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Parenting: The Ghost of Halloween Past.

It’s coming up for one of the best nights of the year: Halloween. Parents everywhere will be busy trying to put together costumes for excited children wanting to turn into ghosts, witches and even walking skeletons. The supermarkets are crammed with pumpkins of all shapes (don’t try to tell me they’re all perfectly round!) and sizes as well as millions of bags of sweets, the nights are drawing in and lots of us are looking forward to the big night and a bit of harmless trick or treating.

Sadly though, for me this year things have changed. And they’ve been changing for the last couple of years, to the point where this year might be our final year of trick or treating and Halloween fun.

The simple fact is my children are getting to an age where they don’t want a family Halloween anymore. My youngest is 13 and while I’m yet to hear his plans, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he’s feeling far too old to be going round our area, dressed up like a zombie and knocking on doors in order to get a bucket load of sweets. My eldest, now 16 and an A-Level student don’t you know, definitely won’t be with us and has already driven us to distraction with her plans and demands for a Halloween dress to customise for a party with her friends. So there’ll be no spending time with the family then!

It took me a little while to get into the whole Halloween thing as a parent. As children, my sister and me weren’t allowed out trick or treating. I’m not entirely sure why – although I do have a sketchy memory of my dad grumbling about it being ‘begging’ – but while friends may have been out ‘terrorising’ the neighbourhood, I was sat indoors dreading the inevitable knocks on the door that may have friends or just one night only spooky visitors that my parents would send packing with not even a sniff of a sweet.

In some small defence of my parents however, I could point to the fact that this was the 70s and 80s where Halloween and trick or treating was not the commercial behemoth that it has since become. In the UK, we left that to the Americans and watched ET go out trick or treating with Elliot and his pals with a mixture of fascination and befuddlement. So perhaps Halloween was just another night in front of the telly for my parents.

Consequently, I carried a bit of this attitude into my own parenting. It was wife that started the ball rolling where Halloween was concerned, taking our two out for a brief wander around the closest parts of the neighbourhood to scare some friendly folk into giving them sweets. I stayed behind, probably making the excuse that dishes needed to be done or something else enormously mundane.

The next year, it became a bigger deal as they were both old enough to stay up a little later. Out they went with mum to find a whole new trick or treating world where some of our community had gone all out to create amazing scenes in gardens and sometimes in entire streets. Again, I stayed at home, but this time only to answer the door to any of our own scary visitors. And that was when the spirit of the whole thing grabbed me. The combination of my own kids’ excitement – and how cute they looked – and that of the visitors to my door had me almost hooked!

From then, it grew and grew. I joined in the trick or treating, cajoling the kids to go and knock on doors and glowing with pride at people’s reactions to how good they looked or their mock fear at these two terrifyingly cute monsters! Year upon year, prompted by my fantastic fun-loving wife, we decorated the house and the garden, leaving ever growing buckets of sweets outside the door for anyone who might call while we were out.

I’d estimate that we’ve spent a small fortune on costumes, sweets and decorations over the years. I’ve even managed to allow myself to be talked into dressing up on a few occasions when we’ve held our own family parties. But, if you’re reading this and you know me, no, I’ve never ever ventured out on to the streets in a Halloween costume. You already knew this without me having to tell you!

It’s fair to say that for me there’s been a complete transformation in terms of my approach to Halloween and I’ve gone from being an out of place Grinch to a somewhat awkward, but enthusiastic(ish) zombie. I’ve taken a huge amount of joy from watching my kids – and my wife – throw themselves into the whole trick or treat thing for years now. Even last year, when my daughter decided that she was too old and it was too cold for such frivolity, we went out with my son and his two friends, trudging around the streets for hours, admiring the amazing decorations and gathering more and more sweets as we went. It was pouring with rain and yet we still had a brilliant time! In fact, the rain meant that we were almost the only ones out on our estate, meaning triple helpings of sweets and chocolate! I don’t think I’ve ever seen those lads happier!

This year promises to be a much quieter affair. And having only just got into the swing of all things Halloween, that makes me feel quite sad. I no longer have the cute, carefree kids that would dress up as a character, fully made up and stride up to door after door to scream “trick or treat!” like their very lives depended on it. A bit of the sense of fun has now gone. I expect that we’ll still go out trick or treating with my son, but it won’t be the same. And by this time next year, maybe it’ll be at a complete end.

So, I’m left feeling a little mournful about the past. It’s getting to that stage of my children’s lives where they’re beginning to leave certain things behind. Halloween now and probably things like our traditional egg hunt at Easter next. I can see why people might be tempted by the thought of just having another child, even if there’s no way that I’d make such a decision!

Obviously, what’s happening in our family is inevitable for every parent and their children. You can’t stop them growing up, after all. I’m glad that I softened my stance on Halloween though, because it means that I have memories that are impossible to forget. Maybe one day I’ll take my grandchildren out trick or treating. But for now, I imagine we’ll just have to make the most of the upcoming one, while we still can!

Cramp, a head like a tomato and lots of aches and pains – an introduction to running in middle age.

What do you do when you wake up one day and realise that you’re now somewhere between the ages of 40 and 50 and you have no idea how it all happened? Well, there are of course lots of answers to that question. If you’re a man, you may consider some form of mid-life crisis, be it buying a sports car, dressing like a teenager or flirting with people half your age. Actually, if you’re a man you might well do all three and then some, pushing hard to ruin your life! If you’re a woman, you might feel regretful about missed opportunities or low about your appearance, but ultimately you’ll be OK!

Whatever you are, you might want to make positive changes and a really popular change is to start becoming healthier. With the hedonism of your twenties having taken its toll and the hard work of your thirties now bearing fruit in the form of a mortgage, kids and an expanding waistline, you may well decide that you want to reclaim some of your youthful good looks and energy.

There are lots of things you can do. You may go back to a team sport like football, rugby, hockey or netball. You may try a new sport like squash or tennis. You might even fling yourself into the kind of pursuits you’d so far avoided like the plague, like yoga or pilates. Or, if you’re like me and many others in their middle age years, you might just go out running.

Running and health and fitness have been a major part of my blog. They’ve also been a huge influence on my middle age. The two things collided when I fell ill with heart problems aged 44. They advanced somewhat during lockdown and now, six years on, they’re a major part of my life.

So how might you get started with a pursuit like running when you’ve hit middle age? Well, I’m certainly no expert, but let me offer a few suggestions.

The first thing that I would recommend is a change of mindset. I see a lot of people, especially on social media, bemoaning the fact that they ‘can’t do’. That might be because of time and the perception that they’re too busy or because they feel that their fitness is too poor to try. When I was younger this was always my mindset. I wanted to get fit, but would tell myself that it was too rainy, too windy, my back hurt, my knee felt niggly, I was too tired and found it really easy to convince myself not to run. Even when I went out I’d hear a tired little voice in my had telling me I’d done enough and then I’d convince myself that I’d ran a few miles, when probably what I’d managed had been a very slow mile. Often, I’d not even make it out, convincing myself that I’d go when I felt just right. All too often, I’d find another excuse not to go or I’d go out and find myself settling for just a section of a planned route.

Needless to say, it didn’t work and I rarely found running a pleasure. My fitness didn’t improve and as a result, my running dropped off until it was non existent.

I started again following a health scare a few years ago. Despite telling myself – and probably anyone who’d listen – that I was ‘naturally fit’ I found myself in hospital with heart problems. It terrified me and speaking to a patient who had suffered multiple heart attacks seemed to flick a switch within me.

Once I was fit enough again I went out running with my kids. My mindset at first was that we’d run as far as I could. To start off with that’d be 10 minutes and I learnt to love the fact that I was able to do even that. But, by changing my mindset, I managed to keep making progress. I’d celebrate our runs, often posting on social media and I’d tell the kids that we had to run further next time and not just another minute or so, a decent amount. Within a year we did a 5km fun run in Roundhay Park and I’ve never cherished a finisher’s medal so much!

Nowadays, I don’t allow myself to have excuses. Reasons are fine; so recently I’ve been struggling with a back injury and was able just to tell myself to rest. I know I’ll be back out soon enough. Similarly, if I’m too busy, I’ll find time, even if it’s just 20 minutes. Unless it’s ridiculously windy or rainy, I’ll force myself out, whether I feel like it or not. My changed mindset says it’s a huge positive to get out and run. So, my first tip would be to change your mindset – don’t allow excuses and see every step and every minute as a positive. You could say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint!

If you’re beginning to run in middle age you’ll also need to set yourself small goals. At first that might be a lap around the block or a circuit of the park. You can build from there. When I ran with my kids we had a circuit around our estate and we’d always end up doing laps of the football field. Our goal was to do another lap every time, more if we felt we could manage. It worked. If your goals are realistic, you can reach them every time and it’ll feel great. Have a plan, set a small goal and then…out you go.

A good way of setting goals might be to download a running app. I use Strava and while I’m running I might well be thinking of other roads on my route that I could run down in order to lengthen my run next time (a good trick to keep your mind off how your legs are feeling, that one!). Failing that, I’ll look at the map on the app when I’m finished and target a route for next time. And 9 times out of 10 I’ll set myself a simple goal of running just a little bit further next time.

In terms of starting off and setting smaller goals, the ‘Couch to 5k’ app looks ideal. It’s free, easy to use and automatically sets the goals for you, working you up to a 5km run in manageable steps, which at our age is a really good thing!

Another good tip is to invest in some decent gear to go running in. When I first got back to running, aged 43, I simply bought a cheap pair of Nike runners from an outlet store without any real thought about what I was buying. They were there, they were in my size, they were cheap. They actually lasted me for a decent amount of time and were falling apart by the time I replaced them.

This time though, I’d done some research and read up on what I needed. I still didn’t shell out a huge amount of money, but made sure that I read reviews and took into account things like cushioning, weight and the heel to toe drop. The results were great. Firstly my times improved, but much more interestingly, especially given my age, my recovery time between runs got noticeably better. My legs ached a lot less and I wasn’t frequently waking up in the night after a run with shocking cramp! Furthermore, I didn’t feel 30 years older the next day either. So, I’d thoroughly recommend doing a bit of research and spending a bit more money on trainers that are going to be of more benefit to you.

This led to me spending a little more money on kit like shorts and running tops, which if I’m honest just make me feel better because they fit better! As a middle aged runner whose face turns tomato red after about a mile, having nice kit could be an essential distracting factor as I run past people in cars. In short, if my kit’s better, they might not notice my hilarious face! That said, even having better running socks feels like it’s of benefit, so a slightly bigger spend is a great idea. And if you’re worried about money then just keep an eye out for the sales when it’s easy to grab yourself a bit of a bargain. Oh, and buy shorts with a pocket; handy if you’re taking a key out or you just want to take a bit of fuel. I always make sure I have pockets to put some jellies in, which I find give me a much needed sugar rush at certain points in my runs!

As a new, middle aged runner you’re possibly going to feel a bit self conscious. I’m not a fan of my body and it’s safe to say that it’s got worse as I ticked over into my fifties. So, the idea of the horror show that is this tall, skinny middle aged man with a little pot belly running around the streets clad in clingy material haunted me from the word go!

One good idea for this problem would be to find some like-minded individuals. You might have friends who are keen to start running, but if not, there’s always a running club that you could join. A quick Google search is almost certain to reveal some kind of running club in your area and from what I understand, they’re always a friendly bunch. Being a bit of a grump, I still run on my own, but even I can see myself joining a club at some point. It’s got to provide a boost and maybe looking forward to meeting up with your running pals might help you resist the urge to stay in watching telly and resting your still aching muscles! Running as part of a group is also a lot safer too, so it’s definitely a good idea if you can find the right people.

The final piece of advice I’d give you if you’re starting to go running in middle age is to listen to your body. I’ve found running to be quite addictive, particularly as I’ve got fitter and been able to achieve certain goals. But I’ve really had to temper that readiness to go out running. The simple fact is that if you’re starting to run in your middle age, your body isn’t going to bounce back like it used to do! Rest is absolutely vital at this time of life, particularly if you’re pushing yourself. And the more you ignore your body, the more likely you are to pick up niggling injuries that will only get worse. So my advice would be to enjoy your running, but make sure that you not only give yourself good recovery time, but recover properly too; drinking lots of water and getting the vitamins back into your body is vital to being on top of your fitness when you go back out again. I find that eating cranberries or bananas gives me back that limited feeling of vitality that I have in my fifties!

So, there you have it! Hopefully that might give some people a bit of a push or maybe even some inspiration. Personally, I can’t recommend running enough and I genuinely feel like I’m, in a way, revitalised by going back to it in middle age. And given that none of us are getting younger, maybe we all need a bit of revitalisation!

Autumn Bucket List

A new season means changes in everyone’s lives. Be it easing away from the t-shirts and shorts of summer into longer sleeves and layers or just the fact the the days are getting shorter and we have to adjust to longer, darker evenings, it’s all change as we slide into Autumn.

With that in mind, I thought I’d write an Autumn Bucket List for parents with younger children. There are loads of things that you can do with kids in Autumn, but I thought I’d pick out a few that either my own kids enjoyed when they were younger or those that I have some experience of.

Go and kick some leaves around. The first item on my list is really quite simple and doesn’t take a great deal of time or effort. It’s not one I can really go and do now as my children are probably a bit old to be doing it, but they loved it when they were little. There’s a lot to be said for simple, free fun like this.

When my two were younger we’d often go out on Autumn walks to local parks or beauty spots and the joy they would get from heading out in their wellies and kicking piles of fallen leaves around the place was amazing. It was a joy to watch and if I think about it, I can still hear their giggles and squeals of delight! They used to like making big leaf piles and then jumping in them from above, as well as just picking handfuls up and throwing them up in the air too! And there are two benefits here – it’s free and while they’re jumping around, they’re staying warm! Watch out for hedgehogs in the leaves though. We never encountered any, but you never know.

Speaking of those spikey little creatures, you could attempt to make a hedgehog hotel with the little ‘uns this Autumn. And if not with them, then for them, as keeping an eye out for the hedgehog could well develop into a game all of its own for a short while!

This isn’t one I’ve ever done, but it was regularly on the lists when my children were younger. It seems quite simple. You’ll need an old box, but a sturdy weather-proof one, something like a wooden wine crate or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could make one out of plywood or just adapt something else. I’ve seen them made out of upturned basket and even lumps of thick polystyrene packaging.

Then you’ll need something to make a tunnel – more plywood or maybe an old cut off length of pipe – for the entrance and also a hole in your box so the tunnel has somewhere to lead to! You’ll need to make another, smaller hole for ventilation too.

After the box is finished and a lid put on, you’ll need to fill it with dry leaves or even straw and then place it somewhere hedgehog friendly like underneath soil and leaves. Just make sure that the entrance and the ventilation hole aren’t blocked. And there you go; you have a hedgehog hotel! All you need now is an occupant!

A similar, but larger scale idea, is to go den building with the kids. This is also a lot of fun for adults too and I’d often find that while my kids had lost interest, I was still lugging logs around or trying to make the perfect roof out of foliage and twigs!

Quite a few parks and forests have cottoned on to this as a good way of attracting visitors and often have areas where there are plenty of logs and fallen branches to build with. Failing this, you could just scour an area of the woods for fallen branches and just start building. As long as it’s off any kind of pathway and you’re not harming the environment, you’ll be fine. Don’t resort to pulling branches from actual trees though, but I guarantee that you’ll have an excellent time den building!

Another fun thing to do this Autumn, especially if you have kids is to collect your pumpkins for Halloween. Now, I know that it’s far easier to just buy them in a local supermarket, but a lot of places like parks and farm parks make a bit of an event of it nowadays. So, not only can you wander through a field of pumpkins, carefully eyeing up the perfect specimen to go outside your front door, but you might also get to take a tractor ride, get a lesson in carving your own pumpkins or just draw your face or pattern out for someone who’s a little bit more of an expert to carve for you. If you’re really lucky there might even be a cafe on site for you to relax and take the chill out of your body with coffee and a slice of cake!

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

We did pumpkin picking a couple of times when our kids were younger and just the sight of a huge field of pumpkins left them in awe! The fact that they got to draw their designs on and then help to carve it out made for a fantastic morning. We even managed to get their pumpkins home in one piece too!

Sometimes though, it’s the simple things that make Autumn fun. And what could be better than wrapping up, getting their wellies on and going for a bracing Autumn walk? These are best taken on those lovely crisp, sunny Autumn days and if there’s a park or a forest to explore, then all the better! You can get some exercise and some fresh air and the Autumn light might help you get some brilliant photos as well. And the beauty of this type of pastime is that it can be kept going even as your little ones get older. My two are 16 and 13 now and, although they might grumble a bit, we always have a nice time on our Autumn walks. I think the ice cream van at the end of some of the walks help, but either way, myself and my wife really enjoy getting out on this type of day.

Scarecrow Festivals seem to be a very British thing. So, if you’re reading this outside of the UK you’ll either find them extremely strange or you might be inspired enough to start your own version where you live! It was something I first became aware of around 20 years ago, when I started teaching at a rural school near Halifax. I distinctly remember driving home one evening and repeatedly spotting novelty scarecrows in people’s gardens, in the windows of shops and just in many of the fields that dominated the area. Shortly afterwards I would find out that this was all to do with the Norland Scarecrow Festival, which still continues to this day.

The fun of a scarecrow festival comes in how the scarecrows are actually made and dressed and participants tend to go to great lengths to come up with imaginative ideas year upon year. Over the years I’ve seen lots of Star Wars characters, Darleks, Super Mario, firemen, Minions, Roald Dahl characters…and even just scarecrows!

Often there’s something like a scarecrow trail to follow and this is always something that younger kids love to do, especially if there’s a list to tick off and maybe even a prize of some kind at the end! The bigger the festival, the more there is going on though, and if you’re lucky there might even be a scarecrow building event. Who knows, you could be building your own scarecrow to be included in your local festival before you know it!

So, there you have it – hopefully, a stress free and reasonably cheap Autumn Bucket List. I hope you enjoyed reading and that it gives you plenty of food for thought. Feel free to let me know what you plan to get up to or even if you agree with any of my suggestions!

The Morley 10k

Bright sunshine, blue skies, a chill in the air and a slight breeze. Some – including me – would say these are perfect conditions for running.

And so it was that on Sunday 9th October, 2022, in bright sunshine, myself and my family left our house at just after 8.40am to make the short walk down to the start line of the inaugural Morley 10k.

Despite my usual case of pre-race nerves and self-doubt – usually put down to having hairy skinny legs and combining them with shorts while other people are around – I had an inkling that this was going to be a good race as soon as we arrived. As I’ve already mentioned, the weather was lovely, but it was the atmosphere that struck me more than anything.

Whether it was because I’d never seen this stretch of road so busy, I don’t know. But there was an unmistakable buzz about the place. As well as race officials and over 700 chattering runners there were lots of spectators at the side of the road, people in their gardens, others just sitting on their front step with a cuppa, all combining to make for a really positive atmosphere and sight.

As 9 o’clock struck, the race was started and off we went on the steady climb up Middleton Road that would mark our first kilometre. Spectators continued to line the road, some out of curiosity (probably just to find out who in their right mind was out running so far on a Sunday morning) and many there to support relatives and friends that were out there having a go.

Personally, as a keen runner, I’d ran the course a few times and so I was able to make a steady enough start, easing my way past a few slower runners as I went, while allowing others to pass me by. After all, at my age there’s no point whatsoever in a fast start when I know that there’s an enormous hill at the end of the 10 kilometres!

Morley town centre marked the start of the second kilometre and there were more people milling around and clapping our efforts. The course then swooped down a big hill where I was careful not to get too carried away for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these big hills can see a runner topple over, unable to handle their own momentum and secondly, with a while still to go and a long uphill section ahead of me, energy preservation was at the forefront of my mind!

At the bottom of the hill lies Morley Bottoms, so named because…well, you can work it out, surely? We would cross this point a further couple of times but there were already plenty of people around, which again was a lovely boost. Every so often there’d be a friendly marshal telling you how well you were doing too, which as someone who’s generally a solo trainer was a nice change. Normally I just have people like dog walkers staring at me, no doubt wondering why I’ve chosen to make myself look so knackered, sweaty and red!

Around the next mile or so would be spent running uphill and while this was a steady rise for the most part, I knew that it was going to be quite challenging. When you possess legs like mine – imagine a stork in trainers – then hills are going to be an inconvenience at best! However, I must admit today surprised me and when I got to the top of the climb and we turned to head back down – hurray – I was still feeling strong. The nagging injuries I’d taken into the run weren’t troubling me, which was a relief, but I was still careful to take things fairly steadily back down the long stretch of hill to the 3 mile point.

I knew that my family would be waiting for me back down at Morley Bottoms, having walked round from the start. And given I’ve lived in Morley for around 25 years, I thought I might see someone I knew too. In short, this meant that as I got there I was running at a pace of a minute quicker per mile than I would have liked as excitement got the better of me!

Emerging at the bottom of the hill my eyes darted everywhere, searching for my wife and children or even just a friendly face. But at first, when I couldn’t find them, it was the noise that hit me. It felt like half of the town had come out, all armed with bells, whistles, tambourines and anything else that they could make a racket with! It felt fantastic running through! And then as we ran through the crossroads I spotted my family – I heard my kids first, in truth! – and now, having ran just about half of the route, I was flying! That is, flying in terms of a tall thin, 50-year-old man flying…so probably moving at a fast jog to those who saw me!

The next part of the route took in a stretch of road where I regularly run, so I was comfortable here and began to try to move through the runners as best I could. However, as we turned to head down Middleton Road towards MacDonalds, the fact that this was a long hill that I’d be running straight back up, was at the forefront of my mind! I knew that this was the place on the route where I would probably begin to feel it in my legs…and of course the rest of my ageing body, lucky me!

Heading back up towards Morley was very much a case of trying to stay smiling and keeping my pace somewhere near respectable and I tagged on to the back of a much younger, much taller runner on this section just to give me something to concentrate on. Then, as we turned again to head up Albert Road and I knew I was close to the final mile, I realised that my legs still felt reasonably good. I got myself to the 5 mile mark and decided that with just over a mile to go, I was going to pick up the pace, while still keeping in mind the mountain that we’d have to climb near the finish!

As I approached Morley Bottoms again for the final time, I’d increased my pace and although my legs were now understandably a little shaky, I was confident of a strong finish. Morley Bottoms was still completely alive with noise and I must admit to feeling a little bit emotional as I ran through, listening to cries about how well I was doing and encouragement to keep going. As the road curved left though, I allowed myself a little look up, just to confirm how steep this final hill was. Sadly, nothing had changed…it still looked huge!

I’ll confess to feeling sick as I got close to the top of the main part of the hill. And, as I suspected they would, my legs felt a great deal more jelly-like! But, with the magnificent town hall now in my eyeline and the finish only a few hundred metres away, I knew I needed to grit my teeth and finish as strongly as I could.

My family were stood opposite the Town Hall – there’s a video where my son shouts, ‘You don’t even look tired’, bless him and his terrible eyesight – and again their support gave me a massive, timely boost. In fact though, there were people everywhere at this point and the support was wonderfully loud. It was at this point that I realised that I was completely on my own in the race. A quick glance over my shoulder showed the nearest chaser about 50 yards back and the next runners on from me were slightly closer.

I pushed myself to what I’ll laughingly describe as a sprint finish, almost catching a few people in front of me on the line. It was a blessed relief to get there though, so gaining one or two extra places didn’t really matter. I’d done exactly what I’d set out to do, finishing in 54.34, almost a minute quicker than I’d ran the course before. The winner finished in 34 minutes, but let’s not dwell on that too much…

It was wonderful to see so many people come together on the day. Hundreds came out to shout themselves hoarse and encourage a load of people that they probably didn’t even know, to run a distance that must have seemed like some kind of madness, so early on a Sunday morning! The race was a victory for community spirit and I’m really thankful for those that had the idea and then put all the hard work in to make it a reality. I really hope that the race goes from strength to strength, year upon year. As we try to forget a pandemic, isolation, austerity and the fact that everything in our lives may just be getting harder and harder to afford, this was the type of thing that the town needed and maybe the kind of thing that we all – runners or not – needed too.

Huge thanks to @morleyrunningclub and Morley Town Council (and anyone else involved that I don’t know of) for all of their hard work. The inaugural Morley 10k was an absolute triumph!

Film Review: ‘Nobody’

Hutch Mansell is your everyday Joe. An unassuming, regular guy who appears to be stuck in a dead end job and a loveless marriage, almost like he’s just waiting to die. Hutch, it seems is not particularly satisfied with life. He’s ordered around and stuck in the same bland everyday routine, without it seems, any means to escape. Worse still, he doesn’t particularly seem to care. But when his house is burgled, everything changes.

With the help of his son, Hutch seems to have caught the burglars in the act, until his seemingly meek and mild personality intervenes and the burglars are allowed to escape. Hutch, it seems just doesn’t have that killer instinct even when his family is threatened, a fact that is backed up when he manages to track the burglars down the next day, only to forgive them when he sees the conditions they live in and the fact that they have a sick baby.

But when a group of drunks begin to threaten people on the bus he’s riding home on, he simply snaps. What follows is thoroughly ridiculous, yet hugely entertaining. Implausibly, one of the drunks was the younger brother of a Russian mafia boss (don’t they always take the bus?) and when the mafioso sends his goons to Hutch’s house we find out a little more about Hutch’s former self and his true, but hidden identity.

‘Nobody’ is a chaotic tale of vengeance and how we shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover. Hutch is actually something very different to the absolute beast that is awakened by what happens on that bus and you’ll watch on in awe and horror at some of the ultra violence that is perpetrated as the film goes on. A lot of what happens is truly unbelievable and at times a little bit funny as a result, but then isn’t that exactly what action movies are all about? And when you find out that ‘Nobody’ is from the writer of John Wick then a whole lot of stuff just falls into place!

Bob Odenkirk is brilliant as Hutch, selling us the idea that he really is just ‘nobody’ at the start of the film before then spending much of the rest of the time on screen shooting up bad guys like he was born to do it. There are also excellent cameos by Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s seemingly retirement home-bound father and RZA as Hutch’s former colleague and their final scenes together are an absolute joy to behold!

If you’re looking for a film to test your intellect and maybe force you to ponder the meaning of life, then ‘Nobody’ just isn’t the one for you. However, if you want a rip roaring action thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat, quite possibly cheering on Hutch’s every move, then this one couldn’t be further up your street if it tried! And let’s face it, sometimes it’s a blessed relief to just drop the question of what’s believable or educational and just allow yourself to be entertained. I’d definitely recommend that you ride the rollercoaster that is ‘Nobody’.

I give ‘Nobody’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Middle Aged Gigging: Embrace at Sheffield 02 Academy

I feel like we go a long way back, us Crosbys and Embrace. This was a band that we began to follow in the early years of our relationship in the late 90s. A band that we quickly fell in love with, a band that we even invited to our wedding some years later and a band that we’ve pretty much grown into almost fully formed adults with. So it felt fitting that having last saw them just days before lockdown, Embrace were the first band we would see now that times are relatively normal again.

With a busy family life and demanding jobs, it’s safe to say that we don’t get out a great deal these days, so this Embrace gig had us giddy with excitement. However, the realisation of the timing was pretty awful. Taking place as it did on Sunday 4th September, this one represented a late night out when, as a teacher, I started back at work the next day after 6 weeks off! So, in the back of my mind that excitement was being chipped away at, just a little bit, by a feeling of dread!

We got there relatively early and to my initial horror were able to walk almost right to the front of the venue, standing right behind those clinging to the barrier. I’ve never been a fan of being ‘down the front’ at gigs, but bizarrely, as we’ve got older we just seem to have gravitated forward! Not a single note of music had been played and I was already worrying about getting barged all over the place. On the plus side though, this was going to be a great view.

Support on the night was provided by Ellur, a solo artist who is actually the daughter of Embrace guitarist Richard McNamara. She wasn’t meant to be supporting but a last minute change meant that she was drafted in at late notice. Dad Richard joined her onstage alongside a drummer and keyboard player and together they played a blinder! I’ve heard comparisons between Ellur and Adele, but for me the sound was more reminiscent of First Aid Kit, with a bit of an 80s influence in there somewhere too. I want to say that I could hear the influence of bands like Heart and Wilson Phillips too…but I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not!

Influences didn’t matter though, as the songs were great and despite the last minute filling in nature of it all, the set was excellent. You wouldn’t have guessed that she’d got the call so late! Ellur herself had a brilliant stage presence and a confidence that, all in all made for a really enjoyable performance.

We then had a feverishly paced change over – notable for the fact that the young lass playing drums for Ellur was pretty much just left to dismantle her entire drum kit on her own, making this middle aged dad feel quietly outraged on her behalf! – before the familiar strain of ‘Down To The River To Pray’ could be heard over the PA. It was time for Embrace.

Having seen countless Embrace gigs before, I shouldn’t get quite as giddy as I do when they take to the stage. However, I have a feeling that all Embrace fans get the same way and that we all experience the same thing at this point in a gig. Without getting too soppy, watching this particular group of blokes come out onto a stage always makes me smile and laugh. I know that I’m in for a thoroughly joyous experience…and what kind of person would I be if that didn’t make me feel good?

The set opens with a couple of songs from the new album, ‘How to be a Person like Other People’ in ‘Death is Not The End’ and ‘We Are It’, which go down really well and it’s noticeable how many of the crowd know the lyrics, despite the fact that the album had only been out around a week. It’s is a noticeable gear change of an opening. Maybe it’s all in my head, but it feels like Embrace have opened with ‘Ashes’ for as long as I can remember, so I’m used to having the adrenaline levels turned up a notch really quickly and as someone who struggles with the lyrics to even my favourite songs, not being able to sing along myself doesn’t really help! Still though, the news songs hit the spot and at least without ‘Ashes’ my knees are still intact!

In between songs Danny mentions that it’s a Sunday and that we’ll be trying to make it feel like a Saturday. He knows that it’s back to school tomorrow and gives a nod to us teachers, telling us that we can tell our employers to f*** off tomorrow and that we’re not coming in. I take it that he’s talking to me personally, but still find myself heading into work next day, when I’ve calmed back down! Maybe next time he can write me a note?

The next two songs though are what the youth of today – and maybe people experiencing some kind of mid life crisis – might refer to as ‘bangers’. It’s fair to say that ‘Come Back to What You know’ and ‘My Weakness is None of Your Business’ are Embrace anthems and when they’re played at a gig you can be sure that most of the crowd are singing along. Tonight is no exception and at this point the excitement and adrenaline of the gig is taken up a notch again.

What follows is a gig that could well be viewed as life affirming, if I hadn’t seen the same type of thing from Embrace so many times before. It’s still life affirming though! With the new songs more than holding their own alongside a selection of bona fide classics, it all adds up to one hell of a night out. The bond between the band and their fans is always obvious and this always ensures that there’s a huge positivity around the room. All around me people are smiling and singing, hands in the air, now blissfully unaware that it’s Sunday and it’s most likely back to the grind tomorrow morning! I’ve even forgotten that I have Danny’s permission to take the day off tomorrow!

The only problem tonight is that there are songs that you’d love to hear missing from the set. But that’s no one’s fault. That’s just always going to be the case when a band has so many well loved songs. So tonight, we cherish the likes of ‘All You Good Good People’, ‘Fireworks’ and ‘Gravity’ (first dance at my wedding and always the track that’ll make me well up a bit!), while also missing the likes of ‘Refugees’ and ‘Save Me’, even though ‘Save Me’ is another knee killer probably for a lot of us!

Tonight ends with ‘The Good Will Out’ and thousands of happy souls singing and screaming along to a stream of ‘la la la las’ that I don’t think any of us, including the band, wants to end.

Tomorrow, it’s back to normality, back to working for a living and worrying about what feels like the million different things that are dragging the country down at the moment. Tonight though, we’ve been lifted out of our daily grind, made Sunday feel like Saturday and once again, just had an absolutely incredible time watching the band that we adore. Thank God for Embrace and their ability to lift our sprits and make us forget about the daily grind…even if they won’t write you a note to excuse your absence from it for just one more day!

Grassroots Football: Back on the grass once again…but it might be a very long season!

I half recognised the feeling both when I went to bed on Saturday night and then while I was having a shave on Sunday morning. With the whole house silent, other than the noise of the swooshing of my razor in the sink, I tried to pin down what it might be. I showered – always a good place for thinking – but still it didn’t come to me. Breakfast presented no breakthrough either. And then, as I closed the front door and ventured out into the brisk chill of the early Autumn morning, it hit me.

Excitement!

Of course! This was the first Sunday of the grassroots football season and despite the fact that my team had finished rock bottom of their division last season and then subsequently lost around half of its squad, I was definitely smack in the middle of a bout of excitement.

I’d packed the car, as I always do, the previous afternoon. Kit bag, footballs, nets, Respect line, corner flags, step ladders for putting the nets up and a smaller bag with my match book and a few other things in. I’d got up slightly earlier than usual, having also lost an assistant coach, whose son was one of those who departed at the end of the previous season, which meant that I’d be starting to set up on my own. And now, I was getting into the car to drive the two minutes up to the pitch. To add to my by now rather distinct sense of excitement, it wasn’t even raining! Today would be one of those rare occasions where I would be able to set foot on the grass without getting soaking wet feet within about 3 minutes!

My excitement continued, but was dulled ever so slightly when I walked across our pitch and saw the state of the grass. It was easily a good three inches long and therefore not really very convenient for football. So, not ideal then! When one of our parents arrived, we decided to change to an adjacent pitch which appeared to be slightly shorter. That buzz of excitement was still hanging around and the fact that an adult pub team might turn up later looking to use the same pitch added a sense of jeopardy too!

Time always seems to fly when you’re setting up for a match. It can seem like one minute it’s just you, your corner flags and the odd dog walker and then the before you know it, players and parents are arriving and the whole pitch is surrounded with people. It’s always at this point when you realise that all of this is your responsibility and sometimes, especially when the opposition seem to have a number of players who look like grown men, it can be quite daunting!

Still though, the excitement hung around. I spoke to some parents, to some of my players, to the opposition coach and still the flutter stayed. As we warmed up and closer still to kick off, as we conducted a team talk, I was optimistic and looking forward to the game to come.

Sending your players out onto the pitch at this level can relieve you of any control that you thought you might have had. And this is where the excitement can begin to dissipate. It certainly did on Sunday. I sent my lads out onto the pitch on Sunday we some simple instructions, I’ve decided this year to try and think of games in terms of 3 Golden Rules because this should mean I’m never over-complicating matters for my players. I may then speak to people individually, but as a team I want them to all think in terms of these golden rules and trying to do a few simple things as well as we can.

After making a decent enough start on Sunday, we then conceded 3 goals in quick succession and the game was almost already out of our grasp. Worst of all was that they were avoidable goals, meaning that my excitement quickly turned to tension, dread and a real feeling of helplessness. I ask my team to enjoy playing and stay positive, but for them and for me it can be difficult when nothing’s going your way.

At 3-0 down I could see heads dropping and I could hear one or two of my players sniping at each other and arguing a little bit. Obviously, I tried to encourage them to stay positive and to keep playing and pushing forward, but by half time, we were 6-0 down and I knew that it was going to be a difficult half-time team talk!

That earlier feeling of excitement now disappearing somewhere over a local hill, I tried to stay positive. I pointed out the mistakes that were being made, but also reminded my team that they were a far better team than both the last 35 minutes and the score were showing. I repeated the three golden rules and pointed out some positive aspects of our performance, but made sure that I didn’t give anybody any excuses to relieve themselves of any responsibility for what was happening. I made sure that we all understood that every one of us was part of a team. No one person was responsible for this scoreline.

To cut a long story short, we were better in the second half, but we still lost the game 9-1. We had 7 new players in the squad, so it was always going to be a bit of a learning curve as these are 13 and 14-year-old kids getting used to new people.

At the end of the game I ramped up the positives and made sure everybody knew that in the second half we’d been far, far better. We train again on Wednesday evening, when we’ll try to tweak a few things about how we play in order to cut out the kind of silly errors that cost us dearly this weekend.

Then, we have another home game next Sunday. Same time, same place, different opposition. Hopefully I won’t allow myself to get too relaxed and too carried away then, because as I found out at the weekend, it turns out that excitement’s not always what it’s cracked up to be!

Always look on the bright side: Things that made me smile.

Almost two weeks ago, it was time for me to head back to work. A new academic year has now started and having spent the whole summer free of this particular stress, I never take the return very well at all. Despite 22 years as a teacher, I never get used to going back and I never look forward to it.

That first week would also later turn into the week when Queen Elizabeth II passed away and whatever your feelings about the monarchy, it seems to have hit large swathes of people really hard, especially here in the UK.

While none of this made me hugely emotional, it all combined to make me feel low, quite sad and just a little bit like I could do with a boost. So, rather than wallow in the doom, I thought I’d think – and write – about some more positive aspects of the last few weeks, something that I started to blog about early on in August. Here they are in no particular order.

A few weeks ago I chanced upon an article on the BBC website, something that I make sure to have a look at every day. The article was about a restoration project with a difference – the re-planting of seagrass off the Welsh coast. Seagrass is, as the name would suggest, a type of grass that grows in the sea. Bigger than the type of grass you’d find in your garden, but grass all the same. Brilliantly though, a single hectare of seagrass can be home to 80,000 fish and 100,000 invertebrates. It also absorbs and stores carbon dioxide, making it a really important plant to have in our seas.

The project is taking place off the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, which is somewhere we holiday every year. Its aim is to plant seeds that will grow into a 10 hectare seagrass meadow by 2026. In the sea off our favorite beach, there is already an area of seagrass, which is revealed every time the tide goes out. So the story really resonated with me and I must admit, the idea of its benefits just really made me smile.

The next smile giver is a little simpler than the serious, but exciting eco-project I’ve just written about. We’re big telly watchers in our house, viewing a whole range of things from terrestrial channels, Sky, Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon. We even have ‘Family Telly’ time every day in our house, where we all sit down to watch something appropriate together. But it’s not a family friendly piece of TV that has made me smile recently.

‘All Of Us Are Dead’ is a South Korean high school zombie horror show and to be frank, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds! We started watching it around a month ago and, despite its obvious flaws – blood stains on the kids’ uniforms that have clearly been scribbled on with a marker pen, for instance – it is just a fantastic piece of telly. We’re big fans of anything apocalyptic in our house, so it was onto a winner from the start, but its jeopardy and originality really make it stand out. It’s dubbed, which might spoil it for some, but still if you enjoy the odd fright and a bit of a rollercoaster ride of a programme, then I’d highly recommend tuning in.

While not wanting to go into too much specific detail and attract any unwanted – and frankly unwarranted – criticism, my daughter’s GCSE grades really put a smile on my face. Our faces, in fact, because it was a boost for all the family. She’s worked incredibly hard over the last few years in preparation for them and in the end got very much what she deserved. It’s a set of grades that should help open some doors for her and hopefully help with her progress as she enters further education and even when heading into the world of work eventually. She has a habit of asking, shall we say, ill-thought out questions, as well as just saying ridiculous things, but it turned out that we have a very, very bright kid on our hands and her success made me immensely proud.

Football can be a very cruel sport. Especially when you’re particularly invested in it, as I am. In fact, football was very cruel just a couple of weeks ago, when my team Newcastle United lost a game in time that had been added on to the time that was added. In essence, we lost a game because the referee seemed to revert to playground rules, allowing play to continue until the home team scored the winner.

However, just before this game we had rescued a point in an away game at Wolverhampton Wanderers with an absolute wonder goal from Alain Saint Maximin, our maverick Frenchman. The ball was cleared from deep inside the Wolves box, going so high I expected it to come down with snow on. And what did Alain do? Volleyed it straight into the back of the net from around 20 yards out! Smile? It made me leap around our front room like a giddy teenager again!

The final thing that has given me a bit of a boost over the past couple of weeks has been the surprise I’ve had upon going back to work. Two weeks ago I was dreading returning back to work after 6 weeks of summer holidays. I always do and wrote a post about it.

Teaching: That first week back.

However, although I still can’t declare myself happy to be back working, I’m surprised by how smoothly it feels like I’ve got back into the old routines. I suppose, having been a high school teacher for quite a while now, I should expect just to be able to do my job with the minimum of fuss. But there’s still anxiety at this time of year, every year. Still though, although I’m tired beyond belief at the end of every day – age can be a cruel mistress, dear reader – I’ve not encountered any problems at all and have just been able to take up where I left off a couple of months ago. Definitely a reason to allow myself a bit of a smile!

More again soon on this topic. I’ve enjoyed writing about the things that have made me smile and I think it definitely helps with my mood! Feel free to leave a comment if you enjoyed reading!

Teaching: At times it’s just like riding a bike…

Last week I posted a blog about that difficult first week back as a teacher. The anxiety, the new classes, the lottery that can be a timetable, building relationships and even just having to get out of bed a couple of hours earlier. Having spent 6 weeks living life at a slower pace, it can all be a bit much.

However, every year I tell myself the same thing. I tell colleagues too. And I tell my long suffering family, who have had to live with this ‘even grumpier in September’ bloke for far too long: get the first two weeks out of the way and it’ll be alright.

That first two weeks essentially allows me to find my feet and reminds me that I can in fact do my job effectively, having spent the previous two weeks – without fail, every year – feeling like I’m going to stand at the front of the classroom, trying to teach, but just not remembering how to do it anymore. My students will talk over me until it all gets out of control and I end up in a tearful heap on the floor! It never happens that way though.

My first two weeks have been incredibly busy, hectic at times, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Really, it’s been OK. I feel like I’ve found my feet quite quickly and that the confidence that is needed at the front of that classroom has returned and allowed me to jus do my job without too much stress at all. I’m back in the old routine, using the same skills, adapting to different texts and techniques, learning some of the new names that I have to learn (this always takes me a while) and even managing to get through meetings without too many thoughts of simply throwing myself out of the nearest window. I knw that will come though!

There have been some minor challenges as well. Sadly, I’ve noticed that my eyesight has got a bit worse, meaning that I can’t read the register without my glasses and that certain texts have been a little more difficult to read through than they were a year ago. In vanity news, I have had to come to work for 9 days with hair that has looked like a hedge left to its own devices for a number of years until it has just become untamed. This, courtesy of my hairdresser who had the audacity to go off on holiday without warning…for a month. Until last night I hadn’t had a haircut for over 10 weeks, which was beginning to cause me some trouble!

In one of my classes I have a student with a hearing impairment, which requires me to were a kind of digital microphone that hangs round my neck like a lanyard. Much to the student’s delight, I forget about it, without fail, every lesson and she has to remind me. But even this is good in a way as it allows me to overact, like some kind of pantomime dame, and really ham it up about how useless I am and what a great helper she is. Sometimes, even the simplest of things can make a student smile!

So, while it’s been as difficult a couple of weeks as I’d imagined, it’s not been too bad and it’s funny how old habits die hard. As the headline suggests, it really is like riding a bike…provided you could ride one in the first place!

Teaching: That first week back.

I’ve been a teacher now for 22 years. It’s a job I love – despite the fact that I fell into it, rather than approaching it as some kind of vocation – yet a job that causes all manner of stress. And one of the biggest causes of stress is the first week back after summer.

If you’re a non teacher, I see the irony in that last statement. You don’t get 6 weeks off in summer and therefore probably think it’s decidedly ungrateful to feel stressed about going back to work after such a long break. Truthfully, I don’t really care what others think. It’s how an awful lot of us feel and probably not something that can be understood too well if you’re not in the job.

Some teachers are seemingly full of enthusiasm for the first week in September. I’m still not convinced by this enthusiasm though. To me, it seems simple; you’ve been on full pay for six weeks during summer and within reason you can get up to whatever takes your fancy. A wonderful way to live one’s life and the closest some of us are ever going to get to some kind of carefree celebrity lifestyle (albeit it as decidedly Z list celebrities). But then someone orders you back to work and all of the early starts, late finishes, politics, behavioural issues , meetings…children and everything else that comes with being a teacher. What a pain in the arse!

I thought I’d write a post reflecting back on some of my experiences in the first week back this year. I feel sure that any teachers who read, or indeed anyone who works in education will recognise at least some of what will follow.

The first day back used to be a time for easing yourself back in and just generally getting things sorted out. Then someone had the brainwave; the brainwave that became known as an Inset day! In my experience this started out as having to endure a couple of hours of various members of SLT talking at you about results, routines and – shudder – mission statements. There’d be some graphs that you didn’t really understand, but smiled through anyway because you knew you’d be released back to your classroom soon enough.

Gradually, this developed into things like lectures and group activities, often prompted by the dreaded phrase, “You’re going to work together” while you gawp at the people from different departrments that, if you’re me, you don’t know the names of. One of the worst of these was on some Head of Department training over a decade ago when we had to develop strategies for what was called a marketplace activity where students work in groups and then ‘teach’ other students via the presentation on their ‘stall’. I can still hear a woman bellowing “Roll up, roll up!” at the top of her voice in an affected cockernee accent as she got deep into character and it still makes me want to crawl under the nearest rock.

This year, our first day back was spent in two locations. Make of that what you will. We started off at the lead school in our trust for what felt like 36 hours before returning back to the more familiar surroundings of our own school later on for more briefings and I think 8 whole minutes of our own time to prepare for the next day when the kids came back. At several points during the briefings I snapped back to reality faced with the fact that I’d probably just been staring blankly at the person speaking for what could have been 7 or 8 minutes. I was finally able to leave work at just after 5pm, almost organised for the next day, only vaguely aware of my own name and already knackered.

Staggered returns have become a new way of thinking since I started in the job. So now, instead of Year 7 being plunged into big school, with all of the other enormous, scary students they’re given a bit of grace and allowed to come in before everyone else. Depending on the school, this might be for a few hours or a full day. We gave them half an hour (!) but then kept them in forms for most of the day to preserve their innocence for a little while longer. This was a particular delight for this grizzled old English teacher who has never been a fan of year 7s. By the time the whole school went to a token lesson for the last period I was delighted to see my Year 9s, having worn out my fake smile and Disney teacher voice and grown tired of repeating several variations of the phrase “If you’ve got any problems come and see me” with my fingers crossed behind my back. At least the later start allowed me a couple of precious hours of planning time, even if I couldn’t remember how to get my board on, leading to a call to IT support who then came down and, much to my shame, made it work by plugging it in.

Wednesday brought our first full day. By this point, the 6am alarm was taking its toll and my body had gone into a state of shock. My brain wasn’t coping well with the fact that both of own kids didn’t start school until Thursday, either.

My second lesson of the day was with our alternative curriculum lads in our internal PRU. I’ve never taught them before in this setting, but had taught several of them in mainstream school, so in a way I knew what to expect. They didn’t disappoint! Thus, after much calling out, the odd piece of bad language and every last one of them moaning about doing any work, they waited until I walked to the other side of the room and ignored them a bit before just doing the work. Wasn’t it Robin Williams who in his role as an inspirational teacher in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ said, while standing atop a desk, “kids, even in a non mainstream setting, are funny little buggers”? Well, he was spot on.

Thursday and Friday passed in a blur with Friday being all the more memorable for having to fend off the ‘we’re getting two weeks off school because the Queen died’ rumours all day. I told them that they were very wrong; it was three.

Friday also brought me into contact with a brilliant new Year 8 groups. They’re a very low ability group of only 8 students, with low literacy levels and a cavalcade of complex stories between them. Fifteen minutes in, I quickly emailed the friend that I’m sharing the class with to tell her that I wanted to adopt them all. I wanted to take them all home and cook them a nice, hearty meal before letting them watch telly for as long as they wanted. Every so often you get a group like this, who regardless of ability, you just adore. I am going to absolutely love teaching these kids!

And that was that. First week done, eyes barely open having zombie-walked through 5 whole days and done the commute on auto pilot, 4 trips to the supermarket because fatigue and stupidity made me miss something every time I went, sore feet and a Friday where I wore a black tie to somehow pay my respects for a lady who I never knew, but whose death shook the word. And while I remain convinced that I wasn’t born to work for a living, I’ve found out once again that it’s strange the way that you can slip back into the same routine as if you’d never been away.