Book Review: Apocalypse Z – The Beginning of The End.

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Just when you thought the boredom, paranoia and all round drag of lockdown had become too much, along comes the recommendation of a book about a virus hit dystopian world. Well, at the very least, you should have plenty of time to give it a read!

Apocalypse Z – The Beginning of The End is actually a book that I read before the days of lockdown. Coronavirus was a mere shadow on the other side of the planet when I started it; a twinkle in its father’s eye (that is if viruses have dads – hey, I’m no scientist). I must admit though, the parallels to what was clearly approaching made for an exciting read and although we were never heading for a full zombie nightmare scenario, the book was thought provoking to say the least, throwing up any number of questions and moral dilemmas for the reader.

Apocalypse Z is actually set in Spain – it was originally published in Spanish and was translated into English in 2012 – and we live through a global pandemic via the main protagonist, a lawyer in Galicia, in the North-West of the country. The book takes the form of his blog, which starts off with short entries, mainly about the minutiae of his daily life, but always with at least a passing reference to what gradually becomes a shocking situation in a former Russian state. As news leaks out, we gradually learn more as the tension grows. We’re told that it seems to have been a terrorist attack on a Russian military facility and informed of the chilling images of troops taking to the streets. But information coming out is highly restricted. Hundreds have died, but it’s on the other side of the world, right? Not for long!

Within a few blog entries there are mentions of ‘infection’ and ‘bird flu’ and it’s clear that whatever the problem had been in Russia, it’s spreading across the globe. The blogs get longer and the lawyer’s daily life simply becomes survival. Within weeks Spain and the rest of the world is ‘infected’, there is talk of hot spots, safe havens and it is clear that the situation is getting out of control. Clearly, life will never be the same again and our protagonist is fighting for his life.

From here on in things go from bad to worse and it’s fair to say that the action is utterly gripping. Whether it was down to my love of a good apocalyptic thriller or just that I was reading the novel while living through a global pandemic, I devoured every word, finding myself rooting for our hero as he went through all manner of high octane situations.

In many ways, it’s fair to say that the plot is somewhat far-fetched, but for me that’s part of the fun. We can believe in a teenage wizard, an and all manner of battles in space with hundreds of different kinds of alien life-forms, so why not the end of the world? Certainly, recent events should have at least made people take the possibility a little more serious. And in my opinion you definitely shouldn’t let it get in the way of a good read. Suspend your disbelief and crack on!

Apocalypse Z – The Beginning of The End is a thoroughly well written novel. Our hero comes up against many terrifying scenarios across the course of the novel and Manel Loureiro’s writing makes them all believable. Just when you think that there’s some kind of salvation, another twist comes along to keep you on your toes. There’s no padding here; just an all-action zombie romp to remember! And as I found out when I’d finished reading, it’s the first book in a trilogy, so I’ll definitely be ordering the other two!

Just for the fact that for a short while it made me wonder what if, I give Apocalypse Z

SleepHero 5 Star Reviews – SleepHero

 

The Brighter Side of Lockdown

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There can be no doubt whatsoever that Coronavirus has changed the way that we all live. It will, I imagine, change our lifestyles for a long time to come too. Here in the UK, we’ve been locked down, witnessed food (and toilet roll) shortages due to panic buying on a mass scale and queues to get into the supermarket, clapped in unison to show some kind of appreciation for the NHS and watched news bulletins in horror as the death toll rose from dozens to hundreds and into the thousands. We’ve also learnt a new world – furlough (And I refuse to believe you if you’re telling me you knew what it meant before this point in history)!

Lockdown has brought strain on families all over the planet and we’ve had to find new ways to ease our mental stress. Me? I’ve taken to sneaking off from the stress if need be. Sometimes I’ll simply retire to one of my kids’ bedrooms to read or quietly head outside into the garden to escape the arguments or the tension. Just don’t tell anyone! Stealth, that’s the key.

Away from missing family, friends, socialising, normality, pubs, restaurants, regular haircuts and all manner of other downsides, lockdown has had its plus points. There have been shards of light in amongst the dark of the chaos. So I thought I’d try for a bit of a list of some of the highlights of lockdown. The brighter side of the gloom, if you like.

First up in a list with no particular order, is a Twitter hashtag that has become something of a phenomenon. Let me do my best to explain. Tim Burgess is the legendary frontman with the British band The Charlatans. If you know of the band or have encountered Tim in any way, you’ll know that he’s simply a lovely chap and that The Charlatans are a fantastic band. Tim says he started the listening parties because he was struggling to write songs and since then it’s just grown and grown.

So what happens? Well, an album is chosen to be played and at a specified time, if you want to, you play it and listen along. Everyone listens together and if you want to comment on Twitter you just add the hashtag and post. The added bonus is that there will always be one of the artists responsible joining in and posting comments and anecdotes about the album as it plays. Genius really! A simple idea, but one that’s pretty much guaranteed to lift your spirits.

So far we’ve had artists from Blur and Oasis to Sleaford Mods, Orbital, The Hold Steady, Grandaddy, Glavegas and Aztec Camera. There’s always a diverse mix and on almost any night of the week you can find something that takes your interest. In terms of lockdown positives, it’s certainly up there with the best of them. I’ve ‘taken part’ in quite a few now and it’s a brilliant alternative to what have become lockdown staples such as sitting reading or just finding myself slumped in front of the TV again! It’s amazing what hearing an album in this context can do for your frame of mind and sharing your experiences or views on tracks is a brilliant way of listening. If you haven’t joined the movement, but fancy a go, go to http://www.timstwitterlisteningparty.com or follow @Tim_Burgess for updates to see if there’s anything that piques your interest!

I’ve wanted to listen to podcasts for some time now. However, a busy lifestyle combined with my luddite outlook on technology has left me extremely far behind. Now though, with added time on my hands and in the midst of the battle against boredom, I went and did a bit of reading in order to find out more about something that I’d actually discovered years ago. Turns out it’s been there, more or less at the click of a button, all this time!

So what have I been listening too? Well, being obsessed with football, I’ve been focusing there really. As a Newcastle fan it’s been interesting to tune into the ‘All With Smiling Faces’ podcast as well as The Athletic’s Newcastle focused effort, ‘Pod on The Tyne’. At the moment the club is in the process of hopefully being taken over by incredibly wealthy people and the boost to the local area as well as to the club itself have given the pod participants a lot to talk about. It’s intriguing also to listen for any insight anyone might be able to give on the aforementioned takeover.

I’ve also caught up with some of the very popular ‘That Peter Crouch Podcast’. As well as being something of a popular cult figure in Premier League history, Mr. Crouch is also a very funny man and his podcasts have been really entertaining, giving some light relief in these rather dark times. And then there’s the Match of The Day Top Ten podcasts, featuring Gary Lineker, Ian Wright and the greatest striker of them all, Alan Shearer.

My final podcast port of call so far has been Bob Mortimer’s brilliant ‘Athletico Mince’. What started off as a football podcast has now metamorphosed into something far more surreal. Listening to characters like the Alderman and Barry C Homeowner has definitely livened up my mornings and if you like a laugh, I’d definitely recommend it.

As lockdown enters whatever week it might now be – I’ve lost count – I’ll be searching out more podcasts to listen to. I mean, having spent years thinking that they were beyond my technological know-how, this particular gift still has a lot to give!

Curiously, for a teacher, I’ve found that home-schooling has been a highlight of my time spent in isolation. It’s not all been plain-sailing, but I’ve really enjoyed the adventure so far. I’ve mainly worked with my son, as my high school age daughter has been getting lessons sent through remotely, and dipping my teaching toe into the primary world has been quite illuminating. Suddenly finding myself faced with the kind of grammar tasks that I haven’t had to tackle in years has been a bit of a re-education in itself. As well as my actual subject – English – I’ve been teaching him History and Geography as well as learning Spanish with him via the Duolingo app. How’s the Spanish going, you say? Muy bueno, pero tengo un blog para escribir. (Very good, but I have a blog to write!)

Without such variety to my day I’m not sure I’d have been half as happy during lockdown. The draw of the TV is still strong in our house and that’s before you even think about social media. But no doubt, without home-schooling, I’d have been slumped in an armchair for far too long each day and possibly piling on the pounds!

Another lockdown highlight is linked to home-schooling and is also something that I’ve blogged about previously. I’m back on to talking about The Bodycoach, Joe Wicks, I’m afraid! Since the closure of schools I’ve completed a Joe Wicks workout on every weekday. As I write, that’s 44 workouts on the trot! (Update – I completed my 50th on Friday). I’ve surprised myself by how much I’ve enjoyed it. Some days it hurts and then on other days, it feels relatively easy. But I enjoy every one of them and once it’s done I’m finding that I’m set for the rest of the day and in general, feeling pretty positive.

I’ve been introduced to a whole new world and a whole new language too. While I knew of the horror of burpees from my school days, exercises and labels like Spiderman lunges, duck walks, up down planks and bicycle crunches have all been a revelation to me. Every morning I tune into YouTube at 9am and throw myself into whatever workout Joe decides upon. As I do it I’m scanning his front room for the Spot The Difference competition and wracking my brain to come up with the answers in the quiz. In short, I’m having loads of fun.

We’re into our 10th week of #PEWithJoe now and, as I’ve stated before in blogs, I’m just as determined as ever to keep going and get extremely fit. In the recent past I’ve suffered with a heart problem and so, as well as the virus, I feel like I’m fighting just to enjoy a better quality of life. The fitter I am, the better.

I’m seeing my body change shape too. Having winced at photos of me from past beach holidays, sporting more of a beer gut than I allowed myself to admit to, it’s miraculous to see actual stomach muscles emerging. Especially for a man of my age! Even my legs are getting bigger, which as someone who’d accepted his pipe cleaners as being as good as they were ever going to get, well it’s amazing. PEWithJoe, and on a few occasions with his wife Rosie and young kids, has been a real game changer for me and it’s safe to see that this highlight of lockdown has left me fitter, stronger and happier.

As dull as it’s been at times, I can’t deny that lockdown has left me with a lot of time on my hands. Even factoring in the time spent doing actual work, I’ve still had time to do lots of great things. And the bonus has been how simple they’ve been.

Initially, we were blessed with great weather. And so, in a flurry of activity I found myself regularly out in the back garden wielding a paintbrush and a pot of fence paint. In no time at all, my fence panels were looking shiny and new and my sheds were painted beautifully. Then it was time to start on the garden furniture, which was all sanded down ready to paint within days. My biggest error was to then switch my attention to the garden as several weeks later the furniture is still patiently awaiting a wax and probably needs to be sanded and washed again as a result! I’ll say it again though, time is something I’ve got lots of.

Having time on my hands has proved dangerous as well though. Not only have I written some very silly poetry, but I’ve also finally been able to find time to film videos; one of me reading one of my poems and the other a parody video of a teacher character that I’d written stuff for a while ago. The response has been great, to be fair, but I’m almost ashamed – again, as a man of my age – to say I’m spent hours filing videos of myself essentially messing about! Good fun though! And even though views were relatively modest in number, it was nice to see people sharing the poetry video and commenting on the fact that they’d really enjoyed it. I mean, everybody likes an ego boost, right?

Another brilliant development in lockdown has been the amount of time I’ve found to just read. It sounds nothing special, but it’s been genuinely refreshing. Usually, with a busy work and family life to contend with reading is literally squeezed in to merely a few minutes of the day. It’s not uncommon for me to be grabbing the opportunity to read a couple of paragraphs at a time. And I’m a big reader, always have been. So it’s been painful to watch as my ‘to-read’ pile has increased to around 5 boxes worth of books. However, I’ve always loved the look of books and even the feel of them in my hands. As a kid, when the other kids were out socialising and just generally being popular if I wasn’t playing football, I could generally be found in our local library, unless I was in the nearby record store! It’s terrifically sad, I know!

The last 8 or 9 weeks have meant that in the time it usually takes me to read one book, I must have read around 4 or 5. And my pile of newspapers and magazines has reduced dramatically too. I can’t begin to express how much of a luxury it is to have a spare half hour to just lie on our bed and read a book! It’s certainly made to being largely confined to the house a great deal more tolerable!

There’s no doubt that during the times that we’re all currently living through it’s important to try and find the positives. I’m usually quite a cynical person and definitely not an advocate of the idea that we should all be out relaxing and taking time to smell the flowers or putting candles on while we have a rose petal filled bath. However, I’ve found that lockdown has at least allowed me to pause a bit and in a strange way, enjoy life away from the pressures of work and deadlines and a hectic schedule. In the midst of a global pandemic, maybe just staying alive is really quite enough.

Another poetry blog – from sheds to ducks. The natural next step.

Another poem from my Lockdown Literature group today. This one came about around the start of lockdown, when it was all new and in a way, quite exciting. You know, despite the terror and all that less exciting stuff?

I’d noticed lots of people on Facebook and Twitter posting stuff about nature ‘returning’ and it made me chuckle a little bit. Especially the really earnest ones where people were claiming that nature was re-claiming the streets or teaching us a lesson because, as humans, we’d got it all wrong. It was none of this. Animals have been adapting to their surroundings for longer than we care to imagine. Most likely it was just that things were quieter and animals had noticed and got a bit bolder about where they were wandering and when. Lots of people seemed to be reacting quite hysterically and yet the only evidence I’d seen at the time was the video of some pigs walking through the streets of Bergamo in Italy.

We have bird feeders at the back of our garden in the trees and while we were probably seeing more birds than usual, I was yet to see an eagle, a condor or a Terrahawk (I know that they’re fictional by the way – that was the joke). Admittedly I’d gained a rat in my shed (sadly for comedy purposes, not my kitchen), but other than that, nature was definitely not trying to teach me a lesson by parading up and down our road. And so, I began to think about how ridiculous the posts could get and whether people might start to outdo each other. From this came the poem that follows.

Guess who’s back?

It started with those cute pigs in Bergamo.
There were probably some ducks somewhere as well. There’s always ducks.

And then…

A giraffe stooping to get into Bargain Booze,
An ostrich in Hyde Park singing the blues,
An antelope out for a jog,
A lion combing his mane with a perplexed hedgehog,
A wombat on a BMX giving a backa to a pikachu and the pikachu’s listening to DMX and just staring hard at you.
Nature’s back.

In the park, after dark there’s a gathering of starlings,
They’re meeting up with collared doves and riding penny farthings.
Nature’s back. And it’s brought hipsters.

Foxes sketching landscapes while hunt beagles go climbing at Go Ape.
And of course, there’s meerkats trying to sell you insurance while panda bears do triathlons to test their bear endurance.
Out the window there’s more nature hourly,
We’ve even had a brontosaurus in our cul-de-sac in Morley…

While we’re locked down, sick with cabin fever ready to attack,
Comfort yourselves folks, nature’s very definitely back.

Apologies if you find that one a little bit cynical. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, by July we’ll be overrun with wildlife carrying placards and marching through our city centres declaring that the humans should be made to pay! Maybe wildfowl will start looting supermarkets and electrical wholesalers after hours and setting light to stuff. And then I’ll be sorry, won’t I?

Anyway, I hope you like my silly poem. Feel free to drop me a comment or click the Like button. And if you really like your literature with a large helping of nonsense, the feel free to Follow. Thanks for reading!

 

 

My Lockdown Diary – Part 2

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Here in the UK we were put into a state of lockdown indefinitely on 23rd March. Now, some weeks later and firmly into April, it’s been a very strange time. For some, everything has changed, while sadly for others nothing seems to have changed at all.

For me personally it’s been a very curious time. I was initially sent away from work and put into self isolation on 17th March and so had some time to myself before the majority of the country was affected. Life at that point seemed to be going on as if there was no prospect of a pandemic. As I went out for a socially distant walk there was traffic everywhere (well, on the roads anyway) and people were not avoiding each other like they would be in the weeks to come. Having been isolated because of my vulnerability to the virus, I was keeping my distance from the off.

So how’s life looking a few of weeks on? Well, for the most part people are keeping their distance. But my part of the UK looks very different for all sorts of reasons.

With lockdown being enforced people seem to be following the daily exercise guidance like it’s an order. We certainly are. But it’s immediately noticeable, even if you just look out of the window, how many people are out and about walking, jogging, cycling and the like. In truth, it’s a lovely site. Couples out walking, families – together at last now that work constraints have been taken away – are running, cycling and just playing together. We live right next to playing fields and I’ve rarely seen them busier. And that’s not to say that we have hundreds of people congregating in any kind of dangerous way. The fields are huge and can easily accommodate a steady stream of people and leave them able to keep a responsible social distance. Despite the fearful whiff of death and illness, people have come out fighting and life is flourishing.

I’ve seen nothing particularly different in terms of exercise though and I’m very hopeful that within the next three weeks I might see someone on a penny farthing cruising down our road or maybe even a socially distant yoga or tai chi class on the playing fields next door.

The same praise can’t be levelled at what I’ve noticed on the roads, where a general lessening of traffic has led many to believe that they’re budding Lewis Hamiltons. And I don’t mean that they’re going out with braids in their hair and wearing shit clothes. For now it seems that the 30 mile an hour limit is a thing of the past. And I understand that in the real world there are few of us who actually stick to such a slow speed. Now though, young men – and it genuinely appears to be largely them – are hurtling around like they’re at Silverstone. Maybe it’s because of the boredom elsewhere, but I doubt it. It’s certainly a worrying development. Especially when you’re out for a walk these days, what with all the crossing over roads in order to avoid each other.

For some it seems that they’re flying around the place with no destination either. The far more empty roads have seemingly turned into the Nurburgring and people are out, ignoring the lines and hurtling round bends with little or no warning. The only thing missing seems to be their overalls. Certainly there are more than enough helmets. It appears to be a genuine deliberate choice – I can’t go out, so I’ll jump in the car and fly around like a complete idiot for a while. We’ve noticed a couple of cars just cruising around the place, revving engines and staring at people. Certainly, the amount of Vauxhall Corsas with over-sized exhausts on the road is very much out of proportion nowadays. Either Morley’s just a strange place or lads are incredibly bored and just not very creative. It could well be both. It’s certainly been a bizarre thing to observe though.

Another lockdown observation has to be the amount of online sales. I suppose it’s quite a sad thing really, given that most shops are closed and people are losing their jobs. It will most likely see the end of some shops altogether. But the amount of sales is incredible. And it might leave some people in a total conundrum. There are things I genuinely want, as well as stuff I’d like because they’re reduced in sales – trainers mainly. But then the idea of something being delivered has started to worry me. There’s a palpable sense of paranoia about these days. Understandably really. While you’re crossing the road when anybody comes within a hundred yards of you you’re not going to want to accept a parcel on the doorstep. I almost followed through recently when there was a knock on the door and was terrified going to answer it! It was Amazon and the bloke had left our parcel – something for the wife from work – on the doorstep and was already halfway down the drive. He simply stated our surname as a question and was off like a shot when I confirmed.

Wherever you look though, there’s an online sale. For someone who likes the idea of getting ‘stuff’ it’s ridiculously tempting. As a result of a Coronvirus programme and a wife with a propensity to worry over much, we’ve recently started to wash the shopping as it comes into the house and are quarantining the things that we don’t immediately need to use and the idea of handling a parcel, with literally no idea where it’s come from is terrifying. So maybe for now there’ll be no exploiting the online sales.

Something that’s started to worry me while continuing to appear ridiculous is television. What if it runs out? What if there are no more programmes because new shows have stopped being made? I totally get the availability of boxsets, downloads etc, but what happens when it’s new series time and it’s just not been made yet? One of our favourite shows is The Walking Dead and their recent season finale had to be suspended when post production work couldn’t be carried out in lockdown. So, we’re running out of telly! It’s not just a possibility; it’s actually happening!

We’ve needed to call Sky in order to re-arrange our package and the fact is you can’t call Sky. We want to re-negotiate (Oooh, my favourite call to make!) but we can’t because they haven’t got enough people working to actually deal with these calls. More proof, if it was needed, that telly could actually be endangered. And while it’s not the most pressing concern at this time, it’s still completely unexpected and a bit of a worry.

I’ve managed to spend quite a bit of my lockdown time in the garden. There’s plenty of room and a lot of jobs that needed doing, which is a good job given the amount of time we all have on our hands. One morning was spent painting the fence panels on one side of the garden. I roped my ten-year-old into this one, prompting lots of comments about “hard work” from a boy who so far in life has been fairly pampered.

Next up was turning over the soil in the flower beds; a job that literally never gets done because despite being fairly deep into middle age I’m still not a full convert to gardening. There are limits and things like digging go beyond my boundaries. But, needs must, so fork in hand – garden one, not tea one – I spent a good half an hour digging and turning the land over. I’m assured it’ll create better conditions for plants, but the bigger bonus was that I got to spend half and hour in the sun.

Since then I’ve trimmed shrubs, weeded heavily overgrown areas, regularly filled up the bird feeders, painted both sheds and cut the lawns a few times – which is a few times more than usual at this time of year. As my time at home continues so will my work in the garden. I love being out in the fresh air anyway, so being forced out there is kind of a bonus. Pots can be cleared out and cleaned up, the garden furniture will get oiled and the often neglected area around the side of our house which is home to the bins is in need of a real tidy up. So almost a summer’s worth of outdoor jobs to do, but lots of springtime to get it done!

The final thing that has been very noticeable during the last few weeks of lockdown has also been garden related. It’s a wonderful thing and I hope it’s going on in your lives too. There are noticeably more birds around. Very noticeably. We have a few birdfeeders on the tree at the back of our garden and traffic has very definitely increased. Sadly, we haven’t had our woodpecker back, but we’ve had goldfinches, robins, blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits as well as the usual blackbirds, wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies and sparrows. There are also at least a couple that we just can’t identify and it’s genuinely a lot busier at the end of our garden. It can’t be a coincidence that things are a great deal quieter in the surrounding area and it’s certainly given me a bit of a lift when everything feels a little bit flat. It’s nothing dramatic, nothing life-changing, but the fact that I can sit and watch the birds getting bolder and bolder around our garden and feeling safe enough to be exploring the patio is definitely a good thing.

The other day, as I stood doing the dishes I watched as a robin approached. It flitted around the place getting gradually ever closer. Within seconds it was perched on a chair right underneath the window, just staring at me. A moment of complete peace among the chaos. Just what I needed.

So far lockdown has been a very strange time. We’re living in fear, definitely, but something has changed societally. Life is, in some ways, a lot calmer and people are adapting to suit their surroundings and situations. With at least three more weeks of this it’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

 

PE with Joe – how I found out that where there’s a Wicks, there’s a way.

It seems cynical to say, but this whole Coronavirus lockdown thing has allowed me to start getting fit. And when I say fit, I mean really fit. I was fit before…for a man in my middle years anyway, but now I’m beginning to feel like some kind of middle aged superhuman! OK, that might be me getting a little bit carried away, but I’m feeling good.

It started as a reaction to the virus. As someone who is classed as being vulnerable to it, I decided early on that in order to combat the risks I’d have to stay fit. So I wasn’t going to be sitting around watching films and reading books, which had been the kind of situation I’d dreamed of for years. No, I was going to maximise my daily government sanctioned exercise window and then do as much as I possibly could around the house to be as healthy as I could be. The fitter I was, the more strength I’d have to fight whatever was going to get thrown at me.

When UK schools closed down I was subsequently given a fantastic fitness opportunity. This was the point where, with the focus on home-schooling, lots of people starting volunteering services and sharing ideas. And this was when Joe Wicks stepped into my life and began to get me and my family fitter than we’d been in years!

I was aware of Mr. Wicks before this time and had decided that he simply wasn’t for me. I have to admit that this was based largely on his appearance. As a middle aged man with a little bit of a pot belly, I found myself feeling secretly jealous of this newcomer who looked like he’d been carved out of rock and dipped in hair. As well as this, I decided that his kind of fitness simply wasn’t my thing. As a footballer and runner I was more into simply pushing myself to the limits and ending up feeling physically sick than what I saw as glorified dancing.

But then, a few years ago now I tried yoga and loved it. And so, when Joe announced that at 9am every day of lockdown he’d be putting on a half hour PE class for the nation I thought we’d give it a go. It wasn’t quite as instant a decision as that. In fact at first I just thought, ‘no way’. But then, through a combination of chatting about it with my wife and considering the fact that it’d be a way of keeping the kids busy for a while, I thought that we could at least give it a go. Now, weeks later, I’ve not missed one day since it started!

The workouts have been a pleasant surprise. Apart from some ill-fitting lycra gear – which through football and running, I already had – and a yoga mat, there’s been no need for equipment. No weights, no resistance bands, and no other bits of stuff that I actually don’t know the name of. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was imagining! I do know that I can’t be a pleasant sight however. I’m a shade short of 6ft tall and built like a telegraph pole, so clingy gym gear isn’t exactly flattering. But Joe’s enthusiasm has been the perfect counter to my paranoia!

I didn’t realise that it’d be as difficult as I found it at first. After that first day I ached in places that were unexpected to say the least. Who knew that your bum could hurt so much just by doing aerobic type stuff? And given that I’d lifted no weights, how come my arms and shoulders felt so weak all of a sudden? Or weaker than normal; it’s all relative!

What I do know is that I’m thoroughly enjoying my appointment with Joe every day. It’s tough work and gets a sweat on, but it’s a tonne of fun too. As I said, it’s difficult but as time passes I’m finding that my body doesn’t hurt so much anymore. And whatever the aches and pains I’m there every day looking for more. There’s nothing too complicated and it all comes in bursts of 30 seconds before a short rest and time for a drink of water, then we’re ready to move on to the next exercise.

He has us doing things like squats and push ups fairly regularly. But there are also things like ‘Spiderman’ where we lunge to one side and fire out our imaginary webs before switching swiftly to the other side. My ten-year-old son loves doing this one and joins in doing the web sound effects with Joe. I’m also doing a sound effect; it’s called the wheeze. We also do ‘Climb The Mountain’ where you’re essentially in a plank position but running your knees up towards your chest. And then there’s ‘Bunny Hops’ where we…well, we hop like a bunny (ears included), as well as ‘Joeys’ which involve us jumping from side to side, kangaroo style protecting the baby in our pouch. I’d advise you not to try to imagine me doing these things by the way as I fear that even the imagined sight could burn your eyes. But I can tell you that it’s loads of fun and you can certainly feel the benefit.

The whole thing has allowed for a little bit of father son bonding too. Me and my son both do the class and as such, we’ve both not missed one yet. We spur each other on and it’s something that we now have in common; something else to talk about other than just football! That said, as soon as the workout is over we’re off outside for a game of football as a warm-down! Old habits die hard. It’s been nice to talk aches and pains with my son though and it feels like we’ve got a little bit more in common as a result.

The days are never the same. We do a range of different exercise or it might be a variation where we do ten exercises before a break followed by the same ten after. Other times, we do twenty different exercises over the course of the half hour. No two days are ever the same though, which is definitely a good thing and it keeps an old dog like me on my toes and stops me from using boredom as any kind of excuse for missing a day.

Introducing music was for me, a bit of a nightmare. For a start, let’s just say that Joe’s musical taste doesn’t have anything in common with mine. But then, apart from the sheer trauma of listening to Dua Lipa, I found it completely off-putting. I was finding that I couldn’t hear the 5 second countdown towards the end of each exercise and believe me, I needed to be able to hear that! The relief of knowing that I only had 5 seconds to go until having a short rest was palpable. Having Joe shouting over someone like George Ezra meant that I now had nothing to cling onto!  But he’s decided not to use music every day and as such this adds a different level of variation.

Next came Fancy Dress Friday, which needless to say is not my bag! I hate dressing up simply because a lack of confidence tells me that I look an even bigger idiot when I’m dressed as a superhero or say – and this actually happened – Freddie from Scooby Doo. Joe seemed to relish the exercise even more while dressed like Spiderman though and was leaping around like never before. Meanwhile my son came down in an England top claiming to be Wayne Rooney. Safe to say that Fancy Dress Friday probably won’t catch on in our house. It doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the exercise though and again, Joe’s enthusiasm is actually a little bit infectious.

The upshot of it all is that I’m more or less sure that I’m a convert to this particular form of exercise. I’m already beginning to think about how I can make it part of my day when lockdown or isolation ends and work comes calling again. Thankfully it shouldn’t prove to be too tough with modern advances in technology like the ability to have YouTube on your telly. And hopefully, as was the original idea, it’ll help myself and others to fight this virus.

Keep exercising and stay safe everybody.

 

 

Lockdown – The times they are a-changin’.

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I’ve been away from work due to Coronavirus restrictions now for just over two weeks. And while I’d usually try to avoid clichés in writing and never thought I’d be leaning on Ronan Keating for inspiration, the simple fact is that life has become a rollercoaster of emotions.

I’m not normally prone to extremes of emotion. I’m a fairly steady ship, all things considered. I can handle the ups and downs that life throws at me and tend to not bother others with how I’m doing. People have their own struggles, they don’t need to be involved in mine. It’s how I was brought up – internalise it, don’t talk, don’t share. As an adult though, I’ve learnt that you can talk, but I’m still far more likely to just keep things to myself and rely on my own mental strength to get through.

Lockdown has tested this and tested it severely.

I started the whole thing in quite a low mood. My first few days were spent more in self isolation than lockdown, but I was careful and made sure that social distancing rules were adhered to. I’d be pretty stupid to be simultaneously aware of being vulnerable to this virus while also gallivanting around the shops and socialising. Being away from work hurt though. As a teacher in a school in a disadvantaged area I want to be there helping, calming vulnerable students and besides all else, teaching them. But I wasn’t allowed and I brooded on this for days.

The announcement of school closures helped in a funny way. I was now in the same boat as the majority. I no longer felt like I was cheating my way out of work or that I was skiving. But then I found out that I couldn’t access my work emails from home, meaning that I would still be very detached from what was still actually going on in school. Almost two weeks on from the announcement and I’m still waiting for a reply to my email, hoping that someone in our IT department can solve the problem. Luckily, unbeknown to them, it’s been sorted by a teaching colleague (cheers Shaun) and it turns out that everything’s working without me. So no surprise there then…

School closures meant kids at home. And kids at home meant home-schooling, which while it made for another blog post, was a daunting prospect. However, in our house we’ve faced up to it with an unusually positive attitude and we’re trying where possible to do new things. Me and my 10-year-old son now have a daily lockdown Spanish lesson via the Duolingo app and we’ve all started drawing and painting again after a friend set up a Lockdown Creative group. We’ve both had to adapt a bit too – while my wife is a mathematician, she’s been turning her hand to Science too and I’ve been having a go at Geography and History. Never a dull moment, but a hell of a lot of hard work.

Lockdown has created quite an eerie atmosphere though. One of my favourite pastimes has been just looking out of the window, partly to enjoy the stillness of everything, but also to just see if anyone’s out there. I keep looking over at our football pitches with a sense of longing. I’d do anything to be able to put on a training session or shout from the sidelines as we play a match. But lockdown has taken those privileges away and while when I’m doing them it can be fairly stressful and all-consuming, now they’re not there I miss them desperately.

There have been various reports and estimates about the length of time that this will all last for. Personally, I was initially told that I’d have to stay away from work for 4 weeks – there was even a faint suggestion that it might be earlier – but now I just feel any hopes of this fading away. I’ve heard lots of reports of around the 12-13 week mark and many that suggest we may be at home until the new school year begins in September. It’s a strange and terrifying thought. That you won’t see friends and family again for this length of time is almost surreal. And that’s before I even think about my students. But then, given the times we’re living in, as long as I get to see them all again, it’s Ok.

While there have been plenty of positives about the whole lockdown situation, there have been a lot of negatives. I don’t mean just not going out either. The job losses, the closure of community hubs, the suspension of sport and entertainment and of course the death.

From a personal point of view, as an avid user of social media, some of the moralising has sickened me. The campaign to applaud NHS workers was a wonderful thing, but as the son of a former NHS nurse of some 37 years, I did wonder if those applauding had ever particularly appreciated what they had with our health service before this point. Or even, once they’d stopped clapping and Coronavirus became a non too distant memory, would they continue to appreciate it. You see, I lost count of the mornings that my mam would walk in from a night shift in tears or bruised and looking like a ghost of her actual self after a patient or a visitor to her ward had verbally or physically abused her again. Were some of these people now those posting self congratulatory Facebook updates? Was standing at the door clapping as easy as slapping a nurse who was trying to help your dying relative? Was it easy to forget nurses being spat on during their shifts because you were clapping and whooping? Maybe I was over-thinking, maybe I’m the one who’s moralising. I don’t know, but I kept my tributes to the NHS to myself and phoned home to speak to my mam.

As a footnote here, a week on from the initial applause for the NHS and having bumped into friends who work in hospitals on our daily government sanctioned walk, I found myself on my doorstep with several others in my street, applauding and listening to the fantastic noise being generated in our vicinity. To be fair it was a moving experience, but my original point and my original concerns still stand.

I’ve taken a cynical view of other #lockdown social media posts too. And again, perhaps it’s mean-spirited of me, but some of it has made me laugh for all the wrong reasons. The main source here has been from (probably) middle class parents who appear to be trying to outdo each other with posts about what their kids have been up to. I read one saying that their 9 year-old-son was ‘taking advantage’ of lockdown (you know, despite all the death and that) in order to go through his parents’ record collection (because it simply had to be vinyl, didn’t it?) and listen to as much as possible while critiquing it. I simply don’t believe these people exist. And if they do, I feel for their kids. No doubt there are others whose children are learning Ukranian or studying sub-Saharan cave art or raising money for the oppressed indigenous people of Myannmar by having a gluten-free bake sale. They aren’t. But it makes you look interesting to more people on social media while we’re all locked down with nothing else better to do.

A real positive that I’ve discovered through lockdown has been the International Space Station. I know, it doesn’t sound particularly positive, right. More the domain of geeks. But let me explain. I discovered through a Twitter page that you could stand outside at night, during the particularly sunny week we had when the skies were clear, and watch it pass over the planet at a particular time of night. It got me curious and although I realised it would only be a light moving over, I found myself doing a little bit of research. It passes over the planet over 200 miles up, moving at over 17000mph. I was hooked. An actual space ship going over our house. And thus, for a few nights in a row I would be out in the cold, enjoying the silence and gazing skywards as a space ship with three astronauts aboard flew past the moon, Venus and over our house! It was only for a few minutes, but given the times we’re living in, it proved to be a few minutes of absolute joy. It’s something that I’ll continue to do when and where possible.

Lockdown has created a yearning for the outdoors, not just with myself and my family but with lots of others too. When it became clear that we would only be permitted one period of outdoor exercise per da,y my initial thoughts turned to finding ways around this. I was adamant that I’d be setting an alarm for 5am most days and sneaking out for a run. However, an ever growing sense of doom and paranoia put pay to that and I settled on the fact that we’d be out as a family, for a long walk, every night.

This should be a pleasant and positive experience and on the whole it is. However, two pressures have made things a little more serious. Firstly, in order to prevent boredom we’ve been trying to find different routes, which while being wholly possible is now becoming a bit of a pain. Then of course there is the sense of doom that one can feel when you bump into other people. Other people. They’re like the enemy! We’ll spot people approaching from a good distance away and while we’re happy to cross over, should it be safe, as time has gone on it’s become more of a game of cat and mouse. What if they’re turning off? What about the people on the other side? What about the person with the dog approaching from a separate direction? You find yourself still harbouring a sense of fear and yet second guessing the other people on the same side of the road as you! It’s quite bizarre and I don’t think I’ll ever look at going for a walk in the same way again!

The sense of paranoia multiplies tenfold in Asda (other supermarkets are available and indeed frequented). In the space of a couple of weeks I’ve gone from dashing around getting essentials from more or less empty shelves, while trying to think about not straying too close to others, to scenes more akin with what I’d imagined 1980s East Berlin to be like! Now we queue, at least two metres apart, in silence, for a good twenty minutes just so we can get in to the store. Security guards patrol the aisles while other members of staff block doors so you can’t leave via the wrong way. Shoppers eye each other warily, often mumbling or tutting impatiently if you get too close. People don’t seem to have figured out that it’s nigh on impossible to maintain a safe distance once you’re in a busier aisle. And don’t even think about not following the directional arrows on the floor! The weekly shop has become even more of a nightmare than we ever thought it could become.

The final word on lockdown must go to the mood swings. I stated earlier that I’m usually calm and can handle my emotions and not particularly bother others with them. Nowadays things have changed. Last week brought an almost opiate high when BBC 6Music played David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. I sang and danced around the kitchen with actual gay abandon and it felt great. But then while listening to Maximo Park’s ‘Apply Some Pressure’ I was reduced to silent weeping by the line “What happens when you lose everything?’ And then we had to go and watch The Undateables – one of our favourite programmes but one where my viewing was undoubtedly hampered by continuously finding that I had something in my eye…

Coronavirus has changed so much. As the weeks of lockdown pass and the global death toll continues to rise, it’s hard to put a timeframe on when things will feel like any kind of normal again. And will we even recognise what normal is anymore? I sense that even when we’re finally told that everything can go back to ‘normal’ there’ll be such a sense of doubt that normality will, in fact, take a very, very long time.

Until that time, stay safe and remember to look after those that need your help. And of course, keep reading!

Crosby Academy: Adventures in home schooling.

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Having been teacher for the last twenty years I’ve experienced a lot of challenges in the classroom. From earth-shattering breaking news like the attack on the Twin Towers to teenagers breaking wind that could well have cleared the classroom out for the day. However, this week I’ve been facing up to perhaps my biggest challenge yet. Home-schooling my own kids.

Monday 23rd March 2020 witnessed the birth of a new place of learning as Crosby Academy opened its doors for the very first time. We’re a small school. Tiny, in fact with a cohort of only two pupils and two teachers. We’re also a bit of a through school with students in Year 9 and Year 6. And with school closures meaning that students may not return to their actual place of learning this academic year, it leaves us sat between two stools, so to speak. Our Year 6 boy could well have seen his last Year 6 action, leaving us wondering if we should simply be preparing for, and getting ahead with, his start at high school.

But enough of the boring details. Let’s get to the fun stuff.

Following a non-existent consultation process I installed myself as Executive Principal of the academy. No interviews needed; I am absolutely the man for this job. I have literally no experience of this level of management, but figure that having worked with various SLTs in the past who seemed under-qualified to collect the trolleys in Asda, I’d be alright. That said, I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to start collecting the trolleys in Asda. Especially that bit where they stop the traffic by wheeling about a hundred of them out in a big row. Never mind, I’ll tackle that in my pensionable years.

Our main aim at Crosby Academy is to make learning fun for our kids. That’s a genuine sentence by the way; there is no punchline. From my point of view, it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock for all of us – we’re all out of our comfort zones, so let’s make sure we can cover lots of the skills the kids will need, but try to relax and enjoy ourselves at the same time.

With fun in mind, we start the day by taking part in Joe Wicks’ live YouTube PE lesson – a kind of aerobic workout, but I’m guessing, designed to be little more child friendly. Our Year 9 student opts out, as she does with most exercise these days, but other than that the whole school – staff and students – are ready to workout. We take our places in the ‘gym’ – our front room – and tune in to Joe’s YouTube channel ready to feel the burn, as they no doubt still say in gyms up and down the land, while staring at themselves in big mirrors and thinking about muscles like abs, quads and glutes.

At 9am Joe is in position, all skin tight top and a pair of shorts. He is enthusiasm personified, which is normally a bit much for me to take, but I remember our school motto, “It’s like getting an education on the Vengabus.” and put it out of mind. I make a mental note to start writing a school song though. My life is nothing without a futile exercise that will amuse me and me only.

We start with a five minute warm up. Some stretches and stuff to get the heart rate going. I am so busy focusing on bending my body into unnatural positions that I forget the 5 minute part and when Joe tells us we’ve finished our warm up I let out an audible “Whaaaat?”, having already worn myself out. But there’s no time to feel sorry for myself because after wittering on about ‘shout outs’ for a minute or so Joe launches into the first proper exercise. I think I might have to employ a new PE teacher; one that just does football and doesn’t ask for shout outs and then do things like tell the whole of New York, ‘We love you, New York’. We don’t. I mean, you’re alright but there are loads of things I love before you, like chocolate, Sam and Cat on Nickalodeon, Army and Navy sweets and almost everything from Greggs.

Despite my post warm-up fear, the next 20 plus minutes is actually really enjoyable. We speed through various exercises, including things called Jumping Jacks and Climbing The Mountain and there is even more talk of shout outs. At one point I find myself staring in some kind of fascination at Mr Wicks, whose abs are clearly visible even though he’s wearing a t-shirt. It’s like his clothes have been sprayed on and sculpted to him. Meanwhile I’m wearing the kind of loose top I wear for running that should hide a multitude of sins and still my little pot belly is shamefully visible. No matter – I still manage to stumble through the exercises. We seem to do more squats than is humanly necessary and at one point I fear that we should have set up a safe word beforehand, but I get through it. We all do. It feels like the toughest PE lesson ever, but as Executive Principal, I feel like I’ve sent an important message to my staff and pupils. It may well be that lycra and strenuous exercise is to be avoided by a man of my age, but I’ve sent an important message all the same. I might have to go and have a lie down, just while I figure out what it actually is though, you understand.

I decide that we’ll keep Mr Wicks at Crosby Academy. In my head we have the conversation about it. I tell him, “Mr Wicks *then I pause for dramatic effect, because I’m a man of great power now* we’d be more than happy to keep you here at the academy” and he looks at me a little bit in awe but all the while really chuffed, and says something like “wicked” and then gets carried away and calls me “geezer” before apologising. I tell him it’s OK and laugh while I ask the kids and the wife to ‘give a shout out to r Wicks!’. I think we’re having a bromance.

After our PE lesson, as we’re yet to go into lockdown, we go out for a walk, just as a sort of warm down. It’s a beautiful early Spring day, we’re keeping a safe distance from the very few people we encounter and we’re trying to keep the fun in education, remember?

Once we return to school Year 9 settle down to do some Art, while I take Year6/7 up to the Key Stage Fluid Suite (Dylan’s bedroom) to do some English. My daughter is studying for GCSE Art and with a lot of encouragement from us is beginning to believe in herself. She’s in fact very talented and is nowadays happy to just sit and draw or paint. Me and the boy leave her to it.

We’re doing some creative writing so we incorporate some of the ideas from Dylan’s school such as starting with an IQ, which it turns out is some sort of question where neither of us understands what the ‘I’ stands for. This is a bit of a worry given that my Year6/7 student will have had a lot of experience of using them, but I tell myself, it’s OK and that ‘school’s out’, so none of it matters. Learning on the Vengabus, remember? We work out however, that it seems to be a kind of learning purpose, but in the form of a question, so we muddle on through and settle on ‘Can I use interesting vocabulary in my description?’ Secretly I’m thinking more along the lines of ‘Can I get through this next hour without throwing his books out of the window?’ but I don’t let on.

I try to bring a bit of a flavour of high school to his work by making sure his writing is planned and making him stick to a timeframe. I also mark it soon after he’s finished and give him areas for improvement; what we call EBI (Even Better If) points. I’m not sure he likes it, but I try to be as positive as possible, given the fact that he’s my son and of course the only student in the year group. I’m thrilled to see that his first effort is pretty damn good. He’s a little bit shocked to discover that he’ll be re-drafting his work in tomorrow’s lesson though!

Following our English and Art lessons it’s break time and I decide to head out on duty. Our Year 9 student is out in the yard (our garden) so I decide to go and check on her. I think it’s important as the most important person in the academy, who it all revolves around (it’s all about me, not the bloody students), that I get out and mix. However, when I look for her she’s not there and I’m sent into a momentary spin. I’ve lost an entire year group!

It turns out that she’s channeling her inner Goth and avoiding the outdoors because it’s sunny and therefore not the kind of place for vampires. She’s in the room we use for messy play. Actually, let’s just correct that – she’s in her own really messy room doing her best impression of a tramp, in amongst all of her worldly possessions strewn about a 9ft by 9ft box room. She’s OK though and her mostly independent learning seems to be going well.

I decide to do what good leaders do next. I go and check up on my staff. I’ve done plenty of learning walks in actual schools, but not one in a home-school environment. That said, my home-school career is only hours old. However, I feel, given her inexperience as an educator, it’s time to pop into one of my wife’s lessons! Maybe I can pass on a few tips? I’m sure she’d appreciate that…

Obviously, she’s thrilled to see me and spends almost all of the time that I’m in the room with a big smile on her face. Or is that gritted teeth? There’s no pressure here at Crosby Academy though. I simply ask her about 14 different questions about what she’s doing and then, when I feel that I’ve had the answers that I consider the correct ones, I leave.

I don’t do any of this, obviously. But I do pop my head around the door to see how things are going. I haven’t heard any shouting from upstairs so it seems to have been going well and when I enquire that seems to be the case. It’s been a good first day and we bring things to an end rather early in order to give everyone a break and a bit of space away from each other.

For the rest of the week I’m largely responsible for all of the learning at Crosby Academy. Our Maths and Science teacher, my wife, who gets to specialise in all the boring subjects in one go, has to be back at work. In fact, given what is now a lockdown situation, she chooses to work from home, utilising one of our learning hubs here at the academy to make for a home office. Or rather, after a day trying to work at the dining room table with our daughter, she gives up and confines herself to our bedroom for the remainder of the week.

This leaves me as the sole teacher and as a result I give myself a promotion, following a meeting of the school governor (yes that is singular and the meeting amounts to me having a bit of a think). My title is now Admiral of Education – grandiose you may feel, but I’m the fella steering the learning liner, remember. It’s only me that’s responsible for the course of this particular pedagogical pedalo. And thus, admiral seems an extremely fitting title.

For the rest of the week we cover quite a bit of ground. We’re disciplined enough to make sure that we have school every day. Every morning at least two of us join in with Mr Wicks’s PE lesson and every morning I feel like he might be trying to do me an injury. No matter, I manage to stay with it for the week and although it’s difficult, it’s a huge amount of fun too. It feels like a nice way to spend doing some father son bonding time with the added perk that by the time it’s all finished and we’re back to some sense of normality I’ll have buns of steel as well as the possibility of actual abs, rather than just a little pot belly made out of crisps, chocolate and beer.

Our Year 9 student becomes largely autonomous, although I make sure that I check in on her progress regularly. So regularly in fact, that I’m positively wowed by the amount of education one can get from one’s phone these days…

My son – our Year 6 maybe 7 student – needs supervision, however. And so as well as daily Maths and English lessons, we spend time learning Spanish, learning about lines of longtitude in Geography, tuning in to a brilliant live lesson from a World War II bunker in History and then doing some Art outside in the sunshine. My friend and Art teacher Helen has set up a self-isolation Facebook group designed to get people doing art every day and so after our Art lesson I post both of our drawings in the group. It’s to my eternal disappointment that Dylan’s two cartoons from the Dogman books get infinitely more likes than my drawing of a flower from our camellia bush. It seems everyone really is a critic!

As the week ends I realise that despite the sense of dread that I’d had about home-schooling, I’ve really enjoyed myself. We’ve managed to have fun – I’ve only had the one tantrum after all – and I’d like to think that both kids have kept up their learning. Friends on social media have helped with ideas and through sharing things like the World War II bunker lesson and the Facebook drawing group and in the end it’s been a success. So much of a success in fact that I’m considering knocking on my neighbour’s door over the weekend to ask them if they’d like to join in with Crosby Academy. I could have a multi academy trust on my hands by the start of April.

Does anybody know what the rank above admiral is?