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!

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.

Poetry Blog: Not quite out of my comfort zone, but refreshingly different all the same.

Early last week I had to teach in an entirely different room to mine. Occasionally, we get put on cover for absent teachers and on this particular day I was asked to cover a Year 7 Textiles lesson.

There are two ways that I look at this type of thing. Firstly, it’s quite nice to have a change of scenery and interesting to get a glimpse of what other people do and how they do it. I’ve taught English for 22 years now and although I love it dearly, nothing ever really changes that much. I might have to adapt ever so slightly to a different approach every now and again, but even then it’s probably all been done before under a different name, so it’s never too taxing. So looking in on other peoples’ jobs and subjects can be quite refreshing at times, depending on the subject!

The negative side is that there’s always a cynical little voice in my head telling me that it’s not really the same as what I do. English teaching is difficult, that’s a fact. So sometimes, other subjects can seem a little bit more simple and straightforward. I understand that there’s a lot more to every other subject than I might learn on an hour long cover lesson though. So, I’ll leave that there!

Anyway, I enjoyed being in the Textiles room and not just because the pupils were so engaged with what they were doing either. So while I was there, I scribbled down some notes and from those notes, I wrote the following poem a few days later.

Not quite out of my comfort zone, but refreshingly different all the same.

The difference is apparent from the first step across the threshold.
Welcomed through the door by an headless Adonis mannequin clad in sparkling gold hotpants, this is a place of learning but not as we know it
and although at first glance this is alien, a second look confirms that learning is here, there and everywhere.
Around the perimeter sewing machines sit, caped in the red of emergency,
poised to perform vital surgery at any given moment.
Colour dominates every surface with paper, thread and all manner of materials scattered,
nothing uniform, just imagination allowed to flow freely from one stream into another.
Hooked, I cast my gaze wide around the place, allow myself a moment to be carried away by the current, from Pop Art to Van Gogh, Hockney to Warhol,
not quite a gallery but not quite what I understand a classroom to be,
a place to create, with mannequins and safety pins strewn liberally,
a riot of colour where fabric sweet wrappers and washing up bottles adorn the walls, a supermarket's shelves stitched together, recreated around the room.
In a corner, tie-dyed swatches are labelled with names that I recognise,
enabling me to take a different view of what I see and where I see them.
Later, I settle back down in a chair, find myself reliving memories of Art rooms from the distant past, wrangling with paint, contemplating colour and depth and wondering how, at such a young age, I could express myself when no longer cocooned by this creative hive, but finally out in the vast expanse of the world.

The Textiles room presented a real contrast to the order and uniformity of my type of classroom. As part of an academy chain we’ve long since been expected to adopt the academy colours for borders and backing of displays and we even have displays on school policy in each room, so it can begin to look a little bit formal, shall we say. Unless your attention is grabbed by my desk of course, where the words formal, uniform and organised don’t sit well at all.

Sitting in that room got me thinking quite a bit, firstly about the skills that are taught there and then also about my own background in the more creative side of education.

In the poem I refer to the displays of work that imitates various artists, which made me think of my own daughter, currently studying GCSE Art and having worked through all manner of different artists’ styles with her, it brought a smile to my face. It also made me draw parallels to the writers we study in English, making the two subjects feel a little bit closer than I’d ever really thought of before.

Looking at the various ongoing projects took me right back to my own schooling, where I took a slightly creative approach to my GCSEs and then A-Levels with a CDT Design course and the more traditional Art. It was nice just to reminisce like that and it got me thinking about how happy it would make me to create something back in those days, as well as the stress and ultimately the pride when having to work out problems with materials like paint as well as metal and wood. It also made me doubly determined to get out and doing some sketching when my latest half term holiday comes around, as it’s something I haven’t done since last summer.

All in all, a nice way to spend an hour at work! I hope you enjoy the poem.

Poetry Blog: Pushing Out to Sea

This was a poem that was prompted by a lesson I taught recently. Sometimes we use images as a prompt when doing creative writing. We’ve been doing it recently with Years 10 and 11; giving them an image and discussing what we can see and how we might describe it as well as getting them to think about what you might hear there, how it might feel etc. The aim here was to be able to give them a way into a narrative, a place to start before they began building tension or drama or whatever else it was that they wanted to build in there.

The idea for the poem came when I was teaching a small intervention group and discussing an image with a student. We concentrated on the image at the top of this page. Once we’d done with our discussion I gave them time to write and given that it was in exam conditions, quickly found myself with little to do. So, I started jotting down notes about the image with the intention of adding them to the lesson for next time that I taught it.

The poem came later. I hadn’t yet used the notes, but came across them at the end of the day on a bit of paper while I was gathering up stray worksheets and stuff for recycling. I took it home – it was just some sentences and observations about the things in the image – and sat down with it later on to write the poem underneath.

Pushing Out to Sea

As day breaks only the occasional whispered chatter of three tired fishermen,
or a shambling step displacing pebbles on the track breaks the silence.
Not quite day, not quite night, not quite still.
At the shoreline they yawn and stretch before dragging their boats towards the shore and into the shallows, feet wet, limbs already aching.
On the water, the light from each boat gives birth to a dappled golden fish reflected on the surface, stretching across the lake.
Hopefully a good luck charm for a catch yet to come.
The breaking sun spatters the dark of the sky with Jackson Pollock pinks, reds and oranges as a chill breeze welcomes the men to the water.
Soon, the warmth of the sun will toast their bones again and make them feel alive.

I really liked the image. There was lots going on; the mountains in the background, the light on the water, the colours of the sky, the men and their boats. But as well as the image I found myself thinking about the sounds and what it would feel like to be there.

I decided to focus on the men and the reasons why they were there, deciding that this was work rather than some kind of hobby. I liked the idea of them making their way to the lake, still groggy from waking up and almost hypnotically going through the motions in order to get out on to the water. Sometimes, the body functions and then we look back and wonder exactly how we got to where we are. Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t mind mornings, but I find that I’m not the most sparkling company at that time of day and going through the motions is very much my way of operating until a certain point. This made me draw parallels with the fishermen and I decided that in the same way as a class coming in to my room can be like flicking a switch for me, they would only really switch on when they’d got to their destination and started fishing for the day. By that time, the sun would be up.

I didn’t want to write a long poem that took in their fishing simply because I haven’t much idea how they would go about fishing. It doesn’t look like a rod based activity, judging by the image, so I thought better of trying to guess. I was satisfied with what I’d got down up to that point and that the poem had quite a positive ending.

As ever, I hope that you enjoyed reading. Feel free to leave a comment, good or bad, as it’s always constructive to get some feedback.

Book Review: ‘I Saw a Man’ by Owen Sheers.

In my job as a teacher there are times when, at a parents’ evening, there is very little to say. I will jokingly tell the parents of a particularly wonderful child that this could be a very short appointment. There are no targets, there are no complaints…their child is a pleasure to teach. Then I try to string this our over at least a few minutes, so that I can truly feel like I’ve done my job for the night and that, for the parents, there was a point in coming out. And it’s a bit like that parents’ evening appointment with this novel. I literally can’t think of a bad word to say about it, but just telling you it was great would make for a terrible review.

I fell in love with ‘I Saw a Man’ from the very first page and my work as an English teacher was immediately at the forefront of my mind as I found myself thinking about how I could use some of the description from the first couple of pages in a lesson. Sometimes, it’s hard to switch off from the job! However, as a reader I found myself lost on the fringes of Hampstead Heath – somewhere I’ve only ever heard scurrilous rumours about – within a couple of pages of Sheers’ prose. In short, I was immediately hooked and then desperate to share this writing with not only friends and colleagues, but my students too.

The story here revolves around Michael, a writer and widower who moves into the neighbourhood in order to make a fresh start. On the surface, it’s all going fairly well. Life has an element of normality and he’s struck up a friendship with a young, professional family – Josh and Samantha Nelson and their children- who live in the house next to his apartment block. However, grief is never far away and it feels like any ‘moving forward’ will be done in glacial inches, rather than at any real pace. He follows a humdrum daily routine, sees his friends often but his writing seems to have stagnated. Michael is existing, but little else.

The narrative here jumps in and out of the present day to the back stories of the three main protagonists, at will. And in actual fact, the primary part of the action unfolds in what feels a little like real time as we inch forward through Michael’s call to his neighbours’ house. No one is home, but something is not quite right and Michael feels that he needs to investigate. He shouldn’t be there. He knows this as well as we do and yet he keeps on creeping through the house, all the while leaving the reader more than a little on edge. He senses that something is wrong and we know that it is, yet when the devastating event that will change all of their lives occurs none of us would have guessed what it was that would actually happen that day.

What happens to Michael is shocking. But it’s what he does next and the dilemma that it leaves him with that produces such a superb thriller. He can’t move on, but he can’t fall any further backwards either. Michael finds himself in a self inflicted purgatory and yet he’s actually done nothing wrong at all. As a reader I found myself constantly changing the advice that I’d give him, the actions that I’d take if I had found myself in his situation. And yet, I never thought I had a solution.

Michael’s story contains elements that we hope we’ll never face ourselves. Not necessarily in the specifics of what happens, but in the kind of dilemmas that you might face while knowing all along that there isn’t really a right decision to be made. And then, just when you suspect that there might be a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, the old adage of trouble coming in threes is proved right and there’s another terrible twist in the tale.

‘I Saw a Man’ is brilliantly written. The suspense will seep into your thinking and keep you wonderfully hooked; worried for Michael, willing Samantha to find the strength to move on and feeling conflicted by whichever angle you take on Josh. Sheers’ writing is sumptuous and beautiful and there were plenty of times during reading where I just felt compelled to call out to Michael, be it to offer advice or just out of complete frustration. Maybe that’s a sign that I might have got a bit carried away, or maybe it’s just a sign of brilliantly written characters. I prefer to consider it the latter.

Mr. Sheers, we could have made this a very short appointment. Your novel was a pleasure to read.

I give ‘I Saw a Man’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Poetry Blog: ‘Light brings hope.’

This is a poem that I’ve been meaning to write for a few weeks now. Or rather, it’s on a topic that I’ve been meaning to write about. It’s a topic that I think I’ll revisit in the coming weeks too as it feels like there’s a lot to write about.

It’s that time of year where suddenly, it doesn’t feel like Winter any more, but it’s not really Spring either. Of course, Winter is still with us. However, we might just be emerging from the worst of it and the snow, the storms, the driving rain aren’t quite as persistent now. Days are definitely brighter and daylight hours noticeably longer. I think this gives us all at least a little bit of happiness.

At the weekend, standing on the touchline of a field in north Leeds, coaching my football team through another game, it was decidedly chilly. But rather than the big bench coat that I’ve worn for the last couple of months, I was able to wear a hoodie (over my usual layers) and still be just about warm enough. This small detail made the whole morning a lot more bearable and it felt like a pleasure to be there. It certainly made the narrow defeat a lot easier to take and in doing so made my teamtalk afterwards a lot more positive!

Light brings hope.

The thick frost that whites out the windscreen is still not enough
to blight the start of the day.
Even the inevitable prospect of work, peeking over the horizon
cannot alter the mood.
Light brings hope.
Slowly but surely, Winter is being pushed back and soon
sunshine will leave the snow, the storms, the darkness and the drizzle
as just a distant memory; an annual appointment written in the diary, added to the calendar, but so far off it is forgotten for now.
Light brings hope.
Suddenly, when we wake, rooms are not pitch black,
breakfast is eaten with curtains open as we watch
the first forays of the sun reflect in windows of houses opposite,
we drive into the sunrise, self conscious in sunglasses,
peering past visors and watch as the off white skies magically turn to an iced blue that hints at Spring and dares to dream of Summer.
Light brings hope.

I like this time of year. It signals almost an end to the time of year that I dislike the most. Let’s just say that I’m not a fan of November, December and January in terms of the misery and darkness it brings with nights closing in and weather getting worse. February always starts to ease my mood, but in truth that might just be because of my birthday and the fact that we’ve seen off January. But as we enter March, things change.

Plants are coming to life in the garden, you can feel the sun and it’s lighter. And this has had me thinking – as I said earlier – of poetry for a few weeks now. So, I’m hoping to write a few more Spring based poems!

For workers, this is a nice time of year. Unless you work shifts, I suppose. But for those of us that head to work in the morning and back home again in the late afternoon or evening, there’s a shift in mood at this time of year. In short, it’s lovely to be starting my commute as it’s just getting light and then heading home and in the light too. And why? Well if you’ve been listening at the back, you’ll know the answer.

Because light brings hope.

Feel free to leave a comment about the poem. I always enjoy feedback and to be fair, people say some lovely things!

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