Always look on the bright side: Things that made me smile.

Almost two weeks ago, it was time for me to head back to work. A new academic year has now started and having spent the whole summer free of this particular stress, I never take the return very well at all. Despite 22 years as a teacher, I never get used to going back and I never look forward to it.

That first week would also later turn into the week when Queen Elizabeth II passed away and whatever your feelings about the monarchy, it seems to have hit large swathes of people really hard, especially here in the UK.

While none of this made me hugely emotional, it all combined to make me feel low, quite sad and just a little bit like I could do with a boost. So, rather than wallow in the doom, I thought I’d think – and write – about some more positive aspects of the last few weeks, something that I started to blog about early on in August. Here they are in no particular order.

A few weeks ago I chanced upon an article on the BBC website, something that I make sure to have a look at every day. The article was about a restoration project with a difference – the re-planting of seagrass off the Welsh coast. Seagrass is, as the name would suggest, a type of grass that grows in the sea. Bigger than the type of grass you’d find in your garden, but grass all the same. Brilliantly though, a single hectare of seagrass can be home to 80,000 fish and 100,000 invertebrates. It also absorbs and stores carbon dioxide, making it a really important plant to have in our seas.

The project is taking place off the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, which is somewhere we holiday every year. Its aim is to plant seeds that will grow into a 10 hectare seagrass meadow by 2026. In the sea off our favorite beach, there is already an area of seagrass, which is revealed every time the tide goes out. So the story really resonated with me and I must admit, the idea of its benefits just really made me smile.

The next smile giver is a little simpler than the serious, but exciting eco-project I’ve just written about. We’re big telly watchers in our house, viewing a whole range of things from terrestrial channels, Sky, Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon. We even have ‘Family Telly’ time every day in our house, where we all sit down to watch something appropriate together. But it’s not a family friendly piece of TV that has made me smile recently.

‘All Of Us Are Dead’ is a South Korean high school zombie horror show and to be frank, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds! We started watching it around a month ago and, despite its obvious flaws – blood stains on the kids’ uniforms that have clearly been scribbled on with a marker pen, for instance – it is just a fantastic piece of telly. We’re big fans of anything apocalyptic in our house, so it was onto a winner from the start, but its jeopardy and originality really make it stand out. It’s dubbed, which might spoil it for some, but still if you enjoy the odd fright and a bit of a rollercoaster ride of a programme, then I’d highly recommend tuning in.

While not wanting to go into too much specific detail and attract any unwanted – and frankly unwarranted – criticism, my daughter’s GCSE grades really put a smile on my face. Our faces, in fact, because it was a boost for all the family. She’s worked incredibly hard over the last few years in preparation for them and in the end got very much what she deserved. It’s a set of grades that should help open some doors for her and hopefully help with her progress as she enters further education and even when heading into the world of work eventually. She has a habit of asking, shall we say, ill-thought out questions, as well as just saying ridiculous things, but it turned out that we have a very, very bright kid on our hands and her success made me immensely proud.

Football can be a very cruel sport. Especially when you’re particularly invested in it, as I am. In fact, football was very cruel just a couple of weeks ago, when my team Newcastle United lost a game in time that had been added on to the time that was added. In essence, we lost a game because the referee seemed to revert to playground rules, allowing play to continue until the home team scored the winner.

However, just before this game we had rescued a point in an away game at Wolverhampton Wanderers with an absolute wonder goal from Alain Saint Maximin, our maverick Frenchman. The ball was cleared from deep inside the Wolves box, going so high I expected it to come down with snow on. And what did Alain do? Volleyed it straight into the back of the net from around 20 yards out! Smile? It made me leap around our front room like a giddy teenager again!

The final thing that has given me a bit of a boost over the past couple of weeks has been the surprise I’ve had upon going back to work. Two weeks ago I was dreading returning back to work after 6 weeks of summer holidays. I always do and wrote a post about it.

Teaching: That first week back.

However, although I still can’t declare myself happy to be back working, I’m surprised by how smoothly it feels like I’ve got back into the old routines. I suppose, having been a high school teacher for quite a while now, I should expect just to be able to do my job with the minimum of fuss. But there’s still anxiety at this time of year, every year. Still though, although I’m tired beyond belief at the end of every day – age can be a cruel mistress, dear reader – I’ve not encountered any problems at all and have just been able to take up where I left off a couple of months ago. Definitely a reason to allow myself a bit of a smile!

More again soon on this topic. I’ve enjoyed writing about the things that have made me smile and I think it definitely helps with my mood! Feel free to leave a comment if you enjoyed reading!

As if by magic, I’m the dad of a school leaver…

A few weeks ago now, I passed through another milestone as a father. I didn’t do anything special and there was no great effort on my part. In fact, I did nothing at all. What happened was that my daughter left high school.

Now if you’re sitting reading this as a non-parent or a parent of a much younger child, then you won’t bat an eyelid, as they say. It won’t seem like much and describing it as a milestone may seem strange. If you have younger children, you might acknowledge this landmark moment, but feel safe in the knowledge that for you personally, this is ages away. Well, don’t. Because it isn’t. It happened to me and I almost didn’t see it coming.

My daughter was born at home in our bed. She’s part of the reason that we still have the same bed, as my wife can’t bear to get rid of it. It’s a good solid bed as well though. We’ve always been reluctant to move house for the same reason. But the fact that she was born in our house makes her a particular kind of special too.

If I close my eyes I can still still see her clear as day, in those first few minutes and hours of life. Tiny and while not quite fighting for life, not quite ready for it either. The pregnancy was full term and yet she had to have premature baby clothes as she was so small. Back in those moments nothing seemed at all certain and the idea of her growing up to be the smart, capable cookie that she would be at sixteen would never have crossed my mind.

What I do remember is that very early on in her life I worked out how old I would be at certain landmarks in her life. Thus, I knew that I’d be 50 by the time that my daughter turned 16. So, given that my 50th birthday was earlier this year I should have seen this one coming. But I guess it seemed so very far away when she was so young.

I won’t lie and paint a picture of my daughter as a bundle of joy her whole life. Even though she’s an amazing kid and I’m extremely proud of her, she hasn’t always been so nice. In fact, there have been some pretty awful times along the road to sixteen. But then again, I won’t lie about my opinion on myself as a dad either. I’m better now, but like many I’d say I struggled with things like patience and probably all of the other skills needed to be a dad. For years I just felt like I wasn’t making a very good job of it all. And yet, here we are; the school leaver and her father, with what I’d describe as a lovely relationship.

As a teacher, I’m well aware of how quickly year 11 seems to pass. I tell my students all the time that before they know it the final exams will be upon them and their time at high school will be almost over. So it’s an odd thing that until a couple of weeks before her final exams, I hadn’t really given the actual fact of her leaving school much of a thought. I’d fretted about exams and her revision, kept everything crossed for every exam, attempted to boost her confidence and helped with revision, but the end product of it all (or at least one of them), that she’d leave the cocoon of high school on the verge of adulthood, hadn’t really fully established itself in my head.

And now, weeks later, I’m left still somewhat reeling at it all. There’s no more watching her squeal with delight at simple things, no more being cool dad by letting her walk through streams in her wellies or holding her hand while she walks on the top of ‘high’ walls and no more slinging her up on to my shoulders when we’re off on a walk. My little girl is, in many ways, no more.

Of course, I subscribe to the dad friendly logic that she’ll always be daddy’s little girl. But deep down, now that she’s left high school and is taking those first tentative steps into a much greater independence afforded by the much more adult way of life that further education brings, I know that she’s not that little girl anymore. And it all feels like it happened in a heart beat.

I’m sure these next few years will bring fresh adventures and exciting experiences, as well as the kind of traumas that us parents don’t want to face up to. There’s already a boyfriend and although he seems like a lovely lad, I’m watching like a hawk! Whatever other new experiences we get to go through though, they’ll be different to ones we’ve had before.

So, if you’re a parent reading this I’d say savour every last moment that you get with your kids when they’re little. Before you know it…well, they’re not anymore.

Film Review: ‘Nowhere Special’

I’ll warn you right now that if you are in possession of a heart, this will be a difficult film to watch! If you’re a parent you’ll be in trouble too. And then you find out that it’s based on real events! ‘Nowhere Special’ is easily one of the saddest films that I’ve ever watched, but it is nothing short of a masterpiece too and I would implore you to watch it, safe in the knowledge it’s likely to stay with you for a while.

John and Michael live in Belfast. John is a single parent, bringing up son Michael after his wife just upped sticks and walked out on them shortly after Michael was born. We’re never given a real reason as to why. Michael though, is perhaps the cutest kid you’ll see all year and he clearly loves his daddy, which given the set up of the film, makes it all the more difficult to cope with. The love they have for each other is very clear right from the start, but as we’re drip fed more information, it becomes apparent that all is not well. Prepare yourselves for tears and what is very much an unhappy and uncertain outcome!

James Norton plays John, a single father and a window cleaner, who struggles every day to protect his young son Michael from the harsh realities that the both of them are faced with. As the film moves on we are slowly allowed into John and Michael’s world as the truth about John’s future becomes clear. It’s obvious from fairly early on that something is wrong, but we’re left guessing as to what exactly that is. Whatever it is, Michael is at the heart of John’s thinking in the matter simply because he isn’t going to be able to be there to protect Michael’s future.

‘Nowhere Special’ is a beautifully crafted film. We focus on the love between a father and son while becoming ever more conscious of the distance that will be cruelly put between them. Because of this, as an audience we almost can’t fail to be affected and wholly invested in the characters. It could be argued that you’ll want to protect Michael just as much as his father does, but ultimately it’s something that none of us will be able to successfully achieve, such is the sadness and inevitability of the situation.

The film deals with a truly horrible and emotive subject matter with a particularly light touch, so that while ‘Nowhere Special’ is a tear jerker, there are never the in-you-face moments designed to elicit tears. The camera may linger on a facial expression or the dialogue may hint at what is going to happen to both John and Michael, but there’s never any outlandish attempt to shock or sadden the viewer. The actual identity of John’s problem is never fully revealed and Michael’s fate is drip fed to us by a series of scenes where he, John and a social worker spend time with unfamiliar characters, who it turns out, are all strangers to John and his son.

I’d thoroughly recommend watching ‘Nowhere Special’ but with the proviso that you prepare yourself for the sadness that ensues. A heart-breaking story, but a simply brilliant film. I’d give ‘Nowhere Special’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A spanner in the works.

It’s been a bit of a strange week in our household. It’s revolved around me, but it’s affected the four of us and probably spoiled everyone’s half term break in some way or another.

Last Sunday I had a bit of an unwelcome visitor. My heart problems resurfaced. Not in a big way, but big enough to completely stop the day and have me worrying for the rest of the week. There was no hospital visit this time so it was a lot less dramatic than four years ago, but it served as a bitter reminder of my age and the fact that, deep down, I’ll always be worried about my heart health.

We’d been visiting family in the morning and everything had been fine. I did feel a little bit grumpy though, but I put that down to hunger as by the time we left it was past dinner time. I felt tired too, but assumed that was just a hangover from the day before when I’d pushed myself far more than I’d intended when out on a 5k run that turned into a 10k one.

I can’t quite remember when I first felt my heart racing., but it was Sunday afternoon and I was conscious of the fact that it wasn’t right. However, I was confident that it wasn’t going that fast; just faster than it should have been. I put it down to the previous day’s running and decided that no one needed to know as it was sure to calm down soon. I then spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the settee watching TV, afraid to move too far and fully aware that my heart was still racing. After a few hours I was starting to worry.

We were supposed to be going out that night. My wife had booked tickets to see the Alan Partridge tour as part of my 50th birthday celebrations and tonight was the night. As the time approached for us to be getting ready, nothing had changed. My heart rate didn’t seem to be any worse, but it wasn’t any better. And then I went upstairs to get my clothes ready.

At the top of the stairs I suffered a terrible spell of light-headedness and I kind of staggered into our bedroom and grabbed onto the window sill to keep myself upright. I scrunched my eyes closed, seeing stars as my legs turned to jelly. After a few seconds I sat on the edge of our bed and put my head between my knees. My heart was now thumping and had quickened up noticeably. Stupidly, I decided to just sit tight and see if it would stop. That’s stop as in calm down, rather than just stop. I figured that could be a problem with my heart!

After a few minutes, it went back to just racing. I took my heartbeat via my smart watch – 105 bpm, not too frightening. So, I went back downstairs.

Thinking about the stairs in Leeds Arena – venue for our night out – I knew that I probably couldn’t go out, so when my wife headed upstairs to get changed I followed. And at the top of the stairs it happened again. This time, I told her.

She got me to lie down on our bed and said that she could see my whole body shaking through my clothing, that she could see my heart thumping through my t-shirt. I could see this too and I didn’t really want her to have noticed, but it was ever-so-slightly obvious! We decided pretty quickly that we wouldn’t be going out, but then when things didn’t calm down, we packed a bag for hospital. Last time they’d admitted me really quickly as I have previous for heart problems – oh, and they thought I might die at the time as well – so we decided we’d head to A&E a bit more prepared. We told the kids and there were tears.

In the meantime though, my heart rate felt like it had dropped. My watch was measuring it at various speeds now, but none over 100. It was fluctuating, but I’d stopped shaking and sweating. After about half an hour, we headed downstairs, more settled and prepared to wait this one out. Probably ten minutes later, while sitting on the settee again, I had another awful dizzy spell. It made me feel sick and was so violent that it sort of forced me forward in my chair. I saw stars again and I gritted my teeth hoping that it would pass with me still conscious. My main thought was that I was not going to hospital in an ambulance! I didn’t realise that my daughter was sat opposite and witnessed the whole thing.

As it passed, I reassured her that I was OK. I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to worry her. She sat with me as did my wife when she came downstairs. I told them that I just needed to rest and so we just sat. Something was different now though.

After a few minutes I realised that my heart rate was completely back to normal. No racing whatsoever and when measured it was going at 49bpm! And that was that. The end of an episode that had ended up with me terrified by my heart once more, but in actual fact, entirely back to normal. I was absolutely shattered though and secretly frightened at the prospect of being back in hospital again.

Almost a week on and, as I said, it’s been an odd week. The next day was a write off and the two after dominated by visits to the doctor. But by Wednesday I’d had an ECG and blood tests and they’d declared that there was nothing to worry about and provided no explanation of what might have happened. That’s not a criticism either. I mean, how would they know? But I’d gone there hoping for a clear answer and left with nothing but a sore arm from needles and an itchy chest from the fact that they’d made me shave it for my ECG!

I’m back to work next week and I know that I’ll have to be careful. I’m forcing myself to rest and have told myself that there’ll be no running for a while longer. I continue to plan my next run though, while continually considering the fact that I might just get away with it in the next couple of days. I have to keep reminding myself of my daughter’s reaction as I nearly passed out in front of her as well as the fact that up to Thursday I was knackered all day every day.

I’m hopeful that this was just a scare and that it was simply the result of pushing myself far too hard, followed by not recovering properly and not keeping hydrated. I started this blog as a result of being hospitalised four years ago. I have no wish for any more cardiology ward blogs!

Look after yourself, folks!

Five Absent on the Register

This is a poem that I wrote at work a couple of weeks ago, in little intervals across the day. Sometimes, I manage to do this type of thing; scribbling down notes and lines while classes are completing a task or at break or lunch. I find I have to note things down when they come to me as I have such a bad memory for this type of creative stuff, that I won’t remember it later. As a consequence my desk is often littered with Post-It notes or scraps of paper, which is probably quite annoying to anyone who uses my room when I’m not in it.

This poem came about when I was feeling particularly ill. I’d gone in, as I tend to do, despite feeling really poorly, but then was struck by the numbers of pupils and staff absent that day. I suppose, feeling sluggish and snotty, I was just feeling a bit sorry for myself. When I did my first register of the day the title of the poem just stuck in my head along with the idea that I was going to regret not staying at home.

As it turned out, every register that day had significant numbers of absentees and it cast me back to various stages of lockdown and remote learning, making me wonder if we were headed back into the dark days of Covid. This was the direction that the poem headed in.

Five Absent on the Register

Having dragged myself in, all heavy breathing, wheezing, tight chest and runny nose,
I find there are five kids absent on the first register of the day.
I read their reasons; symptoms largely similar to mine
and it makes me wonder if perhaps I also should have got my mam to ring in.

In front of me two boys cough, almost constantly,
sniff at all too frequent intervals, not a hand, a tissue or even the cure all crook of an elbow in sight
and I wonder if we'll ever be well again.

Another register reveals that six of fourteen are missing, presumed similarly snotty and there are more as the day trundles on.
I picture them coughing their way through a Netflix binge
and wonder for a moment, if our world is changing once again.
More needles, more prescribed exercise, more masks, 
more Thursday night claps, more futile silent queues at shops.

It turned out – for now – that my worries were unfounded. While Covid remains with us, its previous threat feels like it’s lessened for the majority. Every now and then its shadow looms over me in the form of supermarket shortages or the news that someone I know is suffering with it. And for that morning, maybe even for a few days that week, I grew more and more convinced that things were headed backwards once more. It’s certainly something that will live long in the memory and something that I feel sure none of would welcome a return to.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the poem. As ever, you’re more than welcome to leave a comment as I always enjoy reading them.

Spring Goals

As I sit here this morning, looking out of my classroom window across our playing fields, a change is in the air. I noticed it while eating breakfast too. Three quarters of our daffodils are now in bloom and the huge camilia bush that has dominated our back garden for a good 15 years has enormous pink flowers in bloom at regular intervals across its bulk. And of course I couldn’t miss the bright blue sky that greeted me as I drew back the curtains. Definite signs of change.

Whichever way you look at it – the change in weather and light or just by consulting the calendar – Spring is on its way. So, as bloggers often do, I thought I’d take advantage of the weather and pretend to all of us that it’s prompted an upturn in mood and the urge to get even more done in my life! You guessed it, I’m setting some goals! However, unlike my usual way of doing things, I thought I’d make them realistic and attainable this time round.

I have a 10k race coming up in May and am planning to enter a few more across the Spring and Summer, so I thought I’d use the weather to help me step up my training. In terms of being a goal to set, I’ve already started with this one. We’ve seen a definite change in the weather in West Yorkshire over the past couple of weeks and it’s just given my enthusiasm for going running a real boost. It can still be a little cold, but not worrying about the sun setting if I’m on an after school run, makes it a lot easier to motivate myself.

As you can see from the image above our weather is looking good for the next week and this really helps get through the working week. I usually aim for a Friday evening run and as you can see, this coming Friday looks amazing. Whatever that big yellow thing is, it looks promising, I have to say! This gives me something to really look forward to as I drag myself through another week of work. Because, as we all know, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as dragging yourself through a 10km run on an unusually warm afternoon after a week at work! Joking aside though, I know that I will thoroughly enjoy being out running and completing my first 10k in a while. And if the legs will allow, that Sunday afternoon is looking good for a bonus half hour run too! Hopefully, by the time May comes around I’ll be a lot stringer and fitter and ready to take on my first race of the year…if the weather doesn’t make me do something daft like enter an earlier one!

One of the first things I did during the first Covid lockdown was to paint all of the fences round our house. The weather was glorious, but of course fresh air was being rationed unless you had a garden, something which we’re lucky enough to have. And so, armed with the knowledge that I wasn’t allowed to go into work and two cans of fence paint bought previously – probably just after publishing another ‘goals’ blog – I set to work.

At the time it all looked great, but now, having had far less time on my hands since lockdown, it looks tired, worn and in places covered in a thin layer of bright green moss. It’s definitely time to get those brushes out again! Luckily, I have an end of term holiday coming up so I should have time enough to get this one done without even a hint of trouble! Goal two achieved (in my head)!

In another of our periods of lockdown/partial lockdown/that thing where some of us followed the rules and stupid people wondered why they felt so poorly having been out in bars mixing freely, I chanced upon what I thought was a bargain in our local supermarket. Grey shed paint. Now, I’m reading back that last three word sentence and wondering what on earth I was thinking when I bought it, so I can wholly understand your own confusion. Paint, for the shed, that’s grey.

A few factors go against this next goal…in fact let’s just call it a job, because goal makes it sound almost enticing; like a good idea when I now can’t figure out what I was thinking in buying it. The first factor that goes against it is that my shed is going to be a different colour to my fences and I’m not sure I like that idea anymore. In fact, I probably only liked it for a few seconds at the time. Then there’s the time. Do I really want to invest this time, when there are other, more productive things I could be doing that? There’s no doubt that the shed could do with a lick of paint, but it will stay standing without it. Clearly, this goal or job will need a little more thought before I commit my time to it. Either that or I need to find a way to dispose of said paint and hope that my wife doesn’t remember this particular plan. Or read this blog post.

Sticking with all things shed related, another Spring goal has to be the clearing out of my sheds. I have two (but don’t be fooled by the sheds that I got, I’m still Grahamy from the block) and can’t actually set foot in either without having to remove countless tins of paint and varnish, a lawnmower, tools and garden implements. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation.

One of my sheds has a lot of football gear in it. In particular, that’s essentially balls. I seem to have accumulated a lot of footballs over the years. So I think the time has come for a bit of a purge. I’ve noticed that some of our training balls are looking a bit the worse for wear, with splits in their coverings and bits hanging off and there are also some balls that we no longer use as they’re the wrong size for our age group. Given that this type of thing will only take a short amount of time and effort to sort out, it’s a goal that will definitely end in a tick on a list. And those always make me happy!

Another of my short term Spring goals is to write more poems. I’ve recently identified some competitions and some literary magazines that I’d like to submit to and my blog always needs new material, so it’s time for a new batch of poems to be written. Given the weather and the change in the landscape at this time of year, there should be plenty of source material to go at. I’ve also just written the bones of a poem this morning. It’s one that goes back to worries about the pandemic after I noticed that a larger than usual proportion of a couple of my classes was missing when I looked at today’s registers. Coupled with not feeling too well myself, it started me wondering if we’re as safe as we seem to think. I also have plans for a poem that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so I’ll definitely need to find some time to get that written.

My final goal is to spend a little bit of time at Easter sketching. Firstly, it’s something I haven’t done since last summer and something that I never seem to find the time to do, but I also want to go out with my daughter to do some. She’s a really talented artist, but is starting to feel the pressure of her upcoming GCSEs and so maybe we can go somewhere that’s peaceful and picturesque, even for a couple of hours and help take her mind off everything that’s bothering her presently.

I also bought some pastels during lockdown and then proceeded to not even get them out of the packet, which is a very me thing to do, so if for no other reason, I need to get out and doing some art just to try and use those pastels!

For once, I feel that I’m setting myself targets or goals that are fairly achievable. They’re definitely more sensible than my usual type of thing. I’ll keep you informed on how it all goes. I mean, who could resist some pictures of my brown fence, my grey sheds and my sketches of what might be trees, but could equally be just tall people in fluffy green cardigans?

New Year’s Resolutions – an update on my so called progress.

As much as I was keen to avoid them, I still found myself considering making resolutions as 2022 approached. It’s not a time of year that I like and – although I always end up making some – I never truly buy into the idea of making a brand new start. Essentially, the difference between one year and another is just a day.

So at first I was content to settle for a token three. You know the kind of things: eat healthier, exercise…give up wearing women’s underwear on a Friday, something along those lines. But the more I thought of it, the more I added, until I had nice round 30 resolutions bullet pointed on a piece of A4. So, in order to commit myself a bit, I wrote a blog at the start of the year. It’s on the link below.

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

Now that we’re a couple of months on, I thought I’d write an update on my progress. So, here we go.

I’d resolved to make sure that I updated you, dear reader, on my resolutions. Thus, this blog represents a big fat tick on my list, which is nice.

In terms of the order of the list though, let’s start with a package deal on my first two resolutions. Learn to moonwalk and start writing my YA novel and my Christmas story. Literally nothing done here. I figure that there’s plenty time with both though. My YA novel is in fact started, but it’s handwritten in a notebook. My Christmas story is still some bullet points that may just be on a scrap of paper…somewhere. Moonwalking will have to wait, maybe until I find that scrap of paper with my story on!

The next resolution was to research and eat more healthy foods and I’m pleased to say that there has been enormous progress made here. Well, I’ve favourited several more healthy recipes on the BBC website, cooked myself a simple fresh pasta sauce (once) and started eating cranberries after a run. So huge might have been a lie. But it’s progress all the same and I’m sure it’ll get better.

My next resolution was to try and be a better son, husband, dad and brother. Soppy, cliched, difficult to quantify. As it goes, I think I’m making progress here. I’ve phoned my mam and dad several times since the turn of the year and as I write, we’ll be seeing them in a couple of days. I even sent my mam flowers on her birthday. I’ve definitely spent more time with my kids, making the effort to pick them up from school on a few occasions and going out for walks despite work and shocking weather. I hope I’ve been a decent husband – my wife is very intelligent and yet still hasn’t walked out, so I must be able to take at least a bit of credit for this. And I’ve been in touch with my sister, although I’d have to admit that this is still limited to sending texts, so I could do a lot better.

In truth, I still haven’t figured out my next resolution which just read ‘modify my Duolingo use’. In short though, I’m on a streak of over 650 days, so I must be doing something that means progress here.

I’d decided to write more content about my work, teaching and my football club, Newcastle United. Well so far I’ve managed a couple of Newcastle related blogs, but nothing on teaching, although there was an idea in the pipeline and that will be getting written soon enough.

My resolution to stop buying crisps was going really well. And then my birthday struck. My lovely work friends, led by organiser-in-chief Laura, got me lots of presents and cake and one of my presents was four (count’em) family bags of crisps! I then discovered crisps that I thought I’d already eaten and worse still, bought another big family sized – as in it’s meant for sharing, not that it’s the size of a typical family – bag of tangy tomato ones today. So. I’ve pretty spectacularly fallen off the waggon with this one. This has also ruined my plans for my next resolution, which was to attempt to get a six pack…

Next I said I’d speak to more people. Again, difficult to quantify but again, if I’m honest, I think I’ve probably failed. I mean, I’ve literally no idea who these ‘more people’ even are!

My next two have also been failures. The first was to play more board games with my wife and this hasn’t happened…so maybe that be a better husband thing is a failure too! Then there was to mow the lawn more and put simply, it’s February and the weather has been appalling. The other day when I was in my garden water was coming up through the lawn as I walked on it. So there’s no chance it’s getting mowed!

Next I resolved to run more and enter more races. I’ve ran regularly, despite being poorly for a bit this year and I’ve already entered two races, with more planned. Safe to say that resolving to do something that I already do has been an unmitigated success!

Sadly, I’ve yet to adopt a fake cat named Fellatio Nelson, but I reckon that one’s pretty doable.

I said I’d make more videos – for teaching and for my own amusement – and as we head towards March nothing’s happened. Said videos are still very much just in my head. But, I have a week’s holiday on my own at Easter, so I will vow right here and now that I will make some videos then. I bet you can’t wait! Easter might also be the time when I make at least some headway with the next idea which was to start a podcast. Until my wife produces a list of jobs to fill my time and I get nothing done at all!

The next two of my resolutions involved what I’d laughingly refer to as my softer side and it comes as no surprise to me that both remain filed away in the space in my head reserved for ‘Good ideas that I’m unlikely to find the time for, even though I’ll clearly have the time’. I really do want to raise a big old amount of money for a charity and yet, going back over my resolutions in order to write this update was the first time I’d given it any thought. So, it’s going to take a gargantuan effort for me to make this happen. Similarly, the pen I was going to use in order to write more to the child that I sponsor in South America, is refusing to work on its own, meaning that this worthy resolution remains untouched. It’s still only February though folks…

And it’s ‘see above’ for the next few entries to my list too. I’ve made up no German phrases for various situations in order to tell people, ‘Oh, the Germans have a word for that’. Nor have I had my infected toe treated (it still doesn’t hurt and I haven’t turned green yet though. Maybe in November I’ll manage to limp to the doctor, just as it actually falls off). The Eurovision and Christmas songs also remain untouched and it’s becoming clear that I should have made my list of resolutions into a sign or signs to put up and maybe guilt myself into more action.

My next resolution was to begin noting down some of the things I heard at work. The idea here being that I had an idea for a book because I work in a school and kids constantly say silly or hilarious stuff. Now, I have actually started this…I just have no idea where the notebook is with the things I’d written down. Maybe I left it on my desk and a colleague is now writing a book. If you are and you’re reading this, could you give me an acknowledgement please? Something like, ‘I’d like to thank the careless knobhead who literally presented me with this idea’.

I’d resolved to learn new words and for the sake of this particular blog, I’m going to say that I have. Please don’t ask me what they are though.

I also said that I’d try to use the expression ‘Amuse bouche’ more as well as just making words up to use on people and amuse myself. Again – and there’s a theme emerging here that tells me that my start to the year has been a lot more sluggish than I’d previously imagined – nothing doing.

Given the previous few paragraphs, I cannot tell you how thrilled I am at the fact that I’ve made some progress with the next two resolutions. The first was to discover more new music. Now new meant both actually new and also stuff I’d heard of but never really listened to, in this case. And I’ve discovered both. In the wholly new section, I give you ‘Jenny and Johnny’ a duo with a terrible name for a band, and also ‘Dry Cleaning’. Check them both out, you won’t regret it. Furthermore though, I’ve been listening to some Minnie Riperton and I’d hardly ever done that before, making her some old new music I’ve explored. And, I know this isn’t music, but it is sound that I’ve explored, so I’d like to mention a podcast I’ve discovered via BBC Sounds, called Fairy Meadow. Again, I’d thoroughly recommend it and it also proves I’ve been a tiny bit successful with another of my resolutions.

For the last two though, we return to a familiar theme. The one of ‘Failure’. I can’t say, hand on heart, that I’ve stopped grumbling at people who happen to walk past me and I haven’t started my ‘Diary of a Middle Aged Singleton’ blog. However, it is still only February, so while I’m not going to look back and put a number on my failures, I am aware that the year still has a long way to go. I remain confident that my resolutions list will all be ticked off in good time, while also remaining utterly amazed that I can still type while crossing my fingers…

Anyway enough of this. Have you met my new rescue cat? His name? Ah, now you’re not going to believe this…

Poetry Blog: ‘The cold does not embrace you.’

I’ve written about sleep and sleeplessness quite a few times before. It’s a topic that I keep returning to because every once in a while I’ll find my sleep pattern disturbed and often for a few nights in a row I’ll find myself either lying awake and unable to focus on sleep because my mind is racing or just out of bed, sitting downstairs in our house, wide awake.

This is a poem that focuses on the former of those two scenarios, although as a result of my mind racing, I eventually got out of bed and wrote the poem. It was a night where, if I’m honest, I’m not sure whether I was awake or sleeping fitfully and suffering with nightmares. One thing’s for sure; it wasn’t a pleasant night’s sleep and there was a lot that disturbed me. You think that nightmares are things you left behind in childhood, but then get reminded that you’re sadly mistaken!

The cold does not embrace you
yet, for a short time its shiver soothes your skin
like a smooth palm comforting you through illness, fear.
An uneasy dream shifts and your thoughts are strangers
caught in the void between the fevered images of disturbed sleep
and the disquieting thud of your heart as you realise you're awake again.
Without warning, the rough skin of working hands grabs at your jaw,
takes hold, clutches.
A strangers eyes stare out from a familiar face,
gripped by a mood you know all too well,
before one last squeeze,
then the calloused hand, shoves your face away viciously,
like an imperfect toy on a production line, rejected
not good enough to be loved.
You blink to try and wake only to find another face now,
her hot breath invading your nostrils,
her gibberish bringing spittle to your skin,
her disapproval at the runt of the litter writ large
in neon across unloving eyes and twisted expression
informing you again of what feels like their hatred,
before words are put in your mouth and you flounder,
helpless against a place you don't belong,
a jigsaw you don't fit.
Shaking free, you brace yourself, 
turn your collar against the piercing winter and stumble forward,
in search of somewhere warm.
And while these ghosts will always haunt you 
with their chill,
every once in a while the winter sun will warm your skin.

It feels like there are two antagonists in this poem. The first I’m not sure of and it would be unkind to speculate. However, the second is definitely my grandmother, who was someone that I had a fractious relationship with, at best. She was a woman who never seemed to display any warmth whatsoever to me, which as a child was quite perplexing. In company with my many cousins, I remember she’d frequently refer to me as ‘this one’ while everyone else got called by their name. Let’s just say that it was clear I wasn’t her favourite! I can’t say that her treatment of me didn’t bother me, as it did. But as I got old enough to make my own choices, I just decided to avoid being in the same room as her. Even now though, there are occasions when she comes to mind and it’s never pleasant. Hence, the words in the latter half of the poem.

I tried to end the poem on a more positive note, just explaining what I’ve just mentioned, really. Childhood memories will always be there and will always crop up and affect your day. But there’s always a positive to be found.

I hope you enjoyed the poem or at least it had some kind of effect on you as a reader. The memories I’ve written about were incredibly vivid and I hope that feeling is conveyed by what I’ve written. As ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Review: Leeds Knights vs Raiders IHC

I first got the ice hockey bug on a holiday to Canada. We were in Toronto visiting friends and the local team, Toronto Maple Leafs were heading for the NHL play-offs. We watched a game at our friend’s house and I fell in love immediately with the pace, the action and the atmosphere (of the game, not my friend’s house).

On the same trip, we travelled across Canada to Vancouver and one night, as we were heading back to our hotel, there were thousands of people on the streets and cars everywhere honking horns with people hanging out of windows. It felt like the kind of scene you’d only witness in a film and it took a while to work out what was happening. However, the Vancouver Canucks had just qualified for their first play-offs in a long time and Vancouver was very much in celebratory mood! So, ice hockey had just added another attraction in terms of the fans.

From that moment on it was something that I always intended to make more of an interest, but due to any number of reasons, didn’t really manage to fulfill. Despite being a major city, Leeds didn’t have an ice hockey team and having to follow the progress of the Leafs from afar, I didn’t want to do it again for an English team, so my ice hockey watching plans went on the back burner.

And then, in 2019 as a new ice rink was built in Leeds it was announced that we would have an ice hockey team; the Leeds Chiefs. However, Covid put pay to my hopes of attending games and while I might have fairly regularly driven past the rink, I never visited. In the meantime there was a change of ownership and the team were re-branded as Leeds Knights.

On Saturday evening, thanks to my wife buying me tickets as a birthday present, we attended our first ever ice hockey match; Leeds Knights versus Raiders IHC a team based in Romford in Essex. The whole family went along.

I think I’m probably too old to get overly excited by anything at all nowadays, but I was definitely looking forward to going to Planet Ice. Ice hockey is very much an all-action sport and so I knew we’d be sure to be entertained. Other than that, I didn’t really know what to expect, which I suppose is a good thing!

Having parked up, we made our way to the ice rink, which was only a few minute’s walk away. This being a fledgling sport in Leeds, there wasn’t an enormous queue like you might find at the neighbouring Elland Road stadium on a matchday, and so we were ushered in and pointed in the right direction for our seats within a couple of minutes. After a quick glance at the merchandise stall we made our way up the stairs and into the stand above the rink. I’ll buy a scarf or a puck next time though!

The players were already warming up as we sat down and again, this was very different to what I was used to at football. Only the goalkeeper (the net minder?) seemed to do any stretching at all and the rest of the squad just seemed to skate around at high speed or whack pucks towards the net! A much more dynamic way to get warm and it was something I watched in complete awe. I’ve always been fascinated by people who can skate or ski as they just seem to make it look so effortless and incredibly graceful. I’ve never skated before – I mean, if you can avoid car crash, you’ll just avoid it, right? – but have skied and I never felt like I had any control whatsoever. I make young Bambi look poised.

A word of warning if you’re planning on going to watch ice hockey and something we discovered within minutes of our arrival. Watching ice hockey is not a warm experience! Luckily we were aware of this and attended with several layers of clothing in place, but it was still oddly cold. Not oddly as in, where’s all that cold coming from, but as in it was only really certain parts of me that got cold. I mean, I suppose my toes would be obvious, but my knees? My knees were almost frozen – maybe some hastily improvised knee pads will be an option next time! I’d brought gloves, but my hands never got anywhere near cold enough to wear them, so it was rather strange indeed.

As the face-off/puck drop got closer the mood in the arena built. A countdown clock will automatically raise tension anyway, but when the lights dropped and the opposition emerged from their dressing room to line up, things were beginning to get exciting. I’d expected entrance music and a burst of Leeds Knights racing onto the ice, but instead the announcer gave each individual a build up and they came out alone. After this was done, another surprise, as the teams and fans stood for a burst of the national anthem, which I really wasn’t expecting. And then, the puck was dropped and away we went!

I won’t attempt a match report, given the sheer amount of action and my somewhat ‘relaxed’ grasp of the rules, but suffice to say the game was a real experience. The action itself was almost non stop and even when there were stoppages for various penalties the PA would play a burst of music, meaning the whole crowd were kept positive. Actually, not the whole crowd. We counted 16 Raiders supporters and broadly speaking, this wasn’t a positive night for them. Leeds Knights dominated the game and ran out convincing 7-3 winners, with well over 30 shots at goal. And if 30 odd shots isn’t a great advert for hockey, then I don’t really know what you want our of a sport!

Each period of play is 20 minutes long, followed by a 20 minute break. I didn’t understand the need for such a break until watching the sheer speed of the game. The six players from each side on the ice are frequently rotated and it’s only when you watch the intensity of what they do that you realise why. There’s literally no chance for a breather in ice hockey. I have to say that it all combines to make the game utterly gripping.

We went with our two kids, aged 15 and 12, and both really enjoyed themselves. From the drum-led chanting of Leeds Knights fans, through the adrenaline of the game itself to the frequent bursts of music during breaks, my two – usually found attached to some kind of mobile device – were totally involved. The atmosphere was really family friendly too and smiles were very much the order of the day. There was none of the anger, edge and foul language that I associate with football, where I feel like I’m having to protect my kids rather than just relax and enjoy the game.

I’d thoroughly recommend a trip to the ice hockey, if you have a local team. It’s still very much a niche sport in the UK, but I reckon if you go along you’ll be hooked pretty quickly. We’ll definitely be back to watch the Leeds Knights before the end of the season, hopefully more than once. The four of us thoroughly enjoyed what we encountered and felt absolutely welcome alongside punters who were obviously far more regular watchers than ourselves.

Let’s go Leeds Knights, let’s go!

Poetry Blog: ‘Absent Friends’

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

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

Absent Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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