Wednesday, 26 January 2022

The Birthday Present

My birthday is coming up soon. And Chip has given me a present. To a semi-feral cat, a rat is a great delicacy. I’m honoured to receive the front half. Chip probably decided to see how it tasted and ended up eating a bit more than he intended. He is only six months old. This gift shows that he holds me in high regard. Chip does follow me around the garden and has invented some chasing games that he plays with me. And I am the one who fills his bowls with food and lactose-free milk each morning.

I don’t think I’ll be having his present for dinner on my birthday. I must admit I’d prefer to visit one of my favourite restaurants: Hara in Hillsborough or The Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum. Although, because of Covid, I haven’t actually been to a restaurant for the past two years. But I have had some fine meals from Hara as they do an excellent ‘home’ menu, where they prepare the three-course meal and you finish it off in the oven at home.

All of this reminds me of an unforgettable meal I had in Croatia, hosted by a famous professor. He took me to a renowned seafood restaurant in Istria. It’s the peninsula below Trieste with fortified towns that were once part of the Venetian empire, and has been written about by Dante and Thomas Mann. Anyway, the famous professor ordered a local delicacy, a whole fish cooked in wine and herbs. I must admit it was a marvelous meal washed down with a bottle of fine white wine.

I cleared my plate apart from the head, backbone and tail of the fish. I was just about to thank my host, when he said, ‘I see you’ve left the best bits till last.’ I had to admit that I didn’t exactly know what he meant. ‘Let me show you,’ he said. He inserted the point of his knife just behind the gaping mouth of the fish and levered out some flesh. It was the cheek of the fish. He told me that these muscles are very well developed in fish and are especially tasty. I followed his example, ate the cheek of my fish and put down my knife and fork.

‘And now for the greatest delicacy,’ he said. I smiled, thinking he was going to order something else. But he picked up the head of his fish in his hands, lifted it to his lips and sucked the eye out with a great slurping noise. ‘Aah,’ he said, ‘lovely.’ I smiled nervously. My fish looked up at me from the plate. I was very anxious not to disappoint my host. ‘Aren’t you going to eat it?’ he asked. I told him that I was, regretfully, completely full. He grinned, picked up the head of my fish and sucked its eye out.


Sunday, 9 January 2022

Drive Safely

Have you seen this man? He was found guilty whilst trying to renew his driving license. The crime? Smiling. The computer took one look at the photo I uploaded and said, ‘No’. I took another with a glum expression. The computer accepted that one and prompted me to check the categories of vehicles I was allowed to drive. I was shocked to discover that I can drive seven ton lorries and minibuses with trailers. But the computer told me that these entitlements would be removed if my license was renewed online. So if you see a lorry or a minibus roaring up behind you, it won’t be me in the driving seat.

I didn’t buy my first car, a Ford Fiesta, until I was 30. I couldn’t afford one before that. I was a mature student who did a Masters and PhD part-time at Manchester University. I needed to work in all sorts of part-time jobs to pay my way. So I was pretty poor for most of my twenties. Hence, I had a succession of motorbikes, from a Honda 50 to a MZ 250 to a BSA 500cc with a sidecar. I loved these bikes and had some adventures with them.

Immediately before going to Manchester to study, I was working in Cambridge. I’d just become interested in hillwalking and was reading a book about the mountains of Scotland. The book was full of praise for Knoydart as the remotest and most beautiful part of the Highlands. So I decided to go there for a week’s holiday. I strapped my rucksack and tent on the back of my MZ and set off. I hadn’t realized quite how far away it was (about 500 miles). It took me two days to get there. The final stretch was 20 miles along a narrow track beside a loch that finished in a dead end. And all the way along it I was being followed by another motorbike.

I got to the end of the track and parked. I was at the mouth of a great glen with high mountains all around. The other bike stopped beside me. I was apprehensive as the other rider approached me. But he turned out to be the stalker who was responsible for Glen Dessary. He lived alone in a cottage a little way down the glen. He showed me where to camp, beside a grove of trees not far from his cottage. That evening, he invited me in for a drink, whisky of course. I had a great holiday, going for hillwalks and chatting with the stalker in the evenings. It was also my first introduction to the Scottish Midge.

I actually began to drive at sixteen. I bought a scooter from money I’d saved working for a local farmer. With my green parka, Ben Sherman shirt and jeans, I felt very cool on my Vespa Sportique. It was also very handy, as the village I lived in was six miles from my school. I had some adventures on that scooter too. I remember being chased by four lads in a Ford Zodiac, who were throwing empty cider bottles at me. They were drunk, so their aim was bad and I escaped. Today I drive and old Ford Focus. My teenage self would be horrified.

Friday, 31 December 2021

That Was The Year That Was

And what a year it has been. I’ll start with the positives. I’m now five years clear of cancer, something I would never have dared to believe in those dark days of recurrences and bad prognoses. T and I have been together for eight years now: I truly cannot imagine life without her. We had a lovely holiday in Co Clare, our first trip away for eighteen months. I built a splendid new bike. And we gained two cats. On the other hand, T broke a bone in her foot and had to wear a surgical boot. I’ve had some recurrent dental problems. Our semi-feral cat, Ginger Dog, died of kidney cancer. And there has been a global pandemic.

My writing has had plenty of positives too, but these were the subject of a recent blog, ‘My Writing Year.’ And most of the highlights mentioned above have also figured as full blog posts over the past year. So I suppose, I should start looking forward into 2022. But that is difficult to do for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t really make plans for the future. I try my best to live in the here and now, and as the old saying goes, let the future take care of itself. To be honest, it’s not easy to do. The modern world is built around plan-making of different sorts. I learnt to live like this the hard way, through my cancer ordeal. And I go forward hopefully.

The second reason is the uncertainty generated by the pandemic itself. What is the point of making plans to do this and that or to go here and there, when these plans could easily become impossible or too dangerous to carry out? Living with the pandemic, has become a bit like living with cancer. Your life is under threat, but you don’t know when and where the disease will come to get you. The threat is with you everywhere. You can do the right things to defend yourself, but you can’t be sure that they will work. So this makes everything dangerous, provisional and insecure. The certainties of before (or what seemed to be certain) just don’t work anymore. And because my cancer treatment left me ‘Clinically Extremely Vulnerable’, negotiating the pandemic is more complicated for me.

All of this makes life more difficult, but not impossible. The way forward I’ve found came from my cancer journey. I suppose it’s all about living within the bounds of the possible. Just beyond our front door there is still plenty of fresh air and plenty of space to enjoy it. We have computers that can connect us to family and friends around the world. And there are plenty of things we didn’t have time for previously that we can now get involved in. For example, over the past eighteen months, I’ve built two bikes from scratch, written a novel and published a second collection of poetry. When you can still spend your energy on what matters to you, life is good.

Here’s wishing you all a Happy New Year.

Friday, 24 December 2021

Festive Greetings

Wishing you and yours a very Happy Christmas, Dongzhi, Yule...

Whatever midwinter festival you celebrate, please stay safe.

With love from

P & T

Sunday, 12 December 2021

My Writing Year

Because I am classed as Clinically Extremely Vulnerable, I’ve been forced to isolate myself from Covid-19. As a result, 2021 has been one of my busiest ever writing years. Exactly a year ago, my second collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call, was launched. On Zoom of course, with readings from my guests Moyra Donaldson, Kevin Higgins and Damian Smyth, supported my members of Queen’s Writers’ Group. A year later, most of the first print run has been sold and over £200 has been raised for Cancer Focus NI. And on top of that, I’ve just completed the second draft of my novel. The working title is The Cut. It is a crime thriller set in a fictitious English town in 1961.

Promoting a new book during the series of lockdowns we’ve had over the past year has not been easy. I’m very grateful for the support of the independent book stores that have stocked the book. So thank you No Alibis, Books Paper Scissors, The Secret Bookshelf, Walsh’s and The Salmon Bookstore. I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to give public readings of my poetry over the past year. So thank you The Culture CafĂ© and Marie-Louise Muir on BBC Radio, Over The Edge and Susan Millar DuMars, The Poetry Garden and Jo Zebedee, and The City Chapter of Armagh Libraries and The John Hewitt Society on National Poetry Day. These last two readings being with a real live audience. I’m also very grateful for the support of my publisher, Dempsey & Windle, as well as the many people who have chosen to buy the book through my website and get a personalized dedication from yours truly. Thank you all again for your support, for the book and for the good cause that I’ve been raising money for.

Turning to my novel, The Cut. I’m very grateful for the excellent guidance and advice I’ve received from Curtis Brown. The six week novel writing programme I followed this Autumn was very intensive, but hugely beneficial. It helped me to identify the many flaws of my first draft and showed me how to resolve them. I ended up making some major changes to the manuscript. Such as cutting five chapters and plenty of scenes throughout, as well as cutting one character and sub-plot entirely. I started the novel at the previous chapter five. I rewrote parts of all of the other chapters, and I added fifteen new chapters and one new character. For the past three months, I’ve been getting up at 6am most days to start on it. It’s been immersive and very compelling work.

The second draft of the novel is much better than the first. The final report from Curtis Brown on my synopsis and the first two chapters was very positive. My plan is to leave the second draft until the New Year and look at it with fresh eyes. I expect to then be making a series of minor changes to the manuscript. Fingers crossed that these will primarily be refining and tidying. All being well, I hope to submit draft three to a selection of agents. Isn’t it strange, even the darkest situations can also give some light.

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Writing and the Forth Bridge

My novel course with Curtis Brown has finished and I’ve begun to edit my manuscript. It’s a very absorbing process and has demanded much concentration. My main focus has been on the opening act of the novel. When I began to write the story, I was embarking on a journey towards an ending that I hadn’t yet imagined. Reaching the end of the novel gave me two things. Firstly, the sense of accomplishment of actually getting there. And secondly, the realization that I needed to go back to the beginning and revise it. This suggests that novel writing is similar to painting the Forth Bridge.

However, it turns out to be a bit more difficult than just going back to the start and repainting the bridge. The beginning that you wrote all those weeks before, may not now be the best place to actually begin the story from. So I reread the whole manuscript and made notes about what parts worked well and what parts worked less well. And after a lot of debate with myself, I realized that my story really started at chapter five.  So I rewrote that as chapter one. Then I had to rework the following chapters to include information necessary for the plot that had been in the previous chapters one to four.

The rereading also showed me that I needed to extend and deepen several of the characters. I made detailed notes about their motivations and desires. This was very helpful as it also led me to some new plot ideas. The manuscript was also too long. The advice from Curtis Brown was to cut a sub-plot and a minor character. I did this, which also involved a good bit of rewriting of the first act of the novel.

Now I’m editing the second act. The course called this, using a cake-making analogy, the great soggy middle. This is where the jeopardy for your main characters tends to diminish and readers may lose interest. But my second act seems to be in somewhat better shape than my first. The rewriting I’ve been doing on this so far has mainly been pruning unnecessary scenes and revising the tone of those that I’m keeping. But, I shall be doing some new writing here too as another of my fresh plot ideas is soon to be introduced.

Overall, I’m repairing the most obvious defects in the first draft of the novel. The result should be an improved second draft that works pretty well. I hope to achieve this by Christmas, then have a break and come back to it in the New Year with fresh eyes. Then I will reread it from start to finish and hopefully create a third draft that is in good enough shape to send out to an agent. In the end, this makes the rewriting process much more like rebuilding the Forth Bridge than repainting it.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Helicopter Money

The big excitement in our house this week is the arrival of my £100 pre-paid Mastercard. I’ve been given this by the Northern Ireland administration. It isn’t a prize, but a gift. And all residents over 18 are receiving it. The card can be used in any NI shop. But the money must be spent by 14 December. T is looking at my card enviously. She applied for her card a week or so before I did, but hers still hasn’t arrived. Now I have to decide what to do with the money. Have you spent your helicopter money yet? If so, what on?

It’s not an easy decision. There are so many options. A slap up meal in a posh restaurant? Or basic foodstuffs? Or something for the house? Or something from my local bike shop? Or do I donate it to charity? To help my decision making, some shops will be happy to exchange it for a store-card with a much longer expiry date and even 10% or 20% on top. There are some exclusions: you can’t exchange the card for cash, or spend it in a bookies, or on your mortgage, or for paying a fine, or on car tax and insurance.

There is a long history of giving money direct to individuals to stimulate the economy. This is often done in developing countries, especially those with fragile systems of administration. The small amounts of money that are given directly to the poor get spent in local markets and this has a multiplier effect. I was on the Board of Concern Worldwide for many years and oversaw a number of these schemes. They were a very effective way of helping the poorest of the poor.

The term ‘helicopter money’ was coined by Milton Friedman (Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist), as if the money was being thrown out of a helicopter to the citizens below. But in some war torn states, this is how it might actually be done. I recall that during the Iraq war, the Americans were paying certain tribes not to fight against them. Shades of Catch 22.

I’m still pondering what to spend my helicopter money on. For a treat, or on necessities? Maybe this year, for once, I might be buying my Christmas presents early. But I’d better make my mind up soon. Before T gets her hands on it.