Monday, 10 May 2021

The Break

It wasn’t the sort of down-time that we were looking for. My dearest T has broken a bone in her foot. She was leaning forward to pull the curtains and overbalanced, getting a sharp pain along the outside of her foot. It was very sore, so we rang the GP. Amazingly enough, she asked T to come in to the surgery straight away. The GP examined the swollen foot and recommended that T get an X-ray. Then she rang the Minor Injuries service and booked T in.

Shortly after T got back home from the GP, a triage nurse rang, asked about the injury and gave T an appointment an hour later at Daisy Hill Hospital. I drove T to the front door and she limped into the hospital on my late father’s walking stick. The Minor Injuries Unit is attached to A & E, and I think most hospitals in NI have one. I wasn’t allowed in with her, so I had to park and wait for updates by text message.

T didn’t have very long to wait. She was seen by a doctor and sent for an X-ray. When the images came back, the doctor pointed out that T had fractured a bone in her foot. But not just any bone. T had a small extra metatarsal on the edge of her foot and this had broken. Having this extra bone was very unusual and the doctor brought in several medical students to look at the X-rays.

The treatment was the same as for any broken bone. T was fitted with a large grey plastic boot and two elbow crutches. She was given two weeks supply of Co-codamol and Clexane anti-coagulant injections and sent home to rest. T would be reviewed in two weeks time at the Minor Injuries Unit and was given an appointment. I picked her up at the front door of the hospital and helped her into the car. The whole process had taken just three hours, much quicker than any visit to A & E.

When we got back home, I helped T into the house. She hobbled along the hallway on the crutches and sat down in an armchair. I went to make her a cup of coffee and some toast. At the back door was our semi-feral cat. He hadn’t arrived as usual that morning. I got him some food while the kettle was boiling. Then I noticed he was limping too, holding one of his forepaws up as he hopped to his bowl. Blimey, I was the only one in the house who wasn’t incapacitated. I had better take good care, they were all depending on me.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

My Anniversary

This is a special day. And one that I truly never thought I would see. Ten years ago today I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer. I remember the events vividly. How could I forget that awful night on a trolley in Casualty? The doctor grimly closing the curtains around my bed? And then those life-changing words? I shrank into the bed feeling sure that my life was at an end.

So much has happened since that day. And readers of this blog have learnt all about the many twists and turns of my journey. The two metastatic recurrences, the four major operations, the many weeks in hospital and the two occasions upon which I was told that I wasn’t expected to survive for very long.

But I am still here. Alive and very much kicking. I’ve come through a great ordeal. I’ve found a well of resources that I never knew I had. And I’ve gained the partner who I was always looking for. Someone who has stood beside me on every step of the way. It has certainly been a sea change in my life.

I am now a stronger and more resilient person than I was ten years ago. But that does not happen by default; these qualities are not just gifted to you. I had to find my way through the ordeal to gain these benefits. They are burnished by fire. And they are all the more powerful for it.  For I know that I can rely on them in any circumstance.

I am also now a better person than I was ten years ago. I’m clearer about who I am and how I want to live my life. I’m more open and honest; I’m more aware of my own limitations. I also feel that I have become more understanding of others. Most people are trying their best in their difficult circumstances. But I am less willing to suffer fools. Life is far too short.

So where do I go from here? Well, I travel hopefully. And try to make the best of things. I don’t think in the long term. In a month’s time I will have my next cancer surveillance scan. And all being well, we will be going on holiday to Co Clare in the late summer. Apart from that, I’m pretty much living day by day. Today is bright and sunny. I’ll post this blog and go outside to work in the garden or in the garage. Tomorrow, if the weather is still good, I’ll go for a bike ride.

Friday, 9 April 2021

The Jab and the Refusers

I’ve just had my second vaccination; with no ill effects, other than a sore arm. I was very glad to get it, coming as it did, ten weeks after the first. And in two weeks time I will be as fully protected as I can from Covid-19 and some of its variants. But I won’t be throwing away my facemask and going in search of crowds. The vaccination centre I attended gives several thousand injections a day. And the staff, mainly volunteers, continue to be cheerful in their work. As I stood in the socially-distanced line and noticed the great variety of people who had come to get inoculated, I suddenly thought about the Covid sceptics and the anti-vaxxers.

The majority of these are apparently ordinary people who have become highly disaffected by lockdown and who have developed grudges against agencies that they feel are conspiring to oppress them, such as the WHO or the NHS vaccination programme. These refusers have found meaning and purpose in social media groups that support their views and which organize anti-facemask/lockdown/vaccine protests or even invasions of hospitals to try and get Covid patients removed from ventilators and treated instead with vitamins. Social scientists would recognise these behaviours as symptoms of alienation, exacerbated by the mental health challenges of lockdown.

What I was shocked to find is that these strange views also exist in our little rural community. Walking down our quiet lane has become a popular activity for many local residents during lockdown. And when you meet someone you normally stop and pass the time of day. And before long the conversation will turn to Covid and vaccinations.

It’s not that I trust our Government. Far from it. For they have cynically used the pandemic to draw a cloak over a large number of dirty deeds: from lucrative contracts handed to their cronies, to swingeing cuts in social care, local government, overseas investment, fire safety in tall buildings, civil liberties and health workers’ pay. Because the refusers are looking through a distorted lens, they fail to notice these problems.

But I do trust the science. Have the anti-vaxxers forgotten about the many widespread diseases that worried our parent’s generation: polio, diphtheria, TB and the like, all of which have been brought under control by vaccination programmes? And what about the many people in the world who desperately need a Covid-19 vaccination? I’m not just thinking of the millions of people in Africa and Latin America, where the disease is out of control and healthcare systems are unable to cope, but of a friend of mine who lives in a nearby European country and who suffers from a severe lung disease. If he catches Covid he has been told that he is very likely to die. But he hasn’t been vaccinated yet and will have to cross his fingers and wait for a long time, because that country is vaccinating its people strictly in descending age order and taking no account of anyone with serious medical conditions.

Monday, 29 March 2021

The Shed has Landed

It didn’t come from another planet, but in sections on the back of a truck. Two fellas laid the base on concrete blocks, made sure it was level and then fitted the wall panels one by one. After that they screwed the roof panels on and covered them in bitumen felt, which they burned on to make sure it was watertight. In little more than an hour, the job was complete. We now had a new shed out the back of the house. Or to be more precise, T had a new shed where she could emulate Monty Don to her heart’s content.

The job had begun a week earlier, when two neighbours came round to help clear the back corner of debris and weeds. It was massively overgrown. Using a pickaxe and two shovels, we filled a wheelbarrow twenty times over. Along with thickets of briars and great tussocks of hard grass, we came across parts of an old boiler-house, the wreckage of a whirligig clothes line and two hula-hoops. After several hours of back-breaking work, we had it cleared.

The new shed is made of stained pine. Its two windows look out across T’s raised beds and containers to her greenhouse. The main elements of her cottage garden are now fully in place. The shed is sturdy and surprisingly roomy.  I wondered if she might consider setting up a counter where passers-by could get cakes, fruit pies and other delicacies made from produce grown in her garden. But down our lane there are more sheep than people. So I might have to eat the bigger part of it myself.

Then I thought of all the famous writers who had worked in garden sheds. George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman had all written large parts of their output in sheds. And most of these writing sheds were a bit smaller than ours. Then there was Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf, but they had worked in much larger and posher buildings, more akin to summer houses. A little voice began to suggest to me that T’s shed could also become a writing retreat. Then, I thought again. A lot of garden implements are pretty sharp and I didn’t want to upset her.

With thanks to Sheds NI


Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Summer Holiday

We have just booked a late-summer break. We briefly considered going abroad, but then decided it was safer to stay at home. So we chose a seaside cottage in Co Clare. It’s a county we have visited before, for the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. But this time we will be staying in West Clare, in a wee house beside the ocean. During these burdensome days of lockdown it’s given us something to look forward to. And this morning I found myself humming a little tune that took me way back. ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday. No more working for a week or two.’

I can picture Cliff Richard and the Shadows singing this. The song was from a film of the same name. It featured Cliff and his pals driving to the Cote D’Azur in a red London double-decker bus, looking to pick up girls. But the plot wasn’t important. The film was a succession of song and dance routines. It was the second most popular film in the UK in 1963, only beaten by From Russia with Love. I don’t recall seeing the film at the time. But I do remember the song. It was No 1 in the charts in June of that year.

A decade or so later, I did the very same thing. My journey to the south of France with my mates wasn’t in a London bus. We went by plane to Corsica and stayed on a National Union of Students campsite. I recall getting sunburnt during the days on the beach and drunk on cheap red wine in the evenings. Unlike Cliff, I wasn’t very successful at pulling girls (my main preoccupation at the time). Halfway through the first week, I decided to go exploring on my own. I rented a tiny moped and set off down the coast for a ride. Instead of turning back, I just kept going. I ended up travelling around a good bit of the island.

Corsica is mountainous and the roads were pretty rough. The little moped wasn’t powerful enough to take me up the steep hills. It had pedals like a bicycle, but I often had to get off and push. I wasn’t in any way prepared for this jaunt. I had no map or tent with me. I’d headed off on the spur of the moment in just the clothes I stood up in. I was also fairly skint. I slept in woods on the edge of villages that nestled among the hills. I lay down on the sandy soil with pine trees for shelter. Despite the heat of the day, it got chilly by during the night. I lived on lemonade and baguettes for a few days. When I got back, my mates were still going to the beach each day and drinking red wine at night. On our last weekend, there was a great firework display to celebrate Napoleon’s birthday. I returned home fairly pleased with myself. I hadn’t pulled but I did have a great adventure (the forerunner of many such trips I would take by motorbike and cycle in the years to come).

T and I will be carrying our creature comforts with us in the car to Co Clare. Some days we will go out on trips, others we will just sit and think. The cottage has picture windows that overlook the ocean and a remote beach. In the evenings we may drink a little red wine, but it will more likely be cups of tea. Happily, my pulling days are behind me.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

About The Skylark's Call

The Honest Ulsterman asked me to write an article describing how my latest collection came into being and the rationale behind the book. As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a long story. I wrote it from the heart, in the style of a piece for this blog. My article has now been published in the journal ( I reproduce the text below, with thanks to the editor. I hope you find it illuminating. Please let me know what you think.

"Exactly ten years separate my first and second collections of poetry. This long time-span wasn’t deliberate. It was unavoidable.

My new collection, The Skylark’s Call, explores memories and meanings at the borderland between life and death. I was catapulted into that strange and complex territory just a few months after the launch of my debut collection, Latch. It was Good Friday 2011 and I had spent a sleepless night on a trolley in A&E at the City Hospital, Belfast. The doctor pulled the curtain around my bed and told me straight. I had Stage 3 cancer. The tumour had grown most of the way from my kidney to my heart. I shrank into the sheets, unable to speak.

I endured a month in hospital being prepared for a very big operation that might save my life. Bad news travels extremely fast. Family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen for decades, came long distances to see me. Between visiting times I moped, gazing at people who were walking unconcernedly along the pavements below.  The hospital offered access to the internet, so I was able to cancel my reading tour of Ireland and England from my bed.

The big operation took around eight hours and involved three teams of surgeons. I needed three blood transfusions and spent a week in intensive care and the high dependency unit. I was sedated and have few memories of these days. Afterwards my doctors told me that my health and fitness had got me through the ordeal. They also told me that they expected the cancer to return and spread. They concluded that I would be lucky to live beyond two years. Unable to cope with this prognosis, my partner left me.

Back home, I sat in an armchair and stared out at summer clouds scudding over the horizon. I was truly alone. My situation seemed hopeless and I felt helpless. Somehow, from these depths I was able to reach out. I saw a counsellor from Cancer Focus. Her support got me through the darkest of these early days.

My life had become stark and simplified. I realised that there were lots of things I wasn’t going to be doing again in the time that remained. Writing poetry was just one of them. Instead, I began to revisit places across these islands that I had loved, and looked up old friends that I hadn’t seen for decades. I was sort of paying my last respects.

At the same time, I desperately wanted to go back to where and who I was before. But all of my efforts were doomed, for these options had been removed. I had an exhausting whirl of conflicting emotions. I could only go on as best I could. Death was no longer a remote possibility. It walked beside me at every step. I could smell and taste it. I had to learn to live with this very present threat.

My new life was intensely stressful, filled with anxiety and fear. But it was also strangely liberating, for normal life could not be maintained and continued in the face of this threat. The peculiar borderland that I was in had an odd mix of dark and light, it was a place of vulnerability and of vitality.

It took me well over a year to recover from that big operation. I spent a lot of time on the internet. I found a blog by an American cancer patient which expressed exactly how I was feeling. He described himself as a ‘survivor’ and wrote openly about his cancer experience and how it was affecting his life. I corresponded with him. He told me he was trying to gain a small measure of empowerment over a deeply disempowering disease. This struck a chord with me. I decided to begin my own blog. I called it ‘Writing to Survive’, with the sub-title ‘writing from the here and now’. Since then, I have written a weekly blog describing what was happening with me and how I was feeling about it. My blog has hundreds of regular readers and has gained many accolades.

As time went on, I could find no inspiration to write poetry. Instead, I set myself little writing challenges. Like picking a word at random from the dictionary and trying to write a poem around it. For an experiment, I also tried to write poems that were stimulated by real-life stories I came across in news media. They weren’t found poems. The story was the jumping off point into a poem. But the poem also remained grounded in the story. They were separate but connected. I had begun to write poetry in a new and different register and I was enjoying it.

My two year anniversary came and went. I was getting regular surveillance scans, which showed that the cancer hadn’t returned. The fear was at times overwhelming but it didn’t stop me from trying new things. I was learning to live in the borderland. I returned to the Writers’ Group at the Seamus Heaney Centre and presented my new poems. The late Ciaran Carson was very encouraging and christened them my ‘discovered poems’. Looking back, I see that I was particularly attracted to real-life stories of loss and also those of rediscovery. I began to submit these poems to competitions and journals, with some success.

To mark the third anniversary of my big operation I went to my first literary event since 2010. On the first day of the John Hewitt Summer School, I met the woman who was to become my wife. It must have been written in the stars, for my dearest T was attending the event for the very first time. We went on holiday to Orkney, staying with a friend I hadn’t seen since I was nine years old. We explored Neolithic settlements, burial chambers and standing stones, marvelled at the Italian Chapel and got spectacularly close to plenty of wildlife. It was an inspiring trip that stimulated plenty of new poems.

Despite our hoping against hope, my doctors were eventually proved correct. My cancer returned in 2015 and again in 2016. What’s more, it had spread to the right side of my abdomen and my liver. I had advanced cancer and was given another poor prognosis, this time of just one year. My dearest T stood by me throughout the three major operations I needed.

I ended up spending a series of weeks in four different NI hospitals. I could write the Trip Advisor reports for each. The Royal and the Mater were excellent, but I’d have to mark the City down for putting me on a saline drip for twelve days without any food. Due to this, I had to spend Christmas Day 2015 on the ward. My dearest T decorated my bed with fairy lights and tinsel. The nurses called it Santa’s Grotto.

Cancer is a very hard taskmaster. I’ve gained so many scars on my torso that I could be a body double for a pirate without the need for make-up. After my last big operation, I had to rest sitting up in bed for three months and drink liquid morphine every couple of hours to get through the night. I had my cold turkey during Christmas 2017, and I’m not referring to the festive food.

Despite all of this, I think the physical pain of cancer treatment is easier to cope with than the mental stress of living with the threat of recurrence and death. This fear rises and falls in intensity, but it never actually goes away. I’ve been clear of cancer for four years now. But the type of cancer I had has been known to recur even twenty years later. So I will be living in the borderland for the rest of my life.

Looking back on my journey thus far, I know that I’ve gained much more than I’ve lost. I’ve learned to live in the here and now. I’ve learned to do what matters, and to do it as well as I can. I’ve learned not to waste time and energy on what doesn’t matter. I’ve found a resilience that got me through some serious ordeals. I travel hopefully but remain vigilant.

I’ve weathered a sea change in my life. And through it I’ve become a more developed person and a more developed writer too. I’m now more appreciative of what I do have, more aware of my strengths and limitations, more understanding of others and more open and honest.

After recuperating from my years of treatment, I took stock of the poems I’d written since 2013. What began as a creative trickle had built into a steady flow. There were well over a hundred new poems. Twenty three had won awards in competitions in Ireland, the UK and the USA. Fifty had been published, some of them in highly-regarded literary journals in Europe, North America and the UK.

I recall the late Ciaran Carson describing the meaning and rationale of a collection as something that emerges over time. You write a poem because you are inspired by something that fires your imagination. It is only when you begin to put a number of poems together that the themes which interconnect these pieces of writing can start to appear. And it may be some time before you are able to discern these relationships and underlying meanings. They are likely to not have been apparent to you at the time of writing the poems themselves.

Over some eighteen months I went through a good number of iterations of my second collection and tried a range of different titles. Special thanks are due to the late Ciaran Carson, Moyra Donaldson and Damian Smyth for their feedback. As Lagan Press had stopped publishing collections some years previously, I needed to find a new home for my work. Roger Robinson, the winner of the TS Eliot Prize 2019, said that after his manuscript got dozens of rejections from publishers, he was told to hone his craft and keep trying. I followed this excellent advice. Despite the rejections I received, I kept improving my manuscript and early last year my collection was taken by Dempsey & Windle, an independent publisher based in England.

The Skylark’s Call comprises fifty-two poems. Around a third of these are autobiographical. Only two of them are concerned with my cancer treatment. Some poems are mythic, some spiritual, some historical, some geo-political, and some are environmental. About half of the poems in the book are ‘discovered poems’. The poems span four continents and seven millennia, for the human condition is timeless and universal. All of the poems are in some way concerned with memories and meanings at the complex borderland between life and death. Together they explore the vitality and vulnerability of everyday life.

The poems that make up this collection are of course informed by my experience over the past decade. During that time I have been a cancer patient and a survivor. But that does not define me, nor does it define the scope of the collection. The emotional substance of my life over the past decade has been wide ranging and extremely diverse. The changes that have taken place in me as a person and as a writer are considerable in their scale and in their horizons. The scope and character of my new collection reflects this.

I began this period not expecting to survive beyond two years. I didn’t think I would write poetry again and I certainly never imagined that I would complete a second collection. I learned to live for each day. I’m of course delighted that these and plenty more good things have come to pass. Life has so many and varied ways of surprising us.

The Skylark’s Call was launched two months ago. It seems to have struck a chord with many readers and sales have been brisk. Enthusiastic comments about the poems have been posted on social media. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic has played a part, for the territory that the collection explores is one that we are all now having to deal with."

The Skylark’s Call is available to purchase from Dempsey & Windle

Paul Jeffcutt is offering readers personalised signed copies of the book

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Birthday Carriage

I had a lovely birthday yesterday. My dearest T went to great lengths to make it very special. I began by opening cards and presents. I received plenty of good wishes from family and friends. I got books, vouchers and an illuminated manuscript created by a retired monk. Later on there would be a three course dinner from a restaurant, cake and candles, the full works. But first, T took me to a secret assignation that she had arranged. The journey was mysterious. We drove into the hills between our house and the Mournes. After a while we turned into the yard of a remote farm. I was gobsmacked to encounter a carriage and two horses.

We were introduced to Fred and Navi, two six year old geldings, by Liz and Mervyn. I patted both horses on the neck and they nodded their welcome. The carriage was magnificent: shiny black wood with silver detailing, four great spoked wheels, a bench seat for the driver and a rear step for the postillion. It was a replica of a landau from 1780. Fred and Navi were harnessed. Mervyn opened the carriage door. We stepped up and into the plush red interior. There were two bench seats. We sat on either side, glancing out of the open windows. Liz took her place as the postillion. Mervyn cracked the whip. Fred and Navi shook their heads. The carriage jerked forwards and we were away.

There is something magnificent about the sound of a horse’s hooves. We clip-clopped along misty back lanes. From the carriage, we could see over hedges. Animals in the fields ran towards us excitedly. Apparently, even wild animals would stop and stare. Fred and Navi trotted along, panting a little on the slopes. The misty air was suffused with the beat of their hooves. We had gone back in time. It could have been 1780. I imagined that we were on a journey to the local town. I kept expecting us to be stopped by a highwayman.

Horsepower, or Shank’s pony, was how most people had travelled until the last century. For thousands of years the world had been arranged around the speed of a horse. By carriage that would be ten miles in an hour. And you would be stopping every twenty miles or so at a coaching inn to change the horses. You would glad of a break too. For even with rubber edged wheels and a tarmac road, the landau jolted around a good bit.

My father always loved horses. My grandfather had a milk round. As a boy, my father led the horse around village lanes doing deliveries, until he ran away from home aged fifteen to join the army. At that time, the army still relied on horses. Many army units only became mechanised in the run up to the second world war. My father fought in tanks across the Western desert, until he was captured and became a POW. After the war he left the army and worked in a number of factory jobs. Horses remained his love. Although, with a wife and three kids, he couldn’t afford to keep a horse as well.

Our hour in the carriage was so special. All too soon we were back at the yard. Fred and Navi were unharnessed and were champing at the bit for something to eat. We patted them and made our farewells to Liz and Mervyn. We’d highly recommend L & M Carriage Driving. Heading back home in our car, I reflected on what I really liked about cycling. It was the wind on your face as you travelled through the world at a slower pace, fully part of your surroundings. On a long day out, I would plan my cycle routes on an average of ten miles an hour, including stops for food and drink. That was a horse’s pace. I realised that for me cycling was the nearest thing to riding a horse.