Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Four Counties Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Clear-Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Lockdown Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Result

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

Needless to say, I'm delighted.

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

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

Friday, 29 May 2020

Scanning

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

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

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

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

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




Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Skylark's Call

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

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

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

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

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






Sunday, 10 May 2020

My Life in Bikes (part two)

Part one, posted a week ago, covered this story up to the time I became settled in Northern Ireland. After exploring this island, I embarked on a series of solo cycle-tours in France, Italy and Spain, taking these as my summer holidays from work. I packed up my bike in a bag and put all my kit into one medium holdall. When I arrived, I took a taxi to the hotel I had pre-booked for the first night, unpacked the bike, transferred my stuff into my panniers and set off the next morning. On a cycle-tour, life is simpler and freer; I was exploring somewhere completely new for three weeks with all my possessions in just two panniers on the back of my bike. I was also leaving many of my normal bothers behind, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on more significant issues. I always wrote a reflective journal during the tour and returned with a sense of renewal.

Every morning I would ring to book a room for the night (in a small pensione or hostal) and then have the day to explore places along the way to my evening’s destination. I would always leave my bike bag at the first hotel, having pre-booked the last night of my trip there. The main disadvantage of a solo cycle-tour is that you have to carry all your own luggage. However much you minimise your stuff (and over time I got good at this), it still makes the bike fairly heavy. Being alone is not a problem, for you are bound to meet other travellers on the way. My favourite tours were of La Mancha, the Basque country, Brittany and Puglia.

I then decided to try a supported cycle-tour, where your luggage is carried for you between destinations. I was particularly interested in exploring faraway destinations where I would have had difficulties organising a cycle-tour on my own. With the Cyclists’ Touring Club, I went on multi-week tours of Sri Lanka, SW China, Patagonia, Laos, N Thailand and Vietnam. By far the best way of exploring a developing country is by bike, for you travel at a slower pace, alongside the people, and really get to experience how others live. I’ve had some brilliant adventures: staying with a family in a stilted hut in a small village in Laos without electricity or running water; meeting ethnic tribes-people, dressed in all their finery, on a market day in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas (on the road to Shangri-La).

I think the main things that these experiences taught me were self-reliance and humility. Seeing the developing world at first-hand shows you that human beings are much the same. The main differences are that us Westerners, despite being in a minority, have most of the world’s resources and privileges. The majority have less, because we have more. But the poor of the world are remarkably skilled at making the best of what they do have. They recycle, repurpose and reuse all of the time (because they have to). And if you find yourself somewhere far away and in need of help, you will be pretty sure to find it.

Sadly, due to cancer, I have not been on such a tour for a decade. But I have been cycling when I’ve been able to; increasingly so over the past couple of years during my recovery from the last major operation. I have also been honing my bike maintenance skills that I first developed during my cycle-tours. This was given an added impetus by the failures of a local specialist bike shop. They took my money and handed my bike back to me without the headset being fixed properly. Because my bike had been left in a dangerous state, I decided never to give them any work again and that I had to learn to fix my own bikes.

There are a series of tasks that are needed to fix up a bike. I tackled them one by one, as I needed, finding that each of the tasks is not that difficult on its own. I learned many of these by trial and error. There are plenty of instructional videos, but you have to be careful as some of these are misleading. And I’ve now put all of these skills together, for I’ve just built a bike completely from scratch for the very first time. It only took me five afternoons in total, spread out over a week or so. I am very pleased with this achievement.

I now have a titanium-framed superbike, built to my very own specifications like a bespoke suit from a tailor. I bought the frame in a sale last year and then chose all the parts to go with it to fit my precise needs. This was an enjoyable but complex part of the process, because compatibility between parts from different manufacturers can be problematic. Indeed you cannot be sure that they will all work together until you try them.

I am delighted to say that my new bike works beautifully. It is a Kinesis Gran Fondo (Italian for big ride) designed for long distance cycling. It is three and a half pounds lighter than my existing Audax bike, but is very comfortable. What is more, it rolls well up the local hills and speeds down them very surefootedly. The handling is brilliant. I’m sure we will go on to have many great rides together. Although, nobody knows when (or if) overseas cycling trips will become possible again.





Monday, 4 May 2020

My Life in Bikes (part one)

Bikes have always been very important to me. My first was a tricycle, which I got when I was 3. I think I was only allowed to ride it on the lawn, as I am in the picture, with my brother Rob (now deceased) on his rocking horse with Patsy (a neighbour’s daughter). But I’m pretty sure I also rode it down the lane beside our house. I had to walk a mile to the local school and pestered my parents for a proper bike, which I finally got aged 7. It was a gold and white Raleigh with three gears and whitewall tyres. I soon set off on rides along the towpath of the Stroudwater Canal, which our house was beside, and then went on to explore the local lanes, many of which had gravel surfaces. After all these years, I’ve never lost that love of the air flowing across your face and through your hair; that sense of freedom and self-reliance.

I had several other bikes until 16, when I bought a scooter: a Vespa Sportique. I had worked on a local farm from the age of 14 and saved up the money to buy it. I think it cost me £30. It was red and black with plenty of chrome. I can still remember the registration number: 724 BFH. I wore a parka and had Levis and a Ben Sherman shirt. I rode the scooter to school and at weekends around the local town, Gloucester, thinking I was pretty cool. Not everyone agreed. Once I was pursued by four local yobbos in a Ford Zodiac who threw empty cider bottles at me, trying to burst my tyres.

My sense of adventure and love of the open road transferred to a series of motorbikes in my 20’s. Being a self-funded postgraduate student, I was pretty poor at this time and could only afford cheap bikes. I had an old BSA with sidecar and a MZ. After reading an article about the remotest area in Britain, Knoydart in the Western Highlands, I strapped my camping gear to my bike and set off on a 500 mile journey to explore it for a week. I didn’t earn enough to buy a car until I was 30.

Climbing and mountaineering were my main pursuits until 1987, when my first wife, Gill, was killed in an accident in Snowdonia. This crisis, which I only survived by the skin of my teeth, changed my life completely. When living with my kind friends Phil and Jean in Poole (I couldn’t bear to stay in the house Gill and I had just bought in Southampton), I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. It was a life-saver; cycling and running helped to give me a temporary sense of purpose in a world that was undeniably bereft.

I lost my job, moved to Scotland and met my second wife on a cycle-tour of the Western Isles. The cycle-tour was brilliant, but the marriage was ill-advised (too soon after the death). I became workaholic, runaholic and restarted hill-walking. Then a bad back injury meant I had to give up running. This happened around the time I moved to Yorkshire for a better job. At weekends I took my trusty Dawes Galaxy on long rides through the Dales and Moors, rekindling my love of cycling. A couple of years later I got the Chair at QUB and moved to NI. My then wife didn’t come too. It was a shock, but for the best in the long run.

Strangely enough, moving to a place where I knew nobody has ended up being the most significant change in my life. I finally got to grips with the problems from my past and I settled down in a house in the country that reminded me of where I was a child. 

I can also say that this island is the best place I’ve ever lived for cycling. There are so many wee back roads with light traffic. I’ve travelled the entire coastline of the island in four long cycle-tours and written a reflective journal during each. I began in the North-West in 1998, the first summer after I arrived here. I’ve also explored each of the 32 counties by bike. Eventually, my faithful Dawes Galaxy had to be retired. In its place, I bought two new bikes: a Dawes Audax for day-rides and a Dawes Sardar for cycle-tours.

To be continued...



Sunday, 26 April 2020

Leather Anniversary

I’ve just passed another significant milestone on my cancer journey. It is nine years since I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer of the kidney. I remember the occasion vividly. I had spent a night on a trolley in A&E with excruciating pain in my left side. In the morning, it was Good Friday, I was scanned. The young doctor who gave me the result was matter of fact. The tumour had grown significantly beyond my kidney and had travelled most of the way up my vena cava towards my heart. I remember shrinking down into the bed as the world closed in on me. He asked me if I had any questions. I could hardly speak. I thought that I was going to die.

When I saw the consultant the next day, I found my voice. I asked him what my chances of survival were. He gave me an odd answer. He said ‘I can tell you the average outcome for people with the type of tumour you have’, and went on to offer a poor prognosis. ‘But I can’t tell you what will happen to you, because that is written in the stars.’

At the time, I found his answer puzzling and very irritating. I was in a terrible predicament and I wanted clear answers. In retrospect, I can see that it was a good answer. Medical experts can only ever tell you what the average outcome is for people in your situation. Because how an individual responds to a disease, and vice versa, varies enormously. There are so many factors that make a difference to the outcome, from genetics to levels of health and fitness, to factors that we just don’t understand yet

I went on to have a series of major operations as well as two recurrences, but my worst fears are yet to be realised. I thank my lucky stars that I have come through this ordeal. So far, so good; for I am now over three years clear of cancer. I’m due another surveillance scan next month, but I expect that will be delayed. A year or so ago I ran into the same consultant again. He explained that he hadn’t expected me to live beyond the first two years and told me that my recovery had been ‘miraculous’.

I don’t know exactly what I’ve done, or not done, to have a better than expected outcome. I do my best to live well, eat healthily and keep fit. The poor old body has had a lot of surgery and there is plenty of scar tissue and physical limitation. But every morning I do a set of Pilates-type exercises. And each day I do some exercise in the outside world, either cycling or walking. I was told that my levels of health and fitness helped me to get through the series of major operations I had.

I don’t drink alcohol, not out of principle, it just doesn’t agree with me anymore. Besides, one of the major reasons why I used to drink, a stressful job, has gone as I took early retirement not long before I got cancer. I live surrounded by fields and farms, a relaxing environment with low levels of air pollution (apart from when the fields are being spread with slurry). But perhaps, most important of all, I am happily settled down with T in a loving relationship, and have been for the best part of seven years. This gives me enormous stability and great peace of mind. She is my rock and I cannot imagine life without her.




Saturday, 11 April 2020

Groundhog Days

I have a confession to make. I love watching films in the daytime. This began whilst I was a student; that escape from the bright and busy world into a darkened cinema to immerse myself in a story on the silver screen. And it has continued ever since. Indeed, it even intensified when I moved to Northern Ireland, for my office was a short walk from the front door of the Queen’s Film Theatre and I would regularly pop in. Under lockdown, I have been able to indulge myself as often as I wish, albeit on a smaller screen. Yesterday I saw a film that I hadn’t seen for decades and I was struck by the intriguing metaphor that it offered for these strange times. The film was Groundhog Day.

I expect you know the story. Egocentric and narcissistic TV weatherman, Phil (played by Bill Murray), is compelled to relive the same day over and over again in a small American town that he is desperate to escape from. The camera closes in repeatedly on the radio alarm-clock in his hotel room, which turns to 6 AM, and he wakes to the tune of ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny & Cher as the same day begins again. And despite whatever he does in each of these repeated days, every day begins and unfolds in exactly the same way. At first he is unbelieving; then he becomes exasperated. Later he exploits the situation by binge-eating and drinking, anti-social behaviour, seducing beautiful strangers and robbing a bank. After all of these excesses he ends up in despair. But even repeatedly committing suicide makes no difference. At 6 AM the radio alarm comes on and he wakes to the same day again.

Is this not somewhat like life under lockdown? I am stuck at home, like most others, and I have built up a routine that helps get me through the day. The outside world is threatening, with an unseen enemy, the coronavirus, that we fear we cannot escape from. Every day at 5 PM we are told what the deaths from the virus have been for that day. And the next day will be much the same. We have no idea when this lockdown will end, it could even intensify. Many people feel trapped. Our strategies for coping may include binge-eating and drinking or anti-social behaviour. We may develop depression. We may engage in self-harm. But, unlike the film, these actions will indeed have consequences for ourselves and for others.

Groundhog Day is a highly moral fable, for it is only when Phil actually changes and genuinely becomes a better person that he is able to escape the confines of his repeated reality and win the love of the fair maiden, Rita (played by Andie McDowell). Films are, of course, adult fairy-tales, and trade in archetypes that we know from reading the stories of Aesop or the Brothers Grimm as children.

But how does this moral fable translate to the coronavirus crisis? Well, there are plenty of unreconstructed Phil’s who have stockpiled guns and built electric fences around their homesteads. But, at the same time, there are many others who have gone out of their way to help people that are in need. For example, the many small community groups which have sprung up to help the old and vulnerable who are now stuck in their own homes; doing, amongst many other things, the shopping for the vulnerable and delivering it to their front door. The nub being that when we are less egocentric and more altruistic, when we reach out to help others, we actually end up helping ourselves too. Because giving something beyond ourselves does not just make a difference to the recipient, it also leaves the giver with a sense of purpose and of self-worth. In the end, these are qualities that the lockdown, by its very nature, seeks to take away from us.





Sunday, 5 April 2020

Essential Exercises

My post last week about gardening injuries was indeed prescient. I’ve developed a shoulder injury and T is exhausted. So the heavy gardening jobs that we were undertaking have been set aside. There remains plenty to do, but we are only working on lighter tasks for the time being. In the main we are resting, reading and going for local walks and bike rides.  

I’ve recently bought a Kindle and have downloaded a pile of classics from Project Gutenberg. I’m currently re-reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. T is reading plenty of gardening books, her favourite is Monty Don. We check the coronavirus news online once or perhaps twice a day. We have stopped watching the BBC news as it has become rather unbalanced in its reporting since the Government has put pressure on it via the license fee. In the evenings we usually watch a film that we have recorded from Film 4 or TPTV. We don’t subscribe to any pay channels.

We are content with our routine. And T is still working from home. We didn’t have a very active social life previously so we have managed to adjust to the lockdown so far without too many problems. We have each other and that is a great blessing. You can pretty much cope with anything when you have the one that you love by your side.

To protect me, T has taken on the ordeal of going to the shops once a week. She travels into the local town with mask and surgical gloves on and queues up outside Tesco to bring back our essential groceries. She is always very stressed when she returns and regales me with tales of people (often the young) who are paying scant attention to social distancing rules.

I rarely leave the house for anything other than exercise. Because there are far fewer vehicles about these days, I have taken to cycling on local roads that I would previously have avoided due to the heavy traffic. The main roads around here are certainly less hilly than the minor roads. But the surfaces of the main roads are often far worse than the minor roads. Cars are able to scoot along with most of the bumps being contained by shock absorbers. On a bike you feel all of the bumps and potholes. Furthermore, on a bike you are travelling at the side of the road where the surface is at its worst because the main road has been dug up repeatedly for work on cables and piping. On these bike rides I take all the food and water I need and stop for my breaks far away from people.

I have stopped going for bike rides along the canal towpath. It is flat and with a good surface, but since the lockdown has been introduced the towpath has become much more crowded than usual. Many more people are now travelling there for their essential exercise. I was a little worried by the groups of people with prams and the gangs of dog walkers, but I managed to give them a wide berth. But the runners were a different proposition. They came towards you puffing and panting, dispersing aerosols which you had no choice but to breathe in.

Today I was amused by Matt Hancock’s observation that sunbathing was not an essential exercise. Obviously, he has no knowledge of the climate of Northern Ireland. Sunbathing is only possible here for a couple of days a year. Whilst these hot days are very unpredictable, they certainly don’t happen in early April. And if you were unwise enough to strip off, the wind would cut through you like a knife.




Monday, 30 March 2020

The Perils of Lock-down

We’ve both fully recovered from the dose that we had. But we are still none the wiser about whether it might have been the dose. When the antibody test becomes available, we’re certainly going to take it. Until then, like the rest of the country, we’ve been in lock-down. For both of us this has meant a lot of hard work. I’ve been catching up on heavy jobs in the garden that had been neglected for several years (since my last major operation). T has been getting plants ready for her greenhouse. We threw ourselves into these tasks, perhaps as an antidote to the anxiety of the coronavirus. Little did we know that we were engaging in work that is more dangerous than skiing and rugby in terms of hospital admissions.

Our house is built on the side of a drumlin. We have a large raised border which extends across the rear of the house. The original owners filled this haphazardly with ornamental conifers and other shrubs. Over the intervening twenty five years these have grown into a veritable jungle that is both dense and tall. And because it is a raised border some of the trees now tower over the house and block the light, to the extent that we sometimes have to switch the lights on during the day.

I began by tackling the cypresses; there were six of these. Each had multiple slim branches growing straight up from the same low trunk. The largest cypress was about twelve feet tall and six feet wide. I began to cut out the tallest branches which were in the middle of the clump. The thinner ones could be cut with a large lopper, the thicker ones (3 inches or so in diameter) had to be sawed. This was rough work. I had to clamber through the border, part the outer branches and saw at an awkward angle with small branches scraping my arms. But when a dozen or so branches had been removed, the first cypress was thinner and shorter but still in roughly the same shape. Then I turned to the other five.

The two largest trees were ornamental spruces. These had been planted by the previous owners with no thought for how tall and wide they might become or whether a raised border behind the house was a suitable location. I tried to prune them, but they were too high (about 15 feet) and too dense for this to work. There was nothing else for it, they would have to go. I consulted my neighbour, who arrived with his chainsaw and helped to chop them down. The trunks were about a foot in diameter and I had to secure one with a rope to make sure it didn’t fall onto the greenhouse.

After a long hard day, we had a mountain of felled conifer but much more light for the house and greenhouse. I had stinging grazes on the inside of my forearms and a sore back. I also gained breathing problems (needing to use my inhaler for the first time in months), as one of the other conifers had discharged a cloud of white pollen in my face while I was trying to prune its neighbour. The revenge of Mother Nature?

The next day, T and I dragged all of the conifer branches to the corner of the garden and tossed them over the fence into the neighbouring field. This was heavy going and took several hours to do. We also collected all the dead branches from the lawn that had been brought down from the ash trees at the edge of the field by winter storms. We piled all of these branches up and I started a fire. There is something very therapeutic about a good bonfire. Perhaps it is a trace memory from our lives as hunter-gatherers or the cleansing ritual it represents (burning the debris of winter)? I wore a mask but still managed to inhale some smoke, so it was out with the inhaler again. The next job was mowing the lawn for the first time of the year. It took twice as long as usual.

According to official figures, around 100,000 people require hospital treatment for injuries sustained in gardening and DIY each year. Some 10% of these injuries are serious enough to require admission to hospital. The main culprits are machinery (especially lawnmowers), digging and falls. After our first week of lock-down labour, we’ve gained aching joints, sore muscles, multiple grazes and wheezing lungs. Last night we were so tired that we fell into bed at 9.30pm. Given the risks, we seem to have got off lightly so far. Although, as the lock-down is set to continue for months rather than weeks, only time will tell.




Saturday, 21 March 2020

Coronavirus Symptoms and Advice

Over the past week, we’ve both had a mild headache, a sore-throat and fatigue. These symptoms were intermittent, with occasional hot flushes. Mostly we just felt under the weather. We took our temperatures and found that they were normal. We didn’t have a cough or any breathing difficulties. So we put this down to a strange seasonal cold that persisted without really developing. We took it easy and carried on with our social distancing.

Two days ago, T found (quite by chance) that the previous week she had been in contact with a person who was now at home with the same symptoms. However, the week before, this person had come into contact with several visitors from France and Spain. This person didn’t have a cough or fever, but had been advised by NHS 111 to self-isolate for a week as a precaution. We were shocked. Did we all have covid-19? None of us knew. We certainly didn’t have the key symptoms. But, disturbingly, there was no way of finding out. The NHS wasn’t going to test any of us unless we became seriously ill.

There are already high levels of stress and anxiety about the coronavirus, and the great uncertainty about whether we are (or were) positive has added significantly to ours. Importantly, if we had lived just 30 miles south of here (in the Republic of Ireland) we would have been tested and, if necessary, our contacts traced.

The Government coronavirus advice focuses on those who have moderate symptoms (fever and persistent cough). A fever is defined as a temperature of 100 degrees F or higher, which means you will be feeling very unwell. Under these circumstances, you are going to want to stay at home and be in bed anyway, because you won’t feel able to do much else. Thus, the Government advice seems to be targeting an extreme minority of people who consider that it might be sensible to go out into the world with a high fever.

The Government coronavirus advice pays no real attention to mild symptoms. These mild symptoms are not described, nor is any advice given about what to do in the event of getting them. The only comment that is made is that most people will only get mild symptoms.

Why doesn’t the Government advise people who have mild viral symptoms of any sort to self-isolate for a week? This failure, allied to the lack of community testing, generates an extremely serious problem. People with mild viral symptoms are still infectious. Indeed, these are exactly the people who are more likely to try and carry on with their normal lives, and in so doing come into contact with plenty of other people.

From a medical perspective, you focus on the most unwell and pay little attention to the less afflicted. However, from a public health perspective, you also need to consider the impact of those you are not focusing on. In an epidemic, neglecting those with mild symptoms will surely lead to the coronavirus spreading more widely and rapidly.

Because it has been a week since the symptoms first appeared, we no longer need to self-isolate. We feel okay, but the worry hasn’t gone. In fact, given the news from Italy, it looks like it’s all going to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.




Sunday, 15 March 2020

Social Distancing

As I am in a high-risk category, over 60 and having recently had surgery on my lungs, we have been paying close attention to the health advice on Covid-19. In recent days we have stocked up and now we have enough basic supplies in the house to last us for a week or so. It was a disturbing experience to go to the local Tesco supermarket and find the shelves empty of staples such as bread, meat, potatoes and vegetables. We didn’t witness any fights over the last tin of beans or jar of chutney. But people were very stressed and fearful. Thankfully, the next day the store was fully stocked as usual.

T is working from home. She is delighted not to have the long drive to and from work anymore. I took early retirement a decade ago, so this is my norm. As we live in the country, surrounded by fields and farms, we normally have to make an effort to meet people. Over the past week, we’ve been minimising our contacts. For others, of course, this is not so easy.

Staying at home hasn't been a great ordeal for us so far. We have plenty of things to be getting on with. I began to prune the back hedge. It hadn’t been cut for three years, due to the last operation which opened my chest. So the hedge had grown by about six feet. After an hour of lopping my arms and shoulders were aching, but there was still plenty of hedge to cut. T has a new greenhouse to fill with seeds and plants.

Going forward, all of the main things we were intending to do this month have been cancelled anyway. I had been booked to read my poetry in Galway. And T had planned to visit her elderly mother, who is now isolating at home and getting her food delivered.

As we are doing plenty of reading and writing, we have time to ponder. I’ve been working on my poetry manuscript for a while. It is now in its fifth iteration, with a new set of poems in a new order under a new title. Unfortunately, I continue to collect rejections from publishers. Roger Robinson, the recent winner of the TS Eliot prize, said that early in his career he was told not to worry too much until he got over 30 rejections. I believe William Golding got over 40 rejections for ‘Lord of the Flies’. By these measures, I still have some way to go.

Another issue to ponder is the underlying reason for the UK being so different in its approach to the Covid-19 pandemic to most other countries. Surely they are all looking at the same scientific evidence about the disease. So the reason for the difference in strategy must be political. Perhaps it is because the NHS is under-prepared for the scale of the outbreak. This would not be unexpected after a decade of underfunding and understaffing. Matt Hancock’s recent appeal for ventilators would seem to give some credence to this theory. Furthermore, the decision to test only those who are already seriously ill means that the size of the outbreak in the UK is being massively underreported.

There is also the issue of confidence in the leadership during this crisis. Boris Johnson has long admired Winston Churchill. And here is a situation of great challenge and adversity that requires a Churchillian response. But, however much he might try, Johnson exudes all the gravitas of a marshmallow. He seems to be inveterately shallow and evasive. I’d trust him to be in charge of a TV panel-game, but little else.




Saturday, 29 February 2020

Seasonal Affective Disorders

Since our return from Lanzarote, the weather here has been dreadful: gales, rain, sleet, snow and floods. The bad weather has been relentless, day upon awful day.  After two weeks of unbroken warmth and sunshine, the re-entry into the winter of Northern Ireland was always going to be difficult. But this year it has felt much worse than usual, the weather having thrown down a challenge that even the Stoics would have found troubling.

A friend of mine told me that he and his family had only been on a winter holiday to the Canary Islands once. And that had been over twenty years ago. So why had they not gone on such a holiday since, I asked? Because after a week of lovely sunshine, the return to the winter of Northern Ireland had been so terrible that it had taken them several months to get over it. They decided not to put themselves through that ordeal again.

I knew exactly what he meant. They had gained a few days of summer but this delicious experience had then been painfully curtailed by the relentless wet and cold of winter. Emotionally, the continuing darkness and depression of winter was easier to bear without your hopes being raised and then dashed by a fleeting glimpse of summer.

This would seem to explain why a number of people we met at the hotel in Lanzarote had extended their time there, year on year. One couple from Newcastle told us that last year they had come for one month and this year they had doubled it. Another woman from Leeds told us that she came each year on the first of January and didn’t go back home until the first of May.

A Canadian I met some years ago said something similar. He was a successful businessman and had bought a flat (condominium) in Florida for winter holidays to escape the deep cold of Canada. Over time their winter holidays in Florida got longer and longer until they were only going back to Canada for the summer. Eventually, the summers in Canada got to feel cool and they sold their house there and moved to Florida.

When we returned home from Lanzarote we put the central heating on continuously for the first few days. Outside it was blowing a gale and snowing. I complained to everyone I met about the weather. Most shrugged with resignation. What do you expect, one said? It’s winter.

It took me quite a few days to be able to try a bike ride. I wrapped up in four layers of clothing and pedalled hard to get the blood flowing to hands and feet. Although the sun was shining when I set off, squally showers came in on the strong wind and during the ride I had rain, sleet and snow. Luckily I found shelter in barns to escape several of the showers but the last one caught me about five miles from home. I decided to press on through it. The temperature went down to 1 degree C and I was drenched and shivering by the time I got in. After a warm shower and hot tea with dunked ginger nuts, I perked up.

The next morning I sat down at the computer and began to search travel sites. Before the day was out I had booked two weeks in Mallorca for a cycling holiday.



Sunday, 16 February 2020

An Island of Deserts and Volcanoes

We’ve just returned from Lanzarote. It was our first visit there and it won’t be the last. You can, of course, rely on winter sunshine of 18-24 degrees C. But the island has so much more; the interior holds white-walled villages amidst a starkly beautiful volcanic landscape. We stayed in a small hotel in Costa Teguise, made up of three dozen apartments that surrounded a kidney-shaped pool. When we looked out from our balcony each morning we could see the hotel staff cleaning the pool. We stayed half-board and were delighted with the range of local dishes available for dinner. We also became quite addicted to the Spanish practice of cake (almond, apple or lemon) at breakfast.

I brought my bike with me and explored much of the island on two wheels. The main resorts are on the coast, but traditionally people lived inland to escape attacks from pirates. The centre of the island is a plateau at around a thousand feet, dotted with small white-walled villages that host traditional markets. They are surrounded by a range of volcanoes that rise to about two thousand feet. The landscape is desertified and exposed to the wind, which is constant and can be very strong. Succulents and cacti are common; trees are rare, although you do find palm trees and the odd eucalyptus and acacia tree in the villages.

The last big volcanic eruption was in 1824 and great swathes of the island are covered in lava. Strangely enough, when this lava is broken up into very small pieces it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere and supports the cultivation of vines on the hillsides. However, the vines need to grow behind little walls or in pits to protect them from the ever-present wind.

I did some great rides through the lava fields and vineyards, explored sleepy villages and managed the long climb to the Mirador del Rio, a fantastic viewpoint at 1600 feet above sea level. Not bad for an old geezer. The island is much favoured by triathletes for winter training. On the ascents I was regularly overtaken by groups of riders from the Netherlands and Germany. But the descents were fast and I would often be able to catch them up at a cafe stop in the next village (menta poleo tea being my favoured drink).

T preferred reading and writing at the pool or visiting the markets. We spent a good part of each day beside the pool, either me joining T after a ride (which I did on alternate days) or both of us taking it easy in the afternoon following one of our trips out. I would lie on my back in the water and look up at the blue sky with hardly a cloud and the fronds of the palm trees swirling in the wind. On the sun lounger I read ‘Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither’ by Sara Baume, a very well written but sad Irish novel, and an entertaining Jo Nesbo thriller.

It was my birthday whilst we were away. When we came down to dinner we found that the maitre-d had prepared a special table for us, with flowers, candles and a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. It was a very nice touch from an extremely friendly and hospitable hotel. We met several people who were staying there for months on end. On the plane we talked about returning for longer next year. And after I had to walk across the tarmac at Belfast International Airport in my shorts in a howling gale with sleet at just 1 degree C, I was convinced that it was a great plan.  



Monday, 13 January 2020

The Big Wind

As I write, Storm Brendan is battering this island. Gusts of wind of 90mph have been recorded on the Cork coast. Some 50,000 people are currently without power, although this number is expected to rise as the storm continues. Met Eireann have issued an orange warning (a threat to life and property) and recommend that people avoid travelling. My dearest T is battened down in the North West with the curtains closed as the wind howls outside, threatening to lift the tiles off the roof.

Yet in a couple of clicks we can look at a live weather map and see that the centre of the storm is several hundred miles off the west coast and that it is tracking towards the north east. Few of us are likely to think that the storm is of Divine origin and a harbinger of the Day of Judgement. But this was exactly what many people thought on 6 January 1839 when The Big Wind struck this island.

The day before the storm was unusually warm and windless. People were preparing for the Feast of Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, to celebrate the coming of the Magi. By sunset the wind had risen and rain began to fall. By midnight, the island was in the grip of a ferocious hurricane that roared like an animal. The storm hit the west coast so hard that the thunder of the ocean could be heard many miles inland and waves actually broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher (500 feet above sea level).

As the storm intensified, the wind began to rip the roofs off houses. Thatch was blown away; chimneys, slates, timbers and other debris were hurled to the ground. Trees were uprooted everywhere. Stone buildings collapsed, factories and barracks were destroyed. Fires erupted in the streets of many towns. All of the water was blown out of the canal in Tuam. Sheep and cattle died in droves.

Many people sought what little shelter they could find from the wind and hailstones in hollows and behind hedges. The immediate death toll was around 800. Most killed by falling debris. Many others later succumbed to pneumonia. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless.

The forecast tells us that Storm Brendan will abate this evening and by tomorrow it will be gone and we can pick up the pieces and get on with our lives. Hopefully, no-one will be killed. Some repairs could be needed, but contemporary houses rarely collapse in storms. In a day or so power will probably be restored to those who lost it. In 1839 the homeless and destitute only had the workhouse to turn to, if it was still standing. If not a harbinger of the Day of Judgement, then The Big Wind was certainly a precursor of a decade of famine.