This is actually the second time I’ve written to you, but a small typo meant that the first letter ended up being typed to some random bloke called Brian—not that what follows will come as much of a surprise, seeing as most of it is your doing…
Since I was about 11, more than forty years ago now, you’ve tried so hard to force negative thoughts into my head, to make me question myself, doubt myself, and even hate myself from time to time. You’ve made me think I was a failure … in fact you made me believe I was a failure; that whatever I did, or tried to do, something would go wrong, because that was all I knew, all I was able to deal with; all I deserved.
And you were (and, in fairness, still are) bloody good at it. You can make it seem like my head is being gripped, and squeezed, until all that is left is an overwhelming need to cry. It’s a horrible feeling … when I know the tears are coming, and I can’t do anything to stop them.
I will try and hide (sometimes literally), so that no one will see what you’ve done. But you’ve learned to make it happen when it’s almost impossible to hide. Other people have therefore had a glimpse the person behind the mask; they have seen what you can do. I wish they hadn’t; only those I love (and who love me) should know the “real” me; but if you thought it would strengthen your hold, you were badly mistaken.
As you know dysthymia is more commonly known as “persistent depressive disorder nowadays”—and I reckon 42 years or so counts as “persistent”, don’t you? But however close and however often you’ve come to breaking me throughout all those years, you’ve never managed it.
True, I have draining recurrent dreams; I wake up every single morning feeling flat, and dreading the hours ahead; I still get anxiety and panic attacks; and there are still some dark days along the way. But I can deal with the dreams; I’ve accepted how I feel when I wake up; I know I can cope with whatever most days bring; and panic attacks now only frighten me for a couple of seconds…
You’re not winning anymore, so I understand why you tried to involve other people, but look at how things have worked out. Instead of being laughed at, I’ve been supported. Instead of turning away, people have listened … people even want to listen, want to understand. Better still, I’ve found out I’m not alone; I’m not the only one who has dark thoughts and tough days.
People can actually gain strength through sharing their stories. I am certainly getting stronger … but you already knew that didn’t you?!
I’ve been lucky enough to meet some remarkable and inspiring people over these past few years; I’ve had some amazing, unforgettable experiences, and done things I never thought I would—or more importantly could.
And it’s all because of you!
You’ve tried so hard to weaken me, to overwhelm me; but in the end, all you’ve done is help me find the strength to fight. I might never beat you, but do you know what? I’m not sure I want to.
That might sound ridiculous, but by trying to control my emotions and attempting to shape and define me, you actually push me to be a better person. You push me to do the best I possibly can for those I love; you push me to fight; and you push me to show others that it’s possible to fight … to talk … and to ask for help.
I accept I will always doubt myself, I will always fear failure, and I know there will be days when I won’t be able to stop the tears from flowing—even if I don’t fully understand why. Most days will still be a struggle, but you must know by now that I’m not going to give in.
If I told you I was going to close by saying just two words to you, you’d probably have a guess at the second one being “off”—and you would (once again) be mistaken…
I simply want to say “thank you”.
Two nights ago, I posted a random “Throwback Thursday” photo on Facebook; it was a picture taken with my trusty instamatic of Deon Bird scoring a try in Gateshead Thunder’s Super League game against Warrington back in September 1999.
It was the final fixture of the regular Super League season, and the new squad of mainly Australian players had finished in sixth position (just one place outside the play-offs); an incredible achievement for a fledgling club taking rugby league to a new audience outside the sport’s traditional heartlands.
As the end-of-season party got underway on the Wilderspool terraces, the Gateshead players came to acknowledge their ever-growing band of supporters, the Thunder Army. These were moments of mutual and warm appreciation, made all the more special by subsequent events that resulted in the loss of our players, and the end of the Super League dream after that one campaign.
But what a campaign it was…
You could write a book filled with memories of those 30 games, which included 19 victories—in fact I did write a book… it’s no longer in print, but hopefully some of you have a copy hidden away somewhere. And everyone who watched the Thunder, at home or away, will have their own favourite moments that, almost twenty years later, remain as strong and emotive as they were at the time.
My favourite game? It has to be the win over Wigan Warriors at Tynecastle. It had everything… that “wonder try” by Brian Carney; two great finishes from Matt Daylight; simply stunning defence in the closing minutes; and joyous, truly unforgettable celebrations at the end of a game that brought down the curtain on the career of Danny “the Ox” Lee. What a player he was…
The midweek victory at the Boulevard was pretty special too. A close opening forty minutes following by a second-half demolition, during which David Maiden scored a length of the field try straight from a Hull kick-off. It’s still hard to believe that the players we saw that night would be wearing the black and white of Hull FC just a few months later.
Try of the season? I think Brian Carney’s score in Edinburgh was the official choice, but my vote would have gone to a try by Deon Bird in the home fixture against Castleford, collecting a bouncing ball one-handed, at full pace, before diving over the line. It was a sublime piece of skill.
Time moves on, but nearly two decades after that truly amazing summer, rugby league still exists in the north east; the name “Thunder” now being preceded by the word “Newcastle”, as the current squad is based at Kingston Park, north of the River Tyne.
To say that the road has been rocky would be the mother of all understatements, but I think it’s safe to suggest that none of the various subsequent incarnations of this brilliant club would have existed had it not been for those men who travelled halfway around the world, many with their families, to showcase their particular brand of sporting entertainment and excitement.
Look at all the countless games that have been played from 2000 onwards; all the friendships that have been forged through a love rugby league … a love of Gateshead Thunder. To have created such a legacy in one season, just 30 games, is incredible. Maybe they don’t know quite what a difference they made, but I for one am so grateful.
I suppose that there will always be that nagging question at the back of the mind: what if? How might the future have been had things worked out differently? But even in those few short months a unique bond was created that has clearly stood the test of time. For players and fans alike, it was a remarkable experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
So to Ben, Matt, Deon, Craig, Ian, Will, Willie, Danny, Kerrod, Luke, Craig, Andrew, Brett, Tony, David, Adam, Brett, Richard, Sean, Mick, Brian, Garreth, Danny and Steve… and to Shane, Shaun and everyone behind the scenes; thank you.
There’s only one Gateshead Thunder!
Lots of exciting stuff due to happen on the challenge front over the next few weeks, with at least three of the remaining five scheduled to be attempted (and hopefully completed) between now and the end of the month.
Strictly speaking it’s the start of next month, as my indoor rowing marathon will take place at Eston Leisure Centre on the morning, afternoon (and quite possibly evening) of Sunday 1 October.
The distance is 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42,195 metres in new money. Goal number one is obviously to finish, but I’m looking to fulfil a second aim of finishing inside four hours. Actually, the real target is 3 hours 45 minutes (which would almost certainly mean beating my cross Channel—34,000m—record in the process), but it’s important that I’m realistic and focus on just completing the marathon rather than worrying about the time.
That said, it’s pretty hard to ignore the clock, seeing as there’s a performance monitor mounted right in front of your face.
Training has gone pretty well. I started back at the gym in April and have been concentrating on the rowing machine since the beginning of May, since when I have rowed just under 800km (500 miles). If it’s hard to put the bare distance into some sort of perspective, it is roughly the equivalent of rowing from Penzance on the tip of the Cornish coast all the way up to Morpeth in Northumberland.
Obviously that would be a stupid thing to do, seeing as I live in Middlesbrough and would clearly stop before heading further north … and to be honest, if I was going to travel that far, I’d probably use my car.
Back in December last year, I completed the equivalent of an English Channel crossing thanks to some hugely appreciated support—in fact two people (my unofficial trainer Julian Bunn, and Louise Hobson from BBC Tees) stayed for the entire duration. Dedication beyond the call of duty!
The company made an enormous difference. Long-distance rowing is a tough physical endurance sport; there are mental challenges to face as well, but having people with me provided a constant distraction that helped to make the whole event a memorable experience.
This time however, there will be no company; it’ll be me, my mp3 player and headphones, plenty of fluids and a packet of Jaffa Cakes. I train at 23-24 strokes a minutes, which (over four hours) will equate to between 5000 and 6000 strokes in total. My hands are already a mess from hours of gripping the handles, but my biggest concern is actually sitting on the rower for so long, because it gets really uncomfortable—and lengthy discomfort can actually become painful.
But that is just another part of the test… another challenge to overcome.
And we all have challenges to overcome…
Most of my blogs end in similar fashion because the message stays the same: it’s fine to talk about mental health, and asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness.
I’ll let you know how everything goes.
The last contact I had with Niall Mercer before his recent passing was in response to a Facebook post about a band called Honeyblood.
Now it’s not uncommon to see bands mentioned in dispatches on social media, but if Big Niall thought someone was worth a listen, you took his advice…
And, true to form, he was (in my opinion) spot on about Honeyblood—and here’s the audio of “Babes Never Die”, the title track from the duo’s second album by way of proof.
What I’ve loved about music since I gained a real interest in the late 1970s was how often one band could lead you to discover another … and another…
Honeyblood were on tour in April, and their main support was a trio that went by the name of Doe. They also released an album last year, entitled “Some Things Last Longer Than You”—and it is outstanding.
So much so that I wrote a review … only my second ever attempt at offering an opinion about a musical offering. The fact that the word “review” is underlined means you can see the article simply by clicking … the wonders of modern science.
As it transpired, I was in London when Honeyblood and Doe played in York, but within a matter of weeks, the latter returned to the north east—Durham to be precise—and it was great to get the chance not only to hear, but also to meet Nicola, Jake and Dean.
Fast forward to August, and Doe travelled across the Atlantic to play a few shows in the USA. One of those gigs was alongside an American band (another trio coincidentally) called Amanda X. Doe said they were great—so I had a listen; and in true Mercer tradition they were absolutely right.
Their 2017 release “Giant” is the best album I’ve heard all year; and a link to one of the slower songs, “Scarlet Geraniums” is included below … just after the fantastic “Before Her” by Doe (honestly the ending is amazing).
I have no doubt that the chain will continue, and I wonder how often something similar has played out over the years, with Niall helping so many people to discover and enjoy great music.
Niall’s gift has now become his legacy; and whilst his untimely death was a massive shock to everyone who knew the big fella, as long as I’m listening to bands like Honeyblood, Doe, and Amanda X, I will always remember Niall Mercer ... and that's a pretty special legacy.
Today certainly wasn’t the first time Elaine and I had been out for afternoon tea; but our trip to the Old Joiners Shop marks my debut as a “food blogger”—basically that means I’m going to try and write a review…
The Joiners is situated in Ingleby Cross, a lovely little village just off the Stokesley Road (A172), only a mile or so from the A19.
We had booked in advance and a table had been reserved upstairs. There were several wooden tables and chairs, as well as a very comfortable-looking sofa—I’d guess there was room for twenty or so people, plus the downstairs and a couple of small tables outside for those wanting to enjoy the late summer (or early autumn) sunshine.
There seemed to be a decent selection of teas (and coffee if you preferred), but we are a traditional English Breakfast tea couple. The beverages arrived soon after; and extra tea or hot water was no problem.
We had a lengthy wait for the food, but this gave us ample time to chat, as well as allowing Elaine to meet the very handsome Cockapoo that had been lying quietly beside the family on the next table. The Joiners is “dog friendly”, and Elaine’s canine afternoon was completed by meeting a Golden Retriever puppy, a Maltese Terrier and Cocker Spaniel. I was very much surplus to requirements!
There were two reasons for the delay; firstly, the shop was busy (always a good sign), but secondly—and more compellingly—this was the first ever afternoon tea that The Joiners had served. There were apologies from the staff, we could also sense a few nerves too, but they were as unfounded as the apologies were unnecessary, because when the food arrived, it looked wonderful (photographic evidence follows).
There are four sandwich fillings available, and we had to pick two. If the afternoon teas become popular, I’m sure all four would be included, but I can understand why, for now, a choice had to be made. We picked salmon, cucumber and dill, and brie with cranberry. They were both lovely (especially the brie), and I must admit I did make me wonder what the other sandwiches would have been like—for the record, they are ham and mustard, and beef and chutney.
Unusually, there was one fruit and one cheese scone on the middle plate. Butter was provided for the cheese scone—a good move; I’m not sure jam and cream would go. My first reaction was what if you wanted to share? And then I found the scones were pre-cut … clever!
The plates were decorated with fresh fruit, and I have to admit the raspberries were one of the absolute highlights. I believe much of the produce is locally-sourced … and the raspberries (and the strawberries) tasted amazing. It reminded me of going fruit picking as a kid; everything tasted so fresh and sweet you just kept on eating; and when it was time to pay for what you’d picked, you had filled just the one punnet—and one stomach!
As for the sweet plate; well there was a rich chocolate cake, carrot cake, another cake with a tangy lemon icing, as well as coconut macaroons, meringues and a creamy, fruity offering in a small glass jar. All lovely, but way too much for us to finish.
The atmosphere was great—being dog friendly is a big plus—and the staff couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. The only criticism we could have had was the delay for the food to arrive, but as I said, we actually enjoyed every minute and weren’t bothered in the slightest. And even if it had been an issue, the preparation time will only reduce as more people come to sample afternoon tea at The Joiners—which I’m sure they will.
I suppose I had better mention the price. Given the quality of the food, the service, the ambience (a word I use when I’m trying to sound posh), I would have to say the cost of £26.00 for the two of us was far less than I would have expected. Not that I want the prices to go up, because we’ll definitely be paying another visit—maybe wait until after we’ve been back, then add on another couple of quid!
I believe it is customary to end a review with a score or rating. I’m going to go down the star route—one star is pretty ordinary, five stars means “excellent … pop along and see for yourself”.
The Old Joiners Shop in Ingleby Cross gets … drum roll...