The Last Day of Term

I’m starting this blog at break time, which is mid morning on the last day of our half term. Some of you will know this already, but I’m an English teacher in a high school. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but the day starting as it did I felt I had to in the interests of sanity. Some of you – fellow teachers – will read this at the very least with a knowing smile on your face, while others will have their eyes opened at least a little bit about what can happen in a classroom.

It’s been a tough half term. We’ve been busy preparing classes for GCSEs, which is taxing to say the least, but obviously then you’ve got all your other classes and day to day dramas on top of that. For me personally, it’s been a stressful week; three sets of assessments to mark, pre-exam sessions with my Year 11, after school sessions too and the sheer unadulterated fun of a fairly vicious fight happening in my form out of absolutely nowhere!

So today, the last Friday before a week off, should be about tying up loose ends relaxing at least a little bit. So why am I finding myself so wound up? Well, let me tell you a story…

I teach a lovely Year 7 group and they are the start of my worst day of the week, which is Friday. Friday’s timetable is book-ended by my Year 7s and my nice Year 8s. In between I teach my bottom set Year 10s twice and then my bottom set Year 8s. Both provide, shall we say interesting lessons.

However, today it seems even my Year 7s have been sent to try me!

It should be simple. Today we’re improving on a recent assessment; a process we call EPIC time. Basically, using feedback given on their assessments the pupils improve on a new topic, but the same type of writing. So their assessment was a newspaper article on one topic and now they’re doing one on a different topic. Simple, right? No actually. You’re wrong.

I start by getting them to copy down the date, title and learning purpose. I tell them to do it in purple pen, adding more than once that everything we do today should be done in purple. Cue the first question.

PUPIL: “Sir, do we write that in purple” ME: “Yes, like I said, everything” PUPIL: “Oh. I’ve written it in black.”

And so it begins. I must have been asked about purple pens at least 8 times after this. It felt like it would never end, despite the fact that every so often I’d remind them that EVERYTHING should be written in purple.

A similar theme emerges when we have a couple of small worksheets to fill in; one as a recall Do Now task (we stick them into books every lesson), the other a checklist for the task. These small loose sheets need to be stuck into books. I tell them this. I tell them again…oh, you get the idea. Still, they ask if they should stick them in. One even informs me that they’ve stuck one of the sheets next to their assessment, which must be 4 pages further back from what we’re doing today.

I’m beginning to think that today is going to be one of those days…

Having completed their assessment a couple of weeks ago, it means that the class will have to turn back some pages if they need to refer to it. So I tell them the date that we did it. Friday 13th May. Maybe I was asking for trouble, eh? Still some can’t find it, but they eventually do, leaving just one who is adamant that it isn’t in his book. After much to’ing and fro’ing about the date I head across to his desk, where I promptly find said assessment. The assessment is on the page that has the date Friday 13th of May on it. I resolve that these things are sent to test us and move on…very quietly grumbling to myself.

With 35 minutes of the lesson remaining, we’ve covered all of the input into their task and it’s time for them to write.

I am able to relax for approximately 4 minutes before, despite trying to encourage their independence since September, a barrage of questions. I’m asked what emotive language at least 3 times. I’m asked to spell every word in the dictionary, despite the fact that they’d all been given a dictionary as part of their equipment about two weeks ago. I’m even asked what my favourite cheese is? Not really, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise.

My next two English lessons are with the same group – my lower ability Year 10s. They’re what you might refer to as ‘hard work’ and although there are only 12 of them, they’ve kicked hard against Macbeth for the last month or so. Behaviour has not been good and at times I’ve ended their lessons exhausted.

Today, I decide we’re going to do a big timeline of important events in Macbeth with key quotes added. We’ll do it via my whiteboard, which is actually three put together. The students will contribute via questioning and hopefully a bit of their own volunteering of information. It’s quite demanding doing it this way because as the teacher you’re driving everything forward, doing lots of writing, prompting with questions, key words and hints, while hoping that they don’t notice how hard they’re working and how much they’re writing. And you’re doing it with your back to the room for large chunks of the lesson, which with this group is a bit of a risk. Especially if one of them’s brought the darts again. Just kidding.

To my great delight it works. Have a look for yourself.

However, it’s not without its hitches. I have to stop within about 5 minutes as two students have copied what’s on my board exactly. So not only has their A3 sheet got a big timeline horizontally, but they’ve also copied the edges of each board – remember there are 3 put together, so my one big board space has two vertical lines down it. Rather than a timeline they’ve got a grid and when I ask why they tell me it’s what I did. They’re staggered when I tell them it’s the edges of two of the boards. They’d thought that I’d drawn on the vertical lines and despite the fact that they’d always been there, they hadn’t noticed them in almost a whole academic year! As horrified as they are and as amused as I am, it only takes a fresh couple of sheets of A3 and they’re good to go again.

By the end of the two hours though every student has an A3 timeline chock full of Macbeth flavoured goodness. They’ve enjoyed doing it, they’re telling me that they understand the play more now (even if it’s just what happens) and they have a good 15 or so quotes to learn/ignore. Maybe the day is taking a turn for the better?

After some dinner I face up to an hour with the class that is easily my worst behaved. Another low ability group, this time Year 8. They’re finishing off some non-fiction work and will ultimately design a poster persuading people to stop using single use plastics. There are too many ‘events’ to go through here though, but by the end of the lesson they all have a poster which consists of the word PLASTIC (their choice) in bubble writing done by yours truly and some facts about single use plastics scattered around. We’ll file them under the heading ‘Last Day, Not Very Good’.

Four hundred hours later – give or take an hour or so – it’s time for the final lesson of the day. Again, it’s Year 8, but a different group. Again, they’re working on an EPIC of an earlier assessment, so we’ve come full circle, which is nice. Workwise, they’re great. But our rewards system provides a couple of interesting moments.

Good work, behaviour, telling me they like my socks or that I’m just generally great is rewarded with tokens. Tokens can be placed in a box marked with whatever whole school reward they want at the end of the half term. Most tokens wins. Today, every kid is getting an ice lolly during the final period of the day. They’re delivered by a member of SLT called Emily Smellyfartpoo (Her 2nd appearance in one of my blogs and once again I’ve changer her name; she’ll never know it’s her). Her real surname is Shittyarseface. It’s not, I’m just kidding. It’s dafter than that.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with two gems that come out of the mouth of the same student as a result of an ice lolly. Firstly, when he takes a nibble from the lolly he literally screams before declaring ‘It’s cold!’. He’s really not messing around. This is genuine shock. I mean, the clue’s in the name, kid. Then, while everyone else is managing to keep working while they eat their lolly he claims that he can’t eat it with his left hand, so must do so with his right, his writing hand. He ends up spending a little bit of time with me in a short detention at the end of the day!

So there we have it. That last day is never as easy or straightforward as you’d like it to be but I hope you enjoyed the end of term as much as I did!

Poetry Blog: ‘A week to go’

It’s that time of year again. Us teachers are exhausted and conflicted. Year 11 are about to leave and we’ll benefit from the time that leaves us, so yay (!), but there’s also the shadow of ‘did I do enough’ hanging round. That particular weather front will keep popping back until late August and even then it’ll be immediately replaced by Storm ‘Could I Have Done More’ and Hurricane September!

Despite my vintage as a teacher – just over two decades and counting…not that I’m counting – this time of year doesn’t get any easier. I won’t lie and tell you that I’m not glad to see the back of my Year 11s though. We’ve got to that fractious stage together where we’re all pretty much sick of the sight of each other now, but it doesn’t stop the worry. Add to this the fact that my own daughter is also taking her GCSEs and it makes for a very tense and very tiring time. I’ve said this before about several things, but I think I’m just too old for all of this nowadays!

I wrote this poem – as I did another this time last year that can be found on the link below – while patrolling my classroom during a two hour pre-exam session while my class were working.

Poetry Blog: ‘In a Perfect World’

This year’s group are a set 2, so bright and capable, but watching them work all that came across to me was just how vulnerable, tired and disheveled they looked. So, when I got a little bit of time that evening after they’d gone, I began to scribble down the notes that would become this poem. As ever, apologies for the title; crap isn’t it? I wish I had more imagination when it came to naming my poems!

'A week to go.'

The latest in a long line of young adults are about to step out of the building for one last time and see what the weather holds.
The inevitability that you've been warning them about for years has dawned and the story is frighteningly familiar.
Everything is out and ready for their arrival,
yet still it takes two minutes to enter the room - some things never change - 
and even when I think they're in, several of the flock have wandered off.
I guess there's always a willful one or two that will find their way into someone else's field in spite of the fences, just because they can.
They arrive seven minutes late, quietly apologise, then,
having received the same instruction as the rest,
proceed to bleat idly to a fellow latecomer as if everything in this world was just perfectly zen.
Oh, for just a tiny dose of this carefree youthful optimism, this lack of knowledge of the world for just a few more days.

Functional stuff dealt with we attempt to power on, 
there's one week to go,
nothing can be left to chance,
no stone left unturned.
While they work, I wander somewhat aimlessly,
now adopting the roll of the lost sheep,
occasionally taking sharp inward breaths as if to speak,
but always holding back, telling myself to savour the silence,
let them work.
Outside, an ill wind blows ominous Shakespearean clouds across the horizon
and I wonder, is this a sign.
Maybe, maybe not. This is the north after all, where clouds are nothing if not ominous.

Averting my gaze, I take in the sights of the classroom once more,
looking for more positive signs.
One is slumped over the desk, writing, one shoe discarded perhaps for some kind of aerodynamic reason,
one wears tracksuit bottoms - more Sports Science in action, or more likely the result of what was lying on a darkened bedroom floor approximately 6 minutes before his lift arrived.
Several are conducting a tiny rebellion; dyed hair, trainers, no ties, shirts untucked. I smile and hope that this sense of rebellion and experimentation grows and grows until it bears fruit, lightens these lives.
I wonder though, what they're rebelling against, hoping that the answer would be 'Whadya got' but fearing excuses about not being able to breath with a tie on or school shoes breaking, giving up the ghost just at this most convenient hour.

Rebels or not, for now all are working,
minds hopefully being emptied of every quote, every interpretation and perhaps,
if we're lucky a skewed version of some contextual nugget, a view of what life was like in the dark and distant past.
Pens race across pages, wrists are shaken in order to bring new life,
before the pen returns to the page to pour out more in one last effort.
And then, time stops and for a wonderful moment it occurs that I might have done enough...
Still, I think, a week to go.

It seems clear to me that there are a wide selection of attitudes and approaches to the exams and the final few weeks or so of high school among the students we teach. This was something that I was trying to get across in the poem, as well as the worry that we teachers can feel. So the bits about uniform and hairdos (and hairdon’ts in some cases) were supposed to reflect that. Sometimes I think that the exams take second place at this time of year because it feels more important to forget your tie and flaunt your new, casual look. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out why though!

Popular opinion sometimes seems to think that teachers only care about results the students’ results affect our pay – they don’t. What matters to most teachers – I can’t say all because I’ve worked with some that seemed to utterly despise what they were doing – is that we’re able to make even just some small difference to the lives of those that we teach. Certainly, when I look at my Year 11s around now I find I worry about what’s next for them, hope that they get what they want out of life and that they can just put enough work into getting these qualifications, all the while knowing that there’s not a lot left that I can actually do.

Anyway, whether you’re a teacher or not, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment as I always enjoy reading what people have got to say about what I write; especially the nice comments!

Jelly legs is feeling his age!

It’s Monday morning and not only am I afflicted by that Monday feeling, but my body aches almost everywhere from head to toe. Worst of all is that nobody else is to blame; this is all my own fault. And now I have a busy day at work ahead teaching students aged from 11-16, not many of whom will have any sympathy for me!

So yesterday, I completed a 10km race. The same 10k race that I was banging on about a little while back in the blog on the link below, complaining that I was never going to be in the right shape for.

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2022/04/09/my-first-10k-race-of-the-year-a-month-to-go-and-i-dont-feel-good/(opens in a new tab)

It was my second time at the Pontefract 10k in West Yorkshire and I was determined to do well. But training had been far from perfect and I’d been suffering with a mixture of injury and illness in the weeks leading up to the race. However, come race day I believed that I was fit enough to get round in a time that would beat the one I ran at the same event last year. I felt that I’d managed to pull myself together just about enough in the last few weeks and had trained fairly well, completing a couple of fast – for me – 10k training runs that were only a minute or so outside of the type of time I hoped to run in the race.

It was an early start on race day in our house as myself, my wife and my son all rose before 7am in order to scramble down some breakfast and get ready to head to Pontefract, a 20 minute car journey away. The race was starting at 9am and we would need to be there early in order to get parked up before heading to the start.

I’m functional at best in the morning, so it was tough going! However, I really enjoy an early morning run, so while breakfast and getting ready would be a struggle, running – I hoped – would not!

This year’s start line was not the nervy place to be that last year’s had proved. I felt that I knew my surroundings and it helped that I bumped into a friend from work and we chatted for a few minutes until it was almost time to line up. In short, I didn’t have time for nerves. However, I still felt a strange mixture of concern about my fitness and hope that I could run a sub 50 minute 10k.

I won’t bore you with a detailed commentary of the race, perish the thought. I for one don’t particularly want to relive it anymore!

However, it’s safe to say that it was tough. It started to rain on the first long, uphill stretch and I heard someone near me let out a little cheer about this. I should have tripped them up. Thankfully, it stopped shortly after.

The course is described as undulating, but let me tell you that the undulation feels largely uphill when you’re out there. I managed to forget any race plan I might have had and instead went off quickly (for a man of my vintage and physical state, that is). My competitive side kicked in here and I was more concerned with passing people, than thinking about how far I’d gone and how I was feeling. I’d regret this later. I told myself that I’d be able to power through and just keep the pace going, but it’s safe to say that miles 3 and 4 saw me slow more than I’d have liked.

By the time we turned for home and the last couple of miles or so, my legs were like jelly, a substance which for years I was quietly convinced that they may have actually been made out of. Quite a bit of the last half of this race is uphill though, a fact that my mind had rather inconveniently forgotten, so it was pretty difficult to keep on going at any pace, although I managed. For the first time in a long time though I found myself thinking I should just stop, as a few people had. I had a bit of aa word with myself though and kept going.

The final mile or so of the Pontefract 10k is downhill and I was looking forward to just powering down the hill. However, having used up so much energy already my body wasn’t responding in the way I wanted. I imagined a Mo Farah like kick where I just passed runner after runner. Instead, I was much more akin to Moe from The Simpsons as I grumbled my way down the last stretch.

Pleasingly, I did pick up my pace a bit though and kept a close eye on the time via Strava, so I knew exactly where I was with my personal best in mind. Passing my wife and son just before the last 250 metres, I knew I had to go faster, but was convinced that there was nothing left in the legs…not even jelly. However, as someone passed me within the first few metres, something in me flicked a bit of a switch – my competitive side again – and before I knew it I was sprinting. More like a middle aged man laden down with bags on a train platform than Usain Bolt, but sprinting all the same.

I crossed the line in 51.27, a good 25 seconds better than I’d ran the previous year and inside my personal best. I wasn’t sure I’d stay on my feet or even conscious, but I’d done what I’d set out to do! Never had 250 metres felt so long!

Cramp set in as I met my wife and son, but some stretches and a stroll back to car had me feeling a bit more comfortable. But I’d forgotten how much racing takes out of me. I can run 10k on a training run and feel reasonably good hours later and more or less back to normal the next day. Running a race just wipes me out.

The rest of Sunday was spent keeping busy, while also trying to relax, but I woke up on Monday morning feeling groggy to say the least! It’s now Wednesday and although the muscles are nowhere near as tender as they’d felt for the first couple of days of the week, I’d still quite like to just be at home napping rather than at work!

Training for this race was difficult. It was very ‘stop start’ as I seemed to just keep picking up niggling injuries or colds, meaning that some weeks I’d be running 20k and others I’d do 3k at best! I think a lot of what got me through was just sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to let myself down. Having got through it quite successfully I’m now planning my next race, which will probably be in Leeds in July, unless I can find something earlier that appeals. For now though, I’m just feeling my age and hoping to recover by the end of the month!

Gig Review: Rich Hall at The Leadmill in Sheffield

Wednesday, middle of the week and two stupidly busy people have taken the bold decision to go out. Not just to go out, but to go out having made a 45 minute journey down the M1 to Sheffield in order to do so. And on a school night as well! They don’t get out much either and when they do they tend to aim for a weekend, so being out on a school night had better be worth it! Over to you, Rich Hall.

Walking towards The Leadmill I’ve got the familiar pre-gig nerves. I won’t be on stage or anything, but I always get a bit nervous around big groups of people. Gigs make me additionally nervous because, despite my vintage, I’m still really self conscious. What if I fall over in a rush of people? What if everyone thinks my t-shirt’s shit? Rational types of fears, you know?

I’d forgotten about the calming effect of certain places though and as we pass through the front doors of The Leadmill and head towards the turnstile and the ridiculously slim door that takes you through, it all disappears.

Even though I’m a long time fan of Rich Hall, I’ve never actually seen him live. No idea why, but it’s certainly not a deliberate choice. Just one of those things, I guess. I know I could list bands that I love that I’ve just not gotten round to seeing too. Tonight, I don’t quite know what to expect. I know that Rich will come on and do a stand up set for the first hour or so and I also know that after a short break he’ll be back on with his Hoedown band. And, as someone who would gladly roll out every stereotype in the book if I was asked about country music, here’s where a bit of a problem lies.

The country music side of things almost swung the vote as to whether or not we’d come tonight. We had the tickets, but had an awful lot on in terms of work and personal stuff and to be honest, the thought of sitting through an hour of country and western music, nearly had me sat in an armchair in defiance 45 minutes north of Sheffield. (That’s defiance as in an emotion. Defiance is not a place 45 minutes north of Sheffield).

I’m now so, so glad we decided to come out instead of staying home.

Rich being Rich he ambles on stage, having given himself a fairly downbeat intro. Just the sight of him boosts my mood! From this point on it’s all set at an dawdling kind of pace and sometimes in a rambling kind of direction. But it’s fantastic.

Rich tells jokes and tales about all manner of subject matter. From Donald Trump, to budgeting and health care, right the way through to various places and accents in England that he’s well aware of. He’s clearly done his homework too as he opens with some observations about Sheffield taken from reading the local paper, The Star. It’s fair to say that this goes down brilliantly and from the moment he sets foot on stage, he’s got the audience on his side.

There are tales about the perplexing differences between Americans and British people and our non-linear way of thinking as well as combine harvesters and how they link to how a Tory MP might have mistakenly looked at porn in the House of Commons. There’s also a fantastic story about Rich’s trip to Buckingham Palace. And if you didn’t know, he’s also unearthed an improbable link between Morgan Freeman and the American actress Ashley Judd. Everything here is laugh out loud funny and all of it smattered with a liberal helping of curses.

By the time Rich has done about twenty minutes of stand up I’m sold on the idea of the hoedown. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe a 13 minute song about a dead pet, but I figure I can get through that.

There’s a fifteen minute break between Rich strolling off at the end of his stand up set and the Hoedown and then, on come the Hoedown band to start us off with a little bit of country riffing before Rich himself joins them.

I have to confess that Rich Hall’s Hoedown is a revelation to me. This is not a morose hour of dead pets and droughts (look, I was trying for some alliteration, alright? I have no idea if either of these things crops up in regular country an western). This is more comedy, but with a country twist. And it’s clever stuff too. Not only does Rich come up with a song about Sheffield, but there’s lots of audience participation where he’ll have a little chat with someone in the front row and then get a few things about their lives into a song, more or less on the spot.

Now, I’m not daft enough to realise that there’ll be song templates in use here, but I’m still left admiring the skills involved. And it’s still endlessly funny! Two sections stand out tonight and they both involve the audience. Firstly, there’s what we’ll call the Kieran Edge section where Rich asks a few questions of a lad in the front row – Kieran Edge, don’t you know – and then skillfully weaves him into the set, including a song that’s sort of about him and even a guest vocal slot for the man himself later on too. There’s also a section – and this has to have been off the cuff – where another bloke in the front row, named Sid, turns out to b a musician and is then invited to come up and play guitar for a song. And Sid does a cracking job, let me tell you, while Rich watches on from the side of stage clearly enjoying this twist, but slightly bemused all the same. I find myself tapping my foot, laughing along and ever-so-slightly wishing I too had a cowboy hat.

The evening ends with the interruption of a country song for a burst of Lynrd Skynrd and some gunfire courtesy of Kieran Edge again and some rednecks from the Hoedown Band’s brief tour of some southern states in America – you had to be there! It sums up the hilarity and sheer sense of good fun of the night though. Where else could you be included in a country song and then get asked to stand up and fire an imaginary pistol at the guitarist at a gig? Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Rich Hall’s Hoedown, coming to a venue – maybe – near you right up until September. I’d heartily recommend that you get out to see him as quick as you can!

https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/rich-hall

As a post script to this review, I’d like to both show my support for The Leadmill and in my own small way, hopefully publicise their fight against closure. I’ve posted a link below that will tell you all about it as well as the relevant hashtag should you want to protest via social media.

From my own personal viewpoint The Leadmill and small venues like it simply cannot be allowed to close. They’re the thriving, beating heart of local entertainment and the places where many an act will find their feet, hone their craft and give some of the best performances that they’re ever going to give.

I live in Leeds, but me and my wife have been going to The Leadmill for years, seeing countless bands and comedians. I could bang on about the place for another few thousand words, but it’s easier just to tell you that it’s just a fantastic venue. There’s nothing flash about the place and it’s not some kind of enormodome where you might have the misfortune to squint from a distance at what you’re told is Ed Sheeran, having payed three figures for the privilege. The Leadmill is small and intimate, the people are welcoming and the atmosphere is always electric. Spit and sawdust spring to mind, but you’d never actually find any! From the turnstile to get in, the brilliant bar and of course the venue itself, it’s just perfect in it’s own special way. Everyone seems happy to be there.

On our most recent visit – the one you’ve read about above – we followed a couple of women down the street and into the venue. They were chatting about whether or not they were in the right attire for a comedy gig (I’m not sure what the right attire would be, unless you’re dressed like some kind of North Sea fisherman in order to save your clothes from the tears of laughter you’re exepcting) and as we got to the doors they came to the following conclusion.

“Aah, doesn’t matter really. Leadmill, innit?”

We don’t need a multitude of reasons to save The Leadmill. Let’s do it because… “Leadmill, innit?”

#WeCantLoseLeadmill

Please click the link below and sign the petition to save The Leadmill!

https://leadmill.co.uk/2022/04/20/help-save-the-leadmill-please-sign-our-official-e-petition/

Poetry Blog: ‘What Would Happen If You Didn’t?’

This is a poem that I wrote very recently. The idea was sparked when watching something on television – I can’t remember what it was – and a character was suffering with their health. However, the character’s only concern was for her son who despite being an adult, was still lazily reliant on his mother to do everything for him. While the character was expressing these worries to a nurse and saying that she had to get back home to prepare something for the son, the nurse simply replied with,

“What would happen if you didn’t?”

At that point only 10% of my attention remained on the TV. Instead, I found myself reaching for a notepad and thinking about consequences and things that would complete the question. Having written the poem, I still think there’s a lot of other things to consider when asking the question. In fact, it’s one I may well revisit.

I thought about all of the genuine responsibilities we have in life, as well as the things that sometimes we obsess about or feel that we can’t do without. What would happen if we just didn’t do them? I ended up with a kind of spider diagram of notes that I tried to turn into a poem some time later. I think it’s about as finished as it’s going to get (for now), so here you go!

What would happen if you didn't?

Sometimes life can feel like just an ever-growing list of things to do,
stuff to worry about and stress over, 
an abundance of tasks, instructions and nagging doubts
designed to make you feel like you're failing.

So what would happen if you didn't?

What would happen if you didn't
smile at strangers?
Would they care or even notice any less whether you're there?
What would happen if you didn't
care about your career? 
Would your work be any better or any worse? Would it even be noticed?
What would happen if you didn't
count the calories?
Would you inflate to the size of a balloon, would your life expectancy decrease dramatically? Would you even notice any change at all? Would you just be happier?
What would happen if you didn't
wear a tie to work? 
Would they react differently to you? Would you mix up your words, send less professional emails, tell the bosses what you really think because that lack of a tie has loosened every inhibition you ever had?
What would happen if you didn't
answer their questions?
What would happen if you didn't
alphabetise your records? 
Would your musical world fall apart, would you never listen to some of them again or would you have to find another system to sate your need for control?
What would happen if you didn't
care about a football team? 
What would you spend your time thinking about? Would you finally be happy? Could you ditch the superstition and bear to use any old mug on a Saturday, wear any t-shirt you like? Could you just relax, for once?
What would happen if you didn't
renew the breakdown cover? 
Would you just break down, deflate or run out of steam? Would your car pull over in a brazen act of defiance at your flagrant lack of insurance?
What would happen if you didn't
dance with abandon in the kitchen?
Actually, maybe life wouldn't be worth living.
And what would happen if you didn't
listen at night for your heartbeat?
Chances are you'd still wake up in the morning, right as rain.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this poem. I know what I was trying to get at and the feelings that I was trying to get across. It’s about those foibles that we probably all have and that we probably all imagine we couldn’t live without, as well as the everyday, routine things that the majority of us feel life’s about, like going to work.

The point about the poem and the question for me is that I think I’m at an age where I’m beginning to feel tired of doing the same old things, while still finding that I get an awful lot of comfort from them. ‘What would happen if you didn’t’ is definitely a question that I’m asking of myself more and more though.

Book Review: Big Game by Dan Smith

How do we measure manliness? What is it that we do that tells the world, ‘yep, he’s a man now’? Different cultures would give different replies and different definitions. Some would say it comes with a certain age, others a certain responsibility. For 13-year-old Oskari, it’s about something very different indeed.

Oskari lives in a rural hunting community in Finland where tradition is king. And today, tradition dictates that in order to be declared a man, he must venture out into the forest and kill a wild animal. When he returns back to the ominously named Place of Skulls with his quarry, then he will be a man. What a way to celebrate your 13th birthday!

From the very start of this novel you get the feeling that this manhood business could be a bit of an uphill struggle for Oskari. He seems like a nice kid (which in itself could be viewed as a bit of a barrier to becoming a man) but the more we read, the more we discover that the odds here are thoroughly stacked against him.

Firstly, Oskari’s dad is pretty much the village hero, having killed a bear when it was his turn to enter manhood. I mean, a bear! How do you follow that? As a man who jumped firmly skyward when a tiny mouse ran over his foot a couple of weeks ago, I think I’d be taking a net and looking for the odd stickleback or butterfly and just accepting that the village didn’t really see me as much of a man! But Oskari – who early on declares himself the best hunter in the village – is determined to live up to his dad’s legacy.

However, when we join him on an ultimately fruitless solo hunt at the start of the novel, it becomes clear that he’s going to struggle. With a deer in his sights and conditions almost perfect, his shooting is so weak that the arrow simply bounces off its prey. Later, he is sniggered at by the other boys at the start of the hunt and then, when he receives the ceremonial bow, he finds that it’s so big that he can’t even fire it properly. Maybe this manhood thing is going to take a little while longer.

Tradition is tradition though and Oskari and his father are determined that he’ll have his day. So, after a faltering start and with little confidence left, he heads out for a night in the forest.

‘Big Game’ tells the tale of Oskari’s night in the forest and his quest to be viewed as a man by his peers and the elders of the village. Starting off at the tradtional meeting place, The Place of Skulls, Oskari ventures off into the trees determined to prove himself. However, he could never have predicted what lies ahead.

Oskaris’ coming of age is dramatic to say the least. And while it’s certainly far-fetched, the story makes for an exciting read as he stumbles over a manhunt and then battles to bring something home that will not only prove that he’s a man, but arguably save the Western world in a quite remarkable twist.

However remarkable and maybe even a bit silly the action is, Dan Smith has written an excellent book. After all, if we can’t drift away into something or somewhere beyond imagination with books and films, then what’s the point? So it would be churlish to quibble about the details here. Better to simply suspend your disbelief, pick up the book and read on.

The action here is fast and fairly extreme as Oskari is charged with not only proving that he’s a man, but saving his rather unusual hunting trophy from the grasp of a group of highly trained, professional killers. But Oskari has the local advantage. This is his territory, his hunting ground, he has decades worth of historical knowledge; better still though, this is his day! Nothing is going to be allowed to get in the way of Oskari becoming a man!

‘Big Game’ is a book that is full of action and packed with twists. Whether you’re of the age that it’s aimed for – tweens and teens – or a fully fledged, should-know-better-than-to-read-this-kind-of-thing adult (which in some people’s opinions I will be) this is a real page turner and in fact, more than anything, it’s just good fun.

I would absolutely recommend ‘Big Game’ to you. Yes, it’s pretty improbable. Yes, some of the characters are almost cartoonish and yes, there’s very little chance of anything like this ever actually happening. But it’s undoubtedly well written, well researched and in Oskari, has the kind of character that you can’t fail to root for!

I give ‘Big Game’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Twilight Blackbird

I’ve found myself noticing quite a lot of things that could be filed under the heading of ‘Nature’ of late. I imagine it’s the fact that Spring has most definitely sprung, which in turn has meant that I’ve spent more time outside in our garden as well as more time simply gazing out of windows, getting distracted. And as a result, I’ve noticed a few regular visitors are back to welcome in the warm weather and plunder the supply of nuts and fat balls kept in our feeders!

I wrote the following poem about one of the visitors that I love to sit and watch, because I realised that their visits were increasing in frequency and with that, it got me thinking about the times I will simply stop what I’m doing and spend a few minutes trying to figure out what they’re up to.

Twilight Blackbird

The air is just beginning to chill a little, raise the hair on the arms 
as you strut your stuff,
a lone figure surveying all you rule in the dying light,
keeping a watchful eye out for the squirrels, the thrush
and those sly cul-de-sac cats that would gladly use you as a plaything
before presenting you as a lifeless gift on a welcome mat.
But you're better than that.
You stalk the perimeter, watching for flies, ants or maybe the appearance of
the ultimate prize, a succulent worm.
No creature can suspect you're there
as you dance a delicate tango under the disco ball moon,
hopping, prancing, creeping, darting, scampering
through a series of steps that you've honed over the years,
perfected as time ticked by until
Spring's annual yawn signals your entrance to the floor,
a flash of gold amongst the plush inky feathers,
capturing hearts as well as prey
and enchanting all whose eyes you catch.

We seem to have a number of blackbirds that visit the garden at this time of year. I don’t know if it’s literally just a couple of males and females – they all look the same! – or several families, but you can’t help but notice them. They’re quite bold too, despite appearing fairly skittish as you watch them. The ones I see will venture fairly close if I’m actually in the garden and on to our patio if I happen to be at the window, yet it doesn’t take a lot to spook them either.

Watching them, I found myself quite entertained, so that’s where the references to dance and theatrics come in with the poem. They just move differently; not quite graceful, but not particularly clumsy either. Yet, it all looks very well rehearsed and if I’m stood washing the dishes I can find myself getting distracted just watching their antics. I’ve realised too that I more or less always say ‘Hello’ to blackbirds and so it felt fitting when I began scribbling down a few notes, that I should write a poem about them.

As usual, feel free to leave a comment or two and thanks for spending some time reading in my little area of the internet!

Poetry Blog: To a terrifying mouse.

Spring brings with it many jobs, especially if you have a garden. And it was while embarking on some jobs in our back garden that I encountered a somewhat unwanted visitor, just the other day.

As I’m currently on holiday from work – it’s our Easter break – I thought that it was about time I got stuck into some of the more difficult jobs that needed attending to. Principal among them was cutting our back lawn, which I had allowed to get to an out of control kind of length. I do this every year; tell myself that it’s too early for mowing the lawn when it’s reasonably dry in March and then watch on in relative horror as it rains for weeks and the lawn grows and grows. By the time I’d got the lawn mower out last week, it was around a foot high in most places, meaning that this would be a big job!

I’d actually prepared fairly well for this task, making sure that our garden waste bin had been put out for collection the night before, so that it was completely empty when I started the job. However, as I repeatedly emptied the basket on the mower it looked more and more like I was going to run out of space. I turned to our compost bin but that too began to fill up quickly.

I then began to push the grass cuttings down, hoping that such compression would create the space I needed in the garden bin. It didn’t work. And then I was struck by what I thought was a very clever idea. Taking the lid off our compost bin, I got the garden sheers out, inserted them into the pile of grass cuttings and trimmings from various shrubs and began to chop away. It worked and the level of the ‘compost’ began to drop. But not nearly enough.

Warming to my task, I went to the shed, got my garden fork as well as a weed digging tool and began to push them down into the compost, twisting and turning in order to mix it all up and hopefully make some of it drop downwards. Again, it worked and this time well enough to allow me to get carried away, delving the tools repeatedly down into the bin. And then it happened…

To a terrifying mouse

I have climbed mountains,
clung on as if my very life depended on it while others screamed with joy
on rollercoasters,
peered nervously over the edge of perilous waterfalls,
flown in a seaplane very much against my better judgement,
hurtled headlong down steep, snowy hills
on a makeshift tarpaulin toboggan,
faced down bullies,
been confronted by an angry rattlesnake,
had desks thrown at me by frustrated pupils in a failing school
and argued with an Ofsted inspector, despite being warned never to do this by those who knew better than me,
but I have never felt fear like that felt when a tiny mouse scurried out
of our compost bin and escaped over my foot.
No more than three inches in length
from snuffling nose to tiny tail,
as I cowered, this timorous beastie,
no doubt far more scared of me than I of he,
disappeared behind a pile of bricks to sanctuary,
whilst I screamed like a child, yet cursed like a pirate
and promptly cut my finger on the edge of the compost bin,
on reflection a fair penance for my ridiculous behaviour.
Later, as I slept, it crept into my dreams,
turning them into nightmares,
leaving me to smile ruefully next morning at the memory,
while silently hoping to never encounter it again.

I’m slightly ashamed to say it, but I got the shock of my life when I realised what was happening. I spotted the blur that turned out to be a tiny mouse out of the corner of my eye. Then I felt it run across my foot. It couldn’t have been there long however, due to a combination of the speed of the mouse and me leaping into the air in shock!

Later, after I’d told my wife and children about our little garden visitor, I started thinking about how I could turn the whole encounter into a piece of writing, settling on a poem. By the time I’d got to the writing things down stage I’d decided that I’d start with a list of scary experiences, then compare this to what had happened that afternoon with the mouse. I sat listing things I’d done that had caused me tension or fear before thinking about how I’d get on to the mouse.

The one thing that sprang to mind was the first line of the poem ‘To a mouse’ by Robert Burns and how he described the mouse as a ‘beastie’, which made it sound much more scary than it was in his poem. I liked the idea of my mouse being a ‘beastie’, just because it gave me some such a shock and so I decided to use that line, but play around with it a little bit. So instead of the mouse being ‘cow’ring’ I thought it would be better used to describe me and just left the mouse as a ‘timorous beastie’ like Burns had.

The fact that I then dreamt about the mouse that night helped me confirm my thoughts of it as threatening! In the dream I could almost feel the mouse on my feet and it actually woke me up! It definitely made me smile the next morning and had to be included in the poem once I wrote it up as some kind of first draft.

I’m pleased with how this poem has turned out and I have to say that I really enjoyed drafting it and then putting the finishing touches to it. I hope you enjoyed it too!

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.

My first 10k race of the year – a month to go and I don’t feel good!

In August last year I completed my first race in three years and my first one of any great distance in around a decade. Running is something I’ve done on and off all my life, but from my late thirties through to my mid forties (which, when you type it out is quite a shocking gap) it had definitely been more off than on. Then, following a health scare 4 years ago, I decided to get fit and stay that way.

Hence lining up at the start of a race in West Yorkshire at 8.50 on a cold, drizzly Sunday morning last year. You can read about it on the link below.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

The race went well and I clocked a personal best for a 10k, thriving on the competition and finishing in just under 52 minutes. I was ridiculously proud of myself and had clearly been bitten by the bug. Time allowing, I would definitely be racing more!

Time and fitness haven’t quite allowed though and so it’s taken me a while to get back to racing. And in fact, I’ll be running the same race again in just over a month (last year’s August date was a rescheduled one because of Covid).

With just over a month to go until the race, I feel like I should be in a lot better shape. My fitness has suffered a little over Winter as I seem to have stumbled from one bug to another. On top of this, I’ve just not felt right at all and have struggled to cover any great distance in training. In fact, since around February I’ve managed to run only one 10k. Not exactly ideal preparation!

A couple of weeks ago I damaged my back while doing my shoelaces. I mean, I’m really showing my age here, aren’t I? I was still able to go out on a run later that week and in fact, managed a 10k in around 54 minutes; a decent enough time. The pain seemed to ease after the first mile or so. But the past couple of months have been a bad time for niggling injuries and nagging illness and it’s really set my training back. Then this week I felt a pain between my shoulder blades as I put on a tie and it’s gradually got worse as the week has gone on. It feels much like the nerve damage that meant I was in pain for the whole of last summer, so I’m hopeful I’ve not done similar this time. In fact, I’ve even started doing the exercises that the physio set for me last year, in order to hopefully see off too much pain.

At the moment, I really don’t feel like I’ll be in anything like the shape I want to be when this 10k race rolls round. This worries me a lot. I’m a relatively competitive person and hate underperforming. I realise that at my age I have no hope of winning or even finishing close to the front of the race. But I’ve set myself a personal target of at least beating last year’s time and I honestly can’t see it happening. I’m at the end of a very long, demanding term. I’m tired and everything aches. Usually, running is the thing that cures this for me, but at the moment, it’s not.

In fact, aside from injury and illness, even my enthusiasm is presenting a problem for me. Last Friday, I’d planned to leave work early and go out for a run, as I do every Friday. I managed the leaving work bit, but halfway home it started to snow heavily. I was safe in the knowledge that it didn’t look to be snowing on the horizon – home – but it still managed to put me off. Subsequently, when I got home it was just a case of reeling off a list of excuses in order to convince myself that I shouldn’t go out. It worked. It didn’t rain or hail for another couple of hours, but I still managed to convince myself I’d made the right decision and it actually made me feel pretty terrible for the rest of the weekend.

I’m hoping that my excuses have given me the rest that I might have needed. I’m planning on going out again tonight, but only for a shorter 5k run. I’m hopeful that this will restore my enthusiasm and my faith in my ability a little bit. I really need to get my mind right and hope that my legs and my back will follow!

For the next couple of weeks I’m off work as it’s the end of term and our Easter holidays. So, the big plan is that I’ll be able to go out running at least a couple of times per week and start to build up a better level of fitness. I’m hopeful that this will help restore my enthusiasm too. It’s a lot better being able to run when I actually want to, rather than just cramming one in after work. I’ll probably make sure that I go out relatively early in the morning as it means I’ll have the rest of the day to get through any jobs that I have to do or even to go out for the rest of the day with the family. Fingers crossed for some good weather!

Another bonus about the Easter holidays is that I’ll potentially have a running buddy – my son. He’s only 12, but has always been a good runner. He too had lost his enthusiasm, but after relentless nagging from me, he’s recently started going out running again. Hopefully, for the week that he’s around – we have overlapping holidays, his last week being my first – we’ll be able to get out together. Although, I love running on my own, it’s always quite nice to have his company and it means we can chat as we cover the miles. It’s just a nice father son thing to do as well.

So the next month promises to be make or break as far as my hopes for my latest 10k race go. Last year I finished 271st out of 812 runners. The winner clocked a time of 32.46, while I ran the distance in 51.51, meaning I was a long way behind them, which given my age and level of fitness is understandable. This year, as well as improving on my personal best, I’m hopeful of moving up through the places as well. Getting into the top 250 runners would be great.

The race takes place on May 15th giving me over a month to get myself sorted out and ready to go. At the moment, I feel about as far away from ‘ready’ as it’s possible to get. It promises to be an interesting and possibly painful month!

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started