Top Ten Hazards for the Middle Aged Runner

Now some people would take one look at the title of this particular blog and question the need for a Top Ten. In many ways, I would be one of them. I mean, as a fairly regular middle aged runner I can testify to the fact that it’s often no fun whatsoever. In fact, there are times when it’s nothing short of sheer hell. I enjoy it, in a strange way, but I can’t kid myself that it can be sheer hell too!

In the recent heat, there have been more than a few moments where I’ve wondered if my thumping heart, trembling legs and sweaty face would actually make it through the next few moments, let alone allow me to get back through our front door. I could argue that my face when running, resembling as it does a prized, agricultural show-ready plum tomato, is hazard enough to just give the whole running lark up. But, if you insist on continuing to run into your forties and fifties, then I suppose I’m providing a bit of a public service in telling you the kind of things you should look out for. And simultaneously ignoring my own advice as well…

Hazard 1 – Hills. Going up. not going down. Although even going down a hill can play havoc with the knees these days. But it’s the going up that presents the hazard. A friend of mine once commented on the town where I live, ‘Morley, built on 7 hills, like Rome. And that’s where the comparison ends’. I’d argue that this is not true as we have crumbling buildings and crazy drivers too, just like Rome, but that’s beside the point. Morley was indeed built on seven hills and this means that when running locally I cannot escape the bloody things. So beware, fellow middle age runners, hills mean an increasingly worrying heart rate, jelly legs and the production of many a strange wheezing noise.

Hazard 2 – Van drivers. Well known for their stereotypically lewd comments to women, van drivers are often not the runner’s friend either. Strangely while some are just downright abusive, others appear to think that they’re either running coaches or cheerleaders and many’s the time I’ve been shouted at to “get those knees up” or just told “go on lad”. None of this does any good for my motivation and if you too are a fifty something runner, I daresay it will only inspire muttered threats and swearing.

Hazard 3 – Wind. Just to clarify, that’s the weather related type rather than the arse related. Although I find that sometimes a good burp can do me the world of good while running. But that’s besides the point (and possibly another blog…). At a certain, respectable age wind can become less of a challenge and more of a factor to keep me indoors. It’s battle enough chasing times running a 5 or 10k without having to throw myself headlong into a 20mph headwind. I don’t mind said wind behind me as I’m heading home though!

Hazard 4 – Cobbles. Now this is a niche hazard, I’ll grant you that. But where I live in West Yorkshire, cobbles are still quite common. And before you say ‘just avoid them’, it’s not that simple. I don’t have to run on entirely cobbled streets much at all, but there are certain sections of the roads that I run on where there are still cobbles that are more or less unavoidable. If I don’t run on the cobbles the alternative is to run on the main road connecting Wakefield and Bradford, which as you’d expect, can be rather busy. So while my elderly knees and ankles are put at risk on cobbles, I’ll take my chance with this hazard rather than getting clipped by a truck! If I can continue to keep my balance and stay upright, everything will be OK!

Hazard 5 – Dawdlers. Slow walkers. Like, perilously slow. The bane of my life when I’m out running. Now you may think that this isn’t just a problem for the more vintage runner like myself. So let me explain. I’m out, I’ve established a rhythm and I’m not even giving any thought to how I feel. I’m just running without really having to think too much. And then, up ahead there’s a dawdler. I’m suddenly aware of the width of the pavement or just conscious of the fact that running behind them might give them a bit of a fright. But if they can just make it to that opening or the wider bit of pavement I can give them a wider berth and not slow down. Because I can’t slow down or stop as I might struggle to find this rhythm again! Of course, they never make it to that wider section at the right time and so I’m forced to take evasive action, like running up a grassy bank or into the road. Not a problem at all as a younger runner, but now it’s the kind of thing that could knock me off balance or just drain the legs of what it turns out is absolutely vital energy! Dawdlers: the incredibly innocent looking hazard that you hadn’t even thought about!

Hazard 6 – Dog walkers. Before I go any further, I’ll just say that I know that the majority of dog walkers are wonderful and responsible people. Some of them though, are just dicks! Now this hazard can be similar to your dawdler, which as we know represent a tricky problem. But then you throw in the dog. And here’s the deal. On numerous occasions I’ve been leapt at by dogs, twice sending me crashing to the floor in an ungainly fashion. The first time led to me completing the final half of my run caked in mud – hair, face, arms, legs – and the latest saw me sent sprawling to the concrete and subsequently taking the skin off my hands and knees. And on each occasion the humans involved were unapologetic and worse than useless. I was jumped at recently by a couple of scrawny rat type things and when the owners just grinned I’m afraid my response wasn’t particularly composed. Instead it was riddled with expletives. But I think I made my point. I’m 50 years old and doing my level best to stay fit and healthy. My body does not need to be hastily considering evasive gymnastics while I’m out running.

Hazard 7 – Young runners. Put simply these runners are younger than us, fitter than us and most likely quicker than us. In my case, they probably look better in their running gear too. But they certainly represent a hazard to the middle aged runner like myself. Lots of us will be the same in that we still retain a competitive edge and thus, when I see a young runner out and about, I only ever see a challenge. If I’m ahead of them, I’ll try to stay ahead. If I’m behind, I’ll lengthen my stride and try to catch them. Both are terrible ideas at my stage of life and only ever result in a struggle to actually finish my run! The lesson is to not try and take on people 20 or 30 years younger than me. If only I could learn the lesson!

Hazard 8 – Friends in cars. Admittedly, not the worst thing in the world, but believe me, when you’re 50, approaching the end of a run, sweaty, disheveled and your face looks like it might just explode, you do not want to see one of your mates go past in the car!

Hazard 9 – Chip shops (see also Indian takeaways and pizza shops). An easily avoidable hazard, but one where I never seem to learn my lesson. All of the above are regularly on my running routes simply because I live in quite a large town. Let me tell you, they are not good for moral! The wonderful aroma of chips, garlic or curry never fails to leave me wondering what the hell I thought I was doing when I had the idea for a run in the first place. Surely, ordering out and then sitting down and tucking into any one of these delights would be far more sensible and enjoyable than dragging my weary lycra-clad self round another 10k?

Hazard 10 – Beer Gardens. I regularly go out for a run after work on a Friday. I leave as early as possible, get home and changed quickly, stretch and then out I go. And it always seems like a great idea. I can rid myself of the mental fatigue and stress brought on by the working week and just be alone with my thoughts. Until that is, I spot a beer garden up ahead. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I smell a takeaway, but worse. Worse, because as I look up, it seems like every other middle aged person in town has decided to head to the beer garden and they look to be having such a great time. Would it not make sense for me to deal with my stress just like them? Well, yes, it would! And yet, here I am attempting to recapture the fitness of my youth, like an idiot while the inevitable wag glances up from a cold pint to call out to you to ‘get those knees up’. He probably came over in his van as well!

It should be a very simple thing to do, go out on a run. Staying fit in your middle age should only really be a battle with your own body. But as you’ve just read, it can be far, far more than just that!

Poetry Blog: Resolutions

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

Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: ‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

Every now and again, a newspaper or a magazine that I read will publish a list of some kind of essential reads. It might be an end of year poll or just something that links to a particular time of year, but for as long as I can remember I’ve cut these lists up and stashed the cuttings elsewhere as books that I will mean to get around to buying and reading. ‘Marriage Material’ was published in 2013 and was found on such a list and then, years later, recovered from whatever receptacle it had been stashed in. I finally got round to buying it last year! And I have to say, it’s the kind of book that makes me thankful for my hoarding!

‘Marriage Material’ is a novel that is predominantly about families. From the love and the tenderness through to the irritations, the regrets and the great big falling outs. But it’s about much more than that too. Set largely in the West Midlands from the 1970s and 80s right through to the present day, the novel has culture, prejudice and division at its heart and for those of us who grew up in these times – if not the precise location – it makes for a really interesting read as well as one that brings back times that were a lot darker in their attitudes to anything or anyone that was deemed ‘different’.

The book tells the tale of Arjan Banga and his family with the story being told via a dual narrative taking place some years apart, before the two sides come together in an interesting twist. I loved the narrative style here as it left me not only trying to follow the story but also trying to work out the connection between the two. I think I was a little slow on the uptake, if I’m being honest, as it wasn’t actually that hard to work out, but for the first third of the book I must confess that I didn’t make the connection!

The family are immigrants to UK, so as the story is set in the 1970s and 80s, the book covers the ugly racism prevalent in our country at this time. However, I’d say that Sanghera treats these issues with a light touch and is prepared to write with humour when tackling some of the notable instances of prejudice in the book, such as the geographical inaccuracy of most of the insults hurled his and his familys’ way. It certainly puts the ignorance of his abusers into perspective and Sanghera’s observations made me smile on more than one occasion.

As the two narratives collide the story picks up pace. When his father dies Arjan heads home and immediately feels family pressure to take over the business. But he desperately doesn’t want to slip into the kind of stereotyped life he’s worked so hard all his adult life to avoid. However, seeing his mother again leads to him worrying about her health as well as her ability to run things and he’s is forced into a couple of decisions that will have a huge impact upon his future. One of these decisions is to track down a long lost relative and her impact on all of their lives has mixed, but ultimately positive results.

Rather than returning to his far more cosmopolitan life in London, he opts to stay at home to help run the business, as well as looking after his elderly mother. However, with a fiancé patiently awaiting him back in London and old acquaintances vying for his time in the Midlands, his life just gets more and more complicated. Inevitably, Arjan messes things up!

Marriage Material is a great read. Arjan’s life veers from one catastrophe to the next and as a reader you can’t help feeling sympathy, even when it seems abundantly clear that he must know he’s making a terrible decision. There’s a real humour – often quite dark – to the book and though at times it seems seems like Arjan’s life is spiraling out of control, you can somehow still laugh at his predicament.

In the end it all works out for the family. But not without the kind of scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tarantino film near the end. But just when you think it might all end in the kind of tragedy that none of us saw coming, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. A happy ending of sorts and certainly not in the way that you might have predicted when you first picked up the book!

A funny, engaging and just all-round excellent read, I’ll give Marriage Material

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How to survive the pandemic – 5 Top Tips that might not be all that serious!

It’s fairly safe to say and certainly not anything new to learn, but it’s been one hell of a year or so. Since news of Covid-19 broke in early January of last year, things have gathered momentum somewhat. As the virus crossed continents our moods changed and then as the world was locked down things plummeted to new lows. And since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of decidedly average highs and Mariana trench sized lows.

Here in the UK, we’ve been hit hard and people have been forced to battle to survive not just the virus and it’s various strains, but the boredom and isolation of successive lockdowns as well as the idiotic behaviour of their fellow Brits. As I write news broke just a few hours ago of a school hall in London being hired out and unbeknownst to the school itself, playing host to a wedding where 400 people attended. Thousands have died, but it pales into insignificance at the thought of not having your 3rd cousin’s neighbours and their postman at your wedding, right?

Aside from problems like this, something that has most likely affected a large percentage of people is the sheer boredom of it all. Within weeks I’d painted every fence panel we have as well as our sheds. I’d trimmed shrubs and trees, cut lawns regularly enough that they could have hosted Wimbledon, walked every available route around our town, read book after book, watched television until my eyes hurt, skillfully sidestepped the sensation that became Zoom quizzes and exhausted myself exhausting every possible Joe Wicks video on YouTube. I daresay many of you were exactly the same. Although, perhaps it was just me that approached Zoom quizzes with such grumpiness and cynicism.

As we come up to almost a year of living in a pandemic, it seems boredom is at its absolute zenith. We can’t exercise as much – well not in the northern hemisphere anyway; it’s bloody freezing. And just when you think you’ve pretty much learnt to live with every Covid related u-turn that life throws at you, something else comes along and smacks you right in the chops, sending you back to square one once more. So, I had a little think and I hope that I’ve come up with some top tips that you can try out to make living through the pandemic that little bit more interesting. As usual with me and lists, they’re in no particular order.

Top Tip 1

Simon was determined to have a risk free walk…even if it meant taking the long way round again. Photo by Jenny Uhling on Pexels.com

Perfect your ‘anti-people skills’. Avoidance tactics are never more important than in a pandemic, so these skills include: never venturing near anyone at all, including your own family, walking in zig-zags in order to avoid fellow government sanctioned fitness freaks and fresh air junkies (you may want to never get used to walking on the same side of the road for any more than a few hundred yards), squeezing onto kerbs like a tightrope walker if you can’t get across a road to avoid oncoming humans and holding your breath like a free diver whose life depends on it. Because your life might depend on it.

Top Tip 2

Spotting that a Maths teacher had committed an apostrophe crime, Yvonne stifled a sob and prepared a suitably caustic, mocking email to her colleagues. Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Alleviate the at work boredom by writing sarcastic emails. This is also a lifestyle choice for me personally and there was no need for a pandemic to invoke this as a rule. However, in times of pandemic and as a teacher working alone, isolated all day in a classroom full of desks, chairs but no other humans, a slice of sarcasm often comes in handy. And while not revealing actual subject matter of work based sarcastic emails, I can reveal that the IT department remains, as always, a wonderful target. Always was and always will be. Furthermore, the silly ‘If you had to…’ style email is always a favourite.

Top Tip 3

Shit just got real in Sandra’s house. Someone was knocking at the back gate. Photo by Kony Xyzx on Pexels.com

Alleviate lockdown boredom by turning knocks at the door or tradesmen’s visits into a new and exciting game. We’ve done this for years in our house, as we much prefer not to answer the door to people until we’ve actually sussed out who they are. If you’re a relative you’re probably getting in…depends on the relative. So, in Covid times, imagine there’s a knock at the door or even a visit from the window cleaner. Now role play! Make sure you hide and shush as much as is possible. Shuffle on your front like an expert sniper and try seeing how close you can get to the window without its cleaner detecting your presence. I find chairs and sofas are perfect allies for this game. Try it. Next time there’s a knock at the door or you hear the rattle of a ladder, enter stealth mode and act like there’s a zombie apocalypse. Those confined to barracks hours will simply fly by!

Top Tip 4

These days, Emma found that calling lemons ‘Shit limes’ was her only source of fun. Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

See just how much you can get away with while wearing a mask. Local ruffians breaking lockdown rules and ‘hanging’ outside a closed off license as you walk by on a Boris appointed walk? Don your mask and stick your tongue out at them. Those cheeky scamps deserve your derision. Has a dog jumped up at you while tied up outside your local supermarket? Remember, you’re wearing a mask – it’s mandatory – so you’re free to call said dog a ‘massive arsehole’ or any other insult that you deem necessary. No one can see you doing it, no one could prove a thing. And surely no one’s going to ask if you just called that terrier an arsehole, are they? This game can also be played inside said supermarkets where volume control is your own issue, but the mask will cover your mouth so no one can prove a thing. So if you fancy making snide remarks at those supermarket dawdlers, now’s your time to shine.

Top Tip 5

“Good evening Wembley” cried Ian before pointing and winking at the fridge. “My name is Ian and I’m on a mission to rock!” Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The pandemic, coupled with several lockdown situations, have robbed people of a sense of normal life. We are missing out on many aspects of our social lives and this in turn has had an effect on the mental health of millions of people. Sport continues via almost endless TV coverage but one place that remains largely uncatered for is music. Yes, various bands and solo artists have put on Zoom gigs, but it’s not the same as the excitement of attending the real thing. So I have a solution. Kitchen gigging. Put simply, ask Alexa to play songs by your chosen artist and then sing along. Are you in the band or the audience? The choice is yours, my friend. Me? Usually the singer, as you ask, but I play a mean bass guitar too. You may want to factor in other additions to add realism here, otherwise or you’re literally just singing along to songs next to a sink. My sources tell me that footstools make great front of stage monitors, brooms or mops are ideal microphone stands, while a pile of distant balloons and a squint can give the illusion of a passable audience. They tell me that the key here is to have a large enough space to dance or throw other wild shapes, a vivid imagination, no shame or dignity and to remember that the words aren’t important; this is a live gig so you’re free to go ‘off piste’ as it were with the lyrics. You can even pause said device for a bit of pre-song banter with your ‘crowd’ for added fun. My sources also tell me that this is a whole host of fun, it’s extremely cool and that even in middle age, you can play the pretend rock god. Obviously, I have to take their word for it…

So there you have it. Just when you thought you might allow the share size crisps and 12 packs of lager to seduce you into extraordinary levels of lockdown weight gain, I give you five tips to help you get through our current crisis!

I’d love hear what people thought, so feel free to let me know in the comments. Similarly, if you have a go at window cleaner zombie role play or insult the odd dog, let me know how it went. And if you have any tips of your own, I’m a very keen listener! I hoped you enjoyed the blog!

I have some more questions about music – the 2nd in a slowly ongoing series.

For those of you who didn’t read the original article (the engagingly titled, I have some questions about music…), I wrote something a while back about the kind of things that occur to me while listening to or just thinking about music. It wasn’t very serious. That was deliberate. I do take music very seriously; I have been surrounded by it all my life and can be quite obsessive about certain bands, singers, writers or songs. But these were simply silly questions that had cropped up along the way.

In the original article I wrote a list of deliberately silly questions that popped into my head. It was meant to be humorous and judging by the comments, at least a few people got the joke, which is always comforting where attempts at humour are concerned! Some of the questions were things that had whirled around in there for years, while others might have just cropped up as I was writing.

Anyway, because I’m always listening to music I have some more questions, so I thought I’d best write an article and share them!

  1. Does anyone really, truly know the words to the songs of AC/DC? Now please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m a fan of AC/DC and have no reason to mock them. Well, at least not in any cruel kind of way. But, come on…we’ve all heard Brian Johnson’s voice? Surely, not one of us hasn’t heard him and thought, ‘ooh, annunciate man!’ And it was much the same with Bonn Scott, the original front man, before him. Johnson especially sings in what can only be described as a high pitched shriek and he’s definitely not concentrating on making himself understood. Sometimes it can sound like someone pressed ‘Record’ just as he trapped his genitals in his zip. He could be singing your own name and you wouldn’t recognise it! Let me give you my favourite example. It’s the song ‘Thunderstruck’. Now you’d have to listen to it to really make this question work, but for those of you who know the track, I’m right, yes? Officially, the lyrics start as follows – ‘I was caught in the middle of a railroad track (Thunder), I looked round, and I knew there was no turning back (Thunder), my mind raced and I thought what can I do (Thunder), and I knew there was no help, no help from you (Thunder).’ Now for this section, I can make out about 50% of the words, but as the song goes on and they head to Texas, Texas is one of only a few words that are clear. In fact, in an ironic twist, Johnson even repeats it – “Texas, yeah Texas” – just so we know for certain where they went. I have no idea why Brian and the boys have gone there. They definitely met some girls (of course they did, they’re in a band), but other than that nothing is made overtly clear from Brian’s howling. Similarly, with their huge hit ‘Whole Lot of Rosie (a charming tune about, shall we say a curvy girl) nothing is clear at all. Her vital statistics are mentioned at one point and to be honest, they could be any three numbers picked out of thin air because for me there’s no way of knowing what’s been said…or screamed. So I’ll ask you again…does anybody really follow the words to AC/DC songs?
  2. Is it just me that worries about Liam Gallagher having back problems when he gets older? Now, the short answer here is probably yes. But wait and let’s have a little think. Liam is known for a few things that make him quite distinctive. His voice stands out. His swagger, his hair and his style all draw the attention too. But can we talk about the way he stands before a microphone? Because here is where my worry lies. Most frontmen and women stand pretty much in the same way when faced with the most used tool of their trade. Face on, up straight. I mean let’s not make singing too complicated, right? And then we have Liam. Firstly, observe some evidence.

Now I’m sure we can agree that these images are a recipe for back pain in later life. If the instruction had been, ‘make the letter D using only your own body and a microphone stand’ he’d be winning. But it isn’t and it wasn’t and that posture is a chiropractor’s nightmare (or dream, depending on their scruples, I suppose). Liam sings brilliantly and will take some beating as a frontman. But if we observe the three images on the top row there, I can’t be the only one wincing a bit. It’s like he needs a barstool, but everyone’s refusing to let him have one. Maybe the other members of Oasis didn’t want anyone thinking they were Westlife. And then on the bottom two images, that tambourine is going to put him off balance and even the biggest ambulance chasing lawyers would struggle to argue that this particular accident at work wasn’t his own fault. That last one just screams ‘HEALTH AND SAFETY NIGHTMARE’! His back’s in danger, his teeth, his nose if it flips up in a gust of wind and even his toes if he momentarily loses his grip. Put simply, it all adds up to the fact that I’m asking a very pertinent question about Liam Gallagher’s back.

3. Who is responsible for the incidental music that we hear in certain stores? (E.g. the ones that won’t pay for proper songs that you actually recognise). This is a predictably flippant question, but it’s one that’s bothered me for ages. And within the question, there are more questions. For starters, I need to know if this is somebody’s job? Are there actual composers or musicians out there who write the stuff that often mimics heavy rock, pop, country or reggae specifically for supermarkets and shops? I hear it most in budget stores like Home Bargains or B&Ms (think Target if you’re American, maybe Lidl or Aldi if you’re European) and I can’t deny that some of it is actually quite catchy. Quite often I’m driving or walking home singing along to a song that I might never hear again, unless said stores never change their playlist. In context (of all music ever, including what we can probably, reasonably agree to call ‘proper’ music) it’s bloody rubbish. The lyrics are limited (said John Lennon here) and the tune will invariably be straightforward and largely inoffensive. After all, this is music to walk round a shop to. It’s background noise by definition. And yet, it fascinates me. I wonder if it could be music that the ‘big guns’ rejected. Are we, while wandering aimlessly around Home Bargains looking at cut price chocolate and skin care brands that we’ve never heard of, actually listening to the early, less immediate work of a superstar. Is there a lost Elton John track being played right now in Wilkinsons? Was that distinctly tame rap in the background as you walk down the pet food aisle, actually penned by one of the Wu-Tang Clan before they hit the big time? Who knows? But I’ll tell you what fascinates me most about this ‘never quite made it’ music. Is there an anonymous looking man or woman (possibly in possession of a bit of a mullet, coupled with a mid-range ‘designer’ tan leather jacket) strolling round these shops making a mental note of the tunes and thinking to themselves, ‘Oh, that’s one of mine’? I sincerely hope there is! Imagine, you’re whistling along to one of these tunes one day and someone stops you to point out, ‘I wrote this’. Priceless. I’ve told myself I’ll do it one day – just tell the lie and walk off with the person’s puzzled expression etched on my mind forever and ever.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the questions. Maybe some of these have been bugging you for years too. I’ve no doubt, over the passage of time there’ll be more questions and a third instalment for this particular blog. Until then, let me know what you thought or maybe even of any questions you’d like investigating.

Live Lessons – My Top Ten Most Uttered Phrases.

Since we were struck by the pandemic early last year, everyone and everything has found itself having to adapt. We’ve adapted from the way we do our shopping or go for a walk all the way through to the way that we do our job.

In teaching – my field of work – we’ve had to make huge changes. Different schools have made different changes, but in the school that I work at we have the pupils in bubbles and we go to them to teach, we are obviously socially distant, we have had to change our marking policy, everyone wears masks on corridors and we have a one way system. And they are only a small fraction of the changes that have been made.

We been using Microsoft Teams for remote learning all year. At first it wasn’t used that often; certainly not for live lessons. We’d put assignments in there daily, in case students were missing and then, when bubbles collapsed and we had greater numbers of students away, we’d use it for the odd live lesson and some blended learning, where some people were isolating and on the live lesson while the rest of us were in the room. But for a while, the majority of lessons remained the same – classroom based, whiteboards, exercise books and all that jazz.

With the school closures of 2021, we’re now exclusively doing live lessons and remote learning is in full flow. I wrote about the differences in a previous blog Lockdown 3 – Some thoughts on my first week at work. but after a couple of weeks of working this way, although I’m quite enjoying parts of it, something struck me; the amount of times I utter the same phrases to a class on Teams is really quite something. Big up to my friends (in no particular order) Emma, Chloe, Laura, Gemma, Megan, Ellie, Charlotte, Bryonny, Lindsey, Em, Louise and Saba, who over the course of the last few months of doing live lessons, have provided much material and inspiration for this particular blog – oh the tales we could tell! So here, in no particular order is my Top Ten of most used live lesson phrases.

  1. Can you mute your mic please?” As a rule, I have my students muted. In class during regular lessons. Just kidding. But on Teams, while I don’t actually mute them, let’s just say I encourage them not to unmute and talk to me. Hey, this is my show, after all! To be fair though, the reason that I have to say this phrase is the things that you get to hear. In various classes, a kid has unmuted and the whole lesson can hear their television as someone’s sat there (please let it not be my pupil) watching loud daytime TV. In other cases we’ve been met by a positively imperfect symphony of screeching relatives. I can mute them pretty quickly, but what I hear leaves me massively worried about the environment that they’re working in. And I guess that’s part of the problem. How can some of these kids get anywhere near the same quality of education at the moment? At other times, some students just seem to want to quickly unmute and make a silly noise and others do the same in order to just say ‘Hi’ and despite repeated warnings, it’s surprising how often it still occurs. So because my pupils seem unable to click a button that has a picture of a microphone on it, that phrase is definitely one of my most used.
  2. Just bear with me a second…” There always seems to be something that crops up that I have to deal with. There’s always a snag, a technical hitch or just yet another of my own deficiencies. One such hitch is when my movement sensitive lights go off on one side of the room. Now initially this might not seem like a problem that needs me to have a class “bear with me”, but let me tell you why they need to wait. I always have my camera on – I think being able to see their teacher might add some much needed normality to proceedings for my students and of course, I have a friendly face *coughs* – and so when the light goes off, it leaves one side of my face in shadow. As an English teacher I imagine it makes me look like Mr. Hyde, the monstrous side to Dr. Jekyll and that is not a good look or a friendly face for my students! So, just bear with me
  3. “We’re just waiting for a few people to join…” We’re not, we’re waiting for half the class! They all knew when the lesson started but they just couldn’t make it on time. I’m going to have to call them aren’t I? I’m hopefully sounding cool, calm, friendly, but I’m not. I’m quite irked, to be fair. The lesson times don’t change. It should be easier just to roll out of bed and pop a computer on than the usual whole ‘getting to school on time’ routine, but it would seem not.
  4. “Can we pop an answer in the comments? This is me saying, ‘I DON’T WANT YOU TO SPEAK!’ It’s also me saying ‘IS ANYONE STILL THERE?’ Live lessons rob us of the face to face interactions that we usually have and so asking kids to put answers in the comments is the next best thing as well as being that thing that comforts you when you’re just imagining your entire class has logged on then left the room to watch telly or play X-Box. And before you even think the thought, no, I’m not opening up everyone’s mic so that they can all call out the same right/wrong answers at the same time. So ‘Can you pop an answer in the comments?’ is all I’ve got.
  5. “Can you let me know if you can hear me?” or “Is this thing working?” There’s always someone who can’t hear you or can’t see the PowerPoint that’s being shared. I have no idea why. It’s there, on screen! And there’s always that bit of self doubt that nags at you as a teacher and whispers ‘You can’t use the technology properly’. Or is that just me? Oh, just me. The good thing – and I don’t mean actual good – is when you ask the first question and only about 8 kids respond in the chat and you’re left assuming they can hear, but that typing the three letters of the word ‘Yes’ is just a bit much to ask.
  6. “Can you just use the chat for questions and not emojis and winding each other up or bickering, please?” Safe to say that some of our younger classes haven’t quite sussed out the chat etiquette yet! Sometimes it feels like they’re not really tuning in for the lesson, just the chat. And then when you’ve stopped the nonsense you’ll inevitably get at least one of them typing, ‘Sir, what we doing?’ in the very same chat. Or failing that just, ‘Eh?’
  7. “Ok, I’ll just give you another 2 minutes on that.” Often, while a class are working I’ll mute my mic and turn off my camera, just to enable me to do something else, like read some emails or a bit of planning. I’m never, ever ready when the timer goes off and we need to move on, so I’m always adding time. Without the students in front of you it’s not only strange and a bit lonely, but also easy to get distracted, and so I’m forever pondering images to put on PowerPoints or thinking I can fit in one more email which always, always leads to me pretending to be kind by adding time on!
  8. “Are you still there? Am I talking to myself?” It’s definitely easier for your students to avoid the questions when they’re on the end of an internet connection and that silence can get quite ghostly. It’s lonely and isolated enough staring out into a room full of chairs that are still up on tables, without the kids in the computer ignoring you as well!
  9. “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please? It’s in the assignments. And I’ve pasted it into the chat. I can post them out ahead of the lesson if you need. Send them on a pigeon?” Ok, so the latter part of that isn’t true but we could easily have just had the comment as “IT’S IN THE ASSIGNMENTS MAN!!” Suffice to say, it can be very, very…very frustrating getting students to open up the texts they’ll need for the lesson. It doesn’t matter that you posted the assignment days earlier with the instruction that they’d need to have the texts open. It doesn’t matter that you’ve sent it to some of them on email. It doesn’t matter that out of the first 5 things you said when welcoming them to the lesson 4 of them were “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please?” And it doesn’t matter that you reminded them, in the chat, 12 seconds ago what the text was called, where it was and what they should do with it. 30% (at least) of your class won’t have a clue what you’re talking about! But it’s Ok. You’re the consumate professional who can stay calm and remind them AGAIN, YES A-BLOODY-GAIN in your best Disney teacher voice, what it is they need to do. But thank the lord there’s a mute button! Which brings me on to…
  10. “I’m just going to put myself on mute/turn my camera off/both” The ultimate censor, enabling you to karate kick every chair off every desk, walk outside and scream at the sky, open the window and throw marker pens at passing seagulls (they deserve it…the nearest sea is miles away), curl up into a ball, flick ‘V’ signs at the screen, shout things like ‘Which poem are we going to annotate? Which f*****g poem? The one we did last week! Definitely, definitely, not the one we’ve been doing for the last hour!” or volley the same kids’ books around the room. I just tell them it’s in case a colleague walks in and I have to have a chat when in fact it’s because I’m having the kind of spectacular meltdown that you thought only hungry toddlers were capable of.

It’s been a tough old academic year so far! If you’re a teacher, I’m sure you’ll have uttered all of these phrases and experienced all of these scenarios many, many times since September. If you have any I’ve missed out, then please let me know in the comments – I’d genuinely love to read them!

Regardless of what you do for a living or how you’re getting through these ridiculous times, keep on keeping on. I’m so full of admiration for so many people and their stories since March or so last year. Stay safe everybody – I hope you enjoyed the blog and that it managed to put a smile on some faces.

Book Review: The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about bank robbers – which admittedly, I don’t do too often – I think about shaven-headed, burly men with gruff cockney accents. Even the ones from the north of the country or even from another country entirely would have gruff cockney accents for me. And without exception, they’d be called something like Big Dave. Or Knuckles. I certainly don’t think of bank robbers as respectable ladies nearing pensionable age. But John Niven did and thank goodness for that.

As one nears sixty years of age, you’d hope to have life sorted. Sussed out. You’d hope that, as retirement beckons you forward, you’d be well prepared for what comes next and in actual fact, looking forward to taking things easy or even maybe taking on new challenges. Susan Frobisher and Julie Wickham fit into this category in many ways. Susan, in particular, is looking forward to the day when her husband retires from his job as an accountant; hangs up the calculator and the spreadsheet, so to speak. Her friend Julie just wants something different from scraping a living working in a care home.

In a way they both get their wishes granted. But this is far from a simple novel with a nice happy ending where two friends wander off into the sunset. No, Susan and Julie are forced to embark on a Thelma and Louise style adventure in order to get anywhere near the kind of ending that they want.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ is an absolute romp of a tale as Susan and Julie (as well as Ethel, Jill and Vanessa) are forced to contemplate a life on the run from not one, but several police forces. And it’s hard not to want them to succeed. After all, it’s all Susan’s husband Barry’s fault. But for his ever-so-slightly different sexual adventures and a bit of taste for the high life, the girls wouldn’t have had to do any of this. So when you look at it like that, robbing a bank (while harming no one) is actually an acceptable course to take. Throw in the fact that some of the loot goes towards saving the life of a child, some of it helps out an old lady in a wheelchair and some of it sets up a young woman for an education that she otherwise wouldn’t have had a hope in Hell of getting, then you’ve got to ignore the amount of criminality here and hope they all make it to freedom.

This really is a brilliant novel. Centred around a group of characters who Niven has made both likeable and funny, it’s a story that works really well, despite its obvious far fetched nature. Far fetched or not, as a reader you’ll find yourself not really caring about that and just wanting them to succeed in their quest to avoid justice. There’s almost a Robin Hood type element to it, as we root for Susan, Julie and the gang while hoping that our Sheriff of Nottingham figure, a hapless detective called Boscombe, falls flat on his face, which he frequently does.

All human life is here. There’s Ethel, a wheelchair bound thrill seeker who is hell bent on living life to the full. Then we have the aforementioned Boscombe, the kind of man that we’ve probably all worked with and probably all did everything we could to avoid; a slob, a sexist, a man who looks down his nose at anything he doesn’t understand or agree with; in short someone who despite being on the side of good in all of this, you’ll laugh at more and more with every successive failure. And then of course there are Susan and Julie, the beautiful and vulnerable Vanessa and organised crime boss Tamalov who brings a tangible sense of menace.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ has more twists than you can keep track of and many that you just won’t see coming. Just when you think that Susan and the gang are safe, they’re not and just when you think they’re finished, something happens to keep their adventure on track. And it’s like this until almost the final page, which means that you simply won’t want to put it down. I loved this book and after it sat in my ‘To Read’ pile for at least a couple of years, I was thrilled to bits when I finally picked it out and joined Susan, Julie, Ethel and even the loathsome Boscombe on the adventure of a lifetime.

I give ‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Irrational hatred or reflex loathings?

For some time now my family, and even some of my friends, have sometimes referred to me as being a bit grumpy. I’ve even heard the phrase ‘grumpy old man’ flung in my general direction on occasion. It’s the kind of label that I’ll readily dispute.

For a long time I just put it down to the fact that I have a low tolerance for certain things. If you’re rambling on I’d rather you just got to the point. If you’re singing along to a song I like and you happen to be horribly out of tune, I’ll most likely let you know. My face still changes when I look at my pay and cast my eyes over how much tax I have to pay. If I’m grumpy, then I assume everyone else just loves paying tax. And if we’re at work and you’ve had what I feel is a terrible idea then, although I’ve mellowed considerably, I’m still likely to let you know. After all, a shit idea is a shit idea, right? Nothing grumpy about that.

Then one day I was reading a book and happened upon a term that would perhaps put an end to all accusations of grumpiness. Well, at least for me anyway.

It was nearing the end of a Year 7 English lesson. We used to do a thing called ERIC Time, which meant that ‘everyone reads in class’. So for the last twenty minutes of a specified lesson, twice a week, we’d be reading as a way of relaxing, learning something different and, well, promoting reading.

I was sat in my usual place at the back of the room, half reading and half keeping an eye on other readers; looking for pages turning at relevant times. And it was here I met a kindred spirit in the writer Bill Bryson. I was reading Bryson’s fantastic book, ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ about his adventures wandering around England. Now Bryson, it has to be said, can come across as a little bit grumpy. Not to me, you understand – I empathise completely with his everyday frustrations. But it was he who introduced me to the idea of reflex loathings, which he describes in the book as being something people “dislike without having to justify or explain to anyone why they don’t like them.” Bryson recommends that we be allowed ten of these reflex loathings, although as he invented the term, he gives himself a few more. Fair enough.

So first of all, I will be offering some explanation as to my reflex loathings, mainly because a list of things I don’t like but won’t explain wouldn’t be much of a blog. It wouldn’t be very funny either and at the very least I was hoping to raise the odd smile with people. So, in no particular order, here’s my list of current reflex loathings and at the very least, a brief explanation. Is it a complete list? I very much doubt it, but any more than ten might make people think I’m just a grumpy old man.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com
  1. The lights being left on in the house…FOR NO APPARENT REASON. Ok, so clearly I’ve turned into my dad, which is frankly regrettable. However, as I get a bit older I find that I am left flabbergasted by the sheer amount of times I walk into a room in our house to find no one there, yet all of the lights on. It’s not a money thing; we can pay the electric bill. I just find it astounding that someone (my kids generally) can leave the room, the landing, the hallway or wherever and not give the slightest thought to how empty it is, yet how light. Who needs that light? I feel like I walk round my house channelling my dad and muttering stuff like, “It’s like bloody Blackpool Illuminations in here!” I’m right though.
  2. The ridiculous names they give to paint. I’m not going to explain, but let’s try something. Can you spot the false paint names in the list? Elephant’s Breath, Rose Madder, Ian’s Armpit, New Gamboge, Squirrel Tail, Moonlight Romance, Armitage’s Parsonage, R2D2 Blue, Broccolli Brown, Broccolli Green, String, Smelly Bumbum, Burnt Tofu, Savage Garden, Jennifer’s Hen Do, Well Green Innit, Blue…Just Blue, Orgasmic Purple, York Spinster and Auntie Hazel’s Having A Hot Flush. No, me neither. I actually looked some paint names up, but got carried away making my own up and now I can’t tell which are which. You get my point though, right?
  3. People knocking at my door. Neighbour, salesman, delivery driver, whatever…I’m not interested and I will hide behind the armchair in order to avoid you. Your persistence will be rewarded with my ridiculous, childlike behaviour!
  4. Clothes being left inside out when put in the wash. Aaaaaaaaaagh. Luckily, I don’t need to explain it as it’s just a reflex loathing.
  5. The Mistreatment of Books. Maybe this is just my problem entirely. I think books are precious. As a kid we didn’t have a lot, but we always had books. And I was an avid visitor to the library too. A genuine teenage bookworm; yep, that cool! What it meant though is that I always valued books. As such, even now when I finish a book it more often than not has the look of one that’s just been taken off the shelf. So, to find dog eared books in my classroom, see people breaking the spines, see the pages being turned over instead of using a book mark…my blood’s boiling just thinking about it!
  6. Glory Hunting Football Fans. I’m sure these people are present around lots of sports, but as a football fan, this really winds me up. Simple rule; if the club isn’t vaguely local or you weren’t born there, then that’s not your club. These sort of fans seem to be more accepted these days and I’ve heard the argument that ‘it’s a global game’ more than a few times, but put simply, it’s not and you’re wrong. You can’t argue that you have the same connection with that team if you were born miles and miles away. Your support is based around the pursuit of glory, nothing else. However reflex this loathing is, it is in my opinion, 100% justified.
  7. Local Radio DJs. You’re not funny, you’ve probably got a stupid voice, your material is likely to have been stolen and re-hashed from someone else and I loathe what you do. Terrible jingles, a nickname you probably made up in order to look popular and a world full of awful catchphrases. Oh, and did I mention you’re not funny? (I think I need a lie down).
  8. The Dressing Habits of Young Men. I feel sure that this is solely a British thing, but let’s get it out there anyway. I am the father of a daughter. I dread the introduction of boys into her life. And yet, a bit of me can’t wait. I’ll be the dad that turns them round on the doorstep if and when they’re not good enough. Off you pop fella. Not today. Not near my daughter. One of the things I dread most is a sight I see regularly. There’ll be a couple out and about and while the girl or woman has obviously made the effort with her appearance and most likely looks great, the boy will be invariably wearing a tracksuit and scruffy trainers. In the U.K. he may even be walking around with a hand down the front of his tracksuit bottoms. His hand, just to clarify. I look at these situations and my heart bleeds for the poor girl. She has probably spent hours getting ready to go out. He’s slung on the first thing he found on his bedroom floor – this is what this chap thinks of you. I have genuinely already warned my daughter about this type of thing! Please, don’t stand for this lack of effort and level of disrespect. And please lads, have a tiny bit of pride in your appearance.
  9. People who don’t hold the door open. Holding a door open takes little effort at all, but it’s just a nice thing to do. And still, people just let the door slam in your face. I don’t care what or who you are, there will always be a sarcastic comment from me in these instances.
  10. Supermarket Dawdlers. Don’t. Just. Stop. That tin of tomatoes doesn’t need your scrutiny. That aisle isn’t a place for you and the neighbours to park trolleys (badly) and have a natter. By all means take your time, but please, at the very least walk in a straight line so I can get past. There are no imaginary cones for you to be weaving through!

So, there you have it. A list of my Reflex Loathings. In the course of making the list I’ve discovered that I have quite a long list! But I decided to leave lots out as what should have been a vaguely humorous blog felt like it was turning into a rant. And someone somewhere reflex loathes ranters and their rants!

I hope you enjoyed the post. Maybe you have a long list of reflex loathings of your own? Feel free to let me know what yours are as well as what you thought of mine. Am I right or just a very grumpy old man?

Poetry Blog: An Ode to Donald.

It’s been roughly a couple of hours or so since the news broke that Joe Biden was being declared the new president of the United States of America. I’d started a poem so I sat down to finish it as quickly as possible. I mean the subject matter means it’s too hard to resist, right? And there would be little point in giving it too much thought and then putting something up on the blog in a couple of days. No, better to strike while the iron’s hot.

Now I am in no way a political expert. In fact, I get so frustrated with the general dishonesty and lack of thought from politicians that it just wears me down giving it much thought. But Donald Trump is just one of those characters that piques the interest. Just when you think he’s conquered Mount Ridiculous, he finds a new way to climb it. It’s safe to say that he doesn’t seem like a particularly nice human being. In fact, it’s safe to say quite a lot of things, but I’m not here to offend. Bit of a dick though, isn’t he?

Anyway, I wrote a poem about him and I hope you like it. Or hate it…nothing like polarising opinion!

An Ode to Donald

Donald. With your explanation defying hair like genetically modified Shredded Wheat and that red MAGA hat ruining any attempt to look neat, your last four years like the proverbial bull in a china shop, it’s probably only fitting that they might have to restrain you to get you to stop.

After all, what’s a supreme court challenge because you didn’t get your way, when you’ve spent your whole term in office denying that porn star roll in the hay. With over four hundred White House staff lost there’s been quite some drama, and that’s before we even think about the memoirs of your First Lady, Melania.

Many’s the weekend you’ve spent playing around at Mar-a-Lago, when perhaps the best idea might have been giving running the country a go. Instead, there was that crazy business about building a wall, Four years? I know a bloke – cheap, reliable – could do it in no time at all.

What with frequent cries of fake news and disinfectant cures for Covid-19, grabbing pussy, Twitter outbursts, what a four years it’s been In the end, it was not so much ‘Houston we have a problem’, more, ‘Washington, wave goodbye to that doylem’.

Hope you like the poem. Hopefully people don’t take it too seriously because really, when it comes to politics my views don’t matter. It’s just a bit of fun, albeit at the expense of a complete mentalist. I’m sure he’s got enough money in the bank to enjoy retirement and not get too worried about a daft poem. That said, feel free to let me know what you think…and that includes you too Donnie.

Poetry blog – ‘This trend for naming storms is fooling no one…’

I’m not particularly sure how it all started, but at some point, somewhere, someone made the decision that we should start referring to storms by name. Human name. It wasn’t really a new thing; we’d been doing it with hurricanes for years, but this was just going to be for high winds and heavy rain. Whichever way I looked at it, it all seemed a bit unnecessary. I mean, if the weather presenter told me that we had to stay indoors because Storm Graham was on the way, I wouldn’t worry at all, which I’m guessing isn’t really the point.

Apparently there is some reasoning behind the naming of storms. The Met Office claim that the naming of storms will aid communication about the storms. Apparently, if it has a name we’ll be better prepared when it comes to keeping property safe! And if you don’t believe me, you can go to the Met Office website and have a read for yourself. Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but if a weather warning was issued and it said that a terrible storm with very high winds was going to hit my area, I’d be fully aware of its potential to cause damage.

Name or no name, the storm was going to do some damage. It wasn’t any more accesible because it had been in some way humanised. I wouldn’t be able to stand in my garden and plead with Gareth, Clive, Grace or even Serenity to not blow my fence down. The naming seemed like a nonsense. Surely, if you’re going to name the very dangerous storm then at least give it a name that did it some justice. Storm Mad Bastard, Storm Angry Nutjob, Storm Violent Fencekiller – surely they’re far more effective in getting the point across? I’d definitely be more wary of Storm I’m Gonna Blow Your House Down, than Storm Terry. Anyway, I wrote my thoughts down in the form of a poem.

This trend for naming storms is fooling no one…

Despite the efforts to make you seem more warm, friendly and cartoonishly cuddly, this trend for naming storms is fooling no one. You’re still a storm after all. You still bring a garrulous reign of terror, like you’ll never, ever shut up. Alphapebtising you and christening you with Disney monikers like Elsa, Mary and Hamish does not lessen your power to disrupt my day. Sleepy, Dopey and Bashful wouldn’t even help as far as that’s concerned.

Bernard still has the potential to severely damage my fence, bringing with him the middle class nightmare of finding a tradesman. Margaret is also no friend to my shrubbery, deflowering as she does the camellia, the hyacinths and God forbid, the showpiece rhododendron. And Theodore, you can be sure, will up-end potted plants, seedling trays and even a half-full water butt, blowing them right across the patio or maybe even as far as the neighbour’s drive, bringing the need for fawning apologies and a false face of shame.

This no doubt, focus group, think tank driven naming ceremony will not lessen your power to keep us indoors for days and, I’ll have you know, something else has already taken care of that so in continuing your path of destruction, with or without a name, frankly you’re taking the piss. It will not help me sleep through a wind that sounds like waves crashing on a shore I hitherto knew nothing of and during the cleaning up process afterwards, it will not allow me to take solace in the fact that it was all caused by a Samantha, a Florence or even an Alice.

I don’t think a great deal of explanation is necessary for this poem. It’s a bit of fun, really. I think the explanation given for the naming of storms is a bit of a nonsense and I hope the poem makes that quite clear while retaining a bit of humour. After all, there are worse things in life that we should be worrying about.

So, as always, I hope you like the poem. I’m sure there’ll be another one along soon. Let me know what you thought in the comments and thanks, as ever, for reading.

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