Poetry Blog: Forbidden

This feels like an ambitious poem. For me, that is. I doubt actual poets would feel anything like as intimidated by it as I did. In fact, such was the level of ambition and intimidation, it was a poem that I almost didn’t even take on. But in the end, it was a subject matter that interested me so much that I just thought I’d like to write a poem about it.

So the poem is about the mass repatriation of Zainichi Koreans who were (and still are) ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Between 1959 and 1984 93,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan were repatriated to North Korea, despite the fact that lots of them were of South Korean origin. Furthermore, among the 93,000 were over 1800 Japanese women who had married Korean men. Many of these women had previously faced the opposition and disapporval of their families, such was the ill feeling towards Korean immigrants in Japan at that time. Now they faced an uncertain future in a land where they knew nothing about.

The repatriation was disastrous for many as the promise of a new life and the optimism that brought just didn’t work out in a North Korea that was heavily damaged by war. Later, as North Korea became more and more closed off to the outside world, the women were denied the chance to visit family and ‘home’ in Japan. My poem is written from the point of view of one of these ‘trapped’ women.

Forbidden

When we married, we dreamed of a future together in our home, 
like everybody does, I suppose. Something modest.
Having fought for just each other, we didn't need the world.
But it took only months to leave those dreams behind
and look towards others on another shore that we imagined as home.

Too young to know better, to argue, to question
we boarded a ferry to our brave new world.
Promised the dream of paradise, we told ourselves that we weren't being forced,
that this was our decision, that our nerves would give way
to delight at what our future could, would become.

But our future wasn't bright at all. Instead it was the sombre
tones of mines and factories where we made our lives,
as had been their plan all along. Our utopia disappeared,
in time becoming nothing but a prison where we shed
tears for our loss, tears for our betrayal, tears for our home.

I clung, steadfast, to memories, allowed my senses to take me home,
closed my eyes to reality in order to see the acacia in full Spring bloom,
allow the smell to envelop me, stay there for a time bathing in the warm air.
In my mind I would walk pavements in parks with him,
cherry blossom breaking over us like gentle April waves.

But none of it would be real life anymore.
When we were forbidden from visiting our parents' graves
sadness turned to loathing. Those who frowned upon our youthful choices
were now just ghosts of the past and we could not mourn
the loss of our very beginning.

Instead we were forced to mourn the loss of our very freedom, our existence,
our souls, culture, identity
and, given no reason why this should be we could only feel more detached
than ever before, disillusionment disintegrating into numbness.
We were driftwood, pushed along by the sea, forgotten by the land.

Now, it feels like I have spent my life staring blind from this window
scouring the landscape for the past that I can no longer see,
searching through the coastal mist for a home no longer on the horizon,
imagining one last glimpse, one last memory, one last conversation,
while knowing all senses are lost like our identity.

We are widows.
Abandoned, forgotten, homeless, but never hopeless,
yet cast adrift, a life not lived,
forever seeking the answers to how and why.

I hope I’ve managed to do this topic justice. As I said earlier, it was something that I read about – and have read more about since – that just gripped me. For want of a much better way of putting it, I just felt such sympathy for the women that I read about. Some of them talked about how they married their Korean partner, despite pressure from their families and how despite not regretting their choices, they were forced to live with the eventual reality that they would never see their parents again. The stubbornness of youth leading a lifetime of feeling incomplete.

The stories possibly resonated with me because at the time of reading, in the middle of the Covid crisis, I had begun to wonder if I’d ever see my parents again. Their age combined with their vulnerability to the virus made for some very difficult times and although I wouldn’t dream of thinking I’d had it as bad as the Japanese women I read about it piqued my interest in their story.

I think I quite like what I’ve managed to write. I found it difficult to write as someone else, but I’m fairly sure I haven’t made a complete mess of it. I hope you like what I’ve written too. As ever, please feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: Pain

At the risk of repeating myself, this is yet another poem that was borne out of a sleepless(ish) night. I’d found myself clambering out of bed not long after midnight as I couldn’t get to sleep because of the pain in my shoulder and arm after I’d damaged a nerve during a coaching session when I should have known better than to take on goalkeeping duties. I’m 49 for goodness sakes!

So I went downstairs with my book as I find reading takes my mind off things while also never failing to make me feel sleepy, whatever else might be going on

It amazes me how many times it happens that my mind is full of ideas and potential lines from a poem at these times. But it happened again, so I began writing, ending up with two poems; one about making the decision to get out of bed in the middle of the night and this one, about the pain that I was suffering with.

Pain

The voice that tells you not to speak,
the constant nagging doubt,
a sleeping partner tracking your every move,
a shaft of moonlight in a 4am garden giving the illusion of movement,
the urge to run from something unnamed that might not even be there,
a telephone staring intently as you ponder the call you don't want to make, paralysed,
a strangled scream,
a fruitless sneeze,
the date that teeters on your horizon, pulsing ever so slightly,
the message you should have sent,
an unvoiced opinion,
the stinging comeback stopped in its triumphant tracks by a tongue bitten,
the memory that refuses to ever truly leave.

With this poem I just found myself thinking of things that I’d compare pain to and once there were a couple of ideas written down it became a kind of stream of consciousness.

In daylight hours, on next read it became an exercise in editing; sorting the wheat from the chaff so to speak and getting rid of ideas that jarred with others or just anything that reeked of the nonsense that might sound great in the sleepless early hours of the morning. There was also a little bit of repetition where ideas were a little too similar for my liking. I guess that comes with writing when you’re so tired! Thus, this became a relatively short poem.

I hope it translates well enough. I hope there are comparisons in there that you can identify with and that you might recognise as being familiar in terms of being in pain.

As ever, I hope that you enjoyed the poem. It’s always nice to read comments too, so feel free to leave one as I genuinely appreciate the interaction.

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.

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!