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.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

My Bikes

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Bronze Anniversary

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Scar Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Second Chance

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 February 2019

The Everyday

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the madness of Brexit continues.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

On La Gomera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 26 January 2019

More Perils of the Towpath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punched by stranger while cycling on the towpath

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Banbridge Chronicle
23 January 2019

Friday, 18 January 2019

Tests and Results

It had been a long four weeks over Christmas and New Year waiting for the results of my biopsy and for my next gastroscopy. I’d done my best to put it all to the back of my mind, although it did keep coming up and catching me unawares. While there is always plenty to distract you at this time of year, it is also a period for reflection on what has gone before and what is to come. Cancer patients are by nature apprehensive. You get tested more often than others and you know the devastating consequences of a bad result.

So, T and I again went to the South Tyrone Hospital. It was easy this time, we knew the way. I had been fasting overnight and my gastroscopy would be done in the afternoon. It meant missing breakfast and lunch. Not much of a hardship. Indeed, three years ago I had been made to fast for 12 days when my lung collapsed after surgery in the Belfast City Hospital. The first part was the hardest, but after a few days you began to lose interest in food. After 12 days, with only fluids, you had to learn to eat again.

In the small theatre, I found a new team doing the procedure. It was certainly more uncomfortable than the previous time. The doctor seemed to push the endoscope in more rapidly and there was some sensation of choking for a while, but nothing like as bad as the first time I’d had it done. Happily it was also over fairly quickly. My stomach was empty and they got down as far as my duodenum and took another biopsy.

They found nothing untoward in my stomach. There was some inflammation in my duodenum and the biopsy was to check for the presence of a virus, H pylori. I was told that the biopsies taken four weeks earlier showed that I had ulceration in my oesophagus. This was caused by acid reflux. Importantly, the lab found no sign of cancerous or even pre-cancerous cells. I gave a sigh of relief. I might be one of the few people who were happy to be told that they had an ulcer. In the short-term I would need to have a course of high dose acid reducing tablets (a PPI), which I might need to take in a low dose for the rest of my life.

I was taken to a small recovery room and was monitored for pulse and blood pressure. Then a nurse came and told me that the biopsy they’d taken today was negative for H pylori, another good result. She then did my discharge from the hospital, which included a long list of what I should and should not do in the next few hours. This concluded with one of the most unnecessary pieces of medical advice I’ve ever received, ‘if you start to vomit blood go straight to A & E.’

I can only hope that my run of test results continues, for I have my regular cancer surveillance CT scan next week.