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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give ‘Gone Fishing’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ironically, it’s not been a positive week at all.

It’s been a ‘helluva’ week. I know that’s not the correct spelling or grammar, but it’s how the cool people would have put it, I imagine, so I thought I’d give it a go.

So let me tell you all about it…

Firstly, we’ll cut to the chase (cool language again, I know). On Wednesday night my 11-year-old son tested positive for Covid-19. Then, feeling poorly overnight, my wife took a test on Thursday morning and also tested positive. Now, I know they’re not the first people affected by this. It’s been quite the big thing, as I recall. But it’s never got so personal until now and it’s kind of disrupted the week! The thing we had feared for over a year finally happened, just when it looked like there wasn’t much chance of it happening anymore!

It’s now Saturday, so for three(ish) days I’ve been running around trying to look after the poorly people in the house as well as my 14-year-old daughter. I’m knackered. They’re knackered too, obviously.

Chronologically speaking, we started the week on Monday. Not just us, by the way. You too, dear reader. Everybody. I’m definitely not claiming any exclusivity on Monday as the start of the week. As it is, Monday came and went quite well really. I did a day at work in a job I love, taught two of my favourite classes and then had a reasonably early finish and headed home. I suppose there was a sign of the week to come when the student teacher I’m mentoring didn’t come into work and neglected to tell me she was absent. Damn my psychic powers. They obviously don’t kick in until Tuesdays when you get a bit older. Positively though, we had fish fingers and chips (and beans, as you ask; you have to have beans in that particular mix) for tea and selfishly, my son showed no signs of Covid. Clearly he hasn’t heard of the idea that forewarned is forearmed.

So undetected were his symptoms that he played a full game of football for our team on Tuesday night. This was another negative moment in our Positive week. It absolutely threw it down with rain. We were playing the team that are currently second top of our league and who had previously beaten us 7-1 earlier in the season. Inevitably, we lost. We were absolutely magnificent and perhaps could have won it, but we lost. And we all got soaked. Despite wearing 5 layers on my top half and two on the bottom (steady on ladies…and gents…it’s 2021 after all) I was soaked to the skin. I assume everyone else was too, but it seemed like too much of an intrusive question to ask. And to re-iterate, my probably Covid carrying, yet no symptoms son ran around like a mad thing for an hour, getting pushed and kicked every few minutes by members of a very physical opposition.

He felt tired and sick the next day – no Covid symptoms though – and so when we did our lateral flow tests that night, it was quite a shock to see his read as positive. He’s tiny. He’s eleven. He had contracted a virus that kills.

And so began a whirlwind of activity. Myself and my wife – herself now starting to feel tired and sick – rang, texted and interneted (I don’t know if that’s a verb, but if it isn’t, I’ve just invented it) and organised a PCR test for my son, as well as informing the school of the positive and several parents that their kids would be most likely be isolating for the next ten days. It all felt great. (That’s sarcasm by the way. It actually felt shit.)

I slept on the floor that night with just a duvet and some blankets for a mattress and some dressing gowns for blankets, having forgotten that our blow up mattress was in the shed. I’ve slept on the floor – albeit with the mattress – since (organise my medal now someone; I have been a very brave boy). Each night, when I’ve woken I’ve headed upstairs to check on my two patients, such is the worry that this while thing brings.

On Thursday morning, feeling very unwell, my wife did a lateral flow test and, surprise, surprise, it came back positive. We promptly organised a PCR test to confirm it, but couldn’t get the same venue as for my son’s. Heads spinning – not literally; don’t worry it doesn’t do that to you – we headed out to get to the first test. And in yet another positive, we ended up at three centres after the first one was shut for use as a polling station for local elections and the second one couldn’t fit my wife in (to their schedule, not their room, she’s tiny). So we headed for an entirely different town, getting lost in the one way system first of all before eventually, hours after we’d first set out, my wife and son were able to take their tests.

At a couple of points on Thursday I went to check on my wife to find her literally collapsed on our bed, like she’d been sitting up, but passed out. On one of those occasions, such was her body shape, that all it would have taken was a chalk outline and some stripy police tape to make it look like a convincing murder scene. Scary stuff. Friday was much the same. Oh and I had to make dinner and tea on both days, so could someone organise another medal for me, please? I mean, I’ve been forced to drink beer every night, just to cope…

So caught up in it all was I, that on Friday night, I forgot that my football team were playing and only tuned in to watch about 25 minutes after kick-off. Excuse my language, but we were fucking wonderful. However, when each of our four goals went in, I was forced to completely subdue my usual loud celebrations for fear of hurting the poorly heads of our two positives. Whoever’s organising the medals, get me a trophy as well.

And now, it’s Saturday. It’s throwing it down with rain again and no one’s had any fresh air as a result. The other three members of the household are occupying themselves in various ways, so I thought I’d write this. I hope you enjoyed my week a bit more than we did.

Poetry Blog: ‘In a Perfect World’

This is another poem inspired by my Year 11 group, who are definitely one of my favourite teaching groups in years. So, I suppose that helps explain why I end up writing about them so much.

They’re a lower ability set and are currently going through the exams and assessments that will form their GCSE grades after more Coronavirus disruption meant that this would be based around teacher assessment for this cohort. And I’m desperate for them to do well, in relative terms that is, as we’ve reached the stage of the year where there’s only so much that we can do for them now, which makes me feel almost helpless.

I wrote the poem after our latest assessment. I was reflecting on the hour long input lesson that I’d done with them beforehand. After that I had to let a number of them go off to other rooms to sit their assessment due to access arrangements, like students being given extra time or being allowed to work in a room on their own. It’s safe to say that they weren’t on their best behaviour and it was something that I couldn’t shake when I was driving home. So I wrote the following.

In a perfect world...

In a perfect world you'd be ready.
Focused, a look of steely eyed determination spread across your face.
Knowledge embedded and itching to read and write.
But, it's not a perfect world, as I have learnt many times before
and you will discover on too many occasions that are yet to come.
Instead today, you are giddy and focus is replaced by noises,
bad mannered interruptions and nervous giggles that make me fret,
not just for now and the next hour, but for what is to come in the years that will follow.
I want to do whatever it takes to let you know the positives I want for you,
how I'd love for you to breeze through this,
just to give yourself a leg up, a boost, a chance at a start in life.
And despite the mood, the lack of focus and the approach of a toddler at soft play,
I will attempt to ignore the signs and stand,
fingers crossed in hope while you write, dreading what seems almost unstoppable
in its inevitability.
In the corner of the room, a poster that should probably be front and centre
declares that you should 'Dream Big' and 'Always Challenge Yourself'.
Maybe not today.

As soon as I got home I grabbed my notebook and wrote my thoughts down. I’d stewed on their behaviour in the hour before the assessment. It’s a small group but about 8 out of the 13 of them were just behaving ridiculously – making stupid noises, rudely calling out and interrupting, complaining about what we were doing and so on.

It’s one of the worst things about my job when I feel that I’m working far, far harder than the students in my room. I imagine lots of teachers feel the same. But that’s just how I felt for that hour. We’d spoken about this assessment for weeks, prepared for it intensely both during school and after, but here were my class acting like it didn’t matter a jot.

I wish I could show them how hard life can be. I wish I could show them the awful flats I’ve lived in and the terrible jobs I’ve had to do while working my way up in life and still feeling that I’m doing a bang average job of it all. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make sure that they get that pass in English that gets them some kind of start. But, of course I can’t. And standing there invigilating for the few I had left in the room made me feel completely helpless and incredibly frustrated.

As many of us know, it’s not a perfect world. I just wish I could enlighten these students to that fact a little more!

I hope you enjoyed the poem and I hope that the fact that it’s the same subject matter as another one I wrote fairly recently, doesn’t put you off. Whatever way it makes you feel – even if it makes you feel nothing at all – I’d love to hear what you think, so as ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Film Review: Good Boys

Sixth Grade is a tough time for any kid. Hormones are starting to fly around, you’re finding your way in life a little more and seeking independence from your parents, while at the same time still seeking solace under their protective ‘wings’. And all the while, you’re forming friendships that are likely to last at least up until adulthood, if not for the rest of your life. Sixth grade might just be the making of a person.

Such is the situation for Max, Lucas and Thor (The self titled Bean Bag Boys and the heroes of Good Boys), three 6th grade friends living in a smart suburb of an unnamed American city as they prepare for their first ‘kissing party’. Sadly though, their preparation doesn’t go smoothly, leading to a series of misadventures that although often bordering on the ridiculous, are highly entertaining.

‘Good Boys’ is a coming of age adventure with a healthy slice of slapstick thrown in for good measure. Having been invited to their first ever ‘kissing party’ by the school cool kid, Soren, the boys set out to do some research. After all, if you’re heading for a kissing party, you’d better know just how to kiss, right? And Max is smitten with classmate Brixlee and desperate to grab a smooch with her.

So, in the name of research and with no thought whatsoever for privacy, the boys borrow an expensive drone from Max’s dad and set out to film a neighbour kissing her boyfriend. So far, so good…nothing to see here! Surely, nothing can go wrong? But the Bean Bag Boys’ drone experiment in fact goes badly – and oh so predictably – wrong and as a result they inadvertently make enemies of their neighbour Hannah (she of the kissing with the boyfriend) and her friend, Lily. Even though the boys eventually get to their kissing party, they are forced to learn some harsh lessons from their mistakes in the days afterwards. This is often to hilarious effect and although at times the humour is near the knuckle and perhaps a bit silly, I found myself laughing along all the way through.

Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, known for their work on The Office, deserve great credit for the words that they put in the mouths of babes here, as it’s often brilliantly incongruous and hilariously – and deliberately – inaccurate. Seth Rogen, one of the producers of the film, has clearly had a chunk of input here too. The boys’ take on various aspects of sex and drugs is a hilarious mix of total myth, complete rubbish and dangerous stereotypes which is guaranteed to raise more than the odd chuckle.

In their quest to replace the expensive drone – which is inevitably destroyed – and avoid their now mortal enemies, Hannah and Lily, the Bean Bag Boys find themselves thrust into several dangerous adventures that are navigated with typical pre-teen innocence so that they can reach an out of town mall. But it’s not just these trials and tribulations that make up the coming of age story and as a result of the kissing party the boys learn some things about friendship and each other that they would have never suspected in their previous lives sitting in their ban bag den playing games.

Good Boys is a great, feel-good film. The comedy here is sharp, the characters well written and if at times the twists and turns of the narrative are nothing short of ridiculously unbelievable, it doesn’t matter. Good Boys is one of those films where you’ll need to suspend your sense of reality and just enjoy the action, however daft it might get. Ultimately you’ll want the boys to get the drone, stay friends and keep the feel-good factor…but once all of their escapades are over, will there be a happy ending for Max, Lucas and Thor?

I’d give Good Boys

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Easter Goals – an update.

So, just before the Easter holidays rather than dreaming of chocolate and boxsets, I decided that this two week break would be different. I was going to try for something more goals driven and to help motivate me I wrote a blog about it. The thinking here was that if I formalised it in some way then I might be more tempted to actually work towards said goals. Usually formalising goes about as far as writing a bullet point list down on the back of an envelope, so this was definite progress.

I set myself a manageable number of goals, even though some of them were quite big projects. With two weeks away from work I was confident that I could achieve a lot of what I’d set myself and really, only fatigue or boredom (or my kids) could get in the way.

My first and biggest goal was to decorate the kitchen and paint the kitchen cupboards. After many years our kitchen is in need of a change, but in order to avoid the fuss of people ripping it apart, we’d decided to just update and maybe go for the whole new kitchen thing in Summer or even Autumn. We’d bought primer and paint and I had started a little bit of the sanding a while ago. So Easter was going to be used to transform the place.

Well, there’s good news and bad news with this one. The bad news is that I just didn’t get round to decorating the kitchen. I still intend to, but I simply ran out of time to do it. That and the fact that I lost the will to live too!

However, I did manage to sand down all of the doors, frames, sills on the units, then prime them before finally giving them all a good paint. Have a look! I think it looks great, but then I would say that I suppose!

Two of my other targets were running related and I’m pleased to say that I achieved both. Firstly, I was looking to break in my new running trainers, which I achieved very easily. I mean, some would say that it simply involved wearing said trainers for a couple of runs. And they would be right. That said, the trainers in question are a lot more comfortable now that they have a few more miles on the clock. They’re probably not quite as worn in as I’d like, but that’s just because I keep pulling on my older pair as I’m still very fond of them.

I also decided that part of Easter would be dedicated to improving personal bests at 5k and 10k. In truth, I didn’t manage either, but that was more to do with the fact that within a couple of days of my time off work starting I’d changed the goals a little. I decided that I wanted to try for a 10 mile run instead, as this was something I hadn’t achieved in over a decade. Having got the first weekend out of the way, I achieved this goal on the first Monday of the holidays. I did then attempt to beat my record for running 10k, but instead fell short and ran my second fastest ever. And while I’ll continue to attempt to better my 5k time, when I actually checked again what my PB was I found that it was just under 21 minutes and I’m still mystified about how I achieved that. So, in truth I can’t see that time being broken any time soon!

My other running goal was to research some runs or races that I could enter. The easing of our lockdown rules should mean that Parkrun will begin again quite soon, but I was keen to look for something more road based if possible. Sadly though, time got the better of me and just when it looked like I would happily waste away the last couple of days of my break, a friend got in touch to suggest that a group of us from work might enter the Pontefract 10k and so, presented with an open goal, I signed up. Roll on late June!

Another goal revolved around gardening jobs and, despite some lovely weather, this is where I failed quite miserably. Some jobs have been done – both lawns have been cut, even if I couldn’t quite be bothered to trim the edges or rake moss out as I usually would. Some weeding got done too, but not all of it. Roses were sprayed and my wife even pruned them, but all in all I’m facing up to late April and a garden that is not the best. To make matters worse my garden mad, retired neighbour has gone project crazy and now has railway sleeper lined raised beds in an area of his back garden as well as pristine lawns and many, many blossoming flowers. He also revealed plans for a new workshop style shed in his garden, much to my horror. His shed has always put mine in the shade, so his shed revolution is quite the blow, although you probably have to be of a certain age to understand why! I wrote a poem about it once though, and it’s on the link below.

Lockdown Literature – my stab at a poetry blog.

My worst failure came with my bonsai trees. Sadly, they’re still all in the box that they came in. I sit next to it every day and yet still haven’t managed to find the time or the urge to start their cultivation. Maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe next Easter…

So all in all – and I realise I’m probably being kind to myself here – I think I had a good break in terms of my goals. The whole kitchen thing was a big enough project that it took up a few days and in between running, writing for the blog and just settling down and being a husband and a dad, there wasn’t a lot of time for anything else. Maybe next time I’ll cut down on the ambition.

Poetry Blog: ‘I ran’

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

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

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

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

I ran...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give ‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: ‘Crossroads’.

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

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

Here’s the poem.

Crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back on the grass again…for an actual game! (Part 2 of 2)

So after two training sessions in a week, numerous messages over WhatsApp and several pep talks with my players, we were finally, properly back on the grass today. An actual game with points at stake. Some competition and the adrenalin of a serious game of football, albeit at Under 12 level.

Sunday 11th April marked our return to competitive football and the sun was smiling on the Garforth Junior Football League as teams re-started the season once again. We woke up to an absolutely glorious day, if a little chilly, and frankly perfect conditions for football.

As stated in the first part of this blog, my team restart their season with more than a few worries. We play in Division 7 of 8 and at present are third bottom of the league. It’s safe to say that wins have been hard to come by this season, Indeed one of our wins was actually expunged from the records as the team we beat decided to drop out of the division after lockdown. Not because we beat them, by the way. I think it was down to the availability of players, but it still cost us valuable points.

We were playing the team beneath us in the league and so the importance of the game had been stressed by myself all week. And as we arrived at the venue for the match, I felt confident that we’d give a decent showing of ourselves.

Speaking of the venue, it was the kind of place where I always feel my lads and me might look a bit out of place. We’re a team from Morley, a market town on the outskirts of Leeds and let’s just say that there are areas that we visit for away games where the locals are a bit more refined than ourselves. Sometimes, as we park up outside a row of enormous houses with Range Rovers and Aston Martins in the driveways, I feel like we might be in danger of having our collective collars felt by the local constabulary. It certainly makes me conscious of my Mazda and the scruffy bags that carry the team’s equipment!

Today was one of those days. The area was relatively rural, with some rather plush houses around. We were also playing at a quite splendid private school where they even had a steward to make sure you drove round the car park the right way! The pitches were like bowling greens and the facilities clearly nicer than ours, where only last week two teenagers drove a motorbike over our pitch at speed as we trained. So walking through the grounds of the place made me feel slightly inferior at the very least! We’re the kind of team that my dad would refer to as ‘Raggy Arse Rovers’ and it’s exactly how I felt today.

Once we’d found our pitch we warmed up and went over the basics once again; don’t panic on the ball, don’t just boot it downfield at every opportunity, try to pass and move, use the width of the pitch, take responsibility, encourage each other and anything else that sprung to mind as kick off approached. I was able to take a moment just to have a look around and for a few seconds was mesmerized by the sight before me; the bright green of the pitch and the contrast of those thick, untouched white lines painted in, the bustle of parents, the excitement of the kids taking part in three separate games on the sight and the distinct tension brought about by the fact that we all want a positive outcome this morning. And then, before we knew it we were lining up around the centre circle for a minute’s silence to mark the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. After that, it was over to the boys on the pitch.

It doesn’t take long to remember how helpless you can feel as a coach. In fact, I’d safely say that in the months of being away from football, it’s something that I’ve not missed at all.

We quickly took hold of the game and yet, for every mistake made or chance missed, my mind was ticking over with questions. Why has he done that? Who told him that was OK? What was he thinking there? As I say, as a coach you feel helpless. You’re screaming inside, yet still trying to find the balance between letting your team think and act for themselves and telling them what to do and what or who to look out for.

I don’t want to take you through each and every kick of the game. That’s not the point here. So, I’ll let you know that we lost in the end, because it helps with explaining the process that you slip into so easily despite the amount of time spent away from doing what you love.

We lost with virtually the last kick of the game, having came back from 3-1 down with about 5 minutes to go, to level it at 3-3. As our opposition re-started the game at 3-3 I was prompted to warn my team, “Don’t do anything silly now!” only to watch on in horror as a series of inexplicable mistakes happened across a timespan of about 10 seconds and we conceded the last goal. While it’s pointless playing the blame game, it was more than difficult to paint on a smile and talk to the ref, the opposition, their players and mine about what a great game it had been. Blame lockdown, blame a lack of fitness, blame me, blame whoever or whatever; we were poor. And yet we still should have won. It’s been like this for a large part of our season and again, it’s not something I feel deprived of by lockdown!

After wards we discussed the need to learn from mistakes and the need to stay calm on the ball. We have another important game next weekend and it’s crucial that we’re better. Talking to parents in the car park afterwards, I was adamant that I wouldn’t have time to put on an extra training session this week, partly due to work commitments and partly down to just feeling ridiculously unhappy with our result! Sometimes, even as an adult it’s hard to hide the disappointment and not react a bit like a child! However, as the afternoon wore on I found myself asking my wife if she’d be alright with me being out for another evening in the week so that I could run an extra session. She was just surprised that I hadn’t already sorted it out!

So, we’re back on the grass and living with all that it brings. The highs, the lows, the surprises and the disappointments. Nine more games to go, until barring further lockdown measures, we finish the season in early June. Already, it’s like we’ve never been away. Training sessions are coming thick and fast and we’ll be counting down the days until our next game this weekend. That love that I have for football is being rewarded once again and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Back on the grass again…for now (Part 1).

As grassroots football returns once again and my car becomes a magnet for mud, grass cuttings and various bits of kit, I thought it might be nice to write a couple of blogs about how things went on our return. I’m starting with this one about our first few training sessions and will write Part 2, about our first match, as soon as it happens! I hope you enjoy reading about it all.

Rightly or wrongly, football has always been one of the major loves of my life. Of course family comes first and of course, I see the sheer stupidity of being so obsessed by a game. But it’s a habit I can’t break…and believe me I’ve tried.

However, about four years ago I found myself cajoled into coaching my son’s team and my obsession grew. It’s a brilliant thing to do though and one I’ve written about before, but these last few months – and in fact the stop start nature of the whole of this season – have been a lot to cope with both for us coaches and our players, as well as parents..

At the end of March though, the government began relaxing their Covid restrictions and grassroots football made its latest comeback. Unlike a lot of teams we didn’t jump straight back in though. While other teams at our club were back training on March 29th, the day that the guidelines relaxed, we waited until April 1st until we held our first session.

I have to say that it felt like a bit of an error on my part as I watched those first teams training on the fields at the end of my street! I couldn’t wait to get back and knew – via our WhatsApp group – that parents and players felt the same.

Just being able to be out of the house, mixing with team mates and testing their ability and fitness was going to be one hell of a change from what had happened since January. We’d tried to keep our boys fit by forming a training group on the Strava app with the aim of getting everyone to run a collective 50 miles per week, but it proved to be a difficult thing to do. Initially the group were running the distance every week. In fact in that first week we ran over 110 miles between us. But in recent weeks it had tailed off and while some of the lads were still running and have kept them in good shape, four or five out of a 14 player squad isn’t all that great!

On Thursday 1st April we returned to our pitch and actual football training. It was smiles all round, but just not many of them. For that first session we only had 8 players and one coach as 6 players and my other coach were required to isolate after being in contact with someone who’d tested positive. I split the lads into two groups and while we ran a few drills and did some fitness work, ultimately, given the numbers, we kept it as simple as possible. In the end, we set up some makeshift goals on the pitch, coned an area off and had a game of four-a-side. It was brilliant! Just end to end stuff, lots of goals, a blur of bright orange bibs versus neon yellow shirts and everyone involved with smiles on their faces!

At one point as I looked back up the hill that houses our pitches, we had the local amateur team playing a friendly and everyone from our Under 7s to Under 11s running around on various pitches. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, but it felt like life might be getting back to some kind of normality.

At the end of the session though, I was reminded of something I haven’t missed at all. Parents arrived to pick up their kids and after I’d got the kids to collect cones and poles, I was left entirely alone to first pack it all away and secondly, to haul it all up the hill to my car! As the kit bag full of cones repeatedly banged up against my thigh and I struggled to balance the huge bag of poles so that they wouldn’t tip forward and empty everything out through the hole that’s been worn through, I was vividly reminded of what a pain in the arse being a coach can be! I passed probably 30 or 40 people standing spectating on various sessions and not one asked if I needed a hand!

With a game coming up and having missed months of football, I had a brainwave. Why do one training session in the week leading up to the game when you could do two? I messaged parents just to gauge opinion and availability and was met with a resounding yes. My own son had missed the first session as he was isolating and although he’s made an effort to keep up his fitness (that’s a polite way of saying I’ve been dragging him out for runs with me whenever possible), he’d barely kicked a ball for months. It was the same for many of the squad. So an added training session would do them all the world of good. Or at least tire them out so that they wouldn’t bug their parents so much for a couple of evenings!

Another reason behind this decision was our league position. We’ve actually lost points over the break as a result of a team dropping out of the division we’re in. This has left us 3rd bottom of the division and in real danger of finishing bottom if we don’t do well. So we clearly need to put in the hard yards before we kick off.

The differences between the first session we had held and this second one are marked. Firstly, I’m almost late! It happens on a regular basis. With only myself to organise on the previous Thursday, I was there with lots of time to spare and could set up and be ready as the kids arrived. Tonight though, my son has done his usual trick of being nowehere near ready. He can’t find various items of kit, despite being told to get organised, he’s labouring with his tea, he hasn’t done his water, he can’t find a hat, etc, etc.

The other difference is that we have almost a full squad. We still have one player isolating, but in all there are 13 boys ready to train. Plus the elder brother of one of them, whose team have folded, leaving him at a loose end. He asks to take part and we welcome him and hopefully his calming influence with open arms!

Before the session we have a long chat with the lads about how we’d like to finish the season. We have 10 games still to play and, as I mentioned, the very real possibility of finishing last! I, for one, don’t want that. While I always want my team to enjoy playing and am more than happy to be inclusive and let everyone have their fair share of time on the pitch, regardless of ability, I can’t hide the fact that I’m competitive. So we talk about the idea of the team and backing each other up and about the need to give absolutely everything we have in these final games.

We keep the session relatively simple, dropping plans for a passing drill in favour of a longer game and once the warm ups, jogging and sprinting are complete we run through a drill with the ball before choosing teams, handing out bibs and letting them get on with a game. Again, smiles are the order of the day and there’s no whining and moaning about what’s fair and unfair or who fouled who; just the desire to have a game. They play for half an hour with only a 1-0 scoreline to show for it, so it’s clear that their shooting skills have filtered away over the break, but we can work on that next session. We’re edging closer and closer to a first game in months and hopefully we’ll get a result. But the approach has to be one of complete positivity and encouragement. We all need to be pulling in the same direction.

We return to training two days later for our second session of the week and third since we’ve been allowed back. This time we run through a few more drills with the ball as well as upping the ante with the running, in the hope of adding a little bit of an edge with stamina. We end with a game and this time the goals flow, but sadly that brings out the worst in one or two of our lads. My team are still very young and although the idea of working as a team has been drummed into them time and again, yet the moment things start to go wrong there are those that start blaming others, griping, sniping and failing to take responsibility. It’s something I find very frustrating and once again, something that will have to be addressed before we play on Sunday. It’s vital that we work together and if we can’t, then truthfully, I’d rather not bother.

As a side note, another frustration rears its head again tonight. We decide to set up our 9-a-side goals tonight, which means hauling them about a quarter of a mile down the hill to our pitch and then back again afterwards. These aren’t light and they’re cumbersome too. The hope was that our parents would offer a hand in putting them back. Some hope. My arms and shoulders still ache this morning after the sheer struggle of carrying the goals back up the hill, lifting them over a 7 foot fence and then maneuvering them through the car park, while all the while fighting strong winds. I feel like an old man this morning!

So there we have it. Football’s back and within just a few sessions we’ve had a microcosm of the highs, lows, joys and frustrations. Here’s to Sunday, the first game back and a chance to leave over three months of lockdown frustration on a pitch somewhere in West Yorkshire. I’ll let you know how that goes in Part 2 of this blog, which I can hopefully post on Monday. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think, so feel free to leave a comment.