I saw this on Facebook, and thought I’d pre-empt the flurry of requests to participate by completing my random A-Z. Some answers may be different tomorrow... but I suppose by definition some will be different in sixty seconds...
A- Age: 51
B- Biggest Fear: Failure
C- Current Time: 06:09
D- Drink you last had: Tea
E- Easiest Person To Talk to: Anyone who's willing to listen.
F- Favourite Song: Too many to choose from... most influential is “Someone’s Gonna Die” by Blitz
G- Ghosts, are they real: Yes
H- Hometown: York
I- In love with: Elaine
J- Jealous Of: No one (occasionally slightly envious maybe!)
K- Killed Someone?: No
L- Last time you cried?: Listening to Lizzie Jones singing at Rugby League’s Challenge Cup Final
M- Middle Name: John
N- Number of Siblings: One
O- One Wish: Good health
P- Person who last called you: Someone asking if I’d had a recent accident that wasn’t my fault!
Q- Question you're always asked: Can I have your autograph Mr Clooney...?
R- Reason to smile: Making it this far
S- Song last sang: Rag Doll by the Four Seasons – can I hit the high notes? Absolutely I can!
T- Time you woke up: 5:23
U- Underwear Colour: Hang on a second.... Black
V- Vacation Destination: Croatia
W- Worst Habit: Worrying
X- X-Rays you've had: Brain, teeth, chest, hand, hips, knee...
Y- Your favourite food: Normally chocolate; right now it’s cold white toast
Z- Zodiac Sign: Gemini
Last night I paid my first visit to the new Middlesbrough Sports Village to complete my latest “Time to Change” challenge—the fifty-first since the start of 2014… how long ago does that seem?!
Despite still being in some discomfort from my badminton lesson at the hands of England international Rhys Walker nearly three weeks ago (muscles don’t heal all that quickly at my age… hang on… muscles?!!!), I was going to put the old body through its paces one more—or perhaps that should read “one last”—time, with the badminton court now being replaced by one of the netball variety.
The venue will be hosting Grangetown Netball Club’s home fixtures in National Premier League 2, which gets underway this Sunday, and I have to say the facilities look superb. When I arrived, the girls were just about to start a full practice match, and I settled down to watch… and hopefully learn.
As many of you know, I started following netball through watching my younger daughter, who played club and county age group netball during her mid-teens. She lives (and plays) in Edinburgh now, but I have been really fortunate that Grangetown have welcomed me into their club, and allowed me to write a few reports, interviews and articles on behalf of their Prem squad.
It is a fantastic, friendly club, which offers opportunities for players of all ages and abilities. The Prem squad comprises some of the finest local netballers, and will be further strengthened by a number of current internationals during the season. The standard is extremely high—as you would expect from a club effectively ranked in the top fifteen in the country—and the club lacks nothing in belief and ambition, both on and off the court.
Their strong community focus was perhaps highlighted by a willingness to allow me to spend ten minutes on court, despite the seriousness of the preparations that had preceded my somewhat incongruous appearance alongside club captain Vicky Rees at the heart of the defence…
Last year, I had a go at shooting, but found that the ball was too big and the net way too small (and too high up). Clearly all that has changed during the intervening twelve months because shots were finding the target with almost ridiculous regularity, mainly courtesy of young Tasha Grylls, who was scoring pretty much at will from pretty much anywhere inside the shooting circle…
At least I had the decency to make the game look difficult!
Within the opening minute I managed to collide with the post. In my defence I was trying to keep track of my shooter… I failed. It hurt.
It was great to witness at first hand the pace at which the game is played, the quality of movement, awareness, and the athleticism of everyone on court—with one elderly portly exception. I did wear Grangetown colours in an attempt to look the part, and even managed to make a couple of interceptions (more by luck than judgement I hasten to add); but if I was to summarise my “performance” in one word, it would be “clumsy”—although one other adjective beginning with “c” was under serious consideration.
The final whistle not only brought down the curtain on my netball “career” (amid huge sighs of relief from team mates and opponents alike); but on participation in sport in general. It’s now almost a decade since I was told that I’d need hip replacement surgery within “two to fifteen years” depending on how much sport I chose to play. Over the past few months I’ve bowled at a test cricketer, sparred with an unbeaten pro boxer, played badminton against an England international and had a go at netball… I think I should probably quit while I’m at least marginally ahead—but I do want to say a massive thank you to Head Coach Gel Williams and all the girls at the club, not just for last night, but also for making me feel part of the “Grangetown family”…
Finally, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I undertook this challenge (as well as the preceding fifty) to raise awareness of mental health issues: the fact that it is fine to talk… and the fact that help is there if you can find the strength to ask for it. As far as challenging the stigma of mental health is concerned, it’s is very much “Time to Change”—but from the point of view of me and netball… it’s definitely “Time to Retire”!
It is to my eternal shame that until this past weekend, I had never been to a theatre to see a musical.
In actual fact, visits to a theatre to see any kind of performance have been few and far between. My excuse is that there isn’t much leg room in some of these old venues, and trying to watch a live show when you’ve got cramp is no fun at all—I’ve tried massaging some life back into my legs, whilst keeping tight hold of my bag of Revels, and trying not to disturb the people sitting near me… and I’m sorry, but it’s just not possible.
Obviously the real reason has more to do with an enduring lack of culture than lower limb length, but my musical duck was well and truly broken on Saturday with a trip to Sunderland to watch the matinée performance of Jersey Boys.
The day had started well with Elaine managing to find a prime parking space just a short walk from the Empire Theatre, although the walk took slightly longer than expected after we strolled off in entirely the wrong direction.
We weren’t too sure what to do for lunch, and eventually decided to “play safe” with a well-known establishment that may have a reasonable reputation for its coffee, but sadly the same can’t be said for its hot food. The sausages in Elaine’s sandwich resembled the thin wizened fingers of an elderly woman… with arthritis; and my “Croque Monsieur” was, for want of a better French word, “merde”.
We arrived at the Empire about forty minutes before the scheduled start of the performance. Time for a quick drink… schoolboy error no.2: two lime and lemonades cost £6.60. You can get a coffee and a shit sandwich for less…
I had actually been to the Sunderland Empire once before—probably sometime in the late 1980s—to see a pantomime. I think it might have been Jack and the Beanstalk, but I’m absolutely certain that it “starred” The Krankies, the comedy equivalent of the sandwich I’d just half eaten.
Back in 2015, we found our seats… right at the end of the third row from the front, with nothing but carpet in front of seat no.C1. Marvellous!
So what of Jersey Boys…?
I have to say it was superb.
The cast was relatively small (in number as opposed to size), and several played multiple parts, but the whole production—costume and scenery changes included—ran like a well-oiled machine. Obviously the show is built around the story and the music of the original Four Seasons, and the four men who played Messrs Valli, DeVito, Gaudio and Massi were fantastic. Each took their turn in narrating the story and the script contained a good amount of well-delivered humour, but their singing…
Their singing was just outstanding.
I really enjoyed the rich bass vocals of Lewis Griffiths (Massi), but Michael Pickering, who portrayed Valli has a remarkable voice… great range, and real power in his falsetto. What really surprised me was that Michael was the “alternate” Valli… only appearing in certain performances… the other bloke must be something really special!
Pickering hails from Sunderland, so presumably it must have been a thrill to appear on stage in his home city. Maybe he had family and friends in the audience, but whatever the case, the ovation he received for one particular song (and apologies I can’t remember which one it was) seemed like it was never going to end, and for a moment the young man looked genuinely moved by the crowd’s reaction.
For me, the best songs were from the early part of the group’s career: “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man” and my personal favouritel “Rag Doll”. The harmonies that complemented Valli’s (Pickering’s) falsetto lead were note perfect and created an overall sound that was actually quite moving at times.
The second part included some songs I knew, but hadn’t realised they were by The Four Seasons, and I really liked the way that each character addressed the audience after the group had been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and there was an unexpected tinge of sadness when it was revealed that Nick Massi had died in 2000 (for the record the remaining three members of the original line-up are all still alive; their ages ranging from 72 (Gaudio) to 87 (DeVito)).
At the end of the performance, the standing ovation was as predictable as it was thoroughly deserved and thanks to being cramp-free, I was able to get to my feet and join in. It really was a memorable afternoon, and something I know I’ll remember for a long time… thankfully for considerably longer than the mustard from that Croque bloody Monsieur repeated on me!
Elaine gave Jersey Boys 10/10… I initially felt compelled to deduct half a point for the price of the lime and lemonade, but as that was hardly the fault of the performers, it’s full marks from me too. Would I go and see another musical? Possibly. Would I go and see Jersey Boys again? Absolutely….
My interview with Niamh Murphy, the Irish netball captain has been provisionally arranged for this Saturday morning. I’m really looking forward to chatting to Niamh for a number of reasons: she was lovely when we met in Dublin recently, and I’m sure it’s going to be a really interesting conversation; it will be good to learn more about the sport in the Republic of Ireland and be able to share the resulting article… and the “interviewing an international sportswoman” task will actually be the fiftieth challenge I’ve completed since my work for Mind and Time to Change began back in January 2014.
I’ve lost count of how many e-mails I’ve sent, phone calls I’ve made and miles I’ve driven to get to this point (although I suspect the mileage will be in excess of two thousand by now…). I’ve also tried to forget how hard it’s been to walk after some of the sporting challenges, but I have never lost sight of the reasons behind everything I’ve done… and will continue to do.
From a personal and arguably slightly selfish point of view, I’ve met some wonderful people and had some memorable experiences (but please don’t presume that “memorable” has always meant “enjoyable” - snake and rollercoaster spring immediately to mind). Some of the tasks may have seemed relatively straightforward on the surface, but will still have required planning and (particularly relevantly) help - quite possibly from someone I hadn’t met before; others were fairly obviously going to be “challenging”, be that physically, mentally… or both.
The underlying theme has always been that if you are affected by mental health issues, you don’t have to suffer in silence. The prospect of talking, let alone asking for help (there’s that word again…) may seem - and often is - incredibly daunting, but having the strength and courage to take that first step can lead to the kind of positive change that would have been unimaginable during darker times.
As many of you will know, it was the tragic death of the Wales football manager Gary Speed that prompted me to decide to write openly about my experiences with depression. For any number of reasons, very few people knew the person I’d tried so hard to hide for all those years, but since seeking help from my GP in 2004, I’d made so much progress and it felt like I’d reached a point where the possibility (however small) of making that proverbial difference to someone… somewhere… was far more important than how I may or may not be perceived by anyone who chose to read my story.
I realise that in the overall scheme of things I’m neither important nor special, and clearly there are people whose experiences or opinions will attract more attention (if that’s the right word). But in a way, that just makes me more determined to carry on….
Last year, I got a call from a local radio station, asking if I’d go on air and talk about mental illness following the passing of Robin Williams. I agreed – only for the interview to be cut short because it was time for a travel update… but not before I’d told the presenter that whilst Williams’ suicide was desperately sad, it was equally disappointing that it almost needed a high-profile suicide before the subject of mental health became worthy of coverage…
In a sense it’s similar to only buying your wife flowers on Valentine’s Day or her birthday: what’s wrong with buying flowers today? You don’t love someone any less on 16th September than on 14th February… just the same as everyday mental health issues don’t disappear just because of a lack of celebrity deaths…
The fact remains that mental illness can affect anybody. No rhyme nor reason, no why nor wherefore… the illness may be unseen, but the effects can be devastating.
I still have occasional dark moments and difficult days – and I probably always will; but I class myself as being incredibly lucky. I can talk openly, safe in the knowledge that those who care for me will listen (whether or not they fully understand), and that eventually the feelings will pass…
So many people face an uphill struggle simply to get through the day… just to start all over again the following morning. You can be surrounded by friends and family, yet feel totally alone; you can have everything you ever wanted in life, yet still you feel shrouded in sadness…
It is easy to let the negativity engulf you; in fact there’s an almost perverse comfort in the familiar; but much as you believe that no one else could ever feel the way you do… you’d be wrong. Self-acceptance took many years but I eventually sought help to deal with my feelings, in much the same way as I have asked for help to fulfil my first forty-nine challenges. The link might seem tenuous, but to me it underpins everything I’ve done…
Never be afraid to talk. Never be afraid to ask for help. You might just be amazed at what you can achieve.
I’ve spent a lovely day today with my wife Elaine and my parents Anna and David, taking Dad back to his home town, Darlington. One port of call was Feethams, home of Darlington Cricket Club, where he had played in the 1950s before progressing into the Durham minor counties side, earning a Cambridge University “Blue”, and finally becoming Leicestershire County Cricket Club captain in 1962.
It was Dad’s first visit to Feethams in well over half a century, and although there have been plenty of changes, you could sense the memories were starting to flood back as he stepped onto the outfield.
Later in the day, we were chatting about cricketing times gone by; in particular a game played between Cambridge University and Leicestershire in July 1961.
Although Dad had already represented Leicestershire, he was skippering the University in this fixture, which was played at Loughborough.
The county won the toss, batted first and made 283, with opening batsman (and captain) Maurice Hallam top-scoring with 115. Dad came on first change (as you could when you were skipper...) and took 5-76, his career-best figures and only first-class five-wicket haul.
As you will soon see, however, the bowling honours were destined to belong to one of his team mates....
The University replied with 337-5 declared. Eddie Craig made 101 and Tony Goodfellow 81, the openers sharing a stand of 185.
It was uncommon for a first-class county to lose to university opposition, but at 154-9 in their second innings, the Foxes were in very real trouble. Their last man was Brian Boshier, whose reputation with the bat was such that the Grace Road groundsman would regularly start up his tractor as the tall medium-pacer strode out to the wicket.
What made the situation even more noteworthy was that the Cambridge opening bowler, Tony Pearson, had taken all nine wickets and the right-arm quickie was just one victim away from a rare and remarkable feat. Leicestershire obviously didn’t want to lose, but Dad knew only too well that they would want to avoid being on the wrong end of a “ten-for” at all costs.
He therefore brought himself onto bowl...
The first five deliveries were aimed well outside the off and leg stumps; wide enough to be essentially unplayable, but not wide enough to interest the umpire. However Boshier connected with the last ball of the over, and sent it sailing high towards mid-off....
The fielders all had clear instructions... catch nothing; but as the ball slipped through mid-off’s fingers, it started rolling towards the stumps. Boshier had perhaps unwisely started to run a single, but was hardly sprinting to make his ground as the ball continued rolling....
Eventually, the ball trickled past the stumps... Pearson handed the umpire his jumper (metaphorically, I have no idea what the weather was like)... and Boshier (career batting average 4.32) was on strike. Just three balls later, Leicestershire were all out (for 160), as Michael Willard claimed the catch to give Pearson figures of 10-78 from 30.3 overs.
At the time it was the joint 48th best analysis in the history of the game; fifty-four years later it is still ranked joint 60th. Unsurprisingly it was, and would remain, Pearson’s best-ever bowling figures, but it is interesting that he had never taken five wickets in a first-class innings before that extraordinary day.
Cambridge University, whose line-up included two future England captains in Tony Lewis and Mike Brearley, comfortably reached their victory target for the loss of four wickets, with Eddie Craig smashing an unbeaten 80 out of a final total of 109-4....
Time moves on I suppose, but it’s great that the memories remain... today has been a very good day!
As a postscript, here is Dad leading out the Cambridge side to face the Australian tourists at Fenners in 1961. He is flanked by Tony Lewis (left) and the tall figure of Richard Jefferson to the right. Jefferson (whose son Will also became a first-class cricketer) was a quick bowler capable of using his height to extract bounce from even the most placid of pitches. On one occasion, whilst bowling at Lord's, Jefferson produced a delivery that hit the famous ridge and flew at the batsman, hitting him in the face and dislodging a couple of teeth.
The batsman? In my Dad's eyes the best cricketer ever to have played the game... Sir Garry Sobers.
Nearly eighteen months ago, I travelled something in excess of 370 miles to spend a short time in the company of five members of Team GB’s London 2012 bronze medal-winning women’s hockey squad—four of whom were also part of England’s wonderful EuroHockey final victory over the Netherlands on Sunday.
Yesterday it was back in the trusty old Vauxhall Corsa for another jaunt down the M1; this time to Milton Keynes, home of the National Badminton Centre, for the opportunity to meet and have a couple of games with Rhys Walker, England international, currently ranked no.4 in the country, multiple national age group champion, Commonwealth Youth and European Championship medallist....
Maybe I should have just asked to meet him.
I’ve never been to Milton Keynes before; the main reason being it’s a very long way from Middlesbrough. They could have built this New Town anywhere in the country, but chose to put it 220 miles away from where I live; poor planning if you ask me!
Before yesterday, I hadn’t swung a badminton racket in anger for a decade. It took me quite a few hours to actually find the racket, and thankfully, despite the passage of time, the strings were all intact; and once I’d bought some trainers and borrowed a bag to put my kit in, I was officially ready to go.
I did have a couple of fairly major concerns to mull over as I drove down to Buckinghamshire: could I still hit a shuttlecock over a net, and how long would my increasingly worn hips keep me upright (let alone mobile)?
I arrived slightly ahead of schedule, and was sitting in reception when Rhys appeared. He had no problem recognising me... I was the only one in the whole complex who was old, unfit and holding a twenty-year-old racket.
We were able to have a short chat before I ventured into the main hall. Rhys proceeded to tell me that the people looking on as I walked onto the bright green court were, in fact, the majority of the England squad... suddenly those ten years seemed an absolute age!
Happily when we knocked up, racket and shuttlecock connected... most of the time, and Rhys suggested that we play a few short games; first to seven.
At this stage, it is important to note that Rhys made sure the points were competitive without playing too many of the kind of shots that I wouldn’t have been able to see, let alone return. After the first couple of games, two things were apparent: I was even more out of condition than I imagined (being able to do a 100km exercise bike ride is not the same as skipping across court to retrieve a drop shot), but, on the plus side, there were one or two very brief glimpses of the old “Kirby magic”!
The fact that I lost those first two games (as well as all those that followed) was hardly a surprise, but although every scoreline started “Walker 7”, there was actually one that ended “Kirby 6” and another “Kirby 5”—and no one was more surprised than the portly wheezing 51 year-old who was in desperate need of a rest and a drink after every couple of games.
During the breaks, and at the end of proceedings, Rhys and I had what I found a fascinating chat about the physical and mental demands of international badminton; the dedication and determination it takes to be an elite athlete, as well as the invaluable input of the team behind the scenes. Sportsmen and women are essentially judged by their performances and results, but earning the right to compete takes unseen hours, days, months of preparation, fitness and skills work, as well as the all-important psychological aspect of top-level sport. For Rhys, this has meant moving away from home and an embedded support network that had clearly been successful, but sometimes there are decisions and sacrifices that have to be made for the opportunity to progress to the next level.
Rhys clearly has a mature head on his shoulders, to add to his talent and resolve; it was a pleasure to meet him, and a privilege to be able to share a court with such an impressive young man.
After forty minutes, I had nothing left to give. My legs were (and happily still are) fine, but the old heart rate was getting faster and faster (unlike my legs...) and sometimes you just have to accept that time has caught up with you.
That said, in amongst the occasional air shot and poor footwork, there were some really enjoyable rallies and a shot or two that received a positive response from the other side of the net. I’ve lost count of how many challenges I’ve completed as part of my work on behalf of Mind and “Time to Change”, but I will remember my final appearance on a badminton court as one of the very best.
I will also remember that what I thought was a stitch was actually a side strain that was either the result of one too many clears... or from repeatedly bending down to pick up yet another Rhys winner! If I was an athlete, I would tell you that the affected muscle group is known as the latissimus dorsi... but I’m not; and in my terms the pain that cost me a decent night’s sleep was officially caused by a punctured spare tyre....
It only remains for me to say a massive thank you to Rhys for his time and his company: I will be following his career (and the road to Rio) very closely. I am also grateful to Emma and Simon at Badminton England for helping with the arrangements, and to GB international Sophie Brown who took the “after” photo below and managed to make me look far healthier than I actually felt.
As with all the #challenge blogs, the underlying mental health message is as strong as ever... if you recognise you need help, please don’t be afraid to ask, because help is out there and things can... and do get better.
I’m now going for a long soak in the bath....