Saturday, 27 October 2018

Squirrel goes for Treatment

Our semi-feral ginger cat has had a bad eye for a wee while. We wondered if his eye had been injured in a fight, as he often has scratches on his face. But his eye kept weeping and we thought it might be infected. So we decided to take him to the vet. Given that Squirrel is semi-feral and is afraid of being in enclosed spaces, such as a room in our house, this presented us with a challenge.

The vet told us that cats must be brought to the practice in a box. We checked out cat boxes but they were very small. Given his enclosure phobia we decided that we would never get him inside one. But we knew that Squirrel trusted us enough to let us pick him up. In our arms he was quite relaxed for a while and purred as we stroked him. So we thought that I could pick him up and take him to the car and T would drive us to the vet, which was in Banbridge some five miles away. We reckoned that this would probably be the only way that he could get treated, and it was worth a try.

The day of his appointment came and our journey began. I picked Squirrel up and sat in the passenger seat. He didn’t seem troubled. So far so good. T started the car. Squirrel wriggled and tried to find where the noise was coming from. But he settled again. Then T began to reverse out of the drive. Squirrel struggled out of my arms and climbed up onto my shoulder. He was looking through the side window. As we turned into the lane Squirrel leapt onto the back seat and scrambled onto the parcel shelf. He pushed his head against the rear window and clawed at it. He was trying to get out. Then he turned from the back of the car and raced towards the front. Running between the front seats he leapt above the dashboard and tried to get out through the windscreen, emitting the most plaintive howls.

We stopped the car. We had gone only fifty yards. I opened the door. Squirrel jumped out and lay on the ground, rolling around happily. We took him back to the house and gave him some food and milk. The ordeal of the journey to the vet seemed to be quickly forgotten. We rang the practice and apologised.

The problem of his weeping eye remained. I checked the internet and found that a cat’s eye can be treated with lukewarm salty water. I also rang my brother, a cat owner of many years experience, who explained how he had administered eye drops to his cat.

We got a large towel and opened it on the kitchen table. Then T brought in Squirrel and wrapped him in the towel so that only his head was sticking out. He looked a little like a baby in swaddling clothes. I dipped some cotton wool in the saline and dripped several drops into his eye. He scrunched his eyes up but didn’t struggle very much. We gave him food and milk afterwards. The next day we did it again. After only a couple of treatments his eye seemed to improve.



Sunday, 14 October 2018

Apples, Blackberries and Sloes

Today’s autumn sunshine highlighted the red hawthorn berries and rose hips in the hedgerows down the lane. The blackberries were long gone but there is a good crop of navy-blue sloes. You are supposed to pick them after the first frost, which usually happens around the end of October. This year we had the first frost last month. And the sloes look ready to pick now. It is also worthy of note that the humble sloe is the origin of all plums, for these were all bred from this source.

It has been a very variable year of weather, with many cold and stormy periods but redeemed by a long, hot summer. This very variability is what makes the character of this place. You do not usually know, from one day to the next, what the weather will be like. We have to adapt to these changes. I realised this when living in California and in Queensland for a while. There the weather is very stable. Strangely enough, you can get fed up of blue skies every day. It does take a few months. But you are then longing for some winds of change and even for rainclouds to appear.

We picked blackberries from the hedges early and put them in the freezer; the crop was not as good as the previous year. Like the blackberries, our apple crop was also ready several weeks earlier than usual. We had a good crop this year of about six hundred apples from our single tree. This is roughly double what we would get in a normal year, but far short of the record which was over a thousand. The branches were heavily laden and T and I harvested them about a month ago. We laid the apples out on newspapers in the front room. There were so many it was difficult to walk around them. They gave the house a lovely harvest aroma.

I don’t know the variety of the apple, as the tree was planted by a previous owner of the house. They are crisp and juicy but they don’t keep well. We have given away plenty of bagfuls to friends and neighbours. I suppose we might have eaten about a third of them. Latterly they have become somewhat faded and wrinkly so we have been cooking them into apple pies and latterly apple and blackberry crumble (see pic). We only have about fifty apples left.

I make sloe gin each year. I can usually harvest enough sloes from the hedges in and around our garden. The picking of the new crop of sloes is the sign to decant last year’s crop. A year ago I’d filled several large bottles with sloes, sugar and gin and left them to mature, shaking them from time to time. They have been sitting in the hot press since then. I strain the sloe gin through muslin and funnel it into screw-cap wine bottles. Then I reuse the old bottles for the new crop of sloes. Sloe gin is a lovely liqueur. It tastes very akin to tawny port and ages well. It also gives a great flavour to trifle. The new sloe gin is normally ready by Xmas, but I prefer to mature it until autumn comes round again.




Monday, 1 October 2018

Squirrel

We have acquired a cat. Perhaps, I should say, he has acquired us. He is small and ginger and seems to be about a year old. He has identical markings to our previous cat, Cyril, who disappeared just over a year ago. So we have dubbed him Son of Cyril, in short, Squirrel. Over a relatively short time, he has become a fixture in our lives.

We first saw Squirrel around five months ago. We were walking Rex down the lane when he startled a ginger cat in the hedge. The cat climbed up an ash sapling and glared down at us. Then we noticed there was another ginger cat staring at us from a different branch of the same tree. It was an uncanny sight. The cats were identical. They must have been twins. After that we saw a single ginger cat occasionally in the lane. We never saw the ginger twins again; one of them must have moved on.

After Rex died, Squirrel began to come into the garden. One day we noticed him in the back yard. I opened the back door to give him some food but like all the feral cats around here, he ran away at the sight of a human. We left out the food and milk and they disappeared, so he must have returned to eat and drink. We continued doing this and the food and milk continued to be taken.

A few weeks later, I went out with the food and milk and saw that Squirrel was sitting on the back wall. He turned to leave but he didn’t spring way into the shrubbery and hide. I put the food and milk down on the patio. He glanced at them and watched as I went back into the house. Shortly after I had closed the back door, he jumped down and consumed his dinner. After he finished, he sprang back up onto the wall and groomed himself.

As he gained more confidence, Squirrel would jump down from the wall onto the patio as soon as I opened the back door. But he would come no closer than ten feet. He stared inscrutably at me as I put down his food and milk. And would only come and take it when I had retreated a safe distance. One day shortly after that he cried out as I put down the food and milk. It was a feeble and rather squeaky miaow but it was communication.

Over the next few weeks, the safe distance reduced and we were eventually allowed to stand only a step away when he was eating and drinking. One dramatic day, I bent down and stroked him as he was eating. Amazingly, he didn’t stop and run, he kept on eating and even began to purr a little. I turned to T and she smiled back. It was a delicious experience to have gained the trust of a feral animal.

After that Squirrel began to stay in the back yard most of the day. At first he slept on the wall, but then he found an old flowerpot on the patio and curled up on top of it. We called it his tuffet. Quite quickly, he began to enjoy being stroked and would break off from eating to push his back up into your hand as you were stroking him. Shortly after that I picked him up and stroked him. He purred, but did jump down fairly soon.

Not long after that, he began to roll around on his back after eating. He would roll from one side to the other with all four paws in the air. We called it his ‘cat yoga’. He was inviting us to stroke his belly; which, of course, we did. Squirrel got to enjoy this so much that he would take a swipe at you with his forepaw if you stopped stroking before he was ready.

We were astonished at how far we had progressed with him. We reckoned he must have had human contact earlier in his life. None of the local feral cats would allow any human to get within ten feet of them. Squirrel and his sibling were probably raised with a family and then abandoned at an early age. They had learned to fend for themselves the hard way.

Squirrel is very wary of coming inside the house and likes the freedom of the outdoors. But he is small and is regularly beaten up at night by the bigger local feral cats. Each morning he waits, miaowing, to be given his breakfast and we notice new scars on his ear and face. But this hasn’t driven him away. He is staunchly protecting his territory – our back yard.



Monday, 17 September 2018

Return to the Cancer Centre

The four months since my last CT scan had passed and I was again sitting in the waiting room at the Cancer Centre drinking my litre of contrast, one plastic cupful every ten minutes. As usual the room was deathly quiet and no-one made eye contact. Each cancer patient, most accompanied by friends or family, sipped resignedly; the level of contrast in their clear plastic jug showing just how long they had been there. I sipped and read the newspaper, trying not to let my fears overwhelm me in the hour before the scan.  

A radiologist came and called out a name. An elderly man stood up and walked unsteadily towards her. His two younger companions, a man and a woman in their early forties, looked concernedly at him for a short while then returned to their mobile phones. Shortly after he disappeared, the woman began playing video clips on her phone to the man at full volume. Have you seen this one, she howled? He shook his head, grinning. Soon they were both laughing hysterically. What about this one, shouted the man? She eagerly leant over his phone and they were again laughing hysterically. The manic noise of the clips and their braying filled every corner of the room.

I tried to ignore the row, but it grated on my nerves. Soon all the cancer patients were shaking their heads and exchanging disapproving glances with each other. The two were obsessed with their play and oblivious to the rest of us.

Excuse me, I shouted, would you mind turning the volume down?
They both looked up with a start
It wasn’t me, said the man, just like a naughty child.
The woman gave a big sigh and switched off her phone with a flounce of her head.
They both sulked until the older man returned from his scan.

I thought two things. Firstly, in marketing there is a prized category of consumers called ‘kidults’: over 30’s who have substantial disposable income and who share the values and mores of 16-25 year olds. Many of the adverts on mainstream TV are targeted at these consumers. Secondly, I pondered how kidults would try to cope with the painful stress of a parent who has cancer? By immersion in the opposite emotion?

My call came and I lay down in the CT machine, which whirred and whirled around me. In ten minutes it was over and I went home. After two weeks of sleepless nights and worry, I was back in the Cancer Centre to meet my Oncologist. She has a difficult job. Today she appeared more cheerful than usual. On the desk in front of her was what looked like a scan report. The text covered the full page, making it much longer than normal. My worries went up a couple of notches.

She began by asking how I was feeling. I explained my recent symptoms: pain in both hips and groins, stomach still disturbed. She said that the scan had shown that I have a small hiatus hernia and a small inguinal hernia. But apart from that I was all clear of cancer.

An enormous weight left me. I’d now been clear of cancer for two years. So I’d got through the most dangerous time. The risk continued of course, my previous recurrence had come at four years.

The other problems were a consequence of the series of major operations I’d had. They could be dealt with. My next scan would be in January.



Monday, 3 September 2018

Returning to the Auld Country

I lived in Scotland for nine years. My time there concluded very unhappily. My ex left me for another man, who she had been having an affair with whilst I was working away from home. We had been together for the archetypal seven years. I arrived in Belfast newly alone and not knowing anyone. At first I thought I’d made a terrible mistake and began applying for jobs elsewhere. But then I settled down, steadily sorted through my problems and bought a house in the country. Five years ago I met my dearest T. Our trip to Scotland last week was the first time I had been back for twenty years.

We took the ferry to Cairnryan and drove through Dumfries and Galloway on the old coast road. It was very attractive and we marked out some places to come back and explore in more depth. We liked Whithorn and Kirkudbright (the art and crafts town) but didn’t think much of Wigton, the much vaunted book town. It was a pale imitation of Hay on Wye, with a few small bookshops most of which were closed. We visited several ruined abbeys, an unusual round tower and a spectacular Saxon high cross at Ruthwell, where the first savings bank was also founded.

We stopped at Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre to be established in the West (in 1967). It is in a beautiful and peaceful setting in Eskdale, where two rivers meet. Although I’d helped sponsor the Great Stupa, built in 2000, it was the first time I’d been there. T and I walked around the substantial grounds and sat quietly in the great temple. We could have stayed for ages.

We drove on through the uplands on single-track roads to Selkirk, where the statue of Sir Walter Scott looks down on the town square. We were staying in an Airbnb nearby, and taking the train into Edinburgh. It was a comfortable journey of 50 minutes into Waverley. My reading was at the Scottish Poetry Library on The Royal Mile. I read poems from my new collection which were well received. There was a full house of about 40 people. Pretty good considering there were 2500 other shows on in the Fringe Festival.

The city was buzzing with creativity and very crowded. The pavements of the Old Town weren’t wide enough for everyone. Going between shows was a bit of an ordeal. We saw two plays at the Summerhall, the best of which was Midnight Soup, a play in which the audience of 12 sit around a dinner table and cut vegetables for soup whilst offering memories. The play was devised by a Frenchman in homage to his grandmother and the frame for it was a series of readings from her diary. I found it very affecting and enjoyable. And in the end we ate the soup we made.

The most excellent show we saw was Reversible by The 7 Fingers, a company from Montreal. It was a fantastic blend of physical theatre, dance, acrobatics and circus skills, put together with a brilliantly simple set of three movable walls with doors and windows. The theme was memory and migration. The highly skilled performers flew through the air and in time, accompanied by great sound and light design. It was one of the very best shows I’ve seen in 40 years of going to fringe theatre.

Next we went to Roslyn Chapel with its very impressive and ornate stone carvings. It is a living example of something good that has come from Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code has increased the visitors tenfold and provided funds for the waterproofing and restoration of the chapel. We carried on to Stirling via the Kelpies, two 100 feet high horses heads. Kelpies are Scottish water spirits that often take the form of horses. These are spectacular.

I worked in Stirling for seven years. We visited some old stamping grounds, looked up places I lived and caught up with several people I was still in touch with. One of whom had taken early retirement and become a sheepdog trainer. She took us out on the moors with two of her seven collies who rounded up a flock of sheep most effectively. We, of course, wanted to take one of the dogs home with us.

On our last full day we went to Glasgow by train. We walked along Sauchiehall St, had tea in the Willow Tea Rooms and visited the Mackintosh House, walking past the blackened ruin of the Art College. We found a vegan cafe with 80 different types of tea next door to a splendid second hand bookshop.

My last act was to visit the place where I had lived with my ex. It was a flat on the top floor of a red sandstone tenement building in the West End. As I walked apprehensively up the steps of the building, a young woman was about to go in through the front security door (which hadn’t been there 20 years ago). I explained that I was coming back to see the place after 20 years. She let us in and went on ahead up the stairs. We dawdled along behind her; I noticed that the hall tiles were brown, not green. As we approached the top floor, the young woman was about to go into the flat in which I used to live.

Is this where you lived, she asked?
Yes, it is, I said.
Would you like to see inside?
Yes please, I said, just for a minute.

She opened the door and ushered us in. Memories came flooding back. It was the same flat but filled with someone else’s furniture and things it looked completely different. She showed us around all five rooms. She was renting the flat with her husband. They were expecting their first child. T and I smiled at each other. I felt I had come full circle and the unhappy ending that I experienced there was completely gone.





Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Keeping Going

The month since Rex’s death has passed almost in a blur. We have been functioning at the bare bones of normality. Between waking and sleeping we have been getting by as best we can. During the day we have been distracting ourselves, rather than getting on with what we needed to do. Thankfully it has been holiday time so there have been few demands that couldn’t be postponed.

My main distraction has been cycling. I’ve always loved the feel of fresh air on my face. I started off on the Newry to Portadown towpath. I would drive to Scarva with the bike on the car. Typically, I would first head north, turning at the point where the canal meets the Bann and head back down to Poyntzpass, where I would stop for lunch at the excellent Petty Sessions. My favourite delicacy would be Mrs Copeland’s rhubarb pie with ice cream. Afterwards I would continue on to Newry, turning at the end of the towpath and returning to Scarva. The entire trip is a flattish 38 miles.

After a while I wanted to try something a bit more challenging. From our house, I set out on backroads through the drumlins towards the Mournes, turning just before Lough Island Reavy and heading across country before Hilltown to loop around to the west of Rathfriland. This is a ride of a similar length but it feels much harder as you are regularly going up and down short steep hills. I call this route the Tour of Rathfriland and it has about 1600 feet of climbing, according to my cycle computer.

Then I tried some longer rides, taking the bike on the car down to Meath and Louth. One of my favourite rides starts at Ardee and travels on backroads to Kells, where there is a great lunch stop. It is a cafe and a second hand bookshop called the Book Market. They are very obliging and have plenty of interesting books. The first time I went there I had the all day breakfast, but with white and black pudding as well as all of the trimmings, it was a bit too heavy for cycling and I found myself belching for the next twenty miles.

Another good ride starts at Castlebellingham and follows the coast road to Termonfeckin. Yes, this is a real village and not a place out of Father Ted.  It has a high cross and a good cafe in the garden centre. Afterwards the route goes on through Drogheda, on fairly busy roads, to the Battle of the Boyne site. Then the hills begin. You ascend King William’s Glen and then you keep on climbing, until dropping steeply down to Mellifont. The first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, founded in 1142, built beside a steam at the end of a narrow valley. Then it is on to Monasterboice, with its round tower and high crosses, and back across undulating country to Dromiskin and Castlebellingham. This is a hard ride, 57 miles and 2200 feet of climbing.

With so little rain and plenty of sunshine, this has been a great summer for the bike. My knees and arms have turned dark brown. I’m fitter, having lost fat and gained muscle. Old trousers now fit me again, but I’ve stayed at roughly the same weight. T has chosen a different path. She has lost herself in studying for her evening class, spending day after day reading for and writing assignments. They are to be handed in soon, I’m sure she will get good marks.

Whatever we have been doing during the day, we take it in turns to make the evening meal. Afterwards we always walk together down the lane. We hold hands and remember Rex’s favourite spots, talking about him as if he was with us. We began this a couple of days after he died. It is helpful and reassuring. We keep going together.




Saturday, 28 July 2018

At Your Side

Death walks beside us throughout our lives. We don’t notice nor pay much heed to this constant dark companion. After a dangerous scrape or a serious illness, we breathe a deep sigh of relief and go on. ‘There but for the grace of God’, we say. When someone close to us dies, we grieve and ponder on our own lives. But, after this hesitation, we carry on. ‘What choice do we have?’ we say.

Rex’s death remains deeply shocking to us. It has been the closest and most painful of a recent series of reminders of our mortality. Nothing can bring him back from his terrible death. And there is no antidote to grief. It has to be lived through. Yet, a shock to the system also gives us something else. The opportunity to not carry on in the same way. Our natural desire is to simply re-establish all of the routines that we previously had. But they don’t fit anymore, our normality feels empty and fractured, someone (and something) important is missing.

I have had such reminders before. My first wife died in an accident thirty one years ago, several weeks after we moved in to our first house together. I contracted cancer seven years ago and was given a very poor prognosis. Looking back, I can see that after each of these shocks my life changed significantly. At the time I didn’t see either of these events as an opportunity, just as severe threats that I had to struggle to survive. But they were both catalysts and through a very painful process, akin to the shedding of a skin or a shell, I came to see myself and my way ahead differently. And the course of my life changed.

Oddly enough, the benefits of these changes have been considerable. After Gill’s sudden death, I kept a series of promises to her. She was often reminding me to get on with my Ph.D. I’d always say, I’ll do it next weekend, let’s go away this weekend. She would give in and we would go away, often to the mountains, and next weekend rarely came. A year after she died, I did knuckle down and finish my Ph.D. Through this I came to value my intellect more highly, I then gained a new lectureship in Scotland, worked very hard and was promoted to Professor within nine years (the job at QUB that brought me here twenty years ago).

I got cancer around the time I left academia. After years of dispute and disillusion, I took early retirement to focus on my own creative work. Just a couple of months after my first collection was launched, I was brought in to Belfast City Hospital via A & E and then told the bad news. Four major operations and two recurrences later, I am almost two years clear of the disease (after being given that long to live, seven eventful years ago).

I’ve written in earlier blog posts about the changes that cancer has made in how I try and live my life. Essentially, they are: living in the here and now, living wholeheartedly, doing what matters as well as you can and not wasting time and energy on what (and who) doesn’t. Rex’s death gives a powerful reminder of their significance, for dogs do all of these things naturally.  We couldn’t wish for a better example.



Tuesday, 17 July 2018

A Death in the Family

I’m writing this with a very heavy heart. Our dear dog, young Rex, is dead. We found him the other morning. He had died in the night. His lifeless body was hanging from the low fork of an ash sapling in the hedge at the corner of the garden near his kennel. He might have been pursuing a rabbit or barking at a fox or a badger some five feet below in the ditch of the adjoining field. He must have overbalanced from his vantage point and fallen to be hung by his own collar. It was a terrible sight, one that has come back again and again in our nightmares since.

Rex had been with us for almost a year. He was a little over two years old. Although he was a rescue dog, he had a marvellous temperament. He was highly affectionate, extremely patient but also very alert. He made an excellent guard dog. He also loved to hunt and chase. He wanted to run after every animal he saw, except sheep and cattle which he was afraid of. Unfortunately this also included cars and bicycles, so we had learnt to keep him on a lead during walks and tethered at home.

Rex bonded with us equally. We formed a small family. There is now a huge empty space in our lives. Whenever he saw you, Rex would prick up his ears and wag his tail and come over and rub himself against you. With his thick black fur with a white ruff around his neck, he was very warm.  He was also strong and weighty, underneath the fur he was all muscle and bone. There is not a moment in the day that we do not miss him. Our life seems all the poorer now. We are hurting very much.

Because of the threats that had been made against Rex by the old farmer down the lane we called the police after we found his body. They came and examined the scene carefully. We also checked the night vision camera with motion sensor that we had installed beside his kennel. There was no evidence of suspicious activity. It had been a terrible accident.

The two policemen returned his body to us wrapped in an old sheet. They were animal lovers and clearly affected by his death. When they had gone we went out and unrolled the sheet. Rex lay there peacefully. We stroked him and talked to him, just like we would have done any day. Then I dug a grave in the corner of the garden and we laid him to rest. We gave him his favourite treats for the journey and placed a plain wooden cross above his head.

After this we had to go out. We drove around aimlessly for a good while. On the way back home we kept to country lanes. We didn’t really want to see anyone. Then T spotted an animal in the road some distance ahead. We approached steadily trying to make out what it was. Coming over a small rise we saw it was a young hare sitting in the middle of the road. He appeared to be waiting for us. Amazed, we stopped and stared at him. He gazed calmly at us. Then he loped into the adjoining field and away. It was surely a sign from a spirit animal. Rex was running free.




Sunday, 1 July 2018

A Tap on the Shoulder

I’ve been struggling with more bad news this past week. Another good friend and neighbour has just been given a terminal diagnosis. She has an aggressive breast cancer and a full mastectomy was unable to remove all of the disease. So she now faces a course of chemotherapy to try and slow the disease down in order to extend her life. And this blow comes just a few weeks after my good friend and next-door neighbour passed away from a late-diagnosed and untreatable blood cancer. When the big C returns so starkly and so close at hand, it feels like a tap on the shoulder saying ‘You’re next’.

I know that this is all so much worse for the immediate family. I also know that at my last scan, six weeks ago, there was no evidence seen of the disease. But cancer is not a disease that is easily rationalised. When you have been in its clutch and escaped, you remain vulnerable to any sign of its return. Although appearing to function normally day by day, you are also always on alert and keeping watch. My oncologist has told me to check my body regularly for any strange symptoms and has given me a number to ring if I find something. I’ve not found anything yet, but if I did they told me that they would bring me in for an early check.

I’ve realised that the only antidote to this fundamental anxiety is living your life well. Doing what matters as well as you can and trying your best not to be distracted by things that in the fullness of time you’d see as insignificant. This sort of approach to life was exactly what Liz Atkinson spoke about at her early retirement a week or so ago. It was the most important thing that she had learnt from working for over forty years with people suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

At present, I’m spending plenty of time working on my poetry and going cycling in the fine weather. This for me is living well; for mental and physical wellbeing are surely interlinked. Over recent months I’ve put together a second collection of poetry. My first was published in late 2010, and in early 2011 I was diagnosed with cancer. For several years I didn’t write any poetry. I was almost totally consumed by fear and keeping watch. Then, tentatively, I began to write poetry again. In recent years, despite the series of operations I’ve had, I’ve been writing regularly. The style of my writing has changed post-cancer, as has everything else in my life.

I’ve had plenty of success with my new poetry: I’ve placed poems in a series of good journals on either side of the Atlantic and I’ve won a series of awards in poetry competitions in England, Ireland, Scotland and the USA. Now I’m looking to find a publisher for my new collection. There are relatively few poetry publishers these days and competition is fierce, so wish me luck.




Monday, 18 June 2018

Beyond the Bucket List

Liz Atkinson, the Head of Care Services at Cancer Focus, is about to take early retirement. This was heralded by a very well attended event in Belfast at which tributes were made to her work in supporting people suffering from cancer and their families. Liz leads the Cancer Focus counselling, therapy and advisory services. She also helped found the Sing for Life Choir. And I know only too well how important these services are, as I have benefited from them enormously over the past seven years.

When all the tributes were made and the presents given, Liz spoke about why she was taking early retirement. She said that she had been working with people suffering from life-threatening illness for forty years. This experience had shown her that life was short and precious, and it had given her the great privilege of spending time with people who were not going to recover. It had taught her that you should follow your dreams and not be distracted from them, but focus your time on what really matters for you. She said that her teenage daughter had come to her and said that she wanted to be an actress. Instead of telling her to become a teacher or a solicitor, Liz and her husband said, if that’s what you really want, then go for it. Her daughter is now at drama school.

After a long and successful career in nursing and the charitable sector helping others, Liz said that she now wanted to take on some new challenges. She told us that she had always wanted to learn to play the piano and now she would. She also spoke about doing plenty of gardening, spending more time singing with the choir and finally visiting places around the world that she had only read about. There was great applause and then we tucked into the cake.

I think Liz’s thoughts on what you learn from a life-threatening illness were very well put. I have been feeling exactly the same way. The past two and a half years have been very hard going for me: two cancer recurrences and three major operations. But now I have been cancer free for twenty months. And after the last operation, the dreaded thoracotomy some nine months ago, I have also been able to both breathe and eat normally. As the pain from this surgery recedes, I can at last begin to focus on things other than my fears.

Once a week, T and I have been going on little trips, afternoons out to different places, not too far away, such as Carlingford. We are also planning a holiday to Scotland in August and taking in the Edinburgh Festival. In the autumn we will have a trip to our favourite hotel in Mayo, the Mulranny Park, on the shores of Clew Bay. And when the dark and cold of winter returns we intend to get away to La Gomera.

What Liz didn’t spend much time on was the distractions from your purpose and how easy it is to become diverted. Every day there are problems that arise, many of these emanating from other peoples’ disturbances and inadequacies. What cancer has taught me is that life is also far too short to become embroiled in this sort of stuff. The best policy is never to suffer fools and always to speak your mind. On the journey of life there are many false friends. Far better to have fewer genuine ones.





Monday, 11 June 2018

The Perils of Dog Walking

I took Rex for a walk at Castlewellan today. It was the first time I had driven him in the car on my own. He has learnt to get into the front of the car, but normally one of us sits with him to hold and reassure him. Rex jumped in as usual and sat anxiously in the footwell. I tied him to the door by the lead and we set off. Rex shivered for a while, but soon settled down and rested. We parked at Dollies Brae and embarked on the round the lake loop, Rex on a flexi-lead. The walk turned out to be eventful and shocking.

The first incident was an encounter with two Yorkshire Terriers. They advanced yapping, encircling Rex rather like Red Indians attacking a wagon train in an old Western. Rex sat and kept careful watch as the terriers darted around him, barking and snapping. He was certainly intimidated and I was delighted to see an old lady appear to drag the terriers off. We resumed the walk.

We reached the other side of the lake without encountering many other dogs. Then a large black poodle appeared. They sniffed each other. The owners were some way down the path shouting to the dog. Suddenly a fight broke out. The dogs were rolling on the ground, biting and snarling. I pulled Rex away from the big black poodle but it jumped up and began biting him on the back until a chubby middle-aged woman arrived panting and dragged it off Rex by grabbing its hair. She produced a collar from her pocket and slipped over the poodle’s neck and put its lead on.

She snapped that my dog was very aggressive and I should have warned her of this.

I said that Rex wasn’t aggressive. It was her dog that wasn’t under control and had been the aggressor.

We had several exchanges about whose dog was the aggressor.

I told her she needed to keep her dog under control.

She shouted that her dog was under control.

By this time the husband had arrived, a large man in shorts with a beer belly; he glared at me.

I told her that her dog had been loose and wasn’t wearing a collar.

She shouted that he was wearing a collar.

I said, well he is now because you just put it on.

You’re not a nice man, she said.

He was wearing a collar, shouted the man in a broad Belfast accent, pushing my shoulder.

He wasn’t before, I said.

You calling my wife a liar, shouted the man, pushing me in the chest very aggressively.

I’ve had enough of this, I said, and began to walk away.

He followed me, shouting, where d’you think you’re going?

Then I felt a slap to the left side of my face; a light blow from the back of his hand.

Come on then, he shouted, d’you want to make something of it?

He was spoiling for a fight. It was just me and them on the far side of the lake. I kept walking.

In his shorts, he looked like a middle-aged schoolyard bully. I noticed he was working hard to keep up with me.

Then another light slap to the side of my face.

Come on then, he shouted again, d’you want to make something of it?

I sneered at him and kept walking away.

They soon receded into the distance and my heart-rate came down. I returned to the car with Rex. After this shocking incident, I decided not to come dog walking in Castlewellan on my own again. You never know who or what you might encounter.





Saturday, 2 June 2018

A Remarkable Man

My good friend and neighbour Charlie has passed away. He’d been in hospital for some weeks suffering from leukaemia. A week ago he took a sudden turn for the worse. And, a few days later, he died in the small hours surrounded by his family.

I last saw him about a week before he died. Despite his ill health, he was pleased to see me. He explained that the consultant had told him there was no further treatment that could be given to remedy the disease. He told me that he had suspected that this was the case for several weeks. In some senses it was a relief to him that this news was now out in the open. Typically, Charlie met this final challenge thoughtfully and unflinchingly.  

He was born on the farm at the end of our laneway and went to the village school. Despite passing the eleven-plus he didn’t go to grammar school, but left at 14 and worked on the family farm. He married Margorie and had three children. As the small farm was not bringing in enough, he began work as a bread delivery man for Ormeau Bakery. Intelligent, hardworking and with good judgement, Charlie tended to succeed at whatever he turned his hand to. Unsurprisingly, he worked his way up to Sales Manager for the whole of Ireland.

After retirement from the bakery he took up sheep farming again, delivered books to schools across NI and built houses for his children and grandchildren. He also spent a good amount of time helping me with any tasks that were beyond me. I knew for sure that Charlie would either have the answer to my problem or know who to turn to. His knowledge of the local area was legendary. He could describe the entire lineage of most families going back many generations. He knew who had lived in what ruined house and where they went when they left it. He knew who owned what land, how they had come by it and what crops or animals they had kept since his father’s time.

Over the 17 years I had lived next door, in the house that Charlie had built for his eldest son (who emigrated to the USA), I spent many evenings at his home being entertained with stories about local people. He was my link with the past, my present helper and my pal. No challenge was too big or too small for him. He was a supremely skilled man (all self-taught) and extremely versatile. At the same time, he was goodhearted, considerate and modest. I will miss him very much.

Charlie’s body came home from the hospital and there was a wake. On the third morning about fifty family and friends gathered at the house for prayers led by the minister. Then the coffin was lifted and carried down the lane, one man at each corner. Slowly we travelled the three-quarters of a mile to the church. I was honoured to be one of those who carried him. And I hope, that when my time comes, I have a similar send off.

Throughout the wake, Rex had barked madly at each new visitor. But when the cortege walked down the lane he sat in silence and solemnly watched everyone pass by. The hedgerows were bursting with white hawthorn blossom and the verges were thick with cow parsley. The little church at the crossroads was filled to overflowing. Extra chairs were brought in and set in the aisles and vestibule. The service concluded with ‘Abide with Me’. We filed into the graveyard, which was bathed in strong sunshine. Charlie was laid in the earth beside his mother and father. May he rest in peace.




Sunday, 20 May 2018

Rex: A Suitable Case for Therapy?

We’ve had Rex, a border collie, for nine months now. He is a rescue dog. At first he caused little trouble (apart from his bad habit of chasing cars); we think he was just glad to have a home where he got regular food and he wasn’t beaten. But over recent months his psychological disturbances have become more apparent. He has become very demanding of attention and deeply jealous of anything that he perceives as a rival.

His primary rival is my bicycle. He cannot bear to look at it or even hear it (the rear wheel clicks distinctively). When he sees me going out to the garage, where the bike is kept, he flies into a rage. He howls and barks madly and does his best to attack my car. I’ve now had to park the car where he can’t get at it, as he has scratched the front and wing in previous rages. He also perceives the mower and the wheelie bin as love rivals. So when we are mowing the lawn or taking the bin out, he again flies into rages and tries to attack my car.

We do our best to calm him by stroking and reassuring him, but his hatred of these rivals is so deeply felt that he will only be temporarily pacified. And when our attention wavers from him and towards the mowing or the bin or the bike, he again flies into a rage. I first became aware of this about a month ago when I was fixing up my bike for a wee ride. It was a good day and I had the bike out on the lawn to do some maintenance. I’d taken off my watch and put it on the garden table. When I wasn’t looking Rex came up, took my watch from the table and began to chew it. Luckily the watch is stainless steel and I noticed what he was doing before he could damage it too badly.

A couple of days later, the relief postman (who is scared of Rex) left some parcels on the garden table. When I came home I found all of the parcels shredded and the chewed contents strewn across the driveway. The butt of his rage this time was a book of poetry by David Harsent; Rex may not be much of a critic, but he knows what he doesn’t like. I chided him for attacking my watch and my parcels and since then his rages have been directed towards my car

T, who reads counselling books, thinks that he has moved up Maslow’s hierarchy. Now that his needs for food and shelter are being regularly met, he has moved on to his needs for attention. Here there is a huge deficit from his first year of life with the abusive old farmer. We do our best to stroke and reassure him each day, but you could pet him for 24 hours every day and it still wouldn’t be enough.

It’s significant that he has selected my car as the primary target for his rage. Does he really want to attack me for not paying him sufficient attention? But I imagine that I’m not a safe target for his anger as I am also the person who feeds him and takes him for walks. So he diverts his rage towards a safer alternative. He never attacks the bike, the mower or the bin. My car has become the scapegoat. However, on occasions, I have taken Rex for a walk whilst also taking the bin out to the corner of the lane. It is interesting that on these occasions, when he was getting something he likes and my attention, he wasn’t disturbed by the bin at all.

Any helpful advice from dog owners (or dog therapists), especially those with experience of rescue dogs, would be most welcome.




Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Visit

I’ve been living in rural South Down for seventeen years. I moved back to the countryside as an experiment, after living and working in cities for many years. I bought a bungalow, surrounded by fields and farms, with views of the Mournes. My main fear was isolation. Instead, I got back in touch with the natural rhythms of the seasons and was welcomed by neighbours despite not having any family links with the area. There was one particular neighbour who I became close to. This week I was disturbed to learn that he was very seriously ill in hospital.

C had grown up on the farm down the lane. He inherited the land and kept sheep, despite having a management job in Belfast. He was one of those people who could successfully turn his hand to almost anything. In fact he had helped build my house. It had been constructed for his eldest son, who moved to America. I’m fairly practical, but this has limits. So when there was something that needed doing that was beyond me, to the house or to the half an acre that surrounded it, I turned to him. C would always have the solution to my problem and would sort it out promptly and effectively with a minimum of fuss. At first I tried to pay him for his time and trouble, but he would never accept anything. It took me a little while to realise that the neighbours’ economy was trade in kind. One good turn required another. I helped him out with tasks of his that required several hands, took my turn in the strimming of the grass verges of the lane and always mowed his lawn whenever I cut mine.

Some years ago he began to have bouts of tiredness and muscle aches. He put this down to ageing; he is a decade older than me, but a good bit fitter. So he gave up his job and lived on a pension and sheep-farming. These bouts persisted. He went to the doctor who diagnosed him with fibromyalgia and put him on steroids. The treatment didn’t seem to work and when he complained about this the doctor increased the dosage of the steroid.

Last year he was floored by a chest infection and was hospitalised for several weeks in Daisy Hill. His fatigue increased. Some months later the chest infection returned and he was again hospitalised. This time they began to test him for a range of other problems. After running many tests they could find nothing. They were again going to discharge him, but decided to refer him to a Haematologist at Craigavon. He was tested further and they eventually discovered that he had a rare form of blood cancer which attacks the bone marrow.

C was also told that if he had been suffering from fibromyalgia it ought to have improved on steroids in a matter of months. His early symptoms had probably been of the blood cancer and there was a clear failure on the part of the GP not to refer him for testing for other conditions (thankfully we are with a different GP). Because of this he had several years of deterioration before he got the correct treatment, which is a very expensive course of drugs that can only attempt to arrest the decline.

It was another chest infection that had returned him to hospital this time. His infection markers were high and his blood/oxygen saturation was dangerously low. He was being pumped full of different intravenous antibiotics and had an oxygen line into his nose. He lay on the bed in a side room, gasping and panting with the effort of talking. We spoke about the old days when he was fit and well and active. He realised that he would never be able to go back to them. All he wanted was to return home. But the prospect of that was remote.

He asked me how I’d coped with my cancer treatment (he had visited me in hospital). I said that I’d had it easier than him. I did have four big operations, but my incapacity, although painful and difficult, had always been temporary. I’d struggled to get well each time, but I’d never been continuingly incapacitated. I didn’t know how I would cope with the situation that he was in. I told him that the only strategy I knew was to take things one morning/afternoon/evening/night at a time and try your best. Given the challenge of his situation, it seemed a lame answer.

An auxiliary nurse came with a tray of food. C slowly ate some soup with mashed potato in it. I opened his small tub of ice-cream and he scooped it up with a teaspoon. I explained that, as T was away, I had to go home to feed the dog. I promised to visit him again soon. We clasped hands. He told me he would be very pleased to see me.

As I drove home, I pondered on this visit. I knew that C had given me a timely reminder to make the most of life when you are able, and not to waste time and energy on what might seem important but which really didn’t matter very much. What he wanted most of all was to be at home again and do ordinary things. There was no dramatic bucket list of foreign destinations to see.

The Ghost of Cancer Future had visited me. I realised that this creature would come calling for me one day. I fed Rex; he wagged his tail and licked my hand. I made my own tea and read a little. The late sun shone on trees coming into leaf. Birds sang. The mountaintops glinted. I was well and I still had time.



Monday, 30 April 2018

The Scan and The Results

The first week of my eighth year as a cancer patient has featured anxiety from the past and worries about the future. It started with a CT scan, my sixth since a tumour was successfully removed from my abdomen twenty months ago. The pathologist found that this tumour had a very slim margin of normal cells around it; only one millimetre, a dangerously narrow margin and far below the recommended surgical limits. Allied to this is the fact that you don’t feel a slow growing tumour when it is small. And it also doesn’t show up well on a scan. I didn’t have pain from either of my tumours until they had grown to maturity and were over six centimetres across. At scan-time these worries cannot fail to prey upon your mind and interrupt your sleep in the small hours.

Actually having a CT scan is nothing much; on the scale of painful and unpleasant things done to you in hospital it is at the low end. You have to arrive at the Cancer Centre one hour before the time of your scan. You sit in a waiting room full of people coming for scans and drink a clear fluid filled with iodine (and other stuff) that enhances the images. You have to drink two litres of the fluid, one paper cupful every ten minutes. Despite the room being full, it is deathly quiet; nobody speaks, we are all in our private places of fear. The only sounds are new patients arriving, jugs of fluid being dispensed and patients being called. I sit, sip and read my newspaper. Others surf the internet. Some stare into space.

When called, you are taken into a changing cubicle where you remove your clothes and anything made of metal and put on a surgical gown. The radiographer takes you into the scanning room next door. The CT scanner is shaped like a large ring doughnut with a long slim bed that slides you inside it. The scanner costs about a million quid. A scan takes around ten minutes. The bed slides you through the scanner and an automated voice tells you to hold your breath for some of the passes and to breathe on others. The scanner whines and howls like a gale as it spins around you. Then it is over and you can go.

The first thing I do is get something to eat and drink. You aren’t allowed to take anything for six hours before the scan. I ride the lift up the hospital tower to the staff cafeteria. The food is cheap and fatty. It’s remarkable how bad the food is for people who are charged with keeping us healthy. Off-duty, hospital staff could well be far unhealthier than us. Like many others, I indulge in a greasy fry. It hits the spot. As I slurp baked beans and chew my sausages, the worries begin in earnest. I have entered the worst and most disempowered stage, the anxious waiting for the scan results.

Normally you hear the results at a review appointment with the Oncologist, which takes place a couple of terrible weeks after the scan. As it is hospital practice to send out appointment letters two weeks beforehand, you usually get the letter for the review appointment around the date of your scan. I went home. There was no letter from the hospital. I waited anxiously for a couple of days. Then I rang the Oncologist’s secretary. You always get the answer-phone. I left a message for her to call me. She rang back the next day and told me that my scan had been done several weeks early and no appointment had been booked for me yet. She told me she would request an urgent appointment, but that the review clinics for the next month were very full. My heart sank and my worries spiked.

Several sleepless nights and unhappy days later, the Oncologist’s secretary rang me (after I had again left her a message). The good news was that she had a got me a review appointment, the bad news was that it was in a month’s time. Again my heart sank. But, she went on, she had spoken with the Oncologist and they had dictated a letter to me. She read it out. The crucial part was that the Radiologist had concluded that my scan was ‘stable’ with ‘no discernible change’. My heart leapt. I thanked her profusely. She had understood my problem and because of the long delay in me actually seeing the Oncologist had found a way of breaching the hospital protocol about not giving results over the phone. I suddenly felt very relieved and extremely exhausted.



Sunday, 22 April 2018

Copper Anniversary

Seven years ago today I was in Belfast City Hospital. I’d gone to A&E the night before after becoming unable to pee. I waited for a long time in severe pain with assorted drunks and men with head wounds handcuffed to coppers. The doctor put in a catheter but nothing came out, so he got a large syringe and drew out bloody urine with dark clots in it. I spent a long and sleepless night on a trolley, worrying about what was wrong with me and wondering why my life was cluttered with stuff that didn’t really matter. First thing in the morning a doctor from Urology arrived and decided to admit me.

Later that morning I was taken on a trolley for a CT scan. I was back in the ward when a different doctor arrived and drew the curtains around us. I had cancer, he said. He was quite matter of fact. I went into shock. It was a large tumour that had taken over the whole of my left kidney and grown further. The world seemed to close in around me. Do you have any questions, he said. So I’m going to die, I mumbled. Not necessarily, he said, plenty of people survive cancer these days. So what are my chances, I said. I’m afraid I don’t know, he said, and left. It was Good Friday. I lay on the bed for a long time. I was sure my life was at an end. I felt completely alone and didn’t know who I could turn to. My younger brother had died of cancer less than a year earlier. Eventually I picked up my phone and began to tell the bad news. I started with my, then, partner Joanne.

To cut a very long story short, my tumour had grown from the kidney into the vena cava and up towards my heart. I needed a very big operation, open heart surgery, to remove it. I was in hospital for three weeks during which a series of preparatory operations took place, whilst I waited for the big one. Joanne, friends and family rallied round. I had plenty of visitors. I also had to cancel all the Irish and British dates on my book launch tour that I’d spent so much time arranging (my first collection of poetry had been published a few months earlier).

After three weeks I was discharged from hospital. I was waiting for a slot in one of the three cardiac operating theatres at the Royal Victoria Hospital. A call could come at any time. I was told that I was in a delicate condition and should take things very easily. Joanne encouraged me to live at her flat in Belfast. At first this was fine. Then she began to show signs of disturbance. After four weeks, she had a mental breakdown. I had to look after her and arrange for her to get professional help. Then I went home to my own house and waited. After a week the call came. I was admitted to the Royal, signed all the disclaimers; the main risk was death during the surgery from loss of blood. The operation took seven hours with three teams of surgeons and I had three blood transfusions. Thankfully the tumour was successfully removed. I spent a further two weeks in intensive care and on the ward. I returned home, very incapacitated and in severe pain (which would last for over a year) but I had survived this ordeal.

Not long after I was called to see an Oncologist at the Cancer Centre. They told me that my prognosis was poor. Many people who had the large tumour that I had would not survive the first two years. This was a heavy burden that dragged me down. Joanne had come out of treatment and visited me regularly, along with friends and family. After a couple of months Joanne abruptly left me and I was completely on my own again. I found myself in a very bleak place. Slowly I realised that I couldn’t cope and turned to a cancer charity for help. Cancer Focus arranged counselling. This was a lifesaver. I learnt that I wasn’t alone and that the complexity of emotions I had were entirely normal for a cancer patient.

This became the turning point. After a year of counselling and recovery I began to rejoin the world. I started to pick up a few of my activities again. The two year anniversary of the big op came and went. And I was still around; alive and doing my best to kick. Shortly after I went to the John Hewitt Summer School, where I first met my dearest T.

A crisis shows you exactly who and what is important in life. Plenty of activities and former friends have fallen by the wayside. But what remains is deeper and more valuable. I do my best to spend time on what matters and not to waste it on what doesn’t. Primary amongst all of this is my dearest T, who is the best thing that has happened to me. I met her at a point of growth and redirection in my life and we have travelled far and deep together. Seven years is called a copper anniversary. And copper is the metal of good fortune. I thank my lucky stars that I am where I am in my life now and that I am with T. We live happily together in the here and now. Long may that continue.



Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Cuddle Therapy

We’re not long back from an extended Easter break over the water that was full of good things. We started in the New Forest and then drove a couple of hours along the coast to Brighton for a wedding. I hadn’t visited Brighton for ages and T had never been there. It certainly seemed to have become a very alternative town. The groom was the only son of my best friend, Phil, who I’d first met at secondary school. The groom, Nathan, and bride, Laurie-Ann, had been going out for a decade and living together for six years. They very generously had arranged for us to stay in their home over the weekend.

On the first evening we walked into town with Phil’s brother Terry and had an amazing meal at a vegetarian restaurant called Terre a Terre; a cornucopia of flavours put together most attractively. On the way back we paused at an alternative therapy centre and marvelled at the range of treatments and therapists on offer. The most intriguing was Cuddle Therapy, where you could spend your time with the therapist either talking about obstacles to physical contact or actually having cuddles.

I wondered how long it would take for Cuddle Therapy to become established in NI. We agreed that who you were actually cuddling was the most important consideration. T and I cuddled regularly everyday and always before going to sleep. It was a crucial part of our life together. We had both lived on our own and understood how lonely that can be. On the other hand, there were plenty of people I would pay good money not to be cuddled by; Boris Johnson, for example.

The wedding took place in the village of Firle in the midst of the attractive South Downs. It is an estate village and looks little changed from centuries before. Virginia Woolf once lived there and it became a hangout for the Bloomsbury Group. The ceremony was humanist in style; I gave one of the readings, ‘The Summer Day’ by Mary Oliver. The vicar was Peter Owen-Jones, who is also a poet and broadcaster. We walked from the Norman Church past banks of primroses to the lawn of the Manor House for champagne. The weather was cool, so after photos we went into the stables which had been converted into a large hall complete with oak beams.

After the speeches we had an enjoyable Mediterranean meal of kebabs, falafel, salads and flatbreads. I tried a glass of wine; the first since Xmas when my stomach, after all the cocodamol drugs, had a bad reaction to it. I was delighted to find no painful reaction, so I tried a couple more. Unlike many of the guests, I didn’t indulge in the free bar. But T and I danced happily with them to the live soul band. It was a lovely day. And a poignant one. Phil’s wife Jean had died of cancer almost five years previously. Her absence was keenly felt by all those who knew her.

The next morning we wandered down by the Pavilion and along the pier. We saw several groups of elderly Mods in parkas with roundels, but no Rockers. Perhaps they now only clashed for the overseas tourists in a sham-fight, like at Scarva. Then it was back in the car to the New Forest. And the very next morning we drove through heavy traffic to Hungerford for a family lunch that I’d arranged. Meeting up at the excellent Mediterranean restaurant Eliane were my brother, sister and several cousins. All in all we made a table of eleven. I hadn’t seen some of them for four years or more. We had a great catch up, took photos of each other and hugged before going our respective ways.

The purpose of our time away was to meet up with close friends and family and be part of a happy celebration. I guess the whole trip had been a type of Cuddle Therapy. So especially we’d like to wish Nathan and Laurie-Ann many happy years of cuddling together.



Monday, 19 March 2018

Valuing the NHS

I’m surprised at how regularly I meet people who complain about the NHS. To many people I suppose it is a large and relatively faceless organisation. And it does have undoubted shortcomings, such as the waiting times to see specialists for non-urgent treatment. But my experiences of the NHS have been overwhelmingly excellent and I’m always ready to speak up for it. So this week I was very sad to learn of the death of Stephen Hawking, one of the highest profile advocates and campaigners for the NHS.

Despite being diagnosed at 21 with motor neurone disease and told that he had only a short time to live, Stephen Hawking continued to work at the highest level in his field of science for a further 55 years. And he was very clear about who to thank for his long life: ‘I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment from the NHS without which I would not have survived.’ It took undoubted grit and determination too, but he consistently made light of his disability. In his later years he was an active campaigner for the NHS and used his public position to speak out against underfunding and privatisation.

Stephen Hawking’s campaigning led to several high-profile rows with Jeremy Hunt. A government minister who perhaps should be renamed in terms of the famous Radio 4 interview in which he was introduced to the listeners by James Naughtie as Jeremy Cunt. A spectacular, but hardly inappropriate, slip. The essence of the row was about the nature of the evidence that Hunt was claiming as his basis for a new health policy. If you are going to have a public argument about the nature of evidence, it was certainly inadvisable to choose to have this row with one of the best scientific minds in the UK. Suffice it to say that Hawking duly exposed major factual holes in government health policy. And in the last few months of his life he had become involved in a legal challenge to Hunt’s plans for further NHS privatisation.

Hawking’s view of the current shortcomings of the NHS was that they had arisen from persistent underfunding and creeping privatisation. In a healthcare system that is under massive and continual strain not all treatment can be delivered well at the same time. So urgent care is prioritised, which leads to unacceptable delays in non-urgent care. This has been underlined by a series of reports that have argued that long waiting times for some patients can only be improved by an injection of new funding.

Over the past seven years, I’ve had four major surgical procedures and have spent ten weeks in four different acute hospitals. As a cancer patient I was a priority. The treatment I received was of the highest quality and in the main it was very successful. I have been all-clear of cancer for sixteen months and I will be scanned every four months to make sure that I continue along this road. Whilst my story is not as spectacular as that of Stephen Hawking, my treatment has been life-saving and I have nothing but praise for the work of the NHS. For despite being under great pressure they do a fantastic job.