Monday, 21 September 2020

Novel Writing and Ginger Dog

My new novel is going well. I’m almost at the milestone of 100,000 words. I’ve been writing every day for eight weeks. It’s been very intensive so far, with plenty of early starts as well as often getting up in the middle of the night to write notes. I’m a long way through the story now, but I keep getting new ideas. So I’m going to keep writing until I either run out of ideas or I become completely exhausted. During my many hours at the computer, I’m grateful to have a writing companion. His name is Ginger Dog.

Ginger Dog likes to lie on the corner of my desk wedged between the computer screen, my diary and the telephone. Despite his name, Ginger Dog is a cat. I’ve written about him before. You may recall he arrived here a little over two years ago, just after our dog died. He was small, thin and very wary. We since discovered that he wasn’t a true feral cat. He must have had experience of people as a kitten. But then he was abandoned.

Over time, Ginger Dog became used to us and came to the back door regularly to get food. He now spends most of his time in and around the house. From an early age, he began to follow me around. So we called him Ginger Dog. I don’t know why he does it. Perhaps he sees me as a parent or a provider. He also likes to lie down next to me when I’m doing my stretching exercises. He never does any of the the exercises himself (see photo), as he’s flexible enough already.

When he isn’t asleep on my desk, Ginger Dog is writing his own novel. He often feels the urge to stretch out and tap the keyboard with his paws. And when inspired, he stands up and presses the keys. I have no idea what he’s writing, because it is in Cat. But I can give you an exclusive extract below. If you know someone who can translate Cat into English, please get in touch.

ssssssggggggggyyyyyyyyeeeeeennnnnnnnooooooollllllllllllllllllllllllllllllppppppppppppppppppkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx........................’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’////////////////////////////////////////////////88888888888888888rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww4444444444444444444444444477777777777777777777777777xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx




 

Monday, 31 August 2020

Writing a New Novel

For the past five weeks I’ve been writing a novel. It’s been going well. I’ve written 64,000 words so far and I’m enjoying it. There seems to be more freedom in writing prose, compared to writing poetry. But it’s just as compulsive. The story is in my head pretty much all of the time. But novel writing is more tiring, because it is so sustained. Usually it would take me only a couple of days to produce the first draft of a poem (which would then be revised over the ensuing weeks and months). I’ve been writing intensively every day for six weeks now, but I’m still only about halfway through the first draft of the novel. I just hope my creative energy and momentum keeps going.

The novel is set in 1961 and in a fictional place. So I suppose that makes it a historical novel of sorts. The place is based on the small country town where I grew up in Gloucestershire. I was inspired to choose 1961 by the Philip Larkin poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the first two stanzas of which are below (although he wrote the poem in 1967). The beginning of the 1960’s is interesting to me because it is a cusp between an older social order that has been marked by wartime and rationing and a nascent social order that is in search of new freedoms. Although the Larkin poem focuses on sexual freedom, the novel is concerned with a broader range of issues. That time was also the heyday of British social realist novels, plays and films.

I‘ve been doing little else than writing, eating, sleeping and cycling, for the past six weeks. It’s been much more exhausting than I expected. One day I wrote 3,500 words and my brain was fried. But I still woke up in the middle of the night with ideas for the plot and had to get up and write them down. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have got back to sleep at all. I began the novel with only a very sketchy plot, which has become deepened and massively altered as I’ve moved along through the story. As I’ve been writing one chapter, the next couple have also been in my head. But I’ve not been working a lot further ahead than that. This gives you more freedom to insert plot twists and turns. I’m thinking that any plot problems can be fixed in the second draft. However, I’ve just been able to envision the end of the book. All I have to do now is to get the characters there.

Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.


Philip Larkin

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Doing the 101

‘Did you enjoy the summer?’ asked the newsagent this morning, as I walked into the shop from the rain. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘pity it was just for one week’. We both smiled, knowing that summer here is often brief and fleeting. At least we’d had an unbroken week of fine and warm weather, before grey skies and rain had returned. I told him that on the last day of summer (yesterday) I’d gone for an all day bike ride and had done 101 miles, my longest ride since 1997. ‘That’s some ride,’ he said, ‘you don’t look knackered, you must have been doing plenty of freewheeling.’ I laughed and told him that I was feeling reasonably okay today. ‘Weren’t you in hospital again recently?’ he said. ‘That was almost three years ago,’ I said. I told him that I was completely recovered from all my cancer treatment and that, strangely enough, I felt I’d even gained things from the ordeal. ‘Well done,’ he said, ‘that bike ride proves it.’

Riding for 100 miles is an endurance challenge, which has two main aspects: physical and mental. The physical challenge is to be healthy enough to keep going at a good pace for eight hours. Here the series of major operations I had was more of a disadvantage. I was chopped open three times in two and a half years, which left lots of internal scar tissue, muscle and nerve damage. Some of these limitations have been overcome with the help of physiotherapy and regular stretching; some just have to be lived with. The other problem was that each time I recovered and built myself back to health after one operation, I was put back to zero by having to return to hospital for yet another operation. This meant that I experienced an accumulated loss of physical health that has taken several years of uninterrupted building up to regain. During my long ride I’m glad to say that I had no major aches and pains, just a few niggles from time to time.

Nutrition is obviously very important too. When I returned, I calculated that I had burnt 4320 calories on the ride. However, I reckon that what I ate during the day came to almost 4000 calories, for I stopped every 20 miles to eat. I began the day with a big bowl of porridge with maple syrup. During the ride I ate one and half malt loaves, eight cereal bars, six bananas and four mini-cheeses. At the end of the ride, I demolished a big slab of pannetone before I drove home for a huge pasta meal. It wasn’t cow pie, but I might well have managed one.

The mental aspect of an endurance event is probably the greater challenge. Keeping up a high level of physical activity for eight hours does require significant determination. This is where I think the ordeal of the cancer treatment, particularly the series of operations, has helped me. Coping with all the setbacks of my treatment required great resilience and mental strength. I had these qualities beforehand, but I know they developed significantly during this ordeal. I experienced two very severe operations with several years of significant post-operative pain. But I found the resources to survive these and to rebuild my health. So I know I have the resources to cope with an eight hour bike ride.

Oddly enough, the most difficult time mentally was from 50 to 60 miles. At 50 miles I stopped to refill my water bottle after completing the hilliest section of the ride. I was starting to feel tired and it suddenly struck me, I now have to do all that again. In a flash, the end of the ride became an extremely long way away. Drawing on my cancer survivorship skills, I broke the challenge down into smaller parts. I didn’t think of 100 miles, but of another ten miles, to get me 60. When I got there, I had a short break, ate some food and relaxed. I was sitting beside the River Blackwater, on the border between Armagh and Tyrone. The sun was shining, no-one was about and it was pleasantly warm. Just before I left, a fella drove down to the riverside in his car, wound the window down and spoke to me. ‘It’s too damn hot,’ he said, turned the car around and drove away. Typical, I thought, we’ve only had one week of summer and people are already complaining.


Sunday, 9 August 2020

The Summer

On the fourth day of autumn (Lughnasa happened on Tuesday), summer put in a surprise appearance. In the north of this Atlantic island, summer had been absent for most of the past two months. And without a sick note, unless you count the tract that had been nailed to a tree down the road: ‘Repent for the days of Noah are upon us.’ Meteorologically, it had seemed to be true enough. We’d got used to a blanket of dark skies, cool northerly winds and squally rain. So the sudden appearance of the bright sun in a clear blue sky came as quite a shock. I put away my Vitamin D supplements, hunted around for my sunscreen, rescued my short-sleeved cycling top from the bottom of a drawer and went out for a good bike ride.

As usual I started at Scarva and headed up the canal towpath. The boost to cycling that lockdown gave has been continued in these strange beyond times. I’m glad to say that it is no longer unusual to see whole families out on bikes. Although, I’m careful when small kids are coming towards me on their little bikes, for they are often wobbly and unable to keep going straight on. But the only way to get better at riding a bike is to gain experience, and the towpath is a safe place to start.

At Portadown the towpath takes you almost into the centre, so you have to ride carefully. Along the path there will often be gangs of teenagers jostling one another, piles of broken glass (usually in the underpass) and a group of adults swigging cider. This is all concentrated in the last half mile of the towpath, and once these challenges have been negotiated there is only another mile of city streets to do before you reach back-roads and fields.

I followed the cycle route to Maghery, had a break and turned inland towards the Argory and Blackwatertown. These are quiet roads through undulating country, farms and small villages. In the fields contractors were cutting silage. A heavy mower is followed by a large vacuum machine that picks up the cut grass and blows it into the back of a huge trailer that is being driven alongside. But beware, the big trailers are always driven at high speeds along the narrow roads between the field and the farm. Contractors are paid a fixed price for the job, so the sooner they are finished, the sooner they can start earning at the next job. They take no prisoners on the road and drive their huge tractors at full speed, expecting everyone else to get out of their way. On a bike it’s easy to hear them coming.

I did a loop, almost to Armagh, and then turned back towards Loughgall. The drumlins are steeper here and covered with apple trees. It looks like it’s going to be a good harvest, for the trees are heavy with fruit. It was warm, around 26 degrees. Plenty of people were out working in their gardens. There are few little shops around here, so I stopped at a house and asked for water. They almost seemed glad to have an excuse to pause and refill my water bottle. After a break, I headed past Crowhill, a striking white house sitting on top of a drumlin, to rejoin the return route towards Portadown and Scarva.

On the way, I stopped for a chat with Lila, who lives alone in a small roadside cottage. Despite being 85, she’s always out working in her garden or painting the walls white or the window-frames red. She’s tough countrywoman who hates being idle. The sky was still blue and the sun remained strong. Portadown and the towpath were fairly quiet. I got back to the car at 6pm. It was still 20 degrees. I’d had a great day out, done 70 miles with over 2000 feet of climbing. And it had been summer all day.

 



Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Four Counties Ride

Yesterday I cycled for 80 miles across four counties. It was a grand day out, with plenty of interesting places en route. I spent six and a half hours in the saddle for my longest bike ride of the year. The old body is still going well, despite all the surgery I’ve had. There is a legacy of aches and pains, particularly across my pelvis, but I’ve found ways of coping with them. Given my current tiredness, I can safely say that I wouldn’t be keen to get back on the bike again this afternoon, but by tomorrow I think I’ll be ready for another wee ride.

I started off in Scarva, Co Down, and cycled up the canal towpath towards Portadown. The morning was overcast with a cool NW breeze. I’d consulted three weather forecasts: the BBC, the Norwegian Weather Service and Met Eireann. There was not unanimity. Met Eireann gave a warm and sunny day. The other two forecast a cool and overcast day. I decide to wear shorts and my versatile windproof top with long-sleeves, which could be zipped off to form a short-sleeve. I hoped the sun would come out, but like so many days here recently, I was prepared for cooler conditions.

The towpath was quiet until I got to Moneypenny’s Lock, then the normal groups of dog walkers were out and about. Dark clouds rolled in from the west and I felt the temperature go down until I began to chill. I stopped to put my cap on under my helmet and to switch my road lights on (one front, one rear). A good thing about Portadown, Co Armagh, is that the towpath brings you right into the centre and then it is just a short ride up the Garvaghy Rd to escape into minor roads and green fields. After about a mile you are out of town, past the dark spire of Drumcree and away.

Around the southern edge of Lough Neagh is pleasant cycling through undulating country. The settlements are very small and well spread out. The place names all seem to have the stem Derry, so assumedly there were plenty of oak groves here at one time. The main businesses now seem to be market gardening with polytunnels. At Maghery there is a footbridge over the River Blackwater that takes you into Co Tyrone. The small roads on the other side head across peat fields until you get to Brockagh and Mountjoy Castle (built during the plantation).

There is a shop here and, at 23 miles, I made it my first stop. I bought water and a banana and sat on a bench in the graveyard and ate my snacks. In my saddle-bag I had slices of malt loaf, snack cheeses and cereal bars. A graveyard is usually a peaceful stop and is always a good place to contemplate. In front of me were the graves of Michael, who was ‘everyone’s friend’ but died aged 18, and baby Ciara ‘born asleep’.

I carried on around the Lough taking all the smaller roads I could. The land is a bit hillier here and you get some excellent views of the water. But the best viewpoint by far is at Ardboe, the hill of the cow, where you can sit on a bench besides a ruined church and see the Mournes and Slieve Gullion across the Lough on the horizon. It also possesses one of the finest high crosses in NI, sited at a place where a magic cow reputedly emerged from the Lough.

Eventually I was forced to return to the main road that goes around the Lough. At this point I turned west towards Cookstown until I reached Coagh, a wee village which looks very down on its luck. It sits at the border between Cos Tyrone and Derry. I stopped for a snack in the picnic area beside the River Ballinderry. No-one was about. I’d travelled 42 miles and I was feeling pleased with myself. It was early afternoon and time to head back. I’d return using a variation of my outward route. The weather had warmed up a little, but it was still windy and overcast. It certainly didn’t feel warm enough to zip my long sleeves off. You needed sunshine for that. It was another typical summer’s day in NI.





Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Clear-Out

After a long fine spell, the normal NI summer has resumed: one or two warm and bright days, followed by three or four cool, wet and windy ones. At this time of year, I don’t enjoy being stuck indoors day after day. Besides, the editing of my poetry manuscript was largely finished and I was mainly doing background reading for my next writing project. On the spur of a moment, I decided to begin another long-neglected task: the clear-out.

My wardrobe occupies much of one bedroom wall. It has a long hanging rail, chockfull with trousers and shirts, and a shelf above, which was overflowing with jerseys. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d sorted through it. T had suggested I do this, several times. But I’d been avoiding it. She sat on the bed and encouraged me.

On the upper shelf were several folded piles of jeans. I pulled them out and started to try them on. Some were narrow leg, others straight or flared, but few of them now fitted me comfortably. T got a roll of bin bags from the kitchen and soon one was half-filled with my discarded jeans.

Then I turned to the trousers. Some were ancient with turn-ups. Others were casual cords. I found two suits that I’d bought when I began work at QUB, some twenty two years ago. In my department, it was expected that a professor would wear a suit. I followed the dress code at first, and then my attire became more relaxed. By the end of my time, I was wearing cords or jeans to work most days. Another charity bin-bag became filled with these work clothes.

My favourite jerseys were piled on top of the long shelf. Underneath were many others that I’d not worn for years. Some were odd styles and colours, some were faded, and some had even been eaten by moths. T laughed at some of my older jerseys but wanted to keep others for herself. We opened a fresh bin-bag for charity and another for clothes that I could wear for gardening.

Looking through my clothes was like looking back through my life. I remembered occasions when I had worn something or who had bought it for me. I also realised why I had been putting this task off. I had to be feeling strong enough to do this sorting out, because I couldn’t know what memories I would encounter. They could be amusing or troubling or anywhere in-between. I found plenty of these, and recounted funny, embarrassing or sad episodes for T.

In the end, I became quite exhausted by this work. We had three full bin-bags for charity and one for the garden. And I hadn’t even sorted through the shoes. We’d save that for another day. When I rested, I read that plenty of people had been through similar clear-outs during lockdown and newly-opening charity shops were being inundated with donations. As people go out and meet others, a key question will be – what sort of lockdown did you have? For many, this seems to have been a time for reflection and of taking stock.


Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Lockdown Review

The lockdown has effectively been over for several weeks now. You can see it in the streets thronged with people and the roads clogged with vehicles. It ended with the Dominic Cummings fiasco. During which a national newspaper posted a ‘cut out and keep’ mugshot of DC on its front page and invited readers to put it on and do whatever the hell they wanted. And since then many people have pretty much been doing that, whether or not they bothered to wear DC or any other masks. On a national level, it is plain to see that the government’s handling of the crisis has been woeful and inept. But on a personal level, I have to conclude that the lockdown has mainly been beneficial for me.

Why do I say this? Well, during lockdown I’ve completed a series of major jobs around the house that I’d been putting off for a good while: building my new bike, cutting the heavily overgrown back hedge and clearing the clogged garden pond, to name but three. I’ve also done a substantial amount of writing and editing work. I’ve completed the manuscript of my second poetry collection and succeeded in gaining a book contract with Dempsey & Windle. I’ve formatted the manuscript and secured the rights to a photo for the cover. And I’ve now started work on my next book, which will be a novel.

Lockdown gave me the uninterrupted time and space to take on a range of multi-day jobs, whilst also removing most of the distractions that would have encouraged me to avoid them. So I can now congratulate myself on having successfully achieved a series of important tasks, some of which had been neglected for a while.

The low traffic of lockdown and the associated good weather enabled me to do a series of long bike rides on major roads that I would never have dreamt of riding on in normal circumstances. The best of these was along the Castlewellan Road to Newcastle, around the coast to Kilkeel and Rostrevor, into Newry and back along the canal to Poyntzpass. Lockdown has certainly encouraged people to get out bikes that had been left in the shed for many years. This can only be a good thing for people's health. I hope that the boost to cycling continues, despite the increase in traffic.

As T has been working from home, it has meant that we have spent much more time together. We have shared many breakfasts and lunches together and have been able to talk more and more often. These everyday connections have strengthened and deepened our relationship.

As for living with the stress of a life-threatening disease? Well, I’ve been doing that for the past nine years. You have to take things day by day and not expect too much of yourself. It’s not easy, but this has become my normality. You take all the precautions you can, do the right things and hope for the best.

Lockdown has meant that I haven’t had a haircut, a cup of coffee in a cafe nor been to an event for three months. But in the great scheme of things, this has been a small price to pay. I’m aware that we don’t have little children to care for, or a business to run. And I’m not wishing for lockdown to return, just doing my own assessment of the past three months. For me there have clearly been many more gains than losses.