The Apprentice – bikinis or nut milk?

As the dust settles on this year’s Apprentice we can reflect on what should have been a vintage week for television. But has Sugar been sweet enough or have we been left with a slightly bitter taste in our mouths?

Following the interviews we were left with two choices. Nut milk or bikinis? What a choice! And as it is, Lord Sugar seems to have gone for the more unusual of the two. But did it all add up to a good week’s viewing?

We started, in the time-honoured fashion with the interviews. For the uninitiated here’s what happens. The last remaining candidates are put through four interviews with some of Lord Sugar’s most ‘trusted business associates’. Only it’s not quite that simple. These are not the kind of interviews that you or I – because we don’t profess to be business typhoons or sales sharks or any other ridiculous things – would have to go through. This isn’t ‘Why do you want to work here?’ or ‘What would you bring to the role?’. This is generally more like ritual humiliation and brutal interrogation that ultimately ends with all candidates looking stupid. Or stupider. And every year it follows the brilliant Apprentice formula of allowing halfwits to say a little too much before allowing the audience to watch them unravel before our very eyes.

At the start of this year’s interview episode we were presented with The Final Five, as if their presence in our lives was pretty much the only thing worth living for. It wasn’t. But watching them squirm for an hour or so was undoubtedly quite a lot of fun.

‘I’m not some kind of pervert who enjoys watching women cry.’

My ears pricked up as the candidates prepared for their day from Hell in the Leadenhall Building and not one, but two of them announced that they weren’t going to cry. While what was to come became a little predictable at this point, I couldn’t deny that I wasn’t half looking forward to it! And this isn’t a regular thing for me. I’m not some kind of pervert who enjoys watching women cry, which is a good thing given where I work. But given that one of the two here was Khadija…well this was going to be funny and it really made me sit up and take notice.

What unfolded before us then was actually not as brutal as previous years, but I certainly wouldn’t call it boring and I was never tempted to switch off. At every turn and with almost every question I was left squirming at the sheer ineptitude of the candidates. I mean, what was Daniel thinking when telling everyone who visits the Amazon page of his product that there were ‘One million already sold’? I scraped a grade C at GCSE Maths, but still I’d find it hard to not notice the difference between what he’d actually sold – 70,000 units – and what he was claiming on one of the biggest shopping websites on the planet! And still he tried to worm his way out of it, telling Mike Soutar things like, ‘That wasn’t me’, then ‘I could have had something to do with it’ before finally, after what felt like an hour of toing and froing, ‘OK, it was me’!

‘Is Australia in Asia?’

But just when you thought his suffering was over, the interviewer proceeded to give him a Geography lesson after Daniel had claimed to be selling on several continents. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t quite true – quelle surprise – and Daniel was left asking, ‘Is Australia in Asia?’ I’m not a twisted man, but I do love seeing an ego cut down to size and having watched Daniel standing in the lift telling himself ‘You got this!’ it more than raised a smile in our house when it turned out that he hadn’t got this at all. What he had got though was an ever decreasing chance of £250,000 heading his way.

Further eye openers then came in the form of Linda Plant’s shoes and Sabrina’s slightly bizarre suit and neck tie. Linda’s shoes were certainly eye-catching, looking as they did like they had bows on them that had been made out of hundreds of ladybird wings. Mind you, if you can’t parade your ladybird unfriendly shoes on telly, where can you parade them? And was Sabrina trying to nullify the ditzy blonde image by dressing like a card shark in the Wild West? Perhaps she should have skipped the interviews, got on her horse and headed down the saloon for a root beer then.

Other highlights were numerous. Camilla being told, ‘You’ve got 3 months experience. What expertise have you got?’ was particularly poetic. And Claude just repeating ‘no’ at Khadija as she desperately tried to convince him that she was right about something…anything – well that made me laugh. If you’ve ever seen the film Sexy Beast, it was a bit like certain scenes from that, but without the budgie smugglers. And then, near the end, perhaps feeling euphoric at the end of an exhausting day, Camilla almost danced out of the lift before greeting a clearly ambivelant Claude with a ‘Yoo-hoo’! Predictably (except maybe to Camilla) his face was a picture!

‘…Daniel was ‘bloody untrustworthy…’

And there were more cringeworthy episodes with Daniel too. Again though, the best of them had to be attributed to Claude who firstly declared that Daniel was ‘bloody untrustworthy’ before smiling sweetly and announcing ‘anyway…onwards and upwards’. For that few seconds worth of telly the BAFTA surely awaits. And if not, Claude can definitely expect a thank you card from me! Either way, if Daniel still thought he was in with a chance of progressing he was clearly barking up the wrong tree.

Before we knew it we were back in the boardroom and Camilla and Sian – who’d earlier been criticised for her marketing ideas, being told ‘You’ll want to piss the money up the wall on some woman from Love Island’ (wrong on any number of levels) – were being declared this year’s finalists.

So Sunday brought us an unlikely final. Camilla v Sian. Nut milk v swimwear. Carry on Eco-Friendly Milkmaid vs posh pool parties. All of it quite the conundrum for a 71-year-old Lord to wrestle with. All of it quite the conundrum for a 46 year-old English teacher to wrestle with, come to think of it. As we said in our house, who goes to pool parties? And as I said in my head, I don’t understand what nut milk is.

In the time honoured tradition many of this series’ candidates were brought back to help out. And other former cadidates were left out, begging the question, were they told they weren’t needed (fired again?) or did their ego, fuelled by a fleeting appearance on telly, refuse to allow them to appear?

‘…imagine the shame of being picked after Kurran…’

The teams were picked in much the same manner as a school PE lesson where the captains chose which people they wanted on their teams. You had to feel sorry for Sabrina, who having made the final five, was ignored by both of the finalists until the last pick. I mean, imagine the shame of being picked after Kurran, who while still sporting ridiculous hair had at least got rid of his sling. The poor girl must’ve been mortified, yet she still simply carried on giggling, seemingly unaware of the shame of having been picked for a team post-Kurran.

The cult of Kurran continued as Sian picked him as her sub-team manager, much to the surprise of the other team members who at this point were clearly doubting her sanity. They say that the most successful people are mavericks (well I say this, for the purpose of this part of the paragraph, anyway), but surely with a £250,000 investment in your business idea at stake, this was just a maverick step (or several leaps) too far? Thankfully, the reactions of her team said it all and Sian quickly changed her mind, putting Jasmine in charge instead. Kurran or no Kurran though, her team let her down and Sian was left in the embarrassing position of trying to be complimentary about the social media ad created when really – as she did later on – all she wanted to do was say how terrible she thought it was.

On Team Camilla it seemed like Daniel had missed the bit where he got fired and instead decided he was in charge. Off he went, making every decision going while somewhere in the background Camilla sat and agreed with him while trying to make it sound like it was what she was going to say anyway. He then sat shouting out puerile slogans that they could use to promote the brand because, you know, nut milk. Get it? Nut milk, you know milk from…yes we understand. Yet still it felt like somewhere, at the back of her mind, the sex obsessed Camilla actually agreed with him. Not an enormous surprise when you remember the imagery she was trying to use to promote her nut milk during the interview episode, but alarming when you sit watching, secure in the knowledge that she had been warned to avoid such tactics.

‘Cue the entrance of Tom, Jackie and Kayode…’

Thankfully common sense won the day and Daniel’s juvenile suggestions were confined to the file marked ‘Stop being a tw*t’. The packaging and the general idea behind the brand seemed to be working and at that point you’d have been forgiven for backing Camilla for the win. Cue the entrance of Tom, Jackie and Kayode, who managed not only to make a shockingly bad advert, but also one that ran more than a minute over their allotted time. Frantic editing ensued which only served to make a bad advert even worse. It was starting to look like the best result would be if both of them could lose.

Adverts filmed, GIFs made and prototype products designed it was down to the business of the pitch and the burning question which we all must have at this point every year. Why do they make them have such a long and awkward walk on? It must take the finalists a good 40 seconds to get into position as they strive to negotiate those steps while retaining some sense of confidence and diginity. The applause gets ever more strained while the finalists struggle with what appear to be the worst designed steps in history. As for the ptiches themselves, Sian was cool, calm and collected, while Camilla fell apart when faced with reading her own Powerpoint slide about figures.

Having viewed some brief feedback and another bit of a challenge for the contestants in the form of a ‘can they all walk in a businessy formation?’, we were into the boardroom, where a grilling or to was, as ever, expected. This also gave Lord Sugar the opportunity to conduct some gentle mocking, mostly at the expense of Kurran and Daniel, which as a viewer, was obviously more than welcome. On Planet Kurran, however, he seemed to genuinely see a time when he’d be sending Lord Sugar a ticket to his premier in Leicester Square, and the mocking of his qualities as a director drifted gently over his bouffant with Kurran leaving the boardroom for the final time no doubt dreaming of his future as the next Spielberg.

As Lord Sugar asked questions of Karren and Claude I couldn’t help but feel like he’d hire Camilla. Not because of her business acumen, but just because given the choices of area for investment nut milk seemed like the one he’d go for. I could see him drinking a MLK It, but couldn’t imagine him having an interest in pool parties, let alone wearing a bikini.

And then the finalists were invited back into the boardroom and the rest as they say is history. Or business. Sian’s ‘unbelievable talent’ for drawing patterns won the day over Camilla’s ability to sexualise cartons of milk. Vintage telly? Not particularly. Boring? Definitely not. Let’s settle on the fact that The Apprentice has given us another series full of memorable moments that have once again left the majority lost for words, while giving hope for halfwits everywhere.

 

Bling. Watch the point of it all?

 

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Four buttons, some circles and a light = instant respect from the kids, innit.

I work in a job that is a minefield of contrasts. I mean, the fact that I can have days, hours, minutes even where I will absolutely love it and still end up hating it (and vice-versa), sums up the contrast nicely. But that’s teaching for you. For all the fun of showing off in front of a room full of kids – because that’s really all it comes down to – there’s the sheer hell of marking thirty essays, or worse still, pieces of creative writing. For every moment of breakthrough you have with a fantastic, thoughtful answer from a student there’s a terrible moment of realisation that there’s yet another meeting to go to.

And yet, as I’ve gotten older my job has revealed another area of contrast that is both a delight and a curse. I’m finding that working with young people both keeps me young – not literally, we’d all be flocking to the profession if that was actually the case – and makes me feel old. Very, very old. Because the older you get, the more detached you get from younger people and what’s actually current.

‘Meanwhile you’ve been attending foam parties…and accruing a debt so monumental that it would rival that of some Pacific Islands.’

I’m not sure that this is the case for every teacher. I feel sure that there are entire swathes of my profession that were middle-aged when they started out as teachers and always will be middle aged. Again, not literally. Some people are just old at heart. In many ways it’s the nature of the teacher. I mean, you can’t tell me that at 22 and fresh out of university you have a great deal more life experience than the teenagers in front of you. In your early twenties, having only just emerged blinking from the cocoon that it higher education, it could be argued that you know absolutely nothing. Some of your peers have been to war, held down steady jobs, are married, have children, pay bills and have genuinely struggled through the years since their own education ended. And boy have they learned a lot. Meanwhile, you’ve been attending foam parties, sleeping through lectures that you turned up late for and accruing a debt so monumental that it would rival that of some Pacific islands. And you most likely won’t pay it back. And still, often in my job, people at that age are stood in front of classes of teenagers lecturing them on life experience. And in many cases it’s because they’re almost born to the profession. They’ve little experience, but are often old before their time.

The thing that prompted this blog was a recent in class conversation. I was asked what watch I had. Now, I’m used to being asked what car I drive or even what label my suit is. But what watch? Who cares! Well, it turns out that boys care, that’s who. It’s vital if you’re going to carry off the right image. The boy in question was wearing a big watch. You know the kind; buttons everywhere, oversized face, more hands than it knows what to do with and the odd (fake) jewel or two attached. I’m describing the watch, by the way, not the boy.

The boy clearly saw having the right kind of watch as some kind of status symbol. I think the young folk still refer to it as ‘bling’. But what status can a watch give a 15-year-old boy? The answer is, I don’t know. Does it scream fake designer label? Does it say nice Christmas present? Does it say show me respect? Or does it really just say, I can tell the time? I still don’t know. Needless to say though, he wasn’t very impressed by my spanking new Casio digital watch. I pointed out that they made great calculators. He didn’t get the irony. Or the joke. I told him it had a stopwatch. He wasn’t impressed. I told him it had little circles on it and I was yet to figure out what they were for. He was blank-faced. In fact, when I played my trump card and told him – while also demonstrating – that it had a light on it – he still wasn’t at all impressed. In fact, he seemed almost personally affronted. And he still hadn’t got the joke.

‘He still wasn’t impressed.’

I pointed out that my watch (Casio, £10, reduced from £20, Argos) was purely functional, that I had a nice watch, but that for now I wanted one with a stopwatch and that wasn’t valuable to wear for when I was coaching football. He still wasn’t impressed. And this got me thinking about how middle age has made me quite comfortable in my own skin. I no longer feel the need to rely on a designer label or the right pair of trainers to make me feel good about myself. Yet I do worry about getting a beer belly or a double chin.

Meanwhile, on Planet Youth, what you wear on your legs, body, face and even your wrist still says something about you. And the more I hear about it the more confused I become. As I mentioned previously, it has the power to make me feel young and old all at the same time. Young, because in a way, I can still kid myself that I’ve got my finger on the pulse but also because sometimes it’s just quite amusing to be kept up to date with all that’s trendy in the world. Imagine my 12 year-old daughter’s confusion as dad is able to regale her with tales of Stormzy, high-waisted jeans or better still, tell her that I too love that track on Capital, because it’s “sick”.

‘…Stormzy makes no sense to me.’

Yet I also get to feel old, because I want to tell my students that it doesn’t matter what watch you’ve got or who your clothes are made by; there’s a lot more to being a well-rounded, respectable human being than any of that! The constant talk of which watch to wear, which music I should listen to, which shoes I should wear can grind you down and wear you out at my age! There’s also the fact that Stormzy makes no sense to me – I mean you can’t even hear the words – I’d look daft in high-waisted jeans and that I really, really can’t stand Capital radio.

Recently though, I’ve heard and discussed what we’ll refer to as image issues (because they’re not strictly ‘bling’ and I can’t believe that people still refer to ‘bling’) that have disturbed me greatly and led me to wonder what on Earth could be going on with our younger generation.

The first instance came during a lesson that I was teaching. I say teaching; I wasn’t. Once a week classes have access to laptops and some vocabulary building software, so they work while I ‘supervise’. This mainly takes the form of asking them to stop getting the laptop to say the names of their peers in its ‘hilarious’ voice and making sure that they’re actually doing what it is they’re supposed to be doing.

It was while I was doing the latter and policing the screens that I caught sight of something deeply unsavoury on the screen of a boy at the front of the room. And no, it’s not what you think…it’s worse. I had gone to the back of the room – you’d be surprised how much this will flummox even the brightest of classes – so that I could get a better view of the screens. All of a sudden my attention was grabbed by the fact that one screen was clearly on Google. Google Images, in fact. And what was he Googling? Rudey ladies? Naked men (it’s an LGBeeGeesandTs friendly classroom, after all)? The kinds of fast cars that he dreams of? No. No, he was in fact Googling pictures of Crocs. Crocs, innit?

Now Crocs have had a bad press. And you know what? It’s fully deserved. There can be absolutely no defence of this type of footwear. Don’t give me the line about comfort, either. Crocs are ugly…fugly in fact. And when did comfort come into things for young people? My dad – 79, corduroy and checked shirt wearer, keen gardener, grower of prize-winning leeks and other vegetables – wears Crocs. Argument over. He’s not channelling some young rapper, he’s just got no shame anymore. No offence internetless dad who has literally 1% chance of ever reading this.

The Crocs thing got worse. I drew attention to it, hoping to shame my young friend into realising that when we’re meant to be learning new vocabulary, we should do just that. But he felt no shame. Don’t get me wrong, he quickly shut the page down and returned to what he should have been doing, but rather than turning a particular shade of crimson, he actually tried to justify his Croc-search. Apparently, Post Malone wears them. Well that’s alright then.

‘Here we have a man at the cutting edge of popular culture…’

I’ve never felt so old and confused in a long time. Now, I’ve heard of Post Malone. My daughter informs me that he’s ‘sick’ on a regular basis. I wish he was. Might shut him up. Post – I’m imagining not the name he was christened with – is launching a new range of Crocs. And this is what I simply don’t understand. I’m sure that money comes into it, but really…Crocs? Here we have – so I’m led to believe – a man at the cutting edge of popular culture – setting the trends, providing the soundtracks for thousands walking to and from school, making memories for his generation who years from now will listen to him being played on a Friday night, after work on Absolute 10s and think, ‘Wow, I loved that track’. And then he spoilt it all by teaming up with Crocs for a chunk of money.

However, while feeling old about Post, with his ludicrous name and endorsements for ridiculous footwear for gardeners, I also realised that it made me feel young at the same time. Because while I feel entirely negatively about Crocs and, however much thought I give to it, will never understand their attractiveness, I can see why the herd are following. This kind of thing makes me feel young simply because it takes me back to my own youth and some of the ridiculous trends that were followed then too.

I was born in the 1970s. This meant that adolescence and early adulthood, and all of the bonkers decisions that one makes at that time, hit in the late 80′ and early 90s. And to borrow a phrase that used to be popular, ‘what a time to be alive’! In terms of what we’ll loosely call style, here are some of the major influences of the time.

‘…granddad shirts, batwing jumpers, Ra-Ra skirts, mullets and perms.’

In the 1980s we had the back end of punk and the start of the New Romantics, as well as Ska, Mod and, as the decade ended, the first real seeds of dance music. Among other things this influenced fashion trends like day-glo socks (often worn odd – and orange and a green one, for example), drain pipe jeans, baggy jeans, baggy trousers, granddad shirts, batwing jumpers, Ra-Ra skirts, mullets and perms. Then the 90s brought us indie music and bands like Oasis and Blur, as well as grunge and dance music and the emergence of the superstar DJ. And again, this influenced our style, bringing with it more neon, check shirts, loose fit jeans, leggings, Global Hypercolour t-shirts and anything that a Gallagher wore.

As terrible as it all might have looked, we all wore it. Me, with two hairy pipe cleaners for legs, wearing baggy jeans. Why? Because of fashion, that’s why. Same with loose fit jeans in the 90s, because after all, The Happy Mondays told us that it had to be a loose fit. I’m sure I still looked like a right tw*t though. I had a wedge haircut in the 80s and thought I looked amazing. And if you’re laughing, imagining me with a wedge, just wait. It gets worse. When the footballer Chris Waddle, who was at my beloved Newcastle at the time, had the back of his hair permed, I very quickly followed suit. That’s right; a back perm, as it was known. In my head I looked just like Chris Waddle. On my head, once again, I looked like a right tw*t.

‘…someone else told him they’re fashion/bling/peng…’

So my point is, that I kind of understand why a 14-year-old boy might be pricing up Crocs on the internet in my lesson. It’s because someone told him that they’re fashion/bling/peng and, bless him, he’s young and doesn’t realise how ridiculous he’s going to look if he actually buys and wears them. I do feel like I should have a word though, because in ten years time when he looks at photos of himself wearing them, he’s going to think he looked like a…well you must know what comes next.

The final style subject that made me feel old, young, happy and sad all at the same time happened in another of my lessons. We do actually work, by the way, it’s just that sometimes kids talk. Anyway, a student was discussing hair. Not exactly a shock, right? I mean when you’re young hair and its varied and often experimental styles are one of the main things that make you stand out. However, this wasn’t any old chat about hair. The boy concerned is the type who likes to feel popular. He hangs around with what are probably the wrong crowd and the right crowd all at the same time. And he’s very image conscious. But he wasn’t concerned with hair styles, as such. Here we had a 16 year-old boy asking about the availability, price, risks and everything else to do with hair transplants! Already, so early on in life, the worry of looking just right had stopped him in his tracks. No doubt he has the watch, the shoes, the trainers and everything else that he feels he needs to feel comfortable with himself and his image, but, such is the importance of the way we look these days, that this lad is already so concerned about losing his hair that he’s making plans to stop the rot. Unbelievable.

Needless to say, I didn’t really come out in sympathy. In fact, I told him that in order to have a hair transplant a surgeon had to slice open your scalp, like one would open a tin, before sewing the bits of hair in from underneath and then putting said flap of scalp back complete with new hair. It’s amazing what kids will believe if you keep a straight face.

‘Just for beards alone, there were 38 products available…’

I decided to conduct a little research to help understand the problem of image these days. I was astounded by what I found. Whilst doing some Christmas shopping online I was struck by the sheer amount of products available. I decided to investigate male grooming on the Boots website. Now, I haven’t got one, but I believe having a beard – and looking rather like a Geography teacher from 1982 – is de rigueur these days amongst young men. I even teach kids with beards, something that years ago, when I entered the profession, I would’ve never imagined possible. Just for beards alone, there were 38 products available, including stubble cleanser, beard balm, brush-in colour gel and a beard starter kit, which I thought we were all born with anyway. It’s just that some take longer to start than others.

If you then look at the category of male grooming in its entirety things become staggeringly complex. Unbelievably there are over 1500 products available on the Boots website alone! 1500 things for men to groom themselves. I still feel a little bit camp on the rare occasions I apply moisturizer, but imagine having that many things to choose form with which to make yourself like just right, imagewise. It beggars belief. Now I understand that some of these products will be in several different categories, but even allowing for a lot of that there are still probably well over 1000 male grooming products available on one website! These included 101 washing & bathing products, 162 men’s hair products, 54 male hair loss products, 497 aftershaves (497!) and even 115 male incontinence products, which frankly, made me want to wet myself a bit. This is all before you get to looking at things like Crocs and watches.

So while I can sit here, all rugged and handsome with my Casio watch on and possible wearing a t-shirt bought in a supermarket, it’s actually not that hard to understand why today’s young men can get so concerned with looking just right. I mean we haven’t all got my natural pizzazz, right? But still, the idea of sifting through over 1000 products to groom oneself before you even get dressed or are able to tell the time makes me feel like we might have gone a bit too far with this whole image thing. The right timepiece, the right car, the right shoes, the right tattoos – seriously, watch the point?

 

 

 

 

Berlin: in search of history, fun, culture…and The Hoff.

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It’s early evening and fairly dark by the time we get to Berlin. It wasn’t meant to be this way. Not at all. We should have been here earlier, when it was still light. After all, this was going to be a big family adventure. No private transfer to the door of the hotel and no sticking to those same four walls for food. We were winging it, exploring and showing the kids how to have fun in a big city. But then, like a giant fun sponge, Ryanair intervened and presented us with a delightfully unexplained one and a half hour delay. All of a sudden the omens weren’t so good and our adventure was seeming less and less like a good idea.

Given our delay and the time of day, our excitement is now slightly tinged with a nagging apprehension. It’s late on a Sunday and we don’t even know if Tourist Information will still be open and if it’s shut, how we’ll be able to find our way to Berlin. We’ve planned to take the train, described by the inhabitants of Trip Advisor as ‘easy’, ‘excellent’ and ‘efficient’ – the kind of words you’d fully expect to find when describing German public transport. But now, it’s getting later and it’s dark. We have two children with us and we’ve been on the move since around 9am. Should we not just jump in a taxi?

Thankfully, having collected our case – more adventure, my wife usually insists on about 3 cases, all of which are my responsibility – we arrive in a well lit part of the airport and there, nestled in the corner, is the wonderful sight of the Tourist Information office. We queue up for a few minutes before we are asked to approach the desk by a friendly faced young man. And it is here that I witness something utterly amazing that will unwittingly set the tone for our adventure. Forget the pyramids and the Grand Canyon. Squeeze Radiohead at Glastonbury to the back of your mind. And leave behind the phenomenon of the Northern Lights.

There is no sign that anything miraculous is going to happen, but happen it does. My wife, who has been warning me for weeks that just because she knows a bit of German, we can’t simply rely on her, proceeds to have a full conversation in German with the assistant! As someone who still struggles with English, this is genuinely remarkable. I am chock full of admiration, but better still, we now have our Welcome Cards and directions to the train. Suddenly, everything looks brighter and we are officially off and running in our Berlin adventure!

The miracles continue with the appearance of an actual angel on the train into Berlin. We have hopped on to a train that we believe will take us to Potsdamer Platz, close to our hotel, but we’re now struggling to work out the map of the railway. I can tell that my wife is worried and frankly, map-reading is not a skill that I possess. She’s probably right to be worried! But then up steps The Angel of Berlin. A young woman has watched our very English distress from across the carriage and comes over to offer help. Now, I don’t wish to get involved in any Teutonic stereotyping, but something had me half expecting Germans to be cool and detached. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. So far on our trip everyone we’d encountered had been friendly. But now we’ve been blessed with our very own angel. Not only does she smile sweetly and explain things in perfect English, but when it turns out that the train is terminating at the next stop she comes back over to us and via the conduit of Google Maps, explains to us exactly which trains we need to take to get into Berlin safely. Short of leading us onto the train with a packed lunch and a cushion to sit on, The Angel of Berlin could not have been any more helpful or kind.

And so it is that not long later we emerge into the early evening chill of Potsdamer Platz, a busy area of central Berlin, packed with shops and restaurants. It’s a Sunday though, so it’s reasonably quiet and despite an ever present feeling that we don’t know where we’re going, we soon arrive wearily at our hotel. The Novotel staff keep up Berlin’s happy average for warm friendliness and once we’ve dropped out bags we then spend the rest of the evening wandering before stopping off at a local Italian restaurant for some of the biggest pizzas we’ve ever had. So far, so good for Berlin.

The next morning we’re up and out early. As part of our newly found adventurous spirit, we’ve decided to go off in search of breakfast rather than relying on the hotel. Now to some this may not seem overly adventurous, but with children as fussy as ours who are more used to an all inclusive buffet breakfast by the pool, this is Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and Bear Grylls all rolled into one! Unlike any of the aforementioned adventurers, however, we’ve done a little Trip Advisor research and are heading for Maracay Coffee to sample for their delicious sounding breakfast.

Our cover as adventurers and international jetsetters is blown in seconds as the assistant pretty much ignores my wife’s attempts at German and sorts our order out in almost flawless English. German efficiency, again! We scramble over to the last remaining table in this clearly popular café, sinking comfortably into the sofa and talking the kids through the selection of photographs of some of Hollywood’s finest that decorate the wall. In no time at all our order number is called and we’re wolfing down wonderful toast with butter and marmalade and cradling coffee or hot chocolate in order to guard against the cold outside. By the time we’ve sat, chatted and enjoyed the atmosphere of Maracay, we’re ready for the rest of the day.

Our first day is hectic, but only because Berlin boasts so many things to see and do. Even as we walk along Wilhelmstrasse, towards our first sights, we have to keep stopping to read through the information boards that tell us about the various SS and SA buildings that used to reside here, before being demolished. Soon though we’re confronted by one of the most iconic sights in any city on the planet: the Berlin Wall. It’s not all here – obviously – and it’s clearly in a state of disrepair, but what’s there is enough to stop you in your tracks. We stand and gawp at this shabby symbol of terror and injustice, trying in vain to explain its importance to our 12 and 9 year olds. It doesn’t even look particularly solid, but when you read about the ‘no man’s land’ between East and West and imagine the guard posts dotted along it and the barbed wire it becomes particularly chilling.

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It’s now getting increasingly cold so we take the short walk over to the Topography of Terror, a museum that documents the rise and fall of the Nazi’s and their reign of terror. A sign on the way in politely asks you to behave in a respectful manner here, but really, there’s no need. Mere minutes spent looking at the photographs or reading through some of the details of what went on is enough to stun you into silence. I walk round with my 9 year old son and find myself explaining almost every photograph or exhibit and while usually going to such lengths would be a chore, this is simply a necessity. He clearly can’t understand it all – who could? – but such is the quality of the whole place that he can’t fail to have learnt a lot. I realise that my knowledge of this period of history is not what it should be and I learn a lot myself. By the time we get to the end I feel slightly emotional and overwhelmed by it all. The Topography of Terror details the kind of things that you really don’t want to read about, but there can be no other word for the place than stunning.

As we blink our way out into the sunlight and the cold, we’ve gone from excited adventurers to a kind of stunned silence. We walk a little further on before stopping to consider our next move. We’re close to Checkpoint Charlie, so explaining it as a box in the middle for the road where people would be stopped and have their documents checked by soldiers, we head off! It’s not far and we’re done in around ten minutes, having taken a few photographs and attempted another, more comprehensive explanation of what it actually was – my son genuinely expected a cardboard box in the road after the first try – we move off, grab some dinner at Back Factory, a kind of German Greggs (but nowhere near as good, because what is?), and then retreat back to our hotel in order to add more layers of clothing with which to battle the winter weather. It is genuinely freezing and as a last minute packing decision I’d put base layer tops from football for myself and my son into our bags and now they’re on!

Our changes pay off and it’s a much warmer next few hours. We stride on taking in the quietly stunning Holocaust Memorial, a vast and thought-provoking tribute, the majesty of the Brandenburg Gate and then the Reichstag building. It’s slightly disappointing not to be able to get closer to the last two, but you can’t blame Berlin for that. Outside the Holocaust Memorial police are searching underneath a suspiciously parked van, while there are cordons everywhere by the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag – this is the world we live in now, I guess. It doesn’t spoil our afternoon and in fact, it’s just a thrill to be able to stand in front of most of the things that we see on this trip and fantastically, not once do we feel afraid or intimidated. Berlin is simply a very relaxed and cool place to be. We’ve been here less than 24 hours and we’re totally at home.

As night falls we make our way to Supreme Burger Bar and Grill for a well earned tea. It feels like we’ve walked for miles, but we’re in high spirits. Berlin has undoubtedly welcomed us and we’re thoroughly enjoying it. Following a theme, our waiter in Supreme is fantastically friendly, apologising for some of the menu being in German and explaining whatever he feels might need explaining, while also recommending a few things too. Following his lead somewhat, we all go for burgers, spending the next hour or so eating delicious food, chatting and just generally enjoying the glow that Berlin seems to have given us. We take the train home, stopping off at Podtsdamer Platz and the Berlin Mall to do a little bit of shopping. We’re a day into our time in Berlin and already using the train like pros! Our kids – a little bit sheltered at home and ferried everywhere in the car – are loving the new found thrill of public transport and well they might. Venture down into the S-Bahn or U-Bahn here and not only is it clean and safe, but – get this fellow English people – there are trains! They arrive on time, set off on time and, even better, they run  every few minutes. Not once in our trip do we have to wait any more than 5 or 6 minutes for a train to arrive. In terms of being English and using public transport, Berlin is like a trip into the future! Clean, reliable and safe – what’s not to like?

We’re up bright and early the next day and ready for more adventure. It’s already clear that Berlin has far too much for us to cover in our time here and so we’re trying to narrow down adult and child Top 3s to help with our remaining days. After another delicious breakfast at Maracay, we catch the train to Hackerscher Markt and then attempt to use our new ‘adventurer instinct’ to get to the DDR Museum. The sun is shining and it’s a beautiful and unusually warm day. Unfortunately though, after around two minutes of walking we’re losing faith in our instinct and my wife is forced to ask a passer-by, again in what appears to me to be fluent German. The lady doesn’t speak English, but after enquiring as to whether we are in fact English, she is lovely enough to be very precise with her directions. We turn and head in the opposite direction to that which our instinct had us heading in and within 5 minutes are taking the short walk along the river and entering the DDR Museum.

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The museum allows visitors to experience what life was like in East Berlin under Socialism. Having grown up hearing reports from East Berlin and the horrors of life behind the Wall, I’m intrigued and ready for a culture shock. I also experienced the fall of the wall and the joy of people who found freedom and so I’m expecting an interesting few hours. I’m looking forward to the section of the museum that will inevitably be devoted to David Hasselhoff, who of course we all know was instrumental in the fall of the Wall. He went looking for freedom and when he couldn’t find any, he just made it happen. Big up the Hoff.

We’ve tried to brief the children, but at 12 and 9, we realise that this might not be their cup of tea. However, within minutes both kids are enjoying the simulated Trabant driving and have smiles plastered all over their faces. The smiles and the intrigue continue too as we look at exhibitions about public life behind the wall, its politics and even a section where we go inside the flat of a typical East German situated in a mock up of a Berlin tower block. Looking at some of the décor I’m prompted to make a mental note to ask my parents if we have any East Berlin heritage – I’m certain that we grew up with similar wallpaper and furniture in our 70s front room!

Over 2 hours later we emerge from the museum blinking into the sunlight. There was not one mention of The Hoff in the DDR Museum, but I feel sure he’ll crop up somewhere else, later in our trip. It’s an absolutely beautiful day and the buildings around the River Spree look fantastic in the sunshine. We have a few photos by the river then wander off in search of food, stopping for more photos of the TV Tower. Sadly, we decide that we haven’t got time to actually go there as we have so much more to see, but at least it gives me another reason to come back one day. We grab some food – a quirky but delicious selection of hot dogs in a wrap – and then trek off down the river in search of the Palace of Tears, a museum dedicated to the separation of families during the time of the Berlin Wall. Again, it’s quite an emotional thing to see with lots of interesting artefacts and again we run out of time. It’s hard to get your head around the fact that someone somewhere once thought that the wall was a good idea, despite the sheer heartache that it would cause. It’s also hard to get your head around the fact that, yet again, there’s no mention of Hasselhoff.

While we’re not exactly sombre as we leave we decide that we need a break and find a table in a busy café called Flamingo Fresh Food Bar. We’ve been on our feet now for a large part of the last few days so the chance to sit down without the time pressure of thinking about where we go next is very much welcomed. Myself and the kids opt for fresh juice while Louise goes for her usual coffee, hoping for the shot-in-the-arm that caffeine often brings. There are cakes on display – delicious looking things too – but we give them a miss in favour of avoiding elasticated waist trousers for at least the next few years.

As we leave Flamingo and head for the train we see our first instance of any trouble in Berlin. I say trouble but perhaps what I should refer to it as is ‘a little slice of England’. We hear him before we see him. Shouting. Sporadically bursting out and travelling across the square. It’s very definitely a lone voice so we know it’s not exactly trouble with a capital T and as I say it’s in fact, quite English. As it turns out it’s man huddled up on a bench shouting at pigeons. He’s clearly been drinking or indulging in something. I mean why else would you take offence at pigeons? But it says a lot about Berlin that this is the only uncomfortable moment that we have in our four days. And it’s hardly uncomfortable, just a little sad, really.

Having figured out the source of the shouting we head over to Friedrickstrasse station to catch the train back to Potsdamer Platz and then back to our hotel. It’s only a quick change and dropping of bags before we’re back out – spirit of adventure and all that – and on another train – have I mentioned that I love the trains in Berlin? – over to Schoneburg where we’re off for our tea. Tonight, courtesy of a Trip Advisor recommendation we head to Evin’s Pizza Pasta and again, it’s a delight. We’re seated quickly and again the staff are friendly and eager to please. The atmosphere is nice and relaxed, encouraging us to spend a little more time than necessary to eat and in truth, rest. We’ve barely stopped for the last few days and so the chance to just sit is too good to miss. Our pizzas are enormous and incredibly tasty and by the time we leave to head for the train home, we’re stuffed!

As our final day dawns we’re determine to pack as much as we can into what remains of our trip. It’s our final day in Berlin and so breakfast – hello again to Maracay – is tinged with a certain sadness. Nevertheless, no one’s feeling sorry for themselves, despite our aching leg and sore feet, and we’re ready for more exploring. We make a slightly later start as there’s packing to do, and I must admit I’m not keen on our choice of places to visit this morning. We’re off to the Game Science Centre and as a confirmed non gamer, this promises little for me. But I’m gritting my teeth and getting ready to take the plunge as the rest of the family love playing games.

The centre is tucked away in Kreuzberg in what looks like a row of shops. I’m really not expecting much at all. However, as we enter it’s clearly a bit of a tardis. The inside of the place is clearly quite large and there seem to be a lot of things to do. For the uninitiated, the Game Science Centre is an interactive attraction run by game developers. You can play various games, controlling some by gesture, some with your eyes and others just in the traditional way, with your hands.

It doesn’t take very long at all to have me absolutely hooked! Before I know it, not only am I having fun playing games, but I’m laughing randomly at the type of things that I’m doing. The family are literally running between games. We make music, shoot stuff, dance, use a touchscreen to demonstrate how much of a competitive family we are in a four player game and even stop for a massage. They even have a Space Invaders style game where you shoot the aliens using ping pong bats and balls! The technology is fantastic and the variety even better. We even take a family vote to extend our time here and cut down on something else later in the day and by the time we leave everyone has had a fantastic time and we’re all smiling. But we have to move quickly…

We head uptown and catch another train over to the Berlin Zoo, where, with time running out on our adventure we literally race around to see as many of the animals as we can. The zoo is another fantastic Berlin attraction – clean, friendly and with an absolute tonne of animals to see. As you’d expect really because after all, it’s a zoo. We’d have loved to have more time to spend here, but with a case and bags to finish packing and a plane to catch we’re sticking to strict timings. So off we go, on to another train. Our final day has flown over and sadly we’re facing up to our last few hours in Berlin.

Before we know it we’re sitting in Schonefeld airport and there’s just time for one last moment of sheer German joy as we order a Burger King. The assistant – who once again speaks faultless English – is obviously and hilariously flummoxed by our request for plain burgers, questioning us on seemingly every salad item possible before finally agreeing to our request. His face though, as he asks us, ‘Not even tomato?’ is priceless and we’re reduced to stifling giggles. But the fun’s not quite over as we receive our meals and it becomes clear that my request for a Fanta just wasn’t healthy enough for him, especially on top of having no salad. Instead, he wordlessly replaces my Fanta with not one, but two cartons of fresh orange and having asked myself what The Hoff would do, I see no need to disagree and simply accept my fate. The folk of Berlin eh? Friendly, welcoming, lovely, but most of all, very, very health conscious!

As our plane takes off and we head home I’m tired, yet a whole load better for my time in Berlin. It was somewhere I’d wanted to see for a long time and now I have I feel very sure that I’ll be back again. Maybe next year? I genuinely hope so! Berlin has been an absolute feast – of history, culture, fun, walking, relaxing, smiling, friendly hosts and of course trains. Don’t forget the trains! No Hoff though!

Go to Berlin, get a Welcome Card, take the train…and have an adventure! And let me know if you spot The Hoff.

 

Watching television through my fingers: The Apprentice

It’s that time of year again. The weather is getting colder and soon we’ll have our first frost. The leaves are falling from the trees and our Autumnal hues are disappearing. It’s dark at about 5pm. Oh, and Alan Sugar has once again assembled a cavalcade of halfwits for our entertainment. The Apprentice is well and truly back!

I have a love hate relationship with The Apprentice. I’ve watched it for a while now and would happily describe myself as an avid viewer. A fan, even. It can be genuinely entertaining television, and for that, I love it. However, I can also say that I genuinely hate it too! Even though I’m well versed in its nuances and know perfectly well what to expect, this year’s ‘introductions’ brought the same resigned sigh from me as every year.

With the annual splash of tabloid press coverage and the first couple of episodes generally devoted to introducing us to this year’s candidates, you find that you can’t avoid these people and if you hear or read anything of them you probably can’t avoid coming to the conclusion that this year’s halfwits are not a great deal different from any of the previous year’s. So just what is it that makes The Apprentice both compelling and cringeworthy in equal measure?

The most obvious port of call in seeking an answer would be to look at the people involved. And the least obvious way of looking at them would be to start by tackling the experts: Lord Sugar, Karen Brady and Claude Littner.

“what makes Claude so very watchable…is his wide array of facial expressions.”

Claude Littner is a fascinating character and who undoubtedly makes for compulsive viewing. Even the smallest bit of reading via Wikepedia gives you an amazing insight into his life. He was born in New York to Jewish parents who had fled the Nazis in the 1930s. He was the Chief Executive of Spurs, is a multi millionaire and at one point was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin Lymphoma and given 6 months to live. However, what makes Claude so very watchable on The Apprentice is his wide array of facial expressions. Despite the possession of a fantastic poker face, Claude’s feelings are frequently given away by the kind of facial expressions that suggest he’s either desperately hoping that the Immodium will kick in or is about to break into an almost certainly faultless impersonation of Kenneth Williams. Ooh, matron indeed. One minute we’re watching yet another hopeless pitch or a poorly thought-through idea and the next the camera will cut away to a clearly squirming Claude looking like he’s just ingested a bag full of Tangfastics in one go. Brilliant editing and definitely a dark horse in the race for the answer as to why we watch the show. And if you’re not hooked on Claude in the early weeks, then just wait until you watch him in the interviews!

Then there’s Karren. Baroness Brady, the vice-chairperson at West Ham United. Not a personal favourite of mine, but still the possessor of a fine selection of disgusted facial expressions as well as a woman who instinctively knows the value of a perfectly timed put down. She comes across as a bit of a ‘teacher’s pet’, always ready to tell tales to Lord Sugar when yet another hapless contestant is backtracking on their involvement in the latest monumental failure. If it was all about Karren, then the viewing figures wouldn’t be anywhere near what they are. However, she’s a vital cog in the whole Apprentice machine.

“You’re fired. You should be if you’re writing those gags.”

Lord Sugar himself is a fabulous reason to watch The Apprentice. But again, the reason for this, in my opinion, is not altogether obvious. In fact, when Lord Sugar is on screen, I’m often left cursing my eyes and ears. The reason for this is his seemingly inexhaustible range of puns and put downs. You’re fired? You should be if you’re writing those gags. Year after year they seem to get worse. And year after year, I continue to watch…and wince. I mean, look at this for a selection.

“I know the words to Candle in the Wind – it don’t make me Elton John… You think you can second guess or play me? Well let me tell you, I’m as hard to play as a Stradivarius and you lot, I can assure you, are as easy to play as bongo drums.” 

Figure that out then. I mean, the first bit…well being Elton John makes you Elton John pal. And you’re very definitely not him. In fact, you’re unmistakenly Lord Sugar off The Apprentice. But imagine the week he turns up in the boardroom doing Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting. TV Gold, right there.

And then there’s, “How do you send people to a brewery that don’t drink? In Zee’s case particularly, he is as dry as a cream cracker in the bleeding Sahara Desert!” Now, I’m no expert, but does a cream cracker get drier because it’s in the desert? You could call it dry wit, I guess, but then again it’s not actually funny.

But it seems that being funny isn’t a really requirement in the world of Lord Sugar’s put downs. This next one is straight out of the playground and in fact, in telly terms, was last heard in a slightly different guise being uttered repeatedly by Jim Bowen back in the 80s on Bullseye. One contestant was genuinely told, “Fair? The only fair you’re gonna get is your bloody train fare home.” Face it, if that’s the way you’ve been fired then you’d probably be willing to pay him the £250k just to get out of there. And he could keep his train fare. How long though, before the £250k is withdrawn in favour of a caravan on a revolving stage with Lord Sugar telling the person fired, “Hey, look at what you could’ve won!”

And then finally, who could forget, “Call yourself an ice-cream man? Well I’ve got you licked, mate!” Having trouble remembering? No wonder. I just made that one up, but you have to admit that you could hear him saying it and it certainly doesn’t look out of place. The put downs continue to be terrible and yet, we still continue to watch.

Undoubtedly though, the reason for our avid viewing will always come back to the talent vacuum that is the candidates. In the interests of staying current, let’s have a gander at this year’s line up.

First out this year was Sarah Byrne, 29 apparently, although let’s just say that there’s more than a hint of a showbiz age. Sarah seemed to have imagined that being loud and Northern was exactly what Lord Sugar would be looking for in a business partner. Unfortunately though, she’d seriously underplayed the necessity for any business acumen and/or personality and as such just came across as an annoying gobby Northerner – and I say this as what some might call an annoying gobby Northerner. As far as I could tell she was one of those people who live their lives believing that they’d make good viewing for others. In fact, even an hour’s air time was too much. There are an endless amount of different reasons as to why Sarah was first out, but the less said about Sarah, the better.

“Sadly for David it turned out to be a case of going, going, gone.”

Next to face the firing finger was David Alden, a tax advisor from Yorkshire. A cross between Elmer Fudd and, well, a tax advisor from Yorkshire, he said that his friends called him the Duracell Bunny due to his boundless energy and tendency to ‘just keep going’. Sadly for David it turned out to be a case of going, going, gone. He has also said he had the ability to talk to anyone about anything. A shame then that ‘anything’ didn’t seem to stretch to ‘anything to do with business’.

Third to be fired was Frank Brooks who had claimed to be ‘brutal in the boardroom’. Strange then that when confronted with the boardroom he magically transformed into human jelly. He’d told the press that he was ‘two steps in front’. And he was right. He was two steps in front of the first two losers to be sacked. Just a shame that there were so many people still left in the competition, who as it turned out were at least a week in front of Frank.

After Frank, we lost Alex Finn, a 21 year old IT analyst from the Wirral who claimed to have the gift of the gab, but then insisted on asking the inventor of some fitness equipment whether it was insured in case it got lost in the post as part of his bid to be able to sell the product. The bloke decided against Alex as an option, as did Lord Sugar not long later.

A few weeks in and we were saying goodbye to Rick Monk, who’s name has to be rhyming slang for something, although I couldn’t possibly think what. Rick was the classic Apprentice candidate who doesn’t really seem to do anything, other than occasionally talk rubbish. Ultimately these candidates always get found out, either by being forced to become the Project Manager or being forced to answer a really simple question that they really simply can’t answer. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rick who at least seemed to have the good grace to accept that when it came to business he made a very good halfwit.

So who else has me watching the telly through almost closed eyes? Well if you watched week 1 the name Khadija would surely spring to mind. Khadija managed to be pushed into being Project Manager in the comic book task, leading her team to produce the comic featuring an MC who rapped their way around the world learning different languages. They opted for French for their first comic. The snag was that neither Khadija nor her team knew more than ten words of French. So, smart move then.

“In terms of leading, this was much more dictatorship than democracy.”

Khadija, who considers people skills to be her most valuable business asset then proceeded to bark orders at her team, talked over them and basically made them feel like their ideas weren’t welcome and that they should just do exactly what she herself suggested. In terms of leading, this was much more dictatorship than democracy. And of course this inevitably led to her being compared to Kim Jong Un. Harsh? Not in Khadija’s eyes when she told us that if everybody was talking about this Kim Jong Un fella, then he must be doing something good! And of course, she’s correct. I mean that’s why we’re all talking about Donald Trump. And Hitler, Piers Morgan, Negan and Satan, right guys? Guys? Maybe not, eh Khadija?

Another ego seemingly functioning sans brain seems to be Daniel Elahi who describes him as the owner of a lifestyle brand. Now this always happens with The Apprentice. The tendency to talk bulls**t about what it is they do. Firstly, I don’t want my lifestyle branded – it would be called ‘Incredibly Dull’ if it was branded, but secondly I don’t have the foggiest idea what he’s talking about. Luckily though, he gets infinitely clearer when he talks about himself, describing himself as being like Daniel Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street. Good call, Daniel. Inspirational.  A bit like saying, ‘In terms of being a bloke, I’m a bit like the Yorkshire Ripper’ when actually what you should have said is, ‘I’ve got a beard’. In truth, the only Wolf you can compare to is Wolf from Gladiators, mate.

Brilliantly though, Daniel didn’t seem to think that his ‘Wolf’ comment went far enough and went on to describe himself as having  ‘beauty and brains…I was blessed with both in abundance.’ Daniel there, a man in love with mirrors, but unable to clearly see his own reflection. See you this time next year, on Celebrity Petrol Station pal.

Having watched for a few weeks now there are still a number of candidates who I still don’t really know. You know the ones. You watch them for weeks but can’t remember which one they are. Two such characters this year are Camilla and Sarah Ann.

Now, I think Sarah Ann has been a project manager, but I genuinely can’t remember on what task. I’ve been too busy trying to figure out other things about her. The first thing was whether or not she was a mackem (that’s someone from Sunderland, for the ill-informed or those just lucky enough to have never heard of Sunderland). Turns out she’s from Teeside, which is better, but in reality, it’s just a bit like being from Sunderland. Next I found myself captivated by her eye. Not eyes. Eye. In terms of, ‘what’s that thing near her eye?’ It seems she has some bizarre piercing, like a bolt near the corner of her eye. Now I’m no fashion expert, but I never thought I’d see the dawning of Frankenstein chic. Sarah Ann obviously had different ideas though, which in a way is a good thing, because I can’t think of any other reason why viewers would notice her on The Apprentice.

Camilla has blonde hair. That’s all I’ve garnered from watching her for the last few weeks. A bit of reading tells me that she considers herself to be a ‘serious adrenaline junkie’, the kind of label that always sends a shiver down my spine. It’s the kind of thing that people seem to say in order to make themselves sound more interesting. But why should I feel interested in the fact that you enjoy feeling scared? Tell you what, next time I see you heading my way I’ll hide and jump out as you pass screaming ‘BOO!’. Deal? Good. Now could you just get off my telly, please?

“…he seems like a decent enough bloke.”

While there are always characters that you barely register are there, there is always at least one dark horse when watching The Apprentice. For me – and I’ll regret this when he stumbles his way through the next pitch, insults a major retailer and spectacularly loses his team the task – Tom is my dark horse. Now Tom is a tree surgeon which doesn’t immediately strike me as the type of profession that we associate with an Apprentice winner. However, when it comes to his credentials as a bona fide knobhead he’s severely lacking. And this can only be a plus point when you look around at the numerous knobheads he’s working with. It seems to me that Tom is active in all tasks, talking common sense, but staying just about low profile enough to survive. And he seems like a decent enough bloke. Now, I’m no business expert. In fact I really don’t know the first thing about business. But I sense, in Tom, someone who might just have the credentials to win it this year. Unless of course his big business plan is revealed as investing £250,000 in just chopping down more trees. I’ll be watching with interest.

From the sanity of Tom to possibly one of the most absurd idiots ever to appear on the show. Kurran Pooni. Kurran is a 22 year old law graduate who, before appearing on the show told the media that, ‘I’ll be honest, I don’t eat, sleep, breathe business, but I do eat, sleep and breathe success.’ Now, I’d struggle to believe that even without the ‘success’ bit at the end. It strikes me, having watched him for the last few weeks it’d be far more accurate of Kurran to say something like, ‘I’m dead lucky that I’ve got a rich mam and dad’. He seems to have spent almost all of the last few weeks simply strolling around the place. While others get on with the task at hand, Kurran seems to just go for a wander. He might have a little look at himself in the mirror, or the window of a shop. He might ruffle his hair a bit, play a bit of pocket billiards, but the nearest he gets to the actual task will be to mutter some kind of comment either disagreeing with the idea or giving some spurious reason as to why he’s doing nothing.

“You’re not exactly Stormzy are you?”

His performance in the shoe task beggared belief as he disagreed with the design concept and went for a wander. But the best was yet to come. The concept of the shoe was ‘urban heel’ and it seemed to be working (although the team would later lose). Not good enough for Kurran though who simply wandered about claiming to understand ‘the street’ and everything ‘urban’. Really though Kurran? Your dad founded an airline mate. Hardly the beginnings of some kind of urban legend. You’re not exactly Stormzy are you? And I’m not sure a double breasted suit is a style choice made by those on the street. Unless it was a homeless bloke who found one in a bin.

Kurran survived by a whisker in the boardroom and mainly because Lord Sugar made the extraordinary decision of dragging the whole team back in order to fire the person he wanted, rather than anyone that Jackie had brought back. However, forced into the position of Project Manager this week, he finally bit the dust. His failure – and, to be fair, that of his team – was spectacular and he was forced to walk, ill fitting clothes, sling, bouffant and all. On exiting the boardroom he simply sat down, smiling inanely and no doubt thinking that Lord Sugar didn’t know what he was doing, that he’d live to regret his decision and that the hilariously named ‘Jet Pop’s’ promotional video was in fact a work of genius. Whatever he thought, I feel that in the great tradition of these type of shows this was very definitely the last we’ll see of Kurran.

Speaking of Jackie brings up a lot of questions. She seems to be the candidate that you can’t work out. Do we like her or hate her? Is she rude and arrogant or just a bit forward and someone who actually knows what she’s talking about? And where is she from? Is she American, Canadian, a little bit Irish? What is that accent and when will it settle down? So far she seems to have performed fairly well, making thousands of pounds worth of sales as the Project Manager on the last task, albeit in losing the task and generally working hard at everything she’s been faced with. Her performance in the shoe pitch, as some kind of representative of ‘the street’ was totally cringeworthy, but let’s just thank the lord that she didn’t do anything as stupid as try to rap. Let’s face it, it’s the kind of thing that’s been done before and left you wanting to disappear down a hole on their behalf. She followed this up with another terrible performance in the airline pitch, which you imagine is marking her down in Lord Sugar’s estimation.

The final word on Jackie has to go to focus on one of her pre-show publicity quotes. “I’m not intimidated by anybody, or anything.” Seriously though? I think we have a candidate for next year’s ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ Bring on the fish eyes, crocodiles bollocks and kangaroo wangers! Let’s see you front up to those bad boys!

“Wow. Where to start?”

Perhaps the polar opposite to Jackie would be 22 year old, Sabrina Stocker, the owner of a tennis events company. Now hang on. Tennis events? Does that just mean playing tennis. Does she own a company that organises tennis games? Sabrina seems to be a bright, bubbly blonde. She describes herself as ‘a mix of Willy Wonka drinking an espresso martini…classy and sophisticated on the outside; inside, a little bit crazy and wacky but full of brilliant ideas.’ Wow. Where to start? Sabrina sounds like just my type of person. Indeed, there’s nothing I like better than someone who describes themselves as wacky and has to point out how much fun they are. It’s good that she’s reaching out to the common people though with a reference to an espresso martini, a drink that I’d never actually heard of. And there’s something not quite right about a 22 year old who describes themselves as classy. When I was 22, it would have been a fairly kind to describe myself as ‘a bit of an arsehole’ or ‘still acting and dressing a bit like I’m 14’. I was fresh out of university, with out of control hair and attempting to corner the market on the look that could only be labelled ‘Primark Stone Roses’. In short, I was probably a bit of a mess. What I definitely wasn’t was classy. And at 22 year, neither is Sabrina. Classier than me, definitely, but essentially just posh.

Sabrina was, however, the winning Project Manager in the latest task. It’s safe to say though that this was very much a team effort, with the likes of Jasmine, Tom and Kayode holding things together. In fact, Sabrina’s insistence on including ACDC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ as the soundtrack for an airline launch very nearly cost them the task and showed her up as naïve, rather than classy. That decision, in fact, was classic Apprentice. A shining example of a candidate with so much self confidence and arrogance and such a desperation to be responsible for a decision, any decision, that they simply ignore the blindingly obvious fact that they couldn’t be more wrong, because they couldn’t be more convinced that they couldn’t be more right.

Another young candidate is Kayode, who in my opinion has missed a trick in not labelling himself a business Jedi and temporarily re-naming himself Kayoda. I mean, this is The Apprentice after all, where previous candidates have made claims such as, ‘as a salesperson, I would rate myself as probably the best in Europe’, ‘Everything I touch turns to sold’ and ‘I am the champion thoroughbred that this process requires’. So being a business Jedi named Kayoda isn’t even that outlandish. Like I say, the lad’s missed a trick.

“…another attention starved candidate begging for attention.”

Kayode has actually proven his worth at times during this series. He’s sold well, pitched well and never hidden from a challenge. Certainly, he wouldn’t be a surprise as a winner. In the grand tradition of the show though he’s proved that he has a natural ability to act like a d*ck. His insistence on including what was a tedious and misplaced joke in the airline video was nothing short of stupid. Again though, it was classic Apprentice – another attention starved candidate begging for attention. Any attention. And hang the consequences.

Finally this year, we have Jasmine and Sian. Both are proving themselves to be strong candidates, but once again both are proving themselves to be more than capable of coming across as clueless and completely lacking in any sense of self awareness. The perfect recipe for making you watch television through your fingers. Sian – the owner of a swimwear brand that no one’s ever heard of, or surely she wouldn’t be on the show – has already declared herself to have beauty and brains, which of course are two of the toppermost ingredients that Lord Sugar looks for in a business partner. Meanwhile Jasmine, who has the job title of Learning and Development Manager – me neither – has told us that ‘All is fair in love and war…and business is war’, which when you actually think about it, doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

As it stands we’re down to the final ten candidates. Incredibly, again, one of these people will benefit to the tune of £250,000 in terms of an investment in their business idea. All of these people will, at some point or several points over the run of the show, be shown up as the kind of person you probably wouldn’t fully trust to boil your kettle. And yet, year after year, one of them will invariably shine through and prove themselves as a worthy winner. Now given the profile of some of the field of competition, there’s not always an awful lot of shining needed, but still, it’s some achievement. And it’s the kind of achievement that has millions watching year in year out. Even if it is through their fingers and very often – especially in my case – while machine gun shouting expletives at the telly.

 

 

 

Honesty’s the best policy? Maybe not when you’re a dad!

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Mmmmmmmm, great big chunks of onion!

All through our lives we’re told that honesty is the best policy. Your parents are the first to tell you this, followed by any number of well-meaning adults. Teachers, religious leaders, youth workers, police officers, neighbours, aunts, uncles, and pretty much any adult you encounter will tell you the same; it’s best to tell the truth.

However, when you grow up the boundaries start to shift. Take the process of applying for jobs for instance. You might find that honesty actually makes you the dullest possible candidate. So you add the odd interest or experience to your CV or your answers in an interview so that you shine that little bit brighter. In short, you lie. You know the type of thing. You might pick an obscure martial art and claim to practice it, adding that perhaps it might come in handy in your job. Tai Chi or something like that.

In trying to become closer to the girl or boy of your dreams you might find, again, that honesty might not make you that attractive. He or she might not see your full potential as a lover or life partner if you tell them that, actually, the furthest you’ve travelled is Cleethorpes, you haven’t really given any thought to ambitions or that you don’t really have any interests. So you might combine these type of things and spout forth at great length about your dream of taking a gap year and travelling the world. Because, of course being confined to the toilet in your Far East hostel as you gradually make the air funkier and funkier is a truly endearing image and undoubtedly the stuff that dreams, and partners, are made of. If only you had someone to share this passion with…

“Lying to your kids is pretty much what the first chapter of the Dad Manual is devoted to.”

As a dad I’ve found that telling lies is more or less essential. Two words: Santa Claus. A few more: The Tooth Fairy. You see what I mean? Lying to your kids is pretty much what the first chapter of the Dad Manual is devoted to. Then you get to the interesting stuff like Dad Jokes and Dad Magic. I mean, who knew you could produce a coin out of a kid’s ear just by becoming a dad? And did you even realise just how funny you were until you had kids?

Over the years I’ve told many, many lies to my kids. All harmless stuff, but lies all the same. I’ve dated supermodels (believable, I know), I can speak Spanish (hola), I’m a trained street dancer (if you’ve seen me move the only surprise here is that I haven’t claimed to have been Patrick Swayze’s dance coach for Dirty Dancing, because I think it’s plain to see that his character may well have been modelled on me), I can make a block of sugar hover on the top of a cappuccino by using magic (my son was genuinely upset when he found out that this wasn’t magic, just the sugar floating for a while on the froth), I was in the SAS (I’m certainly one mean looking hombre, that’s for sure) and whenever we visited a particular theme park when my kids were younger I would delight in telling them that we were visiting the power station with the massive cooling towers that we had to pass on the way there. This was a lie which they fell for, literally every time.

“I became Gregg Wallace and my daughter faced up to her very own Masterchef final.”

So when my daughter decided that she was going to cook the family tea recently, it became a true test of whether or not honesty really is the best policy. My daughter is 12 and in Year 8 of High School. She’s learning to cook, amongst other things. And we we’re putting her cooking to the test because my wife, in her wisdom, had agreed that we’d eat my daughter’s spaghetti Bolognese for tea. My idea of freezing it and letting the kids have it for teas when we’re at work was rejected so that we could all put it to the taste test. So I became, Gregg Wallace and my daughter faced up to her very own Masterchef final.

Now there wasn’t a lot to this particular spaghetti Bolognese. A supermarket bought Bolognese sauce, some spaghetti, an onion, a handful of mushrooms and some lean beef mince. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turned out quite a lot.

“…I’m quite a picky eater…”

On the day in question I’d been thinking about this Bolognese, sporadically, all day. It was something that genuinely terrified me for several reasons. Firstly, I’m quite a picky eater – I don’t like onions and I’ve never liked beef. I genuinely don’t get the fuss about beef at all. To me, it’s just really bland. Bland and very forgettable. But I’ll tolerate sometimes it so that the beef lovers in the house get to chow down on cow. So the fact that this was a Bolognese made with beef mince immediately troubled me and deep down, I already knew that I wasn’t really going to enjoy this meal. Obviously this worried me, because I knew that my little girl would be desperate to impress. However, I also knew that she’d be bright enough to recognise that it was never going to be a favourite with dad.

I’m also not a fan of too much sauce on pasta (fussy and a little bit juvenile, I know, I probably need to grow up) and having looked at the pile of ingredients on the kitchen table I imagined that I was going to get a mansize dollop of the stuff all over my spaghetti. Protesting simply wouldn’t cut the mustard (applause for the cookery based pun, please) with my wife who thinks I’m just being fussy and juvenile and that I need to grow up.

“…a curry, a Mexican, something with a lot of garlic…”

On the night in question I wandered into the kitchen as my wife was dishing up our tea. Where usually the downstairs of the house will be filled with the wonderful aroma of whatever’s cooking, tonight there was just a strange nothingness. Usually the smell of what’s cooking will be mouth-watering, – a curry, some Mexican, something with a lot of garlic – but tonight no such aroma existed and as a consequence my mouth was unusually dry. This was not a good sign at all. My enthusiasm waned with each passing second and it looked like my dad lying skills would be put firmly to the test here. In fact, I was going to probably have to employ some advanced level Dad lies.

A look at what appeared on my plate only confirmed my fears. Dollop after dollop of a sauce that seemed to have had all the fun sucked out of it by the power of beef. And as I looked closer it just seemed to get worse. Onion. Great big chunks of onion. I knew that this was going to crunch in my mouth and I knew that eating this Bolognese was going to be a bit of a trial. For me, crunch is fine…in a packet of crisps. This is ironic as I imagine a packet of crisps is exactly what I’d go looking for later on, when the kids had gone to bed and I was hungry due to lack of tea! As I continued to stare I felt sure that all the red was draining away from the plate and I was left contemplating a distinctly grey Bolognese. I knew, however, that the more I stared, the more conscious my daughter could be of me not eating. There was nothing for it but to tuck right in!

“This was a forkful and then some.”

Now every fibre of my being, every sinew, wanted to sift out some of the stuff in the sauce. Let’s just nudge that onion to one side and smear some of that mince a little across the plate. I had to show enthusiasm though. I had to lie. So I gripped my fork, said a silent prayer and I dug in. Right in. Inner than in. As I lifted the fork towards my mouth I could immediately see that I’d overdone the enthusiasm. This was a forkful and then some. A forkful that could have probably become a mouthful for at least two of the people sat around the table. But I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t fake a wobbly hand and drop some. I knew that my daughter was watching and that she’d been waiting for this moment, not just all day, but for the last few days. She’d been genuinely excited by making a Bolognese and providing tea for the family, which was lovely. Meanwhile, I had been dreading it! I mean, who is actually the adult here?

As the first part of the food hit my tastebuds, I realised that the adult was definitely not me. That said, I faked a smile, let out a big beaming ‘Mmmmm’ of satisfaction and resolved to chew. Just chew. I’m her dad and if I can’t – in her eyes at least – enjoy her cookery skills, then who can. No really, who can?

After what seemed like an eternity I was still chewing. That enormous first mouthful just wouldn’t go away. My teeth seemed to be bouncing off the mince and the crunch of the onions was worse than I could have ever expected. I just kept ‘Mmmmming’. This seemed like a good course of action.

“How can you get a Spag Bol wrong?”

Finally that first mouthful was gone, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Actually, I could, but it would have been in no way complimentary or encouraging. I realised that I should just Dad lie and move on, but I couldn’t. And this was not the time for blurting out something along the lines of ‘How can you get a Spag Bol wrong?’, ‘Does anyone fancy KFC?’ or anything worse. So in the spirit of keeping my mouth shut – which is a valuable lesson that, I must admit, mainly women have taught me over the years – I stuffed another forkful in and gave myself time to think. More chewing. More bouncing. More onions. Still no flavour though.

Suddenly, just as I was swallowing the latest tasteless morsel, I had a thought. A moment of blinding inspiration. I knew exactly what I was going to say and do. And so I said and did it.

*Turns to the right. Looks daughter in the eye. Taps daughter on the back of the head while she’s trying to eat*, “Not bad that, kid.”

It’s official. I am my dad. I’d just searched high and low through my mind for something inspirational to say to my 12 year-old after she’d made us tea and there it was. A bit of a slap to the back of the head and a “Not bad”. Dad of The Year stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Imagine how great she must have felt hearing this. Imagine the warm glow that would shoot through her. All the trouble she’d gone to must have seemed totally worth it now because Dad told her that her Bolognese was “not bad”. Not good. Not delicious. Not smashing or tasty or even plain old nice. Just “not bad”.

“I could have critiqued her, told her that the beef was greasy and chewy…”

However, as the title of the article might suggest, I surely hadn’t done the wrong thing here either. In a world where no child is allowed to lose anymore and every kid, ever, is praised for simply turning up, I’d not given my kid a negative. I’d toed the party line. And I hadn’t lied, much. I’d protected her, just as a dad should. I could have critiqued her, told her that the beef was greasy and chewy, the onions not to my liking and that I was waiting patiently, but without hope for the moment that I’d really be able to taste something. But I didn’t. In fact, rather than a pre-prepared lie and an easily uttered “delicious”, I’d given my response some thought. Two almighty forkfuls worth of thought, in fact. And I’d argue that my honest, if uninspired “not bad” was better than your ‘it doesn’t matter how bad it is I’m going to force it down and tell her it’s “delicious”‘. My daughter now has something to aim for, while you’re just getting more of the same ‘delicious’ food next week.

As it turns out, I didn’t finish my tea. My Spaghetti Bolognese – mainly great big crunchy chunks of onion – was later scraped off into the bin. No one really enjoyed it, not even my daughter, the chef. She ended up having a little cry, but she was supported, cuddled, loved and told that it was OK. I didn’t tell her that I was going to the chippy once she’d gone to bed either. If I’d told her the lie that it was amazing or delicious, I still wouldn’t have finished, prompting the bigger lie that it was simply because I was full up. There was no Masterchef style critique, no stinging remarks about flavour combinations or presentation. Just advice. Keep trying, don’t worry, that kind of thing. She didn’t even have to do the washing up!

The week after she made chicken kebabs. They really were “not bad”. Certainly better than the Bolognese. I held back on the happy slapping though; there’s only so much enthusiasm a bloke can muster after a day at work. There were no tears and less lies though. Our plates were cleaner too, which in itself was a glowing tribute, and an avoidance of the lie that our tea was ‘delicious’. So we all learnt something. My daughter learnt that value of being honest. and me? Well, I learnt that honesty really isn’t always the best policy when you’re a parent.

 

 

Despite my age, I can’t explain… (Part 1 of an occasional series)

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Me, not understanding stuff.

As a person gets older it’s widely accepted that they get wiser. It stands to reason, yes? You read more, watch more and simply experience more and all the while you’re like a little owl, made entirely out of sponge, just soaking up the good stuff. Because with age comes wisdom, right?

Wrong. Well wrong in my case, anyway. For me there’s an uncomfortable amount that leaves me wondering exactly what it’s all about. And it takes up an equally uncomfortable amount of my time.

That said, I feel fairly confident that lots of people will share my idea that there are just some things that you’re always going to be unable to get your head around. I mean, who among us can explain the popularity of creatures like Gemma Collins? Exactly.

“I’m a husband, father, son, teacher, graduate and generally something of a man of the world.”

I think we’ve established that in my case middle age has caused me to question quite a bit about myself. If you haven’t, scroll down past this blog and it’s all there. |There’s pictures if you get bored and it’s mildly amusing too. However, having put quite a bit of thought into it I’ve come to realise that there’s a great deal of stuff that defies any wisdom that I’ve managed to pick up along the way. I’m a husband, father, son, teacher, graduate and generally something of a man of the world. Stop sniggering. I’m kind of a big deal and yet I still find myself waiting for the wisdom that allows me to crack many a knowledge nugget. So let’s start episode one of another occasional series.

I’ll start with one that I know will prove controversial, especially here in Yorkshire. But here we go – I just don’t understand Rugby League. I’m not mocking it – each to their own. But I just don’t get it. I can watch it and to some extent feel entertained. But just when I feel like I understand it a question will pop into my head. I question why, if as I’m told, it’s a proper sport and a real man’s sport, does it attract so few supporters? The average attendance for the 2018 season of Soooooper League was just 8547. Surely it can’t be that good then? Also, if I do watch, I can’t get over the fact that it seems that every few seconds blokes just run into each other. Furthermore, the rule states that the ball can’t be passed forward, but to me it looks like it’s going forward on an almost constant basis. And given my feelings about being tactile, well I’m sorry, but there’s just a little bit too much groping going on. It’s less a sport and more like the scenes outside a nightclub at closing time when I was in my youth. In fact, the more I think about it the more it becomes like wrestling with added ball. And it’s not even a proper ball.

But it’s OK, rugby league fans. Here’s a little treat just for you. The next thing that, despite my years, I just don’t understand is Rugby Union. Again, I know this might prove controversial with some. In fact, my views on old rugbo have left some apoplectic in the past, which has only served to make me worse, I must admit. So in not understanding rugby union, you could say that I fail to understand maturity as well. It can’t be helped though – it really is a hilarious sport.

Let’s begin, again, with attendances. In the 2017-18 Rugby Union Premiership the average attendance was a mighty 14,165. So again, real sport, man’s sport etc, etc. Why does hardly anyone bother watching it then? And are you allowed to even attend if you don’t have, a) a Range Rover b) a faux agricultural flat-cap c) a wax jacket d) one of those old wicker picnic baskets and a tartan rug?

The hilarity really starts though, when you look at the game itself. Same excuse for a ball, same propensity (in my opinion) to pass it forward regardless. Then there’s the well rehearsed argument that we football fans always hear about rugby union. Get this – the players all call the ref ‘sir’. And they don’t backchat. Or swear. And they all love their mums. Thoroughly decent chaps. Just don’t mention eye gouging. Or having to drink your own urine from the local viscount’s welly. I don’t get it. I don’t care what you call the ref. I don’t care that they listen politely. If they’re that nice and well-mannered, then why is he having to speak to them in the first place? I’ll tell you why. Invariably it’s because Tristran has punched Spencer sqaure in the face again. Or because the heir to the Dukedom of Gloucester has just stuck his thumb up the arse of Prince Edward’s butler. Probably.

“Can we sing a song now, sir?”

And then there’s line-outs. We all line up while one of the ‘guys’ chucks the ball towards us. Then we lift another one of the ‘guys’ really high so he can catch it, only one of the guys from the other team might catch it. Oh, the jeopardy! And then, once somebody’s caught it, we all fall on top of each other. Any excuse for a roll around in the mud, which is great because soon there’ll be another excuse for a muddy fumble when the ref calls Scrum. Scrum, sir? Yes, sir. Grab Boselion-Smyth’s testicles, sir? Of course, sir! What’s that, now we all link arms, sir? Is there a hearty song to be sung, sir? No, sir? And I stick my head between Mortimer’s legs, sir? Rest his scrotum on the back of my neck, sir? Aah, brings back memories of boarding school. Can we sing a song now, sir? No, sir? Shall we just push each other until we all fall into a heap in the mud, sir? Jolly good, sir! Tally-ho, chaps!

Word for word that, as well. Obviously you have to be a lot cleverer than me to understand rugby. Or maybe I’m just not a real man? Perish the thought.

So what else, despite my years, is still beyond me? Well, salad for one thing. People say that when it’s summer I should be eating salad. Why? Why will leaves cool me down? Why will some radish hit the spot just because the weather’s nice? I’m really not a fan of cold food anyway. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, but we had enough for a cooker and a microwave. Both of which made cold food not only hot, but edible. Everything tastes better hot.

“I do actually eat the odd salad.”

But the appeal of leaves is beyond me, hot or cold. I thought they were more for hedgehogs to be fair. I’m not against them per se. I do actually eat the odd salad. But they do nothing for me and therefore, I feel quite justified in saying that I just don’t understand salad. When people tell me that lettuce is delicious I just tend to think they’ve temporarily lost their mind. Or that their taste buds have shut down for the day. Or that if they went on ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ they’d inevitably find that they were descended from a long line of rabbits. Lettuce is just crunchy water. Cucumber’s the same. Absolutely pointless. I could live to be 150 and I still wouldn’t understand salad. Although I’d probably have to eat a it more of it to reach such an age.

Moving on, I’m going to bring things right into the 21st Century. Something that is both really popular and completely beyond any wisdom I might have is Snapchat. Firstly, the whole point of it seems pointless. You post a photo that won’t last. Why? But before you post it you can do the thing that I really don’t understand. You can put zany filters on it. That’s right kids! Ever imagined what you’d look like as a dog or even an animal who’s identity is a little unclear, but narrowed down by the presence of whiskers? Crack on, then. But before you post it – for a few seconds – why not put another filter on it so that you look just like you’ve smeared Vaseline over your face? Or maybe you could change the crazy filter so that you look like a cat, or a hamster. You could strecth your face…or squash it. The squashy face one seems particularly popular and yet if I walk up to a friend and squish their cheeks in a bit of a choochy face thing, that’s harrassment. Yep, I don’t get it. I’m sure this makes me more old age fanclub than middle age fanclub to some, but I don’t care. The whole thing simply makes no sense. Those of you who have read one of my earlier blogs might recall how for a long time I didn’t understand Facebook though, so maybe I’m the problem here and not Snapchat.

“…at one point I remove my hands from the steering wheel…”

Imagine that one day I gave you a lift. It doesn’t matter where. I gave you a lift and along the way I drove my car at the kind of speed that made you feel decidedly uncomfortable. I threw it round tight corners, swept around in long arcing u-turns and then drove us down a hill  – again at break-neck velocity – that seemed damn near vertical. Oh, and at one point I removed my hands from the steering wheel and threw both arms in the air, whooping like I scored the winning goal in the cup final or had just won the lottery, while displaying the kind of facial expression one might associate with a mad man. Not the best car journey you’ve ever had, right? You wouldn’t be accepting another lift again any time soon. So explain to me the attraction of rollercoasters.

Despite my age, despite my travels, despite visiting several theme parks and even partaking, regretfully, in some of said experiences, I just don’t understand the appeal of rollercoasters. I don’t think I ever will.

“This was The Hoppings.”

Part of this lack of understanding could well be put down to chunks of my childhood spent around a far more rudimentary type of thrill-seeking than what we see today. Let me explain. In Newcastle, growing up, one of the highlights of the summer was the visit of a travelling fair; The Hoppings. Now this should conjure up images of the pastoral – village life, communities enjoying themselves, human harmony with a certain rustic charm and innocence. Well, might I suggest you get rid of that image, sharpish. Imagine a cross between scrap yard with rides and a particularly vicious open prison, where hundreds of teenagers and young adults would roam, snarling and scowling at each other, as well as often getting into fights. Imagine a place where rides existed, but the notion of health & safety didn’t. This was The Hoppings. Every year, I’d go and every year I’d have forgotten how terrifying it was. I won’t go into great detail, but in short, this wasn’t a place to be trusted and I’ve never understood the popular fashion of risking your life for around a minute of being thrown around while you scream at top volume. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always associated screams with pain.

And so it was that I grew into an adult who, despite the freedom to travel and indulge in whatever pleasures I chose, would never understand rollercoasters and other ‘fun’ of this ilk. My wife and my children, on the other hand, are confirmed thrill-seekers, but it’s roundly accepted that I’m much more a confirmed coat holder. I’ve visited several theme parks and am more than happy to sit out the adrenaline rush. That’s not to say that I haven’t sampled some of the rides, however. It’s not blind ignorance driving this. I’ve been brave and I’ve summoned my pioneering spirit in order to either prove something to myself or simply not spoil other people’s enjoyment. Yet, every time I do, I’m left with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. I don’t understand rollercoasters. I don’t understand the ‘thrill’. How can the feeling that you may die be in any way thrilling? How can being turned upside down and sent hurtling down a ridiculously steep hill be a thrill? No, sorry, despite my years, you’ve lost me with rollercoasters.

I’ve been a massive fan of music for as long as I can remember. My parents played me The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Mamas and Papas, Dionne Warwick, Johnny Mathis, Rod Stewart and loads more and from there a love of music was born. I was an avid viewer of Top of The Pops from an early age, soon developing my own tastes for artists such as Adam and The Ants, Duran Duran, The Jam and loads more. As I got older, my tastes broadened and I listened to an eclectic mix of music, collecting tapes and vinyl as I went. As a young man I fell in love with first The Stone Roses and later Oasis and Blur and entering middle age my tastes have continued to broaden. So if anyone can explain the appeal of either Ed Sheeran or Mumford and Sons, I’d gladly listen.

“I’m not knocking anyone for enjoying what he does.”

Sheeran and Mumford and have sold untold millions of records (although I realise that nowadays that no one buys music and it’s actually only views and streams that count). Both leave me cold. I can stomach Sheeran despite how bland at all is. His music simply passes through me, like a bad pint. And I’m not knocking anyone for enjoying what he does. Friends and family tell me he’s great and that’s an opinion that they’re completely free to hold. But they’re wrong. I don’t care about his Galway girl or his Lego house and if he’s thinking out loud, then you can bet I’m not listening. On top of it all, he has the look of a ginger potato. Despite my years, I simply don’t understand young Sheeran and his appeal.

Mumford and Sons however, are even more of a puzzle to me. What I like to call, ‘another level of Eh?’ A riddle, wrapped in a puzzle, coated in a conundrum and deep fried in bemusement. There can be no other verdict than the undeniable fact that they are shite. Two paragraphs ago I stated that I’d gladly listen to people’s explanations of them: I’d like to retract that. Mumford and Sons are not only beyond my comprehension, they’re beyond explanation. I’m no officianado, but when a band are not only exclusively made up members of the landed gentry, but all called things like Rufus and Hugo, you and I shouldn’t be listening. We should be actively protesting against them. So enough, of this; I’m off to make a placard. ‘What do we want! Mumford OUT! When do we want it? FIVE YEARS AGO!’

The final thing that I don’t understand, and the thing that actually prompted this particular blog is a little bit left field. Gregg Wallace’s smile on Masterchef. Or, given that he’s not a totally seperate entity when he’s away from that show, just Gregg Wallace’s smile.

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Look again folks. That’s not actually the real Gregg Wallace.

“I’m not here to mock him or to get a few cheap laughs.”

Now, don’t get me wrong with this one. This isn’t a cheap shot at Gregg Wallace, who you could describe as a bit of an easy target. Despite certain things I’ve read – the ‘Greg?’ tweet to the army veteran stands out and he seems to be regularly annoying young women – I’ve got no problem with him. I’ve watched him on Masterchef and other programmes and he seems OK to me. And in terms of his smile, I’m not here to mock him or to get a few cheap laughs. I’m really not a fan of my own smile and regularly have to make myself laugh for the camera in order to not spoil family photographs. I genuinely feel like the bloke who forgot how to smile. So, I have no reason to start mocking Mr Wallace and his grin. I just don’t understand it.

Gregg Wallace’s smile is just a bit weird. In fact, it’s a lot weird. I’m sure it’s a genuine expression of joy and happiness, but is anyone’s smile meant to take up half of their face? Gregg’s does. Not only that, but his smile makes his shoulders scrunch right up and his eyes shrink, like he’s got terrible cramp. And let’s get this straight; he’s smiling, not laughing. His smile could mark him out as some kind of evil genius – it’s the smile of a deranged Bond villain, as far as I can see. When he smiles his knees seem to buckle and he visibly bends. It’s like that bit in old cartoons where the character takes the ‘villain potion’ and then starts to change dramatically, frame by frame and in overly jerky movements, into something green and evil looking.

“…you cannot unsee Gregg’s smile.”

I’ve watched on Masterchef as a contestant tells him what it is they’re cooking and Gregg will react by telling them something typically non committal like ‘Good luck’ and then positively explode into the kind of smile that might indicate he’s lost control of all bodily functions. It’s effortless, while in fact employing seemingly every fibre of his being and I’m fascinated. Gregg Wallace’s smile is like a dance move. I have to really concentrate in order to smile. I dread having my photograph taken and have often, on the quiet, been known to practice smiling in my bathroom mirror, such is my hatred of what it does to my face. Gregg Wallace’s smile though, is nothing short of a tour de force, like no smile you’ll ever see again. In fact, I’m sure that scientists, really clever ones as well, would confirm that once you’ve seen it you cannot unsee Gregg’s smile. It will never be forgotten and will in fact erase something really useful from your mind in order to just sit there and crop up for you from time to time.

Gregg Wallace’s smile is less smile and more chemical reaction and despite my advancing years, my descent into middle age and my many moons of learning, I simply don’t understand it.

So there we have it. Turns out I did grow older, but didn’t manage to acquire that much wisdom. Not enough to stop me wandering around daily, pondering the kind of things you ‘ve just read about. And certainly not enough to be able to explain Mumford and Sons, rollercoasters or the bloke off Masterchef’s mega-smile without my head hurting.

 

 

Lace tying with frozen fingers, wrestling with goal frames and ever so precisely painting white lines – Welcome to grassroots football!

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It’s either very windy or we’ve used the wrong flag.

Picture the scene. It’s 11.50 am on a Saturday in early September. The sun is high in the sky and it is already an unreasonably hot day. In the middle of one of 5 football fields in Morley, West Yorkshire three men are chatting. All are tired, having only just completed a week at work, as well as running an hour and a half training session each for our respective teams. One of us has also only just finished an hour long fitness session for some of the members of both teams. Two of us are recovering from operations, although mine was a few months ago and so it’s safe to say I’m over the worst. All are hot – that’ll be the sun for you; not always a regular visitor to these parts. And as a result of the heat, two of these three men are wearing shorts. The other – me – really, really wants to wear shorts, but is sticking to tracksuit bottoms, the legacy of long, skinny, hairy legs that resulted in many a cruel childhood taunt as well as being the butt of my father’s best and most hilarious joke about putting them away because, ‘there’s a blackbird up there, feeding her young ‘uns, she’ll mistake them for worms’. I believe that young people nowadays call this banter. I just always wondered why my dad couldn’t get a new joke. Suffice to say, I prefer the safety of the heat to the peril of shorts.

“…Saturday has almost gone.”

We’re eight days away from the opening day of the season for Under 10s teams in the Garforth Junior Football League. Our pitches need to be bigger and we’re moving to a flatter area, so this means that we’ll have to measure both new pitches out, before marking the lines in white paint. I’ve been told that this will take around three hours, but I reckon that’s quite the over-estimation, given that I’ve marked three pitches out before in less time than that, on my own. I’m wrong. We finish just over four hours later. I’m tired, hot and I haven’t eaten since breakfast – it’s now 3.30pm and Saturday has almost gone.

I’ve only been involved in grassroots football for 10 months now, but already I’m addicted. I started out as just a dad, taking my then 7 year old to train with his first football team. This was a task I’d dreamed of doing from a young age – I always wanted to be a dad, taking his son to football. It was too late on in the season for him to actually sign for the club – and frankly he was way behind almost all of the other boys in terms of ability – so he trained every week. We were there come rain, hail, wind and snow. It didn’t matter. I watched him develop and get a greater idea of what was required of him on the pitch. By the time he was asked to sign on he’d improved enough to hold his own and when the moment finally came for him to put on his first match shirt I almost shed a proud dad’s tear, even though he was almost drowning in every item of the kit. The socks would have comfortably pulled up around his waist.

Two months into that season, however, and I was asked to take over the running of the team. Turns out other parents and club officials were unhappy with the coach and so, when I did OK filling in when he went on holiday, that was enough to convince people of my qualifications for the job..

I must admit, I had no intention of ever coaching the team. The thought hadn’t even entered my head, even as I watched on, frustrated at some of the training sessions being put on. However, when I was asked to take over I couldn’t say no. As a teacher, I’d coached before. As a football fan I would regularly watch matches, screaming at the telly about the wrong pass or a terrible tactical decision. As a man, the offer was way too good for my ego to resist and as a Geordie, well, we invented the game and are born with an encyclopedic knowledge of it, so denying the kids of that would have just been cruel!

I’ve been ‘officially’ in charge of Glen Juniors Whites (Under 10s) since the middle of November 2017. My team are what we call the ‘development’ side, essentially the kids with less ability in the squad that makes up the two teams within the age group. However, what my boys might lack in skill, they more than make up for in desire, togetherness, hard work and spirit. But they’re adding more and more skills as the weeks go by.

“…half the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past.”

Training sessions have often been spent working on basics – can we stop the ball and pass it, can we take a touch and get a shot on target or can we sprint from one cone to another? But even then this throws up some unlikely and often amusing scenarios. On any given Thursday evening I can be preparing to give instructions when I notice that four or five of the boys are engaged in something other than listening; important stuff such as ‘dabbing’ or ‘flossing’. Just last week a boy rode past on a bike and I had to stop the session while half of the squad gawped as if a pterodactyl had just swooped past. And my worst fears were confirmed when, as we played a match on a field near the airport, one of my defenders nudged the other one and they both turned their eyes away from the game going on around them and pointed in wonder at a passing low flying jet! It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them to stay focused you can guarantee that there will be at least five moments in any one match when you catch someone, switched off and gawping open mouthed at something remarkably unremarkable.

Our ‘development’ status has also meant that our team has not been successful in the traditional sense of the word. To put it bluntly, last season we played 17 games, won one, drew one and lost the rest. For a couple of months we simply weren’t competitive. And yet still we made progress. In our second game of the season, facing a team whose senior side actually play non-league football we were trounced to the point of ridicule from our opposition. I was ‘just’ a parent that day, but still it was difficult viewing. The home team’s parents were brutal and openly mocked our boys. The home team themselves swapped goalkeepers, giving their regular keeper the chance to play outfield – the ultimate act of thumb biting to your opposition – and he promptly scored a hat-trick. Two of our boys left the field sobbing, refusing to carry on. However, when we scored our first goal of the season – our consolation in that game – their coaches were visibly angry, shouting at their 8 and 9 year old defenders for losing their man and costing their team a goal. That was progress. We’d broken our duck and to paraphrase the great Kevin Keegan’s infamous Sky TV rant, told our mighty opposition, ‘we’re still fighting for this game’.

The progress continued throughout the season and we were rarely trounced again. We were generally competitive and almost always scored. My boys were happy playing football and I found that I was also making progress as a coach. But I quickly learnt that there are always surprises in grassroots football.

One of the biggest (and dullest) surprises about becoming a coach at this level has been the admin. Before each game last season we would have to line the kids up, with their ID cards ready to be scrutinised by the opposition coach. In turn, I would have to take a long hard look at their team to check whether all was on the level. I lost count of the amount of times I cracked the same joke – that they couldn’t play a particular player because he was obviously not the kid in the photograph. The coaches all saw the funny side, but judging by the faces of some of the kids, they genuinely believed that I wasn’t going to let them play. Sometimes, 9 year olds just don’t have a sense of humour.

“I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in.”

On top of this we’d then have to fill in team sheets, ticking off the kids that had played. At the end of each game you’d get them signed by the opposition coach, note the name of the referee, award a Fair Play mark – we once got marked 97 out of 100; what had we done to merit a 3% deduction? – and then swap sheets with the other team, making sure that we only swapped the right colour sheet. And let me tell you, filling in one of these sheets in the middle of January when your hands are frozen is nigh on impossible. I’d hand mine over looking like I’d got a four-year-old to fill it in. These sheets would then have to be photographed together and emailed to the league for them to verify what had gone on, like if they hadn’t seen a bit of paper the game hadn’t actually happened.

This system has now changed into something that should be a great deal easier – an internet based system, backed up with the sending of a text to confirm your result. However, neither are available to me due to the fact that the FA are yet to issue me with a log in and still haven’t sent me the text. The season, however, is almost a month old! I’ll never learn to love admin.

Easily one of the most unpleasant things that we have to put up with in grassroots football has to be the weather. Standing on a touchline means that you’re left wide open to the elements. Steve MaClaren’s time as England manager means that there’s no way in the world that I’d dare to use an umbrella, so I’m frequently soaked to the skin. And I never thought I’d buy another pair of football boots once I’d got into my forties, but warming up on park pitches often means puddles and mud and trainers simply don’t cut it. Yet still, I’m regularly getting back into the car and having to drive home with soaking wet feet! Our referee sometimes wears wellies (and probably has lovely dry feet as a result), but I’m afraid that male vanity won’t let me go that far!

On top of the rain, this winter we were blighted with quite a bit of snow and although this meant the postponement of several games – and the bonus of a warm Sunday morning for all involved – we couldn’t avoid training. Our club trains at a local high school during the darker months, as they have a 3G pitch and floodlights, meaning that we can train through even the most inclement weather. Great news! This is bad enough when the cold is bitter and the wind blowing in from across the moors brings with it an element of ice. Layering takes on a new meaning! However, coach a session through a storm and you will truly know the meaning of cold. Shackleton, Scott, Hilary and all the other Polar pioneers were amazing explorers, but could they do it on a wet and windy Thursday night in Tingley?

“…have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers?”

The cold weather, combined with a team full of kids under 10 can also bring another problem that, at first, I hadn’t reckoned with. I’m regularly asked to tie their laces! Now here, we have a bit of a problem. From what I can gather I was taught to tie laces in a rather peculiar fashion – one so peculiar that my wife has asked my kids to ignore the way I show them! So when I tie the laces of my team it quite often results in some very funny looks – and they can’t even tie laces! Furthermore though, have you ever tried tying someone else’s laces with frozen fingers? Let me tell you, it’s quite the conundrum and there have been numerous times when I’ve considered asking an adult for help, before remembering that I am an adult.

At the moment the weather is good. We’ve barely had a spot of rain during training or games and some of our pre season friendlies were played in baking hot sun. Wonderful as you stand and bask in the glorious heat, but terrible when you get home and look in the mirror to realise that, yes, you are receding, otherwise those livid red patches of sunburn on your increasingly large forehead would never have appeared. But the sun will fade and soon, as with every season, we’ll be out there, every Thursday and Sunday getting soaked, frozen or both. We’ll walk across pitches and simply sink into a puddle, because after all this is grassroots football and our pitches are often at the mercy of the local council. Our games may be played on pitches where there are no lines, just cones to give players a rough guide as to when the ball goes out of play, because the coach hasn’t had the time to mark the lines given the fact that he’s a husband and dad and has a full time job. And barring the generous help of parents, this is all the responsibility of the coach. Again, I hadn’t realised that I’d have to be doing this before accepting the role and probably imagined that the football fairies were responsible for white lines, Respect barriers, goals, nets and corner flags. Thankfully, the parents of our boys are quite willing to rally round and help out, although I think some of this is done more out of pity than anything else, as they watch me wrestling with a set of goals!

“…scoring goals is always the dream.”

Another surprise – which really shouldn’t have been – is the number of 9 year olds who only want to play as a striker or a midfielder. Now I understand that almost nobody wants to play in goal, but in our team that stretches to defence as well. Even our best defenders are reluctant to say the least. In training, before a game, mid game and after a game you can be sure to be pestered by the same’ish question – ‘Can I play in midlfield/as striker?’ Playing regularly is sometimes not enough – scoring goals is always the dream. It’s understandable, I suppose. I mean, who wants to be John Stones or Kyle Walker (or God forbid Phil Jones) when they could be De Bruyne, Lingard, Ali, Kane or Aguero? And while it can be irritating, especially during a game, to be asked, I have to say that my boys are always good enough to accept the my decision. It never stops them asking again though!

Recently I managed to have a morning that encompassed many of the plus and minus points of grassroots football. So let me end by telling you about it.

Picture the scene. It’s 8.45am on a Sunday in late September. It’s no longer sunny and in fact it’s getting more and more like winter as the days pass. Two men stand on adjacent football pitches. We’re both tired. We’ve both been at work all week and one of us was out inspecting the pitches yesterday afternoon. Despite the coolness of the air one is wearing shorts, while the other, sensibly, has opted for tracksuit bottoms. There are sparrows feeding their young ‘uns nearby, after all.

We’re three weeks into the new season in Division C1, for Under 10s, of the Garforth Junior League. Our pitch is bigger and flatter and the white lines have recently been re-marked by one of the other coaches. One coach has managed to erect the first of his goals and is busily working on his corner the flags. The other, me, has managed to get all of the parts of his first goal out of the bag and has laid them out, as per the YouTube video he watched last night so that he’d finally know what he was doing. Unfortunately he’s forgotten the drawings he did in order to remember. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Is the cross bar three long sections or two and a small bit? Are the posts two long sections high? Has he got enough connectors? Hang on, is someone secretly filming this? Can he expect a visit from a heavily disguised Ant and Dec any time soon to eventually tell him he’s been pranked and he’s going to look like a total fool on live TV some time soon?

“The other coach is done. The pressure is on.”

Twenty minutes later and he has assembled some sections of the goal. But they clearly don’t actually go together to make a goal. So he’s just randomly put some bits together. Maybe he’ll just make a raft? He’s quietly cursing. The other coach is done. The pressure is on. He has a thought. He’s missing a bit that he needs. So back he trudges to the clubhouse to hunt among the other goals for the missing section. Five minutes later it’s clear that the other section doesn’t exist and he has made it up. Back he trudges to his raft.

It will take another fifteen minutes before he has two working goals. He has to take a look at the other coach’s complete goals in order to work out where he’s going wrong. And by that time some parents and team members have turned up and helped out. Corner flags are being placed in the ground, the Respect barrier is being put out. Kick off is in about 20 minutes and he hasn’t even said ‘hello’ to his team, let alone started warming them up. And then he spots something that will delay things even longer. A kindly dog owner has allowed his or her pooch to poo on the pitch and then pretended not to notice. He quietly curses some more. Oh well, at least it’s a new experience. Digging a carrier bag out of his kit bag he proceeds to remove the offending sloppy brown calling card, before trudging back over the fields to place it in the bin provided by the council for such things. It’s a shame that the dog’s owner didn’t know these things exist. Maybe someone should paint them all bright red and put pictures of dogs on them. He reminds himself never to get a dog.

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With about ten minutes to go before kick he is finally ready to warm up his team, before giving a quick team talk. The team still don’t all have shirts due to an order taking way too long, so some will play in borrowed club hoodies. The game, somewhat bucking the trend of the day, will go well and our team wins, despite being 1-0 down at half-time. However, there’s just time for one more moment to leave the coach looking to the skies for the kind of divine intervention that he knows doesn’t really happen. From somewhere, during the game, a goalkeeper’s shirt arrives and it’s decided that one of our subs can go around to the goal and, when the ball is down the other end of the field, get our keeper to swap his outfield shirt for the keeper’s top. Easy, yes? In the hands of two 9 year olds, no and the coach is left to watch on in sheer horror as first, the message is totally confused and our sub starts to wander back carrying the goalkeeper’s shirt. Then, deciding that he needs to carry out the instructions our keeper takes his outfield shirt off and is left without a shirt for a moment as the ball approaches. Luckily it’s cleared away and he can put on the right shirt. But no. No, he can’t. The boy simply cannot get the shirt over his head or his arms through the arm holes, due to wearing goalkeeper gloves! The coach quietly curses. After what seems like an eternity though, the problem is solved and we have a goalkeeper wearing the correct shirt. The goal is intact and we go on to win. It’s been a hell of a day, but I’ve absolutely loved it!

Welcome to grassroots football!

Run for your life! (Dramatic, I know, but probably the first in an occasional series)

 

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Tights, camera, action. June last year, when I was healthy!

So Saturday 6th October turned out to be a big day. To the casual observer, nothing earth-shattering happened. In fact, to pretty much anyone but me, today was just an ordinary Saturday. To a point it was a very ordinary Saturday for me too. Asda shop, bit of dinner, bit of telly, put a wash in. Standard Saturday action in our house.

But on Saturday, I did something – and achieved something – because of a spur of the moment thought. Let me explain, with a bit of background.

If you’ve read any of my first few blogs or are a friend or colleague, you’ll know that April was true to T.S. Eliot’s words as ‘the cruellest month’ for me this year. In short, my health took quite a dramatic downturn and I found myself having a heart operation. Obviously this wasn’t in the plan. However, it was made all the more annoying by the fact that before it had all happened I’d felt fitter and stronger than I’d felt in years. I’d dragged myself back out running months earlier and, with the help of my kids, was going out regularly, losing my gut and generally enjoying the feeling of being fit. We’d got our own little running club – Team Crosby – and quite frankly it was absolutely brilliant.

And then, I started to feel rough. I really was having to drag myself out for runs and slowly but surely I stopped. I told myself it was just a succession of colds or bugs and that when Spring came, I’d be healthier and back out, feeling good. But it didn’t happen.

Immediately after my surgery, running was impossible. Apart from the obvious danger to my heart, I had huge black bruises from the surgery creeping from my groin down towards my knees. Walking hurt, and so I put any thoughts of running as far to the back of my mind as I could muster. And let me tell you, there’s a whole load of nonsense to get through once you’ve been parked at the back of my mind.

So for a while running and fitness in general was a no-go area. After all, I had an excuse to not feel guilty. But every time I opened my wardrobe my running gear seemed to be staring at me and so gradually the whole subject was cropping up again and again. I could feel myself getting a bit more of a tummy, but for a while, I was able to satisfy myself that there was no need to get my trainers on and no need to worry. After all, I was coaching my football team every Thursday and so jogging around a field while doing that was exercise enough. Running was slipping away from me and I was convincing myself that, at my age, I didn’t need to bother anymore. I was apathetic and, if I’m honest, I was a little bit scared. So I hid behind the fact that I’d been poorly and joked a lot about the fact that I could have died, you know.

If you don’t know, I’m a teacher, and this means that I have the pleasure and privilege of 6 weeks off work in summer. I won’t lie; it’s amazing to get up every day and know that I don’t have to pull on a shirt, suit, tie and shoes and go to work. What it does bring though is the time to think. And the time to get out and about and do things that I can excuse myself from while I’m at work because there’s never enough time. So I did a lot of thinking. And I started to take my son to the local football fields a couple of times a week for some football practice. And because of this, I did some tentative running. We’d warm up before playing by running around the fields and I managed to drag myself around and do just short of 2 kilometres a few times. It was never comfortable though. In fact, it was horrible and really quite embarrassing. I felt old, fat and unfit. So when summer ended and work started and I felt pretty much justified in quietly consigning running and Team Crosby to the back of my mind, once again. Perhaps forever.

So Saturday 6th October, with its Asda trip, telly, dinner and putting a wash in, was kind of momentous for me. Running hadn’t really entered my thoughts for anything other than fleeting moments since August. And then I read a friend’s post on Facebook – thanks Shaun – about Park Run. Something clicked. I have no idea why. I wanted to go for a run. We had some dinner and I mentioned that I might go out. My wife said we were going to watch some telly and have a coffee, so I decided I wouldn’t bother just yet. I’d go out later. I think my wife is quite frightened of me going out running again. She can’t see me. She doesn’t know I’m safe and despite the fact that I’m probably a right royal pain in the backside to live with, I know that my being ill had really shaken her. But I was determined to get out and run.

At just after 4.30 in the afternoon, I found myself stood by my front door looking ludicrous in running tights, shorts and a running top. If you’ve ever seen my legs, you’ll understand. But I felt calm and I felt ready. And at least if I get running the neighbours don’t have too much of me to laugh at. So off I went.

I live on quite a big hill so within 50 yards I was climbing. But I felt good. There were three people up ahead on my side of the road, so being the self-conscious, lanky, skinny bloke that I am, I crossed the road. I quickly caught and passed them. Someone might have commented – my tights are really quite snazzy – but I wasn’t going to give it much thought. Halfway up the hill and I was running well, travelling quickly. About ten yards further up the hill and I felt my legs turning to jelly! It had been a long time since I’d run up here! I focused, and reminded myself that the top of the hill wasn’t that far off and that once I got there it was a left turn, a stretch of flat and then, thankfully, a slight downhill stretch.

By the top of the hill I’d slowed a bit, my stride getting shorter. But I was still running. I turned left and ran around the bend. As I looked up I spotted another test. Two men were standing outside of a local pub. They were certain to comment on the deathly pale fella stumbling and wheezing past. I told myself to shut up, straightened myself up from being hunched over a little from the top of the hill, and ran on. As I passed there wasn’t even the slightest murmur. I concentrated on running again as the downhill stretch started. The paving stones here are a bit of a mess and the last thing I needed was to trip and fall flat on my face. Louise would never let me out again! On I ran.

At the bottom of the hill I turned right and tried to loosen my shoulders a little. I was tensing up, tiring. Suddenly the American lady that voices my running app told me that I’d run my first kilometre. I listened for the time and nearly fainted as she told my that I’d been running for just over 6 minutes. I was flying! This was just the boost I needed.

Another slight uphill section was followed by a second downhill, past a host of houses. I imagined people hurtling up to their windows as a man with a face the colour of a tomato stumbled past. I go a terrifying shade of scarlet when I’m running and it usually feels like my face is swelling up. Attractive, huh? It’s partly for this reason that I also run along on the far side of the road for this section. Partly that, partly because it’s slightly going the long way round and partly because for some reason running on the actual road makes me feel a bit like Rocky! I never do the shadow boxing, but I imagine a trail of children running behind me, smiling and trying grab at me.

At the bottom of this downhill section I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I go straight on and end my run early when I run out of flat or do I turn a sharp right where I can run a long flat section before being faced with a steady uphill climb that will inevitably end my run, having gone a little bit further? I’m still feeling reasonably fresh so I head right. I’m now on the bottom end of my estate, I know people who live down here, so I say a silent prayer – please don’t let me encounter anyone I know, not while I’m impersonating a tomato and pretty much head to toe in tight lycra. I run on, feeling strong, staying upright and trying to remember to relax. It’s quiet here and I can hear myself panting as I go. Maybe I should have had another blast on my inhaler before I left.

I’m just approaching the left turn that will see me head uphill and through a nice leafy part of our estate when I’m given a bit of a boost. In front of me, coming the other way are my wife and son, both out for an afternoon stroll having set off a few minutes before I did. I give them a wave – I know my wife will be worried, but I’m clearly still alive – smile and tell them I’ll see them somewhere at the top of the hill.

This section is all uphill and it lasts a few minutes. This is going to hurt! My app doesn’t seem to have told me how far I’ve gone and now I can see that there’s a couple of people walking dogs up ahead. Suddenly I’m not focused and I can feel my legs getting heavier as I begin to climb. Late last year, running on the same section, I’d been knocked off my feet by three dogs snapping at my ankles, leaving me caked in mud. I notice that, again, one of the dogs in front of me is off the lead. And it’s some kind of Spaniel – notorious mentalists those dogs. I quickly weigh up my options, but there’s not a lot of choice. I can turn left again and end up on one of the main roads going up a slightly steeper hill or I can keep going and get past this dog. I can’t face a steep climb, so there’s only one thing for it.

As I crest the hill I’m about twenty yards behind the woman walking the dog. The dog is off on the field to my right, sniffing at bushes, but the woman is right on my course in the middle of a narrow path. I get closer and closer, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. It feels like I’m wheezing and panting and my legs are heavy. Now I’m frightened that she’ll think she’s about to be set upon by some heavy breathing pervert. I leave the path and run on the field, risking alerting her crazy dog as well as slipping in the mud, but at the same time allowing her to feel safe from the lycra clad, tomato faced Geordie aerobics instructor that must be quite the most alarming sight she’s seen all day. As soon as I’m round her I veer back on to the safety of the concrete and compose myself. The dog hasn’t noticed me and I can’t hear her sniggering. I’m not caked in mud and everything is fine. The ground is flat and will be for a while. My legs have survived the climb uphill and on reflection, I don’t feel so bad.

I allow myself a glance at my app. It tells me I’ve done just over 2 kilometres. Now what? My path leads me directly to our football fields, but I don’t want to stop now. I’ll do a lap, see how I feel, despite the fact that I know running on a field will sap the energy out of my tired legs.

I’m flagging now. Clearly, my enforced rest has taken its toll. My lower back hurts, my left calf feels like it might cramp up and as I reach down to feel my pulse I can feel that my heart is racing. Reaching for my wrist to feel my pulse has become quite instinctive since being poorly and I’m slightly alarmed at how fast it seems to be going. In the past, I’ve often convinced myself I’ve ran far enough when these type of thoughts happen, but not today. I’m quick to snap myself out of anything negative. I can’t stop now. My back hurt beforehand and of course my heart rate’s up – I’m running. There’s nothing else for it but to press on. I’m settled – however much this hurts I’m going to run 3 kilometres, which will represent the furthest I’ve ran in a long, long time. Let’s get this over with!

I pick up the pace as I reach the path that goes halfway around the bottom football field. I’ll have to run halfway round on the grass, but I’m going to do it. I’ve just done my first lap and a half when my wife and son appear at the top of the path, across the field from me. I try to shout and tell them I’m keeping going, but I haven’t quite got the breath for it, so I just keep running on. My legs are wobbling a little and I’ve not got a lot left, but as I look at my app I realise that about another lap will get me up near my 3 kilometres. As I run down the far touchline I allow myself to think back a few months. I remember being disharged from a ward late at night and making my way tentatively through the hospital to meet my family who I know are outisde waiting in the car. I remember limping out through the automatic doors worrying that I’d cry the minute I saw them. I never did and much to my surprise, I still haven’t.

The detached voice of the running app snaps me out of my thoughts and back to today as it tells me I’ve covered 3 kilometres, averaging just over 6 minutes per kilometre. Wow, I’ve been flying. I’m bloody 46, you know. My son is up ahead, his hand out for a high five. I’m done. I slow up slightly, slap his hand and bring myself to a halt. My hands go to my knees and I double over, before I release myself, spin round and join my wife for the walk home. I want to punch the air. I won’t be able to stop talking about this for hours and she’ll get to hear about every step, poor woman.

It’s a small victory, baby steps, but I feel really, really good. Same again next week.

Fatherhood: falling into the traps I swore I’d avoid.

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A little over 12 years ago I became a father. This was something that left me very excited indeed. It was the pinnacle of any achievements I might have had (although I’ll be honest, it didn’t have a great deal of competition). I enjoyed it so much that I did it again a few years after. Again, it felt incredible. It was no less joyful second time round and as expected, fatherhood has given me memories that I’ll take to the grave.

So why do I feel so disappointed in myself as a dad?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking for sympathy here and I’m certainly not claiming that I’m a terrible dad. This is not, in any way, a cry for help. We don’t need to increase the hugs. In truth, I’d bet that there are countless dads (and mams/mums/moms) who feel exactly the same as me. Deep down, I know that I’m doing a decent job. I’m there for my children, I try to always set them the best examples and, along with my wife, I’m determined that we create memories for them that they’ll cherish and take into adulthood. I’d like to think I’m preparing them pretty well for the real world.

But the truth is that I find fatherhood a genuinely frustrating job. It seems like the harder I work at it the more frustrated I get. I was going to be a natural. A fantastic father. The don of the dads. The toppermost of the popermost. You get the picture. (If you don’t, tough. I’ve ran out of alliteration). However, despite the best of intentions, it’s rare that I ever really actually feel like this.

‘Me and my kids would inevitably connect – I’d worship them and vice versa’

I love kids. Always did. Funny little people with boundless energy and a unique take on things. It’s a cliché, but a lot of the time I felt like me and kids were singing from the same hymn sheet, intellectually. And so, when I had my own, although I knew it was going to be hard, I felt pretty much over-qualified for the role. Me and my kids would inevitably connect – I’d worship them and vice versa. We’d have fun, we’d learn together, we’d laugh, we’d snuggle up and feel safe and loved and we’d explore the world together. And we’ve done all of these things. But I still feel – and it’s probably every day – that I’m getting it all terribly wrong.

There are a number of things about fatherhood that I think I’m bad at. For a start, I wanted to be patience personified as a dad. I understood that kids would test my patience like perhaps nothing else, but I felt prepared for that. In 2006, when I first became a dad, I’d been working with kids for 5 years. Older kids and other people’s kids, but kids all the same. So I thought I’d probably had my patience tested to its limits. Believe me, if you can listen to a thirty teenagers reading Shakespeare and not explode, you imagine you’ve got patience in spades! So what is it about my own kids that makes me so impatient? If I ask them to do a job – say helping me pick the leaves up off the garden – it’s only a matter of seconds before I hear myself snapping, ‘Oh, I’ll do it myself!’ It’s ridiculous! Rational me realises that they’ll drop some leaves before they get to the garden bin, but grumpy dad just cannot help himself. And what does any of it matter? They’re 12 & 9, of course they’re going to make mistakes. In fact, face it; they’ll be bloody awful at absolutely loads of things. I’m decidedly middle-aged and God knows I lack talent in a myriad of areas. So why can’t I accept it in the two miniature humans that I helped to produce?

So promise number one to my kids – this member of the Middle Age Fanclub will work on his patience. Drop the leaves, it’s fine. Mind you, pick the things up afterwards though. All of them. And quickly!

‘…it really feels like I’m not enjoying what should be the most precious moments with my two most precious little people.’

Perhaps the best thing about having kids is the sheer enjoyment of many of the things that you’ll do with them. And yet, I fear I don’t enjoy my kids anywhere near enough. I have moments of dancing around the kitchen with one of them or snuggling up and watching bad telly with them where I’m fun, loving dad and I’m simply enjoying spending time with them. I’ve baked cakes with them, taken them to the woods to build dens, taken them walking in streams, dressed up for their fancy dress themed birthday parties amongst other things. But I fear that those moments have been few and far between and that when my children look back on their childhood they’ll come to the heart-breaking realisation that it just wasn’t that good when it involved dad. Middle age has made me an adult who tries to think far too sensibly and it really feels like I’m not enjoying what should be the most precious moments with my two precious little people. Meanwhile, their mother (my lovely wife) finds it effortlessly easy to act like a ten-year-old with them – signing, dancing, tickling, play-fighting, gaming…you name it and Fun Mum will have been doing it with them!

I coach my son at football and so quite regularly take him to the field where we’ll work on his finishing (and there you have it – read that sentence back and it can’t be long before you’re asking where the fun is; we’ll work on his finishing indeed). All too often during these sessions I find myself frustrated. I called out ‘Right’ and he went left, his 108th shot of the morning trickled into my arms or he went to control the ball and it slid easily under his foot. Afterwards and even as I’m writing this I’m beating myself up – what does it matter? He’s 9! He’s regularly there for an hour, he must be wiped out. He’s doing all of the running while I play in goal, a largely static position, especially if you’re a fully grown adult and your opponent is 9 years old. He, however, NEVER complains!

Promise number two? Much, much more of fun dad. If you’re shot was a bit weak, well at least it was on target. High five, little man! Now let’s go and have a water fight!

Now you wouldn’t know it if you don’t know me very well, but I love a chat. So when I became a dad one of the things I found myself really looking forward to was my kids learning to talk and being able to have a chat. Like I say, funny little people with a unique take on things – our chats would be long and funny and positively enriching. And both of my children have given me immeasurable joy with some of the chats we had when they were toddlers. Seemingly endless questions about how things worked or what something meant that I was able to give them answers that made them happy, or even better, tell them Dad lies and watch as they completely believed what they were told. Again though, reality bites.

‘Why was she reluctant to talk?’

When my daughter first started primary school I looked forward to picking her up and finding out about her day. She, on the other hand, had other ideas. My daughter has rarely given me chapter and verse about her day, meaning our chats have often been over within a minute. At first this worried me. Why was she reluctant to talk? Was she being bullied? Was she profoundly unhappy with the whole concept of school? So, I read bits and pieces in books. Apparently this was perfectly normal – their day is their property and they’re not always too fond of sharing that with others. She was tired too – including Before and After School Club she’d often been there for over 8 hours; she didn’t want to talk, she wanted to watch CBeebies and have something nice to eat. So gradually, I reigned in my expectations and learnt that any response about her day was better than nothing and that we were chatting after all. We could snuggle up and watch telly together and what did it matter that we hadn’t chatted about phonics or throwing beanbags around in PE? Needless to say though, I looked forward to her getting older and less tired and being able to tell me more.

But here’s the rub. She’s got older and the chats are still often fruitless. Initially, she’d tell me more, but as soon as we got through the door of the house she wanted to leave all things school behind. Home meant food, home meant more television and eventually home meant going up to her room to stare at a screen. We’re repeating the process with my son, who although far more chatty is never engrossed enough in conversation to tear himself a way from a screen for too long. To paraphrase Cliff Richard and at the same time confirm my status as very definitely middle aged, ‘It’s not funny, how we don’t talk anymore.’

My third promise has to be then, to listen to them when they do talk. It’s far too easy to tell my kids, ‘I’m busy’ and to complain that ‘We can’t all just be chained to our phones and X-Boxes all day, you know’, so I need to push things aside and make that time for them, regardless of whether I’m ready or not. It won’t be long before we enter moody teenager faze and then they won’t want to talk at all to uncool dad. So now, whether it’s the latest video posted on ‘Like‘ by my daughter or what my son’s killed on Roblox Jail Break, I’ll do my best to listen intently and pull my interested face. Just like being in meetings at work.

‘I’m immensely proud of my two mini humans’

Another area for improvement in my dad skills (dadding?) is probably with something that we all do. My parents certainly did. However, I need to stop comparing my kids unfavourably to other people’s children. I don’t see enough of other people’s kids to have any kind of comprehensive knowledge, so why do I insist on asking mine things like, ‘Why can’t you be (insert particular quality here) like__________________?’ It’s ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong; I’m immensely proud of my two mini humans. They’re both bright, loving, funny little things so why am I bothered that someone else’s child seems to be – on occasion – brighter, lovelier or funnier. After all, is it not my job to nurture all of these positive qualities in them? My daughter must have spent her entire time while in primary school with me and her mum comparing her to her best friend, with us thinking that some of the qualities said best friend had would magically rub off on our darling daughter. I’m now learning that I can be satisfied with my kids, just the way they are. We can work together on making them fully functioning human beings and if that means ignoring some of the negatives, taking a deep breath or walking away for a bit in order to not blow my stack at them, then that’s what I’ll do.

Next promise – leave them be. My children are amazing and probably no more angelic or irritating than most, so from now on (as much as I possibly can) I’ll cherish what’s there in front of me, not give them the impression that they’d be better off being someone else.

The last fatherhood trap that I’ve definitely and shamefully fallen into is in the response I give when I’m questioned on something. It doesn’t really matter what the question is as long as I’ve already issued the order. The question, Why do I have to turn my tablet off/undo the laces on my trainers/eat my mash before my sausages/put my school bag in that particular place/play on the trampoline/not sit in that chair/not sing/not eat my cereal like that, will always, always be met with the same answer. Altogether now, Because I said so! And it’s the response that usually accompanies the ‘No’ to lots of other questions too!

This response used to infuriate me when I was a kid. Often there seemed no good reason for not letting me do stuff and looking back there really was no good reason. I mean, what harm could I come to by venturing into that cottage made entirely out of sweets that we stumbled across in the forest? Yet my dad especially would always tell me it was No,  and because I said so. I hear myself saying it now and often can’t fathom why I’m saying it. I even consciously try to stop myself saying and before I know it, whoops there it is! I guess it’s part control and part trying to keep the kids safe. But I’m sure, with my rational dad head on, my kids can be too well controlled and too protected. Because, surely if I said so, I can just as easily unsay so. Common sense says that if I can unsay the odd because I said so my kids will have at least a little more fun, as well as perhaps enjoying being around their dad some more. And anyway, we haven’t even found a cottage made of sweets in our woods.

So the final promise has to be that I’ll think before I speak. They can eat their sausage before their mash, they can keep their tablet on for a little while longer. They probably can’t go and explore the cottage made out of sweets in the woods, if we find it, and there’s no way in the world, that they can take their trainers off without untying the laces either. No crimes against trainers can be allowed in our house.

And there we have it. Whether it’s a hyper-critical look at my dad skills or whether I really am Victorian dad, changes will be made. My son is nine. We share interests – the scene is set for lots more years of dad and son fun, provided I can relax a little more and enjoy what he brings to the world. My daughter is 12; she has precious few years of her childhood left and I’m going to do my absolute damnedest to help her relax her way through them and enjoy things. And why should she be able to relax? Because I said so!

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The Descent into Middle Age (and my hopeless struggle against it).

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Eight tracks, CDs, DVDs…technology, Crosby style.

So, I’m in the process of getting my head around the question of  when it was that I got so old. I’ve thought a lot about this. Mostly in meetings at work or on my commute*. This in itself could be a sign of middle age. That lack of focus, being easily distracted, daydreaming. Either middle age or I have the brain of a toddler. Now there’s a thought…

In case you think that the answer is obvious, it’s OK, I too know that the answer to ‘When did I get so old?’ lies in the passage of time. I understand that time passes and we get older. But the passing of time doesn’t cover how my head works, how my body creaks or indeed the phenomenal speed of the growth of my nose and ear hair these days. And time passing’s not that funny either.

In truth, there are a tonne of ingredients that help answer the question. In fact, the reasons are too many to mention, unless I write a book. And I haven’t got the time for that – I’m too busy daydreaming in meetings. So let’s explore a carefully chosen selection of the ‘ingredients’ that help answer the question of how and when I got so old.

‘I was an even bigger mess before they came along, believe it or not’

  1. Getting a wife and kids – Now on the face of it listing the first thing that answers the question of ‘When did I get so old?’ as getting a wife and kids sounds like quite the insult. For all good intentions, this could lead to a slap at least and the divorce courts as the worst case, but most likely scenario. But I don’t mean it in that kind of way. In truth, my wife and kids are wonderful and have been the making of me as a human being. I was an even bigger mess before they came along, believe it or not. But as an adult who is honest enough to say that he retains the mind of a child, having a wife and kids still doesn’t seem right.  I mean, when you still make many of the same decisions as you did when you were 17, having a wife and kids is a perilous place to be and you could justifiably say that they’re the ones getting a raw deal here. However, it still feels all too grown up a concept to be part of. I’m part responsible for three other humans – two of them that can’t even hang up a school uniform on a consistent basis, have no volume control and seemingly have little or no knowledge of where the washing basket is – and that just doesn’t sit right. A wife and kids is the realm of adults and I still don’t feel ready to be one. A wife and kids is what my dad had, and frankly, the idea of being as old as him seems utterly abhorrent. I mean, I remember him at my age now – 46 – and he might as well have just wandered into our house from a Dickens epic as far as I was concerned. The trouble is I still feel pretty much exactly the same as I did in my long lost youth. When I hear my wife refer to her husband it still sounds vaguely ridiculous and far too grown up a club for me to be a member of. And when I realise that the husband is me, I feel heartily sorry for her. Seriously, when did I get so old?
  2. Shit at all trades and master of less than one – I’d assumed that as we got older us blokes just magically picked up skills. Middle age would have it’s comforts because I’d have a whole bunch of skills (or a skill-set if you’re in your twenties and reading this. Or you think you’re on The Apprentice). Washing machine needs plumbing in? No problem. Something needs re-wiring? Give it here. That fence has come down in the terrible storm? I’ll just get my tool box and some of the wood I’ve stored behind the shed. In fact, this kind of magic doesn’t exist. I can categorically state that I am as useless round the house as I was when I was three. And at least then I smelt nice. So not only did I get old – and let’s face it, confused – but I seem to have failed to pick up any man-skills along the way. And there is a multitude of evidence to back this up. I once tried to re-wire a light fitting and ended up electrocuting myself and blowing myself into our bath in the process. Literally blown across the room! I have mowed through the lawn mower cable, concreted in a washing pole that to this day still wobbles and put up a bathroom shelf (three times now) that slopes alarmingly downward and is so close to the underside of the accompanying cabinet that it doesn’t really function as a shelf. I also once had to fill the gaps in between the legs and top of an IKEA table with glue and newspaper so that it stayed steady and we could eat our tea off it because when I’d ‘constructed’ it, I’d done such an appalling job. And then, I gave it away to a charity at the end of it’s life in our house without even a second thought! Seriously, this could very easily be an endless list! How did I get so old and so useless? And when is it that I’m going to pick up my man skills?
  3. Lawn Pride – not an annual celebration of all things LGBTCBGB (sorry if I missed anyone) in my garden, but the unnatural care and attention that I give to my lawn. I mean, I even call it my lawn. I used to watch my dad mowing his lawn, putting in stripes, treating it with all manner of lotions and potions and then putting the sprinkler on it and wondering what had to go so badly wrong in life that a bloke would care so much about a bit of grass. But now, in middle age, I totally get it. It’s like an addiction. In fact lawn pride makes crack seem like a more healthy alternative. And crack is whack as Whitney Houston once told us, while no doubt off her box on…well, crack. The worst thing about this, by the way, is that my lawn is relatively ordinary looking. It’s greenish, but covered in weeds. However, age has brought with it an almost psychotic level of stubbornness that renders me utterly unable to even consider the merits of getting it turfed again! No, I’d rather mow it (with stripes) treat it, water it, re-seed it, rake it, talk to it. And still it’s like a shit green(ish) patchwork quilt! As well as this, I’m competitive. I look at my neighbours’ lawns and grin smugly to myself when I spot a bare patch or some weeds. Pathetic really. (Mind you, I still have the best lawn in the Mews!) When did I get old enough to be so devoted to a lawn? And more pertinently, when did I become my dad?
  4. Who are you wearing tonight? Erm…George @ Asda – It’s occurred to me that as a young man I took pride in my appearance. I still do, to be fair, although that’ll be news to some. However, as middle age has encroached there’s been a definite shift in standards. I was never one to wear only designer labels anyway, but the warm glow I can now get from a bargain T-shirt at Sainsbury’s or Asda was also never there before! I haven’t yet lowered my standards enough to start buying supermarket shoes, but I have little doubt that it’ll come. And I’ve got even less doubt that it’ll be a quickly rectified mistake! However, picking up a clothes bargain in a supermarket has definitely become a middle-aged thrill of sorts. And when my wife informs that there’s a 50% off sale at Asda or TU (Sainsbury’s clothing brand, if you’re in your twenties) I can’t deny that I get a strange kind of tunnel vision. I’ll find myself raking through the racks, not aware of how I got there, checking to compare ages with my fellow bargain hunters and swiftly moving away if I see that they’re noticeably older than me. I don’t leave though. No, I simply do a circuit of the shop, maybe browsing young people’s things like artisan milk, cheeses that I can’t pronounce or maybe something in the Gluten Free aisle, if I want to look really trendy, before swooping back to TU to hunt down a bargain. Then I’ll hear myself explaining said purchases to Louise, saying stuff like, “But it was £12 and I got it for £6. Where can you get a shirt for £6 these days? And think of the Nectar points!” To be fair, I’m more likely to buy a new top for running or something than a pair of jeans or a shirt that I’ll actually be seen in, but the lure of the supermarket clothes aisles cannot be denied. When, oh when did this particular middle age addiction descend upon me?
  5. Missing the technology boat – My final ingredient had to revolve around technology because there’s so much about technology that I just don’t get. In fact, on this issue it’s like I’ve been middle-aged since about 25. It’s pretty much all just passed me by. I used to amaze my parents when, aged 15, I could work the video (Google video, young folk), but those heady days have long gone! So, here we go – tales of technology that confirm the horror of middle age to me, but at the same time leave me wondering when and how it all happened. Firstly, up until mere months ago I was still buying CDs. And DVDs. And I’ll be honest, I’m really struggling to ween myself off them. Apparently music floats on a cloud these days and you don’t even have to pay or it. I don’t understand Bluetooth and the fact that someone can call me in my car, via my car is just bizarre. Someone tried to explain Bluetooth by telling me that the devices are speaking to each other, but this is way too much to cope with. It’s so bizarre in fact that when I had it I was forever pressing the ‘reject call’ button rather than the ‘pick up’ button, not through fear, but through pure incompetence as I couldn’t work out which of the symbols were which. I’ve somehow managed to rid myself of Bluetooth in the car now, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how. I regard PowerPoint as hi-tech. I probably only use 10% of the technology on my mobile phone. Jesus, I don’t even like being on the actual phone. Sometimes the microwave puzzles me – it has 7 (count ’em) buttons. I once volunteered to have a Smartboard at work (one of the first, when Smartboards were cutting edge), but didn’t turn it on for about 3 weeks, preferring to just write on the whiteboard. I still do. I don’t like using the laptop unless it’s plugged in. I can’t use my camera. I can’t use the printer at home. Apple watches (if that’s what they’re called) are obvious witchcraft. Fitbits? Same. I love my hoover because it’s got headlights. I bought it though, because it has a tool to polish the wood floor with – this tool frightens me and is therefore still behind the settee. I have never used a filter on a photo. Cropping photos is quite the challenge enough. I had a Facebook account for a full three years before I actually used it because it genuinely baffled me. I can work Alexa, to a point, but only to play songs, which I still find way too exciting. But the fact that you can sort of have a conversation with a little circular electronic thing is something I find exciting and terrifying, all at the same time. Our soundbars still frighten me when I hear the sound behind me, rather than just coming out of the telly. Our telly, a smart TV, petrifies me and I don’t dare stray too far from Sky Sports. Meanwhile, my wife and kids can navigate their way around anything on it. I’ve never played PlayStation or Xbox. If I had one of those robot vacuum cleaners I’d follow it round, you know like those cats on YouTube? I regularly ask the family to pose for a photo then take a short video of them standing still and smiling for too long, because I somehow switched the camera button to video. I’ve never told them this. (One day these ‘films’ will be discovered and I’ll be outed as some kind of cinematic genius).  I don’t know the difference between gigabytes and megabytes. And I think PC World are just making TBs up, whatever they are. And mentioning PC World, I still remember Rumbelows, vividly. I will NEVER, EVER do the Asda shop online because it would mean that I didn’t get to go to Asda. Our washer plays a tune when you switch it on and this makes me smile and sing along. Every time. I still only use 2 settings on the washer though. And all of this has been true, as I said earlier, for many a year. But here’s a true story that, when I wonder if I’m really all that old, gives me an immediate answer of yes. A while ago, I wanted to add a photo that also provided a link to a video when clicked on a Powerpoint. I tried cutting and pasting for a good couple of hours before asking for help. A younger member of staff introduced me to something called Snipping Tool and talked me patiently through how to use it. Thus, readily armed, having written the instructions down on a Post-It, away I went. I snipped away and created a whole scheme of work with these wonderful links, regularly gasping when they worked and getting genuinely excited about telling people, ‘Look what happens when you click on the picture!’ Later, another younger member came into the office and I happened to mention Snipping Tool. The friend who’d showed me how to use it joined in and mentioned that I hadn’t known how to use it. I then said that I thought it was amazing. My mistake here was to glance back at these two people in their twenties as one of them gave the other one the kind of look that said something along the lines of ‘Oh, how cute!’. Not cute as in ‘phwoar, look at Graham’s arse’, but cute as in ‘Aw, the old person is amazed by the simple technology that we’ve been using for years”. The kind of look that you might flash to your partner during your first Skype conversation with granddad, as he struggles to look into the camera and talk at the same time. Although, it’ll be no surprise to learn that I’ve never actually used Skype. The kind of look that tells me I offer less and less to the world and that I really am drowning in middle age! And by the way, Chloe, you’ll have to explain Snipping Tool to me all over again for the new academic year.

*  I only mention the commute to make it look like I’m listening in meetings, but if you’ve been in a meeting with me, you’ve probably noticed I’m not really listening. I’ve quite possible already told you this. However, if you didn’t know, if I’m in a meeting with you, it’s odds on that I’m not actually listening. I’m thinking about being old. Or worrying about technology.