Poetry Blog: Tunnel Vision

This is a poem that I drafted very roughly a couple of days ago. I’d just had some bad news and on top of feeling exhausted with work, sore with a running injury, sick and tired of living with Covid restrictions and worried about various other matters in everyday life, I think I’d just had enough. So, rather than simply explode and kick things about the place I scribbled some thoughts down.

I don’t normally suffer with my moods. I tend to manage to live life on the same level most of the time. I’m rarely too bothered by anything and have always told myself that things will work out, whatever happens to be going on. It’s definitely an advantage of being such a simpleton! However, over the last few weeks lots of things seem to have been bothering me and it sees to have all piled up and caused a bit of a bad mood logjam. Not the end of the world and at least it’s meant that I can be creative.

Here’s the poem.

Tunnel Vision

Feral dogs gather, sensing blood, teeth bared
snarling, putting a tentative foot forward,
circling without grace, eyeing you constantly
until they finally snap and leave their mark.

Every ache and pain nags and presents a new question,
crowds the mind, leaving a feeling of fog
until you feel like lashing out with a primal scream
from somewhere deep inside that you've never found before.

Questions, although answered time and again
remain, echoing back and forth, disrupting sleep
to pick away at the scab that they created,
allowing it to spread to unchartered territory.

Tunnel vision is adopted, just to get through seconds, minutes
as something hidden in the shadows threatens to grind you to a halt
like hazard lights on the motorway, just as the urge for freedom and speed 
is at its highest.

Searching for a way to break the cycle and feel a sense 
of achievement, or at least a moment's blessed relief
from the sheer boredom and strangely gargantuan effort
needed to just keep going.

Writing this helped. It’s very easy to sit and moan at anyone who’ll listen, but I much prefer to keep things to myself. It’s a mixture of embarrassment and just the thought that I don’t really want to burden anyone with my troubles. Especially as most of the time I feel like I’m exaggerating in even labelling certain things as ‘troubles’. I know that lots of people have things much, much harder than I do. And as I said earlier, I’m reasonably happy to get through and operate under the assumption that any mood will pass and that things will get better.

In the poem, I’ve tried to describe how I felt; as if the thoughts, the worries were circling me, taking turns at bothering me and bothering me on various levels and with various results. Hence the ‘feral dogs’ line which I felt summed up the fact that I didn’t feel like I had complete control at times and didn’t feel that I could just dismiss things. Those thoughts just kept coming back, biting me.

If it helps, or it’s of any interest, I think I feel better today. I’m just keeping myself busy and it definitely helps that the weather is great, I’ve been able to get out for a run and that the Euro 2020 international football tournament has just started. Like I say, I’m happy to keep things simple.

I hope you liked the poem – ‘enjoyed’ might be a stretch I suppose! Whatever your thoughts, feel free as ever, to let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Poetry Blog: Assessment

This is a poem I wrote on a whim. It came from boredom, if the truth be told. I’m sure I was suitably inspired by the company I was keeping at the time, but essentially it was the boredom that made me start scrawling on a piece of paper.

My Year 11 class were completing an assessment. I’d done about an hour’s input, fielding questions, giving reminders, making notes and then when the time was write set them off writing. After about 10 minutes of enduring the silence and trying to keep busy I realised that I just wanted to sit down. I couldn’t sit at the computer and do work because the screen that it was linked up to would show everything I was doing and I didn’t want my group getting distracted. So, I kept the title of the assessment on the screen and thought about what I could do.

It was a Thursday afternoon and we’re based in a fairly cramped room on a Thursday, so space and social distancing meant that I couldn’t just wander. I couldn’t really just stand either as the only place to stand would have been by the door and I felt sure that it wouldn’t be long before someone absent-mindedly opened the door and knocked me into next week. Hilarious for my class, I’m sure and not the fault of the door opener, as who would expect someone to be stupid enough to stand right in front of the door. So, a quick scan of the rom told me to sit at the one spare desk available.

After a whole five minutes I was bored, so I grabbed a sheet of paper. Perhaps I could practice my autograph? Instead, having sketched for a few moments – my current favourite is to draw myself as a Charlie Brown character – I found myself thinking about the group. And what started as a few rough lines of a potential poem about an assessment became something of a poem about how much they mean to me.

Assessment

In an unusually silent room the creaking desks are a constant source of annoyance.
Every so often a stare is accompanied by a sigh as another realises that there's nothing to be done about the noise.
The dimming of the lights adds an eeriness to the tension and I am helpless; the pigeon fancier who opens the loft to the flutter of wings that he can really only hope he'll hear again.
He can only pray they stay safe.
This is our first race. A journey that we have trained for and will repeat again until the future beckons
and I can no longer help, cajole or comfort, but still make time to worry, 
despite the reality that I may never see you or hear of you again.
We are left to count down the coming weeks and spread our wings a few last times, turn circles in the air, swoop, arc dive then return to the loft each time until it's time to fly the rest of the journey alone.

I’ve mentiond this group before. I’ve taught many of them for the majority of their school lives. I remember most as fresh faced, quite naughty Year 7s. In short – and not to insult them in any way – they’re a bottom set. My bottom set. Their language skills are at best, weak even at the top end and their knowledge of the world often leaves a lot to be desired. Sample fact to prove this? When I taught them for intervention English in Year 9 it took more than a few minutes of an hour lesson to convince at least one of them that Roald Dahl’s The BFG was not a real person. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t alive. Roald Dahl had just made him up.

Studying Shakespeare, Dickens etc can be a challenge, both for them and me. But then one of them will offer an opinion or just remember something obtuse about the text and it feels like a huge win for all of us.

The group are currently enduring a series of assessments put in place to enable me to award them a GCSE grade in lieu of not being able to do the real exams due to Covid-19. I never really let on to groups how much I care, but as I sat and watched them write, witnessing every grimace, every pause for thought and every tongue slipped out of the side of the mouth in concentration, I couldn’t help but think about them in previous years throughout their time at our school. Of course I care. I care deeply, especially about my weaker groups and I found that I was just hit by how little I can now do for them. I genuinely worry about what some of them will end up doing once high school is finished and I desperately want them to get some kind of English GCSE to help them along the way.

As for the poem, I’m not really sure where the image of the pigeon fancier came from. But I was struck by how wondrous it is that these pigeons come ‘home’ to their loft after every race.

I was aware of pigeons and their owners from an early age. I was brought up in the North East of England where racing pigeons can attract some quite fanatical people. I have memories of several ‘uncles’ (not real family, probably family friends or neighbours, but always called uncles or aunties) who kept racing pigeons when I lived at home. They’d spend ridiculous amounts of money and time making their birds as comfortable as possible in the hope of winning races and it always held a bit of a fascination for me. On the afternoon of the assessment that was how I felt. Like I’d lavished time and energy on my group and that soon it would be time to let them go. In truth, I don’t want to.

As ever, I hope you enjoyed the poem. I think the subject matter might inspire more in the weeks and months to come! Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

Poetry Blog: Sixth on the list (behind key workers and various degrees of old people.)

I had my first dose of the Covid vaccine last weekend and it’s safe to say that it felt like quite a momentous occasion. As someone regarded as being vulnerable to the virus, it was something I’d kind of looked forward to since news of a vaccine first broke. Not in the same way as I might look forward to some beer and cake, a new Grandaddy record or Christmas, but I was looking forward to it.

It was done early on Saturday morning and I was in and out within about 20 minutes, including having to queue outside for around 10 minutes. Everything was well organised, the staff were friendly and helpful and it was a generally positive experience. Definitely something worth writing a poem about. And it would have been a bright and breezy, optimistic poem as well. But then the side effects hit on Saturday afternoon…

Anyway, here’s my poem about having the vaccine.

'Sixth on the list (behind key workers and various degrees of old people.)'

On a misty Spring morning the air fizzes with an optimism and good humour
that I can't remember feeling in a long while.
March gently attempts to wrestle February to one side 
and it's almost twelve months since the fear began.

Within minutes a smiling volunteer injects some fight into my
'at risk' body that signals hope, a way forward, a route home.
As I walk back, the town is waking up and as their day breaks
I feel I have a secret that I'd like to share with all.

I bury my bare hands deep inside the pockets of a jacket,
turn my collar to fight the chill and resist the urge to skip 
down the hill to my front door, safe in the knowledge that
I have at least half of the weapons needed for the rest of the fight.

The rest is a canyon sized unknown; I will suffer to feel good,
wait in the dark to feel better and then go through
it all again before I am able to even think about 
casting aside the unwanted cloud of our restrictions.

Over sixteen hours later, having grumbled my way through
discomfort, nausea, shivers, fatigue and pain, 
having shouted myself hoarse at a curse of Magpies, I will sit alone,
at the kitchen table, as the house sleeps around me.

I will try to find the words to make it all sound like a proper
opera, praying silently for sleep and the chance to shut down
the hell and then feel well again, but fail as all the while 
one inane thought gnaws away at my brain:

I didn't even get a sticker.

On the whole, I have to say that the whole vaccine thing was a positive experience. It wasn’t stressful at all, mainly because of the way it was organised and the staff, but my worries about the after effects would come true and then some!

For the first few hours, all I suffered with was a bit of a sore arm, but then gradually more and more went wrong. I was fatigued, felt sick, was dizzy, everywhere ached and I just felt incredibly rough, as mentioned in the poem. Strangely though, when it came to heading off to bed, I was wide awake and ended up back downstairs, where I proceeded to open a notebook and write this poem!

I managed some sleep that night, eventually, but didn’t really feel a great deal better on the Sunday. It doesn’t matter though. The fact that I’m safer now means the world and the fact that I may be able to see my family and friends again relatively soon, makes it all worth while.

As for the poem, it’s all quite straightforward, although there’s maybe a couple of lines in the sixth and seventh stanzas that are probably best explained. Despite feeling worse than I’ve felt for a long time, I was fully aware that my football team, Newcastle United were playing that evening, live on Sky Sports. There was no way that I was missing it, as long as I could keep my eyes open. Hence then the line about shouting myself hoarse at a curse of magpies, as if you don’t know, we play in black and white stripes and are known as the magpies. It’s safe to say that my croaky voice next morning had nothing at all to do with the vaccine. The other line that I wanted to explain was the bit about making it sound like a ‘proper opera’. That’s me laughing at myself as I wrote the poem. The opera reference, be it soap or the more theatrical version is me looking back and just wondering if I’ve made a bit of a big deal about it all! In my defence, it was particularly horrible though…

As always, I hope you enjoyed the poem and I’d be interested to hear any feedback you might have, so feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: Circle

This is a poem I wrote about a month ago and as such, it was based more on what I knew was going to happen, rather than actually watching it happen.

It’s a poem about watching the year pass, I suppose. It came about because where I sit at our dining table gives me a lovely view of our garden. So if I’m working there, I might well drift off to watching what’s happening, or in the morning I’ll quite often gaze out of the window if I’m waiting for the kettle to boil or the toast to pop up. So obviously, I see a lot of change during the year.

The poem came about because I was looking at a particular tree and reminding myself that it needs to be pruned. This is a thought I have from around January every year, as this particular tree can block out quite a bit of sunlight. So every year I vow that it’s going to get cut back. And every year I fail.

The poem starts in Spring. I love Spring. It’s the season that gives that suggestion of new life, year in year out. And with this tree, it’s the season where I either admit defeat or spring – no pun intended – into life and manage to cut back a few branches before getting overwhelmed by the amount of foliage I’ll have to compost or the amount of insect life that ends up in my hair, eyes and mouth.

I find that I’ve got through Winter, with it’s freezing cold walks and runs, its snow days and its lack of daylight and that everything starts to feel better with Spring. There are the obvious signs, like the shoots of plants emerging from previously frozen soil, blossom on the trees and that sort of thing. The weather gets better too. Usually, here in England, it gets better to the point where you begin to kid yourself that we’ll get a scorching hot summer, which as we all know, is never the case! But Spring is definitely a time for optimism.

So while the poem is about change, it’s more about one of the trees in my back garden and I guess, (if we’re going to try and intellectualise things!) the relationship that we have.

Circle

Every Spring you burst into life, disappointing me with leaves that will become back ache later in the year.
Your foliage, however, quickly becomes something more captivating than irritating,
teeming with life and becoming a canvas to admire, like a masterpiece in some far away gallery.

Your enthusiasm for life kickstarts mine and accompanied  by the sun, I am far more diligent in filling
up the feeders that bring birds to your branches, like day trippers to a Bank Holiday beach.
It will stay this way for months, as greedy beaks plunder your hospitality and we sit, camera at the ready,
awaiting a prompt for creativity.

Slowly at first, your metamorphosis begins, picking up the pace as the visits of the sun decrease.
And as they do, my own footsteps slow too. The birds too become a burden if it means a visit to a cold, wet garden.
Like an ageing film star your beauty fades with time and I turn my attention elsewhere,
knowing that before too long your leaves will demand it again.

And then, as the wind howls and the rain has nothing of yours left to spatter against, I am forced out to you
repeatedly in order to clean up your fallen grace.
When eventually my grudging enthusiasm withers, mutters and dies, a carpet of leaf mulch will form,
turning green to browns and blacks, but giving a squirrel a somewhat less than glamorous pantry.

While the light hours of my days are spent elsewhere you slowly spring to life once more as the circle turns.
As buds appear, I sense a missed opportunity and might even, in a frenzied quarter hour, cut away the odd branch
left at arm's length or those that a daredevil few moments on a step ladder may allow me to stretch to,
before nerves and a fear of falling get the better of me and I decide you look just fine.

But every year you escape to grow back those curls, welcome back an abundance of life and steal the light
away from late afternoons, sat in a favourite chair.
And with every passing year I will concede to another defeat and sit back, relax
and stare at all you bring to life.

There’s not much to add here. Not much to try and explain, as I think it’s a fairly simple and straightforward poem.

I called the poem ‘Circle’ because it’s quite a cyclical poem. It’s about the seasons; about a life cycle, I suppose. So, I arrived at ‘Circle’ because of that, but also because I begun to realise that I’m terrible at naming my poems. I’m also terrible at headlines for my articles and book reviews too. At first I called the poem ‘The Problem with Spring’ but then changed my mind when I re-read it and found that it wasn’t just about Spring after all. In my notebook it’s simply called ‘Tree’, but then I thought about trying to get people to read it and the tweet that would go out telling the world, ‘I wrote a poem about a tree’ and wondering why even less people than usual were reading! ‘Seasons Change’ was taken from a Buffalo Tom song, so I ditched that to avoid plagiarism. ‘Seasons’ was almost as bad as ‘Tree’ and ‘Cycle’ gave the entirely wrong impression, so I went with ‘Circle’. It’s still not great and I’m still not happy, but it’s done now!

The tree isn’t a particularly interesting tree. I’ve lived in the house for 23 years and I still couldn’t tell you what kind of tree it is, in fact! It’s not particularly striking or lovely. And yet, there are times, when the sun is streaming through the leaves and birds are hopping between branches, that it really is beautiful. In fact, it was probably one of these moments that led me to write the poem.

As ever, I’d love to know what people think of the poem. And the name, of course!

Book Review: Anti Social by Nick Pettigrew

I thought I knew what an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer was before I read this book. I had them pegged as being akin to a Community Support Officer in the police and so I imagined this would be the book version of shows like ‘999 What’s Your Emergency?’ The odd fight, neighbours who play their music too loud and a lot of time wasters. And then I read the book.

Nick Pettigrew fell into a career as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in the way that many of us have fallen into a career. He came out of university with the kind of degree that doesn’t have an obvious next step (bloody English!) and before he knew it, was taking a job that he didn’t know a great deal about. Lots of us have done it. I did it. Over two decades after leaving university I’m still in a job that I once told my wife I’d “probably give a couple of years”. Fortunately, I love what I do, so although I can’t help but wonder what might have been if I’d have had an actual plan, there are no regrets. But then, my job doesn’t involve regularly dealing with problems ranging from noise nuisance to crack addicts.

‘Anti-Social’ is Pettigrew’s memoir of his time in what sounds like a tremendously testing and frequently unrewarding job as an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer in a local authority in London. A job he fell into and then gave his all to for over a decade before finding that he could no longer cope with the conditions in which he worked every day. And these weren’t what some of us might call ‘testing’ conditions, like having to sit on an uncomfortable chair or huffing and puffing about the fact that the stationary order was taking a bit long in arriving. No, Pettigrew worked with and represented some of the most vulnerable members of society in one of the busiest cities in the world.

So while some days were dominated by what Pettigrew might call routine investigations, inspecting flats and collecting evidence of noise nuisance, many others were spent trying to help the neighbours of drug dealers or battling to save the tenancies of incredibly vulnerable people with appalling mental health problems. Put simply, Pettigrew often gave every ounce of his energy and time helping those that wouldn’t admit they needed help or those who simply couldn’t help themselves. In fact, his diary tells us that his working days were often spent in vain, trying to help people who were a dangerous combination of both.

‘Anti-Social’ is a book that should shock you. In fact, if you think you have problems with every day life, then this book might just provide the antidote. While I probably spend too long moaning about life’s smaller problems, some of the cases that Pettigrew documents here left me in tears. Some of the powerlessness and some of the blatant exploitation of society’s most vulnerable is truly haunting. And all the while Pettigrew struggled with his own mental health, as documented at the start of every monthly chapter when he indicates to the reader his own current medication, accompanied by his newly changed and usually deeply ironic password.

The book is brilliantly written. Obviously the real life nature of it lends itself beautifully to an ever more engaging narrative, but what makes ‘Anti-Social’ stand out is its dark sense of humour. Often, the same tale is likely to have you tearing your hair out and close to tears while at the same time laughing at the way it’s told. There’s a certain dark irony in a lot of the problems that are discussed that makes the book both addictive and alarming in equal measure. And while ‘Anti-Social’ will introduce you to a dark side of society that you were perhaps unaware of, it will also expose human stupidity at its most hilarious with a deadpan tone that will help you to smile or laugh your way through the horror that is often unfolding on its pages.

If you enjoyed ‘This is Going to Hurt’ by Adam Kay then ‘Anti-Social’ is a logical next step. Similarly funny, maddeningly frustrating, but also fantastically engaging. The kind of book where what you’re being told makes you want to put it down, yet not put it down at all.

In what some all too often refer to as dark, desperate times, ‘Anti-Social’ should be a wake-up call to all of us. Yes, a series of lockdowns caused by a ham-fisted reaction to a global pandemic has made the last year or so undoubtedly tough. But if you’ve still got a job, can get out for a walk every so often, can afford to just sit and watch television for any length of time or you just still have your health in some semblance of working order, then you probably don’t know you’re born. Reading ‘Anti-Social’ might just help you stop feeling so sorry for yourself. Thank Christ for people like Pettigrew!

I’d give ‘Anti-Social’ by Nick Pettigrew

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Big Garden Birdwatch.

Ornithology. Birding. Twitching. Whichever way you look at it, it amounts to the same thing. Bird-watching. And whichever way you look at it, it’s what’s led me to this. The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch; an annual event where those who take part log the birds they spot in their garden across an hour of one of three days in January. What is the world’s biggest bird survey, is something that we’ve taken part in, as a family, for several years now and it never gets any less tense. What should be a bit of fun, counting and identifying the birds in the garden, can actually play havoc with one’s heart rate and blood pressure. Surely, I’m doing it wrong?

While we’ve done it for quite a few years now, we’ve rarely had a really successful one. And by successful, of course I mean dramatic exciting, like an emu leaping the fence and having a go on the trampoline. (Well somebody needs to; ours is reduced to garden sculpture status these days). However, some would say that you’re missing the point if you’re only in it for the drama. The whole point is just to log what you see, however big or small the numbers or birds because that’s what helps the RSPB out. But as with anything, it’s always nice to stand out a little bit.

We have had some more remarkable birds in our garden in the past, but never on the day of the Big Garden Birdwatch. We’ve had a kestrel perch on our fence right next to the window as we were eating dinner at the table. I think we once, briefly, had a sparrowhawk, but its identity was shrouded somewhat by a huge camelia at the back of the garden (get me with my subtle garden based bragging!) and a heron landed on a neighbour’s roof one day. We sporadically have a Great Spotted Woodpecker that visits too. But we’re ‘reduced’ to our regulars more often than not on the day of the BGB. And rightly or wrongly, I’m always a little disappointed.

However, it’s always a bit of a thrill to take part and this year I felt inspired enough to write a poem.

Big Garden Birdwatch

Drawing the curtains, more in hope than anything else,
I'm bouoyed by a blackbird, rallied by a robin.
We plant the feet, scan the immediate horizon and stay as still as we can.
Away we go. A tense hour awaits and maybe this will be all we see.

Armed with a poster to confirm our bird spots and two pairs of binoculars at hand
we scope every inch of the  garden for more.
Every so often something flits across our line of vision, but it's difficult to tell
if it's in our trees or those in the fields behind. This struggle is real.

But then, the pulse rate quickens at the sight of something on a feeder.
We struggle to focus our sights, finding it, but losing it just as quickly. 
And then. There's yellow, no mustard, a black marking...
We check the poster to confirm a coal tit. I was hoping for a vulture.

A period of silence then ensues and we exploit this, taking turns to make breakfast,
keeping one eye, at least, on the prize at all times.
Within minutes, a burst of activity scatters toast and brings a clutch of sparrows,
but no sparrow hawk, a lone blue tit, but no blue macaw or kingfisher.

Suddenly they seem to be everywhere; sparrows scattered around the branches
Only everywhere's a slight exaggeration, but we almost have a five bar gate.
Close, but no cigar. Near, but still a bit too distant.
We mark them on our poster and frown, underwhelmed by our visitors so far.

We scan the garden for anything we've missed. Minutes tick by with nothing but hope.
And then one of our ubiquitous woodpigeons thunks on to a branch gaining our attention.
As I go to make a note a flash of red pulls me back.
A focused gaze shows not only red, but yellow and black - we've struck gold...finch.

These two have strayed from nearer the estate's equator to the frozen North of our silver birch
Never once seen before and probably never to be witnessed again.
From that mighty high, it's all downhill from here.
Typically, a magpie lands and no other species dares enter our birdwatch for the remainder of the hour.

We pack away our equipment and return to the more uniform duties of the day,
the birdwatch over for another year, but a moderate cause for celebration.
No doubt now an eagle will land, perhaps a dodo even,
But outside of our golden hour, although a thrill, none of them would count.

Hopefully, that gives an idea of not just our experience, but the large majority of Big Garden Birdwatch experiences. I imagine lots of us set out hoping for something that we deem ‘exciting’ to happen and in a way, miss the point of the whole thing. It doesn’t matter; I still I’ll always retain that approach!

I think in many ways, that’s what made the appearance of the two goldfinches so good. As I mention in the poem, if I head further down the hill on our estate (south towards the ‘Equator’ if you will) there are certain places where you’ll see them in the trees. But we’ve literally never had them in our garden before. So what a time for them to arrive.

A few notes, if you like, about the poem by way of explanation (or perhaps I’m just trying to sound like a proper poet). I deliberately used alliteration in the second line to convey the sense of excitement in our house at that moment. Myself and my son were first downstairs and we knew we’d be doing the birdwatch, but having done it before and spent an hour seeing two or three birds enter the garden, it was a genuine thrill to see two within a second! So I thought the alliteration there was apt.

The line, ‘The struggle is real’ is sarcastic. I’m laughing at myself a bit there as I do get a bit carried away with BGB day and actually, I shouldn’t be quite so serious as to be surveying the entire family as to whether or not ‘that bird’ is in our tree or another that’s beyond our fence. It’s a dig at my seriousness as much as my eyesight! Middle age means that I can’t accurately see which branches belong where nowadays! A little later on, the lines about a vulture, macaw and kingfisher are the same; me gently mocking myself (and possibly lots of us who do the BGB) and my hopes that something rare will suddenly decide that it needs to visit my particular corner of the planet so it can get ticked off on a survey. I don’t know if I think I’ll achieve some kind of fame and notoriety by being the bloke who spotted the particular bird that no one else saw!

Two other things to explain: the ‘five bar gate’ in the 5th stanza is just a way of keeping score. Four marks on a page and then when you get to a fifth, you cross the four to make a gate. The other thing was the ‘thunk’ of the woodpigeon. This is the noise I like to imagine these ‘thick set’ birds make. I know it’s not as they’re actually quite graceful in real life.

So, I hope you enjoy the poem and I hope that if you are someone who participates in The Big Garden Birdwatch year after year, you can recognise certain things in it. And I don’t just mean birds. Hopefully, the excitement and element of competition is not just to be found in our house!

Poetry Blog – ‘Early Morning Run’

If you’ve read the blog before or are a regular reader (I don’t know if I actually have regular readers, but there you go…) you might already know that I’m a big fan of running. I’d been a sporadic runner for most of my life until the first period of lockdown when I found the time to really work on my fitness and found myself running on a far more regular basis.

In the past, I’ve dabbled with early morning runs. I’ve always thought they were a good idea and it doesn’t particularly bother me that I have to get out of bed early. I’ve never been one for having a lie in and although I wouldn’t call myself a morning person, I can just about function at that time of day. However, I’ve never taken early morning running this seriously before. In the past I think I’ve just been of the view that getting out of bed and doing a bit is enough. Nowadays – probably because I’ve got myself a lot fitter – I take things more seriously.

So since early November last year I’ve been getting up before 7am every Sunday and heading out for a run. My wife thinks I might be going mad or perhaps having some kind of mid-life crisis, but I’m definitely not! I’m just enjoying running. I don’t think I’ve ever ran this early before, but it’s enabled me to experience quite a lot of brilliant things. I’ve ran along long straight roads with barely a vehicle in sight and watched as the sun comes up. I’ve been able to start my day in absolute solitude, gathering my thoughts and just feeling completely and utterly relaxed. I’m calm while running, rather than panicking about how I’m feeling, whether I’d be able to finish, the pain in a muscle etc. And I’ve had time to think, which has helped me a lot with things that I want to write about. I’ll be taking a dictaphone out with me soon!

With all the solitude, the calm, the energised feelings I’ve had after running, it felt obvious to write a poem about my early morning runs. I’d even been taking photos to help me remember certain things. And so, I sat down and wrote some notes. Sometimes these turn into lines from a poem, other times they just stay as bullet points, until I get the urge to sit and write the actual poem. In the case of this poem, I wrote minimal notes and spent a chunk of one Sunday morning, post run, just writing the poem. There were a few bits scribbled out, I suppose as part of a drafting process, but in the main this was a poem that was written as a first draft. Maybe that says something about my enthusiasm for the subject matter…

Early Morning Run

Although a pre-7am alarm on a Sunday is very much the stuff of nightmares, it’s done now. There’s no going back. I roll from under the covers and stumble like a broken robot across the blackness of the bedroom to halt the alarm, then, after a brief flirtation with the cold tap to awaken my senses, I’m downstairs, my body protesting as I stretch. Finally, when there’s nothing left to delay me, I leave the relative warmth behind.

Outside, a pattering against nearby leaves alerts me to the drizzle. My heart sinks slightly, but I turn and run. As I climb the first hill, the early morning fog rolls down at me. I push on, my bare arms and legs slowly adjusting to the biting cold and by the top, although catching my breath, I’m into my stride.

The centre of town is a place for ghosts, only the gentle pad of my feet on concrete can be heard and there’s only me to be seen. The sun fights a losing battle with the fog as I plod on and the only light to be seen belongs to the occasional cars of shift workers heading for warmth. I afford myself a few quiet words of encouragement, tell myself it won’t be long before I’m in their shoes.

On the outskirts of town I run on the empty road, giving up my territory every so often as early morning haulage thunders past and shakes the pavement. I relax, the only soul for miles around, alone with my thoughts and the constant voice in my head offering platitudes, encouragement, advice. Shoulders back, straighten out, head up, lengthen your stride, keep going.

Further down the road, as I tire, a shiftworker emerges like a high viz beacon and we exchange nods, perhaps each wondering which of us has made the worse decision on this cold Sunday morning. And then, the long downward stretch that signals my way home claws its way from the grasp of the fog and I quicken my pace, as if acting on instinct.

A lone gull lands upon a lampost above my head, like some kind of vulture, but it’s too late. I’m gritting my teeth, summoning last reserves of strength and fighting fatigue; this scavenger will have to wait. I open up my stride as best I can and drive for my finishing line.

Finally, I’m home and fumbling for a key with which to silently open the door in order not to wake my sleeping loved ones. Inside, I move to the kitchen, gulp down water, gorge on fruit and then stretch, thankful to be back, my body aching, but my mind cleansed.

Just a brief explanation of a few things in the poem. The line about stumbling across our bedroom ‘like a broken robot’ is me trying to communicate just how tired I feel when I wake up. There are days when my legs just don’t seem to work and the stiffness means my steps are ragged to say the least. It fascinates me that within about twenty minutes, I’ll be running at pace up a hill! Later on in the stanza I mention that ‘my body protests’ at stretches. I know I should warm up, but I seriously don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m some kind of ‘proper’ runner!

In the fourth stanza, I mention the voice in my head. that might not be wholly truthful. Often I’m actually talking to myself while out running. While there are times when I thoroughly enjoy it and feel totally strong, there are more when I can’t work out why I’m working out, so to speak. And so, often I’ll have a little chat to myself and tell myself that things aren’t that bad or try to kid myself on that it’s all in my head and that my legs are, in fact, strong.

In the fifth stanza I mention a long downward stretch. I’d like to point out that while it’s long, it is barely downward at all and that some of it means going back uphill. I almost changed the poem at the point as I couldn’t stand people thinking that a huge chunk of my run is down a big, steep hill. It’s not. But it’s downhill enough for me to pick up the pace!

The gull in the sixth stanza genuinely frightened me. At first, out of the corner of my eye, I genuinely believed that it was a bird of prey and that it might just take a swoop at me. Seeing it was a gull was a relief, but I still looked at its massive beak and felt a bit of trepidation!

Let me know what you think in the comments. I hope you enjoyed the poem as much as I frequently tell myself I like my early morning runs!

Book Review – The Soundtrack to My Life by Dermot O’ Leary

Dermot O’Leary, for those who don’t know, is the presenter of The X-Factor in the UK. He also hosts a radio show on BBC Radio 2 and appears almost ubiquitously on TV as a presenter, talking head or just as the face or voice of various adverts. In short, you could be forgiven for getting a little irritated by him!

As the presenter of The X-Factor he is quite a divisive character. Not in the same way as say, Simon Cowell, but divisive all the same. There are probably thousands of people who just don’t like him because of his association with the behemoth that is that particular franchise. Whether that’s fair, I don’t know and I daresay, Dermot O’Leary doesn’t particularly care.

For the record, I like Dermot. But then again, we go way back. I remember Dermot as the fresh-faced presenter of a programme called T4 years ago, which for many of us represented perfect hangover TV. As such, I feel like I’ve followed his career a little bit ever since. Personally, I find him funny and quite an engaging presenter and while I might not like watching The X-Factor, I would gladly watch him on other shows or tune in to his radio show simply because he seems like the kind of bloke I’d be friends with (You know, if massive TV fame hadn’t got in the way!).

And this is sort of where the book comes in. It’s part autobiography and part discussion of music. Dermot whisks us through his forty odd years on the planet via the medium of music, linking various anecdotes to many of his favourite songs and artists. So it’s an autobiography with a ‘twist’, which Dermot himself explains in the book. And it’s an understandable twist given his experiences within the world of music, from being a regular gig-goer in his teens and onwards to presenting shows such as T4 and The X-Factor and then his long standing time as host of various radio shows from XFM to BBC Radio 2.

If you’re a music fan, ‘The Soundtrack to My Life’ will most likely prove to be an interesting read. Dermot knows his stuff and certainly has a wide range of tastes and influences. He links infleuential artists, bands and songs alongside key moments and anecdotes from his life to pretty good effect. And if you’re insisting on attaching that X-Factor stigma to him and expecting that his list will simply be chock-full of One Direction and Little Mix, then you may well get a number of pleasant surprises. Sadly though, there’s no mention of Same Difference or Jedward…

Amongst the choices you’ll find some of music’s big hitters – from Springsteen and The Rolling Stones to Amy Winehouse and Beyonce as you’d reasonably expect from a man who’s spent quite a while mixing with some of music’s big hitters. But it’s not at all predictable. In among the star names are other less well know acts like Brendan Shine (a nod to O’Leary’s Irish heritage), Terry Wogan and Beth Orton. Add in tracks by Guns n’ Roses, Wham, Ian Brown and The Killers and we’re being served up a varied musical banquet here.

The soundtrack got all the more special for me when reading about tracks from the bands Elbow and Athlete. For starters O’Leary picks a very early Elbow track – ‘Newborn’ – which just so happens to be one of my favourite ever songs. It’s the band at their most melancholy and vulnerable and in a funny way, it was a nice surprise to find it nestling alongside The Macarena in a book by the bloke who presents one of the most popular shows on British television. It was nice to read mention of Athlete as not only are they a band that I like but one of their tracks – not the one chosen in the book – is a song that I’ll forever associate with the birth of my daughter and the frequent trips to hospital that I would take in those early days of her life.

Overall, the book works. O’Leary’s life story is, to a point, a familiar one. The suburban upbringing, the ordinary school days and the hard work that follows in order to make something of yourself. It just so happens that this ordinary boy went on to become probably one of the most recognisable faces on British television. The inclusion of the songs not only gives us a break from the usual ‘star’ autobiography format of a very dry, unremarkable account of someone’s life, with maybe a few quoteworthy opinions thrown in to grab the odd headline and sell a few more books, but it serves to give us a little more insight into the life of someone who many of us can say we’ve kind of grown up with. Others might find it interesting in terms of how it might change their their X-Factor based opinions.

It’d be easy to criticise people like O’Leary just because of The X-Factor, but as he points out himself, if you’re offered a huge gig in the field that you work in, you’d be silly to turn it down. O’Leary dreamed of working in TV from leaving school, so when the biggest show on the box comes calling, you’d be a mug to turn it down. And while this might reject things like principles, I daresay that showbusiness doesn’t always have time for such things. So while we may frown at The X-Factor, it’d be strange to not accept the fact that a presenter might want to present it.

One small criticism of the book comes with the style of O’Leary’s writing, which did get a little irritating at times. He almost abuses parentheses and at times it was a little troublesome just to follow the narrative. And as a lover of parentheses and the odd tangent myself, I can see the irony in not enjoying reading through so much of it! But sometimes the tales take a few too many turns and it did become a little grating.

Overall though, ‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ is an enjoyable read. It’s an idea that’s been played with before, most notably in Nick Hornby’s ’31 Songs’, but O’Leary’s light hearted tone makes sure that it’s not particularly derivative. This isn’t a taxing read. You’re not going to experience any emotional trauma or find yourself fighting back the tears at the author’s pain. But if what you’re looking for is an autobiography with a bit of ‘quirk’ then this might well be for you. As a fan of music and radio, I enjoyed it and I think you would too.

I give Dermot O’Leary’s ‘Soundtrack To My Life’…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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.

Poetry Blog: Christmas Quiz

There’s nothing overly complex or clever about this poem. Put simply, I wrote it after conducting a Christmas quiz with one of my last classes of the term just gone. It just struck me as such an excellent scene in the classroom – loud, tense, excited, never still. A bunch of children working together in teams and despite the fact that some of them would rather appear anything but excited, the element of competition is absolutely impossible to ignore!

So while acting as the showbiz style quiz master, I realised that this was an atmosphere that was too good to miss out on; so I wrote some notes and then sat down later and threw them together as something a bit more poetic. And here’s the result.

Christmas Quiz

Catching them unawares is the really fun part. In fact, you could argue it’s downhill all the way after that.

As the quiz is announced the air crackles with a tangible excitement that is momentarily pierced by the feigned boredom of the cool kids. It won’t be long though, before they’re animated in glorious technicolour, shouting out, competitive as Olympians and quietly singing the words to Christmas carols in the missing words round.

With each question the tension builds and instead of ‘Lords ‘a leaping’ we have boys ‘a bouncing, girls ‘a screeching in teams competing and by question ten the chatter has become a rabble, has become a riot and we can no longer truly claim that all we have is a quiz.

This, in fact may well be a matter of life and death.

By the end of the quiz we’ve seen and heard it all. The careless calling out of what is very definitely the ‘right’ answer with a wink, the throwing up of arms, the almost audible straining of brains as the tip of the tongue is explored for an answer.

This is the chaos of the circus, the madness of rush hour and the irregular noise of the orchestra warming up all mixed together in the same bowl. This is the Christmas quiz.

If, like me you’re a teacher or you work in some capacity in a school, you’ll no doubt identify with the chaos of the Christmas quiz. If you’re not, then imagine a child’s birthday party, but with questions. The two will have much in common.

With the poem I wanted to capture the chaos and the noise, but also the subtleties – things like boys (and it’s always boys) pretending they’ve called out their right answer just a little too loudly in order to convince a rival team to write it down and thus lose a point. Sat at the front of the class with a blank sheet of A3 paper, I was able to note all of these things down; the attempts to cheat, the confidence even when it’s very clear that you’ve got completely the wrong answer and the looks of concentration on faces when kids search for an answer that they know, but haven’t the slightest hope of committing to paper!

The Christmas quiz has that element of fun that something like a revision quiz doesn’t have, but it still retains the desperate will to win in all who compete. And for that matter, despite the irritation of the rules being completely ignored within seconds, as the excitement kicks in, and all Hell breaking loose by about question three, it’s a whole load of fun. It definitely merits having a poem written about it…maybe not in your book, but very much in mine! I hope you like it and I hope, with some of my younger readers, it’s inspiration enough to join the teaching profession!