Bang The Drum, Let Summer Come

I took this photograph a few days ago of a local fishing pond, frozen over.

There’s not much colour in it, is there?

January has always been bleak, even without the added burden of a national lockdown.

The lines of a poem in my first collection, Heading North, come to mind:

There’s not much colour in that either, is there?

But that was the particular tone of that poem, it is called Laments of the Urban Dead after all.

But we can still hold hope, if not joy.

I know I keep banging the same drum, but before we know it spring will be sprung, to be followed by the first fruits of summer. You know how it works.

Seasons don’t follow lockdown rules, nature doesn’t adhere to restrictions.

So hang in there, Jackdaw friends, wherever you are and whatever circumstances you find yourselves in, there are brighter days to come.

Post-Festive, Lockdown Blues

BOXING DAY

I know you don’t need me to tell you.

These are desperate times. But this is especially so if you’re a fan of non-league football and your team didn’t have a game on Boxing Day, for Boxing Day is traditionally football day. And without tradition-we’re lost. In these uncertain times we need the odd touchstone.

My team, Prestwich Heys, didn’t have a match because the team the fixture list had given us was the only one in the league that had decided that they wouldn’t play at the government reduced, Covid-caused capacity.

I had to find an alternative for my son and I.

A quick scan of the fixture lists showed me that Daisy Hill were at home and that was doable, just a twenty minute train ride and a quick walk. Plans remade.

Except, just as we were about to leave, we received the news that overnight Bolton had experienced some snow and the game was off.

So, after checking other possible games, (the fruitless results of which I’ll share later in this post), we decided to go a bit further out to Darwen, in Blackburn, jumping a lift with a friend.

Needing a game, needing fresh air, we set off, reassured in the knowledge that even if snow had ventured this far, Darwen had a plastic pitch and when cleared the match would be on.

Once we reached the hills, we saw the wicked snow that-this-way-came. It was nothing more than a novelty and pleasing to the eye, providing photo opportunities to document our dedicated search for football.

At the end of our journey, the ground awaiting, we rolled into the club car park only to be told that they had reached their reduced capacity limit and so we couldn’t get in.

Deep sigh. Wasted day. Journey back.

I wouldn’t be taking any photos this time.

Boxing Day equals football day. Remember that?

Though I wouldn’t now be watching a match in person I thought that at least when I got in I’d be able to see Man City on TV as at that level the games were always on.

As we were dropped off I received the latest news which was the final nail in the coffin of every match I’d held flickering hopes for:

Prestwich was cancelled because of Covid restrictions ;

Daisy Hill was cancelled because of snow;

Heywood St James was cancelled because of a waterlogged pitch;

Maine Road was cancelled because of Covid restrictions;

Went to Darwen but couldn’t get in;

And now Man City was cancelled because of positive Covid cases among the squad;

What an unbelievable set of circumstances they were, all coming together to thwart me. In resignation, I decided to look at the day’s football league results on my LiveScore app and got this:

From all of this I’ve come to the conclusion that the universe is telling me NO MORE BLOODY FOOTBALL!

NEW YEAR’S EVE

Restrictions building, a sense of the world closing in, we went for a coffee at one of the last places we were allowed to sit in (a motorway service station) as the sun slipped away for the final time from this most challenging of years.

Custom was scarce, enthusiasm more so, and after just the one drink we went home, staying in as the country, maybe even the world, stayed in for the build up to the midnight countdown. The clock struck twelve, the family hugged and then we went outside to see the fireworks.

Almost on cue it began to snow. I don’t think I’ve ever known it to snow on New Year’s Eve before, certainly not beginning at midnight. (I know I know, technically this is New Year’s Day.) It momentarily lifted the spirits, the children shouting in delight.

Snow on New Year’s Eve seemed a suitable way to draw a line under this difficult year. It was as if the earth had taken pity on us for all we’d recently endured and given us just a little sprinkling of magic to remind us that nothing lasts forever.

New Year’s Day

No hangover, no self-induced fragility, but this day seemed more subdued than ever. Perhaps it’s that play-off, that tormenting dichotomy, the knowledge that 2021 has been ushered in with an end in sight to our 2020 struggles, but to get there we are going to have to endure the more difficult days to come.

I write this as we have entered another national lockdown, one that reportedly could last until the end of March. We are like prisoners doing time, scratching off our days served on our cell walls until the day of release comes. And it is coming, be certain of that. We just have to keep our eyes fixed on that distant, longed-for prize.

Who will meet us at the gate?

Turn On Your Lights And Be Damned

Guys, 2020 . . .

This Halloween I didn’t see a single trick or treater. Not one. In fact, for wont of a phrase, you could say that where I lived that night it was a ghost town.

My family are supporters of a local non-League club. This season started two months late, and we have managed to get to four matches before it has been suspended again. On Tuesday we had the chance of one final match before this pause, fighting the elements to get the game on, but then we received the message that we’d lost the other fight:

one of the player’s family members had tested positive for Covid-19 and now some of the players and coaching staff were also showing symptoms.

Everyone that attended last Saturday’s game were advised that if they’d had any contact with any players or staff members and began to experience symptoms then they should isolate and take a test. Straight off I remembered that one of the players had shook my hand before kick off, and also my lad James had his photograph taken with his favourite player.

With all of the publicity about distancing measures and the like I should have known better, but, being the social animals that we are, it’s sometimes difficult to avoid our long-established instinctive acts when greeting each other.

At the moment everything is fine, we all appear symptom free.

Tomorrow we enter our second national lockdown, provisionally set for a month. On the cancellation of our game I bid my fellow fans farewell until December, possibly even 2021, as our club was mothballed again.

The lights are going out:

Regular City Jackdaw followers may recall that every Remembrance Sunday I attend a service and place a cross at the foot of a memorial on which family members are named, and also another on the site of my Gt Grandfather’s unmarked grave. Well, I’ve just heard that the services are beginning to be cancelled for this year. You could have put money on it.

I will remember in my own individual way this year.

We lost Easter and now Christmas is under threat. Normally I’m not an advocate of Christmas decorations going up before December, but this year is not a normal year. I think if people need to then they should put up their trees and decorations whenever they want. Whatever it takes to lift their spirits.

This year more than ever, though it will be a different kind of Christmas, it is still the light in the darkness, the hope in despair.

And I do think that by then that the end will be in sight.

Before We Fall

While you are in Middleton get some black bags

It was a text from my wife who was in work. How the hell did she know I was in Middleton?

I swear she has some kind of track and trace programme that the government should look into because it just blows their billion pound effort away.

I did as I was told. I got the black bags.

That’s the secret of a good marriage.

Then I called for a coffee in McDonald’s where I could hear a man complaining to himself in the booth next to mine.

Fucking sick of this now. Where’s your mask? Stand here. Stand there. We don’t do that. Put your mask back on. Sit here. There’s no ketchup. Wait there. If you can’t taste salt on your chips it’s a Coronavirus symptom bollocks.

The last line rose in volume as it neared its end. I couldn’t help smiling in private at his public fatigue.

I think a lot of us are losing the stamina for this now, and some are really struggling.

There was an elderly man in there, crying and apologising for being a nuisance. The prospect of another lockdown had filled him with dread, for he had only one family member to speak with who would have to isolate. This was the only place he could come for some human contact, and embarrassed by his tears he made to leave.

The woman who was seating the customers tried to reassure him:

“You’re not a nuisance at all. Sit down and I’ll get you a drink. Ignore what the government says, as long as you’ve got your gloves and your mask on you’re alright. You need to keep coming in every morning to see us.”

That was true, but if this place was forced to go delivery only again that option would no longer be open to him. It’s a trade off, catching Coronavirus v your mental health. Not everyone had the fortitude and the people around them to cope with this once again.

I left the restaurant and made my way home along a path that gradually rose away from the town centre in a steep climb. At the top of the hill, where the slope evened out, was a tree well on its way to its autumn transformation. I paused a while to both take it in and get my breath back.

There were still many leaves to fall, and those that had were stirring in a cool breeze.

Although it looked familiar, we’d not seen an autumn like this one before. But they will keep coming around and there’s a reassurance in that, even as they age us.

We are still here, all of us, doing the same old things, climbing hills, gasping for breath, and little by little shedding our leaves.

(Oh For) Peace In Our Time

My daughter, Millie, jumped out of the car, excitedly waving a piece of paper in the air without even closing the door.

“Dad, guess what?” She looked like Chamberlain brandishing his treaty.

“We have peace in our time?” I replied, shouting equally as loud across the leaf-covered garden.

“What? No-I’ve got to isolate! School have given me a letter saying I’ve been in contact with someone who has Coronavirus!” She was beaming.

I looked to my wife, playing Millie’s personal home-time chauffeur, who nodded in confirmation.

“Who?”

“They can’t say, but I DON’T HAVE TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL UNTIL THE 3RD OF NOVEMBER!!!” She was almost maniacal in her glee.

“The third . . . of . . . November?”

NOVEMBER!”

It turned out that there was indeed a confirmed case in Millie’s year, someone who she’d been in close contact with, and, taking in account the half term holiday, that’s another twenty one days off school. It has only been five minutes since the kids had had six months off.

Three of Millie’s close friends also received copies of this letter. Tonight, by phone, they’d form a quartet of sleuths wrapped up in their very own whodunnit.

It had only been a matter of time, with different years in different schools being forced into similar action over the last month. James’ school was surely overdue, too.

Later, for our Drama Queen, would come the expectant angst, but for now it was only holiday fever that Millie had.

It doesn’t affect the rest of us, yet. She has to isolate for fourteen days, the rest of us can continue as before unless Millie starts with symptoms and it’s at that point we would be impacted, having to also isolate and be tested.

A difficult winter has been predicted by the experts. Now, I’m no member of SAGE, but I’m predicting a difficult three weeks ahead for the Murray household. What with a housebound, paranoid, over-dramatic adolescent with a tendency to hit hyper-speed in 0.5 seconds, I may need to hold my own COBRA meeting.

In the meantime, little Miss Millie is on lockdown. For the rest of us – I’ll let you know.

Mr Chamberlain, where’s your face mask?

Not So Same Old, Same Old.

Blackpool 2020. I’ve been to this northern seaside town countless times since I was a child, but in 2020 even the familiar is different.

I was there with my son, James, last Saturday to watch a football match, staying overnight on the Friday. It was busy, but not pre-Covid busy.

As James was walking out on the beach, I walked along this promenade, keeping apace so I could keep an eye on him.

There was a car to my left, stopped at a red light, and a guy was shouting through a rolled down window “Hey mate, improve your social distancing!”

I looked around. Was he addressing me? It appeared he was.

“Improve your social distancing!”

Really?

There wasn’t anybody within at least fifty metres of me. James was about a mile out to sea. The lights turned to green and he drove off, shouting the same message to other pedestrians that he passed. He wasn’t anyone official, and he didn’t look like, you know, a loon. It seemed that he had made it his own personal mission to prevent the town having more Government measures imposed upon it.

Blackpool seafront is breezy at the best of times, if bearing rain a destroyer of plans, and this day was really windy, as is evidenced by these bending tulips. Or, as they are better known- ‘giant spoons’.

I was feeling my age.

While my son walked freely across the beach, I found numerous windbreak-walls to sit against while watching him.

Then, hood on, hat on, mood on, I joined him to walk beneath one of the old Victorian piers, the sea being out, spying the tower between the supports.

This caught my eye and so my camera. Emerged from the depths to breathe once again in light, like barnacle-encrusted cootie trees, shaped like a St.Andrew’s cross.

Halt-who goes there? A shoed adult, a barefoot child, and a gull. It wasn’t volcanic ash in the Cretaceous period forever preserving a passing sauropod, but I liked it.

If you squint, or maybe do that thing with your thumb and index finger to enlarge this photograph, you’ll see my lad out there-far enough away to give my wife a heart attack if she’d been there with us. I assured her by text that he remained in sight at all times. I didn’t tell her that I had binoculars.

The day wore on, the light grew dimmer, the wind grew colder. This gull was gliding effortlessly in,similar to how we freewheel on a bike, coasting in to find a place to settle for the night.

There were starlings, too, around the pier. If it was a murmuration, then they were murmuring above us, turning and wheeling perfectly in unison like a shoal of fish.

Twilight – a liminal time, and James was on the edge, as the tide rolled back in and my thoughts began to turn to that warm room back at the B&B.

Before the sea had started to return to shore, there’d been the odd person out there on the beach, hundreds and hundreds of yards out, walking alone and wearing face masks. Unless it was a way of keeping their face warm I just didn’t understand the thinking behind it. The guy in that car would have been proud of them. And still tell them to improve their social distancing, by megaphone.

Evening was coming on, autumn was coming on, exhaustion was coming on.

The sun sank into the sea, a final flash of fire engulfed in its repetitive end, and still the wheel on the pier turned, around and around, everywhere we looked – the same old cycles.

This gull seemed reluctant to leave, allowing me to come closer to observe it. One final photograph and then we sought the sanctuary of our room.

It’s a nostalgic place for many of us, Blackpool, with long memories of family and old friendships. Away from this attractive seafront though, I think it is quite a deprived town.

Whenever my wife has been here with us, a common question of hers is uttered with an expected regularity while observing the members of numerous Stag Nights and Hen Dos staggering out of the promenade pubs:

I wonder how many marriages are being wrecked tonight? How many babies being conceived?

All out of the hearing of the children, of course, for they see nothing but magic.

That’s her astute understanding of human behaviour, but that kind of stuff can’t go on this year, can it? Not in 2020, when we’re all social distancing.