Poetry Blog: A Bracing Start to The Day.

I wrote this poem very recently after a drive to work. The title seems fantastically relevant now, given that we’ve just had our first snow, brought by a storm that featured some frightening 40 miles an hour winds.

It wasn’t the drive that prompted me to write, but the weather and just the way my world looked on that morning. It was the kind of morning that I’ve always really liked. Bright, crisp, dry. Quite still too, so ideal as I’m really not a fan of the wind. The kind of morning that I’d love to have gone for a run on. But instead, I was off to work to spend the day indoors, missing out on a beautiful day.

The first thing that struck me was spotting the moon still up in the sky, despite the daylight. I noticed it as I was getting into the car and then kept spotting it as drove. It prompted a series of thoughts and observations and I was suddenly really keen to write. But that’s a bit difficult at the wheel of the car and even trying to dictate into my phone would have been out of the question. So, it was a case of scribbling things down in a notebook as soon as I got into my classroom.

I worked on putting the notes together as a poem once my day of teaching was over with. Here’s the result.

A Bracing Start to The Day

The moon, still high in the sky,
suggests night rather than the bracing start to the day
that this early light informs us of.
Vapour trails from soaring planes scratch the blue
from a near perfect sky, like claw marks
down a freshly painted canvas.
Scan the horizon and a coral banner announces 
the sun, while frost on windscreens
defies its very existence.
Crisp air takes the breath away and begins 
to numb the fingers and toes as every
breath spray paints a fleeting pattern in the air.
Winter is creeping towards us.

I can see the weather influencing more writing in the weeks to come, especially on those early starts. I’m up early every other Sunday setting up goalposts, nets, corner flags and everything else that goes alongside matchday for the football team that I coach. I always find it a lovely peaceful, calm time of the day and usually quite look forward to it. Even in the worst of weather it’s nice just to be outside and alone with my thoughts and watching things come together.

I hope you enjoyed reading the poem. It’s a little shorter than they usually are, but it’s one that I think I quite like. Feel free to leave a comment below.

So, I got boosted

Last night I went to a local hotel, where part of it is serving as a vaccination centre and received my Covid vaccine booster jab. Today I have a full day’s teaching. Class after class after class. So I thought I’d document my day.

I wake up feeling groggy. Not the usual middle-aged-can-I-retire-yet groggy, but a grogginess that feels like I’ve been hit by a truck and then while I lay there, miraculously recovering, someone took a hammer to my left bicep for an hour. I am a shambling mess. More so than usual. And it’s painful to lift my left arm. Today is going to be a bit of a challenge.

After a quick shower, breakfast and time spent getting dressed, I’m heading for the door. The grogginess hasn’t subsided and to make matters worse now I feel sick. My legs ache like I ran a marathon yesterday and my head is spinning. Not literally – what a boon that would be for the anti-vaccers – but I’m dizzy and it’s decidedly unpleasant. As if commuting through the bandit country of deepest , darkest Dewsbury wasn’t hairy at the best of times, today I’m attempting it while feeling in the same headspace as Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

There’s lots to do at work and handily I’ve written a ‘To Do’ list the previous evening so that I wouldn’t walk in and forget the urgency of certain things. Unusual foresight for me, but it’s a good job I have. Without it I may well have just sunk into my chair, flopped my head onto the desk and stayed there until someone burst in to wake me up and tell me that my class were outside.

I busy myself entering data onto a tracker, which as all teachers know, is easily one of the most beloved parts of the job and very much the kind of thing you do to give yourself a morning boost…

It’s a wonder that I can put anything like the right numbers in the right boxes, but miraculously I manage and hope that this little exercise has focused my mind a bit. It hasn’t though, as I’ll soon discover.

Before I know it, my Year 7 group are lining up, so I get the date, title and learning purpose on the board for them to copy and the Do Now task onto my other board. They can stay busy while I’m doing a register. And this way we can have a calm start to the day while I try and work out where I am and who is responsible for this cruelty.

It starts calm and stays calm. I’m very lucky with my Year 7s and even though the group has changed in recent weeks as the sets were shuffled round a little, the atmosphere in class has stayed purposeful and just all round pleasant. The group seem to like me – that’ll change – so it’s a nice way to start what promises to be a really hectic day.

What I do find is that I’m calling people by the wrong name quite often though. Feeling this dizzy is really not conducive to teaching!

During Period 2 I continue to refer to people by the wrong name and it becomes worse, if anything. Sometimes it’s the name of another student in the group, but at others it’s just a random name that pops into my head. It’s a surprise when I don’t refer to any of them by character names from the text. Imagine how bad you’d feel as your teacher responded to your hand up by asking, ‘Yes, Scrooge?’ or ‘Go on then, Tiny Tim.’ And heaven forbid I might try to wrap my mouth round Bob Cratchit’s name in this state.

At one point I reach a pretty early low when I realise that I’m writing about a character on the board, but it’s a character who doesn’t actually feature in the text that we’re studying. Little tip for you; neither George nor Lennie appear alongside Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’. Luckily for me, my students just diligently copy the notes out seemingly unaware of any problem. Me? I just quickly rub out the name and carry on. Once I’m finished I decide that a sit down is required while I contemplate whether anyone will spot that error in the next book scrutiny. At this moment in time, I don’t care.

I summon every ounce of strength I have to give my form a very stern talking to when they arrive for Study Skills. They’re also my English class and I finally finished marking their mocks last night, while struggling to keep my eyes open. My own fault, I suppose. However, their exams reveal the need for a renewed focus and lessons where we work at breakneck pace between now and Christmas. Four of my group decided to answer not only their Shakespeare question, but all of the others too. Actually, that’s wrong; one of said four wrote the title of the right one, left the page blank and then answered all the other Shakespeare questions instead. Aside from this absolute brainstorm, several of them clearly haven’t revised or just didn’t really bother putting effort in. It felt like every bit of advice was ignored and with the added bonus of feeling like I’d like to curl up for a nap, I’m in an awful mood. Our motto is ‘Be Nice, Work Hard’. Well they didn’t work hard, so I won’t be being nice for a while. God knows I have to work hard enough at being nice in the first place. I’ll save it all up for my Year 7s!

One of the delightful foibles of my timetable this year is that I have bottom set Year 10 group for 2 hours either side of a break. Someone called, Gemma Sillyfartpoo (not her real name, so she’ll never know this is her…) does the timetables, and now every Friday feels like she’s personally hinting that I should retire. I often wonder what I’ve done to make her hate me so!

For the next hour I continue in the same vein as before, forgetting names, talking nonsense and losing my thread in the middle of sentences. Some would say the booster has had no effect at all. At one point, as the students are working, I head back to my desk intent on doing an important job, but when I get there I have no idea why I’m there. I sit and stand a couple of times, stare into space a bit and mutter to myself before wandering off. In the words of the quite wonderful Inspiral Carpets, ‘this is what it feels to be lonely’.

At lunch I decide that the only course of action is to stuff as much food into my mouth as I can in order to build up some strength. I have two teaching hours to go. I go for a walk around school, primarily to keep myself awake but realise as I come up towards the Science department that if anything’s going to send me to sleep it’s the Science department, so I do a shuffling, mid paced u-turn and head back to what I lovely refer to as my cave.

My Year 8 group Period 5 are relentlessly badly behaved and it takes almost all of my energy to get them through and keep on getting work out of them. With 20 minutes to go I could weep. How has this only been 40 minutes so far? Time appears to be wading through treacle and I’m shambling around like a drunk at the back end of a wedding disco, just pointing and muttering to myself. I refrain from hoisting an imaginary bottle of strong lager into the air and singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in favour of getting 80% of students’ names wrong while cajoing them to finish an answer. My support assistant smiles at me sweetly. I’m not sure she’s really noticed a sea change in my behaviour, to be fair.

It is a blessed relief when my final lesson of the day goes smoothly. The kids work hard, probably suspecting that their English teacher is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and before I know it, it’s 2.45 and time to send them homeward.

I slump at my desk, pondering a nervous breakdown, before realising that I still have work to do. At 4 0′ clock I’m finally heading home back through the Mad Max territory that is Dewsbury town centre. I need to buy something for tea and will no doubt attempt to pay with Post-It notes, but it doesn’t matter; I got through.

Disclaimer: Some of this is a little bit exaggerated. None of it though, is fictional and I truly felt rotten all day, regretting waking up from…well, the moment I woke up. Apologies should go to Gemma Sillyfartpoo (not her real name); I know you just press a button on a big machine and it churns out all the timetables for you, so it’s not your fault. Similarly, a big sorry goes to the Science department who are lovely people. They just teach a really dull subject that has the ability to make me sleep, making them the envy of any hypnotist. I’m sure you were bored by English at school as well though. Weirdos.

Feel free to leave a comment. I’ll read them when I wake up from a deep, deep sleep.

Poetry Blog: ‘As he fell…’

As someone who lives away from their home town and family home, I find it difficult to keep in touch. Sometimes that’s down to having quite a busy life. Family life can take over at times and then there’s work; having a job that is regularly the wrong side of hectic can mean that it’s tough to find time for a moment to relax, let alone time to think about who I need to get in touch with.

Sometimes though, I have to admit that my lack of phone calls home is just down to sheer laziness. When I finally get the chance to slump on the settee in front of some mindless television the last thing that I want to do is pick up the phone and make the inevitable and somewhat awkward small talk with my dad, asking and responding to the same questions that we always ask each other. A lot of our chats are just us counting down the minutes until we can tick a box marked ‘Chatted with dad/Graham’ and pass on the baton on to my mam.

A recent phone call got me thinking about the relationship I have with my dad though. Although I don’t think I’d ever describe us as being very close, my dad has always been a bit of a hero to me and always been someone that I’ve wanted to impress. My dad has always seemed invincible to me as nothing ever seems to really stop him in his tracks. He’s a typical Northern bloke, not given to outbursts of affection or praise and so it’s always felt like I haven’t really impressed him very much. That’s not me reaching for sympathy, it’s just the way things have been. I can’t say it’s ever stopped me from getting on with life.

There have been sporadic moments of affection and expressions of pride along the way but I think it’s best not to be greedy or needy. I’ve learnt to be happy with myself or proud of my own achievements and my relationship with my dad has been largely based around chatting about the football, something that I don’t imagine it’s unusual to build a father son relationship on!

A recent phone call led to my dad revealing that he’d fallen off a ladder and hurt himself quite badly. It was almost a throwaway conversation for him. No fuss, no need for sympathy, just very matter of fact. But it shattered my thoughts of him as being somehow invincible. He’d managed to hurt himself quite badly and had to go to hospital – of course he’d driven himself there – to get stitches in a leg wound and everything else checked over. He’s in his eighties now though and the incident and the way he reported it in our phone call made me think about him and I suppose his life expectancy a lot. And so, I wrote about it.

As he fell...

As he fell it was nothing that flashed before his eyes
and after the whump of the ground
and the surge of air that left him
all that remained was one, over ripe question mark.
Lying voiceless, his only thought formed as slowly 
as a child colouring carefully to avoid breaching the lines;
if this is how it all ends, was there ever really any point?

Flat on his back, doing whatever it is
one does when you cannot even manage to gasp,
he relaxed, rather than gave way to panic,
revelled almost in the moment that told him to do nothing,
prone in the hinterland somewhere between life and death,
looking serenely skyward while the now fallen ladder
balanced awkwardly across his chest
and wondered what was meant to happen next.

A faceless nothing seemed to silently gaze, take him in,
measure him up and contemplate his place in the world
before deciding that the time was not yet right
and placing him back carefully, like one would a
freshly unhooked trout spared the pan
and allowed to feel a freedom that would for now
be marked by the pain that besets the old fool
who overreached and fell from the ladder.

Breath returned, he gathered his thoughts,
dusted down his creaking bones
and swam tentatively back through the lake 
in search of not just sympathy and the inevitable scorn,
but a familiar face who would narrow her eyes 
and pass her shaken headed judgement ,before gently tending his wounds
and share not just his tale of woe and bloodied laundry,
but everything that life had, could and would throw at them
for their eternity together, and now for at least another day.

In order to write this poem I tried to imagine how my dad must have felt. All he really told me was that when it happened he lay there for a while to kind of gather himself before getting up and making his way slowly home. So for a bit of an uncomfortable while I had to try and inhabit my dad’s mind and think about what he’d have done, how he’d have felt and kind of join the dots about what had actually happened, because he’s very much an octogenarian of few words. Has been since he was about 40, I think!

He was actually in his allotment pruning a hedge and overreached. Subsequently, he lost balance and over he went. But given his time of life I imagined that he’d have felt quite bewildered by it all and having fallen from quite high up on the ladder I thought it might have knocked the stuffing out of him and left him not only in pain, but groggy, confused and possibly…possibly, even as a big tough, gruff Geordie, a bit scared.

Speaking to my dad that day he was resigned to more or less giving up on his allotment, admitting that it had gotten too much for him. He’s 82 after all! But there was a definite sadness in him about that as it’s something he’s toiled away at for probably well over 20 years now, since they moved from the family home to where they live now.

I ended the poem with a little bit about my mam. They’ve been married for around 60 years and it’s always funny to watch them together. For every small tender moment there seem to be a thousand gripes and snipes and they argue like, well like an old married couple. But I know that she worries about him and as an ex nurse, I know that she’ll have tried to clean him up and get him to just sit down and take it easy. There wouldn’t have been a great deal of explicit sympathy, but I think she’d have been scared by it all too. He actually managed to slice his leg open and only noticed a while later when his leg felt damp and he thought he’d had another kind of accident altogether.

I hope I’ve done them both justice with this poem. I wondered what must have gone through his mind as things failed him again. He’s always been so strong and just tough, so I think this latest age episode must have been strange for him.

As ever, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment. It’s always good to read people’s thoughts, particularly when what I write is as personal as this poem.

Teaching: The road to Christmas

As a high school teacher of over two decades I think I’m qualified enough to say that we’ve just entered our toughest half term of the academic year. I think we’ll all agree that the 7 weeks from the start of November until nearing the end of December is like swimming in sand at the best of times!

We started our half term this week and although nothing major has gone wrong and none of the so-called ‘red flags’ have been raised, it’s still falling into a familiar pattern.

For a start, the weather has been predictably dreary. As we blink our way into Wednesday, I can safely say it’s the first time I’ve viewed a blue sky all week. And even that is being flanked by ominous clouds. So although the blue sky is a welcome sight, I’m aware that the weather could break at any given second and bring with it that predictable grey that bleeds into a charcoal, so often found in the UK. It does nothing for morale!

On top of the clouds we have the wind; there never seems to be a still day at this time of year. Unless of course we get a bright autumn day where I might get some washing out to dry and then the gale becomes a breeze, becomes a veritable vacuum where literally nothing moves! It’s the time of year when sometimes you feel like nothing will ever go right for you. And that’s a feeling that can quickly multiply as a teacher.

The wind, the rain and the general feeling of an almost permanent mist hanging over the season can be a terrible combination for your classes. I’ve certainly learnt over the years that if it’s windy and raining I’ll get at least one class who are completely off the wall for the hour. They come in, soaked because they didn’t feel the need to get undercover, and then complain about the weather. This will often then morph into complaints about whatever it is we might be doing and however we attempt to do it. And it would seem that once they’ve been knocked about by a windy day, kids can’t help shouting out and making daft noises, which will inevitably lead to fits of giggles. Not ideal for the flow of a lesson!

Sitting at a desk going through what should be a familiar routine can prove impossible. You might as well present them with a pair of mittens and a Rubiks cube each. And all this because it was blowing a gale, the rain was travelling sideways and my students didn’t have the common sense to stay out of it as much as they could.

The dark mornings and dark evenings also make the winter term a real pain. It shouldn’t make a great deal of difference really. But it does. It’s no fun leaving the house in the dark and it’s even less fun getting to the end of your day and driving home to find, light wise, it’s night time! It does strange things to your state of mind. Being greeted by a dark classroom that resembles the inside of a walk-in freezer doesn’t help either. I imagine it’s a bit like living in the far north of the planet near the Arctic in Sweden or Finland and having either almost permanent daylight or long, dark days, depending on the time year. Probably an over-the-top comparison, I know, but please feel my pain. Sometimes, the only daylight I see is through a window and it can start to get you down. Add in the weather and how that can disrupt the commute and it’s quite the pain in the rear end!

Speaking of the commute brings to mind the simple fact that it can be awful at this time of year. A few parts of my journey into work are prone to flooding and we get more than our fair share of rain here in West Yorkshire. I think our monsoon season is between January and December. There are a couple of places where it can be a real hazard and times when I wonder if some sort of amphibious vehicle might be a better option.

And then there’s the snow. Now, I’ll preface this with the fact that the UK can come to a complete halt if there’s a centimetre of snow and that looking at other countries who cope admirably with far more, we’re a bit rubbish really. However, it doesn’t change the fact that snow always makes me shudder about my commute. Over the years I’ve had multiple journeys to and from work that have involved sliding around roads and spending what have felt like endless hours getting to the end of my journey. Last year, I managed to get into work on a snow day only to find out that the school was being closed and that I faced a long journey home. Little did I know however, that it would take me over 6 hours to drive home! So any snow this year will be approached with dread!

As I write, we’re a week into the new half term. Just 6 more to go until it’s almost Christmas and a blissful two weeks off! In the meantime though, I’m hoping for less of the wind, rain and snow that will lead to the inevitable terrible in school behaviour from some of our students. I’m hoping for less moans and groans about the temperature in my room. Amazingly, there are many times where I have students complaining that it’s cold while others are asking to take their blazers off and claiming they can’t work because it’s too hot!

There are other daunting features of the next six weeks to come too. These include marking mock exams, data collections, avoiding secret santas, avoiding having to take part in our department production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and avoiding colds, flu and COVID!

One thing’s for sure…this next 6 weeks will feel like years!

Poetry Blog: Lost

This is the latest in a long list of poems that I’ve written and then forgotten about. It was one of about half a dozen that I discovered in a notebook a couple of weeks ago.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to place these type of poems simply because firstly they’d been forgotten and secondly because often I write a poem and don’t give it a title. In the case of this poem the title was just a question mark, which didn’t seem very helpful at first!

Once I’d read through the poem the subject matter became a little clearer. For the record this is a poem about my state of mind at a certain time. I still feel this way at times now and it’s been a feeling I’ve had throughout my life. I think it affects lots of us though. Having read this poem through a few times and had a bit of a think I think it’s about just everyday life and the sense that this might be all there is. Certainly, I look at what I’ve achieved in life and often wonder if it’s enough. I suppose it’s a sense of slight dissatisfaction at how things are. There are lots of reasons for it as well. It might just be wanting to impress people, like your parents or it might be linked to the dreams you had as a kid. There are definitely references to self esteem in there too.

Whatever the reasoning this is a poem about a moment in time. It’s about looking back and regretting decisions, but it’s also about simply wondering whether you’re satisfied with your lot. I guess that in my case, it’s about getting to the verge of a milestone birthday and just reflecting back or having a good old think about things. I think when I wrote the poem I felt quite down about a lot of things, but mainly about me and my worth as a person.

Lost

Imagine not knowing how you got here.
The feeling of a half life, 
the wondering behind a thousand what ifs
and the nagging feeling that it all somehow won't matter.

Imagine the lack of identity.
The uncertainty of what you are
and who you are and whether you matter
tugging at your sleeves, like restless children.

Imagine the sense of loss.
The statelessness, the weightlessness,
the sense that however hard you swim, the tide has 
other ideas, a plan for you more powerful than dreams.

Imagine that this is all there is
and not understanding how that feels.
That the child lost among a crowd of unfriendly faces
is you, for the rest of whatever this is.

There’s also a sense of not really feeling like an adult here. When I was a kid and I’d hear adults saying how they still felt like they were 18 in their heads, I’d roll my eyes and think the worst of them. Now I’m very much an adult, well I often don’t feel like one! When I’m joining in training with the team that I coach, I still feel like a kid. My body is quick to remind me that I’m not, but I still feel that way. It can be the same in my job, teaching in a high school. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get off topic and just resort to making jokes, which was all too often my problem as a pupil in school!

Finally, the poem is about growing old. Lately I’ve been thinking about the future and I guess what we’d call the next stage of my life. I’m tentatively planning for retirement or possibly a change in work or working hours and I think all of these thoughts and ideas are in the poem too.

I hope this is a poem that people can relate to. It feels like a much broader topic than just me worrying about me, that’s for sure. As ever, feel free to leave any comments about the poem as I always enjoy a bi of feedback.

Thanks for reading.

How to unravel at half term.

I didn’t realise how tired I was until the first Saturday of half term. As an early riser I’m normally fine with being out of bed and able to function at the very least. But not on that Saturday. I still dragged myself out of my warm bed, but in truth I could have stayed there for a few more hours at least.

I’ve spent the rest of the week, from that point onwards, slowly unravelling. It’s the following Friday and I can’t recall having felt more like my age than I do now! My knees ache, my shoulder is still sore – a now months old injury that still hasn’t quite healed – my back hurts and of course I’ve managed to develop the traditional teacher’s holiday cold on top of all of this! With a list of jobs to go at, it’s been just great to feel so terrible!

One of the jobs on our list was to have my daughter’s bedroom painted. It was something I’d started a few months ago, when she was away for the weekend doing her Duke of Edinburgh expedition. So, the hope was that finishing it off wouldn’t be too big a job. Turns out that hope was – and pardon my turn of phrase here, but in my defence it couldn’t be more accurate – a load of bollocks.

Years ago I’d vowed to just steer clear of my daughter’s room. It was, in short, a shit hole – again, the most accurate term I can find – and I just got to the point where asking her to sort it out or trying to do so myself was causing too much conflict, so I stepped back. I also vowed never to have a hand in decorating it either, such was my level of dissatisfaction. But, in a moment of weakness I stepped up to the plate and began the task. Now I needed to get it finished.

I’ve tried. And I’ll keep trying. But short of taking every last bit of furniture and tat out of said room and then just painting non stop for a good couple of days, it can’t be done. If you could see said room you’d understand my reluctance to move everything out as well. I have a genuine fear that I’ll reach to get something and be bitten by some kind of small animal. Or become trapped in a giant hair ball, ending up feeling physically sick, but with a great idea for a B-movie. So, let’s just say that progress has been slow. Slow in the sense of the movement of the glaciers as well, rather than just walking pace.

Stuff has got in the way as well. You know stuff, don’t you? Cleaning ,walks, trips to deliver things to charity shops or pick up prescriptions, that kind of stuff. Not to mention ridiculous shopping trips where you stand in a shop debating whether to buy a 6ft tall light up, inflatable snowman before leaving with no snowman but the bonus of three Christmas gonks and a mirror. I mean, we’ve all been there…

I must admit that my body and mind unravelling and shutting down has made ‘stuff’ unavoidable. So, as much as I’ve reminded myself that I need to finish decorating or I need to mark books or plan some lessons for Year 11, my aching shoulder or the fact that every time I get up I get shooting pains through one of my knees, makes shopping for Christmas gonks or family sized bags of crisps all the more appealing. And before you know it you’re 4 days into the week and nothing’s got done! But your Christmas gonk game is the envy of all of your friends, who are now frankly playing gonk catch up.

On Thursday we went to a theme park in a desperate attempt to inject some fun into our week. And it was fun…for three quarters of the family. However, it felt like purgatory for me. In short, I’d prefer to spend the day working in a Siberian salt mine than being at a theme park, but sometimes you’ve got to bite the bullet and go along to please the family. And I couldn’t get a flight out of Leeds/Bradford airport to Siberia at such short notice anyway.

I’ve never understood the thrill of theme park rides. To me it’s just a terrible feeling of being completely out of control and deliberately making yourself feel sick. There is no thrill. And if there is – and there isn’t – you have to stand in a massive queue for ages for the dubious pleasure. Add in that this was a theme park in North Yorkshire on a cold and windy October day and the fun was even more minimal than usual for me. I even wandered into the zoo section of the park at one point, while my family were queueing for yet more thrills and having wandered around for a good 10 minutes, I made my way back into the park having clapped eyes on not one solitary animal. Everything was sat inside where it was no doubt warmer than me. Meanwhile, my mind was unravelling, just like my body had been for the previous few days.

We did manage to order a cooker earlier in the week, so a major item was being ticked off a list there. But then we had to refuse delivery this morning when we discovered that new gas fitting regulations would mean that we couldn’t actually have it fitted! So just when it looked like we’d achieved something quite major, we had to reverse our decision at literally the last second, as the delivery men were unloading the cooker from the van! And as I stood explaining myself to them at the bottom of our drive it began to rain heavily.

All in all, it’s been a fairly forgettable week. Instead of a glass of wine at night, or a beer, I’ve sat in front of the telly more than once nursing a cold and flu drink. My daughter’s room still has work to do. And it’s still a shit hole, whatever the colour or state of the walls. We couldn’t replace the cooker but managed to waste a good 10 hours or so researching one and then buying it. And , of course we also had that day at a theme park which three of the family really enjoyed while the other member slowly froze while getting ever more bored and confused. But there were gonks…Christmas gonks. So you know, it’s swings and roundabouts isn’t it? Isn’t it?

As a kind of post script to this post and week, let me tell you about the latter part of my Friday afternoon. Determined to shake off the feeling that my body had been broken by 7 weeks at work, I went out for a run. It really hurt. Towards the end I could feel pain in my right ankle, my asthma was kicking in and making me wheeze a little bit and my hamstrings were beginning to cramp up. I was fine with this though as I had ran the furthest I’d ran since the middle of August when my shoulder injury kicked in and stopped me altogether. I was delighted. So delighted that I decided to cook a fresh pasta sauce for my tea in the spirit of health and fitness. Fresh garlic, tomatoes, olive oil, some sausage and some fresh chillies. The week was finally taking a turn for the better. And then, while chopping the chillies I managed to squirt quite a bit of it into my eye. So now that doesn’t work either…

It’s not been the week I expected.

A new guilty pleasure – Blind Date!

No Cilla Black, no TV appearances, no answering a set of three questions with pre-prepared wacky answers and no sneaking round furtively while essentially being unfaithful. Don’t worry, I’m not that bloke. These are not the blind dates I refer to. Let me explain…

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve probably learnt a lot about ourselves over the last 18 months or so. A global pandemic – previously exclusive to Hollywood – has made a lot of us sit up and have a good old think about who we are, what we do, where we’re going and such like. Although the ‘where we’re going’ part of that last sentence was pretty much restricted to round the block or within a mile radius of our houses during lockdown, so I suppose it probably didn’t take a lot of consideration.

Still, people discovered facets to their personalities that they had never realised were there. The resilience and resolve that got people through hadn’t always been evident before. Some discovered that with time on their hands they could create art or explore an imagination that probably hadn’t had its door opened since childhood. And others became past masters at hoarding and are probably still using toilet rolls and pasta that was stashed in a loft or garage in May of last year.

I went big on fitness. Like evangelically big. Exercising daily, running like my life depended on it and – oh, the horror of admitting this – staring at my newly toned torso in our bathroom mirror for minutes on end and like never before. Going back to work put pay to this, but for a while there I was…well, I wasn’t a skinny, out of shape middle aged bloke anymore!

I found time for other things too though. I dabbled with my ancestry online, I made all manner of garden improvements and I read a lot more than usual. And it was the reading that provided my new found guilty pleasure; The Guardian Weekend magazine’s ‘Blind Date’ feature!

At the start of lockdown, with an obvious chunk of extra time on my hands and set to stay that way for a little while at least, I upped my reading material. I’d flirted with The Guardian and The Observer before, but never committed to anything. However, when lockdown meant I’d be a lot less likely to get my hands on a Sunday newspaper, I plumped instead for Saturday’s edition of The Guardian. It was within these pages that I found my new guilty pleasure, the Blind Date feature.

The premise is simple. Two people – who presumably have taken part in some sort of application process – are matched up and sent on a blind date. Afterwards they answer some questions and said questions, together with a quick photo make up the feature. They go on a blind date and we get to read about it. So far, so not really of any interest to me whatsoever. Except it was.

I read the Blind Date feature every weekend in the magazine section of the Guardian. Always two different people, but always the same set of questions. And I found myself addicted pretty quickly.

Every week I’d look forward to getting towards the back of the magazine and getting a look at this week’s two potential lovebirds who would be faced with the following questions.

  1. What were you hoping for?
  2. First impressions?
  3. What did you talk about?
  4. Any awkward moments?
  5. Good table manners?
  6. Best thing about_______?
  7. Would you introduce them to your friends?
  8. Describe ________ in three words.
  9. What do you think they made of you?
  10. Did you go on somewhere?
  11. Did you kiss?
  12. If you could change one thing about the date, what would it be?
  13. Marks out of ten?
  14. Would you meet again?

I’d start by having a look at the picture accompanying the article and invariably I’d be intrigued. Within seconds I’d be making a mental prediction as to whether these two would match well. As the weeks went on I’d be willing them to get on, like I was one of their grandmas commenting on the nice young gentleman or lady they’d brought to visit. Maybe it’s an age thing or maybe I just have a nurturing/caring side that I was otherwise unaware of, but it didn’t take me long to really care about the individuals put in front of me on a weekly basis. This really wasn’t like me, but still week after week it was how I felt. Clearly, lockdown was taking its toll!

Initially these blind dates took place via a Zoom call and I found myself intrigued by the idea of getting to know someone on the other end of a camera. It also meant that the final question – ‘Would you meet again?’ – was often an anti climax as the restrictions made it nigh on impossible to meet anyway. Thus, I’d be left feeling let down as couple after couple gave their date an 8 or 9 out of ten, then followed it up by saying that they were unlikely to meet up again. And thus, my cupid complex began to feel rather fruitless and it made me quite sad, really.

Some were sure that they’d meet up in the future and looking back at some of the clippings I kept I think I need closure. So if The Guardian would like to contact Huw and Charlotte from some time in Spring of last year, I’d be eternally grateful!

It was still interesting however to find out peoples’ first impressions and the topics of conversation and it got me wondering what directions I’d try to steer a conversation. Sadly, I concluded that it’d most likely be date after date spoiled by me droning on about football! Good job I’ve managed to burden my wife with me really! That lass is a saint!

When I read through the questions posed to the blind daters there was sometimes a hint of sadness, although maybe disappointment would be a better way of putting this. It might start when a dater was asked to sum up their ‘partner’ in three words. While one of them would be complimentary, on the other side you could sense the coldness with words like ‘interesting’ and ‘different’ and at this point I’d be preparing myself for a disparity in their marks out of ten for the date. The answer to the last question, ‘Would you meet again?’ would be all too obvious then and I’d be left somewhat pining for the next edition of Blind Date and at least a hint of romance between two strangers.

I still open the Guardian magazine every Saturday eager to read about another blind date. It’s been this way for probably over 18 months now and my enthusiasm shows no sign of flagging. Isn’t it strange what a global pandemic can bring into your life?

Grassroots Grumbles; a short update as I tear my hair out!

So having posted a blog about the current trials and tribulations of coaching a football team at the weekend, I felt compelled to update things a little following our latest game on Sunday. Indulge me. Let’s just call it some form of therapy or anger management even…

We were playing a team that we’ve played a lot in the past. In fact, our last game of last season was against the very same opposition. They’re a good side, but on our day we’re a match for them. In fact, after our previous game – which ultimately we lost – their coach was kind enough to text me and compliment the team on our passing, which he said his team couldn’t live with at times. So, it was safe to say we knew the challenge we faced, but also felt like we’d be at least competitive.

We were also at home and it was a fresh, sunny Autumn morning. We had none of our big hitters unavailable for once and a good sized squad, meaning that we could make substitutions if anyone tired. We were even wearing our brand new home kit for the first time. It felt like the footballing gods might just have been smiling on us.

Turned out the smile was more of a grimace. Imagine the face a baby pulls when it’s got wind.

We lost the game 6-0 and to use boxing parlance we barely laid a glove on them. I’ve coached these lads for just over 4 years now and I don’t think I’ve felt so frustrated in that time. For the second game running we’d more or less beaten ourselves and for the second game running we’d stopped thinking, ignored advice and taken very little responsibility for what was happening with the ball. Time and time again we hoofed the ball forward without thinking of why we were doing it or what it might achieve. It felt like no one really wanted the ball and so the best thing they could do was just to get rid of it. It reminded me of what Einstein said about insanity being people doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

We were much better, much more like ourselves in the second half, but by then it was too little too late. At least though it might have allowed us to end the game on a positive. But we couldn’t even manage that as we had a player sin-binned in the final few minutes for verbally abusing the referee, which was completely unacceptable, but all the more so as our referee was the father of one of our players!

And so we are left banging out the same messages, working on the same skills, praising wherever and whatever possible and hoping that next week some of it pays off! Meanwhile, I’m reminded of a moment earlier on today, after school as I was sat marking assessments. Hearing voices, I looked to my right to find some of our younger pupils taking part in some extra-curricular football. I spotted a boy I teach, just as he gestured his team mates towards him and, just like their heroes in the professional game, they held a pre-match huddle to get out all those important messages. And it’s moments like this that make me love football and love coaching kids! So, I guess I’ll just keep going!

Let’s see if we can improve next Sunday!

Grassroots Grumbles – Busy, stressful, alarming…but still loads of fun!

While it’s just fantastic to be back involved in grassroots football without (much) Covid intervention, I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of grumbling to do.

I’ll level with you, dear reader; I hate losing. I’m not a bad loser; I don’t shout and bawl at my team, I don’t kick equipment across the field or jump up and down like some kind of demented kangaroo on the sidelines either. But I hate to lose. And we’ve been plunging headlong into losing of late!

In many ways it’s been a brilliant start to the season. We’ve got a lovely new kit – the players, not the coaches; we get very little! We actually won our first game, handsomely and for a short period of time were 2nd in the league. And this came after we’d got to less than 24 hours before the game and not been able to locate any nets for our goals! So I thought we were riding our luck pretty well really! The weather’s been great as well and for once I’ve not been soaked to the skin in either training or on the touchline during a game. And there’s just been a lovely sense of optimism about our club and our team.

But then came our second game of the season.

We’d been told we’d been placed into a cup competition with clubs from an entirely different league and while it turned out that we didn’t have to travel over far to play, we were drawn against a completely unknown quantity. We’d learn more soon enough.

By the time of the weekend of the game I’d been able to establish that our opponents were in a higher division than us; just not which one. By the end of the game not only had it been made clear in the performances, but I’d been told by their coach as well. It turned out that they were four divisions higher than us – the equivalent of a Premier League team playing a non league side – and thus we took a bit of a beating.

For a while it was actually quite a heartening performance. At half time we trailed 1-0 and were still talking about the fact that if we could get the ball forward quickly, we might just be able to nick a goal. Game on! It quickly went downhill and by the end we were beaten 8-0. For the last 15 minutes or so our lack of fitness had become all too apparent, we were repeating the same mistakes, over and over again, we looked a bit scared and some of our lads had simply given up.

So it was a Sunday afternoon of reflection. While not wanting to impinge on any of my lads’ enjoyment of training or matches, harsh words were going to be needed in order to re-focus people. I’d been a little perturbed by some of the silly behaviour at the previous training session and the messing about, chatting and not listening, the half paced attempts at drills. And I blame myself for that type of thing when I think about it. Was training interesting enough? Was that the right drill? It’s funny how you can beat yourself up for a result and performance where you didn’t actually set foot on the pitch.

The two subsequent training sessions were a bit of a mixed bag, but largely positive. We concentrated on drills with the ball and a longer game where we could stop play, ask questions and point out options in the first session. Then, for our last session we went with fitness work and a shorter game at the end. It seemed like everything had gone well and with a game against the second placed team to come at the weekend, I at least felt like we were ready.

As ever with grassroots football though, there would be a complication. As training ended on the Thursday, two of our best players – twins – told me that they wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday. Two out of four of a first choice midfield gone in an instant. And I couldn’t even feel too vexed as the reason they were unavailable was that they were off to St. James’ Park, home of my team Newcastle United, for a stadium tour. Us Geordies have got to stick together!

On the eve of the game I’d managed to scramble 13 players together and had an idea for a side and a system. But any optimism wouldn’t last as we turned up on the Sunday morning. The current petrol crisis made me a little late setting off, as I’d been queueing up to get much needed petrol. Must remember to thank the first petrol hoarding moron I see. Then when we got there we couldn’t find the pitch as it was part of a 15 pitch complex set up on a huge park in north Leeds. When we finally found our opposition I then had to run back to my car to retrieve the phone I’d left on the dashboard! This left me around 5 minutes to announce a team, talk through a system of playing and go through any last minute messages and reminders about how we try to play. A shambles, but not untypical at grassroots level! Certainly not for this coach anyway!

Despite making a good start, we still managed to come in at half time losing 2-1. We were clearly the better side and so we pointed out how we needed to be better in the second half. Less panicking on the ball, working harder, being braver with the ball. We ended up losing 7-1 and again, the confidence was shot once more.

I think we’re struggling a little bit because of the amount of new players we’ve taken on. At the end of the season, we lost 2 first team players, one of them our goalkeeper who had been excellent and vital to the team. We’ve since spent the whole of pre-season trying to replace him with players coming in and then deciding they don’t like being in goal after all within a few weeks. We’ve started with one of last season’s outfield players in goal and he’s brave, I’ll give him that. But to be playing in the huge 11-a-side goals when he’s not really a keeper is giving us a weakness that previously wasn’t there. As coaches we’re working hard on his game and his confidence, but he needs time and with a game every weekend he hasn’t really got any. The best thing is that his attitude is great and he’s working hard to improve too and relishing the chance to be in the team. So maybe we should expect results to take a bit of a hit while also being thankful that we found someone to play in goal!

A lot of the other players that have come in have had little or no experience of football. So it’s proving quite a step up for them. So far this season I’ve been asked ‘What’s offside?’ by a sub that I was just about to put on and also ‘How do I pass?’ by one of our new boys at the start of a drill. Call me naïve, but I hadn’t expected that. It means that we have to try to work on a one on one basis with some of them in training, which obviously takes time away from others. The result of this is that our work as a team can suffer as there are often not enough coaches to be bringing new players up to speed, offering a goalkeeper specialist drills and also working on team play with the players who we’ve had for years.

Making the transition from 9-a-side to 11-a-side isn’t easy either. The pitch is much bigger, as are the goals and the positions that players are asked to play will differ too. I suppose it’s a lot to get your head around when you’re 12, regardless of how much time you’ve spent playing football.

So while it’s been a bit of a disappointing start to our season and there’s lots to be grumpy about, there might just be enough positives in there to tell me that every one of our present clouds might well just have a silver lining. Let’s hope things get better this Sunday with our latest game – a second home match and the first chance we’ve had to wear our brand new kit!

Poetry Blog: Rain on the roof

There’s no great mystery about this poem. Quite simply, it was prompted by rainfall on my classroom roof. It’s quite a cool noise I suppose and I think the sight of it and the relief I felt at being indoors and being able to just sit and watch and listen to it, was quite inspirational.

I have what I think is referred to as an outdoor classroom. It’s not actually outdoors, but it’s a stand alone building away from the main buildings of school. Maybe they’re trying to tell me something. My classroom is actually known as the ecopod; I think it’s supposed to be eco-friendly, but I’ve never really worked out why. The structure is covered with wood and we have skylights and also movement activated lighting, so I suppose there’s something in the name. That said, because it’s wooden, early on in its school life my room was also widely known as Nandos…

It was the skylights that partly influenced the poem, which is basically about the sound and the sight of the rain during a particularly heavy downpour about a week ago. My class were working and the rain just got me thinking, so I scribbled some lines down on a bit of paper and went back to it later to finish what I’d started.

Rain on the roof

Incessant, unrelenting and blended into almost one wonderful noise,
you set the tone, make me feel glad of these four walls
and the roof above, reluctant to leave and glad of my warm, dry room.
Through the window a filter of unedifying grey
blights the green of fields and trees, makes fools of the eyes,
blurring houses, factories, towns on the horizon.
The vague hope of home is lost in the mist
as the rain plays its song on the skylight.
This will pass before I venture out once more,
but its footprint will remain for hours yet.

The effect of rain on the roof of my classroom always raises a smile. It will always prompt at least 50% of the group to stop working. Next we might get an incredulous ‘Woah’ before finally eyes turn to the windows in order to watch the downpour. It’s as if the rain couldn’t actually be happening if all they could do was hear it! And given that we live in the north of England, where rain is fairly frequent, it never fails to amaze me that my students can be so captivated by something as simple as this and that they see on such a regular basis. That was kind of what I meant in the last line as you can always guarantee that your class will struggle to behave if it’s raining. Throw some wind into the equation and you’ve got a battle on your hands!

From my classroom windows I can see in the direction that I live and am able to spot certain places that I’ll pass on the journey home. It can be a bit of a comfort when I’m having a bad day. And so, when it’s misty and cloudy all of that disappears; hence the line about the ‘vague hope of home’. Strange how such a simple thing can spark so much into happening!

As always, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment.

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