Book Review: ‘The Honest Truth’ by Dan Gemeinhart

It might be argued that there’s no more honest truth than the fact that you’re going to die. I mean, I’d like to hope that – inspired by the theme tune to ‘Fame’ – I’m going to live forever, but you can’t escape the honest truth though, can you?

Mark is a young boy who’s facing up to a whole lifetime’s worth of problems, only they’ve appeared in the shape of just the one big problem. And with that problem comes his honest truth. It’s looking pretty much certain that he’s going to die. I mean, that’s a big old problem when you’ve not even made it to high school age . And Mark’s facing this problem…by running away to climb a mountain.

Mark has had cancer for most of his life. He’s battled to stay alive, battled to fight off the cancer and just be a normal child. But however many times he fights it off, it keeps coming back to have another go at him, as is the way with this horrible disease. In running away, he now hopes to just die and end all of the heartache for not just himself, but his parents and his best friend Jess. While he’s at it, he hopes to climb a mountain like his grandfather asked him to just before he himself died. In short, Mark is a boy who has simply had enough of the hand that life has dealt him.

The subject matter of ‘The Honest Truth’ isn’t what you’d call particularly nice. The death of a child, even a child with a terrible illness, is never pleasant. As a parent, having one of my children in hospital for any length of time and for anything at all, is a real nightmare. But Dan Gemeinhart writes about Mark’s situation with a wonderful balance of optimism, humour and of course a tinge of sadness. It all makes for a compelling story and right up until a few pages from the end, you’re never quite sure how things are going to work out for Mark.

‘The Honest Truth’ is probably what we should be referring to as a YA novel. But, even at my age, I still love reading novels from this genre. I have a bit of an excuse, given that I’m a high school English teacher. But regardless of what it is and where we squeeze it in, ‘The Honest Truth’ is an excellent story and at not much over 200 pages, a really quick one to get through too!

The story is intriguing as Mark runs away with the intention of dieing on the mountain, while dodging a missing person’s investigation that has been publicised on every format of media you can think of. As a reader I felt like any second now, he’d be found. I mean you’d imagine people would be on higher alert than usual keeping their eyes out for a little runaway, stricken with cancer. But, with the help of his dog Beau – the kind of amazing, loyal canine companion we’d all dream of having – he seems to stay at least one step ahead of it all, despite becoming increasingly sick and increasingly slow in his ‘escape’ to the mountain.

In all, ‘The Honest Truth’ is a just fantastic read and I was gripped from start to finish, torn between wanting Mark to get his final wish and wanting him to get caught and taken home to his parents and best friend, Jess. Whichever way it ended, it almost wouldn’t have mattered and surely that’s the sign of a truly wonderful story.

I’d give ‘The Honest Truth’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Imagine…

This was a poem that was almost forgotten. It was only a nagging feeling that I’d written two at the same time that led me to scour through a notebook to find it.

It’s another poem ‘inspired’ by not being able to sleep. As a teacher, I usually find that at some point in my summer holidays there’ll be a period of sleeplessness; probably a few nights in a row where I’ll get out of bed having not been able to sleep and sit downstairs or in our bathroom reading, wide awake for a good few hours.

This poem was written with another (see link below) a short while before we broke up for summer. I had a lot on my mind and having got up and written one poem, I found myself thinking about ways of getting to sleep. We were in the midst of a heat wave – in the UK we call it a heat wave whenever the temperature gets around 18 degrees or more – and it occurred to me that I could go and sit in the garden, despite the fact that it was around 1am. Maybe that would help me to sleep? However, as someone who sleeps naked, I’d gotten out of bed sans clothing and I thought it better to protect any late night curtain twitchers or unassuming neighbours with prying eyes. This skinny, hairy Geordie is not a naked sight for sore eyes. More a sight to make your eyes sore. Or make them burn.

Poetry Blog: Awake

Anyway, I found myself imagining heading outside, in the nip, as they say. Here’s the resulting poem.

Imagine...

Imagine the shock of the chill night air against your skin,
the delightful uncertainty of worn concrete
on the souls of your feet, the sharp, silent stabbing pain
of a stepped on pebble, invisible in the moonlight
and the sheer relief as you sit in the damp, three week long grass.
Sleep won't come so you take a risk, leave the house,
not far this time, but sure of the knowledge that this place 
is yours alone, yet fully conscious of unseen terrors,
alert to every noise, perturbed at the possibilities,
yet aware that this was the final door to walk through.
Imagine sitting in the grass, legs out beneath you,
succumbing to a ridiculous sleep and waking maybe hours 
or even just minutes later, the sky slightly lighter
and slipping back to bed while no one knows
about the risk you've taken, about the barrier broken 
and the possibility of more.

Reading this back, it seems very much the product of a tired mind. It feels like a strange idea, but then again sleep deprivation can make people think and act in a strange way. I remember having the idea to go outside. Where we live is very quiet and so the only risk would be from wildlife (cats and insects mainly) and maybe if I’d been clothed I might have ventured out. In the end, having the idea and writing the poems that I wrote that night led me to sleep anyway.

Having read the poem back I’m very aware that I spelt ‘soles’ as ‘souls’. Now at the time of writing the actual poem, this was deliberate. However, looking back, I can’t quite put my finger on what I was aiming for with that line. I think it was that being out in the fresh night air would be good for my soul and so I was playing around with the idea of bare feet and their soles and the benefits to my ‘troubled’ mind at that time. However, I can’t remember specifically what was troubling me – at this point in time it could be one of a lot of things, as it’s not been a very kind last 9 months or so.

Regardless of seeing the poem as a little odd and not being able to fully remember some of the ideas behind it, this is one I’m actually pleased with. In short, I like the imagination behind it and the narrative aspect to it. I like the idea that it’s something I might well think about doing, but am very unlikely to actually go through with, however tame it may seem to some. Writing about it and creating something from it is the next best thing.

I hope you like the poem. Sorry about the unimaginative title (no pun intended). It’s something that I’m not getting any better at! Anyway, feel free to leave a comment as I always enjoy reading them.

Book Review: The Knot by Mark Watson.

If you’re from the UK, you might well know Mark Watson for his stand up comedy or even his fairly frequent appearances on panel shows. A distinctive looking fella and very funny indeed. What you might not have any knowledge of are his novels. If this is true, I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been missing out.

The Knot is the second of Watson’s books that I’ve read and it’s reminded me that I need to get my hands on the rest.

The front cover of The Knot tells readers that Dominic Kitchen is hiding a secret and that it’s one that he has carried all of his life. So you immediately know that there’s something not quite right and that this secret must be something pretty serious. So, in a way, we’re hooked from the off. And believe me, when you find out the secret, it really is the kind of thing that would stop any one of us living a normal life.

The novel is set mainly in the latter decades of the 20th century and Dominic is the youngest of three siblings, brought up in a middle class family in London. Dominic’s older brother, the somewhat domineering Max, graduates from Oxford and goes on to become a successful sports agent while his sister Victoria marries a famous cricketer. Meanwhile, Dominic seems to simply tootle along, never really sure of what he wants to do with his life. He stumbles upon a talent for photography and together with crazy Irishman Daley, makes a living from that. But nothing ever seems simple for Dominic. We find him approaching middle age, but are frequently taken on flashbacks to his earlier formative years. And with this technique, his terrible secret is drip fed to us. I had an inkling of it early on but found myself regularly thinking, ‘no, it can’t be that’. Until it was…

The secret is the cause of the knot, a feeling that plagues almost everything that Dominic does and even though he seems to be managing to live a happy enough life, it is always there in the background, eating away at him. Can he ever really be happy? Will he be able to make his marriage to Lauren and career as a wedding photographer work? And even if he does, will the dreaded secret do the seemingly inevitable and come back to ruin everything? After all, some things just can’t stay hidden.

The Knot really is a good read. The storyline is certainly original and there are moments of jaw-dropping drama as well plenty of the kind of comic moments you’d expect from a writer who doubles up as a stand up comedian. Dominic is a character that I think a lot of us would be able to relate to – not sure of where he wants life to lead, unable to move on in the way that he might really want to because of a lack of confidence and an enormous mistake and just not really coping as an adult. The secret that blights Dominic’s life is really quite shocking and even though it becomes a little more acceptable later on in the story, neither Dominic or ourselves as readers can ever really recover from it. But you will find yourself on Dominic’s side, despite the nature of his mistake.

I’d absolutely recommend The Knot. If you enjoy a good story, well written characters – some you’ll love, others you’ll hate – and life changing dilemmas that you can get your teeth into, then it’s a novel that’s worth picking up.

I’d give The Knot…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: Awake

I wrote this poem recently when England was in the grip of a recent heat wave – maybe not by most standards, but believe me, 25 degrees is a heatwave here – that as ever, brought the country to a shuddering halt.

Living in England and I’d guess may parts of northern Europe, we seem to spend a lot of time wishing it was sunnier and hotter, only to find that it’s all too much when we get the weather we wished for! It turns out that we’re not that good at handling the heat and even trips out to the seaside at these times will inevitably just end in some ridiculous traffic jam where lines of people sit and bake in hot car shaped ovens. It’s what we Brits often refer to as ‘Bank Holiday Fun’.

The worst thing for me though is that it affects my sleep. It’s not that major a thing, but I do find that when it’s too hot I’ll be up out of bed and sitting waiting for sleep to come at least once a week. Sometimes that might mean that I just have to spend 20 minutes reading a book, but on other occasions I can be up for hours before crashing out on the settee. It’s never nice waking up the next day and realising that you had three hours sleep!

I wrote this poem on such an occasion recently. It was the second time I’d gotten out of bed that night and in the end I just started writing ideas in a notebook until I had enough for some kind of coherent poem.

Awake

Heat strangles sleep, rendering you a passenger on board a fragile boat adrift in the storm at night.
Mind and body unable to do what is needed, natural,
so instead you prowl in search of some remedy to calm the stomach's churning,
soothe the skin where beads of sweat sheen and shimmer,
bridge these troubled waters and allow you to return once more to a slumber,
less fitful, that will only see you disembark,
blinking across the landing as morning breaks and day calls.
Instead, above, floorboards call out to indicate that you're not alone in this struggle.
So you slump, uncomfortable, yet cooler,
you sense the boat breaking so you cling to driftwood and hope for the best,
undecided if you'll sink or swim.

Having written this poem and the bones of another, I looked at the clock to find that it was just after 3am. For someone who gets up for work at 6am, this was not a nice realisation!

I just felt like a passenger on this particular night. Like I had no control whatsoever over whether I’d get to sleep or not. This came out in the poem as feeling adrift, almost letting the current take you wherever it was going. I knew I wasn’t going to just drop off to sleep, so had to fill my time and the thought about being adrift prompted the whole poem. At one point I heard someone else get up and hoped that I hadn’t disturbed them. It made me try to go to sleep, but again it was unsuccessful!

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this poem and as ever, if you have any thoughts on it then feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: End of Term

A hastily written poem this one. I had a few lines running round my head one evening in the final week of term and thought it might be worth seeing what happened if I tried to join the dots.

It’s about…well, let’s not treat people like idiots here, it’s about what it says in the title. As many of you know, I’m a teacher and so this time of year is very special to me – and all teachers, I hope – and it always prompts a great deal of thinking. What will next year be like, how will I get on, what’s kid X going to be like in Year 9, do I think I’ll get along with this class next year, etc. And that’s before you even get to thinking about how tired you are and what you’ll be up to over the 6 blissful weeks of summer.

The last week of the academic year is always quite a strange time. For me personally, it always feels like a week too far and I know that’s silly really. There has to be a final week and, as I’m reminded of regularly by people who clearly never went to school, I have a lot of holidays. On a side note, I’ve never figured out why people who moan about teachers’ holidays don’t just solve the issue by becoming teachers.

The last week generally sees a small dip in the student population, a smattering of unauthorised holidays being taken, sometimes a downturn in behaviour and eventually, a slackening off in the quality of lessons. The weather seems to always be ridiculously hot – relatively so; this is the UK after all so we’re not claiming European levels of scorchio – and so it becomes a case of trying to evade some form of heat exhaustion too, for teachers and students.

So anyway, I wrote a poem about the whole phenomenon.

End of Term

A strange mix of exhaustion, excitement and familiarity drifts around for days.
Every morning is greeted with half closed eyes and a walk that has more than a hint of Marley's Ghost 
You trudge out of the door, drag yourself through each day,
tolerate those you are faced with and smile through gritted teeth,
as if that alone will make the clock go faster.

From Monday through those last five days, classrooms will echo to a familiar refrain;
'Can we watch a film?'
And you brawl with your conscience hourly to stop from caving in.
The minutes fail to fly as you attempt to solve the mystery
of how to craft one more lesson on a text long since finished and tired of.

Outside the sun shines without mercy, turning the classroom into an oven
that bakes until all enthusiasm is burnt and thoroughly dried out,
like last night's re-heated lasagne.
Windows and doors are propped open and you battle with all on the corridor to be heard,
while your voice gives way and your feet grumble dolefully.

After a week that felt like a year you arrive on that final day,
too shattered to appreciate the glee that greets no uniform.
You smile weakly at the fashion show and finally put on a film, while your class complains 
that this one's boring and that the teacher next door brought sweets for her class.
Summer can't come soon enough.

It’s been a very difficult year in schools. Things have been different to say the least. Covid has changed everything and this year has featured a heady mix of room changes, teaching in bubbles, watching on not really knowing how to react when pupils have been taken out of class to be sent home for dreaded periods of isolation, bubble collapses and whole year groups going home, split starting times, dinner times and finishing times, Teams lessons, Teams meetings, school closures and teaching to an empty room, and of course more hand sanitiser than you could ever imagine!

It’s been a year to test the resolve of teaching and non teaching staff as well as students, parents and guardians. As a result, as the final line of the poem says – and with more emphasis than perhaps ever before – Summer can’t come soon enough.

As ever, comments are always more than welcome. Thanks for reading!

Poetry Blog: A future awaits…

I feel I should start this particular blog with an apology. I’ve written another poem with a terrible title, I’m afraid. It’s a common occurrence. A lot of the time for me, writing is instinctive in that I might be thinking about something and a line pops into my head. This is a common starting point and it’ll often see me scrawling in a notebook and finalising a poem fairly rapidly, without a great deal of drafting. However, what it also leaves me without is a decent title. I tried a few, but in the end just plumped for a phrase from the poem. A proper cop out if ever there was one! Sorry.

This poem came about when I was considering a few things to do with my future. It was mainly to do with work and my profession, but I was also thinking about the future in terms of the coaching I do and also my parents, who are both elderly and not in the greatest of health. It led me to considering what the next few years might hold for me. It’s a subject I’ve written about before and one that I’ll think I’ll return to as well. Here’s the terribly titled poem though.

Alien thoughts dominate; an invasive species not indigenous to these shores 
nudges you off an axis you've been comfortably balanced on for years.
Simply what to do is no longer the question,
but what to do with the rest of your life.
How to bring back purpose, like light to a darkened room,
heat to a vacant house.
If this path has run its course, you'll endeavour to have faith
that another will emerge from the undergrowth that currently crowds
your thinking, blocks your way.
A future awaits, not immediately demanding your attention,
but tugging at your sleeve every once in a while, reminding you that it's there,
that you keep it in mind.
Its patient nuisance can wait for now, but won't let you ponder forever.

This one is undoubtedly a poem born of middle age, but I don’t doubt that pondering one’s future is exclusively a middle aged thing. Sometimes, whatever your age, it’s a good thing to ponder what next. I suppose it helps you feel stable, prepared. And that’s part of what this poem is about. There are certain things in my relatively immediate future that I feel are inevitable and that will shake me to my boots when they happen, so to speak. So giving it some thought, although not usually my favoured course of action, is likely to be a wise idea.

As a younger man I imagined that this time in my life would be very different and that I’d have everything straight in my head by now. It’s funny how it all turns out!

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Maybe it prompted a bit of thinking of your own. However you felt, I’d love to hear it, so feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

Poetry Blog: Euro 2020 – A short anthology

As a football fan, I’d forgotten how much I missed tournament football. I’ve detailed lots of factors in my Euro 2020 Diaries that I’ve been writing for the blog (links below if you fancy a read), but it’s safe to say that simple things like the noise and the colour have been amazing and it surprised me how much it affected me when seeing it all in full flow again.

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 1

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 2

I think the first time it really struck me was watching the first of Hungary’s games and realising that they had a full stadium. I actually commented to my wife about what a remarkable thing it was, both of us knowing all too well, that I’d been in many, many a packed stadium before.

When the tournament was cancelled due to the effects of the first wave of Coronavirus I didn’t give it much thought. It didn’t bother me at all. Despite football’s importance in my life, life itself took prominence at that point. The realisation that I was at real risk of something that might well kill me stopped me taking football too seriously. Funny that!

However, fast forward a year or so and I am once again fully immersed in watching football. It doesn’t matter that I’m largely watching players I’ve at best only vaguely heard of; I’m loving every minute. It prompted me to write my blog diaries, but then one day I was hit by the urge to get all poetic. I was thinking about the remarkable on-pitch events surrounding Christian Erikson and the subsequent rallying cry of what seemed like the entire Danish nation. And it got me to writing. And once I stopped, well it wasn’t as if I couldn’t stop, but I found myself writing four poems there and then. So, I suppose I did stop after all.

The first is my poem about the remarkable story of the Denmark national team and I suppose those who represent the Danish nation at the tournament. To quickly fill in a few blanks, their star player suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch during their first game. He survived and the team have been battling on ever since. So here you go…

A Modern Fairytale

From that moment something changed in all of us and a modern fairytale was born.
Derided for our tribalism, mocked for our predictability,
now our unity would surprise.
As headlines were made and news spiraled around the world, 
we were focused.
Shaken from our reverie, shocked by what we witnessed,
old memories long since committed to the backs of minds, awoken once more.

And so, we adopted you. Tuned in, crossed fingers, sat tensed, silently praying
to someone or something in the hope that you could find
'us' some justice.
As best we could we shared the early elation, 
giving not a second thought to our own nation,
then returned to heightened tension, pacing floors, shouting
at screens and watching, forlorn as you ran out of steam
and didn't quite have enough.

As the whiff of a final chance floated through the air
and you gathered for one more time, the atmosphere crackled
with pride, optimism, anticipation.
That image, still fresh, would spur on a nation and its adopted
sons and daughters and we punched the air, as one, 
as the net bulged again and again, edging you closer to a triumph 
that was surely written in the stars.

As you celebrated, a wall of red, white and blonde
our game once again reminded us of its power,
producing joy where once there was fear, shock and mourning,
we will always remember these moments of unity, 
when once, we were all Danish, weren't we?

Shortly after writing my Danish poem, I watched the last North Macedonia game. It turned out to be the final international appearance of Goran Pandev, a player I’m well aware of, but also one I’d lost track of somewhat – I mean, I follow football, but you can’t know every player’s every movement, right?

Pandev was substituted late in the game and given a standing ovation by the crowd as well as a guard of honour by his team mates. The game literally stopped while this happened. Once play re-started the crowd chanted his name for a good few minutes too. I just thought it was a wonderful few moments and something that said a lot about our game. So I wrote a poem.

Goran Pandev

If there is a word for a figure that is not quite a legend, not quite an icon, 
then it is needed for times like this.
A celebrated career, yet only known to those of a particular ilk; dedicated, obsessive,
those who glory in the fact that the devil is in the detail.
Born to a nation that many could not find on a map,
scorer of goals that most cannot recall, let alone say that they saw,
it is all the more remarkable that as you leave the field,
for what many would not realise is the final time,
there is a guard of honour, a standing ovation and a rousing, hearty chanting of your name.
A tribute, not just to you Goran Pandev, but to all of football.

England versus Scotland was always going to provoke something in me. As a proud Englishman, it’s a fixture I love, regardless of the sport. It’s the one that both sides always want to win and dared not lose. A classic, bitter, historic rivalry.

As it turned out, the match was largely a non-event. England, overly cautious and perhaps overawed by the occasion, Scotland, performing above the sum of their parts, but still only arguably the better of a bad bunch. The teams shared a point, before ultimately going their separate ways; England qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament, while Scotland would fail to get out of the group stage.

On England v Scotland

The oldest fixture in football.
This is not just a game, yet not the war that some would have you believe.
There is a hatred on both sides, a mistrust, a pride, an ancient grudge 
that will forever break to new mutiny at the mere mention of the fixture.

All common sense, rationality and right thinking is cast aside
as Edward's army, Hadrian's Wall, devolution, independence,
invading Celts, broken crossbars and of course, 1966, dominate our thoughts,
our conversations.
Bitterness, nationalism, the iconography of two flags, tartan and St. George are
forced to the fore. Nails are bitten, alcohol consumed,
friendships cats aside, a nation even more divided
and for 90 minutes it feels like we hold our breath
and watch through our fingers, faces covered, limbs tense,
a calm exterior a thing of the past.
Our capital invaded, our stadium full, our heroes reminded of their history, their duty.
And yet, on this occasion it will not matter. One side deflated,
the other, seemingly elated; neither wins the day.
Wherever loyalties lie, we'll meet again, we'll see your like again.

I’ll finish this blog with a very short poem concerning the England player Jadon Sancho. Sancho is a young player who has achieved a great deal in a short time, having moved to Germany to ply his trade. And yet, for the first three group games of the tournament, he didn’t get a sniff of action on the pitch. For the first game, he didn’t even make the matchday squad and as a player with such obvious gifts, this became a talking point. He’s since agreed to join Manchester United for something like £73m and has actually played one game in the tournament. The team however have played six. So, like most of the country I was a bit puzzled. Unlike most of the country I wrote a poem in his honour.

Jadon Sancho

You could have been at home,
socialising, enjoying the typical efficiency
of Tuetonic transport systems
or sipping a smoothie or even a beer 
in a Dortmund park.
More likely, you could have gone on holiday,
said '(Foot)balls to isolation', 
but no. You're here, under-used,
cast aside, destined to warm up perpetually.
What a waste.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these poems. If you haven’t, don’t worry, Euro 2020 will be over soon and life can move on. Don’t give up on me! I could well write something that’s right up your street very soon!

Poetry Blog: Tunnel Vision

This is a poem that I drafted very roughly a couple of days ago. I’d just had some bad news and on top of feeling exhausted with work, sore with a running injury, sick and tired of living with Covid restrictions and worried about various other matters in everyday life, I think I’d just had enough. So, rather than simply explode and kick things about the place I scribbled some thoughts down.

I don’t normally suffer with my moods. I tend to manage to live life on the same level most of the time. I’m rarely too bothered by anything and have always told myself that things will work out, whatever happens to be going on. It’s definitely an advantage of being such a simpleton! However, over the last few weeks lots of things seem to have been bothering me and it sees to have all piled up and caused a bit of a bad mood logjam. Not the end of the world and at least it’s meant that I can be creative.

Here’s the poem.

Tunnel Vision

Feral dogs gather, sensing blood, teeth bared
snarling, putting a tentative foot forward,
circling without grace, eyeing you constantly
until they finally snap and leave their mark.

Every ache and pain nags and presents a new question,
crowds the mind, leaving a feeling of fog
until you feel like lashing out with a primal scream
from somewhere deep inside that you've never found before.

Questions, although answered time and again
remain, echoing back and forth, disrupting sleep
to pick away at the scab that they created,
allowing it to spread to unchartered territory.

Tunnel vision is adopted, just to get through seconds, minutes
as something hidden in the shadows threatens to grind you to a halt
like hazard lights on the motorway, just as the urge for freedom and speed 
is at its highest.

Searching for a way to break the cycle and feel a sense 
of achievement, or at least a moment's blessed relief
from the sheer boredom and strangely gargantuan effort
needed to just keep going.

Writing this helped. It’s very easy to sit and moan at anyone who’ll listen, but I much prefer to keep things to myself. It’s a mixture of embarrassment and just the thought that I don’t really want to burden anyone with my troubles. Especially as most of the time I feel like I’m exaggerating in even labelling certain things as ‘troubles’. I know that lots of people have things much, much harder than I do. And as I said earlier, I’m reasonably happy to get through and operate under the assumption that any mood will pass and that things will get better.

In the poem, I’ve tried to describe how I felt; as if the thoughts, the worries were circling me, taking turns at bothering me and bothering me on various levels and with various results. Hence the ‘feral dogs’ line which I felt summed up the fact that I didn’t feel like I had complete control at times and didn’t feel that I could just dismiss things. Those thoughts just kept coming back, biting me.

If it helps, or it’s of any interest, I think I feel better today. I’m just keeping myself busy and it definitely helps that the weather is great, I’ve been able to get out for a run and that the Euro 2020 international football tournament has just started. Like I say, I’m happy to keep things simple.

I hope you liked the poem – ‘enjoyed’ might be a stretch I suppose! Whatever your thoughts, feel free as ever, to let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Poetry Blog: ‘Distance.’

This is a poem that I rediscovered while going through a notebook recently. It’s about my sister and our relationship. I wouldn’t say that we’ve had a difficult relationship, but it’s not one that’s been particularly straighforward. It’s not that we don’t get on; it’s just that we’re quite different characters. I’m sure lots of siblings are exactly the same.

There’s a six year age gap between us and so, at times growing up it felt like we had little in common other than parents. It was just too much of a difficult age gap. There was and still is no shortage of love, but we just turned out very different and I think that meant that the bond wasn’t all that it could have been. I got thinking about it recently when I heard that my sister was ill and it led to me writing the poem and in a way reassessing how we are with each other and also realising how lucky I am to have her and how important she’s always been for me.

Distance

From the line where we started there was always a distance.
You were independent, strong, theirs long before me.
Later, when fate made me weak, doctors kept us apart and the distance grew.
You closed the gap as we got to know each other better,
looked after me, a fierce lioness to my runt of the litter.
Teenage kicks widened the gap again to a chasm 
and you were out more often than in.
Your influence remained even when you weren't around
as your music became mine, throwing me those White Lines
and an everlasting Motown lifeline.

Around this time you revealed to us your terrible taste in men
as a series of terrible choices took you away some more
and made you seem like a stranger.
No longer the apple of anyone's eye, especially not mine,
who, worldly wise at the grand old age of twelve was the perfect judge;
a pre-teen with a puritanical moral compass.
How that would change as we grew and underwent a role reversal.
At twenty one the bad choices still hung around as you set off, 
no more than a child, to become an adult,
from Miss to Mrs in the blink of an eye, my fierce, happy lioness just gone.
You were there, but not really...

My own growth widened the gap some more; a Grand Canyon of taste, 
culture, views and choices. And despite your own bad record, 
you were there to pick up the pieces when I made the wrong choice myself.
And, when I was too young to cope with loss you scooped me up, held me so tightly that it physically hurt yet emotionally helped and I endured the pain just to feel safe again.
Eventually it was geography that would create another mystery; the one that says
you cannot close a gap when neither of you will pick up the phone.
It's one we're still trying lazily to unravel.

Now the first knock on a particular door, the one that we were scolded just for mentioning when we were kids, brings the news that we had always expected with age and I'm a kid again,
grasping for words, gasping for air, unable to cope and looking to you for comfort me,
unfailingly, predictably.
The realisation that those gaps need to be closed hits me like a sledgehammer.
Forget the choices, forget the gaps, move on from the past and hope
that we can make the best of whatever future might remain.

I’m not sure there’s much else I can say about this poem. It feels like quite an emotive thing to write about and as such, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m not sure it really matters whether I think it’s good or bad, but I hope it does my sister and our relationship justice and I think it’ll be a subject matter that I’ll return to.

I’d love – as always – to know what people think, so feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: Jigsaw

So this is a bit of a strange poem. Maybe I’m going through some kind of arty phase or perhaps just trying something different. Maybe I’m trying too hard…I don’t know. Let me try to explain.

This is a poem that came from a couple of different places. It started with some words that I didn’t really know what to do with. A couple of weeks ago, I was teaching a lesson on creative writing, specifically narrative form. We were looking at the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ and not being too obvious with description. So rather than saying that your character had laughed, you might write about the smile spreading across their face, their shoulders shaking and so on.

As part of the lesson we watched a clip from ‘The Woman in Black’ as the protagonist enters Eel Marsh House and wanders slowly around. I let the class watch the clip a couple of times as it was only a few minutes long, and then got them to write some snippets of description. While they were doing all of this, I got a scrap of paper and wrote some description myself. Once I’d done, I had a quick read through – I liked it, but had no idea what to do with it. So, I folded it up and put it between pages in my notebook, resolving to have another look at it later and try to work out how to use it. To be honest, I thought I’d just write a poem about walking through an imagined creepy old house.

Later that day, I was checking my emails and saw that I’d had an alert from a company called Ancestry.com who I’d been tracing my family tree with last year. It had been a frustrating process. I’d mainly wanted to find out about my father’s side of the family, as I never really knew my paternal grandparents.

Anyway, the alert told me I’d had a DNA match and so I opened it up quite excitedly. The excitement lasted all of 60 seconds or so as the alert that proclaimed to be about a second cousin turned out to actually be my own grandad on my mother’s side. So, not a second cousin at all and actually someone I knew pretty well as well as being someone that could be found on my family tree…on Ancestry.com. It got me thinking about my mysterious paternal grandparents though.

Later that evening I was watching one of my favourite programmes, American Pickers (one day I’ll write a blog about these programmes because I think it’s quintessential middle aged telly) and they were looking around the home of someone who’d collected antiques all his life. His son now didn’t know what to do with all of this ‘stuff’ after his dad had passed away. In turn, this brought to mind the entirely fictional idea of clearing my wife’s grandmother’s house when she died. And then, this poem clicked into place and it became clear, if a little weird, what I was going to attempt to do with my ‘show don’t tell/Woman in Black’ notes.

So the poem is basically about what I imagined it would be like to go and clear my own grandmother’s house and how, if I’d been able to do it, I might have been able to find out more about her. Hence the jigsaw puzzle reference. I mean, up until about a year ago I didn’t even know her name, so there were a lot of pieces missing. There still are. and I suspect they always will be.

Anyway, here’s what in one corner of head is my pretentious poem. Don’t worry, in another corner of my head – which isn’t actually square before anyone gets worried – I actually quite like the poem and am quite pleased with the whole idea behind it.

Jigsaw

A kaleidoscope of light streams through stained glass
as particles of dust waltz eerily across the room.
This is not what I remember.
Instead, you are fragments of a jigsaw puzzle,
too many pieces missing to ever be complete.
Today may fill in gaps, but I feel I'll never know you.
Perhaps it's because you never wanted to be known.

In my head I'm clearing your house, a house I never knew,
hoping for some of those lost pieces.
A stuffed bird, incongruous, gazes across the room
as an ancient rocking chair teeters back and forth without explanation.
I never imagined you as the type who had time to relax,
all of those children would put pay to that,
but perhaps you're there now, assessing another that you never knew.

My feet pad across a well worn rug, the latest in a long trodden line.
I trace my fingers over the top of a low table, idly making patterns in the dust,
imagining you and chunks of a family, maybe even my father, 
fighting for food and attention.
A wall is littered with portraits that trace my progress around the room.
I wonder who they are, speculating that one might even be you
which prompts a pang off loss for someone I never had.

Snapped back to the here and now, I resist the urge
to uncover any of the unknown items being protected from a lifetime of dust
by dull shrouds, brace myself
and place a tentative toe on the first of the stairs,
not knowing who or what I'll find, but hoping 
for something to fill in the gaps and solve at least some 
of this decades old puzzle.

I’m pleased with the way this poem came together. It’s something completely different for me and very much fictional. I think I surprised myself by being able to use the description I wrote in such a way. With that in mind, I suppose it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. It also pleased me because I have plans for another fictional – but based on true events – poem that I’m trying to write, but from the point of view of someone else entirely. Writing ‘Jigsaw’ makes me believe I can write this other poem, which feels like quite a big step.

I only have one memory of my grandmother and it’s vague to say the least. I remember being taken to a house on the other side of Newcastle by my father and him telling me we were going to visit my grandmother. I couldn’t have been any older than 6 or 7. I remember that it was pouring with rain when we arrived and I was very aware that this was somewhere I’d never been before, despite having a huge family that would’ve lived in and around the area. My dad left me in the car while he ran across the road to knock on the door of a big, imposing old house. I remember thinking that my grandma would come to the door and my dad would just come and get me and in we’d go. Pop and cake would inevitably follow.

I was wrong. Someone came to the door, there was what looked like a tense and brief conversation and then my dad headed back to the car. Seconds later we drove off, my dad telling me we couldn’t go in because grandma was ill. My ancestry research tells me that this was a nursing home and she would have died days later. There would be no pop and cake. The woman at the door wasn’t even my grandma. However, I think the house in the poem is the house I remember.

And that’s it! The fragments of a jigsaw puzzle that I refer to in the poem, well they’re actually one piece, I suppose. I wish I knew more. It’s not a particularly sad thing though. Lots of people have relatives that they never knew and in truth, both of my paternal grandparents just make me curious, really. My curiosity has led me to ask my dad about them, but – and this is the sad bit – he really doesn’t seem to have known them. My grandfather in particular seems to have been a very transient figure and in fact, one of the most frustrating things researching my family tree was the amount of addresses he seemed to have had that were different to the rest of his family! He was either what some people refer to as a free spirit, what others call a rascal or just a bit of a dick. Whatever label I settle on, I’ve made a note to write a poem about him too.

I hope you enjoyed this poem. I hope to God it isn’t too pretentious for words. Woe betide it might seem that I’m disappearing up my own arse! It was just an idea and one that I hope worked. For the record, I think I’m happy with it.

As always, feel free to let me know what you think. I’m always interested to hear what people got out of reading my poetry. Oh, and as always, thanks for reading.