Sunday, 9 August 2020

The Summer

On the fourth day of autumn (Lughnasa happened on Tuesday), summer put in a surprise appearance. In the north of this Atlantic island, summer had been absent for most of the past two months. And without a sick note, unless you count the tract that had been nailed to a tree down the road: ‘Repent for the days of Noah are upon us.’ Meteorologically, it had seemed to be true enough. We’d got used to a blanket of dark skies, cool northerly winds and squally rain. So the sudden appearance of the bright sun in a clear blue sky came as quite a shock. I put away my Vitamin D supplements, hunted around for my sunscreen, rescued my short-sleeved cycling top from the bottom of a drawer and went out for a good bike ride.

As usual I started at Scarva and headed up the canal towpath. The boost to cycling that lockdown gave has been continued in these strange beyond times. I’m glad to say that it is no longer unusual to see whole families out on bikes. Although, I’m careful when small kids are coming towards me on their little bikes, for they are often wobbly and unable to keep going straight on. But the only way to get better at riding a bike is to gain experience, and the towpath is a safe place to start.

At Portadown the towpath takes you almost into the centre, so you have to ride carefully. Along the path there will often be gangs of teenagers jostling one another, piles of broken glass (usually in the underpass) and a group of adults swigging cider. This is all concentrated in the last half mile of the towpath, and once these challenges have been negotiated there is only another mile of city streets to do before you reach back-roads and fields.

I followed the cycle route to Maghery, had a break and turned inland towards the Argory and Blackwatertown. These are quiet roads through undulating country, farms and small villages. In the fields contractors were cutting silage. A heavy mower is followed by a large vacuum machine that picks up the cut grass and blows it into the back of a huge trailer that is being driven alongside. But beware, the big trailers are always driven at high speeds along the narrow roads between the field and the farm. Contractors are paid a fixed price for the job, so the sooner they are finished, the sooner they can start earning at the next job. They take no prisoners on the road and drive their huge tractors at full speed, expecting everyone else to get out of their way. On a bike it’s easy to hear them coming.

I did a loop, almost to Armagh, and then turned back towards Loughgall. The drumlins are steeper here and covered with apple trees. It looks like it’s going to be a good harvest, for the trees are heavy with fruit. It was warm, around 26 degrees. Plenty of people were out working in their gardens. There are few little shops around here, so I stopped at a house and asked for water. They almost seemed glad to have an excuse to pause and refill my water bottle. After a break, I headed past Crowhill, a striking white house sitting on top of a drumlin, to rejoin the return route towards Portadown and Scarva.

On the way, I stopped for a chat with Lila, who lives alone in a small roadside cottage. Despite being 85, she’s always out working in her garden or painting the walls white or the window-frames red. She’s tough countrywoman who hates being idle. The sky was still blue and the sun remained strong. Portadown and the towpath were fairly quiet. I got back to the car at 6pm. It was still 20 degrees. I’d had a great day out, done 70 miles with over 2000 feet of climbing. And it had been summer all day.


Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Four Counties Ride

Yesterday I cycled for 80 miles across four counties. It was a grand day out, with plenty of interesting places en route. I spent six and a half hours in the saddle for my longest bike ride of the year. The old body is still going well, despite all the surgery I’ve had. There is a legacy of aches and pains, particularly across my pelvis, but I’ve found ways of coping with them. Given my current tiredness, I can safely say that I wouldn’t be keen to get back on the bike again this afternoon, but by tomorrow I think I’ll be ready for another wee ride.

I started off in Scarva, Co Down, and cycled up the canal towpath towards Portadown. The morning was overcast with a cool NW breeze. I’d consulted three weather forecasts: the BBC, the Norwegian Weather Service and Met Eireann. There was not unanimity. Met Eireann gave a warm and sunny day. The other two forecast a cool and overcast day. I decide to wear shorts and my versatile windproof top with long-sleeves, which could be zipped off to form a short-sleeve. I hoped the sun would come out, but like so many days here recently, I was prepared for cooler conditions.

The towpath was quiet until I got to Moneypenny’s Lock, then the normal groups of dog walkers were out and about. Dark clouds rolled in from the west and I felt the temperature go down until I began to chill. I stopped to put my cap on under my helmet and to switch my road lights on (one front, one rear). A good thing about Portadown, Co Armagh, is that the towpath brings you right into the centre and then it is just a short ride up the Garvaghy Rd to escape into minor roads and green fields. After about a mile you are out of town, past the dark spire of Drumcree and away.

Around the southern edge of Lough Neagh is pleasant cycling through undulating country. The settlements are very small and well spread out. The place names all seem to have the stem Derry, so assumedly there were plenty of oak groves here at one time. The main businesses now seem to be market gardening with polytunnels. At Maghery there is a footbridge over the River Blackwater that takes you into Co Tyrone. The small roads on the other side head across peat fields until you get to Brockagh and Mountjoy Castle (built during the plantation).

There is a shop here and, at 23 miles, I made it my first stop. I bought water and a banana and sat on a bench in the graveyard and ate my snacks. In my saddle-bag I had slices of malt loaf, snack cheeses and cereal bars. A graveyard is usually a peaceful stop and is always a good place to contemplate. In front of me were the graves of Michael, who was ‘everyone’s friend’ but died aged 18, and baby Ciara ‘born asleep’.

I carried on around the Lough taking all the smaller roads I could. The land is a bit hillier here and you get some excellent views of the water. But the best viewpoint by far is at Ardboe, the hill of the cow, where you can sit on a bench besides a ruined church and see the Mournes and Slieve Gullion across the Lough on the horizon. It also possesses one of the finest high crosses in NI, sited at a place where a magic cow reputedly emerged from the Lough.

Eventually I was forced to return to the main road that goes around the Lough. At this point I turned west towards Cookstown until I reached Coagh, a wee village which looks very down on its luck. It sits at the border between Cos Tyrone and Derry. I stopped for a snack in the picnic area beside the River Ballinderry. No-one was about. I’d travelled 42 miles and I was feeling pleased with myself. It was early afternoon and time to head back. I’d return using a variation of my outward route. The weather had warmed up a little, but it was still windy and overcast. It certainly didn’t feel warm enough to zip my long sleeves off. You needed sunshine for that. It was another typical summer’s day in NI.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Clear-Out

After a long fine spell, the normal NI summer has resumed: one or two warm and bright days, followed by three or four cool, wet and windy ones. At this time of year, I don’t enjoy being stuck indoors day after day. Besides, the editing of my poetry manuscript was largely finished and I was mainly doing background reading for my next writing project. On the spur of a moment, I decided to begin another long-neglected task: the clear-out.

My wardrobe occupies much of one bedroom wall. It has a long hanging rail, chockfull with trousers and shirts, and a shelf above, which was overflowing with jerseys. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d sorted through it. T had suggested I do this, several times. But I’d been avoiding it. She sat on the bed and encouraged me.

On the upper shelf were several folded piles of jeans. I pulled them out and started to try them on. Some were narrow leg, others straight or flared, but few of them now fitted me comfortably. T got a roll of bin bags from the kitchen and soon one was half-filled with my discarded jeans.

Then I turned to the trousers. Some were ancient with turn-ups. Others were casual cords. I found two suits that I’d bought when I began work at QUB, some twenty two years ago. In my department, it was expected that a professor would wear a suit. I followed the dress code at first, and then my attire became more relaxed. By the end of my time, I was wearing cords or jeans to work most days. Another charity bin-bag became filled with these work clothes.

My favourite jerseys were piled on top of the long shelf. Underneath were many others that I’d not worn for years. Some were odd styles and colours, some were faded, and some had even been eaten by moths. T laughed at some of my older jerseys but wanted to keep others for herself. We opened a fresh bin-bag for charity and another for clothes that I could wear for gardening.

Looking through my clothes was like looking back through my life. I remembered occasions when I had worn something or who had bought it for me. I also realised why I had been putting this task off. I had to be feeling strong enough to do this sorting out, because I couldn’t know what memories I would encounter. They could be amusing or troubling or anywhere in-between. I found plenty of these, and recounted funny, embarrassing or sad episodes for T.

In the end, I became quite exhausted by this work. We had three full bin-bags for charity and one for the garden. And I hadn’t even sorted through the shoes. We’d save that for another day. When I rested, I read that plenty of people had been through similar clear-outs during lockdown and newly-opening charity shops were being inundated with donations. As people go out and meet others, a key question will be – what sort of lockdown did you have? For many, this seems to have been a time for reflection and of taking stock.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Lockdown Review

The lockdown has effectively been over for several weeks now. You can see it in the streets thronged with people and the roads clogged with vehicles. It ended with the Dominic Cummings fiasco. During which a national newspaper posted a ‘cut out and keep’ mugshot of DC on its front page and invited readers to put it on and do whatever the hell they wanted. And since then many people have pretty much been doing that, whether or not they bothered to wear DC or any other masks. On a national level, it is plain to see that the government’s handling of the crisis has been woeful and inept. But on a personal level, I have to conclude that the lockdown has mainly been beneficial for me.

Why do I say this? Well, during lockdown I’ve completed a series of major jobs around the house that I’d been putting off for a good while: building my new bike, cutting the heavily overgrown back hedge and clearing the clogged garden pond, to name but three. I’ve also done a substantial amount of writing and editing work. I’ve completed the manuscript of my second poetry collection and succeeded in gaining a book contract with Dempsey & Windle. I’ve formatted the manuscript and secured the rights to a photo for the cover. And I’ve now started work on my next book, which will be a novel.

Lockdown gave me the uninterrupted time and space to take on a range of multi-day jobs, whilst also removing most of the distractions that would have encouraged me to avoid them. So I can now congratulate myself on having successfully achieved a series of important tasks, some of which had been neglected for a while.

The low traffic of lockdown and the associated good weather enabled me to do a series of long bike rides on major roads that I would never have dreamt of riding on in normal circumstances. The best of these was along the Castlewellan Road to Newcastle, around the coast to Kilkeel and Rostrevor, into Newry and back along the canal to Poyntzpass. Lockdown has certainly encouraged people to get out bikes that had been left in the shed for many years. This can only be a good thing for people's health. I hope that the boost to cycling continues, despite the increase in traffic.

As T has been working from home, it has meant that we have spent much more time together. We have shared many breakfasts and lunches together and have been able to talk more and more often. These everyday connections have strengthened and deepened our relationship.

As for living with the stress of a life-threatening disease? Well, I’ve been doing that for the past nine years. You have to take things day by day and not expect too much of yourself. It’s not easy, but this has become my normality. You take all the precautions you can, do the right things and hope for the best.

Lockdown has meant that I haven’t had a haircut, a cup of coffee in a cafe nor been to an event for three months. But in the great scheme of things, this has been a small price to pay. I’m aware that we don’t have little children to care for, or a business to run. And I’m not wishing for lockdown to return, just doing my own assessment of the past three months. For me there have clearly been many more gains than losses.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020


I just got a call from my consultant about my recent cancer surveillance scan. She told me there was 'no evidence of disease'. That makes it 3 years and 9 months in the clear. 

Needless to say, I'm delighted.

It is a great relief that I got the news so quickly. In my nine years of getting surveillance scans, I have never ever heard the result within a week of the scan taking place. The norm has been two to four weeks of inevitably high anxiety.

I'm glad that these strange times seem to have changed the protocols of the Cancer Centre for the better. When the scan result is negative and there isn't any change to the treatment plan, there is no real need for the consultant to meet the patient in person. All of this can be done by phone, more quickly and effectively. It saves the consultant time and it saves the patient weeks of unnecessary worry.

Friday, 29 May 2020


I travelled the thirty miles from home to Belfast today. It was a journey I hadn’t done for ages. I was going to the Cancer Centre for my CT scan. My appointment was at 9 am. Due to heavy traffic and congestion, I would normally have left home at 7.30 am to get there in time. Today, I left home around 8 am and got to the hospital in half the usual time. And the multi-storey car park was half empty, rather than full to the brim. More signs of how much normal life has changed in the past ten weeks.

At the entrance to the Cancer Centre were two nurses kitted out with PPE. One took my temperature with an ear thermometer, whilst the other asked me a series of questions about symptoms and filled out a questionnaire. With her mask on, the questions were hard for me to make out, so she had to repeat several of them. When the questions were finished, I was given the document, which detailed my temperature and my responses, and I was allowed in to the Cancer Centre. I went to Radiology reception, handed over my document and was given my CT scan form to take to the CT scan reception.

After that, the procedure was much the same as usual. I sat and drank a litre of contrast, one cup every ten minutes. And when I was finished I was called in to the scanning area. I changed into a gown, removed all metal objects and was taken into the scanning room. A CT scanner looks like a large ring doughnut with a narrow bed attached to it. I lay on the bed, which moved me inside the machine. The scanner whirred and growled. A disembodied voice told me to ‘Hold Your Breath’, the bed moved, the machine howled and the voice told me ‘Breathe’. This sequence took place a couple of times and then the scan was finished. I was inside the machine for perhaps five minutes. But in this time I got the same radiation as in 800 X-rays.

I changed and walked out of the Cancer Centre to see a new sign above the entrance to the main hospital building. The City Hospital is now called the Nightingale Hospital and at the entrance there were now two security guards. I went back to my car and munched on some oat biscuits and a banana. You are not allowed to eat in the four hours before a scan. Normally I would have gone to the hospital cafe and had a good breakfast, but of course the cafe was closed, as was the shop. I started my car and began the journey home.

But this was not the end. The scan itself has nothing to trouble you. The result is what matters. You don’t get that until you meet your consultant for a review. I have no appointment as yet. The letter giving me the appointment would normally come two weeks beforehand. So I knew I had at least two weeks of high anxiety before I could find out the result of my scan. Indeed, it could be longer. In these abnormal times, who could predict how long it would actually be before I got to see my consultant.  I swallowed hard and gripped the wheel. As with so many times on this cancer journey, I would have to take it just one day at a time.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Skylark's Call

I’m delighted to say that my second collection of poetry will be published this autumn by Dempsey & Windle. The launch is planned for late October or November and I very much hope that such a gathering will be permitted by then. This will make it almost ten years since my first collection, ‘Latch’, was launched in Belfast by Lagan Press. Just a few months later, I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and had to cancel my reading tour of Ireland and England from my hospital bed.

All of the poems in ‘The Skylark’s Call’ were written, on and off, during my years of treatment for, and recovery from, cancer. The poems don’t seek to address the cancer experience directly; I did that in this blog. The poems probe the memories and meanings that surround a cluster of places, people and artefacts. Together, they explore the vitality and impermanence of everyday life. These are complex issues, which, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, many more people are having to address.

‘The Skylark’s Call’ is my working title. I began work on the manuscript almost two years ago and it has gone through many iterations and a series of different titles. My manuscript is now finalised apart from the title. However, the only poem in which a skylark appears is the second to last one, ‘Birdsong’, a eulogy for my younger brother, Robert, who died of cancer in 2010. The thinking behind my choice of title is to bring together two very contrasting meanings that are evoked by the skylark in poetry: on the one hand, symbolising hope and inspiration (eg Wordsworth, Shelley); on the other, symbolising earthly suffering and death (eg Ted Hughes). These difficult contrasts describe the territory I have been inhabiting since 2011 and that of this collection of poems. I’d very much appreciate any thoughts and comments people may have on my working title. There is a short while before it has to be finalised.

All writers experience rejection from publishers. I began submitting early versions of my manuscript about 18 months ago, without success. Since then the manuscript has been transformed, with many new poems alongside many revisions. I’d very much like to thank all of the people who have helped me to improve this collection, in particular, the late Ciaran Carson, Moyra Donaldson and of course my dearest T. Working drafts of most of the poems in the collection have been discussed in the Queen’s Writers’ Group over the past six years and I am very grateful for the constructive feedback I’ve received from members of the group.

For those who may not have come across them, Dempsey & Windle are an independent publisher based in Guildford, England. They have been publishing poetry for the best part of a decade. They specialise in debut pamphlets but have also published a number of full collections from well-regarded writers during this time. I’m very much looking forward to the launch of ‘The Skylark’s Call’ this autumn and I shall be sure to invite all of my friends to join me at this celebration.