look at, a bit of normality in these strange times and being asked if she was poorly was her reward!

I think I may well speak for the majority of teachers when I say that the lack of face to face communication has somewhat hampered progress. The level of miscommunication has been ramped up beyond belief. During an assessment recently, a student waited for 30 minutes before telling me they’d been reading the wrong text for the first set of questions, despite reminders as often as I could possibly give them about what to read and when. The information was also on the slides that we’d been looking at for weeks in preparing for exam tasks! Similarly, a friend relates a tale of telling a class the number of paragraphs they’d need to write – three – at regular intervals and also having the instruction on the relevant slide, only for a kid to ask, “do I do three or one?” Another pal explained the same assessment for 20 minutes without interruption and 7 minutes into writing one of her students confessed he’d forgotten what he was doing! It’s safe to say our students need that face to face interaction!

While there have been numerous stressful parts to the last 6 weeks of remote learning, I can’t deny the highs. Although some of them haven’t quite worked out as well as they could have. An excellent example of this was our recent Wellbeing Wednesday which was brought in to give people a rest and keep them away from screens for a few hours. The timetable was suspended for the afternoon session and pupils were just set assignments to complete and hand in. Lots of staff went home early, went on walks, did activities like yoga, spent time with family and stuff. Me? Well, Wednesday is a free afternoon for me, so I wasn’t gaining anything really. Normally I’d just spend the afternoon planning, marking or researching. I just knew that if I went home I’d waste the time and discover it was 5pm and that I’d done nothing. So I stayed at work to get ahead, but was adamant that I’d leave early. I didn’t manage that bit though, as I lost track of time feeding back to students on work that they’d done. So not a lot of wellbeing taken care of, but it’s my own fault. And I bet I wasn’t alone. I subsequently dedicated that evening to my wellbeing by drinking a bottle of red wine and passing out on the sofa. I didn’t really, that was a joke. My wellbeing is…well, don’t worry.

Another high this term was organised by one of our SLT. We were invited to a staff meeting on a Wednesday morning, during week 5, but with no real idea why? When we logged on there was a slide informing us that a secret email had been sent to students and that they were being asked to send in positive messages for staff. And then, for 10 minutes, we sat back and watched as the messages rolled over the screen; loads and loads of them. They even played the theme from The Golden Girls in the background! Sadly, just the once and not on a ten minute loop. I’m not a particularly sentimental person, but even I have to say that it was amazing. I sat there expecting to see nothing about myself, but was thrilled to bits (secretly and in a really cool way!) to see my name pop up on a number of occasions. Everybody likes a pat on the back occasionally though, right? It was a fantastic idea and the member of staff who organised it said he’d been overwhelmed by the amount of emails that were sent back. It was certainly proof that I work in a special place and a really timely boost just when I felt like I was flagging.

Strangely, as someone who always thought he’d be fine with just his own thoughts for company, I’ve found my own headspace a bit much to deal with at times. Even today, I was the only member of staff on our corridor and if I allowed myself to consider that too much I might start to feel ridiculously isolated and even a bit lonely. And it’s not as if it’s the first time this has happened. Yet, I’ve still not quite got used to it.

The boredom can be a bit of a problem too. With no face to face interaction, often, as we set a class off working on something, we’re left in a bit of a void. You’re still on the call and available to help, but you’re faced with a wall of silence. In class, I’ll wander round, keeping myself active and being readily available to help, but that doesn’t really work when it’s all remote and you’re the only person in the room! Instead, often I bring up another tab and start working on something else; some planning or some admin task that’s been on a ‘To Do’ list for weeks. I’ve also found another Teams related way to amuse myself, which is to change the backgrounds to my image on camera. It’s something that I occasionally share with my classes, but it’s mainly there to make me smile, although I have sent some of the images to friends via social media as well. You can see some of the results below.

As we limp to the end of the term, I think everyone is exhausted, including students. It’s safe to say it’s been a real learning curve and a very intense experience over these last 6 weeks. I’m sure other professions have had it even harder across the whole pandemic, but as someone who’s been in the eye of this particular storm, I thought I’d share a bit of what it’s been like.

Who knows how long we have left working like this. March 4th has been floated around speculatively as the date when schools re-open, but I’m not holding my breath. Best just to keep the mindset exactly the same, keep the head down and get on with it. After all, there are far worse off people in this pandemic, than people like me who still have a job and are being asked to do it in a different way. If you’re a teacher or anyone else who works in a school, or even a parent or child involved in home-schooling; keep on going! It’s all we can do!

How to survive the pandemic – 5 Top Tips that might not be all that serious!

It’s fairly safe to say and certainly not anything new to learn, but it’s been one hell of a year or so. Since news of Covid-19 broke in early January of last year, things have gathered momentum somewhat. As the virus crossed continents our moods changed and then as the world was locked down things plummeted to new lows. And since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of decidedly average highs and Mariana trench sized lows.

Here in the UK, we’ve been hit hard and people have been forced to battle to survive not just the virus and it’s various strains, but the boredom and isolation of successive lockdowns as well as the idiotic behaviour of their fellow Brits. As I write news broke just a few hours ago of a school hall in London being hired out and unbeknownst to the school itself, playing host to a wedding where 400 people attended. Thousands have died, but it pales into insignificance at the thought of not having your 3rd cousin’s neighbours and their postman at your wedding, right?

Aside from problems like this, something that has most likely affected a large percentage of people is the sheer boredom of it all. Within weeks I’d painted every fence panel we have as well as our sheds. I’d trimmed shrubs and trees, cut lawns regularly enough that they could have hosted Wimbledon, walked every available route around our town, read book after book, watched television until my eyes hurt, skillfully sidestepped the sensation that became Zoom quizzes and exhausted myself exhausting every possible Joe Wicks video on YouTube. I daresay many of you were exactly the same. Although, perhaps it was just me that approached Zoom quizzes with such grumpiness and cynicism.

As we come up to almost a year of living in a pandemic, it seems boredom is at its absolute zenith. We can’t exercise as much – well not in the northern hemisphere anyway; it’s bloody freezing. And just when you think you’ve pretty much learnt to live with every Covid related u-turn that life throws at you, something else comes along and smacks you right in the chops, sending you back to square one once more. So, I had a little think and I hope that I’ve come up with some top tips that you can try out to make living through the pandemic that little bit more interesting. As usual with me and lists, they’re in no particular order.

Top Tip 1

Simon was determined to have a risk free walk…even if it meant taking the long way round again. Photo by Jenny Uhling on Pexels.com

Perfect your ‘anti-people skills’. Avoidance tactics are never more important than in a pandemic, so these skills include: never venturing near anyone at all, including your own family, walking in zig-zags in order to avoid fellow government sanctioned fitness freaks and fresh air junkies (you may want to never get used to walking on the same side of the road for any more than a few hundred yards), squeezing onto kerbs like a tightrope walker if you can’t get across a road to avoid oncoming humans and holding your breath like a free diver whose life depends on it. Because your life might depend on it.

Top Tip 2

Spotting that a Maths teacher had committed an apostrophe crime, Yvonne stifled a sob and prepared a suitably caustic, mocking email to her colleagues. Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Alleviate the at work boredom by writing sarcastic emails. This is also a lifestyle choice for me personally and there was no need for a pandemic to invoke this as a rule. However, in times of pandemic and as a teacher working alone, isolated all day in a classroom full of desks, chairs but no other humans, a slice of sarcasm often comes in handy. And while not revealing actual subject matter of work based sarcastic emails, I can reveal that the IT department remains, as always, a wonderful target. Always was and always will be. Furthermore, the silly ‘If you had to…’ style email is always a favourite.

Top Tip 3

Shit just got real in Sandra’s house. Someone was knocking at the back gate. Photo by Kony Xyzx on Pexels.com

Alleviate lockdown boredom by turning knocks at the door or tradesmen’s visits into a new and exciting game. We’ve done this for years in our house, as we much prefer not to answer the door to people until we’ve actually sussed out who they are. If you’re a relative you’re probably getting in…depends on the relative. So, in Covid times, imagine there’s a knock at the door or even a visit from the window cleaner. Now role play! Make sure you hide and shush as much as is possible. Shuffle on your front like an expert sniper and try seeing how close you can get to the window without its cleaner detecting your presence. I find chairs and sofas are perfect allies for this game. Try it. Next time there’s a knock at the door or you hear the rattle of a ladder, enter stealth mode and act like there’s a zombie apocalypse. Those confined to barracks hours will simply fly by!

Top Tip 4

These days, Emma found that calling lemons ‘Shit limes’ was her only source of fun. Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

See just how much you can get away with while wearing a mask. Local ruffians breaking lockdown rules and ‘hanging’ outside a closed off license as you walk by on a Boris appointed walk? Don your mask and stick your tongue out at them. Those cheeky scamps deserve your derision. Has a dog jumped up at you while tied up outside your local supermarket? Remember, you’re wearing a mask – it’s mandatory – so you’re free to call said dog a ‘massive arsehole’ or any other insult that you deem necessary. No one can see you doing it, no one could prove a thing. And surely no one’s going to ask if you just called that terrier an arsehole, are they? This game can also be played inside said supermarkets where volume control is your own issue, but the mask will cover your mouth so no one can prove a thing. So if you fancy making snide remarks at those supermarket dawdlers, now’s your time to shine.

Top Tip 5

“Good evening Wembley” cried Ian before pointing and winking at the fridge. “My name is Ian and I’m on a mission to rock!” Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The pandemic, coupled with several lockdown situations, have robbed people of a sense of normal life. We are missing out on many aspects of our social lives and this in turn has had an effect on the mental health of millions of people. Sport continues via almost endless TV coverage but one place that remains largely uncatered for is music. Yes, various bands and solo artists have put on Zoom gigs, but it’s not the same as the excitement of attending the real thing. So I have a solution. Kitchen gigging. Put simply, ask Alexa to play songs by your chosen artist and then sing along. Are you in the band or the audience? The choice is yours, my friend. Me? Usually the singer, as you ask, but I play a mean bass guitar too. You may want to factor in other additions to add realism here, otherwise or you’re literally just singing along to songs next to a sink. My sources tell me that footstools make great front of stage monitors, brooms or mops are ideal microphone stands, while a pile of distant balloons and a squint can give the illusion of a passable audience. They tell me that the key here is to have a large enough space to dance or throw other wild shapes, a vivid imagination, no shame or dignity and to remember that the words aren’t important; this is a live gig so you’re free to go ‘off piste’ as it were with the lyrics. You can even pause said device for a bit of pre-song banter with your ‘crowd’ for added fun. My sources also tell me that this is a whole host of fun, it’s extremely cool and that even in middle age, you can play the pretend rock god. Obviously, I have to take their word for it…

So there you have it. Just when you thought you might allow the share size crisps and 12 packs of lager to seduce you into extraordinary levels of lockdown weight gain, I give you five tips to help you get through our current crisis!

I’d love hear what people thought, so feel free to let me know in the comments. Similarly, if you have a go at window cleaner zombie role play or insult the odd dog, let me know how it went. And if you have any tips of your own, I’m a very keen listener! I hoped you enjoyed the blog!

I have some more questions about music – the 2nd in a slowly ongoing series.

For those of you who didn’t read the original article (the engagingly titled, I have some questions about music…), I wrote something a while back about the kind of things that occur to me while listening to or just thinking about music. It wasn’t very serious. That was deliberate. I do take music very seriously; I have been surrounded by it all my life and can be quite obsessive about certain bands, singers, writers or songs. But these were simply silly questions that had cropped up along the way.

In the original article I wrote a list of deliberately silly questions that popped into my head. It was meant to be humorous and judging by the comments, at least a few people got the joke, which is always comforting where attempts at humour are concerned! Some of the questions were things that had whirled around in there for years, while others might have just cropped up as I was writing.

Anyway, because I’m always listening to music I have some more questions, so I thought I’d best write an article and share them!

  1. Does anyone really, truly know the words to the songs of AC/DC? Now please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m a fan of AC/DC and have no reason to mock them. Well, at least not in any cruel kind of way. But, come on…we’ve all heard Brian Johnson’s voice? Surely, not one of us hasn’t heard him and thought, ‘ooh, annunciate man!’ And it was much the same with Bonn Scott, the original front man, before him. Johnson especially sings in what can only be described as a high pitched shriek and he’s definitely not concentrating on making himself understood. Sometimes it can sound like someone pressed ‘Record’ just as he trapped his genitals in his zip. He could be singing your own name and you wouldn’t recognise it! Let me give you my favourite example. It’s the song ‘Thunderstruck’. Now you’d have to listen to it to really make this question work, but for those of you who know the track, I’m right, yes? Officially, the lyrics start as follows – ‘I was caught in the middle of a railroad track (Thunder), I looked round, and I knew there was no turning back (Thunder), my mind raced and I thought what can I do (Thunder), and I knew there was no help, no help from you (Thunder).’ Now for this section, I can make out about 50% of the words, but as the song goes on and they head to Texas, Texas is one of only a few words that are clear. In fact, in an ironic twist, Johnson even repeats it – “Texas, yeah Texas” – just so we know for certain where they went. I have no idea why Brian and the boys have gone there. They definitely met some girls (of course they did, they’re in a band), but other than that nothing is made overtly clear from Brian’s howling. Similarly, with their huge hit ‘Whole Lot of Rosie (a charming tune about, shall we say a curvy girl) nothing is clear at all. Her vital statistics are mentioned at one point and to be honest, they could be any three numbers picked out of thin air because for me there’s no way of knowing what’s been said…or screamed. So I’ll ask you again…does anybody really follow the words to AC/DC songs?
  2. Is it just me that worries about Liam Gallagher having back problems when he gets older? Now, the short answer here is probably yes. But wait and let’s have a little think. Liam is known for a few things that make him quite distinctive. His voice stands out. His swagger, his hair and his style all draw the attention too. But can we talk about the way he stands before a microphone? Because here is where my worry lies. Most frontmen and women stand pretty much in the same way when faced with the most used tool of their trade. Face on, up straight. I mean let’s not make singing too complicated, right? And then we have Liam. Firstly, observe some evidence.

Now I’m sure we can agree that these images are a recipe for back pain in later life. If the instruction had been, ‘make the letter D using only your own body and a microphone stand’ he’d be winning. But it isn’t and it wasn’t and that posture is a chiropractor’s nightmare (or dream, depending on their scruples, I suppose). Liam sings brilliantly and will take some beating as a frontman. But if we observe the three images on the top row there, I can’t be the only one wincing a bit. It’s like he needs a barstool, but everyone’s refusing to let him have one. Maybe the other members of Oasis didn’t want anyone thinking they were Westlife. And then on the bottom two images, that tambourine is going to put him off balance and even the biggest ambulance chasing lawyers would struggle to argue that this particular accident at work wasn’t his own fault. That last one just screams ‘HEALTH AND SAFETY NIGHTMARE’! His back’s in danger, his teeth, his nose if it flips up in a gust of wind and even his toes if he momentarily loses his grip. Put simply, it all adds up to the fact that I’m asking a very pertinent question about Liam Gallagher’s back.

3. Who is responsible for the incidental music that we hear in certain stores? (E.g. the ones that won’t pay for proper songs that you actually recognise). This is a predictably flippant question, but it’s one that’s bothered me for ages. And within the question, there are more questions. For starters, I need to know if this is somebody’s job? Are there actual composers or musicians out there who write the stuff that often mimics heavy rock, pop, country or reggae specifically for supermarkets and shops? I hear it most in budget stores like Home Bargains or B&Ms (think Target if you’re American, maybe Lidl or Aldi if you’re European) and I can’t deny that some of it is actually quite catchy. Quite often I’m driving or walking home singing along to a song that I might never hear again, unless said stores never change their playlist. In context (of all music ever, including what we can probably, reasonably agree to call ‘proper’ music) it’s bloody rubbish. The lyrics are limited (said John Lennon here) and the tune will invariably be straightforward and largely inoffensive. After all, this is music to walk round a shop to. It’s background noise by definition. And yet, it fascinates me. I wonder if it could be music that the ‘big guns’ rejected. Are we, while wandering aimlessly around Home Bargains looking at cut price chocolate and skin care brands that we’ve never heard of, actually listening to the early, less immediate work of a superstar. Is there a lost Elton John track being played right now in Wilkinsons? Was that distinctly tame rap in the background as you walk down the pet food aisle, actually penned by one of the Wu-Tang Clan before they hit the big time? Who knows? But I’ll tell you what fascinates me most about this ‘never quite made it’ music. Is there an anonymous looking man or woman (possibly in possession of a bit of a mullet, coupled with a mid-range ‘designer’ tan leather jacket) strolling round these shops making a mental note of the tunes and thinking to themselves, ‘Oh, that’s one of mine’? I sincerely hope there is! Imagine, you’re whistling along to one of these tunes one day and someone stops you to point out, ‘I wrote this’. Priceless. I’ve told myself I’ll do it one day – just tell the lie and walk off with the person’s puzzled expression etched on my mind forever and ever.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the questions. Maybe some of these have been bugging you for years too. I’ve no doubt, over the passage of time there’ll be more questions and a third instalment for this particular blog. Until then, let me know what you thought or maybe even of any questions you’d like investigating.

Live Lessons – My Top Ten Most Uttered Phrases.

Since we were struck by the pandemic early last year, everyone and everything has found itself having to adapt. We’ve adapted from the way we do our shopping or go for a walk all the way through to the way that we do our job.

In teaching – my field of work – we’ve had to make huge changes. Different schools have made different changes, but in the school that I work at we have the pupils in bubbles and we go to them to teach, we are obviously socially distant, we have had to change our marking policy, everyone wears masks on corridors and we have a one way system. And they are only a small fraction of the changes that have been made.

We been using Microsoft Teams for remote learning all year. At first it wasn’t used that often; certainly not for live lessons. We’d put assignments in there daily, in case students were missing and then, when bubbles collapsed and we had greater numbers of students away, we’d use it for the odd live lesson and some blended learning, where some people were isolating and on the live lesson while the rest of us were in the room. But for a while, the majority of lessons remained the same – classroom based, whiteboards, exercise books and all that jazz.

With the school closures of 2021, we’re now exclusively doing live lessons and remote learning is in full flow. I wrote about the differences in a previous blog Lockdown 3 – Some thoughts on my first week at work. but after a couple of weeks of working this way, although I’m quite enjoying parts of it, something struck me; the amount of times I utter the same phrases to a class on Teams is really quite something. Big up to my friends (in no particular order) Emma, Chloe, Laura, Gemma, Megan, Ellie, Charlotte, Bryonny, Lindsey, Em, Louise and Saba, who over the course of the last few months of doing live lessons, have provided much material and inspiration for this particular blog – oh the tales we could tell! So here, in no particular order is my Top Ten of most used live lesson phrases.

  1. Can you mute your mic please?” As a rule, I have my students muted. In class during regular lessons. Just kidding. But on Teams, while I don’t actually mute them, let’s just say I encourage them not to unmute and talk to me. Hey, this is my show, after all! To be fair though, the reason that I have to say this phrase is the things that you get to hear. In various classes, a kid has unmuted and the whole lesson can hear their television as someone’s sat there (please let it not be my pupil) watching loud daytime TV. In other cases we’ve been met by a positively imperfect symphony of screeching relatives. I can mute them pretty quickly, but what I hear leaves me massively worried about the environment that they’re working in. And I guess that’s part of the problem. How can some of these kids get anywhere near the same quality of education at the moment? At other times, some students just seem to want to quickly unmute and make a silly noise and others do the same in order to just say ‘Hi’ and despite repeated warnings, it’s surprising how often it still occurs. So because my pupils seem unable to click a button that has a picture of a microphone on it, that phrase is definitely one of my most used.
  2. Just bear with me a second…” There always seems to be something that crops up that I have to deal with. There’s always a snag, a technical hitch or just yet another of my own deficiencies. One such hitch is when my movement sensitive lights go off on one side of the room. Now initially this might not seem like a problem that needs me to have a class “bear with me”, but let me tell you why they need to wait. I always have my camera on – I think being able to see their teacher might add some much needed normality to proceedings for my students and of course, I have a friendly face *coughs* – and so when the light goes off, it leaves one side of my face in shadow. As an English teacher I imagine it makes me look like Mr. Hyde, the monstrous side to Dr. Jekyll and that is not a good look or a friendly face for my students! So, just bear with me
  3. “We’re just waiting for a few people to join…” We’re not, we’re waiting for half the class! They all knew when the lesson started but they just couldn’t make it on time. I’m going to have to call them aren’t I? I’m hopefully sounding cool, calm, friendly, but I’m not. I’m quite irked, to be fair. The lesson times don’t change. It should be easier just to roll out of bed and pop a computer on than the usual whole ‘getting to school on time’ routine, but it would seem not.
  4. “Can we pop an answer in the comments? This is me saying, ‘I DON’T WANT YOU TO SPEAK!’ It’s also me saying ‘IS ANYONE STILL THERE?’ Live lessons rob us of the face to face interactions that we usually have and so asking kids to put answers in the comments is the next best thing as well as being that thing that comforts you when you’re just imagining your entire class has logged on then left the room to watch telly or play X-Box. And before you even think the thought, no, I’m not opening up everyone’s mic so that they can all call out the same right/wrong answers at the same time. So ‘Can you pop an answer in the comments?’ is all I’ve got.
  5. “Can you let me know if you can hear me?” or “Is this thing working?” There’s always someone who can’t hear you or can’t see the PowerPoint that’s being shared. I have no idea why. It’s there, on screen! And there’s always that bit of self doubt that nags at you as a teacher and whispers ‘You can’t use the technology properly’. Or is that just me? Oh, just me. The good thing – and I don’t mean actual good – is when you ask the first question and only about 8 kids respond in the chat and you’re left assuming they can hear, but that typing the three letters of the word ‘Yes’ is just a bit much to ask.
  6. “Can you just use the chat for questions and not emojis and winding each other up or bickering, please?” Safe to say that some of our younger classes haven’t quite sussed out the chat etiquette yet! Sometimes it feels like they’re not really tuning in for the lesson, just the chat. And then when you’ve stopped the nonsense you’ll inevitably get at least one of them typing, ‘Sir, what we doing?’ in the very same chat. Or failing that just, ‘Eh?’
  7. “Ok, I’ll just give you another 2 minutes on that.” Often, while a class are working I’ll mute my mic and turn off my camera, just to enable me to do something else, like read some emails or a bit of planning. I’m never, ever ready when the timer goes off and we need to move on, so I’m always adding time. Without the students in front of you it’s not only strange and a bit lonely, but also easy to get distracted, and so I’m forever pondering images to put on PowerPoints or thinking I can fit in one more email which always, always leads to me pretending to be kind by adding time on!
  8. “Are you still there? Am I talking to myself?” It’s definitely easier for your students to avoid the questions when they’re on the end of an internet connection and that silence can get quite ghostly. It’s lonely and isolated enough staring out into a room full of chairs that are still up on tables, without the kids in the computer ignoring you as well!
  9. “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please? It’s in the assignments. And I’ve pasted it into the chat. I can post them out ahead of the lesson if you need. Send them on a pigeon?” Ok, so the latter part of that isn’t true but we could easily have just had the comment as “IT’S IN THE ASSIGNMENTS MAN!!” Suffice to say, it can be very, very…very frustrating getting students to open up the texts they’ll need for the lesson. It doesn’t matter that you posted the assignment days earlier with the instruction that they’d need to have the texts open. It doesn’t matter that you’ve sent it to some of them on email. It doesn’t matter that out of the first 5 things you said when welcoming them to the lesson 4 of them were “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please?” And it doesn’t matter that you reminded them, in the chat, 12 seconds ago what the text was called, where it was and what they should do with it. 30% (at least) of your class won’t have a clue what you’re talking about! But it’s Ok. You’re the consumate professional who can stay calm and remind them AGAIN, YES A-BLOODY-GAIN in your best Disney teacher voice, what it is they need to do. But thank the lord there’s a mute button! Which brings me on to…
  10. “I’m just going to put myself on mute/turn my camera off/both” The ultimate censor, enabling you to karate kick every chair off every desk, walk outside and scream at the sky, open the window and throw marker pens at passing seagulls (they deserve it…the nearest sea is miles away), curl up into a ball, flick ‘V’ signs at the screen, shout things like ‘Which poem are we going to annotate? Which f*****g poem? The one we did last week! Definitely, definitely, not the one we’ve been doing for the last hour!” or volley the same kids’ books around the room. I just tell them it’s in case a colleague walks in and I have to have a chat when in fact it’s because I’m having the kind of spectacular meltdown that you thought only hungry toddlers were capable of.

It’s been a tough old academic year so far! If you’re a teacher, I’m sure you’ll have uttered all of these phrases and experienced all of these scenarios many, many times since September. If you have any I’ve missed out, then please let me know in the comments – I’d genuinely love to read them!

Regardless of what you do for a living or how you’re getting through these ridiculous times, keep on keeping on. I’m so full of admiration for so many people and their stories since March or so last year. Stay safe everybody – I hope you enjoyed the blog and that it managed to put a smile on some faces.

Book Review: The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about bank robbers – which admittedly, I don’t do too often – I think about shaven-headed, burly men with gruff cockney accents. Even the ones from the north of the country or even from another country entirely would have gruff cockney accents for me. And without exception, they’d be called something like Big Dave. Or Knuckles. I certainly don’t think of bank robbers as respectable ladies nearing pensionable age. But John Niven did and thank goodness for that.

As one nears sixty years of age, you’d hope to have life sorted. Sussed out. You’d hope that, as retirement beckons you forward, you’d be well prepared for what comes next and in actual fact, looking forward to taking things easy or even maybe taking on new challenges. Susan Frobisher and Julie Wickham fit into this category in many ways. Susan, in particular, is looking forward to the day when her husband retires from his job as an accountant; hangs up the calculator and the spreadsheet, so to speak. Her friend Julie just wants something different from scraping a living working in a care home.

In a way they both get their wishes granted. But this is far from a simple novel with a nice happy ending where two friends wander off into the sunset. No, Susan and Julie are forced to embark on a Thelma and Louise style adventure in order to get anywhere near the kind of ending that they want.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ is an absolute romp of a tale as Susan and Julie (as well as Ethel, Jill and Vanessa) are forced to contemplate a life on the run from not one, but several police forces. And it’s hard not to want them to succeed. After all, it’s all Susan’s husband Barry’s fault. But for his ever-so-slightly different sexual adventures and a bit of taste for the high life, the girls wouldn’t have had to do any of this. So when you look at it like that, robbing a bank (while harming no one) is actually an acceptable course to take. Throw in the fact that some of the loot goes towards saving the life of a child, some of it helps out an old lady in a wheelchair and some of it sets up a young woman for an education that she otherwise wouldn’t have had a hope in Hell of getting, then you’ve got to ignore the amount of criminality here and hope they all make it to freedom.

This really is a brilliant novel. Centred around a group of characters who Niven has made both likeable and funny, it’s a story that works really well, despite its obvious far fetched nature. Far fetched or not, as a reader you’ll find yourself not really caring about that and just wanting them to succeed in their quest to avoid justice. There’s almost a Robin Hood type element to it, as we root for Susan, Julie and the gang while hoping that our Sheriff of Nottingham figure, a hapless detective called Boscombe, falls flat on his face, which he frequently does.

All human life is here. There’s Ethel, a wheelchair bound thrill seeker who is hell bent on living life to the full. Then we have the aforementioned Boscombe, the kind of man that we’ve probably all worked with and probably all did everything we could to avoid; a slob, a sexist, a man who looks down his nose at anything he doesn’t understand or agree with; in short someone who despite being on the side of good in all of this, you’ll laugh at more and more with every successive failure. And then of course there are Susan and Julie, the beautiful and vulnerable Vanessa and organised crime boss Tamalov who brings a tangible sense of menace.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ has more twists than you can keep track of and many that you just won’t see coming. Just when you think that Susan and the gang are safe, they’re not and just when you think they’re finished, something happens to keep their adventure on track. And it’s like this until almost the final page, which means that you simply won’t want to put it down. I loved this book and after it sat in my ‘To Read’ pile for at least a couple of years, I was thrilled to bits when I finally picked it out and joined Susan, Julie, Ethel and even the loathsome Boscombe on the adventure of a lifetime.

I give ‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Irrational hatred or reflex loathings?

For some time now my family, and even some of my friends, have sometimes referred to me as being a bit grumpy. I’ve even heard the phrase ‘grumpy old man’ flung in my general direction on occasion. It’s the kind of label that I’ll readily dispute.

For a long time I just put it down to the fact that I have a low tolerance for certain things. If you’re rambling on I’d rather you just got to the point. If you’re singing along to a song I like and you happen to be horribly out of tune, I’ll most likely let you know. My face still changes when I look at my pay and cast my eyes over how much tax I have to pay. If I’m grumpy, then I assume everyone else just loves paying tax. And if we’re at work and you’ve had what I feel is a terrible idea then, although I’ve mellowed considerably, I’m still likely to let you know. After all, a shit idea is a shit idea, right? Nothing grumpy about that.

Then one day I was reading a book and happened upon a term that would perhaps put an end to all accusations of grumpiness. Well, at least for me anyway.

It was nearing the end of a Year 7 English lesson. We used to do a thing called ERIC Time, which meant that ‘everyone reads in class’. So for the last twenty minutes of a specified lesson, twice a week, we’d be reading as a way of relaxing, learning something different and, well, promoting reading.

I was sat in my usual place at the back of the room, half reading and half keeping an eye on other readers; looking for pages turning at relevant times. And it was here I met a kindred spirit in the writer Bill Bryson. I was reading Bryson’s fantastic book, ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ about his adventures wandering around England. Now Bryson, it has to be said, can come across as a little bit grumpy. Not to me, you understand – I empathise completely with his everyday frustrations. But it was he who introduced me to the idea of reflex loathings, which he describes in the book as being something people “dislike without having to justify or explain to anyone why they don’t like them.” Bryson recommends that we be allowed ten of these reflex loathings, although as he invented the term, he gives himself a few more. Fair enough.

So first of all, I will be offering some explanation as to my reflex loathings, mainly because a list of things I don’t like but won’t explain wouldn’t be much of a blog. It wouldn’t be very funny either and at the very least I was hoping to raise the odd smile with people. So, in no particular order, here’s my list of current reflex loathings and at the very least, a brief explanation. Is it a complete list? I very much doubt it, but any more than ten might make people think I’m just a grumpy old man.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com
  1. The lights being left on in the house…FOR NO APPARENT REASON. Ok, so clearly I’ve turned into my dad, which is frankly regrettable. However, as I get a bit older I find that I am left flabbergasted by the sheer amount of times I walk into a room in our house to find no one there, yet all of the lights on. It’s not a money thing; we can pay the electric bill. I just find it astounding that someone (my kids generally) can leave the room, the landing, the hallway or wherever and not give the slightest thought to how empty it is, yet how light. Who needs that light? I feel like I walk round my house channelling my dad and muttering stuff like, “It’s like bloody Blackpool Illuminations in here!” I’m right though.
  2. The ridiculous names they give to paint. I’m not going to explain, but let’s try something. Can you spot the false paint names in the list? Elephant’s Breath, Rose Madder, Ian’s Armpit, New Gamboge, Squirrel Tail, Moonlight Romance, Armitage’s Parsonage, R2D2 Blue, Broccolli Brown, Broccolli Green, String, Smelly Bumbum, Burnt Tofu, Savage Garden, Jennifer’s Hen Do, Well Green Innit, Blue…Just Blue, Orgasmic Purple, York Spinster and Auntie Hazel’s Having A Hot Flush. No, me neither. I actually looked some paint names up, but got carried away making my own up and now I can’t tell which are which. You get my point though, right?
  3. People knocking at my door. Neighbour, salesman, delivery driver, whatever…I’m not interested and I will hide behind the armchair in order to avoid you. Your persistence will be rewarded with my ridiculous, childlike behaviour!
  4. Clothes being left inside out when put in the wash. Aaaaaaaaaagh. Luckily, I don’t need to explain it as it’s just a reflex loathing.
  5. The Mistreatment of Books. Maybe this is just my problem entirely. I think books are precious. As a kid we didn’t have a lot, but we always had books. And I was an avid visitor to the library too. A genuine teenage bookworm; yep, that cool! What it meant though is that I always valued books. As such, even now when I finish a book it more often than not has the look of one that’s just been taken off the shelf. So, to find dog eared books in my classroom, see people breaking the spines, see the pages being turned over instead of using a book mark…my blood’s boiling just thinking about it!
  6. Glory Hunting Football Fans. I’m sure these people are present around lots of sports, but as a football fan, this really winds me up. Simple rule; if the club isn’t vaguely local or you weren’t born there, then that’s not your club. These sort of fans seem to be more accepted these days and I’ve heard the argument that ‘it’s a global game’ more than a few times, but put simply, it’s not and you’re wrong. You can’t argue that you have the same connection with that team if you were born miles and miles away. Your support is based around the pursuit of glory, nothing else. However reflex this loathing is, it is in my opinion, 100% justified.
  7. Local Radio DJs. You’re not funny, you’ve probably got a stupid voice, your material is likely to have been stolen and re-hashed from someone else and I loathe what you do. Terrible jingles, a nickname you probably made up in order to look popular and a world full of awful catchphrases. Oh, and did I mention you’re not funny? (I think I need a lie down).
  8. The Dressing Habits of Young Men. I feel sure that this is solely a British thing, but let’s get it out there anyway. I am the father of a daughter. I dread the introduction of boys into her life. And yet, a bit of me can’t wait. I’ll be the dad that turns them round on the doorstep if and when they’re not good enough. Off you pop fella. Not today. Not near my daughter. One of the things I dread most is a sight I see regularly. There’ll be a couple out and about and while the girl or woman has obviously made the effort with her appearance and most likely looks great, the boy will be invariably wearing a tracksuit and scruffy trainers. In the U.K. he may even be walking around with a hand down the front of his tracksuit bottoms. His hand, just to clarify. I look at these situations and my heart bleeds for the poor girl. She has probably spent hours getting ready to go out. He’s slung on the first thing he found on his bedroom floor – this is what this chap thinks of you. I have genuinely already warned my daughter about this type of thing! Please, don’t stand for this lack of effort and level of disrespect. And please lads, have a tiny bit of pride in your appearance.
  9. People who don’t hold the door open. Holding a door open takes little effort at all, but it’s just a nice thing to do. And still, people just let the door slam in your face. I don’t care what or who you are, there will always be a sarcastic comment from me in these instances.
  10. Supermarket Dawdlers. Don’t. Just. Stop. That tin of tomatoes doesn’t need your scrutiny. That aisle isn’t a place for you and the neighbours to park trolleys (badly) and have a natter. By all means take your time, but please, at the very least walk in a straight line so I can get past. There are no imaginary cones for you to be weaving through!

So, there you have it. A list of my Reflex Loathings. In the course of making the list I’ve discovered that I have quite a long list! But I decided to leave lots out as what should have been a vaguely humorous blog felt like it was turning into a rant. And someone somewhere reflex loathes ranters and their rants!

I hope you enjoyed the post. Maybe you have a long list of reflex loathings of your own? Feel free to let me know what yours are as well as what you thought of mine. Am I right or just a very grumpy old man?

Poetry Blog – ‘Unused in Pandemic.’

2020 has been one hell of a year. Of course, we can put that down to just the one thing; coronavirus. Like something out of an unbelievable Hollywood blockbuster, a pandemic struck killing well over a million people worldwide. With it, our lives and lifestyles changed almost beyond recognition.

Confined to the house for a lot of the time, I did a lot of writing. The blog posts increased, but I also found myself experimenting with writing poetry. While the subject matter of the poems was often wide and varied I couldn’t help but keep coming back to lockdown and coronavirus.

It occurred to me that there a lot of things that I could no longer do. Simple things like work, see friends and family and attempt to have some kind of interests in life. But it also occurred to me that there a lot of everyday things that were simply off limits during the pandemic. Cash, for instance. Even my window cleaner had us paying by internet banking. I worried that I wouldn’t remember how to fill up the car when the time came for me to do it again and it even concerned me that simple things like shopping in the supermarket would be almost unrecognisable once they went back to normal. Out of all this came a poem about the some of the redundant objects that were now in my life.

Unused in Pandemic

Pandemic itself was a word rarely used round these parts. But to paraphrase a great man, these parts they are a-changin’. These days, as well as bringing death, fear, paranoia and the strange bumping of forearms by way of saying a more hygienic hello, it leaves in its wake a number of redundancies.

I’ve learned to live, for the most part, without a car. In turn, I have rediscovered my feet. I have left lonely shirts hung up, ironed or bundled on a shelf, crumpled and lifeless. Ditto suits and ties. However, in a U turn that any politician would be proud of I have begun to adorn my middle aged frame in undignified, clingy and regularly mismatched leisurewear.

A similar thing has happened in the shoe department where brogue is now rogue, usurped by a much plainer choice of trainer. Eschewing technology for horticulture I have ditched the fucking infuriating laptop and transformed, all too early sadly, into my father via spade, weeding implements, lawn mower and trowel. The planner is no more, replaced by an endless stream of envelope mounted bullet point lists. A laissez faire version of keeping organised and meeting targets.

Some days I don’t even wear socks, just pad around our pad barefoot, like some kind of castaway from society on an unchained island, occasionally seeing a speck on the horizon and imagining it’s my ticket back to normality. But it’s usually just a pebble, dragged in on a trainered foot. How long before I forego clothes altogether and embrace wandering round in the altogether during daylight hours. A second wave? A third?

For now I will continue to gaze in the direction of my passport and hope that should naked days come, I’ll have used it to head for warmer climes and a more continental acceptance of an out of shape, hairy white body.

I hadn’t looked at this poem in a good few months and it turned out to be a little less polished than I’d have liked. Not quite unfinished, but definitely in need of attention. In fact, at the side of the page there was a long note scribbled about my Nectar card, which was itself massively unused in the pandemic. I liked what I’d written but it didn’t fit in the poem when I’ve looked again and so I’m going to sit down with those notes and write another poem…about my Nectar card. Tragic really.

Anyway, the whole poem reminded me of how carefree things were when we were locked down. There was definitely something altogether healing about the whole process despite all of the negatives. I hope this tone came out with the clothing section. It was actually strangely liberating not to have to be ironing work shirts or wearing a suit and tie every day, even though it’s actually something I like being able to do.

For anyone who knows me and is actually feeling a little concerned, don’t worry; I’m fairly certain I’m not going to resort to naturism any time soon. I’m certainly not shy in terms of the human body, but I’m kind enough to realise that it’s not the time to inflict mine on the world! Had lockdown gone on another six months though, well who knows…

As ever, I hope you liked the poem and I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment.