Sunday, 5 May 2019

My Bikes

I got my first proper bike on my seventh birthday. It was a gold Raleigh with three gears and whitewall tyres. I cycled regularly in the Forest of Dean until I was sixteen when I spent my hard-earned savings on a Vespa scooter and paraded around Gloucester in parka, Ben Sherman shirt and Levis. Later I got into motorbikes, then cars and I didn’t own a bicycle again until I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy in 1987. Over the next fifteen years, this trusty bike took me on a series of multi-week cycling tours, including the Scottish Highlands, the Western Isles, Normandy, Brittany, Sri Lanka, Southwest China and a circumnavigation of the entire Irish coastline.

I love the sense of freedom that you get on a bike, the wind in your hair, the unfolding landscape, the immersion in the natural world and the encounters with people you have not yet met. It is certainly the best way to explore somewhere. I’ve particularly enjoyed cycle trips in developing countries, where cycling is the most common form of transport, for then you are travelling with the people as they go about their daily lives. This island, with its multiplicity of back roads, is the best place I’ve ever lived for cycling.

Fifteen years ago, I recognised that my faithful Dawes Galaxy had earned an honourable retirement. In its place I bought three new specialist bikes, each of which would do part of the work that it had done so trustily: a Dawes Audax for local day rides, a Bontrager all terrain bike for the supported cycle-tours I would do in faraway places (e.g. Patagonia, Laos, Vietnam) and a Dawes Sardar for the solo cycle-tours I would do in Europe (e.g. Italy, Spain, France).

Then, eight years ago, I got cancer and, like all other aspects of my life, my cycling changed. After the series of major operations with their collateral damage to my body, it’s taken me plenty of time to rebuild a modicum of strength and fitness. Even now, some eighteen months after my last major surgery, I only feel able to ride every other day. Perhaps I may become strong enough to do multi-day cycle tours again.

Over the years, I’ve learnt how to maintain my bikes. I’m largely self-taught; and when a local bike shop returned one of my bikes in a dangerous condition after bodging the repair, this process was given impetus. So now the time has come to invest in a new bike. But I’m not buying a bike ready-made from a shop. I’m going to build it myself from scratch. Although I’ve had experience of some of the tasks involved, I’ve never actually built a full bike before. It’s going to be a challenge and a learning process. I’ll post regular instalments from that journey here.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Bronze Anniversary

Good Friday is very significant to me. Not because of Christianity, I’m a lapsed Quaker. Nor because of the Belfast Agreement, although I did campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in 1998. But because, on Good Friday 2011, I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer of the kidney. I’d spent the night on a trolley in Casualty and I’d just been wheeled back to the ward from a scan. A junior doctor pulled the curtains around the bed and told me straight. Everything seemed to close in around me. I gulped and said nothing. D’you have any questions? He said. Well, what’s going to happen? I said. I’ll ask the consultant to come and speak to you, he said. I nodded, absently. He left abruptly. I was a small wounded creature in the huge universe and I was sure I was going to die.

Many of the readers of this blog are familiar with the remainder of this story. Suffice it to say, I then had a series of operations leading up to a very major one. I was given a poor prognosis, but I did survive beyond the first two years. Then I met my dearest T. At four years I had a metastatic recurrence and more surgery, which was unsuccessful in removing the entire tumour. A year later I had surgery again, which did remove the regrown tumour. At six years I had another major operation to repair my left diaphragm and lung which were damaged in the 2011 surgery. Since then I have been thankfully been free of cancer and healthy.

The eight year anniversary is ‘bronze’. This is the medal typically given to the third place competitor. However, the Bronze Age (2500-800 BC), was a time when Britain was one of the most important places in Europe and when the Stonehenge that we can see now was completed. We had relatively large supplies of tin, the vital resource which, mixed with copper, produced bronze (the hardest metal that was then known to man). And this gives rise to one of the dominant theories about the purpose of Stonehenge, that it was a great gathering place for trade, festivals and other communal events. Indeed, recent gene studies have shown that there was an enormous influx of people from the continent to the British Isles during this period and since then we have been thoroughly European.

Looking back on the past eight years, it feels that I’ve done much better than third place. But, survival, along with my current health and happiness with my dearest T, are all the prizes I would wish for.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Scar Therapy

I’ve often thought I could be a body double for a pirate. I don’t have a parrot, a deep tan or a six-pack, but I do have the accent and plenty of scars: one running the full length of my torso at the midline, one running across my right side below the ribs and another running from the middle of my back around my left side between the ribs. I have literally hundreds of internal and external stitches. After the long struggle of recovery and recuperation from surgery I was left in chronic pain. I did seek treatment from different physiotherapists, without success. In the end, I’d reluctantly come to accept my post-operative pain as the price of survival. Then, four months ago, I began a course of scar therapy at Action Cancer and I’m delighted to say that the results have been remarkable.

At first, the therapy seemed rather odd. There were no oils or lotions used and little traditional massage. The therapy consisted of repeated tapping, stroking and pressing of the tissues around the scars. Suzanne, the therapist, would spend about half an hour doing this around one particular scar, then move on to another. She had strong, nimble fingers and was very hardworking.

The purpose of the scar therapy is to stimulate the circulation and the lymphatic and nervous systems to promote renewed healing, increase mobility and improve tissue health. I must admit I was sceptical at first, but by the third treatment I noticed a definite lowering in my pain levels and its distribution in the two scars that she had been working on. And this improvement continued.

Because I have such extensive scarring (significantly more than the average client) I was given an extra set of three sessions. By the final treatment I found that I had much improved mobility in my right side and I was almost pain free. I had also regained feeling in the large area of skin below the incision that had been lost since the surgery over two years previously. The progress on my left side was significant too, with pain levels being much reduced, but not quite as comprehensively.

Suzanne is an excellent therapist: very skilled and most effective. She has been treating clients with chronic pain for fifteen years. The therapy, an initial six sessions, was offered free of charge. This is a great resource provided by Action Cancer. I was so grateful for the progress made that I gave a substantial donation. I don’t look any less a pirate, but I might now be limber enough to board a ship on the high seas with a cutlass between my teeth.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Second Chance

I’ve been working on my second collection of poetry for the past nine months or so. I started off with some fifty poems that I felt were worthy of inclusion. Since then I’ve been reworking poems, repositioning poems, removing poems and including new ones. This has been a developmental process, with each new iteration of the collection appearing satisfactory, until I got started on the next revision. In search of some external perspective, I also submitted selections from the collection to pamphlet competitions. I’m pleased to say that I’ve been shortlisted for the Overton Poetry Prize (judges’ report below) and longlisted by Eyewear.

My first collection of poetry was published in November 2010. But on Good Friday 2011 I was diagnosed with cancer. From my hospital bed in Belfast I was forced to cancel all the dates of my reading tour of Ireland and England. After I left hospital I didn’t write any poetry for several years. But I was writing regularly, in the form of this blog which focused on my condition and treatment. Around five years ago I did begin to write poetry again. And despite the cancer recurrences and the series of major operations, I’ve kept this up. Understandably, the tone and style of my poetry has changed. Although, the one area of experience I’ve not chosen to write poetry about is cancer.

Over the past eight years, the poetry publishing scene has changed significantly. Lagan Press, the publisher of my first collection, do not publish single-author poetry collections anymore, so I have needed to find a new home for my work. Unwisely, I submitted an early draft of my second collection to several publishers. This was premature and they did not choose to take it. The content, shape and tone of the collection has changed significantly since then. I am much more confident of my collection now, particularly given the extremely positive feedback I received from the judges of the Overton Poetry Prize.

Judges’ Report
‘Very accomplished writing throughout, with lots of stories and characters.  All the poems were strong, but there were some poems, and individual lines or stanzas that we felt stood out: in Hermit, for example, the final stanza is brilliant – ‘The whin creaks, / my furrows are bare, / let thistles come.’ while ‘our times are as hard as the frost’ seems absolutely the right voice for the lapper.  Despite the dark and difficult subject matter of some of the poems, the level of detail and choice of imagery makes the collection compelling.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

The Everyday

In one way, I don’t have much to report. In another, I do. We have resumed normal life after our holiday. The list of jobs to do around the house and garden has increased. We are both well. I have a respite from health testing until May, when I get my next cancer surveillance scan. I continue to take drugs for my oesophageal ulcer. In other words, we are dealing with the normal challenges of everyday life. And given what has happened to us over the last three years, this is to be celebrated.

It takes a long while to come down from the stress of waiting for test results, when the big C is an option. We were on tenterhooks from the middle of December to the end of January. The holiday was a great antidote, but it wasn’t long enough. Since then, I’ve found myself much more tired than usual and sleeping much longer. T has been exactly the same. Oddly enough, during the stressful time, you know you are exhausted but you’re not able to rest. You always have to be on guard and you can’t switch off.  

Another thing you don’t seem able to do well under persistent stress is be creative. In the last three weeks I’ve written three new poems. In the previous seven, all I could manage was a bit of editing. But there was Christmas, New Year, an assault and the four anniversaries of dearly departed close family as well. So we had medical stress on top of the stress that is normal for all of those things. No wonder we are both so tired after the release from all of that.

I’m telling myself that there is no rush to catch up on the many things put off and not yet done (e.g. the cutting of the hedge and the pruning of trees and shrubs in the garden). I can do my writing and editing whenever I have the urge. I can go cycling and walking whenever the weather is good and the old body permits (the aches and pains don’t go away so easily). We can entertain friends, go to restaurants, see a movie, plan another holiday, read, watch TV, or do nothing.

Meanwhile, the madness of Brexit continues.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

On La Gomera

We are just back from La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary Islands. We’d had a very stressful January waiting for test results (thankfully my cancer surveillance scan was clear, making it two years and four months that I’ve been clear of cancer) and it was my birthday.  So we headed off for a well earned week of sunshine.

La Gomera doesn’t have an international airport. You have to fly to Tenerife Sud and take a ferry from Los Cristianos. This adds a few hours to the journey but is well worth it, as the island is more natural and less developed. We stayed at a lovely hotel on the south side called Jardin Tecina. It has white-walled and terracotta-roofed apartments spread out in a botanic garden across a cliff top. From our balcony we gazed over flowering shrubs towards palm trees and the shimmering sea.

It was 20 degrees every day. The midday sun felt very hot on skin that had not been exposed to the outside air for many months, so we sought the shade at this time. I would read and T would paint. Each day we went to the saltwater pool mid-afternoon for a swim, followed by coffee and cake on the sun-loungers.

The island is renowned for its walks. It is an extinct volcano with deep ravines and steep ridges that rises to about 5000 feet. The mountaintops are covered in a dense forest of laurel and myrtle that has its own ecosystem. When the wind blows from the north and east, clouds form and give misty rain on the summits and it gets pretty cold. This happened on my first day out, I’d hired a car to explore and do some walks, and when I got back from the cool and damp north side of the island T told me the sun had shone for her all day.

Thankfully the wind changed and the hillwalks I did on two other days were warm and sunny. One walk was up a steep sided ravine to a high village, then back down a stony ridge. I met a few walkers and a flock of goats. The other was through the forest with an ascent of La Fortaleza, the holy mountain of the Gomerans (who were ethnically Berber). It was a steep climb through crags to a flat topped summit, where altars and ritual sites have been found. This was the last refuge of the ethnic Gomerans after the Spanish invasion some 500 years ago. The conquistadores showed them no mercy.   

The hotel was a pan-European convocation. The majority of guests were German, then Scandinavian, Dutch and French. The Brits were in a minority. The food was fantastic. Breakfast and dinner were a tasting menu of different dishes, several cooked immediately for you by chefs at serving stations. We indulged ourselves so much that we rarely needed to eat lunch. The Gomeran specialities are palm syrup – dark, sweet and smoky, it is extracted from the sap of palm trees – and small black-skinned potatoes that are grown in terraces on the steep hillsides. By the end of our stay we were more tanned, somewhat heavier and wishing we had booked a second week.

We came home to stormy cold weather and the news that a good friend and neighbour had just passed. Her breast cancer had recurred aggressively and despite courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy she had succumbed. We put our unpacking on hold and went to the wake. The next day we paid our last respects in a windy and cold graveyard along with several hundred others. Despite the spitting rain, we were glad to be there.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

More Perils of the Towpath

I’ve returned to the scene of the crime to help my recovery from the assault. This week, my story featured in two local newspapers: the factual reportage of Wednesday’s Banbridge Chronicle (see below) and the more lurid and economical with the facts approach of Thursday’s Belfast Telegraph. I’m glad of the exposure. I hope it helps to identify the culprit and prevent him from harming someone else. Yesterday, I went back to the towpath and this time ended up in the canal itself!

I’m pleased that the soreness in my ribs has subsided a little. Before I was punched on my thoracotomy scar, my ribs had been sore; probably due to nerve damage from the operation, an outcome that I had been warned about by the surgeon. This pain was certainly a lot worse after the attack. But the mental scar has been harder to deal with. The fact that a stranger chose to attack you doesn’t resolve so easily. You get flashbacks, and musings about the experience come into your head unbidden at the oddest moments. Understandably, my sleep has been disturbed. 

Yesterday I decided to get back into the saddle and go for a bike ride along the canal towpath. As usual I first headed north from Scarva towards Portadown. All went well for the first fifteen minutes, then I got a puncture. I sighed, it is an occupational hazard for cyclists. I removed tyre levers and spare tube from my saddlepack, turned the bike over and took out the rear wheel.

I could see nothing stuck in the tyre that could have caused the flat. After taking out the holed tube I felt around the inside of the tyre to find the cause. Again I found nothing. I then inflated the holed tube. It went down but I couldn’t see the hole. I knew I had to find it. At home I would have put the inflated tube in a bowl of water and found where the air bubbles were coming from. I looked around for a trusty puddle, but none to be seen. The canal would have to do. I chose a place where the bank wasn’t so steep and descended, tube and pump in hand. I squatted at the water’s edge, dipped the tube in and found the hole; it was about a foot from the valve.

As I stood up to leave, the bank gave way. I was in the canal, cold water up to my thighs and I wasn’t touching the bottom. I grasped the nettled bank and hauled myself out. Wet and very muddy, I returned to the bike. Nothing for it but to find what had caused the puncture. I checked the inside of the tyre a foot from the valve on either side. But no thorn or anything like it could be seen. A passing cyclist stopped to help. He checked the tyre too and found nothing amiss. We decided that the flat must have been caused by a thorn or suchlike that went into the tyre and then came straight out again. I put in the new tube, replaced the tyre and went on my way. Thankfully the tube stayed inflated.

I was by far the wettest and muddiest cyclist on the towpath that day. I stopped for soup at Petty Sessions in Poyntzpass. Helena and her staff were delighted to see me. I cleaned myself up a little and spoke to the only other customers, a pair of police officers. They knew nothing about the assault and were just having a break. I cycled on down the towpath and then headed back up towards Scarva at dusk. As I reached Poyntzpass I became hyper vigilant. I scanned the towpath for a lone figure heading towards me. I saw no-one until I got back to my car at Scarva. I was glad. It felt like a small victory. I headed home and got out of my damp and dirty clothes. After a Burn’s night feast of haggis, neeps and tatties, I slept more soundly than I had done for a week.

Punched by stranger while cycling on the towpath

A CANCER patient has told of the shocking moment he was punched in a sickening assault on the Newry canal towpath last Saturday afternoon. Paul Jeffcutt, who lives near Katesbridge, was cycling close to Poyntzpass when the attack took place at around 4.45pm.

Recalling the alarming incident, Paul, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2011, revealed: “I was cycling along the canal path heading to Scarva when a stranger, who was walking towards me, jumped sideways across the path to block me. I slowed right down. Then, he grabbed at my handlebars and I tried to push him away. He punched me in the ribs, exactly where I’d had a major operation 15 months ago. I cycled on, shouting at him. He waved his fists at me.” Paul, who is in his late 60s, immediately called the police and reported the incident.

“I’m still in shock that a complete stranger would do something like that,” he told the Chronicle. “And I’m in pain because he punched me on a scar. I had a big operation where my ribs were split open, and they are definitely a lot sorer. I would go to the canal towpath regularly to cycle - it’s part of my recovery. I’m a cancer patient and I’ve had three big operations in the last three years. Because the weather has been so mild, I’ve continued on cycling through the winter months.”

Paul recalled that the towpath - which is popular with walkers and cyclists - was “pretty empty” when the assault occurred, late on Saturday afternoon. “It happened a couple of hundred yards from the main road at Poyntzpass,” Paul explained. “He was coming from the direction of Scarva towards Poyntzpass. There was plenty of room for him to pass by, but he deliberately jumped across the path in front of me.”

He continued: “It’s shocking what has happened, but it’s not going to stop me going out on the towpath. I posted an appeal on Facebook, and a lot of people said they didn’t know if they would go back to the towpath again. This person has to be found before they do something to someone else.”

Paul describes the male as being about six feet tall, of medium build, with grey, curly hair.
He was clean-shaven, aged 50 to 60, and was wearing a dark blue thigh-length padded coat and grey trousers. “Anyone with information which might help to identify him, please report it to police on 101 and quote reference 981 on 19th January,” appealed Paul.

The Banbridge Chronicle
23 January 2019