Bill Bryson, Rugby Sevens, and Late Night Running

On Saturday night we visited Oxford – the city I think of as my real home – to see Bill Bryson present a show at the New Theatre in George Street. I had no pre-conceptions going in, other than it might follow the format of so many other “an audience with” type productions – and I was more or less right.

If you’ve not read any of Bill Bryson’s books, I urge you to do so – from “The Lightning Bolt Kid”, about growing up in rural Des Moines, Idaho, to “Notes from a Small Island”, about living in England, to “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, about his return to live in the US with his family after twenty years in England. He has written many, many books, and they are without exception brilliant.

The evening in the theatre flew by – wrapped in stories about Bill’s various adventures, and delivered in a self deprecating humor, mischievousness, and irreverence that has become his trademark. The anecdote about Russell Crowe writing him a fan letter that turned into a drink in London, and then lead to an acting masterclass at Durham University where Bill had been invited to act as Chancellor was one of those stories that could never be made up – because you see Durham University doesn’t have a drama course at all – and Russell Crowe still doesn’t know that.

During the interval, halfway through the theatre show, I looked around the audience, and a scene stuck in my mind. On the edge of the first tier of seats above us, a young man – perhaps twenty years old – was standing, leaning on the wall, engrossed in his mobile phone. Standing directly in front of him was the most strikingly beautiful girl I have seen in quite some time – I’m guessing his girlfriend. She looked a little lost, gazing at him, and occasionally across the audience below – while he continued to obsess over whatever was on his phone. When will the millennials wake up and realise that life exists outside of their phones? It was both the best and worst illustration of the problem the mobile internet has caused that I’ve ever seen.

This morning (Sunday) we headed off around London on the M25 towards St. Albans, and a rugby “Sevens” tournament for Miss 14 and 15. My other half has somehow been enlisted as the club medic, given the training she has received through work (she’s the lady that decides to call ambulances at the infant school, along with 1001 other duties).

Nobody could have guessed that we would end up calling for two ambulances.

Our girls were fine – our youngest scored a cracking try – running the length of the pitch, and our middle girl threw herself into perhaps the most spectacular tackle I have seen – taking down the opposition’s biggest player in a do-or-die last-girl-standing defence of the try-line. Unfortunately at least two families we know through the team ended up in accident and emergency at nearby hospitals.

After getting home from rugby, emptying the car, cooking dinner, and clearing the decks, I went out for another training run with our eldest daughter. Another set of intervals around the back-streets of the town. Given the bad run earlier in the week, I was somewhat apprehensive, but in the end everything worked out fine. We went slowly, I distracted her throughout, and she completed the intervals with a smile on her face. She’s starting to suffer from shin-splints, but I’m guessing that will sort itself out over the coming weeks – she’s getting fitter and faster, and putting more strain on her legs.

Looking at the clock, it’s somehow now 11pm on Sunday evening. The weekend has gone. I’m wondering about grabbing a bowl of cereals before bed – give my body some fuel to help re-build me ready to go again in the morning.

Couch to 5K

My other half “suggested” that I might like to accompany our eldest daughter to the running club in town this week – to start on their “Couch to 5K” running programme. And that’s how I ended up walking across town in the rain after work this evening, and standing in front of a room full of strangers, pulling reflective bibs on, and listening to a confident sounding lady explain what we were going to do.

I kept quiet about eating half a packet of chocolate chip cookies after getting in from work.

Having missed the first week, it felt like most of the people already knew each other – they congregated into small groups, deep in conversation and laughter while waiting for everybody to arrive.

Eventually we all trudged out into the rain and started doing warm-up exercises – jogging this way and that, doing lunges, skipping, and whatever else the leader of the group thought up. There were perhaps twenty of us – ranging from late teens, through to late sixties.

I felt like a bit of a fraud, to be honest – for the next thirty minutes or so we ran and walked through town – two minutes running, one minute walking – repeating the pattern ten times. I could probably have run the whole thing. Yes, yes, I know you’re not supposed to do stupid things like that straight away, but then I don’t suppose anybody else on the course cycles six miles every day either.

Miss 19 did well. Considering she hasn’t done any exercise at all since perhaps her third year at secondary school (five years ago), she kept going like a trooper. Given that she’s nearly thirty years younger than me, I imagine she will over-take me by the time we get to the 5K “graduation” race at the end of the course – or at least she will if she sticks at it.

I ran in my usual heavy raincoat tonight – I don’t own a “running coat” – or at least I won’t until it arrives in the post tomorrow. I scoured Amazon for the cheapest bright yellow waterproof that had decent reviews. An order has also gone in for two head torches – the nights are drawing in, and the street lighting around town is pretty abysmal.

Anyway. First week done. Time to start recording some miles on the “Couch to 5K” app on my phone.

Finding Time

It feels like I haven’t found time to do much of anything recently – the huge project I’ve been battling with at work continues to grow – swallowing up developers, consultants, and conference call hours like some sort of creeping monster – devouring all in it’s path. Tonight I have carved out an hour to write a few words, and perhaps redress the balance a little. I’m not sure I have much to share though.

While writing this the England football team are playing against Japan in the women’s World Cup. I don’t need to watch, because our younger children are providing a running commentary whether we like it or not. Miss 15 just shouted “Karen Carney is coming on!” to nobody in particular, followed a few moments later by “OFFSIDE!”. It’s exciting stuff, if only because the children are so excited.

Our youngest daughter played cricket this evening at a local cricket club. It’s funny really – when you have daughters, convention presumes that you might end up at dance shows, or perhaps athletics – not so much judo, rugby, football, and cricket. I love that our daughters defy convention at every turn – although I’m also annoyed on a regular basis that they face such uneven playing fields so regularly.

(several minutes pass while the children remark that there are no clean towels – and the entire family is drawn into an argument about the number of towels being used every day – I have put seven through the washing machine tonight)

Somehow it is already 10pm. How does that even happen? It feels like every evening is stolen from me at the moment. Mornings aren’t much better – spent emptying the dishwasher, making lunches, washing up, and clearing up behind everybody else before leaving the house. I wonder if it gets easier as the children get older? We sometimes visit friends who’s children have moved out, and their houses seem to be paragons of peace, quiet, and tranquility.

I might have an early night. Of course we all know I’m not going to – I’m going to scroll through Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit, WordPress, Facebook, and who knows where else until 1am, just like every other night – then I’ll wonder why I’m so tired in the morning.

p.s. I had a dream last night where I was queueing up to buy a drink in a cafe, and Donald Trump was in the queue, being his usual charming self to the staff behind the counter (read: being an objectionable, rude, aloof, ignorant arsehole). I don’t remember anything about the dream now – but laughed to myself all day at the idea that Trump would ever set foot in a cafe. No doubt he has staff to go get him fizzy drinks and fast food while he sits festering over Twitter on his unsecured mobile phone in the Whitehouse. Idiot.

The Rugby Tour

After filling the car with bags of clothes, kit, and birthday cake on Friday, we set off late in the morning for a park just outside of Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire. The girls rugby team our middle daughter plays for were staging their first ever tour – taking the team away for a weekend of rugby, bonding, and any other idiocy that could be summoned at a reasonable price in the middle of nowhere.

The journey took us through Oxfordshire – past signs for the town I grew up. It seemed strange, seeing local place-names I haven’t seen for the better part of twenty years. We were also reminded of something we didn’t miss about Oxford itself as we inched past the city in heavy traffic for an hour and a half.

After finally leaving Oxford behind, Tewkesbury appeared on road signs, and phones throughout the car got switched to various map applications to help us to the destination – like countless times before we had programmed the sat-nav in the car with the postcode – not the actual address. You only have to get that wrong a couple of times before you begin checking en-route.

We found our destination for the weekend, checked in, and then found the team members and their families that had already arrived – settling into two facing rows of wooden chalets. I say “chalets”, but they were more “wooden sheds with bunk beds and heaters”. Basic, but comfortable, great value, and perfect for our purposes.

Not long after arriving a coaching session was held on a nearby field with several visiting coaches putting the girls through their paces. Both of our girls kitted up – to my surprise – marking the first time our youngest had taken any part in rugby for at least six months. The way the rest of the girls took her under their wing (she was by far the youngest – turning 14 on Saturday – was wonderful to see) – they wrote her a birthday card, signed by the entire team, and also voted her “player of the tour”.

After the coaching session, we all headed back to clean ourselves up, and then set off in search of the main camp restaurant and entertainment building – a huge wooden cabin alongside a lake. The food was hearty, and tasted wonderful – being served to the queue of children and parents like a field kitchen of sorts.

After eating we shuffled through to the adjoining bar, and discovered we were not the only rugby team on-site – two other boys teams were present – one of which had arrived earlier in the day, and the parents and coaches were already the worse for wear. I get it – it’s a holiday for the parents and coaches too, but there’s a line you don’t cross while you’re in charge of children, and they crossed it mid-afternoon. By the late evening they were at risk of being reported by just about everybody in the room.

There was one moment where things might have escalated, but we (wisely I think) decided not to start anything. One of the drunk coaches fell towards our youngest daughter, who was sitting on the outside of her team-mates – causing her to recoil and scream out – which of course caused every parent in the room to stop what they were doing and watch. Thankfully nothing did happen – we spirited Miss 14 away, and she sat with us for the remainder of the evening.

Anyway! Enough about them – I’m not going to name the team because they’ve almost certainly had a written report from the bar staff filed against them – if not their own parents, who staged some kind of confrontation with their own coaches outside their chalets in the early hours – we didn’t hear it because we all fell straight asleep.

While all the mayhem was going on in the bar, a peculiar 60-something-year-old-man was running a Karaoke evening on the main stage – with various rugby players taking to the stage and singing hilariously badly. Our entire team took to the stage at one point and sang something entirely forgettable particularly badly too. When a Dad from one of the other teams took to the stage and actually COULD sing, it kind of ruined it for everybody else.

The next morning – having all drunk a little bit too much the night before, we all got back up for a cooked breakfast at 7:30am, and then a trip to Cinderford rugby club – a few miles down the road. I had a shower before breakfast, and got my first experience of the communal shower block, and the spectacularly cold initial jets of water. I hid in the corner of my stall while waiting for the water to not cause hypothermia, then quickly washed my hair before pulling my t-shirt and underwear back on, and running back to the chalet. My other half looked at me in disbelief as I burst through the door in my underwear, accompanied by an icy blast of air. The skies were blue all weekend, but the temperature regularly dropped to freezing.

We arrived at Cinderford a little after 10am, with a game scheduled for 11. Our girls team would be playing theirs, and then we were invited to stay and watch their first team play later in the afternoon.

Quite apart from the biting cold, perhaps the highlight of the first part of the day was watching the lone under-18 player on our squad face-off against one of the Cinderford girls that had been repeatedly warned for bad sportsmanship. Fingers were pointed at faces – words were exchanged – and the opposition player got sent off.

We lost the game, but the girls didn’t seem to mind – the under-18 that had stood her ground had attained hero status throughout the squad, and had really shown them the way in terms of standing up for their team. It was impressive stuff – I’m never getting into an argument with her.

In the afternoon we all huddled in the stands and watched the local first 15 play against Darlington. While most of the adults were busy watching a very entertaining rugby match, we kept hearing snippets of the under-15s conversations. Lets just say they were watching something, but it wasn’t the game. It put to bed – no pun intended – the myth that teenage boys are the only ones with sex on the brain.

After getting home, washing, changing clothes, doing makeup, and whatever else a group of teenage girls do, we all headed back to the camp restaurant for dinner, and started on the beer again. It’s going to take my liver some time to recover – I’m really not used to drinking any more. The “entertainment” was a guy playing guitar and singing all manner of hits very badly, and another guy sitting on a wooden packing crate equipped with microphones, hitting it to make a rhythm. I didn’t really mind their “every song sounds the same” drawl until they completely murdered “Free Fallin'” – the Tom Petty classic that was also recorded by John Mayer in possibly the best acoustic cover of anything ever. Their version sounded more like an angry tramp kicking a box in a mental asylum while ranting in a monotone drawl.

Thankfully the boys team coaches seemed much quieter than they had been the previous night – perhaps already aware that their club was in rather a lot of trouble.

On Sunday we had no games planned, but did have a mysteriously titled “Kangaroo Court” pencilled in for 10am. Following another cooked breakfast we all gathered between the chalets and the coaches appeared wearing judges wigs, with clipboards. One at a time the players were summoned to hear charges brought against them – everything from “being injured”, to “dancing on the pitch” were reprimanded. Our middle girl was accused of being a card shark in the bar (which she was). The girls were given the choice of eating a number of dry crackers in a minute, eating neat tabasco sauce, or eating a spoon full of dog food. Our girl – who normally plays front-row in the scrum – held up decades of tradition of front row players by choosing the dog food – then threw it up spectacularly, to cheers from all the players and parents (she was fine, and was laughing herself, inbetween spitting, and coughing).

Only afterwards did the coaches reveal that the dog food had actually been a disguised tin of beef stew.

Following all of the players being found guilty, a spirited game of rounders took place on the training field with both players and parents – for those elsewhere in the world, rounders is kind of a simplified version of baseball. Never has so little talent been shown by so many in such a short space of time.

Afterwards we found ourselves at a loose end for several hours, so we wandered into nearby Tewkesbury and explored the Abbey – a huge church that dates back about 800 years. It always amuses me when churches claim such heritage – invariably one small corner of their construction goes back that far, and the rest has been built no later than two to three hundred years ago – sometimes much more recently.

We wandered into the Abbey tea shop, and were quietly eating cakes and drinking tea when one of the elderly waitresses couldn’t help asking about our clothing. We had completely forgotten – while on-tour, all of the parents and children at the rugby club had been given green hoodies with the club badge on the chest, and a tour acronym stamped across the back. We were all sitting around the table in our bright green hoodies – we must have looked very odd indeed.

Finally – last night – after a roast dinner in the camp restaurant, we headed off for the final group activity of the tour – a game of crazy golf at a nearby shopping mall. It was a great way of relaxing after several days away with the team, and as I noted to one of the other parents while doing hilariously badly – not something that anybody could take too seriously without making a total idiot of themselves.

This morning – while eating yet another cooked breakfast (the third in a row) – I looked around the restaurant at a very tired group of parents and children. We were all ready to head home – and after half an hour re-packing the contents of the chalets back into cases, loading them into cars, and saying our goodbyes, that’s exactly what we did.

We’re home now. I hit the ground running when I got home – unloaded the car, cut the grass, and started the washing machine. My other half is uploading many hundreds of photos to the internet while I write this on the old iMac. I imagine these words will become a post at some point later this evening.

I think I can hear that the washing machine has finished.

Sunday Morning at the Rugby Club

It’s been a bit of a morning so far. My other half is out for the day at some sort of arts and crafts course, leaving me to shepherd Miss 15 to rugby. We caught the first bus out of town this morning, then set off towards the rugby club. I gave my daughter the choice between getting a bus all the way to the rugby club, or walking through town via McDonalds to get a breakfast wrap. She started walking almost immediately.

After realising we might not make it to the rugby ground on time, we DID end up catching a bus – thankfully the pitches are adjacent to a busy road that many bus routes pass along. After waiting at a nearby stop for a minute or two, a bus swept into view, and we jumped aboard. Quite how the driver didn’t know about the existence of the rugby club is a mystery to me – thankfully I knew the name of the bus stops near the NUMEROUS rugby pitches alongside the road, which he did know.

Another little thing that made the journey a little easier – our local bus services have upgraded the ticket machines on all vehicles to accept contact-less payments from debit and credit cards. I’m beginning to wonder when or if I’ll ever need cash in my wallet again – it’s disappearing from general use at a pretty impressive rate.

Needless to say, we made it to the rugby club with five minutes to spare. Quite why we broke our backside getting here on time is a mystery though, because of course we arrived first – meeting the coaches on the corner of the pitch. Miss 15 proudly claimed that she had walked all the way before I pulled the rug from under her (“don’t you mean all the way from the bus stop to the pitches?”). Over the course of the next few minutes a steady stream of teenagers arrived around us – all looking like they might have been reluctantly dragged from their beds a few minutes before.

I’m now sitting in the club house, perched on a high stool by a window, looking out over the rugby grounds. I’ve just finished a cup of tea, and have an hour to myself. I will wander down to the pitch side towards the end of training and accompany Miss 15 back to get herself a cup of tea before we begin the journey home.

When we get home later today I’ll no doubt be met by Miss 13 and Miss 18, both announcing they are bored and hungry. There will also be a sink full of washing up, and a kitchen strewn with the remains of whatever they have scavenged from the cupboards during the morning. It will not have occurred to either of them to clean up after themselves. If I question them, I will be “going on at them, as per usual” – and if I question their tone, they will make comments about spending the weekend with Miss 15 “as per usual”. Two parents into three children doesn’t go – and the older they get, the more barbed their comments become. We’ll ignore that they are plenty old enough to find their own entertainment, go grocery shopping, cook, wash up, and tidy up after themselves – because the argument really isn’t worth having.

This is where I stop this post from spiraling any further. Enough with the negativity. This is life – at the moment – and is a very similar life to lots of other families with teenagers. I guess in some ways I should be happy that I’m still involved in my children’s lives – I see lots of our children’s friends essentially living their own lives by their mid-teens – completely independent of their parents. That our kids know a world where dinner is always on the table, where we catch up with each other’s day over our evening meal, and where the house is always festooned with fresh laundry – these are things I should hang on to – things I should be thankful for. Being thankful doesn’t feel like the right sentiment though – because we actively make these things happen – they are about hard work, and modelling an example we might wish the children to continue.

Postscript – I stood next to a wonderful Mum for the last twenty minutes of training, and somehow got into a conversation all about the books we have been reading recently. Now I really DO have to start making time to read, because she will ask next time I see her…