Poetry Blog: ‘Absent Friends’

This is a poem that I wrote around Christmas time and then spent far too much of my time either poorly, relaxing or just eating and drinking to remember to write it up properly for my blog. As a result, it’s a little out of date, but I think the sentiment holds up, whatever the occasion.

It’s a poem about reflecting back and remembering those that we’ve lost, which I suppose we tend to do at important points in the year. We do it all year round, I suppose, but at times like Christmas and birthdays, when you’re maybe at your most relaxed you’re more prone to thinking about how much a particular person is missed or maybe even just how much they themselves would have enjoyed that occasion, it’s a little more pertinent.

Absent Friends

Absent friends sparkle even more at this time of year
and we raise a glass to remember more intensely now
than over the passing months,
more distant now, yet somehow our focus tunes more 
than before and we toast our absent friends,
tears punctuating what is still a celebration,
staining cheeks and mixing incongruously 
alongside cracker borne paper hats and party poppers.
our absent friends are guests once again and we all see
those smiles, hear those voices, cradle each other in arms 
used just hours before to shatter anticipation and tear at wrapping
covering all manner of happy shapes.
Now, a moment hovers longer than a moment, 
sharper than the year before until you can almost see them,
almost touch them, hold them again as they stand in the kitchen,
glass in hand nodding wistfully, gone but only a thought away,
yet agonisingly too distant for one more conversation.
And all we have left is love...

I must admit that when I looked again at the draft of this poem in my notebook, it didn’t make a lot of sense. The start of it, anyway. It was another poem that I’d written in the early hours and given that the first couple of lines didn’t seem to make any sense, perhaps I was more tired than I thought! After reading the rest of the poem a couple of times I was able to re-draft and change those lines in order to give it some clarity. I was tempted to leave it as it was – poetic license and all that – but decided that something that made sense was better than something so confusing. I’d love to know what I meant with the initial first line though!

‘Absent Friends’ is a product of both Christmas and New Year. I think we’re more likely to look back at New Year, but I know that having lost a close family friend relatively recently, our thoughts were with them on both occasions, both this year and last. I suppose it’s natural that we look back at these times. As I said earlier, it’s obvious that when we’re relaxed and happy we might reflect on those that aren’t around anymore and what they would have made of the situation that we happily find ourselves in.

In a different way, we found ourselves explaining to our children about another absent friend this year. The absent friend in question – still alive, but moved overseas – lived in the UK as a student teacher years ago and joined us for Christmas Day as he had no family around. He’s from Australia – hi Andy, if you read this – and so everything he knew and loved was on the other side of the world. As our mate, it was only right that he joined us and it was a fantastic day. We still think of him every year at Christmas and this year it was lovely to re-tell the tale of that particular Christmas Day, even if it left our kids quite perplexed as to why we chose to share our day with anyone else, when we always just have Christmas as a family these days! It was funny to hear their almost outrage at the fact that our guest wasn’t grandma or grandad, uncle or auntie, but Andy!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the poem and that, if it brought any memories back, they were fond ones rather than bad ones. Sometimes, despite the obvious pain that it can cause, it’s just a nice, warm feeling we get when thinking of those absent friends.

Winter Running – 5 Tips to make those chilly miles that little bit better.

It’s that time of year again. The weather is invariably freezing cold, the days aren’t as long and the nights are closing in, so that it’s getting dark by around 4pm. Add in the potential for rain, snow and high winds and this can be a challenging time in anyone’s calendar.

It’s also the time of year where all sorts of people make all sorts of vows about being better people in the future. Those resolutions, however, are never particularly binding and as we all probably know only too well, they’ll fall by the wayside with the least bit of encouragement.

Exercise at this time of year can be difficult. But unfortunately it’s also one of the things that people see as a good way of changing their lives. An easy win that, in Winter, can turn out not so easy after all. So, for runners and would be runners alike, I’ve written up what I think are some handy some tips for running at this time of year.

  1. Run early. Although Winter mornings can be ridiculously cold and utterly miserable, it’s always worth keeping an eye on the weather forecast. Every once in a while you’ll get an amazingly beautiful day; still, bright blue skies and a tolerable, bracing chill in the air. If you find one, set the alarm, roll out of bed, warm up and then get out and run. I think this type of morning is my favourite for running, especially in Winter. I’ll put on a base layer – maybe some running tights as well, if I think they’re needed – and after some warming up, sneak out of the house while everyone else sleeps and just run. It’ll be dark to start off with and as a result it can be quite an unnerving experience; the sight of anyone at all will put you on edge when it’s so dark. But the peace and quiet is just fantastic. Well worth the early start. It allows me just to focus on breathing, pace and whatever might be on my mind at the time. You’ll see the occasional dog walker or shift worker, but other than that, the world is your own. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll catch the sun rising. I can’t recommend an early morning Winter run enough!
  2. Hi Viz. If you’re running in Winter, chances are that it’ll be dark at some point. Even the middle of the afternoon can get dark at this time of year. So, be sensible. A high viz top or windproof jacket is well worth investing in. A neon yellow works well, particularly in late afternoon and if you can find something with reflective patches or stripes, then all the better to be seen in! Failing that, you can buy anything from trainers to socks that are reflective enough to make sure you’re seen at night. Not everybody can pull off the neon look. In actual fact, I’m not entirely sure anyone can, but safety must took presidence over fashion at this time of year! So even if you might be going out on a run looking like a road worker or a throwback to mid 90s rave culture, at least you improve your chances of getting round your route safely this way.
  3. Join a running club or get a running buddy. Now I’m afraid this is a classic case of the person giving the advice but flagrantly ignoring it at the same time. That doesn’t make it bad advice though. Personally, I prefer to run alone. In company I know I’d either feel guilty for being too slow or grumpy for the company being too slow. But, amongst other things, running is supposed to be fun. And in Winter, it’s just safer to run as part of a group. Another added plus here is that company can be encouraging and even give you a bit of a boost. I’m a far better runner in a race situation, where there are lots of other people to focus on and aim for, so to speak. But I can guarantee that in a race, if I’m flagging, someone will offer encouragement and support. Running clubs or groups are easy to find these days, as they’re only a Google search away and they’re ideal for beginners. I know that there are a few groups around my area where it’s all very informal, friendly and the emphasis is on gaining fitness with a bit of fun and friendship. So, if you made that resolution, joining a club with like minded and friendly people might well be the decision that helps to stick to your vow!
  4. Make sure to warm up and warm down properly. Whether it’s Winter or not, this is a good tip to follow. However, if you’re planning on going out running in freezing temperatures, then making sure that those muscles are fully stretched and warmed up is essential. The temperature alone should be the only shock that you get; you don’t want to have gone 100 metres and find that your body just doesn’t feel right. It’s Winter; you’ve got every excuse you need for turning round and heading back to that warm bed or front room with the fire on! At least if you’re fully warmed up, you’ll have a fighting chance of getting into a rhythm nice and quickly and after that, it’s all about just running! Warming up will help prevent those little niggling injuries that could mean you’re back on the sofa before you know it. Similarly, by warming down once you’ve finished, you’ll feel much, much better. I sometimes finish my run within a half mile of my house and then get home with a combination of light jogging and walking, just to make sure nothing seizes up. I always stretch again once I get back to the house and make sure that I take on plenty of water to rehydrate. It’s no fun when all you want to do is flop down on the bed, but it’s a lot better to have warmed down for ten minutes or so.
  5. Never underestimate the importance of rest. Winter running can be difficult. Motivating yourself to actually go out is tough when you already know how cold and miserable it is out there! So don’t put yourself under too much pressure. If you’ve scheduled a run, but you know your body’s just not right, then don’t go. Rest up instead. There’s always another day. And the same applies for days when it might just seem too cold or too windy. If you don’t feel like it, but know you’ll go another day; do that! Or the other alternative is to go out and maybe run a shorter distance than you’d had planned. I’ve done that a few times recently and spared myself a little bit, but have also been able to say I’d been out and kept my fitness up!

So there you have it. Hopefully a few handy tips that might just help you out a bit when running this Winter. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know if they’re of any use in the comments!

Poetry Blog: Resolutions

I wrote this poem shortly after writing my list of New Year’s Resolutions for 20022. The poem is definitely more serious than the blog that blossomed from my list of resolutions. But only just. More realistic though, too.

Resolutions

Big Ben's chimes are still ringing in the ears as we attempt the first, a vague but heartfelt vow to be a better person,
where neither the wit nor will is available to achieve success.
Throw in some tired, old  standards; exercise more, drink less, and a project like finally writing that book for good measure, you know the drill.
Then we head outdoors - a new sport or interest, more days out with the family, all underwritten with an escape clause allowing excuses involving adverse weather, where adverse is defined by you and you only.
Later, intellectualise oneself by by loudly proclaiming that you'll learn a language, a musical instrument or even a martial art in order to sound windswept and interesting.
Then, spout keywords and phrases in an attempt to appear somehow superhuman and worthy.
Improve my core - whatever that means,
something, something charity, listen more, appreciate something, anything, while not knowing even the postcode of where to start.
Read more will become nap more by early February,
track down and meet up with old friends will become impossible when a single Google search does not instantly reveal their whereabouts
and when a name appears that actually could be them you will remember your allergy to upheaval and the well worn fact that you are nothing more than comfortable with continually feeling miserable.
By mid-January, the wayside will have claimed at least 8 out of 10 of these resolution cats and routine will revert to being the friend that you never lost in the first place.
You'll tell yourself at least you tried, then resolve to not to do i all again next year, before buckling under the pressure as December meets January once more.

Like everyone else, I’ve set out with good intentions for at least a few of my 29 New Year’s resolutions. In fact, as it turns out I’m actually making progress with some of them. I’m making healthier eating choices and have completed my first 10k run of the year too. However, I haven’t got myself into any serious exercise as yet in line with my aim of getting my lockdown abs back! I have started researching more healthy eating though by watching some YouTube videos on Instant Pot recipes today! This has really surprised me!

I’ve started being a better brother too, sending my sister’s birthday card off 4 days before her birthday when usually I’m closer to doing this 4 hours before it! Furthermore, where 11 days into 2022 and I haven’t bought a single packet of crisps. I’ve also just about eaten the final packet left in the house.

But I know I won’t keep this up. And that’s pretty much the crux of the poem. It’s not a new start. In fact, it’s really just a new day. These ambitions will inevitably fall by the wayside. I’d imagine that most of us will be exactly the same. But, I suppose in having 29 resolutions I have a bit of a chance of keeping a few of them up.

I think that although the poem has a bit of a pessimistic – maybe realistic – feel to it, the ending gives it a bit of a softer underbelly. When I think about it, as futile as they sometimes might be, there’s nothing actually wrong in making these resolutions. And if you can improve just one tiny fraction of your life in making them, well why not?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the poem…I’m off enquire about a weekend of dry stone walling and learning Inuit…

How old do I feel?

A funny question, this. And one that is quite close to my heart really. You see, I started my blog shortly after recovering from a heart operation having been admitted to hospital a month or so earlier and being told I was lucky to be alive. Among many things that were brought to mind around this time was the question of feeling so old. That, coupled with the realisation that I really was now middle aged and the desire to write prompted me to write a three part blog about the troubles I’d encountered and the realisation that I felt very old indeed.

You can read that very first blog on the link here that asks When did I get so old?

In truth, the question of how old I feel has been a regular topic in the vast desert of my mind ever since. Surgery was a wake-up call; I needed to be healthier, fitter, stronger – I needed to live.

Since then, I’ve made changes – not perhaps as dramatic as I’d like to make, but everything’s in transition at my time of life – and am able to give a far better answer to the question these days! So when asked to write something about it https://billswritingplace.wordpress.com/2022/01/01/how-old-do-i-feel/ by my very good internet pal, Bill of ‘A Silly Place’ fame, I leapt at the chance.

Like Bill, I’m approaching 50. In fact, I’m 50 in February (which leaves plenty of time to organise some kind of gift, dear reader!). I really don’t feel it though. If others are to be believed, I don’t look it either, which is something I’m truly grateful for! Without sounding too big-headed or pleased with my little self, I’m comfortable in my own skin and to a point, with my own reflection in the mirror. But ultimately, this isn’t really important in terms of how old I feel.

So, if I had to nail it and put an actual number on how old I feel, then I’d plump for 18. Not bodily. Running and football and having two kids – I didn’t actually birth them, but sweet Jesus, they’re exhausting – have definitely taken their toll. However, in my head, I feel 18.

There’s a brilliant song by The Courteeners called ‘Not 19 Forever’ and while I love the song, I’d argue vociferously against the title and its sentiment. I won’t reach 19, because I am 18 forever!

So, why do I feel so young? Well, it’s not as positive as it sounds. I feel 18 because I retain a fully formed sense of silliness. Just as I did at that age, I really don’t take things too seriously. I like to have fun and I’m happier than ever when just larking around and having a laugh. In short, I suppose that makes me immature, but they do say that boys take a while to catch up, don’t they? So, I’m only doing as I’m told really. But even as I hurtle towards 50, I still don’t feel that I’m a very good adult. In fact, I’m just a much better kid.

“But dad, I don’t want to form a band!” “Why not? I’m still young and hip and down with the kids, maaaan!”
Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

Part of feeling 18 is that I have the same kind of daft ideas that I had as a kid. A fair few of my blog posts will prove that. My recent New Year’s Resolutions post included ideas like learning to moonwalk and adopting an imaginary cat with a rude name, all very much the ideas of an overgrown child. Last summer I bought a Snoopy t-shirt and I still have a Hong Kong Phooey one and while I know these are not the attire of an almost 50 year old bloke, I just really like them.

Eighteen year old me still regularly plays both kitchen disco and kitchen band while doing the dishes. In fact, I like very little more than the chance to mince and mime my way through songs, just simply because it amuses me greatly. In my head on these occasions I’m a combination of a young Mick Jagger, a Jackson 5 era Michael, James Brown and Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, the frontman of Swedish band The Hives. In reality I’m likely much more a slightly out of shape, yet curiously skinny bloke with greying hair and a few moves, none of which are actually that great. But I’m bloody well 18!

“OK Wembley, this is the last song of the night. You’ve been a lovely…oh hi kids, dad’ll get your tea soon…he’s just…working…” Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

I think that part of the reason I still feel 18 is that I spend a large proportion of my time surrounded by young people. I’m a high school teacher, so I’m in the presence of people from 11-16 five days a week. And although this could well be the reason that I’ve developed nervous ticks and often wake in the night in a cold sweat, screaming, I think it’s kept me young, so to speak. I’m obliged to see things from a pre-teen and teenage point of view, I’m informed of the latest trends and I’m haunted, daily by their language! I suppose I’m inspired by their energy as well. For all the mini battles we might have with behaviour, attitude and application, there are a million more inspiring, positive and fun interactions to be had and it keeps a smile on your face as well as giving you the motivation to get out of bed and get into work every day. In my case, it feels like it keeps me young too!

As well as teaching, I coach a youth football team. This definitely helps in the feeling 18 stakes! At least twice a week I’m actively playing football and because I’m very competitive it means I throw myself into it…like a kid, really. It’s something I’m really enthusiastic about; not just getting to kick a ball around, but working out how to inspire our players, how to develop their skills and get the best out of them. It’s tiring, but it’s also another aspect of my life that means I really don’t feel like an almost 50 year old. However, there are occasions when it can have the opposite effect and leave me feeling like I’m nearly 90, not 50! A few months ago I injured my shoulder because I thought I’d go in goal during some shooting practice. The more I saved, the more competitive it became and the more I threw myself around! It was loads of fun, but I regretted it the next day – and for months afterwards – as I’d damaged a nerve in my shoulder. It led to a miserable summer of being in constant pain and frankly, I’ve never felt so old.

Mainly though, I genuinely feel young. Of course, I get more tired than before, but I’m not one for napping or just sitting about. I think because my job requires a lot of energy and my coaching and interests do too, then I retain that (almost) teenage energy, a lot of the time.

My name is Graham and I’m an almost 50-year-old man. I have some wrinkles and some grey hair. In my head, I’m still 18, although I’m not sure my knees agree…

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

I wasn’t going to write this post. I was reasonably determined not to write something so predictable. I mean, I pride myself on trying to something at least a little bit different and surely every blogger going is banging on about their resolutions? Nothing wrong with that. But I wasn’t going to do it.

And then I woke up just before 3am on New Year’s Day having had around an hour and a half’s sleep. I thought I’d just roll over and slumber on, but no. It’s quite a regular thing for me to get an idea stuck in my head at this time of day and so when it happened this morning, there wasn’t a lot else to do but get up.

I also had a pounding headache, not from the drink I might add. So, I’d go downstairs, have a glass of water and some paracetamol and scribble some things down on a bit of paper. I WOULD NOT stay for long. Just over an hour later and I had written a huge bullet point list of resolutions, a first draft of a poem about resolutions, drank a pint of water, taken two paracetamol and tidied quite a few things away in an attempt to start my resolutions early, even though said resolution (Just pick stuff up, regardless of who left it there) wasn’t actually on my new list.

Here are the results. Some of this is simply exactly what I wrote down, while other bits have been added to because it’s clear even to me that they should get explained. I don’t want people to worry about me. So, in no particular order…

  • Learn to moonwalk. I will study YouTube and then astonish/bore to death anyone within my moonwalking eyeline.
  • Write my YA novel and Christmas story. I started the first of these around this time last year and then ran out of wherewithal. It’s still there, in my notebook and I still like it. It has been a lifelong disappointment to me that I’m not related to Bing Crosby. Imagine the money White Christmas makes every year. My Christmas story is one of many attempts I’ll be making this year to make enough money to speed up retirement. It’s also a good idea, if I say so myself.
  • Research and eat more heart healthy foods.
  • Be a better husband, father, son, brother. There are times when I think that I’m pretty shit in all of these roles. I tried to ring my mam and dad this morning, but they were out. By my estimation, this means that I’m already smashing this one, as the young people would say.
  • Modify my Duolingo use. That’s what I wrote down. I’m not sure what it means.
  • Write more teaching and football content for my blog. These subjects always get more people reading, which fascinates me as even after 22 years of teaching I feel like I don’t really know a great deal more than talk a lot and write stuff on the board. I make a mean display when I can be arsed though. Did I ever tell you about the Andes mountain range that I drew on a huge display board? It was the size of something you’d find in a major art gallery. People gasped when they saw it. I don’t like to talk about it much though…Perhaps I’ll write an epic poem about it…
  • Stop buying crisps. They’re like heroin to me.
  • Attempt to get a six pack – I’ll settle for four – while refusing to give up beer and chocolate, in moderation. Did I ever tell you about my lockdown six pack? Probably not…I don’t like to talk about it much.
  • Speak to people more. People must think I hate them and that I’m just really miserable. I’m not. I’m actually very shy and genuinely can’t imagine that people will want to talk to me. I regularly imagine their thoughts as I drone on about football. As a result, I’ve most likely uttered one word to at least 60% of the people I work with over the last year. That word is ‘Alright?’
  • Play more board games with my wife. She loves them. Be a better husband, see? Seriously, I’m like a freight train once I get going.
  • Mow my lawns more regularly. It looks better and would surely annoy my neighbours, right?
  • Run more. Take part in more races and get back to Parkrun.
  • Amuse myself by telling people I’ve adopted a cat and named it Fellatio Nelson. I might write some spoof adventures of said cat. All because the name amused me. This is genuinely the resolution that kept me awake and got me out of bed, by the way. Some insight into the mind of an idiot there…
  • Make more videos. I created a teacher character called Damian Malarkey in the first days of lockdown. He was the kind of arsehole I really don’t like and as such, made me laugh a lot. My colleagues enjoyed the video and this tells me that Damian deserves another airing. I’ve met quite a few Damian’s in my time in teaching, so I know him well. I also secretly worry that I’m turning into him. For ages I’ve also harboured the idea of videoing myself dancing to certain songs, not because I’m a good dancer, but because it makes me laugh. I do it all the time. I’m like a shit Mick Jagger, I hope. I also mime along to certain songs and have what I think is a brilliant idea for one of these mimes. It’ll no doubt be shit. I’ll laugh though.
  • Start a podcast. I’ve mentioned the idea to my best mate. I repeatedly let him down by floating these ideas and then not being able to find time. I think we’d just chat about middle aged stuff. You know, just moaning and stuff?
  • Get sponsors for a run. Try to raise a silly amount of money. I’ve got a lot of people to be grateful to.
  • Write to the boy I sponsor more often. Over the past 22 years I’ve sponsored two separate children in South America, yet probably only written to them half a dozen times. This is something I hugely regret. (Now you can all join my cardiologist in knowing for certain that I actually have a heart).
  • Make up German words and phrases for things and pass them off as actual fact. “Oh, the Germans have a word for that. Yes, you’re experiencing schencillpumpenhooff.
  • Get my toe treated before it either falls off or I turn into a hobbit or a troll. One toenail is black and has some kind of crust under it. It doesn’t hurt, so what with lockdown conditions and social distancing, I’ve just put up with it. No doubt the Germans have a word for that. If they don’t I’ll make one up for when I go to see the pharmacist.
  • Write a Eurovision entry. I’ve wanted to do this for years. I have the bones of one written down somewhere and it wouldn’t take much to finish.
  • Write at least 2 Christmas songs. One spoof, one real. That second home by the sea won’t buy itself.
  • Start to note down things that pupils and colleagues say. I’ve wanted to write a ‘Things I Heard in Class’ book for years. And boy, do I hear some things.
  • Learn some new words.
  • Invent new words and phrases to impress gullible people with.
  • Use the phrase ‘amuse bouche’ more. I don’t really know what it means, but doesn’t it sound nice? See also words like ‘journey’ and ‘vision’, but only inappropriately. E.g. ‘I’ve just finished reading a book about teaching. I’d like to thank the bedside lamp for all it’s support while I’ve been on this journey.
  • ‘Discover’ new music. Not new like bands containing teenagers, necessarily. More bands that I should know, but haven’t really listened to over the years. I recently discovered James Taylor, someone I’d been fully aware of for years, just by asking Alexa to shuffle some of his songs. I’ve undoubtedly benefitted from this. More please!
  • Stop grumbling at people when I hear them walking past our back fence. Better still, stop this behaviour in supermarkets. Face masks are not soundproof.
  • Write my Diary of a Middle Aged Singleton blog. A spoof, inspired by someone who lives close to us.

The final resolution doesn’t get a bullet point as it is simply to write further blogs updating your good selves on the progress of my resolutions. Some of these are just to amuse myself but plenty of them are deadly serious, which I think is the point of these type of things. In total there are 28 resolutions, plus the promise to keep the blog up-to-date on their progress. I’m genuinely hopeful that I can keep some of them up!

Christmas 2021: Some thoughts…

It’s just gone 3am on Sunday 26th December 2021 and despite a long Christmas day and the fact that I could have crashed out on our settee at around 4pm, I am still very much awake. I think I dropped off into a fluttery eyed sleep of sorts somewhere between quarter past midnight and quarter to one in the morning, but after that I was wide awake.

My wife chatted sleepily to me for a short while, but then as her deep breathing told me that I was now alone, I just got back out of bed and headed downstairs.

And then I wrote. A long poem that on first read back seems like something that I really like, another that I’m not that sure of, the premise for a children’s book about Santa and Christmas – because I’m told that the two generally go hand in hand – and then an A4 page of bullet point notes about Christmas that will make up the bones of this very blog. After that, at around 3.20am, I went back to bed. I was still awake enough to glance at the clock later and see it reading 3.45am. Suffice to say, I’m a tad tired this Boxing Day morning.

So far, it’s been a strange old Christmas. Some family – and some people in general – are insisting that visitors take a lateral flow test before visiting, emphasising the odd shift that Christmas has taken in the past couple of years. I think they’re right to do this, by the way. If you’re shielding someone vulnerable then why put them at risk? And if you’re unwilling to take a test in order to see family, then what kind of person are you? After all, Christmas is about family, so if sticking a glorified cotton bud up your nose is enough to put you off, then I hope Santa avoids your house just to make a point.

For me personally, I’m left questioning what will happen with my parents once again. In summer I saw them for the first time in over 18 months, thanks to Covid and now, having tentatively planned another post Christmas visit, it looks likely that we won’t get to go. My mam and dad are just getting over some kind of winter bug – referred to by my mam as ‘this chest thing’, like I’d be fully acquainted with it already – and combined with the omicron variant currently doing the rounds, visiting them seems a bad idea for all of us. But then, can we afford to wait? Not really the thought process you ever want, let alone in the season to be jolly.

When we visited in summer I had a moment of clarity while out on a walk with them and started taking furtive photos of them both. I didn’t want anything posed, just images of them chatting, looking at each other and things like that. And I got some lovely ones, but now, in the very early morning, thinking about everything while wide awake, I regret not taking dozens more.

Away from the serious stuff about Christmas we had a lovely moment yesterday that really took me back. My son – aged 12 – burst into tears upon opening a present. It was a gaming desk – or as people of my vintage call them, a desk – and he was so delighted and so surprised that he ran across to his mum, hugged her tightly and just sobbed. It was the kind of thing that would happen every year and on birthdays when our kids were younger, but not so much anymore and I must admit, it brought a tear to my eye. As commercial as Christmas is, it was just a really lovely moment.

Christmas takes a lot of balancing. As someone who didn’t always have a lot when I was a kid, I always vowed that when I had my own they’d always have good birthdays and Christmases to remember. But I never wanted them to be spoilt. So we’re always working with a balancing act in that aspect of Christmas. So the joy brought about by some flat-pack furniture made the day, really!

Another area of balance is with the indulgence of the whole period. The chance to eat and drink a ridiculous amount of deliciousness is almost too much. But then I think about fitness and my middle aged body as well as heart health and Christmas becomes a real battle between my ego – I mean, you try catching sight of your little fat, hairy belly in the bathroom mirror – , your health – I still want to be able to exercise regularly – and temptation; show me someone who can resist pigs in blankets and I’ll show you a wrong ‘un! So the past two days, with their wine, Christmas dinner, cheesecake, chocolates and crisps and the next week or so of all the same stuff and then some, is going to be difficult, especially when quite a few of my presents have been either alcohol or chocolate related!

The lead up to Christmas continues to be a royal pain in the backside. It shouldn’t be. We should finish work and be able to take ourselves off out, doing bits of last minute Christmas shopping and maybe rounding things off with a visit to the pub or a meal out. In actual fact though, what happens now is the ‘deep clean’. And judging from things others have said, it’s not just us. Everyone is working day and night to get their house spotless…in order to then scatter wrapping paper, boxes and opened presents all over the place.

In the lead up to Christmas we washed the windows, transported all manner of stuff to charity shops, recycled like never before, scrubbed floors, made every part of the bathroom shine, washed down walls and kitchen cupboards, hoovered repeatedly, dusted, wiped down skirting boards and just generally found new homes for all manner of things. As a consequence, I’m absolutely shattered by the time we get round to Christmas morning. Is it any wonder that I’ve not exercised since Tuesday and that in actual fact, indulgence is winning when it comes to what I’ll be doing with my days!

So now, on the evening of Boxing Day, it’s all well and truly over. And there are a couple of things remaining to tell you about in terms of stuff I realised or discovered yesterday. The first was that Christmas crackers are utter rubbish and almost a complete waste of time. I’m not a party hat wearer, the jokes are awful and the gifts are an absolute waste of time. I got yet another set of tiny screwdrivers yesterday and they now reside in a cupboard with all the rest.

The other thing was the realisation that charades is an absolute winner. Inhibitions suitable loosened by a glass of wine, I get to show off and act like a knobhead, thus playing to all of my strengths without ever having to truly exert myself. And all within arms reach of another glass of wine!

Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed Christmas, the holidays, the festivities…whatever you refer to it as. All in all, as the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of year; I wish I got to see more people, but I know I’ll still have a lovely time! See you in the New Year!

Poetry Blog: Christmas Lights

So this is a poem I wrote a few weeks back. It’s seasonal and inspired by the sights around the town where I live, particularly in the centre where the Christmas tree was put up and decorated a few weeks ago now and the town had its annual ‘big’ lights switch on.

I think the other thing that inspired it – apart from Christmas itself – a time that I’ve always loved – is the way that people celebrate the festive period with lights on houses, trees visible in windows and various ornamental features around the gardens. I know some may think it’s tacky and cheap, but for me it’s always felt just a little bit magical. As I say though, I’ve always loved Christmas.

Anyway, it got me thinking and then inspired me to scrawl down some stuff in my notebook. From there, well it became a poem.

A Town at Christmas

For weeks the town's lights shimmer a symphony,
spotlighting the drizzle of a northern sky and somehow warming the air of frozen nights.
The town hall clock seems to reach for the sky even more keenly than before at this time of year,
its stately architecture contrasting sharply with the fact that spirits are lifted more by oversized, synthetic snowmen, baubles and Santas 
flanked by grinning cartoon reindeers.
Every walk home brings a new discovery, 
a rueful smile and outside, adults are kids again, footsteps lightened, strides widened by this special atmosphere.

It’s funny how, the same old places and the same old sights can be transformed at this time of year. There are certainly more beautiful places and even at Christmas, more beautifully decorated places. But I don’t think it matters. Wherever you live can feel utterly transformed as each day of December passes and more decorations appear. Throw in the sound of Christmas songs and what I suppose we have to refer to as a dollop of Christmas spirit and it really is the best time of year and you could be living anywhere.

Well, as I write we have a few days until Christmas. In our house there’s still a lot to do in order to be prepared for the big day. Family to visit, tidying to be done, last minute shopping and wrapping and of course relaxing and watching Christmas films. Hopefully, if you’re as flat out as we are, it’ll all be worth it and you’re still finding time to enjoy the kinds of things I’ve written in the poem!

Have a great Christmas everyone!

Christmas Gift Guide: What the middle aged man about town might want this Christmas.

I’ll be honest with you. I have no real idea what the typical middle aged man might want this Christmas. So, if you’re looking for a guide that might prove to be of some use, this might not be the read for you, although as a middle aged man I may be able to offer some useful advice. I mean, I’ve been middle aged for a while now and run a blog called Middleagefanclub; I can hazard a decent guess, right?

My first gift recommendation can be both practical and stylish. It’s slippers. Now, I know, I know, I know that slippers seem to be the most stereotyped middle aged man gift going. And perhaps they are. But I’ll tell you what; they’re practical too. In fact, all you need to get some use out of slippers is feet. On an even more practical level, us middle aged men have gotten to a stage in life where circulation isn’t quite what it used to be. And it’s our hands and feet that will suffer, so in order to keep some feeling in those feet on those long Winter night, you could do a lot worse than buying the middle aged man in your life – dad, husband, brother, uncle, whatever – a nice pair of slippers.

Now slippers can range wildly in price. Like anything, really. So, if you’re working with a budget, you could pick up a pair in a supermarket such as Asda or Sainsbury’s – or whatever the popular supermarkets are in your country, global ‘fanclub fans – for as little as £7 and even get the more toasty warm boot style slippers – you know, if the target of the present has literally no sense of style whatsoever – for around a tenner.

However, there is a luxury end to the slipper market as well. I spotted some online recently and, as a confirmed slipper wearer they got my interest. For starters they didn’t really look like your traditional slipper. There was a bit more style and originality and the colour choice was a bit more daring too. But the price was an immediate stumbling block. Howver, dear reader, if you’re feeling flush and have enjoyed my writing over the last few months, well a pair of Mahabis at up to £75 would be very much appreciated and they’d keep my toes from getting numb too!

Books are always a good purchase for the middle aged man in your life and especially at this time of year. And fortunately, there are a lot of books released at this time of year too. A trip to your local supermarket over the next week or two will reveal all manner of newly published work and the good thing seems to be that the quality of these books seems to have improved in the last few years. A book isn’t a very difficult present to buy either and while it’ll give the middle aged man in your life something to concentrate on for a while and an excuse to sit on an armchair or lie on the bed, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, as once read it can be passed on to charity.

A quick look at the shelves of my local supermarket revealed the scope of choice, just for non fiction. There were books by Mel Brookes, Will Smith, Billy Connolly, Bob Mortimer, Louis Theroux, Freddie Flintoff and Dave Grohl. And for those who aren’t really that big on reading, there were also books by the likes of Paddy McGuiness, Alison Hammond and Ant Middleton (who has a disturbing amount out, as it goes). I imagine there’s more pictures in these ones.

Boxer shorts/underwear are always a sure fire winner with your middle aged man. Now, It’s not an area I’ve surveyed a lot, but I’d like to think that the majority of discerning men of a certain age are in favour of boxers. Without putting you off your next meal, I know I certainly do. Much more comfortable. And while I’m not being paid to mention them, my recommendation would still be that you try http://www.myoddballs.co.uk as their range is excellent. They’re also very comfortable, make donations to testicular cancer charities as well as raising awareness and their designs are such that it’s safe to say they’ll put a little more funk around your junk, so to speak. And it should still be important to look good at our stage of life. Oddballs also do other products such as socks and sportswear too, so you could find yourself really treating that middle aged fella!

As for buying budgie smugglers for middle aged men; listen, if you know anyone still wearing them, run!

Alcohol is always a good gift, although it’s obviously dependent on a middle aged man’s relationship with booze, I suppose. But, if you know someone who likes a drink – occasional, steady or just a raving session drinker – then these days the choice is amazing. It’s fair to say that beer has undergone a bit of a revolution in the last 5-10 years with the emergence of craft beers. Small, independent breweries, tap rooms and beer shops have sprung up regularly and there are some real gems to be tasted. It might be that you simply buy a gift pack or hamper online from a site like Honest Brew, Flavourly or Beer52 or one of the craft breweries. Even if you’re not sure where they are, a quick Google search of ‘local craft breweries’ should do the trick. And even if they don’t do some type of pack or bundle, you could always just put a hamper together yourself. You could revolutionise someone’s tastebuds.

If beer isn’t the thing for the middle aged male target of your gift giving, how about whisky, gin or rum even? There are always packs of small bottles available in supermarkets and of course online and a bit like with beer, the emergence of many small craft distilleries over the last few years means the choice is great. Failing that, your local supermarket will most likely have a vast selection of all manner of spirits and you can usually pick up a decent bottle for somewhere around the £20 mark. If you’re not sure, go online and look for reviews.

If the middle aged man in your life likes to exercise, then there’s always a gift to be had. Maybe it’s something they’ve been doing for years. Maybe, they’ve decided to look after themselves a bit better and want to embark on some exercise. Or maybe they’re just having a mid-life crisis and have decided to launch a crusade to look better and – in their dreams – snare themselves a younger partner! Whatever the reason, exercise gear could make a great gift. As with a few other of the suggestions above, there’s a huge range of things to choose from and a huge range of brands too. Whether it’s a new pair of trainers, an exercise top, a base layer for those colder times or a pair of shorts, there’s plenty of choice and gear to suit all budgets. If you’re in the UK places like M and M Direct always have sportswear at decent prices and even shops like B&Ms and The Range do exercise gear. You’d be surprised what you can find. You never know; your gift of some sort of exercise gear might just open up a whole new world for your middle aged target!

If you’re going down the exercise road with your gifts then one thing I can highly recommend is a massage roller. These are brilliant for soothing those aching muscles and, as a middle aged man myself, I can vouch for their positive effects! My wife actually bought me one last Christmas as I was having problems with my calves after running and it was an absolute revelation. You put the roller in the freezer and when you need it, it’s ice cold and ready to work its magic. Roll the metal ball over your aching muscles and it will really help recovery. And believe me, us middle age geezers need all the help we can get! The two that I’d recommend would be the Murlien Massage Roller Ball (the one I’ve got) and the Fitness Cryosphere Cold Massage Roller. Both are available in various online outlets and are reasonably priced too!

My final recommendation is ideal for the middle aged man who’s just waiting to move into the realms of being a pensioner. Get him a pipe! If he doesn’t use it now, he’s sure to reach for it within the next few years!

Well, I hope my gift guide gave you a little bit of good advice. If not, well I hope it gave you the odd chuckle. Happy Christmas to you and the middle aged man or men in your life!

Poetry Blog: Christmas Do

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

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

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

Anyway, I wrote a short poem about them.

Christmas Do

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

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

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

Forget the season to be jolly. There’s loads and loads to dislike about Winter.

A confession before we start this one: I actually quite like Winter. Fresh, clear mornings, the sight of snow blanketing the landscape, the relief at walking into a warm house. So, you might think maybe I’m being a bit contrary in writing about the things I hate about it. Well, let me explain what it is that irks me so much about Winter and gives us that love/hate relatiomnship.

Having to scrape frost or ice off the car in the mornings is something I really can’t stand. I should expect it really, but every time I open the front door and discover that icy covering on the windows of the car, I’m surprised. My heart sinks. It’s hard enough getting out of the house on those freezing cold, dark Winter mornings, but then to be greeted by frost or ice is just a step too far.

As soon as I see it I know that I’m going to be delayed. I can’t just get in the car and put up with the freezing temperature for the next few minutes before the usual drive to work. Oh no. Instead, it’s a race to start the engine, grab the ice scraper and then get to work at clearing my windows. Throw in the likelyhood of an icy driveway that may just see me ending up on my backside and we’ve got a pretty terrible start to the day. And then on my return to the car I’ll have to drive with a painful, icy numbness in my thumb for the next ten minutes. Not good.

Ice on the pavements and roads. That feeling of sliding uncontrollably in the car is just awful. It’s not too bad if there’s nothing around, but on one occasion, when I worked at a particularly rural school I managed to drive up a particularly narrow and steep road for a few hundred metres before getting stuck in the snow and ice. With no way forward this meant that I had to slowly reverse back down through the ice to get home a different way. Inevitably the car slid and we collided with a wall on the way down. On another occasion I fairly burst out of my front door laden with a few bags and ready to head to work only to find, as soon as I placed one foot on the front step, that the whole place was glazed with ice. I literally somersaulted onto the path, quite spectacularly. Arse over tit, we call it and bruised for days after. Bizarrely, my neighbour from two doors up emerged from her house at exactly the same and achieved exactly the same results. I think we’re both a lot more cautious in the Winter these days.

Putting the lights in the tree in the garden is possible the most dangerous thing that I’ll attempt all year. This isn’t because it’s a big tree or that the set of lights is particularly cumbersome. It’s because of the fact that we don’t have a proper ladder and that our front garden runs down to the tree on a bit of an uneven slope. Every time we put the lights up, I can sense curtains twitching, neighbours queueing up for what must be a combination of the most death-defying show they’ll see all year and the kind of act that a medieval jester would have put together in that it’s not funny, just kind of awkward.

Each year I dread the feeling of the step ladder legs sinking into the moist grass, wobbling as I get higher up the rungs and then veering dangerously sideways as I reach anywhere near the top. Many’s the time I’ve had to jump off before I fell off. In my head I’m something akin to Alex Honnold in the film Free Solo as he scales El Capitan. For anyone watching I’m probably a lot more like Stan Laurel or terrible circus clown; a lovable simpleton putting his body on the line in the name of looking slightly more masculine than usual. And that’s still just about as masculine as one of Steps.

The Winter wardrobe; particularly how I can’t manage a scarf. Some people are just stylish and the carrying off of a big coat or a thick jumper just seems to come naturally; they literally put on some of their Winter wardrobe and look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Italian Vogue. They can trudge through the foot deep snow looking cool. They seem to almost levitate above the slush (that’s the dirty melting wet snow if slush is unfamiliar to you), their trousers immune to the water or the dirt, their cashmere overcoat unruffled by the wind. And then there’s me, either sliding about in trainers because I hate walking boots and wellies, or looking not unlike the Stay Puft man from Ghostbusters because of the sheer amount of layers I’m employing to fend off the cold. A few years ago I bought a new, expensive Winter coat and then almost immediately ripped the lining by one of the armholes, meaning that I couldn’t even put it on stylishly, preferring instead to choose the wrong hole almost every time and end up with one arm just stuck in the coat somewhere.

I’m a disaster when it comes to scarves though. Although it never puts me off buying them. Even this morning I made the latest in a long linesof attempts to wear a particular scarf that I must have bought in a sale a couple of years ago. It’s a bit of a Moddish affair and the kind of thing I’d expect Paul Weller or one of The Kinks to look fabulous in. Not me though. I still can’t decide how to wear it as it just seems about a foot too long. Thus, in my head I’m going to look great in it, but in reality I’ll stand in front of the mirror for 5 minutes trying different ways of wearing it before folding it roughly and returning it to the draw. I’ll wear a football scarf instead and just ruin whatever look it was that I was going for!

The weather can’t make up its mind. Time was, when I was much younger and lived in much more northern climes, that Winter meant snow. Nowadays, this is no longer the case. The sky tells lies. Take today, for instance. The weather forecast promised snow. Promised it! Sure enough the clouds arrived bang on time. It was freezing cold too. And then the rain started, accompanied by gale force winds and we were in the grip of another of our recent weather additions: one of those storms that the Met Office insist on giving stupid names to. And that’s the way of Winter these days; less of the kind of wonderful snowy landscapes that would block the doors when I was younger and more filthy dirty rain and horrible winds, designed to soak you to the skin and make it impossible to walk around the place! All of them given daft names – the last one was called Arwen and the one throwing us around like rag dolls today has the moniker Barras. I mean, who calls their new born baby Barra? Apart from anything else, you’re missing a trick in not adding a bit and christening it Badass, surely?

Linked to the weather is my sympathy for our PE staff at this time of year. Now I get that it’s all swings and roundabouts with PE teaching in terms of weather. I can’t help but feel envious when it’s a scorching hot summer’s day and they’re out on the fields. But in this weather, even a cold hearted old cynic like myself can’t fail but to feel a bit sorry for them. That is, sorry for them with a smug grin on my face as I sit in a lovely, modern heated classroom. Most mornings though, as I’m getting into my classroom, setting up for the first lesson of the day, PE staff are trudging out to the fields, loaded down with bags of footballs, poles and other kit like sporty beasts of burden. Then they’ll wander around said field, marking out areas with poles and cones before trudging back in soaked to the bone. And this is before they’ve actually taught a lesson. Do they ever get dry on these days? Is the only place where they’re not either frozen or soaked, their home? Is work just like one Arctic expedition after another for these poor souls? I love sport, but having to go through that on a daily basis just isn’t worth it.

This is the route to the fields for PE lessons. Runs right past my classroom window!

Sadly though, the weather isn’t something that I can avoid that much during Winter. As a volunteer football coach, I get to sample the sensation of being both frozen and soaked for what feel like endless hours, pretty much every Sunday in Winter (and Autumn…and Spring…and some of Summer; I mean we do live in England).

Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, right? A time for relaxing and preparing oneself for the demands of the coming week. And yet, for most of the year I’m up not long after 7am in order to start preparing for a game. Having spent some of Saturday afternoon loading the car with the equipment we’ll need, I’ll rush my breakfast on the Sunday in order to be at our pitch – which is generally a mud bath at this time of year – setting up for around 8.40. Often, in Winter it’s either freezing cold, pouring with rain or your caught in the midst of some ridiculously high winds. Often, it’s all three at once. This will mean that by about 8.50 I’m either soaked through or have pretty much lost all feeling in my hands and toes, making jobs like putting nets onto goal frames incredibly difficult. Sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I might not be able to find any nets or corner flags – on one occasion I forgot the matchball – or there might not be enough spare kit to go around for the lads who’ve only just joined the club meaning I get to run around the place searching stuff out, which is all made infinitely better by driving rain, sleet or ankle deep mud that our winters inevitably bring.

After that I get to stand on the touchline coaching my way through the game, quite possibly losing my voice in the process, while attempting to stay warm now that I’ve thrown in the towel in the battle against the rain! (See below for some images of our pitch on a recent rainy, winter weekend)

Even when I get home, it’s not over. While the rest of the family can get inside and start getting warm, I’ll still have to unpack the car and load all of the gear back into the sheds, all while saying a silent prayer that it will have dried out in time for training a few days later. Then, I’ll have to sit on our wet step and take off my muddy boots, as well as my soaking wet socks and probably a couple of wet upper layers before I can even go in the house! Yep, you’ve got to love Winter!

So there you have it. While Winter is the season of sledging, building snowmen (snowpeople?), Christmas and hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire, there’s also loads to dislike about it. Roll on Summer where I can be far too hot one minute ad then fed up of the rain the next!

Oh, and by the way, remember to tune in next week, when in the name of blogging and content, I’ll be writing about the many things I love about this very season!

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