Poetry Blog: Christmas Do

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

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

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

Anyway, I wrote a short poem about them.

Christmas Do

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

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

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

Welcome to The Writers’ Room.

As part of my performance management at work I’ve decided to get creative. I’m setting up an extra curricular writing club called the Writers’ Room. I thought I’d write a post about it just to try out some of my ideas as well as feeling hopeful that those who read might have a few ideas and tips of their own. Maybe writing a post about it might just make sure I keep up the momentum with the idea as well!

A writing club is something I’ve done before, but I have to admit, it’s never been particularly successful as a long term thing. In the short term I’ve got kids together to write poetry for competitions and it’s been really successful, producing some work of excellent quality. However, I’ve never really followed it up and kept a club going for any length of time. I’ve found that kids don’t stick with it either and that’s probably got a lot to do with my own lack of commitment and ideas in the past.

So the aim has to revolve around just that. I set up a group and keep giving them reasons to turn up and just enjoy writing. I’m keen not to get too far ahead of myself and want to just take simple baby steps, so that my students can enjoy what they’re doing, feel that their work is valued and realise that writing things and working through their ideas can be viewed as a far longer term process than it is in a lesson. I’d like students just to come to the club, relax and play around with words and ideas, regardless of how long it might take to complete a piece of work. I think sometimes English as a subject suffers from the fact that we’re pressed for time and writing for a particular all class purpose, so maybe if a group of students realise that they can write simply for pleasure, it might just work.

I have some ideas, both short term and long term. The first thing I’d like to do is give my students a note book and just stress the importance of always having it with them. I’d like them to get used to just writing things down. That might be thoughts, lines for a poem, observations about things around them, ideas for stories, poems etc or even just doodles. I have mine in my work bag, but sometimes, if I’m in class, I might just grab a scrap of paper and jot lines and ideas down. So my notebook is full of ideas, poems and stuff on its actual pages, but also full of scraps of paper, clippings from magazines and drawings I’ve done. I suppose I’ll have to stress to them that they can’t just whip notebooks out in lessons though. I don’t want them getting into trouble!

I’m keeping my eye out for interesting source material – objects that might make my students think or interesting stories from magazines and newspapers. I wrote a poem recently based around the story of Japanese women who were repatriated to Korea many years ago and it would never have entered my mind had I not read about them in a magazine.

I’m also on the lookout for images of landscapes, people and maybe just the types of things that they don’t often see to put together on a wall as some sort of collage, again just for some source of inspiration. I’ll be encouraging them to do the same and make collages that might just help inspire them. It’s an idea I’ve stolen and adapted from my daughter who’s currently working towards her Art GCSE and has lots of collages thrown together in her sketch books. Sometimes we’ll sit and talk through ideas for images to use and – this has only just occurred to me – it could be something I use for inspiration too.

I’ve put together a folder of writing prompts and ideas I’ve come up with and some gathered from the internet and other after school writing clubs too. I’m likely to focus on poetry but I’d like to see if we can write some short stories too. It’s not something I know a great deal about, but I’m hoping that some of my writers will.

I think my main goal – apart from longevity – is to create a place where kids want to be and where they feel comfortable writing and trying out ideas. I’m not looking to go full on modern teacher – you know the type; ‘Hey guys, just call me Graham in here. Mr. Crosby goes home at 2.45…’ – but I definitely want to have the emphasis on the idea of this being a club, rather than an after school lesson. Ideally, I’d love to get to a point where the students just come in and work on whatever it is they’ve been working on, rather than me prompting them and taking control week after week.

The Writers’ Room is something I’ve wanted to make a success of for years, but I’ve always found that teaching gets in the way. Now though, as a very experienced teacher, I feel like I have the time to make it work. And because of my experiences of writing my blog, especially with poetry, I feel like I know what I’m doing a little bit more.

The goal is to have the club up and running within the next month or so and by the end of the year I hope that we’ll be able to publish some sort of anthology so that the work produced can be celebrated in some way. I have to say, I’m really excited about how this could could go. For now though, I’ll try to keep you updated on our progress and hope to have some positive tales to tell. In the meantime, if you have any experience of this type of thing and any tips or ideas to share, I’d welcome the input so feel free to drop me a line in the Comments section below!

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.
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