The Last Day of Term

I’m starting this blog at break time, which is mid morning on the last day of our half term. Some of you will know this already, but I’m an English teacher in a high school. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but the day starting as it did I felt I had to in the interests of sanity. Some of you – fellow teachers – will read this at the very least with a knowing smile on your face, while others will have their eyes opened at least a little bit about what can happen in a classroom.

It’s been a tough half term. We’ve been busy preparing classes for GCSEs, which is taxing to say the least, but obviously then you’ve got all your other classes and day to day dramas on top of that. For me personally, it’s been a stressful week; three sets of assessments to mark, pre-exam sessions with my Year 11, after school sessions too and the sheer unadulterated fun of a fairly vicious fight happening in my form out of absolutely nowhere!

So today, the last Friday before a week off, should be about tying up loose ends relaxing at least a little bit. So why am I finding myself so wound up? Well, let me tell you a story…

I teach a lovely Year 7 group and they are the start of my worst day of the week, which is Friday. Friday’s timetable is book-ended by my Year 7s and my nice Year 8s. In between I teach my bottom set Year 10s twice and then my bottom set Year 8s. Both provide, shall we say interesting lessons.

However, today it seems even my Year 7s have been sent to try me!

It should be simple. Today we’re improving on a recent assessment; a process we call EPIC time. Basically, using feedback given on their assessments the pupils improve on a new topic, but the same type of writing. So their assessment was a newspaper article on one topic and now they’re doing one on a different topic. Simple, right? No actually. You’re wrong.

I start by getting them to copy down the date, title and learning purpose. I tell them to do it in purple pen, adding more than once that everything we do today should be done in purple. Cue the first question.

PUPIL: “Sir, do we write that in purple” ME: “Yes, like I said, everything” PUPIL: “Oh. I’ve written it in black.”

And so it begins. I must have been asked about purple pens at least 8 times after this. It felt like it would never end, despite the fact that every so often I’d remind them that EVERYTHING should be written in purple.

A similar theme emerges when we have a couple of small worksheets to fill in; one as a recall Do Now task (we stick them into books every lesson), the other a checklist for the task. These small loose sheets need to be stuck into books. I tell them this. I tell them again…oh, you get the idea. Still, they ask if they should stick them in. One even informs me that they’ve stuck one of the sheets next to their assessment, which must be 4 pages further back from what we’re doing today.

I’m beginning to think that today is going to be one of those days…

Having completed their assessment a couple of weeks ago, it means that the class will have to turn back some pages if they need to refer to it. So I tell them the date that we did it. Friday 13th May. Maybe I was asking for trouble, eh? Still some can’t find it, but they eventually do, leaving just one who is adamant that it isn’t in his book. After much to’ing and fro’ing about the date I head across to his desk, where I promptly find said assessment. The assessment is on the page that has the date Friday 13th of May on it. I resolve that these things are sent to test us and move on…very quietly grumbling to myself.

With 35 minutes of the lesson remaining, we’ve covered all of the input into their task and it’s time for them to write.

I am able to relax for approximately 4 minutes before, despite trying to encourage their independence since September, a barrage of questions. I’m asked what emotive language at least 3 times. I’m asked to spell every word in the dictionary, despite the fact that they’d all been given a dictionary as part of their equipment about two weeks ago. I’m even asked what my favourite cheese is? Not really, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise.

My next two English lessons are with the same group – my lower ability Year 10s. They’re what you might refer to as ‘hard work’ and although there are only 12 of them, they’ve kicked hard against Macbeth for the last month or so. Behaviour has not been good and at times I’ve ended their lessons exhausted.

Today, I decide we’re going to do a big timeline of important events in Macbeth with key quotes added. We’ll do it via my whiteboard, which is actually three put together. The students will contribute via questioning and hopefully a bit of their own volunteering of information. It’s quite demanding doing it this way because as the teacher you’re driving everything forward, doing lots of writing, prompting with questions, key words and hints, while hoping that they don’t notice how hard they’re working and how much they’re writing. And you’re doing it with your back to the room for large chunks of the lesson, which with this group is a bit of a risk. Especially if one of them’s brought the darts again. Just kidding.

To my great delight it works. Have a look for yourself.

However, it’s not without its hitches. I have to stop within about 5 minutes as two students have copied what’s on my board exactly. So not only has their A3 sheet got a big timeline horizontally, but they’ve also copied the edges of each board – remember there are 3 put together, so my one big board space has two vertical lines down it. Rather than a timeline they’ve got a grid and when I ask why they tell me it’s what I did. They’re staggered when I tell them it’s the edges of two of the boards. They’d thought that I’d drawn on the vertical lines and despite the fact that they’d always been there, they hadn’t noticed them in almost a whole academic year! As horrified as they are and as amused as I am, it only takes a fresh couple of sheets of A3 and they’re good to go again.

By the end of the two hours though every student has an A3 timeline chock full of Macbeth flavoured goodness. They’ve enjoyed doing it, they’re telling me that they understand the play more now (even if it’s just what happens) and they have a good 15 or so quotes to learn/ignore. Maybe the day is taking a turn for the better?

After some dinner I face up to an hour with the class that is easily my worst behaved. Another low ability group, this time Year 8. They’re finishing off some non-fiction work and will ultimately design a poster persuading people to stop using single use plastics. There are too many ‘events’ to go through here though, but by the end of the lesson they all have a poster which consists of the word PLASTIC (their choice) in bubble writing done by yours truly and some facts about single use plastics scattered around. We’ll file them under the heading ‘Last Day, Not Very Good’.

Four hundred hours later – give or take an hour or so – it’s time for the final lesson of the day. Again, it’s Year 8, but a different group. Again, they’re working on an EPIC of an earlier assessment, so we’ve come full circle, which is nice. Workwise, they’re great. But our rewards system provides a couple of interesting moments.

Good work, behaviour, telling me they like my socks or that I’m just generally great is rewarded with tokens. Tokens can be placed in a box marked with whatever whole school reward they want at the end of the half term. Most tokens wins. Today, every kid is getting an ice lolly during the final period of the day. They’re delivered by a member of SLT called Emily Smellyfartpoo (Her 2nd appearance in one of my blogs and once again I’ve changer her name; she’ll never know it’s her). Her real surname is Shittyarseface. It’s not, I’m just kidding. It’s dafter than that.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with two gems that come out of the mouth of the same student as a result of an ice lolly. Firstly, when he takes a nibble from the lolly he literally screams before declaring ‘It’s cold!’. He’s really not messing around. This is genuine shock. I mean, the clue’s in the name, kid. Then, while everyone else is managing to keep working while they eat their lolly he claims that he can’t eat it with his left hand, so must do so with his right, his writing hand. He ends up spending a little bit of time with me in a short detention at the end of the day!

So there we have it. That last day is never as easy or straightforward as you’d like it to be but I hope you enjoyed the end of term as much as I did!

Jelly legs is feeling his age!

It’s Monday morning and not only am I afflicted by that Monday feeling, but my body aches almost everywhere from head to toe. Worst of all is that nobody else is to blame; this is all my own fault. And now I have a busy day at work ahead teaching students aged from 11-16, not many of whom will have any sympathy for me!

So yesterday, I completed a 10km race. The same 10k race that I was banging on about a little while back in the blog on the link below, complaining that I was never going to be in the right shape for.

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2022/04/09/my-first-10k-race-of-the-year-a-month-to-go-and-i-dont-feel-good/(opens in a new tab)

It was my second time at the Pontefract 10k in West Yorkshire and I was determined to do well. But training had been far from perfect and I’d been suffering with a mixture of injury and illness in the weeks leading up to the race. However, come race day I believed that I was fit enough to get round in a time that would beat the one I ran at the same event last year. I felt that I’d managed to pull myself together just about enough in the last few weeks and had trained fairly well, completing a couple of fast – for me – 10k training runs that were only a minute or so outside of the type of time I hoped to run in the race.

It was an early start on race day in our house as myself, my wife and my son all rose before 7am in order to scramble down some breakfast and get ready to head to Pontefract, a 20 minute car journey away. The race was starting at 9am and we would need to be there early in order to get parked up before heading to the start.

I’m functional at best in the morning, so it was tough going! However, I really enjoy an early morning run, so while breakfast and getting ready would be a struggle, running – I hoped – would not!

This year’s start line was not the nervy place to be that last year’s had proved. I felt that I knew my surroundings and it helped that I bumped into a friend from work and we chatted for a few minutes until it was almost time to line up. In short, I didn’t have time for nerves. However, I still felt a strange mixture of concern about my fitness and hope that I could run a sub 50 minute 10k.

I won’t bore you with a detailed commentary of the race, perish the thought. I for one don’t particularly want to relive it anymore!

However, it’s safe to say that it was tough. It started to rain on the first long, uphill stretch and I heard someone near me let out a little cheer about this. I should have tripped them up. Thankfully, it stopped shortly after.

The course is described as undulating, but let me tell you that the undulation feels largely uphill when you’re out there. I managed to forget any race plan I might have had and instead went off quickly (for a man of my vintage and physical state, that is). My competitive side kicked in here and I was more concerned with passing people, than thinking about how far I’d gone and how I was feeling. I’d regret this later. I told myself that I’d be able to power through and just keep the pace going, but it’s safe to say that miles 3 and 4 saw me slow more than I’d have liked.

By the time we turned for home and the last couple of miles or so, my legs were like jelly, a substance which for years I was quietly convinced that they may have actually been made out of. Quite a bit of the last half of this race is uphill though, a fact that my mind had rather inconveniently forgotten, so it was pretty difficult to keep on going at any pace, although I managed. For the first time in a long time though I found myself thinking I should just stop, as a few people had. I had a bit of aa word with myself though and kept going.

The final mile or so of the Pontefract 10k is downhill and I was looking forward to just powering down the hill. However, having used up so much energy already my body wasn’t responding in the way I wanted. I imagined a Mo Farah like kick where I just passed runner after runner. Instead, I was much more akin to Moe from The Simpsons as I grumbled my way down the last stretch.

Pleasingly, I did pick up my pace a bit though and kept a close eye on the time via Strava, so I knew exactly where I was with my personal best in mind. Passing my wife and son just before the last 250 metres, I knew I had to go faster, but was convinced that there was nothing left in the legs…not even jelly. However, as someone passed me within the first few metres, something in me flicked a bit of a switch – my competitive side again – and before I knew it I was sprinting. More like a middle aged man laden down with bags on a train platform than Usain Bolt, but sprinting all the same.

I crossed the line in 51.27, a good 25 seconds better than I’d ran the previous year and inside my personal best. I wasn’t sure I’d stay on my feet or even conscious, but I’d done what I’d set out to do! Never had 250 metres felt so long!

Cramp set in as I met my wife and son, but some stretches and a stroll back to car had me feeling a bit more comfortable. But I’d forgotten how much racing takes out of me. I can run 10k on a training run and feel reasonably good hours later and more or less back to normal the next day. Running a race just wipes me out.

The rest of Sunday was spent keeping busy, while also trying to relax, but I woke up on Monday morning feeling groggy to say the least! It’s now Wednesday and although the muscles are nowhere near as tender as they’d felt for the first couple of days of the week, I’d still quite like to just be at home napping rather than at work!

Training for this race was difficult. It was very ‘stop start’ as I seemed to just keep picking up niggling injuries or colds, meaning that some weeks I’d be running 20k and others I’d do 3k at best! I think a lot of what got me through was just sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to let myself down. Having got through it quite successfully I’m now planning my next race, which will probably be in Leeds in July, unless I can find something earlier that appeals. For now though, I’m just feeling my age and hoping to recover by the end of the month!

Poetry Blog: ‘What Would Happen If You Didn’t?’

This is a poem that I wrote very recently. The idea was sparked when watching something on television – I can’t remember what it was – and a character was suffering with their health. However, the character’s only concern was for her son who despite being an adult, was still lazily reliant on his mother to do everything for him. While the character was expressing these worries to a nurse and saying that she had to get back home to prepare something for the son, the nurse simply replied with,

“What would happen if you didn’t?”

At that point only 10% of my attention remained on the TV. Instead, I found myself reaching for a notepad and thinking about consequences and things that would complete the question. Having written the poem, I still think there’s a lot of other things to consider when asking the question. In fact, it’s one I may well revisit.

I thought about all of the genuine responsibilities we have in life, as well as the things that sometimes we obsess about or feel that we can’t do without. What would happen if we just didn’t do them? I ended up with a kind of spider diagram of notes that I tried to turn into a poem some time later. I think it’s about as finished as it’s going to get (for now), so here you go!

What would happen if you didn't?

Sometimes life can feel like just an ever-growing list of things to do,
stuff to worry about and stress over, 
an abundance of tasks, instructions and nagging doubts
designed to make you feel like you're failing.

So what would happen if you didn't?

What would happen if you didn't
smile at strangers?
Would they care or even notice any less whether you're there?
What would happen if you didn't
care about your career? 
Would your work be any better or any worse? Would it even be noticed?
What would happen if you didn't
count the calories?
Would you inflate to the size of a balloon, would your life expectancy decrease dramatically? Would you even notice any change at all? Would you just be happier?
What would happen if you didn't
wear a tie to work? 
Would they react differently to you? Would you mix up your words, send less professional emails, tell the bosses what you really think because that lack of a tie has loosened every inhibition you ever had?
What would happen if you didn't
answer their questions?
What would happen if you didn't
alphabetise your records? 
Would your musical world fall apart, would you never listen to some of them again or would you have to find another system to sate your need for control?
What would happen if you didn't
care about a football team? 
What would you spend your time thinking about? Would you finally be happy? Could you ditch the superstition and bear to use any old mug on a Saturday, wear any t-shirt you like? Could you just relax, for once?
What would happen if you didn't
renew the breakdown cover? 
Would you just break down, deflate or run out of steam? Would your car pull over in a brazen act of defiance at your flagrant lack of insurance?
What would happen if you didn't
dance with abandon in the kitchen?
Actually, maybe life wouldn't be worth living.
And what would happen if you didn't
listen at night for your heartbeat?
Chances are you'd still wake up in the morning, right as rain.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this poem. I know what I was trying to get at and the feelings that I was trying to get across. It’s about those foibles that we probably all have and that we probably all imagine we couldn’t live without, as well as the everyday, routine things that the majority of us feel life’s about, like going to work.

The point about the poem and the question for me is that I think I’m at an age where I’m beginning to feel tired of doing the same old things, while still finding that I get an awful lot of comfort from them. ‘What would happen if you didn’t’ is definitely a question that I’m asking of myself more and more though.

Poetry Blog: Twilight Blackbird

I’ve found myself noticing quite a lot of things that could be filed under the heading of ‘Nature’ of late. I imagine it’s the fact that Spring has most definitely sprung, which in turn has meant that I’ve spent more time outside in our garden as well as more time simply gazing out of windows, getting distracted. And as a result, I’ve noticed a few regular visitors are back to welcome in the warm weather and plunder the supply of nuts and fat balls kept in our feeders!

I wrote the following poem about one of the visitors that I love to sit and watch, because I realised that their visits were increasing in frequency and with that, it got me thinking about the times I will simply stop what I’m doing and spend a few minutes trying to figure out what they’re up to.

Twilight Blackbird

The air is just beginning to chill a little, raise the hair on the arms 
as you strut your stuff,
a lone figure surveying all you rule in the dying light,
keeping a watchful eye out for the squirrels, the thrush
and those sly cul-de-sac cats that would gladly use you as a plaything
before presenting you as a lifeless gift on a welcome mat.
But you're better than that.
You stalk the perimeter, watching for flies, ants or maybe the appearance of
the ultimate prize, a succulent worm.
No creature can suspect you're there
as you dance a delicate tango under the disco ball moon,
hopping, prancing, creeping, darting, scampering
through a series of steps that you've honed over the years,
perfected as time ticked by until
Spring's annual yawn signals your entrance to the floor,
a flash of gold amongst the plush inky feathers,
capturing hearts as well as prey
and enchanting all whose eyes you catch.

We seem to have a number of blackbirds that visit the garden at this time of year. I don’t know if it’s literally just a couple of males and females – they all look the same! – or several families, but you can’t help but notice them. They’re quite bold too, despite appearing fairly skittish as you watch them. The ones I see will venture fairly close if I’m actually in the garden and on to our patio if I happen to be at the window, yet it doesn’t take a lot to spook them either.

Watching them, I found myself quite entertained, so that’s where the references to dance and theatrics come in with the poem. They just move differently; not quite graceful, but not particularly clumsy either. Yet, it all looks very well rehearsed and if I’m stood washing the dishes I can find myself getting distracted just watching their antics. I’ve realised too that I more or less always say ‘Hello’ to blackbirds and so it felt fitting when I began scribbling down a few notes, that I should write a poem about them.

As usual, feel free to leave a comment or two and thanks for spending some time reading in my little area of the internet!

Five Absent on the Register

This is a poem that I wrote at work a couple of weeks ago, in little intervals across the day. Sometimes, I manage to do this type of thing; scribbling down notes and lines while classes are completing a task or at break or lunch. I find I have to note things down when they come to me as I have such a bad memory for this type of creative stuff, that I won’t remember it later. As a consequence my desk is often littered with Post-It notes or scraps of paper, which is probably quite annoying to anyone who uses my room when I’m not in it.

This poem came about when I was feeling particularly ill. I’d gone in, as I tend to do, despite feeling really poorly, but then was struck by the numbers of pupils and staff absent that day. I suppose, feeling sluggish and snotty, I was just feeling a bit sorry for myself. When I did my first register of the day the title of the poem just stuck in my head along with the idea that I was going to regret not staying at home.

As it turned out, every register that day had significant numbers of absentees and it cast me back to various stages of lockdown and remote learning, making me wonder if we were headed back into the dark days of Covid. This was the direction that the poem headed in.

Five Absent on the Register

Having dragged myself in, all heavy breathing, wheezing, tight chest and runny nose,
I find there are five kids absent on the first register of the day.
I read their reasons; symptoms largely similar to mine
and it makes me wonder if perhaps I also should have got my mam to ring in.

In front of me two boys cough, almost constantly,
sniff at all too frequent intervals, not a hand, a tissue or even the cure all crook of an elbow in sight
and I wonder if we'll ever be well again.

Another register reveals that six of fourteen are missing, presumed similarly snotty and there are more as the day trundles on.
I picture them coughing their way through a Netflix binge
and wonder for a moment, if our world is changing once again.
More needles, more prescribed exercise, more masks, 
more Thursday night claps, more futile silent queues at shops.

It turned out – for now – that my worries were unfounded. While Covid remains with us, its previous threat feels like it’s lessened for the majority. Every now and then its shadow looms over me in the form of supermarket shortages or the news that someone I know is suffering with it. And for that morning, maybe even for a few days that week, I grew more and more convinced that things were headed backwards once more. It’s certainly something that will live long in the memory and something that I feel sure none of would welcome a return to.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the poem. As ever, you’re more than welcome to leave a comment as I always enjoy reading them.

Spring Goals

As I sit here this morning, looking out of my classroom window across our playing fields, a change is in the air. I noticed it while eating breakfast too. Three quarters of our daffodils are now in bloom and the huge camilia bush that has dominated our back garden for a good 15 years has enormous pink flowers in bloom at regular intervals across its bulk. And of course I couldn’t miss the bright blue sky that greeted me as I drew back the curtains. Definite signs of change.

Whichever way you look at it – the change in weather and light or just by consulting the calendar – Spring is on its way. So, as bloggers often do, I thought I’d take advantage of the weather and pretend to all of us that it’s prompted an upturn in mood and the urge to get even more done in my life! You guessed it, I’m setting some goals! However, unlike my usual way of doing things, I thought I’d make them realistic and attainable this time round.

I have a 10k race coming up in May and am planning to enter a few more across the Spring and Summer, so I thought I’d use the weather to help me step up my training. In terms of being a goal to set, I’ve already started with this one. We’ve seen a definite change in the weather in West Yorkshire over the past couple of weeks and it’s just given my enthusiasm for going running a real boost. It can still be a little cold, but not worrying about the sun setting if I’m on an after school run, makes it a lot easier to motivate myself.

As you can see from the image above our weather is looking good for the next week and this really helps get through the working week. I usually aim for a Friday evening run and as you can see, this coming Friday looks amazing. Whatever that big yellow thing is, it looks promising, I have to say! This gives me something to really look forward to as I drag myself through another week of work. Because, as we all know, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as dragging yourself through a 10km run on an unusually warm afternoon after a week at work! Joking aside though, I know that I will thoroughly enjoy being out running and completing my first 10k in a while. And if the legs will allow, that Sunday afternoon is looking good for a bonus half hour run too! Hopefully, by the time May comes around I’ll be a lot stringer and fitter and ready to take on my first race of the year…if the weather doesn’t make me do something daft like enter an earlier one!

One of the first things I did during the first Covid lockdown was to paint all of the fences round our house. The weather was glorious, but of course fresh air was being rationed unless you had a garden, something which we’re lucky enough to have. And so, armed with the knowledge that I wasn’t allowed to go into work and two cans of fence paint bought previously – probably just after publishing another ‘goals’ blog – I set to work.

At the time it all looked great, but now, having had far less time on my hands since lockdown, it looks tired, worn and in places covered in a thin layer of bright green moss. It’s definitely time to get those brushes out again! Luckily, I have an end of term holiday coming up so I should have time enough to get this one done without even a hint of trouble! Goal two achieved (in my head)!

In another of our periods of lockdown/partial lockdown/that thing where some of us followed the rules and stupid people wondered why they felt so poorly having been out in bars mixing freely, I chanced upon what I thought was a bargain in our local supermarket. Grey shed paint. Now, I’m reading back that last three word sentence and wondering what on earth I was thinking when I bought it, so I can wholly understand your own confusion. Paint, for the shed, that’s grey.

A few factors go against this next goal…in fact let’s just call it a job, because goal makes it sound almost enticing; like a good idea when I now can’t figure out what I was thinking in buying it. The first factor that goes against it is that my shed is going to be a different colour to my fences and I’m not sure I like that idea anymore. In fact, I probably only liked it for a few seconds at the time. Then there’s the time. Do I really want to invest this time, when there are other, more productive things I could be doing that? There’s no doubt that the shed could do with a lick of paint, but it will stay standing without it. Clearly, this goal or job will need a little more thought before I commit my time to it. Either that or I need to find a way to dispose of said paint and hope that my wife doesn’t remember this particular plan. Or read this blog post.

Sticking with all things shed related, another Spring goal has to be the clearing out of my sheds. I have two (but don’t be fooled by the sheds that I got, I’m still Grahamy from the block) and can’t actually set foot in either without having to remove countless tins of paint and varnish, a lawnmower, tools and garden implements. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation.

One of my sheds has a lot of football gear in it. In particular, that’s essentially balls. I seem to have accumulated a lot of footballs over the years. So I think the time has come for a bit of a purge. I’ve noticed that some of our training balls are looking a bit the worse for wear, with splits in their coverings and bits hanging off and there are also some balls that we no longer use as they’re the wrong size for our age group. Given that this type of thing will only take a short amount of time and effort to sort out, it’s a goal that will definitely end in a tick on a list. And those always make me happy!

Another of my short term Spring goals is to write more poems. I’ve recently identified some competitions and some literary magazines that I’d like to submit to and my blog always needs new material, so it’s time for a new batch of poems to be written. Given the weather and the change in the landscape at this time of year, there should be plenty of source material to go at. I’ve also just written the bones of a poem this morning. It’s one that goes back to worries about the pandemic after I noticed that a larger than usual proportion of a couple of my classes was missing when I looked at today’s registers. Coupled with not feeling too well myself, it started me wondering if we’re as safe as we seem to think. I also have plans for a poem that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so I’ll definitely need to find some time to get that written.

My final goal is to spend a little bit of time at Easter sketching. Firstly, it’s something I haven’t done since last summer and something that I never seem to find the time to do, but I also want to go out with my daughter to do some. She’s a really talented artist, but is starting to feel the pressure of her upcoming GCSEs and so maybe we can go somewhere that’s peaceful and picturesque, even for a couple of hours and help take her mind off everything that’s bothering her presently.

I also bought some pastels during lockdown and then proceeded to not even get them out of the packet, which is a very me thing to do, so if for no other reason, I need to get out and doing some art just to try and use those pastels!

For once, I feel that I’m setting myself targets or goals that are fairly achievable. They’re definitely more sensible than my usual type of thing. I’ll keep you informed on how it all goes. I mean, who could resist some pictures of my brown fence, my grey sheds and my sketches of what might be trees, but could equally be just tall people in fluffy green cardigans?

Book Review: ‘I Saw a Man’ by Owen Sheers.

In my job as a teacher there are times when, at a parents’ evening, there is very little to say. I will jokingly tell the parents of a particularly wonderful child that this could be a very short appointment. There are no targets, there are no complaints…their child is a pleasure to teach. Then I try to string this our over at least a few minutes, so that I can truly feel like I’ve done my job for the night and that, for the parents, there was a point in coming out. And it’s a bit like that parents’ evening appointment with this novel. I literally can’t think of a bad word to say about it, but just telling you it was great would make for a terrible review.

I fell in love with ‘I Saw a Man’ from the very first page and my work as an English teacher was immediately at the forefront of my mind as I found myself thinking about how I could use some of the description from the first couple of pages in a lesson. Sometimes, it’s hard to switch off from the job! However, as a reader I found myself lost on the fringes of Hampstead Heath – somewhere I’ve only ever heard scurrilous rumours about – within a couple of pages of Sheers’ prose. In short, I was immediately hooked and then desperate to share this writing with not only friends and colleagues, but my students too.

The story here revolves around Michael, a writer and widower who moves into the neighbourhood in order to make a fresh start. On the surface, it’s all going fairly well. Life has an element of normality and he’s struck up a friendship with a young, professional family – Josh and Samantha Nelson and their children- who live in the house next to his apartment block. However, grief is never far away and it feels like any ‘moving forward’ will be done in glacial inches, rather than at any real pace. He follows a humdrum daily routine, sees his friends often but his writing seems to have stagnated. Michael is existing, but little else.

The narrative here jumps in and out of the present day to the back stories of the three main protagonists, at will. And in actual fact, the primary part of the action unfolds in what feels a little like real time as we inch forward through Michael’s call to his neighbours’ house. No one is home, but something is not quite right and Michael feels that he needs to investigate. He shouldn’t be there. He knows this as well as we do and yet he keeps on creeping through the house, all the while leaving the reader more than a little on edge. He senses that something is wrong and we know that it is, yet when the devastating event that will change all of their lives occurs none of us would have guessed what it was that would actually happen that day.

What happens to Michael is shocking. But it’s what he does next and the dilemma that it leaves him with that produces such a superb thriller. He can’t move on, but he can’t fall any further backwards either. Michael finds himself in a self inflicted purgatory and yet he’s actually done nothing wrong at all. As a reader I found myself constantly changing the advice that I’d give him, the actions that I’d take if I had found myself in his situation. And yet, I never thought I had a solution.

Michael’s story contains elements that we hope we’ll never face ourselves. Not necessarily in the specifics of what happens, but in the kind of dilemmas that you might face while knowing all along that there isn’t really a right decision to be made. And then, just when you suspect that there might be a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, the old adage of trouble coming in threes is proved right and there’s another terrible twist in the tale.

‘I Saw a Man’ is brilliantly written. The suspense will seep into your thinking and keep you wonderfully hooked; worried for Michael, willing Samantha to find the strength to move on and feeling conflicted by whichever angle you take on Josh. Sheers’ writing is sumptuous and beautiful and there were plenty of times during reading where I just felt compelled to call out to Michael, be it to offer advice or just out of complete frustration. Maybe that’s a sign that I might have got a bit carried away, or maybe it’s just a sign of brilliantly written characters. I prefer to consider it the latter.

Mr. Sheers, we could have made this a very short appointment. Your novel was a pleasure to read.

I give ‘I Saw a Man’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Newcastle United Stadium Tour

Having spent the morning and early afternoon of my first birthday treat touring a brewery before taking on a sampling session of wonderful beers, it was going to take a lot for me to budge from my stool on this particular Friday afternoon. To say that I was settled was the proverbial understatement and on any other day, I would have been more than happy to order another drink and carry on chatting about whatever subject cropped up next. But, a long held love was calling, not just for me, but for my drinking partner too. Newcastle United was once again whispering sweet nothings in our ears.

We’d been sitting in the Brinkburn Street Brewery and Kitchen for a few hours, so heading across Newcastle having drunk a sample of six amazing beers, it’s safe to say the legs were slightly unsteady. Not only that though, having not visited this side of the city for many, many years I felt like an alien. The city has transformed over the 20-something years that I’ve been away and this means that sadly, there’s not a lot left that I recognise. And I haven’t visited regularly enough to keep up with the changes in the skyline.

Where we were heading though, was probably even stranger to me. St. James’ Park, home of our beloved Newcastle United had been somewhere I’d spent a large chunk of my childhood and early adult years, watching any and every game played. However, reacting mainly to our previous owner and the early signs of his mismanagement but also the prospect of becoming a father of two, I stopped going to games. I gave up my season ticket early, feeling like I was falling out of love with the club and the game. Today would be the first time that I’d set foot in the stadium in nearly 13 and a half years. 4913 days, to be precise.

As part of my 50th birthday celebrations my wife had booked a stadium tour for my self and my mate David. I hope I don’t get it wrong when I say that we were both a little giddy as we arrived at the reception desk to check in. I think the beer helped a bit as well, if I’m being completely honest!

Once checked in, we put on our tour lanyards and were given an initial introduction to the tour by our guide Carol, who then ushered us in to the lifts that would take us up towards our first stop on the tour; the executive boxes.

I’ve never particularly fancied watching a game from a corporate box and although it was amazing to be inside the two that we looked at – in through Jonjo Shelvey’s and out again through Callum Wilson’s (steady at the back there fans of double entendre) – this didn’t do a great deal for me as a fan. That said, if anyone at the club or even Jonjo, Callum or any other box owning players wanted to invite me to a match to try and change my mind, I’m sure I could forget my working class roots and decades on the terraces in order to give it a go!

Our tour guide, Carol, was a mine of information at this point, letting us know everything we could wish to know about the corporate hospitality at The Toon, including the detail that would really put me off; the price! That said, if you have the money it looks like a pretty decent experience to have once a fortnight!

After the boxes it was Level 7, the highest point of the ground. You can take the rooftop tour at St. James’ as well and this was something I’d considered, despite not being that comfortable with heights. However, the reminder of how high Level 7 is made me thankful that I’d not taken that particular plunge. This was also the level where I had last had my season ticket and so walking out onto the concourse and then out towards the seats felt ever-so-slightly emotional. As far as I could remember, we even came out quite close to where I had sat in those days. However, I wasn’t going to let those kind of memories get in the way of the childlike giddiness I felt at being back in the ground, especially with everything that’s happened since October.

We took in the view, learning about the fact that on a clear day you can see the Stadium of Light – so if you’re ever sitting there, look the other way, claw your own eyes out or pray for cloud – as well as many other much more pleasant sights. We were told about the broadcasting facilities, matchday control and lots of other small details that as a fan, you probably don’t ever realise about.

After this we headed down to the dressing room area, starting by taking in the away dressing room which was a rather spartan affair as you’d probably expect. However, the best was yet to come. You’d imagine that sitting in the same dressing room as your heroes – and alongside their shirts – would be the kind of thing that would be most enjoyable to the several under 10s on the tour. Think again! This 50 year old was very excited indeed at being there and sitting next to those shirts! Ridiculous really, but what a thrill!

I had the same experience on the tour of the Allianz Arena a few years back and still found myself grinning from ear to ear at sitting next to shirts with the names of Davies, Lewandowski, Coman, Ribery, Muller and Neuer. No idea why, really, but it was umpteen times as exciting to be doing it at St. James’ Park. Isn’t it strange how ridiculously we behave when faced by almost anything to do with our beloved game? I struggled to get the grin off my face from that point onward though.

Once we left the dressing room, we assembled in the tunnel area and after a few minutes more information from Carol, it was time to make like a player and head for the pitch. Newcastle try to make that matchday experience side of the tour as authentic as possible by blasting out ‘Local Hero’ as you walk down the tunnel and even as a middle aged man, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Is that sad? I genuinely don’t care! I’ve followed this club for over 40 years, dreaming of playing for them as I grew up; of course walking down that tunnel is going to be exciting.

Seeing the whole place from pitchside was amazing and it makes you fully take in what a magnificent stadium we have. I somehow resisted the urge to skip over the rope and run onto the pitch, filling my time by taking photos and having a little sit down in Eddie’s chair in the dug out, again all done with a huge grin on my face. And then, it was time to go.

Newcastle United had made me feel like a kid again. Touring the stadium, somewhere I felt I knew so much about, was a brilliant way to spend the afternoon and I found out a lot of things that I didn’t actually know. Our tour guide Carol was excellent; the perfect balance of fun and knowledge – she knew her stuff and clearly loved her job making the whole thing even more of a pleasure.

If you’re a Newcastle fan, this is a must. If you’re a football fan (you know, of one of those other clubs) you’ll enjoy a look round St. James Park too. Either way, it made for an fantastic birthday treat and I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a go!

A tour round a brewery, lovely free beer and cracking company. What’s not to like?

There have been a fair few downsides to turning 50. Not least the idea of being 50. Seeing the number 50 on so many birthday cards was also pretty unpleasant. And people’s enthusiasm for pointing my age out has been not only kind of weird, but really annoying too. But, there’s nothing I can do about it, apart from adopt a showbiz age and I’m afraid I’m far too male and northern to start doing things like that.

With downsides often come upsides though. There’s been a veritable outpouring of love and affection from family and friends and even as someone who doesn’t like a fuss, it’s been wonderful to be on the receiving end of.

My wonderful wife has ensured that the celebration of turning 50 can be stretched out by buying me gifts that keep on giving. In short, as well as lots of other presents, she got me tickets for lots of gigs, plays and experiences, meaning that for once I have an extraordinary social life and will be kept busy for most of the year!

The first of my experiences came on Saturday gone as my wife had booked me and a friend on a tour of the Brinkburn Street Brewery in Byker, Newcastle. To say that I was excited would be an enormous understatement. So, let me tell you all about it.

My day started off at 10.15am on the Quayside in Newcastle, meeting my friend David. We were booked on the tour at 11am and thought, as we didn’t exactly know where the brewery was, we’d give ourselves plenty of time to get there and find it! Predictably though, we found it really easily, leaving ourselves 20 minutes to sit by the river in the winter sunshine; a brilliant start to any winter day.

Having walked straight into the wrong room at Brinkburn Street, we were shown downstairs to the bar and kitchen, where our tour would begin and end. Owner Lee was quick to head over for a chat and put us at our ease with a warm welcome to his brewery, involving telling us the first of many stories that he’d keep us busy with for our time at Brinkburn Street! A fantastic host! We were also joined by two other fellow Geordies who would be taking the tour and thankfully, we got along famously as like us, they were Newcastle fans.

Soon, we headed through to the brewery where one of the brewers talked us through the process of how our pint goes from being just oats and water to a wonderful glass of the stuff we love. He also made me feel incredibly old given that he looked to have discovered the elixir of youth someone between the hops and the water! Imagine my envy at one so young – just finished a Master degree, so mid-twenties at the most – being lucky enough to have this job!

As someone who really hadn’t the first idea of how to brew beer, I was fascinated by the process and the dedication that goes into making something I love so much. Every angle was covered and all questions were answered in real detail. And boy, when you’re nursing a thirst and waiting to go through to the bar and sample some beers, even a couple of questions can feel like a hell of lot!

We were treated like kings in the bar. This wasn’t just a list of beers that you had to try; we were given a choice of something like 12 beers and encouraged to vary our choices all afternoon. Our tour and tasting session was due to end at 1pm, but we were still being asked what we’d like at 2pm! It’s safe to say that we had a fantastic time!

The bar itself is a really eclectically decorated place. There are prints and posters everywhere you look that nod to all manner of music and film as well as plenty of local heroes, many of the black and white (footballing) variety, so there’s loads for you to see. I think – I forgot to enquire – that there are local prints available to but as well. You can also buy Brinkburn T-shirts too. Even the glasses were stylish and I kept meaning to ask if I could buy some, but ultimately the beer and the chat meant that this was another thing I forgot. Definitely next time though!

The furniture and decor veers between modern and bohemian and it really is a fantastic setting for an afternoon or evening relaxing with friends or family. If other exciting plans hadn’t have been on the horizon, I think we’d have stayed there a lot longer.

Brinkburn Street is a creative and imaginative brewery that seems very much forward thinking in its approach. Lee and his team are clearly passionate about what they do and it showed in the beers that we tasted. Depending on the beer we chose, we’d get either a third or a half pint, which obviously encourages you to take your time and consider your choices. My choices were as follows,

  1. Cushty, Cushy – an IPA session beer
  2. Byker Brown – a hoppy brown ale
  3. Wrong Side of The Pennines – an American IPA
  4. Ford Street – an American IPA
  5. Afternoon Tea – a spiced, herbed beer infused with Earl Grey tea
  6. Helter Skelter – a double hopped IPA

I remarked a few times on the fact that I hadn’t had a bad beer all day. This was the drink talking in every sense of the phrase. Firstly because every sample was delicious and different, but also because having had a decent amount to drink I was at that stage where you just keep repeating yourself for something to say! But it was wholly true too. And the other three members of our touring party said much the same. We all remarked on the fact that a lot of breweries brew beer that as ultimately pretty much the same thing, so that once you get beyond the interesting label and the alcohol strength, it’s just bland. But not Brinkburn Street. We found that each beer had something decidedly different about it, be it in the taste or the finish and as a result, it made for a cracking couple of hours of just sitting round, sampling wonderfully drinkable beers and putting the world to rights! Strikes me that’s what middle age was made for!

I’m not usually a brown ale drinker, simply because it’s not very tasty (and I know that might seem sacrilegious coming from someone from the home of Newcastle Brown Ale), but when one of our party recommended the Byker Brown, we all had one and it was an absolute revelation! I also loved the Helter Skelter, which at 9.2% was a bit of a scary prospect and although the strength was evident, it certainly didn’t take away from the fact that it was just really tasty! My favourite was the Wrong Side of The Pennines, which was just a tasty and very drinkable American IPA.

Just as good as the beer was the atmosphere. We were made to feel really welcome, with owner Lee occasionally popping over for a chat and serving us our beer too. The brewer that had initially shown us round – please forgive me for forgetting his name – also popped back on several occasions to tell us about what we were drinking and just check on how we were doing, making it a genuinely positive experience.

Brinkburn Street also do food, but as we were on a tight schedule we were unable to partake, but the choice looked great and some of the aromas were just lovely!

At the end of our time at Brinkburn, we stepped out – a little unsteadily, it has to be said – into the sunny afternoon air having both enjoyed ourselves immensely. As the headline suggests, a tour of the place, great beer and great company – you couldn’t fail to have the time of your life! I would highly recommend a visit to Brinkburn Street if you’re in Newcastle or if you’re planning a visit. Take a short walk along the Tyne towards the Ouseburn where a warm welcome and a cracking selection of beers awaits!

Huge thanks to Lee and his team, who as I’ve mentioned, were perfect hosts. We’ll definitely be back! Apologies, dear readers, for the lack of photos. I meant to take loads, but somehow got sidetracked by the fabulous beer…

New Year’s Resolutions – an update on my so called progress.

As much as I was keen to avoid them, I still found myself considering making resolutions as 2022 approached. It’s not a time of year that I like and – although I always end up making some – I never truly buy into the idea of making a brand new start. Essentially, the difference between one year and another is just a day.

So at first I was content to settle for a token three. You know the kind of things: eat healthier, exercise…give up wearing women’s underwear on a Friday, something along those lines. But the more I thought of it, the more I added, until I had nice round 30 resolutions bullet pointed on a piece of A4. So, in order to commit myself a bit, I wrote a blog at the start of the year. It’s on the link below.

2022: Letters, a gammy toe and a fake adopted cat. My New Year’s Resolutions.

Now that we’re a couple of months on, I thought I’d write an update on my progress. So, here we go.

I’d resolved to make sure that I updated you, dear reader, on my resolutions. Thus, this blog represents a big fat tick on my list, which is nice.

In terms of the order of the list though, let’s start with a package deal on my first two resolutions. Learn to moonwalk and start writing my YA novel and my Christmas story. Literally nothing done here. I figure that there’s plenty time with both though. My YA novel is in fact started, but it’s handwritten in a notebook. My Christmas story is still some bullet points that may just be on a scrap of paper…somewhere. Moonwalking will have to wait, maybe until I find that scrap of paper with my story on!

The next resolution was to research and eat more healthy foods and I’m pleased to say that there has been enormous progress made here. Well, I’ve favourited several more healthy recipes on the BBC website, cooked myself a simple fresh pasta sauce (once) and started eating cranberries after a run. So huge might have been a lie. But it’s progress all the same and I’m sure it’ll get better.

My next resolution was to try and be a better son, husband, dad and brother. Soppy, cliched, difficult to quantify. As it goes, I think I’m making progress here. I’ve phoned my mam and dad several times since the turn of the year and as I write, we’ll be seeing them in a couple of days. I even sent my mam flowers on her birthday. I’ve definitely spent more time with my kids, making the effort to pick them up from school on a few occasions and going out for walks despite work and shocking weather. I hope I’ve been a decent husband – my wife is very intelligent and yet still hasn’t walked out, so I must be able to take at least a bit of credit for this. And I’ve been in touch with my sister, although I’d have to admit that this is still limited to sending texts, so I could do a lot better.

In truth, I still haven’t figured out my next resolution which just read ‘modify my Duolingo use’. In short though, I’m on a streak of over 650 days, so I must be doing something that means progress here.

I’d decided to write more content about my work, teaching and my football club, Newcastle United. Well so far I’ve managed a couple of Newcastle related blogs, but nothing on teaching, although there was an idea in the pipeline and that will be getting written soon enough.

My resolution to stop buying crisps was going really well. And then my birthday struck. My lovely work friends, led by organiser-in-chief Laura, got me lots of presents and cake and one of my presents was four (count’em) family bags of crisps! I then discovered crisps that I thought I’d already eaten and worse still, bought another big family sized – as in it’s meant for sharing, not that it’s the size of a typical family – bag of tangy tomato ones today. So. I’ve pretty spectacularly fallen off the waggon with this one. This has also ruined my plans for my next resolution, which was to attempt to get a six pack…

Next I said I’d speak to more people. Again, difficult to quantify but again, if I’m honest, I think I’ve probably failed. I mean, I’ve literally no idea who these ‘more people’ even are!

My next two have also been failures. The first was to play more board games with my wife and this hasn’t happened…so maybe that be a better husband thing is a failure too! Then there was to mow the lawn more and put simply, it’s February and the weather has been appalling. The other day when I was in my garden water was coming up through the lawn as I walked on it. So there’s no chance it’s getting mowed!

Next I resolved to run more and enter more races. I’ve ran regularly, despite being poorly for a bit this year and I’ve already entered two races, with more planned. Safe to say that resolving to do something that I already do has been an unmitigated success!

Sadly, I’ve yet to adopt a fake cat named Fellatio Nelson, but I reckon that one’s pretty doable.

I said I’d make more videos – for teaching and for my own amusement – and as we head towards March nothing’s happened. Said videos are still very much just in my head. But, I have a week’s holiday on my own at Easter, so I will vow right here and now that I will make some videos then. I bet you can’t wait! Easter might also be the time when I make at least some headway with the next idea which was to start a podcast. Until my wife produces a list of jobs to fill my time and I get nothing done at all!

The next two of my resolutions involved what I’d laughingly refer to as my softer side and it comes as no surprise to me that both remain filed away in the space in my head reserved for ‘Good ideas that I’m unlikely to find the time for, even though I’ll clearly have the time’. I really do want to raise a big old amount of money for a charity and yet, going back over my resolutions in order to write this update was the first time I’d given it any thought. So, it’s going to take a gargantuan effort for me to make this happen. Similarly, the pen I was going to use in order to write more to the child that I sponsor in South America, is refusing to work on its own, meaning that this worthy resolution remains untouched. It’s still only February though folks…

And it’s ‘see above’ for the next few entries to my list too. I’ve made up no German phrases for various situations in order to tell people, ‘Oh, the Germans have a word for that’. Nor have I had my infected toe treated (it still doesn’t hurt and I haven’t turned green yet though. Maybe in November I’ll manage to limp to the doctor, just as it actually falls off). The Eurovision and Christmas songs also remain untouched and it’s becoming clear that I should have made my list of resolutions into a sign or signs to put up and maybe guilt myself into more action.

My next resolution was to begin noting down some of the things I heard at work. The idea here being that I had an idea for a book because I work in a school and kids constantly say silly or hilarious stuff. Now, I have actually started this…I just have no idea where the notebook is with the things I’d written down. Maybe I left it on my desk and a colleague is now writing a book. If you are and you’re reading this, could you give me an acknowledgement please? Something like, ‘I’d like to thank the careless knobhead who literally presented me with this idea’.

I’d resolved to learn new words and for the sake of this particular blog, I’m going to say that I have. Please don’t ask me what they are though.

I also said that I’d try to use the expression ‘Amuse bouche’ more as well as just making words up to use on people and amuse myself. Again – and there’s a theme emerging here that tells me that my start to the year has been a lot more sluggish than I’d previously imagined – nothing doing.

Given the previous few paragraphs, I cannot tell you how thrilled I am at the fact that I’ve made some progress with the next two resolutions. The first was to discover more new music. Now new meant both actually new and also stuff I’d heard of but never really listened to, in this case. And I’ve discovered both. In the wholly new section, I give you ‘Jenny and Johnny’ a duo with a terrible name for a band, and also ‘Dry Cleaning’. Check them both out, you won’t regret it. Furthermore though, I’ve been listening to some Minnie Riperton and I’d hardly ever done that before, making her some old new music I’ve explored. And, I know this isn’t music, but it is sound that I’ve explored, so I’d like to mention a podcast I’ve discovered via BBC Sounds, called Fairy Meadow. Again, I’d thoroughly recommend it and it also proves I’ve been a tiny bit successful with another of my resolutions.

For the last two though, we return to a familiar theme. The one of ‘Failure’. I can’t say, hand on heart, that I’ve stopped grumbling at people who happen to walk past me and I haven’t started my ‘Diary of a Middle Aged Singleton’ blog. However, it is still only February, so while I’m not going to look back and put a number on my failures, I am aware that the year still has a long way to go. I remain confident that my resolutions list will all be ticked off in good time, while also remaining utterly amazed that I can still type while crossing my fingers…

Anyway enough of this. Have you met my new rescue cat? His name? Ah, now you’re not going to believe this…

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