Poetry Blog: Forbidden

This feels like an ambitious poem. For me, that is. I doubt actual poets would feel anything like as intimidated by it as I did. In fact, such was the level of ambition and intimidation, it was a poem that I almost didn’t even take on. But in the end, it was a subject matter that interested me so much that I just thought I’d like to write a poem about it.

So the poem is about the mass repatriation of Zainichi Koreans who were (and still are) ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Between 1959 and 1984 93,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan were repatriated to North Korea, despite the fact that lots of them were of South Korean origin. Furthermore, among the 93,000 were over 1800 Japanese women who had married Korean men. Many of these women had previously faced the opposition and disapporval of their families, such was the ill feeling towards Korean immigrants in Japan at that time. Now they faced an uncertain future in a land where they knew nothing about.

The repatriation was disastrous for many as the promise of a new life and the optimism that brought just didn’t work out in a North Korea that was heavily damaged by war. Later, as North Korea became more and more closed off to the outside world, the women were denied the chance to visit family and ‘home’ in Japan. My poem is written from the point of view of one of these ‘trapped’ women.

Forbidden

When we married, we dreamed of a future together in our home, 
like everybody does, I suppose. Something modest.
Having fought for just each other, we didn't need the world.
But it took only months to leave those dreams behind
and look towards others on another shore that we imagined as home.

Too young to know better, to argue, to question
we boarded a ferry to our brave new world.
Promised the dream of paradise, we told ourselves that we weren't being forced,
that this was our decision, that our nerves would give way
to delight at what our future could, would become.

But our future wasn't bright at all. Instead it was the sombre
tones of mines and factories where we made our lives,
as had been their plan all along. Our utopia disappeared,
in time becoming nothing but a prison where we shed
tears for our loss, tears for our betrayal, tears for our home.

I clung, steadfast, to memories, allowed my senses to take me home,
closed my eyes to reality in order to see the acacia in full Spring bloom,
allow the smell to envelop me, stay there for a time bathing in the warm air.
In my mind I would walk pavements in parks with him,
cherry blossom breaking over us like gentle April waves.

But none of it would be real life anymore.
When we were forbidden from visiting our parents' graves
sadness turned to loathing. Those who frowned upon our youthful choices
were now just ghosts of the past and we could not mourn
the loss of our very beginning.

Instead we were forced to mourn the loss of our very freedom, our existence,
our souls, culture, identity
and, given no reason why this should be we could only feel more detached
than ever before, disillusionment disintegrating into numbness.
We were driftwood, pushed along by the sea, forgotten by the land.

Now, it feels like I have spent my life staring blind from this window
scouring the landscape for the past that I can no longer see,
searching through the coastal mist for a home no longer on the horizon,
imagining one last glimpse, one last memory, one last conversation,
while knowing all senses are lost like our identity.

We are widows.
Abandoned, forgotten, homeless, but never hopeless,
yet cast adrift, a life not lived,
forever seeking the answers to how and why.

I hope I’ve managed to do this topic justice. As I said earlier, it was something that I read about – and have read more about since – that just gripped me. For want of a much better way of putting it, I just felt such sympathy for the women that I read about. Some of them talked about how they married their Korean partner, despite pressure from their families and how despite not regretting their choices, they were forced to live with the eventual reality that they would never see their parents again. The stubbornness of youth leading a lifetime of feeling incomplete.

The stories possibly resonated with me because at the time of reading, in the middle of the Covid crisis, I had begun to wonder if I’d ever see my parents again. Their age combined with their vulnerability to the virus made for some very difficult times and although I wouldn’t dream of thinking I’d had it as bad as the Japanese women I read about it piqued my interest in their story.

I think I quite like what I’ve managed to write. I found it difficult to write as someone else, but I’m fairly sure I haven’t made a complete mess of it. I hope you like what I’ve written too. As ever, please feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: Pursued

This is a poem that I actually wrote and then briefly forgot about. It was only when reading through a notebook and finding a folded up piece of A4 paper that I discovered it again. I think it was written some time in the last two weeks, but somehow I’d just tucked it away and forgot that I’d written it.

It’s poem that has a couple of different influences. Partly I think it’s about mental health. Not just my mental health, but peoples’ in general. It’s about not being able to get rid of the darker moments, the lower moods, which is something I’ve had to put up with for a short while now, but something that lots of other people have probably struggled with for many years. So, I’m not moaning or feeling sorry for myself; I know others have things much, much worse.

I think the other influence or meaning behind this one is that I’ve been suffering with an injury – it’s been about 7 weeks now – and it just feels like it’s never getting better. So again, something I can’t seem to shake off. (Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong; less shaking, more relaxing?)

Pursued

I feel like you defy description. I don't know how to cope with you 
and words almost fail me.
Every label seems not to stick,
neither adequate nor accurate.
You're definitely not a friend,
but not a stranger all the same
and a cloud hanging over me can actually pass on the wind
before returning, whatever the forecast.
This is a nagging doubt, a feral dog trailing too close at my heels,
craving trust, but up to no good.
An excrutiating headache, pressing down,
a torchlight shone in my eyes or maybe a spotlight exposing me
when I feel the need to hide.
A flare in a clear night sky, marking me out, just as I find sanctuary for the night.
A light that offers no illumination, but lets me know that there's to be no rest,
no safety, nowhere to serve as an escape,
just an uncomfortable reminder that tells me to keep moving,
because at times like these, slowly, tentatively,
like an old man shuffling around the room to find the candles in a power cut,
that's all that I can do.

I don’t know if feeling this way is a legacy of lockdown and all things Covid or simply just another stage in my life; an age thing perhaps. But where before any sense of feeling low was fairly easy to shake off, lately I’ve not been able to. So ‘Pursued’ seemed the perfect title for the poem as it’s absolutely how I’ve felt both mentally and physically and how I imagine lots of people who are struggling feel too.

As ever, feel free to leave a comment below.

Poetry Blog: Farewell Mike Ashley.

This is a post that’s been a long time in the making. It’s a poem about one of the greatest loves of my life, Newcastle United. And if that seems like a bit of a pathetic sentence, then you should probably stop reading. But the football team that I support have been a constant in my life for well over 40 years now and let’s face it, around the globe there are plenty of us that fall in love with their chosen sports team. The club is something that I blog about sporadically as I like to write about lots of different things, but I couldn’t resist this one.

The poem itself was written in June 2019, when I’d finally allowed myself to think that Mr. Ashley, the owner of my football club, was actually leaving. For those who don’t know, Ashley has owned the club for 14 years and it’s been an incredible low point in our history; lacking in investment, lacking in ambition, lacking in hope and a time where balancing the books has been deemed way more important than success or even excitement and hope on the field.

When I wrote the poem a Saudi Arabian investment group seemed on the verge of buying the club, meaning that hopes and dreams could return. And then, to cut a long story short, it didn’t happen.

Fast forward 18 months or so from when the news of our takeover first broke and following high profile legal action, and almost at the drop of a hat, the club has been sold. So, here’s my poem.

Farewell Mike Ashley

When you first pitched up you were greeted optimistically.                                                                                                                                 A sportswear billionaire set to change the Toon fiscally.                                                                                                                                        But then, a reason to doubt your intelligence                                                                                                                                            when you sloppily disregarded your due diligence. 
But, your black and white shirt in the away end provided a distraction,
the drinks are on Mike, no need for (Sports) Direct action.
Then you brought back King Kev, a masterstroke,
yet the way that you treated was nowt short of a joke.
Wise and Jiminez, your plan to bring the good times back,
followed by Gonzalez and Xisco; two straws to break the camel's back.
Keegan gone and relegation drawing near,
your answer? Joe f***ing Kinnear.
A sleeping giant in an idiot's grip,
you were seemingly determined to sink this ship.
But you didn't reckon with Kinnear's heart
which inadvertently gave us a brand new start,
Shearer tempted, a legend returning
but his hands were tied, the ship still burning.
Relegation and Shearer left waiting for your call,
but you chose to ignore the greatest scorer of them all
Against the odds Hughton took us straight back up,
but still the chequebook remained shut.
In time you brought in Pardew and a Director of Football...
Kinnear again though; pissed and capable of f*** all
Years passed and we made it to the Europa League
but with little investment we fell away, fatigued.
As Pardew stuttered you committed the cardinal sin
out with SJP, the Sports Direct Arena in,
terrible and sinking with Pardew's palava
as he blamed the grass, the science, the fans, then left us with Carver.
Still there was time for you to behave like a wanker
by blanking poor Jonas, stricken with cancer, 
and oh the sweet irony when he came to the rescue,
yet still you got rid like a cockney Ceausescu.
And then more alarm bells as you gave us MaClaren, 
a hair island, no idea and his tactics board barren.
Even Benitez couldn't save us from our fate,
another reason for more Geordie hate.
But Rafa rebelled, he was made for these fans,
but your silence said you had other plans,
but the tide was turning, a truth became clear,
we were nothing but right not to want you here,
we didn't want Charnley and we didn't want Bruce
whatever you did there would be no truce.
Transfer windows where nothing was spent
anyone could see it was time that you went.
Protest groups, boycotts, banners and the Trust gave hope
now finally, deal done, get out of our club you fat dope.

The future looks incredibly bright for Newcastle United and it’s been a bit of a ridiculous few days. I’ve watched the celebrations in the city from afar, just wishing I could be part of it. Making do with social media footage and various reports on the telly has had to be enough, but it’s still been amazing to watch. Then you read the media reports and the quotes from Amanda Staveley and others involved in this new dawn and it’s been as bewildering as it’s been exciting.

There are other, darker issues to address with this takeover but for now I’m happy to just wallow in what it could mean from a footballing point of view and try to forget the last 14 years of penny pinching and constant disappointment under Mike Ashley. As someone who first sat in the East Stand aged 6 and has been in love with the club ever since, I’d resigned myself to the fact that we probably wouldn’t win anything in my lifetime. As someone who walked away from attending games 13 years ago as I realised what Ashley represented, that feeling was utterly miserable. But it’s time to look to the future, because the future’s bright; the future’s black and white.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see if we can improve next Sunday!

Poetry Blog: Rain on the roof

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

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

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

Rain on the roof

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

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

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

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

The long, wet summer just passed me by…

I’m very lucky, in many ways, to be a teacher. Forget things like pay and conditions – which in actual fact, aren’t that bad – there are lots of things to be thankful for in my profession. I get to work with young people full of ideas, emotions, hope, naivety and energy for one thing. I get to help kids produce amazing things. I get to work alongside them and many brilliant colleagues and I have to admit that I get to have what can feel like endless laughs.

All very nice, right? And now you’re thinking, here comes the bad stuff? Make way for the abuse, the long hours, the meetings, blah, blah, blah. Well, you’d be wrong. What I wanted to mention was the summers. The teacher’s summers. Because after a couple of decades of teaching, it’s still the summer holidays, those six blissful weeks, that are the most attractive feature.

So, I thought I’d go through a quick review of my latest summer holidays.

After all of the build up, I’m not going to lie; this one’s been pretty damn poor in many ways. One of my favourite things about summer is standing in the garden early in the morning, hanging out washing on the line, looking up at a blue sky, feeling the sun on my face and just thinking about the fact that the rest of the day is stretching out in front of me, as is the rest of whatever remains of my summer. Bloody wonderful.

Except, that hasn’t really been the case this summer. As the rain fell and just continued to fall and fall and fall, I distinctly remember that our washing basket was positively overflowing. In fact, I remember my son telling me that he’d ran out of underwear at one point! So, it’s safe to say that the weather this summer has been really underwhelming. And that, ladies and gents is more than enough to make your summer…well, a bit of a bummer. Not only does it impact on one’s leisurely laundry fantasies, but it means that days out, gardening, and any outdoor jobs and projects that have been saved up for these precious 6 weeks, just sit there, undone and nagging at you. As a result, I have to say that in many ways it’s not been the best of summers.

One thing that we have done that’s really maximised the fun we could have over summer is to take a couple of holidays. I say holidays; one was a three day break that was then followed by two days in Newcastle seeing family and friends, so that was a holiday in a kind of left field way.

I’ve blogged about our main summer holiday in North Wales, so I won’t dwell on that here, suffice to say that we had a lovely time in a truly special part of the UK. We left the day after the end of the academic year and it felt absolutely amazing to be wandering around on a beach, escaping the stress of work life so quickly after leaving my classroom.

Our other holiday was a bit different. Firstly we spent three days in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. We stayed in a nice guest house, spent some time on the beach and spent a whole load of time in arcades – having raided our coppers jar for 2 pence pieces in advance – while also upholding the family tradition of having dad (me) hold the bags while mum and the kids go on some rides! It all felt really relaxing.

Straight after returning from Scarborough we headed to Newcastle for a couple of days for a break that we had all been looking forward to. The main reason for this was because this would be the first time we would see family and friends in 18 months (because of Covid, not out of choice).

Again, we had a lovely relaxing break, meeting up for coffee with our closest friends on the Quayside in Newcastle, going out for tea with my parents and then out for a nice walk with them the next day. We also visited an excellent gluten free bakery which happened to be in a part of the city where I’d spent a lot of my childhood, but hadn’t been back to in probably over 25 years. So that was a really interesting thing to do, not least because it allowed me to show my own children these places. Interesting to note that in what we might call a slightly rougher end of town, within seconds one of my children was asking if we should be locking the car doors!

When we returned home after our breaks in Scarborough and Newcastle we were exhausted and apart from getting through a veritable mountain of washing, we made sure that we relaxed and did very little for the next few days. And I suppose this is an excellent example of the privilege’s of a teacher’s summer; there often isn’t any sense of urgency. Whether you go places, take on projects or extend yourself in any way is entirely up to you – you do not need to give work or going to work even the briefest of thoughts for whole chunks of your summer. Ask most teachers and they’ll tell you that there will always come a point in every summer where they genuinely don’t know what day it is.

By this point I’d also managed to do myself an injury which did its best to curtail my summer fun. Maybe it was the sense of freedom that did it, but while throwing myself around in goal during a training session for the team that I coach, I damaged a nerve under my shoulder and found myself in quite intense and constant pain for a while. And because visiting a doctor during these Covid times is quite a drawn out affair, it took far too long to get proper painkillers. Thus, my decorating slowed down, my enthusiasm for anything remotely physical waned and my mood took a bit of a beating.

A planned break in the Lake District was duly postponed – too much to do at home, too tired from galivanting around the country for the previous few weeks – leaving us to see out the last couple of weeks of our summer together with the odd day trip and catching up on some of those long put off jobs around the house. The weather didn’t help the appetite to leave the house as the British summer petered out and seemed to surrender far too easily to autumnal conditions. And before I knew it, I was doing the usual of kidding myself that it was a good thing that I still had3, then 2, then 1 day left at home.

I can’t complain too much. Even the weather doesn’t get in the way of the fact that I can spend 6 weeks not having to wear a suit and tie and that my shirt ironing is down to a bare minimum. It’s also 6 weeks of leisurely cups of coffee, of an extra hour in more in bed, more late night television and best of all, 6 weeks of possibility where work will hardly ever get in the way.

So while Summer was wet and seemed to pass by far too quickly, it was still peaceful, it was a considerable amount of fun and despite the injury still hanging around, it was still, in many ways, pain free.

I hope you enjoyed reading and as ever, feel free to leave a comment as they’re always appreciated.

Poetry Blog: Pain

At the risk of repeating myself, this is yet another poem that was borne out of a sleepless(ish) night. I’d found myself clambering out of bed not long after midnight as I couldn’t get to sleep because of the pain in my shoulder and arm after I’d damaged a nerve during a coaching session when I should have known better than to take on goalkeeping duties. I’m 49 for goodness sakes!

So I went downstairs with my book as I find reading takes my mind off things while also never failing to make me feel sleepy, whatever else might be going on

It amazes me how many times it happens that my mind is full of ideas and potential lines from a poem at these times. But it happened again, so I began writing, ending up with two poems; one about making the decision to get out of bed in the middle of the night and this one, about the pain that I was suffering with.

Pain

The voice that tells you not to speak,
the constant nagging doubt,
a sleeping partner tracking your every move,
a shaft of moonlight in a 4am garden giving the illusion of movement,
the urge to run from something unnamed that might not even be there,
a telephone staring intently as you ponder the call you don't want to make, paralysed,
a strangled scream,
a fruitless sneeze,
the date that teeters on your horizon, pulsing ever so slightly,
the message you should have sent,
an unvoiced opinion,
the stinging comeback stopped in its triumphant tracks by a tongue bitten,
the memory that refuses to ever truly leave.

With this poem I just found myself thinking of things that I’d compare pain to and once there were a couple of ideas written down it became a kind of stream of consciousness.

In daylight hours, on next read it became an exercise in editing; sorting the wheat from the chaff so to speak and getting rid of ideas that jarred with others or just anything that reeked of the nonsense that might sound great in the sleepless early hours of the morning. There was also a little bit of repetition where ideas were a little too similar for my liking. I guess that comes with writing when you’re so tired! Thus, this became a relatively short poem.

I hope it translates well enough. I hope there are comparisons in there that you can identify with and that you might recognise as being familiar in terms of being in pain.

As ever, I hope that you enjoyed the poem. It’s always nice to read comments too, so feel free to leave one as I genuinely appreciate the interaction.

Book Review: ‘The Honest Truth’ by Dan Gemeinhart

It might be argued that there’s no more honest truth than the fact that you’re going to die. I mean, I’d like to hope that – inspired by the theme tune to ‘Fame’ – I’m going to live forever, but you can’t escape the honest truth though, can you?

Mark is a young boy who’s facing up to a whole lifetime’s worth of problems, only they’ve appeared in the shape of just the one big problem. And with that problem comes his honest truth. It’s looking pretty much certain that he’s going to die. I mean, that’s a big old problem when you’ve not even made it to high school age . And Mark’s facing this problem…by running away to climb a mountain.

Mark has had cancer for most of his life. He’s battled to stay alive, battled to fight off the cancer and just be a normal child. But however many times he fights it off, it keeps coming back to have another go at him, as is the way with this horrible disease. In running away, he now hopes to just die and end all of the heartache for not just himself, but his parents and his best friend Jess. While he’s at it, he hopes to climb a mountain like his grandfather asked him to just before he himself died. In short, Mark is a boy who has simply had enough of the hand that life has dealt him.

The subject matter of ‘The Honest Truth’ isn’t what you’d call particularly nice. The death of a child, even a child with a terrible illness, is never pleasant. As a parent, having one of my children in hospital for any length of time and for anything at all, is a real nightmare. But Dan Gemeinhart writes about Mark’s situation with a wonderful balance of optimism, humour and of course a tinge of sadness. It all makes for a compelling story and right up until a few pages from the end, you’re never quite sure how things are going to work out for Mark.

‘The Honest Truth’ is probably what we should be referring to as a YA novel. But, even at my age, I still love reading novels from this genre. I have a bit of an excuse, given that I’m a high school English teacher. But regardless of what it is and where we squeeze it in, ‘The Honest Truth’ is an excellent story and at not much over 200 pages, a really quick one to get through too!

The story is intriguing as Mark runs away with the intention of dieing on the mountain, while dodging a missing person’s investigation that has been publicised on every format of media you can think of. As a reader I felt like any second now, he’d be found. I mean you’d imagine people would be on higher alert than usual keeping their eyes out for a little runaway, stricken with cancer. But, with the help of his dog Beau – the kind of amazing, loyal canine companion we’d all dream of having – he seems to stay at least one step ahead of it all, despite becoming increasingly sick and increasingly slow in his ‘escape’ to the mountain.

In all, ‘The Honest Truth’ is a just fantastic read and I was gripped from start to finish, torn between wanting Mark to get his final wish and wanting him to get caught and taken home to his parents and best friend, Jess. Whichever way it ended, it almost wouldn’t have mattered and surely that’s the sign of a truly wonderful story.

I’d give ‘The Honest Truth’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Why Running Matters’ by Ian Mortimer.

For many of us running really matters. It’s been a lifelong interest for me and something I’ve done with varied levels of success, interest and effort since I was very young indeed. As it stands, I think I’m going through what some might call a slightly evangelical phase with my own running and probably boring most of the people I know in singing its praises. So a book on why we run was a very exciting prospect!

Ian Mortimer isn’t a runner, in that it’s not his profession. In fact, where running’s concerned he’s not unlike myself; middle aged, enthusiastic competitive and probably a bit more injury prone that we’d both like. However, while I’m a humble English teacher Mortimer is a historian and the writer of the best selling Time Traveller’s Guides series.

On approaching his 50th birthday, Mortimer made a series of vows or challenges to himself. In amongst them were taking part in 45 Parkruns and 5 half marathons across the year, producing an album of his own music, seeing a Shakespeare play and organising three concerts by world renowned musicians. In amongst it all, he’d write this book. Phew!

So the book itself is one hell of an achievement. Finding time to write it in amongst all that running and other activity is quite something. By coincidence, I am too approaching my 50th birthday and while Mortimer’s challenges prompted similar thoughts of a series of challenges or ambitions, I was glad I’d picked it up in August when it was far too late to attempt as much as Mortimer did!

The book chronicles Mortimer and his running companions’ performances at the Park Runs and the half marathons, while also attempting to contemplate exactly why it is we run. Because clearly, like the title tells us, running matters, but it’s what it actually means to people that is explored here.

A source of irritation throughout the book was that Mortimer is a really decent runner! Mean spirited I know, but reading about his times and placings in various Park Runs left me feeling quite jealous and more than a little bit irked! But I suppose this is part of what the book is about; we run to be competitive. And the book delves into this in great detail because Mortimer seems incredibly competitive and so while his times were irritating – and accompanied with a smile from this reader too – it left me feeling quite a warmth towards the man himself. His determination was inspirational while remaining quite comforting. Every time he went out to run he was looking to improve on times and performance, which is very much my approach. Sadly, I’m not always successful here!

Reading of Mortimer’s running adventures all over the south west of England was really interesting. HIs descriptions of the various courses, weather conditions etc felt comfortingly familiar, even though I haven’t taken part in any of the races. But his thoughts and theories all held weight with me. And the atmosphere of all those Parkruns did too! Mortimer also wrote a lot about running with his sons and while occasionally the dose of schmaltz involved was a bit much, as someone who occasionally runs with his own son, I could empathise his his pride and enjoyment in doing so.

‘Why Running Matters’ is a really interesting and well-informed book. Mortimer knows his stuff. He’s an experienced runner who has thrown himself into races and challenges of varying levels over many a year. It was this that had me nodding along enthusiastically throughout my time reading. And although it would seem to have a bit of a niche target audience, I would argue that there’s something here for a lot more than just those of us who run. Mortimer’s year is undoubtedly inspiring and the discussions on the competitiveness, camaraderie and the at times almost meditative side of running would hold the interest of many a reader, whether they run or not.

If you’re a runner who wants to read about running, then – obviously – this is the book for you and you’ll certainly get a lot out of reading it. However, even as a non runner, if you’re someone looking for inspiration or even just a gentle push towards the door and searching out something to do with your time, you’ll enjoy ‘Why Running Matters’. And if you’re one of those people who watches runners from the comfort of your car as they pass and just wonders why, then the book will at least help explain what on Earth it is we’re thinking when we leave the house to pound the pavements squeezed into all that lycra!

I give ‘Why Running Matters’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We’re all going on a summer holiday! A trip to North Wales.

Years ago, when we first visited Porthmadog, I thought the place looked tired and past its best. We stayed in a caravan that was much the same. And although we had a lovely time, I didn’t think that we’d be back in a hurry. It’s approaching a decade worth of holidays spent in the same place note though, so I guess I was wrong! And I guess this little corner of North Wales has really gotten under our skins.

For the first week of the summer holidays we holidayed once more in North Wales, staying in the village of Morfa Bychan, just outside of Porthmadog. If you’ve got children and/or are a fan of beaches regardless of the weather, then I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. You’ll find miles of sand, shallow, clear (and sometimes even warm) seas and rockpools and dunes galore to explore.

We had to stay in a new cottage this year as our usual one was booked out, possible due to Covid and the idea that people were booking breaks left, right and indeed centre following such a long period of time where they couldn’t travel. However, our cottage was a street or so away from our old place, so it was hardly like we were being inconvenienced and there was very little threat to the enjoyment of our holiday.

After my traditional annual battle with the roof box and how much I can fit in it before it just refuses to close, the 4 and a half hour drive felt like child’s play. We stopped, as we always do, in Colwyn Bay for a beach picnic and a bit of a break from the road and then headed to Porthmadog Tesco for supplies, but it was still only a little after 5pm when we got to the cottage.

There’s always an element of trepidation when you open the door of new accommodation. Even more so when the British weather means you might just end up spending full days there. So I think we were all quite nervous. We needn’t have been. The place was bright and light, with the kitchen, conservatory and living area all part of an open plan set up that made it feel very modern. All we needed to do now was unpack and settle in!

Once settled, we got on with things at pace, determined as ever, to pack as much into our trip as would be possible. We had a chippy tea on our first night, just because it was so convenient. If you visit Porthmadog, you have a wealth of choices for fish and chips, but we plumped for Chippy Dre in nearby Tremadog – https://en-gb.facebook.com/ChippyDre/ – and as with past visits it was absolutely delicious.

We spent the next two days on the beach at Borth-Y-Gest which is by far our favourite spot. The weather was great – sunny and still – and so it was ideal for just lazing around on the beach. And when the beach is as picturesque as this one believe me you could just sit and stare, read, listen to music all day every day. It’s a bit of a trek along the coastal path to get there and at times, weighed down by bags, picnic blankets and various tools for beach activities, it feels like you never will but you won’t regret it.

We broke the week up with a trip down the coast to Barmouth. We did this partly because we always take a trip to Barmouth, but also because we thought that the weather was going to be rubbish and there’s plenty to do there. Well it turned into another very hot day and thus, despite the fact that we were going to spend the day in cafes, amusements and shops, we ended up spending much more time on Barmouth beach, which is another beauty. We even popped into a nearby shop to buy a new frisby just to honour the occasion. Barmouth is a popular resort with a great beach and there’s always lots to do, from taking a long walk across Barmouth bridge to spending time in the amusements or just taking advantage of the huge beach.

We stayed longer than usual in Barmouth, wandering round town, spending time on the beach and then eventually having our tea there too. This time, we chose Isis Pizzeria – https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Cafe/Isis-Pizzeria-126484180782186/ – because of its excellent gluten free options and I have to say we had some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. The staff were really friendly and couldn’t have been more help and we left there with very full bellies indeed! Again, it’s a place I would absolutely recommend a visit if you’re in Barmouth or indeed anywhere even close!

A bit of a turn in the weather – it had to come; we were holidaying in the UK after all – led to a bit of exploring. For our first grey day, we decided to stay around in the village where we were staying.

Morfa Bychan is bordered on one side by the huge Black Rock, a mountain and on the other side by Black Rock Sands, a big beach – see what they’ve done with the names there? For years my wife has fancied heading up Black Rock, but with the weather being a little grey and misty, as well as quite gusty, I managed to talk some sense into her and we decided on a stroll along the beach. Before that though, I had plans of my own.

I had decided that I was going to head out for a run during this holiday. I knew that I’d get a cooler day and was fully prepared to get up early for said run. Thus, heading out just after 7am, I had a vague route in mind. That said, a lot of the route would find me running up big, steep hills, so I just thought I’d give it a go and that if I had to walk back, having tired myself out, then that would be OK. I ended up running a 10k! I headed out of Morfa Bychan, over several big hills and then down into Borth-y-Gest, home of our favourite beach. Once there, I ran around the harbour – up another stupidly steep hill – and then back out of the village towards home. Once back in Morfa, I headed down Beach Road and onto Black Rock Sands itself, managing a few minutes of running along the sands before, with my eye on my distance on Strava, I headed home. It was fantastic to run somewhere different and every time we drove over those hills from that point on, I was able to think that I’d ran them! Suffice to say the three other people in the car got bored with that line fairly quickly!

We walked to a very quiet beach later that day. I think – if Google Maps is to be believed – it’s called Samson’s Bay and it’s right beyond one end of Black Rock Sands. We clambered up the coastal path and followed it round to the bay which sits just beyond part of Porthmadog Golf Club. We’ve explored this part of the coast before, but never really spent any time there, so today we decided we’d take some bats and balls and have a bit of fun. And apart from the odd passing walker, we had the place to ourselves for ages. Perfect!

It’s a beautiful cove, as observed by a visiting golfer the next day when we went there again and he took time out of teeing off just to stand and admire the view.

Our next day was spent at Greenwood Forest Park, a theme park voted North Wales’ best tourist attraction. It’s somewhere we’ve been before – surprise, surprise – as it’s aimed at families, so it was a place we targeted on one of our early visits to North Wales, when our children were a lot younger.

https://www.greenwoodfamilypark.co.uk/

Nowadays, our eldest is probably a little too old for the park, but she still found enough to do in order to have an enjoyable and both of our kids (12 and 15, their ages not their names by the way) had a great day. The weather was very grey and the threat of rain hovered around all day, but the wet stuff never fell, meaning we could relax and enjoy ourselves easily enough. With a roller coaster powered by people – don’t ask, I’ve no idea – a couple of climbing activities, boats, a solar powered water slide, sledges, archery and all sorts of other stuff to do, there was plenty to fill the day. If you have younger children Greenwood Forest Park is a must, but even with our older pair, we had a great day.

With the end of the holiday looming and the weather not getting any better we spent our last afternoon in Porthmadog itself. After a lazy morning and another visit to Samson’s Bay, we had wanted to play crazy golf, but it was closed – no doubt Covid related – so we headed for coffee and cake instead. A natural substitution, I’m sure you’ll agree.

There are a number of places to grab a coffee, some cake or even an ice cream in Porthmadog, but we plumped for a place called Siop Coffee TH https://www.facebook.com/siopcoffith/ and as ever, we weren’t disappointed. The range of coffees is excellent and it’s the same with the cakes. The kids had hot chocolates and a slice of Biscoff brownie, while we had a cappucino, an americano and a flapjack each, my wife’s being both gluten free and delicious. Coffee, cake and a lovely friendly atmosphere while outside the drizzle fell relentlessly; it’s safe to say we had a great afternoon.

And then, before it even really felt like we’d settled in, it was time for us to pack everything up in preparation for heading home. We had a lovely week. North Wales, and Porthmadog in particular, is pretty much rural. It’s dominated by the sea and the mountains, making it the perfect place to relax. Having finished a tough year at work and then headed down to Wales the very next day, it was the perfect place to unwind. We may not have quite got the weather we’d have hoped for, but getting the sun for 4 days of our stay was fantastic and even when it blows a gale or rains, there’s always lots to do.

As we said goodbye to Porthmadog for another year, it was fairly safe in the knowledge that we’d be back. Locals told us that life during Covid had been a real struggle, as it had for all of us, but Porthmadog and the surrounding areas don’t seem to be struggling with staying beautiful and friendly. If you’re looking for a domestic break – or as a foreign traveler you want to discover somewhere that not a lot of people know about – then you won’t go far wrong with North Wales.