Monday 3 June 2024

Waiting for the Doctor

I’ve been down with sinusitis for some months now. The problem flares up and then recedes. Every time I think I’m finally on the road to recovery, the problem flares up again. I’ve seen the GP several times and have tried all the steroid nasal sprays. I’ve also rinsed my nose with saline solution and breathed in steam with my head under a towel. But none of these have done the trick. In desperation, I returned to the GP. He said I’d have to see a specialist. There was just one problem. Seeing an ENT consultant on the NHS would mean a wait of several years. Did I want to be referred privately, he asked?  In a cleft stick, I agreed. He wrote me the referral. It was only one sentence, appended to a list of major events in my medical history. Because of my years of cancer treatment these highlights spread onto two pages. Then I began to research the ENT consultants who work privately and who specialize in sinusitis. The first thing I noted is that there are more private hospitals and clinics than there used to be. Hardly surprising, I suppose, with Northern Ireland having the longest NHS waiting lists in the UK. So I found a specialist at a private hospital in Belfast and sought an initial appointment. Even going private, you still have to wait. But only a matter of weeks, not years. My appointment arrived today.

The specialist asked me about my medical history, symptoms and the treatments I’d tried. Then he looked up my nose with a little light on the end of a thin metal cable. It looked rather like the light that an anglerfish holds in front of its jaws to attract its prey. At the other end of the cable was a little box. This was a screen. He said he could see no problems in the upper chamber of my nose. So I would need a CT scan of my sinuses. Then I’d come back and see him in a couple of weeks.

As I was about to leave, I asked him which NHS hospital he normally worked at. ‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘I’ve jumped ship.’ He explained that he’d got so frustrated working in the NHS. His theatre slots were regularly being cancelled because ENT surgery was not seen as important in the face of resource pressures. He said that in the private sector he could treat his patients more effectively and he got much better job satisfaction. As I listened to him I remembered a recent news item. A report has just been published into waiting times for surgery in the NHS in Northern Ireland. The longest waits are in ENT and Urology. Tragically, these are six years!

Saturday 4 May 2024

Recipe for Opening a Novel

It seems I’m a glutton for punishment. After a series of rejections, I’m submitting my novel to agents again. Yes, I’m sorry to say that none of the submissions I made in December 2023 bore any fruit. So in February I turned to a writing consultancy and paid for my submission package to be reviewed. The reviewer, an experienced agent, said my covering letter and my synopsis were fine, but my first chapter wasn’t a good starting point for the book. In fact, she recommended that my second chapter become the opening of the book. This feedback was both helpful and confusing. My second chapter had in fact been the opening of the book until a year ago. My full manuscript was then reviewed by a published novelist who recommended inserting a new action-oriented opening chapter to spice up the story. So I reflected on these two bits of contradictory advice and began editing again.

I did some reading on what an opening chapter has to achieve. In short it needs to introduce the protagonist, their narrative style, the setting and the nature of the story. But most of all, it needs to keep the reader reading. This is usually done by introducing some sort of challenge that the protagonist has to respond to. In other words, it sets up the question – what happens next?

My action-oriented first chapter was very good on challenge, narrative style and setting, but much less so on introducing the protagonist. Then I had an insight. Why should the reader care about what’s happening to the protagonist when they don’t know who they are? So I decided to make my second chapter the opening of the book. It was much better at introducing the protagonist and their world. I also tightened up the story so that the first challenge arrives sooner (on page 2) and is then followed up by another challenge. I think these revisions have improved the opening of the novel a great deal. But, I suppose the proof of the pudding is in the responses I now get from agents.


Thursday 18 April 2024

The Perils of Spring Cleaning

The room where I write is small. It was a child’s bedroom. Along one wall is my large oak desk, on which sits my computer. I bought the desk from a second-hand shop in Manchester when I was a PhD student. There is a date-stamp on the underside: 1953. My 71 year old desk is very sturdy and can be dissembled into three pieces; it has lived at ten different addresses with me. Around the rest of the room are four bookcases and two filing cabinets. Over the 22 years I’ve lived in this house, my writing room has accumulated masses of books, folders and papers. Indeed, these became so completely piled up that I could hardly turn around without knocking something over. So there had to be a sort out, and I embarked on it enthusiastically. But when you delve into piles of stuff that have been there for years, you find all sorts of things that you’ve forgotten about.

One of the first things I discovered were my notes from the first session of the Queen’s Writers’ Group that Ciaran Carson ever took. It was 7th October 2009, and Ciaran gave us a talk about Haiku. The next thing I found were notebooks from my first period in hospital as a cancer patient in April-June 2011. These notes were sparse and poignant, they took me back to the City Hospital at a time when I thought my life was at an end. In those dark days I mainly communicated with friends and family by email. I sent out bulletins from my hospital bed and got lots of replies from far and wide, as people were circulating the bulletins. But where were those emails now? Anxiously, I went to my computer and looked back. Yes, the emails were still there. There were hundreds. I read through them. It was emotional and humbling. I was thrust back into those terrible times, where I was the focus of so much care and support.

To be honest, I don’t remember seeing some of the messages before: well wishers from Australia and New Zealand, people trying to find out how the big operation had gone, people who went to Intensive Care and spoke to me... In fact I recall next to nothing of the aftermath of that operation. I was sedated for several days and then I was gripped by severe pain and distanced by morphine. And when I did come out of it, I found myself in a world where everything seemed to have changed. In truth, it had. But in the long run, it wasn’t for the worse.

I’m writing this at my desk. It’s still surrounded by books and papers. Happily there are many fewer piles than there were before, but there’s still plenty to do. So a note of warning about a sort out – you will get waylaid by the past. Spring cleaning is not a short process. Perhaps there is a need to go back, in order to go securely forward.

Monday 18 March 2024


I have a new collection of poetry coming out. It’s called True. The book is published by the Black Spring Press.

All of the poems in True were stimulated by real-life stories. The poems touch on themes of love, loss, memory, spirituality, conflict and the environment. They are not ‘found poems’. The real-life story has instead provided a launch point for the poem. Ciaran Carson, founding Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast, christened them ‘discovered poems’. True brings together my discovered poems and is dedicated to the late Ciaran Carson. The book can be traced back to me winning a pamphlet competition in 2018. The first prize was publication, but Covid delayed things and the pamphlet was revised and upgraded into a full collection. So where did the inspiration for these poems come from?

My inspiration came from a wide variety of places, all of them unexpected. I happened upon the real-life stories in news reports, exhibitions, diaries, brochures, sagas, public notices, journals, broadcasts, obituaries and by word of mouth. Curiosity drove me to look into these real-life stories further, and many of them turned into poems.

There will be a book launch in due course. I’m also hoping to read from True at literary festivals later this year. I will keep you posted on these arrangements. In the meantime, you can order a copy of the book from the Black Spring Press.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Sod's Law 2

This sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. But it won’t be featuring an action hero. Most of the footage would show the star lying down, unshaven and with unkempt hair. There would be regular cutaways to him taking paracetamol and cough medicine. In the X-rated version, there might even be close-ups of yellow gunge being coughed into tissues. Whereas, the PG would instead show an improving book being picked up from time to time and then discarded. Yes, I’m afraid that just as I was recovering from my knee injury I got a bad dose of the flu, which turned into bronchitis. Sod’s Law indeed.

However, my illness has had several unexpected benefits. The first of these is that my knee injury has improved at a faster rate than it had in previous weeks, probably due to my enforced rest. The second is that I did read some of the crime novels I’d piled up and not started. I tried a Jack Reacher for the first time: it had an unusual pared-down voice, but was rather repetitious. I read several Inspector Rebus novels: they had interesting characterization, were filled with black humour and were very well plotted. And the latest Graham Norton: it was an odd crime novel, mixed with a family saga, the dead body doesn’t emerge until halfway through. But all of these books gave me something for my writing.

So I did lose two weeks of my life to a nasty virus, and spent much of the time coughing my lungs up. Dearest T looked after me very well and I recovered. That’s life, I suppose. We all have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And if you can gain something from that too, you’re ahead.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Sod's Law

We should now be sitting beside a swimming pool with the sun warming our pallid skin. We’d have already tucked into fresh papaya for breakfast and we’d be looking forward to grilled turbot for dinner in our four star hotel. But instead we are at home with our winter woollies on and a renewed dose of the January blues. We booked our winter holiday to Lanzarote with great optimism. Finally we would get away from howling gales and the freezing cold. But we both got injuries: T a bad back, me a bad knee. So we ended up having to cancel our trip on the advice of our GP. Today it’s 23 degrees there, with a gentle breeze. Perfect conditions for a swim and some relaxation on a sun-lounger with a good book. Oh dearie me.

Lanzarote is a volcanic island that emerged from the sea about 15 million years ago. So it isn’t going to slip back beneath the waves in the next few months. The sun will still be shining later in the year. A happy time when we hope to be fully recovered and raring to go. And then we can set about restoring the Vitamin D deficiency that we’ve accumulated in dull and drab NI.

Monday 1 January 2024

Old Git Hogmanay

The Scottish tradition is to remain at home until the bells chime midnight. And then to go out and wish all your family, friends and neighbours a Happy New Year.

I lived in Scotland for seven years and enthusiastically did this. But now I'm an old git, I was in bed at half past ten and fast asleep soon after.

So here I am wishing you and yours a Happy New Year.