A new guilty pleasure – Blind Date!

No Cilla Black, no TV appearances, no answering a set of three questions with pre-prepared wacky answers and no sneaking round furtively while essentially being unfaithful. Don’t worry, I’m not that bloke. These are not the blind dates I refer to. Let me explain…

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve probably learnt a lot about ourselves over the last 18 months or so. A global pandemic – previously exclusive to Hollywood – has made a lot of us sit up and have a good old think about who we are, what we do, where we’re going and such like. Although the ‘where we’re going’ part of that last sentence was pretty much restricted to round the block or within a mile radius of our houses during lockdown, so I suppose it probably didn’t take a lot of consideration.

Still, people discovered facets to their personalities that they had never realised were there. The resilience and resolve that got people through hadn’t always been evident before. Some discovered that with time on their hands they could create art or explore an imagination that probably hadn’t had its door opened since childhood. And others became past masters at hoarding and are probably still using toilet rolls and pasta that was stashed in a loft or garage in May of last year.

I went big on fitness. Like evangelically big. Exercising daily, running like my life depended on it and – oh, the horror of admitting this – staring at my newly toned torso in our bathroom mirror for minutes on end and like never before. Going back to work put pay to this, but for a while there I was…well, I wasn’t a skinny, out of shape middle aged bloke anymore!

I found time for other things too though. I dabbled with my ancestry online, I made all manner of garden improvements and I read a lot more than usual. And it was the reading that provided my new found guilty pleasure; The Guardian Weekend magazine’s ‘Blind Date’ feature!

At the start of lockdown, with an obvious chunk of extra time on my hands and set to stay that way for a little while at least, I upped my reading material. I’d flirted with The Guardian and The Observer before, but never committed to anything. However, when lockdown meant I’d be a lot less likely to get my hands on a Sunday newspaper, I plumped instead for Saturday’s edition of The Guardian. It was within these pages that I found my new guilty pleasure, the Blind Date feature.

The premise is simple. Two people – who presumably have taken part in some sort of application process – are matched up and sent on a blind date. Afterwards they answer some questions and said questions, together with a quick photo make up the feature. They go on a blind date and we get to read about it. So far, so not really of any interest to me whatsoever. Except it was.

I read the Blind Date feature every weekend in the magazine section of the Guardian. Always two different people, but always the same set of questions. And I found myself addicted pretty quickly.

Every week I’d look forward to getting towards the back of the magazine and getting a look at this week’s two potential lovebirds who would be faced with the following questions.

  1. What were you hoping for?
  2. First impressions?
  3. What did you talk about?
  4. Any awkward moments?
  5. Good table manners?
  6. Best thing about_______?
  7. Would you introduce them to your friends?
  8. Describe ________ in three words.
  9. What do you think they made of you?
  10. Did you go on somewhere?
  11. Did you kiss?
  12. If you could change one thing about the date, what would it be?
  13. Marks out of ten?
  14. Would you meet again?

I’d start by having a look at the picture accompanying the article and invariably I’d be intrigued. Within seconds I’d be making a mental prediction as to whether these two would match well. As the weeks went on I’d be willing them to get on, like I was one of their grandmas commenting on the nice young gentleman or lady they’d brought to visit. Maybe it’s an age thing or maybe I just have a nurturing/caring side that I was otherwise unaware of, but it didn’t take me long to really care about the individuals put in front of me on a weekly basis. This really wasn’t like me, but still week after week it was how I felt. Clearly, lockdown was taking its toll!

Initially these blind dates took place via a Zoom call and I found myself intrigued by the idea of getting to know someone on the other end of a camera. It also meant that the final question – ‘Would you meet again?’ – was often an anti climax as the restrictions made it nigh on impossible to meet anyway. Thus, I’d be left feeling let down as couple after couple gave their date an 8 or 9 out of ten, then followed it up by saying that they were unlikely to meet up again. And thus, my cupid complex began to feel rather fruitless and it made me quite sad, really.

Some were sure that they’d meet up in the future and looking back at some of the clippings I kept I think I need closure. So if The Guardian would like to contact Huw and Charlotte from some time in Spring of last year, I’d be eternally grateful!

It was still interesting however to find out peoples’ first impressions and the topics of conversation and it got me wondering what directions I’d try to steer a conversation. Sadly, I concluded that it’d most likely be date after date spoiled by me droning on about football! Good job I’ve managed to burden my wife with me really! That lass is a saint!

When I read through the questions posed to the blind daters there was sometimes a hint of sadness, although maybe disappointment would be a better way of putting this. It might start when a dater was asked to sum up their ‘partner’ in three words. While one of them would be complimentary, on the other side you could sense the coldness with words like ‘interesting’ and ‘different’ and at this point I’d be preparing myself for a disparity in their marks out of ten for the date. The answer to the last question, ‘Would you meet again?’ would be all too obvious then and I’d be left somewhat pining for the next edition of Blind Date and at least a hint of romance between two strangers.

I still open the Guardian magazine every Saturday eager to read about another blind date. It’s been this way for probably over 18 months now and my enthusiasm shows no sign of flagging. Isn’t it strange what a global pandemic can bring into your life?

Poetry Blog: Heart

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

This is a very personal poem. I wrote a couple in March, at the very start of lockdown, when I had been sent away from work due to what they tell me are underlying health conditions. I’m asthmatic and so Coronavirus wasn’t ever going to be my friend. However, on top of this, a while back I was admitted to hospital with what turned out to be a problem with my heart. At the time I genuinely thought I was going to die and it became quite the experience! I didn’t die – I was given various different types of pills to calm things down and then a month or so later had an operation to correct the problem. I’m much stronger now, but the virus brought a lot of memories flooding back, as well as providing me with a genuine sense of fear that there was again another chance that I could die.

In amongst the memories came the sleepless nights and in amongst the sleepless nights came the creativity that led to the poem below and a couple of others. Anyway, here’s Heart.

For four days, I waited. Thought, as all men do, that this would pass. Eventually, fear brought a confession that led to here. And then more waiting, a false confidence painted on to everything I say and do because I cannot let her see my vulnerability, cannot let her see my fear. Strength is a necessary pretence. Yet with every new face, strength evaporates until I am wheeled like a casualty of war or, more likely a damaged antique, into a room where some will come to die.

I sign forms, answer relentless questions, give blood and am attached to a machine that makes me feel like it is doing my living for me. Something has to. Even false confidence gives way now and I sit, slumped, preparing for tears. The thought of death is probably as good a reason as any.

Then a voice from a darkened corner speaks. He’s been here before, a veteran and senses my terror, my weakness and flings out a hand to drag me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black and terrifying ocean. I listen mostly, adding an occasional cliche or just a noise until I sense that I have recovered the strength to be alone. Life has come full circle, I think.

And although I’m far too frightened to close my eyes, I give way to the darkness where the sounds emanating from machines punctuate the eerie, unwanted silence. It is all too much.

Eventually, I am woken by strangers with the best of intentions, giving me tablets, asking more questions, taking more blood and as dawn’s light pushes its way into my dreams, I realise I am still alive. Still here. Still scared, still bewildered, still alone. No longer disguised by darkness I paint on another mask of confidence. This is what men do.

Far too much later she returns. It has been a lifetime. I’m still here. Still hers. Eternally, but almost not at all.

What happened to me wasn’t all that serious. Not when put into context, anyway. I didn’t have a heart attack and as far as I’m aware, there was never any panic from the people that matter that I might not make it. There were, however, some serious conversations had and I was left in no doubt that I’d been very silly to leave things as I did. I worked with a heartbeat of 140+ for a few days. I can’t quite remember, but I think I coached my football team and ran a warm-up that weekend too. Even when a doctor told me I should go to the emergency department I somehow managed to weasel my way out of it and attend a meeting about our football club instead. My doctor called me in the middle of the meeting though and when blue lights were threatened, I took the hint.

On hearing that I’d been ignoring my thumping heart a nurse made some kind of remark that was along the lines of ‘it’s a good job you finally came in’ and that really shocked me. Later, my cardiologist took time to inform me that I would be monitored very carefully and that they were doing everything they could to stabilise things. Meanwhile, I became sure that I wouldn’t be going home.

So that’s what the first verse is referring to. I ignored things thinking that one morning I’d wake up and it would all be alright – very male! I didn’t dare tell my wife at first so I didn’t worry her and then as time went on, so she wouldn’t explode at me!

At hospital I expected to be prescribed some pills and sent on my way. When I wasn’t I was scared. The whole process was lightening quick – a nurse would visit and prod me or give an injection or a tablet, then a doctor, then another with questions and I was told I’d definitely be admitted. My wife came in with a bag for my stay and I had to appear my usual relaxed self. Hence, the line that ‘strength is a necessary pretence‘.

I wasn’t allowed to walk up to the ward. A porter was summoned and I was taken in a wheelchair and this is where the ‘casualty of war/damaged antique image comes from. It was after 11pm so the ward was dark – bizarelly I didn’t expect this – and after a lot of activity with various staff coming and going, I was left alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I sat fighting tears.

The third stanza was the time on the ward that really helped me. The man in the bed opposite had been brought in a few days previously, having suffered his third heart attack. I didn’t want to talk, but on reflection as he ‘flings out a hand to pull me back to shore and save me from the depths of a black ocean.’ was a genuine moment of human kindness. He wasn’t wallowing in his own illness, just concentrating on cheering me up. He talked about how amazing the staff were and just the need to slow down – why I was here – and I was forced to listen. I can’t remember his name, but I know I’ll never forget his kindness.

The rest of the poem is just about the exhaustion that led me to sleep and the people that woke me up at certain intervals to make sure I took pills, drank and just knew where I was and what was happening.

The final thing that I feel I need to point out is the short final stanza. I think ‘Far too much later she returns’ probably sounds critical and impatient. It isn’t. It’s about my wife visiting the ward. I hope the poem isn’t looked at as remembering being ill. It’s also a love poem.

I was absolutely desperate to see her. This was partly for me and partly to let her know that I was alright. I must have woken up on the ward before 6am and so it felt like ‘a lifetime’ had passed when she arrived. Part of that covers just the sheer amount of thinking that I did and part, just very simply the amount of time it seemed to take.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed the poem. As I said, it’s a really personal piece of writing and the kind of thing that I both wanted to share while also wanting to keep private. Essentially though, if it’s left in a notebook, it’s just words on a page.

Let me know what you think.

Newcastle United – addressing the state of our nation.

This isn’t some kind of mock speech. It’s not an address where you’ll learn anything particularly new, but I do hope to add to what seems to be a growing number of fans thinking in much the same way. Because what needs to happen is going to take numbers. And I do hope to address the state of our club. And what a state it’s in.

Newcastle United are a proud club. We are 126 years old and as such have had a history that has been eventful to say the least. We’ve sat, several times, at the very top of the pile dominating English football and we’ve had our own personal rock bottom years too. We’ve never dropped into League 1, mind.

Sadly though, for the majority of the last 12 years, Newcastle United have been nothing short of a shambles and while there has been some relative success it has always been clouded by darkness, a lack of ambition and it would seem at times an unfathomable determination to do anything possible in order to alienate its fan base. We are a club stricken by disease and until we find a cure, Newcastle United cannot move forward and will continue, tragically, to be overtaken by the likes of Watford, Bournemouth and Southampton.

Mike Ashley ruined my club for me. His actions and his decisions made me give up on what had been a lifetime obsession. Born and raised in Newcastle I had followed my father in supporting our home town team. This had nothing to do with glory-hunting or bandwagon jumping; this was a decision made out of love, pride and blind loyalty. We were in Division 2 (the equivalent of the Championship) at the time. That was my story. That was the same story that many of us would have. But, having sat through so many highs and lows that I’d lost count I gave up my season ticket because of Mike Ashley and his cronies.

The infamous Hull City game made up my mind. It was September 2008, Kevin Keegan had just resigned and we were facing up to our first game without him, again. The atmosphere was toxic, the ground a seething cauldron of pure anger and hate. I sat, having previously been moved to a place in a different part of the ground away from people I’d spent years with, feeling alone and helpless to stop what was going on with the club. My decision was made that day. I would see out the season regardless of what happened – we were relegated – and I would never go back until there was no Mike Ashley.

I’ve never been back. It’s a decision that has been made slightly easier as I now have children and I live 100 miles away, but it still breaks my heart. As a kid and even as a young man, not going to St. James’ Park was something I couldn’t comprehend. But things change and people get older, move on and welcome other obsessions into their lives, like families. I had a family and had put some distance between myself and Newcastle. Neither reason would have stopped me going without Ashley though. I read the newspapers, watch the games and reports on television and scan through social media for news of my club. But it’s not the same. A chunk of me has been taken away.

So what started off as a small boy – I think I was 6 – going to home games with his dad and sitting fascinated by the colour and the noise and the fact that people genuinely got paid to play for my team, at the back of the East Stand, then blossomed into attending games with my mates and doing anything I could to scrape together the money to afford the ticket. As a teenager I started to travel to away games too, opening up a whole new world of following the Toon and just multiplying my adoration for the club. This continued as a young man and well into my late thirties. When I had kids I naturally assumed that this would be something we’d do together, like me and my dad had many years before. But no. Mike Ashley and his reign of neglect have forced my hand, like it will have done to many other fathers. So if you thought describing this whole scenario as heartbreaking was a bit over the top, then maybe now you can understand.

Recently, even following from a distance has been painful. We’ve had two stable seasons and the signs have been good. We’ve had a world class manager; a man who clearly loves the club, the area, the people. We’ve – sort of – broken our longstanding transfer record. We have a team that cares, and team that tries and who, it would seem, would lay their bodies on the line for our club. It had seemed like this never-say-die quality was going to be supplemented by even better players. But no. Despite meeting with his manager weeks ago and despite said manager providing a list of potential signings Newcastle United has ground to a halt. Rafa Benitez – he of Champions’ League winning, managing some of the top sides in Europe, Paul Dummett transforming, popping his glasses back in his top pocket after games, calling it a cloob, and telling us C’mon Toons! – has been dispensed with.

It came as a shock, but at the same time was no shock whatsoever. Whichever way you look at it the decision was the most Mike Ashley thing ever (until the next one) and had I been a betting man I could have cleaned up. The offer made to the manager was never going to match his ambitions and it would seem that this was wholly intentional. And in the end why would any manager want to stay at a club that wouldn’t let him manage?

Rafa Benitez will be a huge loss to us all. His arrival awakened the club and in truth it awakened something in us all, too. He brought vision, class, passion, expertise and understanding, where before we’d had John Carver talking about the guys at the club, Alan Pardew talking about himself and forever adding to a seemingly never-ending list of excuses and Joe Kinnear talking out of his arse. Rafa did none of that. Rafa gave us hope.

Rafa also helped bring back pride and dignity to not only our supporters but to the region too. It gladdened my heart to see the pictures of him and his staff taking in the local landmarks a couple of years ago, in order to learn more about their new environment. And then there was his work with the Newcastle United Foundation and the NUFC Foodbank – both causes that the likes of Pardew wouldn’t have touched with the proverbial bargepole. There will undoubtedly be lots more causes that Rafa took an interest in, lots more lives that he touched, that you or I will never know of.

Rafa Benitez got Newcastle United. He understood the people, the city and the region. He invested in us and although it’s a terrible cliché, he became one of us. He stands alongside Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson as one of the greatest Newcastle managers of the modern era, as well as one of the most popular. It’s nothing short of a crime that the powers that be at our club – it’s not theirs – have allowed his contract to run down and essentially dismissed him. I understand that he wanted to leave, but that has nothing to do with anything or anyone other than Mike Ashley and his gang of halfwits. These people have made our club into a shambles by taking backward step after backward step and all of it without any real communication with their customer base; the fans. While all of this has gone on, off the back of – relatively speaking – another successful season, the club have churned out ‘no comment’ after ‘no comment’. In the end, what was happening was as predictable as it was inevitable. Most of all, it was heart-breaking.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, a takeover has been brewing. Someone in possession of both a shedload of money and a modicum of common sense had seen the potential of our club. It was really going to happen this time, right?

Wrong. Even amidst talk of a takeover it’s been difficult to get excited. There was optimism for a short while; someone was communicating with the fans. We didn’t know who they were or whether they had the money to buy the club, let alone whether Ashley would sell, but these people were telling us it was on. But as with Staveley and Kenyon (Christ, even like Barry Moat!), the trail has gone eerily quiet. We’ve gone from the bookies giving us relatively short odds on signing Kylian Mbappe to the majority of people suspecting yet another false dawn in a matter of weeks. A Newcastle United story if ever there was one. Aye, another one! But just because it’s all so very Newcastle United doesn’t make it any easier to take. And the silence from the club – apart from the now universally mocked ‘ no comment’ – is simply astounding. Astounding and absolutely unacceptable.

So what exactly is the state of our nation. Well, as I previously stated, it’s nothing short of a shambles. And that’s being reasonable. The club is quite simply an utter mess. At the time of writing we may or may not be being taken over by a billionaire. There should be a sense of optimism at the prospect of being labelled the new Man City and preparing ourselves to ride the wave of success that would inevitably bring. But there can’t be, can there? In actual fact, we can’t even be too sure that our owner, who put the club up for sale, actually wants to sell the club. And the fact that even one fan might regard this as a possibility is completely ridiculous. I’ve found myself looking at the buyer’s name to try and work out if it’s an anagram for something else that would reveal that we were being cruelly misled. We’ve seen an interview from Ashley himself, discussing the possibility of selling the club on more than one occasion and still, he might as well be saying that he’s attempting to sign Mickey Mouse for  world record fee (for a mouse).

As I write we have no manager. We had one. A world class one. But those in charge of the club decided that his help, guidance, advice and football knowledge wasn’t really needed anymore. Not exactly a forward thinking approach. However, add that to the fact that pre-season training starts in a couple of days and you wouldn’t get many sane people questioning you when you tell them you expect another relegation this season. On top of that we know that Lee Charnley is in charge of appointing the next manager, and I don’t think I’d be alone in finding that prospect as one that sends a chill down my spine. That said, I’ve got to the point where I’m actually not that interested anymore. Whoever becomes the new manager will still inspire the same lies, lies and more lies that any other manager in the Ashley era has been faced with. And whoever they are, you’d be surprised to see them get anything more than another lick of paint to the training ground in the next few year, let alone any stellar signings.

The transfer window has been open for quite some time now and we’ve still done nothing. No incomings – so little change there then – and plenty of ridiculous stories linking us with players who we simply won’t buy because of the finance involved, which is exactly the same as previous seasons. Think about it, last season there were several clubs in the Championship that comfortably outspent us. Christ, we haven’t even sold Joselu yet and from what we read in the press he’s been heading through the door for the last three weeks! But hot off the press comes new of Ayoze Perez’s departure and the seemingly strong possibility that Sean Longstaff may also be sold. And still, according to some in the media, it’s not Mike Ashley’s fault, he’s doing nothing wrong and us Newcastle fans are unreasonable. 

We could go on and on, but frankly it’s worse than depressing. Some people believe football to be a waste of time and a triviality that they sum up by telling you it’s ‘only a game’ or ‘it’s just a load of people chasing a ball around’. Well, they’re wrong. It’s an obsession for lots of us. It’s might well be the thing you love the most and if it isn’t it’ll be right up there. In times where mental health is an ever-growing issue, football can be something that brings unbridled joy and a smile to many a face. And if someone wants to trivialise something as wonderful and pure as that, then maybe they’re the trivial one. I’ve experienced many emotions across the course of my lifetime and some of the most joyous could have only been provided by football and specifically by Newcastle United. The joy, togetherness, laughter…even the heartache. Let me illustrate. On one occasion I sat in an ice rink and held hands with my two best mates while chanting ‘We three are one’ in order to somehow help John Burridge save a penalty. Our held hands were placed on top of a cut-out-and-keep picture of Uri Geller’s hand and our feet on top of each other’s, just to add that extra layer of stupidity and detail. Burridge saved the penalty – joy. We were three teenagers lads holding hands – togetherness that was ahead of its time, I think you’ll agree. We still laugh about it to this day. It was the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Sunderland and we lost the 2nd leg and didn’t get promoted – heartache. You’ll read this and understand exactly what I mean. But Mike Ashley, Lee Charnley, Keith Bishop, Dennis Wise and any of the others at the bottom of life’s barrel don’t understand at all. They wouldn’t go to anywhere near the lengths we go to in the name of their football club. And that’s exactly why things have to change.

I’ve never understood why Mike Ashley wanted Newcastle United. Not on a human level anyway. I understand the desperate need to grow his business, but even then, his junk shop was hugely successful and he was rich beyond his wildest dreams, without Newcastle United. So, as we know, it comes down to a simple matter of greed. He cannot get any pleasure, any fun, any joy out of our club. He can’t get what we get from Newcastle United. And in that aspect he can’t even begin to understand what it feels like to be one of us. He rarely even watches them play. He quibbles about buying players and employs PR staff to peddle us lines about being unable to compete with mediocre sides and relatively small clubs in order to try and dampen our enthusiasm and optimism for this thing that we’ve been brought up to love. He treats us like idiots even though you don’t have to be Einstein to work out that the Premier League is awash with money. So where’s ours, Mr Ashley?

Why bother, Mike? You’ll never be accepted and never be taken seriously. Face it, even your friendly apologists are on the payroll in some way. Our club has been dragged through the mud by your regime, suffering under the hands of people like Jiminez, Lambias, Kninear and Wise – although little Dennis’s hands were only tiny. We’ve been lied to and strung along and this has to be the last straw.

So how do we solve a problem like Mike Ashley? I don’t have a grand answer in terms of the protests that we could organise or a guaranteed way of removing that man from our club, but I know a way that we can and should hit back. It’s not original, but I reckon it would be effective. And if me writing this gets even one person to take some action, then we’ve had some success.

We no longer give him our money and we expose his lies to the world by boycotting games. As I mentioned previously, I gave up my season ticket years ago. It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly. Newcastle United have been a lifelong love and I adored everything about going to games. The sense of belonging was something to cherish even when we were being hammered into humiliation; something I’d grown used to. But the highs made it all worth it. Every chant that made me laugh reminded me of what I had. Every goal produced a joy that largely went unmatched elsewhere. Climbing the steps to look out over that ground, that pitch and watching those black and white stripes emerge from a tunnel meant the world to me. But I knew that I had to give it up. And I knew that others would be like-minded.

It’s hard. It’s unimaginably hard to face up to the fact that you’ll not be in your seat when there’s a game. It haunts you and you dream of the day when you’ll feel like you can go back. Like everything has slotted back into place. Because there’s something missing without it. And it’s an absolutely huge something as well.

But you have to give it up. Only for now. A temporary necessity, if you will. To keep going is to perpetuate the myth that everything’s alright. And it’s not alright. It’s not your club anymore. The shell is the same, but there’s a cancer attacking what’s at the heart of it and the only way to fight is to stop feeding it. That man wants you in your seat because it feeds his ego and helps to publicise his shop. Thousands of people sitting around his tacky logo looks like thousands of people endorsing it. But you can’t. You can’t endorse Wise, Kinnear, the Sports Direct Arena, Wonga, Xisco, Pardew, price rises, wheelie bin ice baths, paddling pools being used for the recovery of professional athletes at the training ground, selling off your best players and not replacing them and cheaply manufactured strips that denigrate our name.  And you can’t endorse a regime that gives you John Carver, but tosses the likes of Shearer, Hughton and now Rafa Benitez away like used toys. That regime don’t want a Newcastle united. To endorse that is to open yourself up to the fact that it’s going to just keep happening.

So give up that season ticket. Walk away – just for now – from this relationship. And for a while, don’t look back. Fill that void – just for now – with something else. Rediscover family and friends, take up a hobby, follow a new sport or a different team (nonleague, of course). Do anything – just  make it lawful – but don’t go back until he’s gone. Because one day we’ll get our club back.

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