Poetry Blog: Tunnel Vision

This is a poem that I drafted very roughly a couple of days ago. I’d just had some bad news and on top of feeling exhausted with work, sore with a running injury, sick and tired of living with Covid restrictions and worried about various other matters in everyday life, I think I’d just had enough. So, rather than simply explode and kick things about the place I scribbled some thoughts down.

I don’t normally suffer with my moods. I tend to manage to live life on the same level most of the time. I’m rarely too bothered by anything and have always told myself that things will work out, whatever happens to be going on. It’s definitely an advantage of being such a simpleton! However, over the last few weeks lots of things seem to have been bothering me and it sees to have all piled up and caused a bit of a bad mood logjam. Not the end of the world and at least it’s meant that I can be creative.

Here’s the poem.

Tunnel Vision

Feral dogs gather, sensing blood, teeth bared
snarling, putting a tentative foot forward,
circling without grace, eyeing you constantly
until they finally snap and leave their mark.

Every ache and pain nags and presents a new question,
crowds the mind, leaving a feeling of fog
until you feel like lashing out with a primal scream
from somewhere deep inside that you've never found before.

Questions, although answered time and again
remain, echoing back and forth, disrupting sleep
to pick away at the scab that they created,
allowing it to spread to unchartered territory.

Tunnel vision is adopted, just to get through seconds, minutes
as something hidden in the shadows threatens to grind you to a halt
like hazard lights on the motorway, just as the urge for freedom and speed 
is at its highest.

Searching for a way to break the cycle and feel a sense 
of achievement, or at least a moment's blessed relief
from the sheer boredom and strangely gargantuan effort
needed to just keep going.

Writing this helped. It’s very easy to sit and moan at anyone who’ll listen, but I much prefer to keep things to myself. It’s a mixture of embarrassment and just the thought that I don’t really want to burden anyone with my troubles. Especially as most of the time I feel like I’m exaggerating in even labelling certain things as ‘troubles’. I know that lots of people have things much, much harder than I do. And as I said earlier, I’m reasonably happy to get through and operate under the assumption that any mood will pass and that things will get better.

In the poem, I’ve tried to describe how I felt; as if the thoughts, the worries were circling me, taking turns at bothering me and bothering me on various levels and with various results. Hence the ‘feral dogs’ line which I felt summed up the fact that I didn’t feel like I had complete control at times and didn’t feel that I could just dismiss things. Those thoughts just kept coming back, biting me.

If it helps, or it’s of any interest, I think I feel better today. I’m just keeping myself busy and it definitely helps that the weather is great, I’ve been able to get out for a run and that the Euro 2020 international football tournament has just started. Like I say, I’m happy to keep things simple.

I hope you liked the poem – ‘enjoyed’ might be a stretch I suppose! Whatever your thoughts, feel free as ever, to let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Poetry Blog: Isolation

Welcome along to another poetry blog. I won’t bang on too long about this one, because I’ve blogged a few times recently about the fact that we’ve been isolating for ten days after my son and wife tested positive for Covid-19. And this is where these poems have come from. Simple enough.

What’s safe to say though is that this post is very much a first for me. This post contains three poems, something that I’ve never done before in a single blog. I had intended to try and write a poem a day for the time that we were isolating, but quickly realised that what I’d end up with was probably two poems that I liked and 8 absolute duffers.

I ended up writing three poems, all connected to our isolation period. My first one came about for a combination of reasons. Firstly, I was feeling quite shocked about the two positive tests that had happened in our house and while spending the first couple of days largely on my own, had a lot of time to think. Secondly, the Facebook group I formed last April called Lockdown Literature, was somewhere where I hadn’t posted anything in a long time, so when I wrote the first poem quite quickly as a one draft piece, I wanted to post it there as a way of informing friends of what was going on. Only when I wrote the second one did I have the idea for the blog. The third one? Well, that was the result of a head full of ideas and the need for one more poem to complete the hat-trick!

Here’s the first poem, written shortly after we’d found out about the two positive tests.

Ten Days

We've done this so many times before
that I perform a cartoonish double take
as those two lines appear where there should be one.
And although one is barely there, it's still a second stripe, an alarm that stops rather than starts.

A moment stretches out in front of me 
as I struggle to react, to comprehend, before the
adult in me reaches up, takes over and my mind
begins to crunch reluctantly through the gears
that will help me protect you.

More tests are booked, the coming days organised, rest is ordered, distance
kept.

Ten days to get through. Ten days to check on you both as you sleep. Ten days to worry on the inside, but paint a calm picture on the out.

The second poem is about watching my wife through our dining room window as she sat outside in the fresh air and what we laughingly refer to as sun in West Yorkshire at this time of year. It was a few days into our period of isolation and a relief to see that she had the energy to go out, a relief to see that she was smiling once more. It had only been a matter of days that she’d been ill for and it would last a short while longer, but given the death toll and the horror stories that we’ve seen and heard throughout the pandemic, it was a lovely moment.

Fresh Air

It's funny how, despite the myriad cures and treatments 
prescribed by those who know best,
we still insist that fresh air is the cure for all that ails.

I watch you both, furtively through the window,
part concern, part inquisitive and
partly just because it makes me smile.

Despite the late afternoon sun dappling the table
you're wrapped up for winter, for a moment comical,
with your hood up. But then your vulnerability 
returns in sharp focus and I'm stopped in my tracks.

Fresh air won't loosen this deadly grip,
won't work any kind of magic. And so, I monitor,
shoulder the burden, cook beige teas and hoover to stay busy,
keep my mind from wandering too far down darkened streets,
watching from a window as you shiver but smile.

My final isolation poem is one that I fear may come across as pretentious. That’s definitely not the intention though. It was born out of the fact that we’ve had to work hard to avoid each other over the last ten or 12 days. There have been lots of moments where we pause and indicate ‘after you’ or just make eye contact in order to tell the other person which direction we’re headed. It’s been a kind of family friendly isolation and it just occurred to me that it’s been a bit like one long dance. This has mainly involved myself and my wife and it’s been never more apparent than last thing at night when we clean our teeth. We have a small bathroom and so have had to move around carefully in order to keep a safe distance from each other – a kind of cross between an amateur ballet and something out of a fight scene from The Matrix. I suppose we could have just brushed our teeth at different times, but then I couldn’t have written my pretentious poem. Anyway, here it is.

An Isolation Ballet

Little do we know it, but we've performed some kind of ballet this last week.
Two parts grace, one part paranoia, several parts a combination of
fatigue and sleepwalking.
We've picked a path around each room and each other carefully, reluctantly,
traversed two metres apart performing the every day 
routines and collapsed in synergy, separately
at the end of each day.

The discipline has been exhausting as we plie and pirouette 
our way through each hour of a ten day performance of avoidance
in search of some kind of security on our sanitised stage.
There are strange frozen moments, essential for safety, adding
to the drama and prompting the odd grin or burst of laughter at the 
sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Sometimes we don't even need to look as we move,
cautiously yet gracefully navigating space, just sensing the other 
and squeezing ourselves into a safe space.
This is not truly a ballet, a thing of beauty, but what we deem
necessary, vital as we dance apart, to stay together,
to remain safe.

So there you have it. The end to a difficult period of time in our house, although I think in terms of actual health it’ll take weeks, perhaps even months to adjust properly. The positive tests came at a time when I thought the threat had probably passed. I wasn’t ready for them. Not that I think I ever would have been, but at least when we were in the eye of the storm of Covid, say in the period between May last year and January of this, I had at least primed myself to expect the worst. Lately, as things have returned to being quite close to some sort of normality again, I had allowed myself the luxury of thinking that perhaps we’d got away with it. And of course we hadn’t.

I hope the poems haven’t seemed too indulgent or exploitative of the people involved or the situation. I think I just had to communicate what was going on somehow and writing it down is good when you’re being kept away from everyone else.

I hope you enjoyed what you’ve read. As ever, feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Book Review: ‘Gone Fishing – Life, Death and The Thrill of The Catch.’

Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse have been entertaining the nation for the best part of 30 years. With classic comedy credits like ‘Vic Reeve’s Big Night Out’, ‘Shooting Stars’, ‘The Fast Show’ and ‘Harry Enfield and Chums’ to name but a few, it’s safe to say that the pair are national treasures. Both are people that I admire hugely.

So when they paired up to make a show about fishing, the subject matter…well, it didn’t matter. I was onboard immediately. The result was another cult classic in BBC2’s ‘Gone Fishing’ and the book is borne out of the show.

‘Gone Fishing’ is a great read and as you’d expect from its writers, it’s full of laugh out loud moments. But it’s much more than just a good laugh. The book details the pair’s friendship in a genuinely touching way, while also discussing health, happiness and of course, the art of fishing.

By the far the best parts of the book for me were the sections where Bob and Paul discuss their friendship of over 30 years. For those of you that don’t know, both of them have suffered from heart disease in recent years and both underwent open heart surgery as a result. And when Bob felt he couldn’t go on, it was Paul that reached out, offering to take him fishing. And not long after a TV show was born!

It was the heart health angle that really piqued my interest in the show. Having gone through heart surgery myself a few years back, felt I could empathise a little bit. And so, when this aspect of both mens’ lives was discussed in the book I found myself more than a little choked up.

The book makes quite an emotive start. First we’re introduced to both men, their history with heart problems and then their friendship. The realisation that both could have died felt like quite a revelation for me as a major fan. And the passage when Bob actually discusses the very real thoughts that he had that he was facing up to his own imminent death, makes for a powerful read. It certainly felt like a side of one of my heroes that I’d never witnessed in such detail before. It was discussed on the show, but it felt like the book gave the subject a slightly greater depth.

The book ploughs on; a mixture of humorous anecdotes, explanations of aspects of the show, the locations for the fishing and the episodes as well as some real insight from Paul Whitehouse on how to actually fish. And while this might sound a bit dull to some, I’d say don’t knock it until you try it. Certainly both men have quite an infectious enthusiasm for their hobby and while it didn’t make me want to return to fishing – a hobby I dabbled with as a lad – it did shed light on why grown men stand on riverbanks in all weathers for untold hours on end.

As we move further through the book Paul guides us through some quite encyclopedic knowledge of various species of fish, as well as the more ecological side of the sport. This felt like hard going at times, but it certainly never made me want to put ‘Gone Fishing’ down. By the end, Bob has thrown in some of his favourite recipes for cooking on the riverbank, spattered with his trademark wit and wisdom and in truth, you’ve got all of the knowledge you need to get out there and fish. It’s just a question of working out whether you can handle the early morning starts before getting out and buying the kit.

‘Gone Fishing’ is an optimistic read. Joyous and life-affirming at times, educational at others. If you’re a fan of Bob, Paul, the show or just fishing, it’s well worth a read.

I give ‘Gone Fishing’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: ‘I ran’

This is a poem that’s been sat in my notebook for a long time. Months, not years, but a long time all the same. In truth, it’s one that I was a bit unsure of. I didn’t know what to do with it and as such it got a bit lost. Every so often I’d flick through said notebook looking for something else, only to re-discover this forgotten poem. Finally though, after a closer inspection, I’ve decided to give it an airing.

I think the good weather has helped. The poem is about a time when I could exercise a great deal more because for almost the whole time the weather was glorious. Looking out of the window as I write, it’s another glorious evening, much like those of last April and May.

It’s a poem about the pandemic. I don’t know quite when I wrote it, but I know that I took the whole thing deadly seriously once I realised the extent of the devastation that seemed to be going on. I was adamant that I was definitely sticking to lockdown, but determined to take advantage of our daily exercise allowance. And so I did.

The poem is about lockdown in general, but also the fact that I took the opportunity that lockdown presented as a chance to make some changes. I’d have said that I was reasonably fit or even kidded myself about being ‘naturally fit’ when it all started. But as I read more and more reports about coronavirus and took into account my own vulnerability to it, I decided that I was going to have to get much fitter. After all, there was little excuse; I wasn’t at work and all I really had was time. So, as the poem says, I ran.

I ran...

When the danger struck, I ran.
Not away from it, but straight at it,
maybe heroically, possibly naively, 
feigning bravery because I didn't know what else to do.
Such is my way with everything.
Don't think, don't plan, act on instinct, 3 in the morning thinking
and possibly a dash of Dutch courage.

And so, when the unseen, yet definitely alien villain headed our way,
sounding dangerously, almost laughably familiar,
I ran.
Decked out like a skinny, pound shop part time superhero,
I somewhat limped into action, exercising evangelically
in an attempt to out-cardio this beefed up cold.

But while others stockpiled toilet rolls and 
took another paracetamol from their selfish stash,
I got fitter, leaner, stronger.
My thirst for the fight meant I doused my fear in fresh fruit, 
nuts, seeds and an ever present bottle of water,
and I ran.

Thousands perished. Some sought solace in illegal road trips
or standing on doorsteps hypocritically acclaiming those who chose the Hypocratic.
I doused my guilt with physical torture, pushing myself to limits I'd not explored in years,
enjoying the isolation, getting evermore prepared to face what felt inevitable
and hoping that this wasn't all in vain.
I ran.

The effects of lockdown – or lockdowns, plural – can’t be underestimated. I think, more than anything, I benefitted from it, but it was still an awful, scary time. Running got me through the fear. In fact, running quite often dealt with the early mornings, while writing steered me through the late, sleepless nights. So my poem is both about what I did as well as being a direct result of what I did.

I’ve tried to inject a dark humour into parts of this poem. At first, I didn’t really believe the hype about coronavirus. It was the flu, it was a ‘beefed up cold’ and I wasn’t going to lose too much sleep about that. I soon realised the truth though! I’ve attempted a little more dark humour later in the poem too. Although I was fit, I probably didn’t really look it; hence the ‘skinny…superhero’ reference. And let’s face it, not many tall skinny fellas look good in lycra!

The whole pandemic scared me and the best way that I could think of to deal with that fear was just to throw myself into something. Exercise, fitness and in particular, running was that thing. Initially, my thinking was simply that if I was fit, the virus would stand less of a chance against me, so I was exercising in different ways every day. At first the whole family joined in and then, as the world righted itself and people went back to school and work it left me largely on my own in terms of exercising. And this was when the running went into overdrive. I’m guessing that when I wrote the poem I was feeling particularly evangelical about it all!

That’s certainly why there’s the reference to people stockpiling certain products. I think lockdown saw a lot of people showing their true colours and it angered me that while I was doing my best to stay safe there were others just making sure that they didn’t run out of anything, that they weren’t inconvenienced. I’d see social media posts from people about how they’d joined in the ‘Clap for Carers’ knowing that they’d been visiting friends or family when it just wasn’t allowed. The hypocrisy of that support for the NHS really bothered me when all it seemed to be for some people was a chance to pat themselves on the back and look good. And I watched in horror as various high profile people in the UK were caught out visiting family hundreds of miles from their homes, while I couldn’t head out to visit friends and family myself. In fact, at the time of writing, I still haven’t seen my parents, my sister and some of my best friends and it’s been well over a year.

So there you have it. A poem that may take people back in time a little bit, despite the fact that large parts of the world are still in lockdown and that even here in the UK we’re only just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Imagine if you will. it. You’re just about as multi-talented as they come. You once turned into a child at the fun fair, before turning back into an adult with the help of your best mate. Another time, you ran across America, just because you could (and this was after your time in Vietnam and your exploits as a shrimp based entrepreneur). You’ve been a daredevil cowboy, a much-loved television presenter and America’s favourite pilot. Everybody loves you. I mean you even made friends on a desert island once… with a football. You are Tom Hanks.

And then just when we thought there might be a limit to your talents, you went a wrote a collection of short stories.

As a reader, short stories generally aren’t my kind of thing. So a collection of them doesn’t normally work for me. I like the full development of characters and an actual narrative that I feel a novel always brings. But ‘Uncommon Type’ intrigued me when I spotted it on the shelves of my local supermarket. I liked the look of it, but I have to be honest and say that it was Hanks’s name that drew me in and led to me taking the book off the shelves. Yes, I’m that shallow!

Uncommon Type is a collection of seventeen stories, all set in the USA and as the quote on the front of the book says, ‘All American life is here‘. Several of the tales revolve around the same four friends and their various adventures, but then we also have a Word War II veteran facing up to life after active combat, an actor who suddenly and unexpectedly finds ridiculous levels of fame and also the thoughts of a child facing up to his parents’ divorce and the strange ways in which can sometimes move on. So although we’re largely faced with tales of small town America, there’s a great variation in the stories. And one last twist; all of the stories are connected by the presence of a typewriter (hence the title), which while it doesn’t sound a particularly clever or attractive selling point, is carried out brilliantly.

I have to admit, I was hooked from the first page of ‘Uncommon Type’. It turns out that as well as being lauded as an actor and just an all-round nice guy, Hanks can spin a yarn too. He writes beautifully and although there were one or two of the stories that did nothing for me, I couldn’t put the book down for the majority of my time reading it.

As a reader, you’re immersed in the worlds that Hanks places you in, such is his gift for description. Whether it’s small town America or the other side of the moon, Hanks’s prose transports you there convincingly and makes for an excellent read.

As you’d expect from the award winning Hollywood superstar actor, Tom Hanks can write a character! From Anna, an ex-triathlete with a penchant for telling her boyfriend, “Atta baby” through Virgil and Bud, army veterans, both the epitomy of masculinity and typical of their generation and on to American immigrant and stowaway Assan; all are believable and thoroughly engaging. Hanks has created real people that the reader can’t help but care about and ask questions of. And if you’re like me, all the while that you’re in the worlds he creates, watching the characters go about their lives, it’s all being narrated by the man himself! For all seventeen stories Hanks was my reading voice, which, let me tell you, is relaxing to say the least.

I loved ‘Uncommon Type’. It’s subtle eye for detail, charming characters and sense of humour made it a brilliant, engaging read. Although there are one or two perhaps below par tales here, all in all there’s something for everyone. A definite winner that I’d certainly recommend you read.

I give ‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: ‘Crossroads’.

This is a poem I wrote at the back end of last year after a bit of a setback, careerwise. It’s not important what that was, but it hit me like a train. This was unusual for me, as I don’t brood on things too much – apart from football, stupidly – and always try to take the view that ‘these things happen’ and that as long as I can move on with life, I will.

However, this was different. When I was growing up my own father went through career problems at a similar age and as a kid in his mid-teens, an age when these things tend to leave an impression, I watched him suffer. His situation was far more serious than my own, but career-wise at least, he never recovered. He was out of work for a number of years, having successfully fought his old employer in court, and it all combined to reduce him to someone who was constantly angry and who must have felt that he’d never have hope again. So, faced with the news that I received, it was a worry to say the least.

Here’s the poem.

Crossroads

You are at an unexpected crossroads, bewildered, like your father before you.
Was he older? Younger? The memory vague, but those days branded on to you,
although the details fade. Until now.

Two envelopes, weeks apart, that plunged you not once but twice
to depths you hadn't thought were there anymore.
To questions about your worth, your place, your existence.

Dark thoughts return, like a playground bully, arm round you, sinister smile,
pouring poison in your ear. You've not thought like this in years, 
not imagined you'd think like this again. You do not know which way to turn.

The news leaves you like a puppet without a master,
limbs useless and flat, splayed out across a table thinking, like a coward
that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, they'd be better off without you.

But just as this is not a real option, this is not a real crisis.
You wipe away tears, busy yourself, think, confide in those you trust,
love, value. There is even a small sense of liberation.

Slowly, you crawl out from under your stone and although you feel
that age is cruel and experience no longer valued, this is not the end.
You stop short of full on Gloria Gaynor, but you will, in fact survive.

You find some focus, tell yourself that you are not him and that
you will find not the other side, but an other side, that the confidence,
however painted on it may be, will return.

You are at an unexpected crossroads, bewildered, like your father
and like others, worse off, who felt that their whole world had
collapsed, sometimes even because it had.
But every crossroads has a way home.

The poem is about how bad it all felt. I genuinely felt like I’d let my family down. I felt that I’d completely failed and I felt extremely angry at that. The feelings that the whole situation prompted in me took me by complete surprise and for a short time I couldn’t see the point in anything anymore. As I usually do, I internalised everything and even though I eventually discussed it with my wife and a few trusted friends, the extent of my thoughts and feelings weren’t revealed. Until now, I suppose.

Eventually, after a few weeks of brooding and, dare I say it, feeling sorry for myself, I decided that I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore. I’d regard myself as quite strong, mentally and I could see that what had happened could just be an opportunity.

For me, there’s no point in sulking and I won’t allow setbacks of any size to hold me back for too long. Not that I’m hell-bent on moving too far forward, mind. I know not everyone is like this and I wouldn’t ever criticise or question anyone’s right to feel any way that they want, but as a grown up with a wife and family I made a conscious decision to get back on with life, hence what I hope is an optimistic ending to the poem.

It does worry me that my age is now a barrier. I feel that my experience isn’t particularly valued and that in education there has been a shift in thinking. If it’s not shiny, smiley and youthful, it probably doesn’t have what it takes. Call me a cynic, but often these new approaches from people who’ve had a job for no more than a few years are just approaches that have been done before, but wrapped in nicer paper nowadays. At my age my work feels like a competition to see who can smile the most and shout the loudest. I’m not a very good smiler or shouter either! But, as the poem hopefully shows, I’m not prepared to go under just yet!

I’m definitely at a crossroads in terms of work, age, the way I look, the things I do, the company I keep and much, much more.

With work, I can’t decide whether I want to slow down or head for a new challenge. Or just to keep doing what I’m doing, which is something I love at a place I love. With my age and a notable birthday on the horizon, I need to choose whatever I do carefully; not just in work. In terms of my looks, my hair is greying, my body not quite as responsive as it once was, my face a little more haggered. I won’t be reaching for the Just for Men and won’t resort to some form of cosmetic surgery, but sometimes I catch myself in the mirror and wonder where the fresh-faced 17 year old me went. And I’m always wondering, does my bum look big in this!

But I’ve realised that there’s no point in worrying about it. Just choose a road. Eventually I’ll find the right one. And whichever I choose, I’m lucky enough to have family and friends to rely on.

I hope you liked the poem. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: As yet, still untitled…

This is a poem I posted recently in the Lockdown Literature group that I helped set up on Facebook. It was a good way of passing the time during our first period of lockdown and it’s great that people are still posting in it on a fairly regular basis. This was the first poem I’d posted there in a while.

It wasn’t a poem that I was going to post on my blog. I’ve tended to steer clear of anything too personal on here, but having sat down and read through the poem again, I wondered how relevant it would be to others. At the time of posting it in the group it didn’t have a title and I wasn’t sure it was finished. It was about growing up in our house, but on reflection I began to wonder just how normal the things I wrote about were. I grew up in a house where shouting and various kinds of tension felt almost constant and fairly normal. I hated it. When my parents argued I felt like I was waiting for the inevitable to happen and for one of them to announce that they were leaving. Or I worried about whatever other terrible end it might have. It felt like nothing ever got talked about or discussed; everything was a battle. And not just with my parents; with my sister, with my grandmother…wow, especially with my grandmother! But adult life has taught me that maybe it wasn’t all that rare. Maybe that is just how family life can be sometimes.

As I mentioned, it’s not something I really like to write about, or at least post where it’s so visible, but having revised the poem a little bit and revised my thinking about it too, I thought I’d post and see what people think.

Mam and dad fought; to keep food on the table,
to keep a roof above our heads, to stay together.
So maybe there was nothing left in them to fill a home with love.
Maybe being there when they could was enough.

In a lucid moment, in quiet, in solitude
I think I understand that now,
have sort of come to terms with it, am almost at peace with it.
But while it's easy to say let go of the past, it's impossible not to always be reminded of the impact that it's had. The damage that it's done.
Dealing with what it left behind, 
picking up the phone more often and enjoying the life you have while it's still there still present a knot to be unpicked by stone cold fingers.
Maybe a nod, a smile, an isolated cuddle and the odd word of encouragement was all the energy they had left. Maybe it works both ways. Maybe we're all just like this.
Maybe there's a lesson to be learned.

A funny one this. I still don’t think it’s finished. I’m still not entirely happy with it and I still think it will be revisited. It’s a slightly different poem to the one that appeared in that Facebook group and definitely one that’s changed in mood with the tweaks that have been made.

The poem still hasn’t got a title. I wondered about calling it ‘Maybe’ but that word was only added in this second draft, so it didn’t quite feel right. Maybe I’ll revisit the subject matter, but not the poem itself. Maybe, like the subject matter, the poem just needs to left. As I said earlier, it’s a funny one.

As ever, feel free to leave a comment as I’m always interested to hear what people think. I’m never entirely sure when it comes to poems, but this one has really stopped me and made me think.

Book Review – Fever by Deon Meyer.

Like most of us, this time last year I’d never heard of Coronavirus or Covid-19. Regardless, it was there and had been around for a while. However, even as news broke left, right and centre and day by day the situation worsened, most of would have never have imagined how bad things would get and how much our world would change. So imagine a situation where it seems like the very same virus wipes out 90% of the world’s population.

This is the premise of ‘Fever’ by Deon Meyer. Even as a lover of almost anything dystopian, the facts here would have seemed a little far-fetched without the reality of the present-day global pandemic. And while Coronavirus has had nowhere near such a devastating impact, the severity of the damage done to the world of ‘Fever’ made it all the more readable for me.

The novel is set in South Africa and while the rest of the world is rarely referenced, the reader is aware that the entire planet has changed almost beyond recognition. The South Africa inhabited by our protagonists, Willem and Nico Storm is merely a microcosm of what’s going on elsewhere. And there’s a lot going on. ‘The Fever’ has wiped out the majority of human life and those that are left are now battling for survival. Everything that they need to stay alive is either sparse in quantity or heavily in demand and the competition to stay alive is strong. This really is survival of the fittest.

But, in amongst the chaos, Willem Storm has a dream. Having lost everything to the fever, he now wants to create a community that will welcome anyone and be fair to everyone. Willem Storm wants to restore order while at the same time offering hope, even if it is on a relatively small scale.

In my opinion this is dystopian fiction at its best and at its most relevant. The book is around 5 years old so while there was an awareness of coronavirus, Meyer couldn’t have predicted just how quickly it would take hold and just how relevant his novel would eventually be. I must admit though, that for the first few sittings of reading the novel I was fascinated by the coincidence, even though I knew that coronavirus had been a ‘thing’ for a while. So reading the novel when I did, in the midst of our latest lockdown, gave it a definite edge. As the infection rate and the death toll spiked again and again, I couldn’t help but think, ‘what if?’

The novel is written from the point of view of the 13-year-old Nico Storm, looking back on the events of his childhood and the early post-Fever years. South Africa is in a state of emergency and no one is safe as rival gangs roam the country, robbing, killing and trading as they try to stay alive. Think ‘The Road’ but with a better climate. The wildlife poses a problem too and packs of wild dogs are a constant threat. So we have a landscape and society that is very much a cross between something out of Mad Max and The Walking Dead, but with no zombies and more Negans and Whisperers. And in amongst it all, his father Willem, sees a dream of a new society.

The dream becomes reality, but despite the spirit of evolution and the fading of the fever, this was never going to be simple and there’s little chance of a happy ending. The population of Amanzi – Willem’s vision for the future – grows, but so do the problems. And as with any good dystopia – and there’s a paradox if ever there was one – just when you think you’ve overcome the problem, another one appears. And another, and another. ‘Fever’ is very much edge of the seat stuff.

‘Fever’ is a novel of hope. Everything is a struggle, but with that, even the smallest of successes is a victory for the good guys. Within its 500+ pages there are plenty of moments where the reader has to suspend their disbelief, but this isn’t War and Peace; this is the world minus 90% of its population and a book full of drama and edge of the seat thrills. I must admit I didn’t enormously enjoy the twist and ‘big reveal’ of the ending, but it certainly didn’t spoil the read for me either.

If you’re a fan of anything dystopian then you’ll enjoy ‘Fever’. Meyer creates a surprisingly believable world while managing to fill a long story with enough problems to keep you well and truly interested and perched on the edge of your seat. It’s possible that there are too many characters to really focus on, but then again, with the protagonists creating a new world and aiming to accept all who arrive at their gates, we were never going to be able to just stick to the two points of view. And frankly, if you don’t get confused while the world is falling apart around your ears, then is it even falling apart at all?

‘Fever’ plunges us right into the situation that we’ve been living through for the last year…but replaces government sanctioned exercise, closure of shops, face masks, hand sanitiser and social distancing with the fact that it all got a lot worse and nearly everyone died. What more could you want to get your teeth into?

I’d give ‘Fever’ by Deon Meyer

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Ghosts

This is a poem about loss. It’s not about loss in the traditional sense of losing someone who died though. This is about the loss of friends and friendships, which seems to be something has has afflicted me a lot over the years.

It’s a poem about losing touch and if I’m honest, probably losing interest. It’s about the transitory nature of friendships and how they grow, but also about how we can grow or move away from them, or them from us. I hope that makes sense. I suppose it’s about how they grow and how they fade.

It is, for me a type of loss though. I genuinely find staying in touch with people really difficult. This is partly because life is just so busy that if I’m immersed in my daily work routine or taking care of the everyday adventures of family life, I just get a bit lost. It makes me feel like an incomplete person, someone who’s clearly not a proper adult. Even while writing this I’m aware of the fact that I was meant to get in touch with my sister two days ago, as she’s unwell, but I haven’t done it.

My sister is an interesting ‘ghost’. I use the excuse that I’m six years younger than her and that we don’t have a lot in common – apart from parents and upbringing – but that’s all it is; an excuse. I really should keep in touch more than I do. And I get that these things are a two way street – she doesn’t call or text regularly either – but I need to be a better brother.

It’s a form of loss that really bothers me. I probably think about friends I’ve lost touch with most days, which would probably surprise some of those friends. Not all of them at once, but individuals will regularly pop into my head and it can make me tremendously sad to think that they’re only a call away, or an email or text and yet they might as well be on a different planet. Yet, something still stops me. Whether it’s the embarrassment, in some cases, that I haven’t spoken to someone in years and therefore I fear some kind of rejection from them, I don’t know. But I can easily envisage someone seeing my name coming up on their phone and just rejecting the call. It doesn’t give me a crippling sense of loss in the same way that a bereavement would, but it’s something that makes me feel a horrible sense of loneliness and guilt at times.

To my knowledge I’ve never lost a friend by actually falling out with them. I would say that in that sense, I’m a good friend. I do, however, seem to be cursed with becoming friends with people who then move away! Maybe they’re trying to tell me something. This has caused an awful sense of loss in some cases as well though. I desperately miss the friendship of someone who was only local to me for two years before they emigrated to another continent (I won’t name names, but they may well read this!) This was just someone that I clicked with completely and his loss did have an effect on me at the time that was akin to that of a bereavement. There are others too, that although I keep in touch with them and I’ve known them for most of my life, their absence from my every day life genuinely hurts. Texts and Facebook messages just aren’t the same.

Ghosts

I think of you often; ghosts.
Either re-living past glories or indulging in imaginary conversations
in the comfort of my head.
Keep in touch, we said.

Sometimes you re-appear from the past
and I blame myself, wonder why I went silent.
The girl who got the job, became the boss is just a miracle really.
The ghost who came back to life and helped to show you just how friendship works.

Other ghosts are far too many to mention, without a crippling guilt taking its toll.
I'll never know if it was me that drove you away,
but I'll always ask the question.
Keep in touch we said, 
and I disappeared like the dead.

The one who vanished, perhaps hiding the shame of a break-up.
I'll never know if I could have done more.
Those who had the audacity to carry on living lives without me,
some forever extending their hand,
while I make excuses, ignore the calls, hide in these four walls,
without ever really knowing why.

Those who, like paper aeroplanes, were taken away by the breeze,
and may float close by again,
tantalising like the promise of a meet up in the sign off of a text
until they fly so far that you'll never reach them again.
Keep in touch we said,
the embers now a dying red.

Then the ones that saw you at your worst.
These ghosts? You're forever in their debt.
The one who scraped you off the floor, mended the first real heartbreak,
talked you down, walked you round, held your hand,
now relegated to the occasional like on social media.

And don't forget the girl who looked out for you when work became almost too much,
boosted your confidence, while simultaneously kicking you up the arse
and telling you bluntly, to polish your shoes.
She who mothered you, but when she left called you her big brother,
still cast adrift years later without a reason why.

Those ghosts we lost along the way,
are no longer just there on the other end of a phone,
but leave a million shades of regret, of things you never said, of sleepless nights, 
and the ever-present pain in the gut that reminds you that you could have done more, 
should have done more...

Keep in touch we said
but all that's left is in your head.

I feel that some of these ‘ghosts’ must think that I’m a pretty terrible person who just doesn’t care. I do care. I’m just awful at showing it and at keeping up appearances. Even when I get in touch with people I imagine them thinking, ‘what does he want?’ This feeling probably isn’t helped by people like my dad who regularly answers the phone with such witticisms as, ‘We thought you’d died’. Hilarious. Funnier still given that my parents rarely ring.

I know there’s a saying that the best friends are those you don’t have to talk to every day to know that they’re still friends (or something like that) and I definitely have friends like that. But I wish I spoke to them more. And maybe this confessional will make me step up my friendship game (as no one said, ever) or maybe one of them will read this and check in on me (please no U ok hun? type things though). Anything would be good in these times of not being able to meet up.

I hope you enjoyed the poem. And at the risk of sounding like I just ate a whole block of cheese, if it resonated in any way, maybe you could call that friend you’ve been thinking of lately? Cheeseball or not, I know I’ve got some reaching out to do.

As ever, feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

Poetry Blog: ‘On teaching those that aren’t really listening…’

I wrote this poem after a particularly trying lesson with one of my lower ability English groups. Please don’t get me wrong when you read the poem – I love teaching these groups and I certainly don’t mean to be disparaging in any way. It’s the students that are struggling, the ones who’ve been in and out of trouble for years, the ones that can’t stand the subject and the ones that want to push your buttons, that I enjoy teaching the most.

I seem to have become a bit of a specialist in this area of my job and I’ve lost count of the number of bottom set GCSE groups I’ve been handed over the years. It’s definitely an aquired taste, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So here’s my poem

On teaching those that aren't really listening...

On teaching those that aren't really listening,
the disengaged and disenfranchised and those who would, quite frankly, rather be anywhere but here 
you must make like a boy scout; be prepared.

Because, make no mistake; no task is ever simple.

Although each lesson will start the same for hundreds in a row, your simple instruction - 'Date, Title, Learning Purpose'
will still be met by at least one motionless student who may well imagine that the pen will write itself.
There will also be at least another who will ask, "Do we write the date?" and another who simply ignores what's on
not one board, but two to ask, "What's the title?"
You're allowed to sigh. It's fine to indulge in some eye-rolling. But.
Stay calm. Your sarcasm will fly through the nearest window, so be prepared to repeat
or at the very least, to point it out again.
Even your request to write even a bullet point list will be questioned.
"Do I need to use bullet points?" or "Can I do a Spider Diagram?"
Then, when you've spent the best part of an hour prepping them with every detail of every feature of how to write A REPORT,
showed them an example, got them to label the features and look for language examples, told them how to start,
told them how to finish and showed them the types of things to write in between, given them example sentences, 
and done everything you could apart from write the actual thing yourself...
you walk around the room, peeping over shoulders to see one will not start because, in their words, "Eh, what we supposed to be doing?" 
and, I'm not exaggerating, when I say that
32 out of the 14 in the class will not have written anywhere near enough
and that still half of the class are writing A F***ING LETTER. 
 

I’ve taught many of the members of this particular group for a number of years now. Some of them for every year of their high school careers. So it’s safe to say that I know what to expect and that nothing at all will come as a surprise. But I have to admit that the lesson that inspired this poem was a particularly trying one. Any copying out was met with at least one, ‘Do we copy that?’, any task was met with at least one, ‘So are we (and then they’d either repeat the task back at you or just ask if we were writing a letter!) and almost every period of silence was punctuated by a silly noise and a fit of giggles.

It didn’t make me angry at all. Well, not particularly. I’d like to think I have some patience in these scenarios. I certainly should do as I’ve taught these groups for over twenty years now. But the fact that it still left me a bit exasperated gave me the idea for the poem.

It was an unusual process for me in terms of how I wrote the poem in that I just sat down at the computer and wrote. Or typed. Where usually I’ll sit and write notes and maybe even the odd few lines that might pop into my head and then knit them all together later, this was pretty much a stream of consciousness. There were one or two bits of re-ordering made, but this poem was pretty much just written as I thought of it (and I’m not very sure of it as a result.)

As ever, I’m genuinely interested in opinions, so let me know what you think in the comments.