Poetry Blog: ‘Summer Rain’

Given the weather conditions as I write, I’m not entirely sure what led me to write a poem about rain in the summer. We’re in the middle of a bit of a heatwave here in the UK, so maybe it was wishful thinking.

It’s felt like a while since I’ve written anything poetic, so it was a relief when a few lines popped into my head one evening after work recently. I scribbled them down on to a scrap bit of paper and did my level best not to lose it over the next week or so. Mainly this involved stuffing said paper into either my work bag or my laptop case and hoping that it wouldn’t escape when I was taking something else out.

Having only written – and saved – an initial 6 lines, I was pleased when I was able to complete it all with a few revisions one night last week. As is quite usual for me, this came over the course of a couple of nights where I couldn’t get to sleep.

Summer Rain

The sudden splodge and spite of furtive rain
sees the summer masterpiece give way,
pushed aside it would seem, by the fingers of a toddler daubing
the contents of their imagination across a canvas
and transforming this little piece of paradise 
into something unrecognisable from what we looked out on seconds before.
Bright colours are dulled as clouds close curtains on the blue sky,
pavements and patios darkened by the rain, 
as leaves on trees and shrubs shudder with each almighty drop.
Suburban streets are temporarily transformed into Venetian canals
as the shower bounces off the parched earth and you find yourself
rapt by the shift that you've witnessed a thousand times before.
"It's like a river!" you hear yourself say, before you can help it
and when it stops, like someone gradually teasing off the tap,
the sun will return, almost before you had realised it was gone,
steam will rise from the tarmac,
and for a brief few moments the grass and the plants
will glisten until the heat takes away the very last of the summer rain

There’s always a sense of relief, I find, when the heat of the summer is broken by rain. We do get heat in Summer in the UK, by the way and right now, in the middle of the hottest spell of weather we’ve encountered for a long time, we could really do with a burst of rain.

At any other time, I’m not a fan of rain. In the Autumn and the Winter I really don’t like it at all as I know that not only is is going to soak me to the skin, but it’s going to make me feel even colder too. However, in the midst of a heatwave, it can be a godsend.

I wrote about it, as I said, because some of the lines for the poem simply popped into my head, but also because of the spectacle of that kind of unexpected rain that we regularly seem to get in the UK on what should just be a sunny day. It often seems to come without any real hint that it would be there and then all of a sudden there are black clouds splurging water all over the place and changing the look of the landscape. The lines about rain flooding the roads are there purely for my benefit and they make me smile. I seem to gravitate towards our front window when this type of rain happens, often grabbing the kids when they were younger so they too could view the spectacle. I don’t know why it fascinates me so much…I mean, things getting wet because it’s raining is about right, isn’t it?

I hope you enjoyed reading and that maybe the poem evoked some memories or feelings for you. It can’t just be me that still gets excited by a summer rain storm!

Poetry Blog: ‘The cold does not embrace you.’

I’ve written about sleep and sleeplessness quite a few times before. It’s a topic that I keep returning to because every once in a while I’ll find my sleep pattern disturbed and often for a few nights in a row I’ll find myself either lying awake and unable to focus on sleep because my mind is racing or just out of bed, sitting downstairs in our house, wide awake.

This is a poem that focuses on the former of those two scenarios, although as a result of my mind racing, I eventually got out of bed and wrote the poem. It was a night where, if I’m honest, I’m not sure whether I was awake or sleeping fitfully and suffering with nightmares. One thing’s for sure; it wasn’t a pleasant night’s sleep and there was a lot that disturbed me. You think that nightmares are things you left behind in childhood, but then get reminded that you’re sadly mistaken!

The cold does not embrace you
yet, for a short time its shiver soothes your skin
like a smooth palm comforting you through illness, fear.
An uneasy dream shifts and your thoughts are strangers
caught in the void between the fevered images of disturbed sleep
and the disquieting thud of your heart as you realise you're awake again.
Without warning, the rough skin of working hands grabs at your jaw,
takes hold, clutches.
A strangers eyes stare out from a familiar face,
gripped by a mood you know all too well,
before one last squeeze,
then the calloused hand, shoves your face away viciously,
like an imperfect toy on a production line, rejected
not good enough to be loved.
You blink to try and wake only to find another face now,
her hot breath invading your nostrils,
her gibberish bringing spittle to your skin,
her disapproval at the runt of the litter writ large
in neon across unloving eyes and twisted expression
informing you again of what feels like their hatred,
before words are put in your mouth and you flounder,
helpless against a place you don't belong,
a jigsaw you don't fit.
Shaking free, you brace yourself, 
turn your collar against the piercing winter and stumble forward,
in search of somewhere warm.
And while these ghosts will always haunt you 
with their chill,
every once in a while the winter sun will warm your skin.

It feels like there are two antagonists in this poem. The first I’m not sure of and it would be unkind to speculate. However, the second is definitely my grandmother, who was someone that I had a fractious relationship with, at best. She was a woman who never seemed to display any warmth whatsoever to me, which as a child was quite perplexing. In company with my many cousins, I remember she’d frequently refer to me as ‘this one’ while everyone else got called by their name. Let’s just say that it was clear I wasn’t her favourite! I can’t say that her treatment of me didn’t bother me, as it did. But as I got old enough to make my own choices, I just decided to avoid being in the same room as her. Even now though, there are occasions when she comes to mind and it’s never pleasant. Hence, the words in the latter half of the poem.

I tried to end the poem on a more positive note, just explaining what I’ve just mentioned, really. Childhood memories will always be there and will always crop up and affect your day. But there’s always a positive to be found.

I hope you enjoyed the poem or at least it had some kind of effect on you as a reader. The memories I’ve written about were incredibly vivid and I hope that feeling is conveyed by what I’ve written. As ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: ‘Absent Friends’

This is a poem that I wrote around Christmas time and then spent far too much of my time either poorly, relaxing or just eating and drinking to remember to write it up properly for my blog. As a result, it’s a little out of date, but I think the sentiment holds up, whatever the occasion.

It’s a poem about reflecting back and remembering those that we’ve lost, which I suppose we tend to do at important points in the year. We do it all year round, I suppose, but at times like Christmas and birthdays, when you’re maybe at your most relaxed you’re more prone to thinking about how much a particular person is missed or maybe even just how much they themselves would have enjoyed that occasion, it’s a little more pertinent.

Absent Friends

Absent friends sparkle even more at this time of year
and we raise a glass to remember more intensely now
than over the passing months,
more distant now, yet somehow our focus tunes more 
than before and we toast our absent friends,
tears punctuating what is still a celebration,
staining cheeks and mixing incongruously 
alongside cracker borne paper hats and party poppers.
our absent friends are guests once again and we all see
those smiles, hear those voices, cradle each other in arms 
used just hours before to shatter anticipation and tear at wrapping
covering all manner of happy shapes.
Now, a moment hovers longer than a moment, 
sharper than the year before until you can almost see them,
almost touch them, hold them again as they stand in the kitchen,
glass in hand nodding wistfully, gone but only a thought away,
yet agonisingly too distant for one more conversation.
And all we have left is love...

I must admit that when I looked again at the draft of this poem in my notebook, it didn’t make a lot of sense. The start of it, anyway. It was another poem that I’d written in the early hours and given that the first couple of lines didn’t seem to make any sense, perhaps I was more tired than I thought! After reading the rest of the poem a couple of times I was able to re-draft and change those lines in order to give it some clarity. I was tempted to leave it as it was – poetic license and all that – but decided that something that made sense was better than something so confusing. I’d love to know what I meant with the initial first line though!

‘Absent Friends’ is a product of both Christmas and New Year. I think we’re more likely to look back at New Year, but I know that having lost a close family friend relatively recently, our thoughts were with them on both occasions, both this year and last. I suppose it’s natural that we look back at these times. As I said earlier, it’s obvious that when we’re relaxed and happy we might reflect on those that aren’t around anymore and what they would have made of the situation that we happily find ourselves in.

In a different way, we found ourselves explaining to our children about another absent friend this year. The absent friend in question – still alive, but moved overseas – lived in the UK as a student teacher years ago and joined us for Christmas Day as he had no family around. He’s from Australia – hi Andy, if you read this – and so everything he knew and loved was on the other side of the world. As our mate, it was only right that he joined us and it was a fantastic day. We still think of him every year at Christmas and this year it was lovely to re-tell the tale of that particular Christmas Day, even if it left our kids quite perplexed as to why we chose to share our day with anyone else, when we always just have Christmas as a family these days! It was funny to hear their almost outrage at the fact that our guest wasn’t grandma or grandad, uncle or auntie, but Andy!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the poem and that, if it brought any memories back, they were fond ones rather than bad ones. Sometimes, despite the obvious pain that it can cause, it’s just a nice, warm feeling we get when thinking of those absent friends.

Poetry Blog – ‘Lockdown Museum’

This was a poem I wrote during our first period of lockdown. It was early summer and I sat down outside with an idea for a poem; something to remember lockdown by. Now, when you think about it, we’re not going to need anything to remember lockdown by. I think, for most of us, it’ll be firmly etched on the mind forever. For some of us lockdown brought the heartache of not being able to see family and friends, alongside thoroughly bizarre sights like fleets of empty buses on the roads, pubs and shops remaining closed and the sight of an oncoming family during your daily exercise stint striking fear into your heart as you played a strange game of chicken about who would cross the road first. And then there were the sounds…oh wait, with everyone locked away there were hardly any sounds!

For other people lockdown quickly lost its importance because apparently they weren’t allowed their human rights. Human rights such as being able to get ridiculously drunk in pubs every weekend, being able to walk down supermarket aisles any way they wanted and having to forego their right to ignore people’s personal space in shops. The term Covidiot quickly became a tired label, but it never lost its accuracy. It’s a hard life for some.

I decided – for some unknown reason – that I wanted to use rhyme in this poem, which is something I rarely do. It was a bit of a challenge to come up with rhymes that didn’t feel forced and, as a result, the poem took me a lot longer than usual. Another result, in my opinion, is that it sounds like I wrote it in Year 8. Sadly, I didn’t. So, a glowing reference for the poem from its writer then!

Anyway, here’s the poem, so I’ll let you judge it and its merits. You, dear reader, might just prefer a bit of rhyming…

Lockdown Museum

With 2020 fast being referred to as a hell of a year I’ve come up with my own commemorative idea. A grand exhibition with a pandemic theme, I’ve decided to create a lockdown museum.

With schools closing in early March, some educational artefacts would really look the part. Board markers, a highlighter, some stickers for praise, my own now redundant planner to prove I worked some days, a well worn copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a metaphor for the tragedy, disruption and the stress.

For the NHS and all of the intrepid frontline staff there’s PPE, rubber gloves and the obligatory mask. A child’s painted rainbow and a Thank You sign, pots, pans and applauding hands to represent that time, a video of Captain Tom, later made a knight, a latter day icon to help ease the nation’s plight.

A plethora of lockdown paraphernalia would make up all the rest unusual items that helped every day as the virus put us to the test. A beer pump, idle, to mark that pubs were closed, A ‘No Entry’ sign for supermarket aisles as well as empty roads. A ‘PE with Joe’ T-shirt and trainers for the boom in exercise recordings of Zoom quizzes, Teams meetings and House Parties arranged and on a giant TV screen, those daily briefings play to remind us that everything changed.

And perhaps, if hearsay’s true and this virus means there’s a new normality, our museum will grow and never be complete until a vaccine sets us free.

So there it is. A poem, that now I’ve read it through a few more times, I’m a little more proud of. I hope it captures the tone of those times, although I don’t think it quite cuts it where our second period of lockdown is concerned due to the sort of half baked nature of it all. Clearly, the first lockdown was very different.

I feel that there are some references that might need explaining, as I’m aware that not everyone who reads my stuff is from the U.K. So here we go.

Firstly, let me assure you that the first rhyming couplet works. The words ‘year’ and ‘idea’ clearly rhyme and I’ll have nothing said against it, even though if I read it in my accent it clearly doesn’t rhyme at all!

Then, in the second stanza, the reference to my ‘redundant planner‘ is there because just before schools closed I was sent home as I was classed as vulnerable to the virus. I didn’t work again until this September, spending 6 months attempting to work from home and fighting with a particularly unwilling and rebellious laptop. Thus, my planner was largely left unused. Oh, and I’m a teacher by the way, for those who didn’t realise.

The ‘pots, pans and applauding hands’ refers to our weekly clap for the NHS, performed at 8pm in doorsteps all around the country. To show appreciation for their heroic work people would stand outside their houses and clap for two minutes. This then quickly took on a new dimension as people added bashing pots and pans, bin lids etc to the noise they’d make to show their appreciation. Very, very British if you ask me!

‘Captain Tom’ from the same stanza was a 99 year old, retired soldier who took it upon himself to perform a sponsored walk of laps around his garden in order to raise money for the NHS. His aim was to raise £1000, but as his efforts became bigger and bigger news, he ended up raising £30,000,000 instead and was later knighted by the Queen. Arise Sir Tom and God Bless us all!

The penultimate stanza then references several things that stood out about everyday life in lockdown, my favourite being ‘PE with Joe’ – the fitness expert Joe Wicks would run exercise classes every morning via his YouTube channel and even on a quiet day thirty thousand people would be squatting in unison! What an endearing image! I personally became borderline obsessive about this – exrecise in general, not just squatting – even going as far as writing a poem about my bromance with the man himself. You can read it on the link below.

Poetry Blog – An Ode to Joe Wicks

So there we have it. Hopefully it’s an upbeat poem that brings back some more tolerable and perhaps even happy memories about a remarkable time in all of our lives. I hope you enjoyed it and feel free to leave a comment.

Whatever Happened to The Mix Tape?

The mix tape. In a sense, a history lesson needs to be given before this piece can really get going. So here goes…

For the younger reader – I’m talking late teens to adults in their twenties and onwards, not toddlers – the mix tape was a thing of beauty. It was literally a blank cassette tape, often known as a C45 or a C-60, and then you’d record some of your favourite songs onto said tape, for a variety of reasons which we can go into later. A cassette, by the way, was actual tape that recorded the sound, on two spools encased a a plastic rectangle. Like this one below; glamorous, huh?

Photo by Dmitry Demidov on Pexels.com

Us older people would make mix tapes by playing music from another source – maybe the radio, another cassette or vinyl – and then recording the tracks straight on to the tape. In many ways we were pioneers, early superstar DJs, as long as you ignored the quality. And the superstar bit.

This blog was prompted by a BBC 6Music programme that I listened to one weekday morning, a while ago now. It was Lauren Laverne’s mid morning show and she was talking to a guest, the writer Jane Sanderson. Jane had written a book called ‘The Mix Tape’ and so the interview concentrated partly on the book (which sounds great, by the way) and partly on the idea of mix tapes, while also getting Jane to contribute a mix of songs that she herself would put on a mix tape. I scribbled down some of the ones I liked, but as I was working during a free period, it made it difficult to keep up! I’ll include the list at the end of the blog for you though, dear reader, and perhaps you might want to check them out.

Of course, the interview got me thinking about the days of mix tapes and my own experiences. For me, mix tapes had a dual purpose, as I suspect they did for many others. At first I’d share them with friends as we discovered new music. Usually this would be either purchased from our local record shop – Music Box in Blaydon – or borrowed from the library. Both places were like a kind of Mecca to me in my formative years and I’d happily spend hours in either, perusing what there was on offer, searching for new sounds that I’d read about or maybe even taking a gamble that would invariably not pay off, by rooting round the bargain bin! And while this makes me sound like a very lonely individual, I wasn’t. I had genuine friends. No, honestly, I did. Real, tangible human ones, not just voices in my head or shadowy figures at the bottom of our garden!

Anyway, once sourced I’d tape this new music, adding it to what I laughingly referred to as a ‘mix’, on yet another blank cassette, even though there was no mixing; just the end of the track and the clunk of the stop or pause button, followed by a similar clunk and a hiss as I started recording the next track.

Part of the idea with mix tapes was to offer a taste of new music to the recipient. Us mix tapers somewhat automatically set ourselves up as experts and svengalis who would open the minds of our devotees with the startling choices we made; the musical gems we unearthed. Often the idea would be to try and outdo each other, in a kind of ‘I’ll take your lo-fi garage band mix and raise you my underground East coast hip hop.’ And we would outdo each other with music that we loved, not simply something that we hated, but knew that the other person wouldn’t have ever heard of. In many ways we were a bit sad, but not that sad! Sometimes though it was a simple case of hearing something that you loved and knowing that the person on the receiving end of the mix tape would love it too.

Mix tapes would also be a good way of communicating with the latest object of our affections too. Music was something that I knew quite a bit about and something that I soaked up as much as I could. So it was a subject that I could talk about with at least a bit of authority and hopefully not sound too dull. And a good job too, because my other area of expertise, football, was not of much interest to the girls of 1980s Newcastle. But as quite a shy boy, who inhabited a world of self-doubt, the mix tape was an in with girls. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t some kind of predator; often it was just a good way for a girl to get a free cassette and that was where our interaction ended, but on some occasions it actually worked! On one occasion the girl I fancied payed back my gift of a mix tape full of songs I thought she might be interested in, with a copy of Pretty Woman on VHS, leaving me puzzled as where she saw our potential relationship going. It turned out that she simply loved the film and seeing my enthusiasm for the music, thought she’d reply with something she also loved. And despite our obvious unsuitability, a brief romance ensued. It didn’t end very well, but it definitely started! And all because of a mix tape!

My approach to mix tapes became more sophisticated as I got older. As well as developing my musical tastes, I also developed the look of my mix tapes and started to design front covers for them rather than just presenting them to the recipient with an inlay card containing names of tracks and artists. When I say ‘designed’ it would often amount to cutting pictures from a magazine that might fit with the general feel of the mix tape and manipulating them into the cassette case as neatly as I could. Sometimes though, when my confidence was at its medium level best, I might do a sketch and use that as the front cover. So in some ways I was trying to create some kind of art, I suppose. And until now I’d thought that I hadn’t been remotely pretentious in my teenage years!

However, I suppose what my ‘artsy’ period shows is exactly how seriously we all took mix tapes. Not only did people spend hours carefully selecting not just the tracks to go on the tape, but also what order they would go in to have the best impact on the recipient. Then on top of those hours we’d also add more, collecting images that might look good in a cassette case and even more going through said images in search of exactly the right one for whatever mix tape we were creating at the time. But it wasn’t in any way a laborious process. I’m sure I speak for many of us who ‘curated’ such tapes when I say that it was massively enjoyable. Mix tapes were that important that at times they took over our lives and would often consume entire days. And all in the hope of some kind of connection being made.

As I listened to the interview that prompted this blog, once I’d got past being nostalgic, I began to think about who I might send a mix tape nowadays and what tracks I’d want to include. The whole process would be undoubtedly made easier now because of the internet and things like Alexa. Our playlists are there permanently and waiting to be explored and even a Luddite like me can navigate them.

My obvious recipient would be my wife, but the snag here is that we share a lot of the same musical taste and, having been together for such a long time, there’s very little that we don’t know about each other’s playlists and tastes. Although only very recently she surpised me by being wholly unaware of the song Super Freak by Rick James, preferring to believe that it was MC Hammer who was playing on the radio. For the same reason I’d have to rule out some of my friends. I think I’d still exchange mix tapes with those that I’d class as proper music fans though – David, Andy, Pricey, Emma, Kath, to name but a few. And I’m sure I could put something of meaning together for my wife as well.

After a bit of thinking though, I think the first person I’d want to send a mix tape would be my sister. We’re two very different characters and not the closest of siblings. But I’d like her to know how much of an influence she had on some of my tastes while we both still lived at home together and I’d like to try and bring a bit of sunshine to her life with a few decent tunes. I don’t have an entire mix tape planned out but some of the tracks I’d definitely include would be ‘White Lines’ by Grandmaster Flash, which she introduced me to as a teenager and I’d hope would remind her of better times. Now if you know the song, that might seem like a bad one for a teenager in the 1980s to be aware of, but I can assure you I had no idea what they were rapping about; I just loved the song! Then there’d be ‘Loaded’ by Primal Scream, because I’d bet she’s never heard it and that’s a crying shame (plus I think it might be the kind of track she could do with listening to at the end of every day) and ‘One Big Family’ by Embrace because I think sometimes we need a reminder that we’re actually brother and sister. After that, I could add all sorts of interesting tracks for her to give a listen to. Because of course, that’s the beauty of a mix tape.

In her interview, Jane Sanderson was asked to give 6music a mix tape of her own. Of course, it wasn’t via cassette, but it was a great mix of songs. Unfortunately for me, I was listening during a free period at work and so, had to tune out when it came to teaching again. However, if you’re interested – and you should be as there are some ace tracks – the tracks that I made a note of were, Northern Sky by Nick Drake, I Close My Eyes by Dusty Springfield, Thinking About You by Frank Ocean and I Didn’t See It Coming by Belle and Sebastian. Maybe they’ll be the first four on my first foray back into the world of the mix tape?

Listening to Lauren Laverne and Jane Sanderson got me thinking about the possibility of a cassette revival. After all, we’ve witnessed it with vinyl where after 12 continuous years of rising sales, over 4 million LPs were sold in the UK in 2019. Similar digging for figures revealed that there was a 103% increase in sales of music cassettes in the first 6 months of 2020 with 65,000 cassettes purchased in the first 6 months of the year. Clearly, people are buying cassettes again. Could we see the return of the mix tape? I hope so. How long before I can start sending them out again? Surely it’s only a matter of time! Ladies and gentlemen, we could be witnessing the rebirth of a veritable cultural phenomenon!

As ever, let me know in the comments what you thought of the post. I’d be really interested to know about other people’s experiences of mix tapes too. I’m sure there are some brilliant stories out there!

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