Saturday, 10 August 2019

Cyclists' Secrets

After several weeks of inactivity, I got the call to see the eye consultant for a review of my recent operation. He told me that the three retinal tears had been repaired successfully. I asked him if my blurred vision would reduce. He said it might. He told me that my still bloodshot eye should clear. He also said I could fully resume normal activities. I was itching to go cycling again. So I thought this was a perfect opportunity to offer a little inside information about my favourite outdoor pursuit.

What do cyclists carry? For me the joy of cycling is the sense of freedom and independence. You can go where the spirit and the road or path takes you. But you definitely need something to drink. In my water-bottle I have a home-made electrolyte drink, dilute coconut water with a pinch of salt. It is refreshing and tasty, so much better than the industrial flavoured offerings you can buy. You also need some essentials to enable you to keep on going if you don’t find a cafe or a shop when you are hungry or to get you home if something goes wrong. You don’t need to be skilled in bike maintenance, but you do need to be able to change an inner tube if you get a puncture. I have a seat-pack that fixes under the saddle and holds my food essentials, rain jacket (usually wise to include in this country), spare inner tubes, mini-pump, tyre levers and a small multi-tool.

What do cyclists eat? The short answer is plenty. On a steady cycle ride, at 12mph, I burn about 700 calories an hour. So I stop and eat regularly, at least every couple of hours. I prefer real food, such as peanut bars, oat bars, bananas and malt loaf. On longer rides I also take fruit and nut mix and some cubes of cheese. Some cyclists only eat carbohydrate gels, which come in small sachets to be consumed as you ride. I think they taste disgusting. And a ride is not a race. Surely the point is to enjoy the environment you are travelling through, by stopping every now and then for a wee rest and something to eat.

The best place to stop is a good cafe. My favourite is Petty Sessions in Poyntzpass, Co Armagh, where Helena and Peter provide excellent fare, particularly the home-baked fruit pies made by Mrs Copeland. My next favourite is The Bookshop Cafe in Kells, Co Meath, where you can get excellent meals and home-baking whilst reading something from the hundreds of second-hand titles they have on display. Before a long ride in a new place I check Trip Advisor to see if there are any cafes en route. In the sparsely populated parts of rural Ireland cafes and shops can be few and far between. Several times I’ve found that the listed cafe had closed, so I always take some spare food with me.

What do cyclists wear? When you are travelling through the air at 12mph you are always going to be cooler than standing still. And usually there is a wind blowing against you, so you can be a good bit cooler. I normally wear a merino wool vest, a fabric that keeps you both warm and cool, and a windproof top (short-sleeved in summer, long-sleeved otherwise). What about underwear? A long day in the saddle will give you a sore bum. I wear padded undershorts and put on Vaseline before every ride. To help the bum recover I put on Sudocrem when I get home. Now you know why cyclists’ bums are as smooth as a baby’s!

Monday, 22 July 2019

Sugar Anniversary

T and I met six years ago today. We were both taking part in the John Hewitt Summer School. Instead of attending the scheduled literary events, we spent the afternoon talking over coffee in the square. And the rest, as they say, is history. This chance encounter made such a huge difference in my life.

Our journey from then to now has had to face some significant challenges. For me, it was two cancer recurrences and three big operations. For T, it was the protracted divorce proceedings from a bad marriage. But we overcame them together, each of us supporting the other through the difficult times. We drew upon a deep well of love and care. You can cope with pretty much anything when there is someone you trust completely by your side, holding your hand. And each challenge surmounted has served to intensify and strengthen our bonds.

We have been living together for four years now. We are quite different in many ways and very similar in many others. There is real richness and great depth to our compatibility. And our relationship is getting better as we learn more about each other. We are maturing together.

An anniversary of six years is called the sugar anniversary. That is very appropriate. Our relationship has all the richness of dark muscovado and we stick together like treacle. T is so ever-present in my life that I cannot now imagine a time without her. Thank you again for the past six and may there be many more years, dearest T.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Retinal Tears

I’m writing this with wonky vision due to having a patch over one eye. Yesterday I had an operation on my left eye to repair three tears in the retina. The problem began seven weeks ago when a branch whacked me in the face as I was mowing the lawn. I went to my optician with black floaters and blurred vision. He sent me to the Eye Hospital in Belfast, where a junior doctor said he could find no damage to my retina and sent me home. I was called to a follow-up appointment with the consultant earlier this week. Mr Chan examined me and found a tear in my retina which needed an urgent repair.

T drove me to the Eye Hospital first thing on Friday morning. The nurses went through the normal admissions procedure, even though I was a patient for a day procedure. In the room were two other patients, both in wheelchairs; due to diabetes they had more serious eye problems and would be taken first. After getting me to sign the consent form, which (as usual) contained a long list of potential problems, a junior doctor drew a purple arrow on my left forehead.

I was dilated with eye drops and we sat for a couple of hours until a nurse arrived to escort me upstairs. I declined the wheelchair she proffered and she pushed it along carrying just my thick purple folder of medical notes. I’d refused the chair because I had bad memories of being wheeled in to my four previous major operations. We took the lift to the top floor and entered the anaesthetist’s room. My heart sank, it was just the same as in each of my previous operations. He got me to lie on the table and put supports under my neck and both ankles. He then fixed a clip around my left eye to hold my lids open and squirted in local anaesthetic. It stung a little, but not too badly. I breathed a sigh a relief. But the next step was worse. He took a syringe and injected anaesthetic into either side of my eye. ‘It’s just like being at the dentist,’ he joked. I felt the pressure of the needle going in, but no pain. I lay there, trying hard to be calm, and felt my face and left nostril freezing up.

I was wheeled in to the operating theatre. The bright lights dazzled. Someone put a sticky apron over my face. It had an open patch over my left eye, but all I could see was starred lights. I could hear people talking in low voices. Then a man wearing a headset with two beaming lights came into view. He placed a lens above my eye and looked down. I heard more muttering and then Mr Chan spoke. ‘There are three tears in your retina, I’m going to fix them now.’ I felt some pressure on either side of my eye for a while. Then he spoke again.‘That’s it, done.’

A patch was stuck over my left eye and a nurse helped me off the table and into the wheelchair. Mr Chan was filling in the surgeons report for my file. He explained that it was difficult to examine the back of the eye fully in outpatients as it would be too painful. But under anaesthetic he could examine my retina thoroughly. He told me that the three tears were in different parts of my retina. He also explained that he had chosen cryoplexy (sealing the tears by freezing with an extremely cold probe) because of where the tears were located. I might see some white spots at the edge of my vision after this surgery or I might not. I thanked him. It didn't seem a big price to pay, I’d had white spots in my peripheral vision since the episode with the tree branch.

A nurse came and wheeled me back down to the day procedure room. My eye was a little sore, but it was nothing like the after effects of my previous big operations. I was given tomato soup; it was very good and tasted like it had been made from fresh tomatoes. A threat to your vision is very scary. Yet another brush with my own mortality again emphasised the everyday pleasures of life

I was told to keep the eye patch on for 24 hours then put in antibiotic eye drops four times a day. I was also told to take it easy for the next week; no bending, lifting or running in particular. My left is my dominant eye, so with the patch my vision was blurred and somewhat wonky. It was hard to judge distances, you need both eyes for that. T held my arm and escorted me down to the car park. I was very glad of her unwavering support, not just today but for the past six years. In the car I felt my eye getting sorer; I was looking forward to getting home and having a nap.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019


I’ve recently retired. Not from my day-job, I left that some years ago. I’ve retired from the Board of Concern Worldwide, a great organisation that has been helping the poorest of the poor for fifty years. I was elected to the Board in 2005. It was the year of the Boxing Day Tsunami, the horrifying consequences of which I saw at first-hand in Sri Lanka.

I enjoyed my time as a Director and Trustee. I certainly learned a huge amount. And I met colleagues who I now call friends. I’m proud to have been part of such a well run charity, which spends 90% of every penny it gets on helping the poor in 25 countries worldwide. By law, each charity has to report annually how much they spend under different headings. When you check this out, you’ll find that most spend much more than Concern do on fundraising and administration.

With two long-serving Directors retiring, there was a ceremony in Dublin. The Chairman of the Board, John Treacy, characterised my contribution to the Board as ‘asking searching questions’ and ‘opening up necessary but difficult issues’. I’m very pleased to have achieved that, as effective scrutiny is the cornerstone of good governance.

The past 14 years haven’t been easy for any of us, Concern included. It is a complex organisation with 3000 employees across 25 countries on three different continents. There have been plenty of challenges, but through them Concern has always learned and developed, becoming more focused, more capable and more resilient.

I’ve of course had my own challenges over these years. None greater than 8 years ago discovering I had a large tumour which required open–heart surgery to remove. Despite a poor prognosis, two recurrences and three major operations, I’m now almost three years clear of cancer. Throughout this enormous ordeal I received great support and encouragement from both the Board and Management of Concern. I will never forget their care and concern.

It’s strange. I’ve had 14 years of having to get up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to drive down to Dublin for Board meetings. I didn’t expect to be sad at not having to do this anymore. But I am.

After the presentations, I left them with a gift – a poem. It was inspired by Concern’s reports from Bangladesh and a news video I saw. The poem is called Breakfast in Kutupalong. Kutupalong is a temporary camp with a million Rohingya refugees. It is by far the largest refugee camp in the world. The poem is dedicated to colleagues at Concern Worldwide.

I’m sorry that I can’t, at present, post the poem here, as it is being considered for publication, But I have been invited back to Dublin next month to record Breakfast in Kutupalong for the new Concern website.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Honey Moon

I’d been waiting for four anxious weeks: a very long time to hold your breath. I was about to meet my oncologist to find out the results of my latest cancer surveillance scan. Let’s try for an early night, I said, knowing my sleep is normally broken by bad dreams and long periods of wakefulness. I stood up to draw the curtains and there it was: the honey moon, shining above the Mournes. It was a rich yellow, like acacia honey. I stared and stared. A good omen, I hoped.

The Honey Moon is the name given to the full moon in June. Traditionally the month of weddings, so this is where ‘honeymoon’ comes from. In North America this full moon is called the Strawberry Moon. I slept a bit better than usual and rose to a bright, sunny day with blue skies. We went to the Cancer Centre at the appointed time and waited for my number to be called.

My call flashed up on the screen and we went through the double doors to meet the oncologist. The Consultant was waiting at the doorway of her office and invited us to sit down. This was a bad sign, I thought. When it was a simple scan result: ‘no significant change’, you were normally dealt with by the Registrar. So recently, we hadn’t been seen by the Consultant.

She stared at a page on the desk and then up at me. But all was well. I was clear of cancer again. That made it two years and nine months in total. A huge weight fell away from us.

She also said she was extending the scan interval from four to six months. So I should next be scanned in November and hopefully get my results by Christmas. I asked her if my next scan could be a MRI instead of a CT Scan. A medical colleague had told me that each CT scan gave you a radiation dose equivalent to 800 X-rays. I’d counted mine up to find I’d had 24 CT scans in the past 8 years, 16 of them over the past four years. She told me that she wasn’t able to do this because of cost. I could get a private MRI scan (which has no radiation) but not on the NHS.

From my regular visits to Radiology, I noticed that they had more CT scanners than they do MRI scanners. Perhaps they were cheaper to buy? I believe a CT scanner costs about £1 million. They also do the scans relatively quickly, in about 10 minutes, whereas a MRI scan is much slower. I suppose from a patient throughput point of view, which is probably how the NHS assesses things, CT scanners are the cheaper option (despite the radiation risk).

We were beginning a five month honeymoon from cancer surveillance scans. With lighter steps we walked downstairs towards the front door. Outside the sky was still blue and the sun was shining. When I get home, I thought, I’ll go for a bike ride. As we headed out through the doorway of the Cancer Centre, coming in was a man with a familiar face, surrounded by five minders. It was Gerry Adams. Another omen?

Saturday, 8 June 2019

In Search of the Irish Summer

Our quest began in Mayo. We rented a cottage near Ballycastle, a small village on the North Mayo coast with three pubs, two shops and a cafe. Our cottage was down a lane that led to the beach; it was quiet and secluded, facing west along the coast towards Belmullet. We were halfway between the village and the beach, with a ten minute walk to either. We had four days of continuous rain, four days of showers and sunshine and two bright but windy days.

We’d come prepared for all eventualities. I’d brought my bike as well as laptop and books. T had brought books, journal and watercolours. Despite the weather we went out every day, if only to walk to the beach after dinner. I did manage four long bike rides of between 50 and 60 miles. It was great to be cycling along the coast road again. I’d last been there 20 years before on a cycle-tour from Sligo to Galway. There were still breathtaking views of cliffs and mountains, expanses of purple rhododendron, wild orchids and wildlife (I saw a weasel crossing the road).

The local landmark is Downpatrick Head, which has a splendid sea-stack called Dun Briste that rises 130 feet above the waves. The story goes that St Patrick detached the sea-stack from the cliff to isolate a pagan chieftain who refused to convert to Christianity. This is a fairytale, as mediaeval documents record the land-bridge between the cliff and the sea-stack collapsing in a hurricane in 1389. But it hasn’t stopped a rather ugly grey statue of St P being erected on the cliff in recent years. We also went to Ceide Fields and Belderrig, where the remains of 5600 year old farm settlements can be seen. Seamus Heaney had visited in 1974 and wrote the poem ‘Belderg’ after this experience.

On one of the wet days we went to Inishcrone Seaweed Baths, which opened in 1912 and claim to be the original Irish seaweed baths. It is a great experience. The rooms are period tiled and there are two huge baths with great brass fitments that you can lie out in fully. In the corner of the room is a steam box. You sit in and close the door so that only your head is exposed, then press the lever inside and you are enveloped in steam. The idea is that you open your pores before getting into the bath with the seaweed. In warm water, the seaweed exudes a clear, silky substance akin to aloe vera and the bathwater turns light brown because of iodine from the seaweed. The seaweed bath is very soothing. At the end you stand under a shower which cleanses your skin with seawater. After a session there your aches and pains have melted away and you feel refreshed.

On another of my rides I went inland to Nephin, the great cone-shaped mountain that dominates the skyline of North Mayo, and did a loop around Lough Conn. On the way, I came across a Titanic memorial in the wee village of Lahardaun. Fourteen villagers had emigrated on RMS Titanic from Queenstown; only three had survived. Proportionally, it was the greatest loss of life suffered by any one place affected by this disaster.  

We’d gone in search of the traditional Irish summer and had found it. T read, wrote and painted. I rode, wrote poetry and read. I also managed to get some good photos; the evening light on our beach walks was often magnificent. On the day of our return it lashed all the way back to Co Down. But never mind. We arrived home refreshed and relaxed.  

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Our Grand Day Out

This culminated in a five hour session in Casualty at the Eye Hospital in Belfast. I'd been sent there by my optician. I had large black cobwebs, small dark spots and blurred vision in my left eye. A few days earlier when I was mowing the lawn, a branch had caught me on the left side of my face and dislodged my glasses. The symptoms began a little later. I was trying to write something on my computer and found that I couldn’t make out the words on the screen. I’d never had a visual impairment before, other than short-sightedness, and it felt disturbing and distressing, particularly as my left is my dominant eye.

I rang my optician and got an appointment. It was for a couple of hours after my cancer surveillance CT scan. So I drove to the Cancer Centre and went through the routine: drinking the contrast (iodine, I believe) and lying down inside the big whirring scanner. I’d been through this dozens of times; the scan itself is not a problem, waiting for the results is. Although, I had more pressing matters on my mind as I walked into town to the optician. T joined me there and we looked at new spectacle frames to distract ourselves for a while.

My optician is a techie. His consulting room is full of eye examining machines. He heard my story, dilated my pupils with eye drops and then put me through his suite of machines. This included retinal and macular scans, and culminated in him looking into my eye with a large microscope that he proudly told me that he had just bought for £12,000. All of the time he was doing the examination he was cracking jokes. Then he gave me the verdict. He thought I had a tear in my retina because he’d seen pigment cells in my vitreous (the jelly-like substance that fills your eyeball). As this could lead to permanent loss of eyesight, he recommended that we went to the Eye Hospital. Since it was 4.30pm, he suggested we went the next morning.

Outside, the bright sunshine hurt my dilated eyes and the world seemed very distorted. We took a cab direct to the Eye Hospital and got there just before the reception closed. We were ushered into a very small waiting room already full of people. There was an enormous flat screen TV on the wall. The sound was up very loud. Pointless was on. Nobody spoke. We waited and waited. Very slowly, people were called. T told me that beside the TV was sign saying that nobody was allowed to touch it or try to change channels. It was stuck on BBC 1, all I got was the sound and distorted visuals. Sometime during the tedium of the One Show I was called to see the Triage Nurse. She took my details and put some more dilating eye-drops into my already dilated eyes. T said I looked like a frightened rabbit.

Back in the TV waiting room, Eastenders was on and there were still plenty of people. I recalled A Clockwork Orange, where Alex’s eyes are held open and he is forced to watch footage of concentration camps and war to cure him of his violence. I wondered what an enforced diet of bland BBC1 primetime is likely to cure me of? Holby City came and thankfully went, it didn’t remind me of any of the different hospitals that I’d spent time in. As Years and Years began I was called to see the doctor. He began by putting more dilating eye-drops in and then looked into my eyes with a microscope. He did this for a while, getting me to look through all of the points of the compass. Then he got me to lie down on a couch and put a portable microscope on his head. He switched on a bright light, pressed my eyelids wide open with probes (T said it they were like extra-long cotton buds) and looked deeply into my eyeball.

He told me that my vitreous had partially detached from my retina. Adding that we should not be concerned as this was a normal part of ageing. The incident with the branch had precipitated something that would have happened in time anyway. I asked him about the optician’s diagnosis. He said he could find no tear in the retina but this was still a possibility as the remainder of the vitreous would also detach sometime. The small spots that the optician thought were pigment cells, he thought were specks of blood. He said that the floaters and blurring should slowly clear over the coming months and booked me into a clinic in four weeks time. We sighed with relief. I was glad I didn’t have to watch the Ten O’Clock News.