Saturday, 27 February 2021

About The Skylark's Call

The Honest Ulsterman asked me to write an article describing how my latest collection came into being and the rationale behind the book. As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a long story. I wrote it from the heart, in the style of a piece for this blog. My article has now been published in the journal ( I reproduce the text below, with thanks to the editor. I hope you find it illuminating. Please let me know what you think.

"Exactly ten years separate my first and second collections of poetry. This long time-span wasn’t deliberate. It was unavoidable.

My new collection, The Skylark’s Call, explores memories and meanings at the borderland between life and death. I was catapulted into that strange and complex territory just a few months after the launch of my debut collection, Latch. It was Good Friday 2011 and I had spent a sleepless night on a trolley in A&E at the City Hospital, Belfast. The doctor pulled the curtain around my bed and told me straight. I had Stage 3 cancer. The tumour had grown most of the way from my kidney to my heart. I shrank into the sheets, unable to speak.

I endured a month in hospital being prepared for a very big operation that might save my life. Bad news travels extremely fast. Family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen for decades, came long distances to see me. Between visiting times I moped, gazing at people who were walking unconcernedly along the pavements below.  The hospital offered access to the internet, so I was able to cancel my reading tour of Ireland and England from my bed.

The big operation took around eight hours and involved three teams of surgeons. I needed three blood transfusions and spent a week in intensive care and the high dependency unit. I was sedated and have few memories of these days. Afterwards my doctors told me that my health and fitness had got me through the ordeal. They also told me that they expected the cancer to return and spread. They concluded that I would be lucky to live beyond two years. Unable to cope with this prognosis, my partner left me.

Back home, I sat in an armchair and stared out at summer clouds scudding over the horizon. I was truly alone. My situation seemed hopeless and I felt helpless. Somehow, from these depths I was able to reach out. I saw a counsellor from Cancer Focus. Her support got me through the darkest of these early days.

My life had become stark and simplified. I realised that there were lots of things I wasn’t going to be doing again in the time that remained. Writing poetry was just one of them. Instead, I began to revisit places across these islands that I had loved, and looked up old friends that I hadn’t seen for decades. I was sort of paying my last respects.

At the same time, I desperately wanted to go back to where and who I was before. But all of my efforts were doomed, for these options had been removed. I had an exhausting whirl of conflicting emotions. I could only go on as best I could. Death was no longer a remote possibility. It walked beside me at every step. I could smell and taste it. I had to learn to live with this very present threat.

My new life was intensely stressful, filled with anxiety and fear. But it was also strangely liberating, for normal life could not be maintained and continued in the face of this threat. The peculiar borderland that I was in had an odd mix of dark and light, it was a place of vulnerability and of vitality.

It took me well over a year to recover from that big operation. I spent a lot of time on the internet. I found a blog by an American cancer patient which expressed exactly how I was feeling. He described himself as a ‘survivor’ and wrote openly about his cancer experience and how it was affecting his life. I corresponded with him. He told me he was trying to gain a small measure of empowerment over a deeply disempowering disease. This struck a chord with me. I decided to begin my own blog. I called it ‘Writing to Survive’, with the sub-title ‘writing from the here and now’. Since then, I have written a weekly blog describing what was happening with me and how I was feeling about it. My blog has hundreds of regular readers and has gained many accolades.

As time went on, I could find no inspiration to write poetry. Instead, I set myself little writing challenges. Like picking a word at random from the dictionary and trying to write a poem around it. For an experiment, I also tried to write poems that were stimulated by real-life stories I came across in news media. They weren’t found poems. The story was the jumping off point into a poem. But the poem also remained grounded in the story. They were separate but connected. I had begun to write poetry in a new and different register and I was enjoying it.

My two year anniversary came and went. I was getting regular surveillance scans, which showed that the cancer hadn’t returned. The fear was at times overwhelming but it didn’t stop me from trying new things. I was learning to live in the borderland. I returned to the Writers’ Group at the Seamus Heaney Centre and presented my new poems. The late Ciaran Carson was very encouraging and christened them my ‘discovered poems’. Looking back, I see that I was particularly attracted to real-life stories of loss and also those of rediscovery. I began to submit these poems to competitions and journals, with some success.

To mark the third anniversary of my big operation I went to my first literary event since 2010. On the first day of the John Hewitt Summer School, I met the woman who was to become my wife. It must have been written in the stars, for my dearest T was attending the event for the very first time. We went on holiday to Orkney, staying with a friend I hadn’t seen since I was nine years old. We explored Neolithic settlements, burial chambers and standing stones, marvelled at the Italian Chapel and got spectacularly close to plenty of wildlife. It was an inspiring trip that stimulated plenty of new poems.

Despite our hoping against hope, my doctors were eventually proved correct. My cancer returned in 2015 and again in 2016. What’s more, it had spread to the right side of my abdomen and my liver. I had advanced cancer and was given another poor prognosis, this time of just one year. My dearest T stood by me throughout the three major operations I needed.

I ended up spending a series of weeks in four different NI hospitals. I could write the Trip Advisor reports for each. The Royal and the Mater were excellent, but I’d have to mark the City down for putting me on a saline drip for twelve days without any food. Due to this, I had to spend Christmas Day 2015 on the ward. My dearest T decorated my bed with fairy lights and tinsel. The nurses called it Santa’s Grotto.

Cancer is a very hard taskmaster. I’ve gained so many scars on my torso that I could be a body double for a pirate without the need for make-up. After my last big operation, I had to rest sitting up in bed for three months and drink liquid morphine every couple of hours to get through the night. I had my cold turkey during Christmas 2017, and I’m not referring to the festive food.

Despite all of this, I think the physical pain of cancer treatment is easier to cope with than the mental stress of living with the threat of recurrence and death. This fear rises and falls in intensity, but it never actually goes away. I’ve been clear of cancer for four years now. But the type of cancer I had has been known to recur even twenty years later. So I will be living in the borderland for the rest of my life.

Looking back on my journey thus far, I know that I’ve gained much more than I’ve lost. I’ve learned to live in the here and now. I’ve learned to do what matters, and to do it as well as I can. I’ve learned not to waste time and energy on what doesn’t matter. I’ve found a resilience that got me through some serious ordeals. I travel hopefully but remain vigilant.

I’ve weathered a sea change in my life. And through it I’ve become a more developed person and a more developed writer too. I’m now more appreciative of what I do have, more aware of my strengths and limitations, more understanding of others and more open and honest.

After recuperating from my years of treatment, I took stock of the poems I’d written since 2013. What began as a creative trickle had built into a steady flow. There were well over a hundred new poems. Twenty three had won awards in competitions in Ireland, the UK and the USA. Fifty had been published, some of them in highly-regarded literary journals in Europe, North America and the UK.

I recall the late Ciaran Carson describing the meaning and rationale of a collection as something that emerges over time. You write a poem because you are inspired by something that fires your imagination. It is only when you begin to put a number of poems together that the themes which interconnect these pieces of writing can start to appear. And it may be some time before you are able to discern these relationships and underlying meanings. They are likely to not have been apparent to you at the time of writing the poems themselves.

Over some eighteen months I went through a good number of iterations of my second collection and tried a range of different titles. Special thanks are due to the late Ciaran Carson, Moyra Donaldson and Damian Smyth for their feedback. As Lagan Press had stopped publishing collections some years previously, I needed to find a new home for my work. Roger Robinson, the winner of the TS Eliot Prize 2019, said that after his manuscript got dozens of rejections from publishers, he was told to hone his craft and keep trying. I followed this excellent advice. Despite the rejections I received, I kept improving my manuscript and early last year my collection was taken by Dempsey & Windle, an independent publisher based in England.

The Skylark’s Call comprises fifty-two poems. Around a third of these are autobiographical. Only two of them are concerned with my cancer treatment. Some poems are mythic, some spiritual, some historical, some geo-political, and some are environmental. About half of the poems in the book are ‘discovered poems’. The poems span four continents and seven millennia, for the human condition is timeless and universal. All of the poems are in some way concerned with memories and meanings at the complex borderland between life and death. Together they explore the vitality and vulnerability of everyday life.

The poems that make up this collection are of course informed by my experience over the past decade. During that time I have been a cancer patient and a survivor. But that does not define me, nor does it define the scope of the collection. The emotional substance of my life over the past decade has been wide ranging and extremely diverse. The changes that have taken place in me as a person and as a writer are considerable in their scale and in their horizons. The scope and character of my new collection reflects this.

I began this period not expecting to survive beyond two years. I didn’t think I would write poetry again and I certainly never imagined that I would complete a second collection. I learned to live for each day. I’m of course delighted that these and plenty more good things have come to pass. Life has so many and varied ways of surprising us.

The Skylark’s Call was launched two months ago. It seems to have struck a chord with many readers and sales have been brisk. Enthusiastic comments about the poems have been posted on social media. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic has played a part, for the territory that the collection explores is one that we are all now having to deal with."

The Skylark’s Call is available to purchase from Dempsey & Windle

Paul Jeffcutt is offering readers personalised signed copies of the book

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Birthday Carriage

I had a lovely birthday yesterday. My dearest T went to great lengths to make it very special. I began by opening cards and presents. I received plenty of good wishes from family and friends. I got books, vouchers and an illuminated manuscript created by a retired monk. Later on there would be a three course dinner from a restaurant, cake and candles, the full works. But first, T took me to a secret assignation that she had arranged. The journey was mysterious. We drove into the hills between our house and the Mournes. After a while we turned into the yard of a remote farm. I was gobsmacked to encounter a carriage and two horses.

We were introduced to Fred and Navi, two six year old geldings, by Liz and Mervyn. I patted both horses on the neck and they nodded their welcome. The carriage was magnificent: shiny black wood with silver detailing, four great spoked wheels, a bench seat for the driver and a rear step for the postillion. It was a replica of a landau from 1780. Fred and Navi were harnessed. Mervyn opened the carriage door. We stepped up and into the plush red interior. There were two bench seats. We sat on either side, glancing out of the open windows. Liz took her place as the postillion. Mervyn cracked the whip. Fred and Navi shook their heads. The carriage jerked forwards and we were away.

There is something magnificent about the sound of a horse’s hooves. We clip-clopped along misty back lanes. From the carriage, we could see over hedges. Animals in the fields ran towards us excitedly. Apparently, even wild animals would stop and stare. Fred and Navi trotted along, panting a little on the slopes. The misty air was suffused with the beat of their hooves. We had gone back in time. It could have been 1780. I imagined that we were on a journey to the local town. I kept expecting us to be stopped by a highwayman.

Horsepower, or Shank’s pony, was how most people had travelled until the last century. For thousands of years the world had been arranged around the speed of a horse. By carriage that would be ten miles in an hour. And you would be stopping every twenty miles or so at a coaching inn to change the horses. You would glad of a break too. For even with rubber edged wheels and a tarmac road, the landau jolted around a good bit.

My father always loved horses. My grandfather had a milk round. As a boy, my father led the horse around village lanes doing deliveries, until he ran away from home aged fifteen to join the army. At that time, the army still relied on horses. Many army units only became mechanised in the run up to the second world war. My father fought in tanks across the Western desert, until he was captured and became a POW. After the war he left the army and worked in a number of factory jobs. Horses remained his love. Although, with a wife and three kids, he couldn’t afford to keep a horse as well.

Our hour in the carriage was so special. All too soon we were back at the yard. Fred and Navi were unharnessed and were champing at the bit for something to eat. We patted them and made our farewells to Liz and Mervyn. We’d highly recommend L & M Carriage Driving. Heading back home in our car, I reflected on what I really liked about cycling. It was the wind on your face as you travelled through the world at a slower pace, fully part of your surroundings. On a long day out, I would plan my cycle routes on an average of ten miles an hour, including stops for food and drink. That was a horse’s pace. I realised that for me cycling was the nearest thing to riding a horse.

Friday, 29 January 2021

The Vaccination

Due to my recent medical history I have been classified as clinically vulnerable and put on the shielding list. I was thus due to get the covid-19 vaccine early, along with the over 75’s. All of this month, I’ve been waiting for a call from my GP to come in and get the jab. But I heard nothing. On the practice website it says don’t ask when the vaccination is going to happen because they won’t tell you. On Wednesday evening, T spotted that the regional vaccination centres had just opened for online bookings from the over 65’s. I jumped at the chance.

The online booking process was a bit tortuous. You had to fill out a series of webforms, get an activation code sent to you by email and answer odd questions about a picture that was displayed for you. I had to go through the loop twice before I succeeded at getting in to the appointments diary. The process took about half an hour and could well have caused problems for someone less technically adept. But the good news was that they had appointments the next afternoon at my nearest vaccination centre. At the same time, I was automatically given an appointment for the second dose.

I drove to Craigavon in the pouring rain and found the South Lake Leisure Centre. The vaccinations were taking place in the main hall. I checked in at the desk with my photo ID. They asked me a series of questions, one of which was about allergies. I admitted that I was mildly allergic to the contrast solution that is injected before CT scans. This meant I was taken to one side by Sister and questioned further. Happily, I was allowed to proceed to a waiting area with twenty plastic chairs set out in rows, two metres apart. To my left was a basketball court. To my right was a line of dividers, screening off the rest of the hall.

After about five minutes, I was told to wipe down my chair with an antiseptic cloth and I was beckoned to come through a break in the dividers into the next area. Taped crosses were set out two metres apart on the floor and I stood in a queue in front of another set of room dividers. After a short while, a man in a mask and plastic apron beckoned me forward. I followed him through a gap in the dividers. He told me his name was Andrew and motioned me to a sit beside a desk.

Andrew was a retired nurse who had come in to help out with the vaccinations. He was from Glasgow and we chatted about the city as he got the paperwork out. He asked me a series of medical questions and marked my answers on a two page form. At the end he gave it to me to sign. It was the consent form for the vaccination. Then he jabbed me. After that I had to sit in another socially distanced waiting area for 15 minutes to see if there was any reaction. And then I could go home.

I thanked Andrew and the Sister before leaving. It had all been so well organised. I was delighted to have been given the Pfizer vaccine, instead of the Oxford one (with the questions about its efficacy for the over 65’s). The only concern I had was that the appointment for my second dose was ten weeks ahead and no-one knew if the immunity from the first dose would last beyond a month. I felt no ill effects that evening and slept soundly. This morning I woke to a sore left arm where the jab had been. No matter, that was just the vaccine beginning to work.

At this time last year we were about to go on holiday to Lanzarote. We returned to the beginnings of the coronavirus crisis. Over six million people in the UK have now received a first dose of vaccine. I’m very glad to be one of them. Fingers crossed that this will prove to be the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.

Sunday, 17 January 2021


My first wife, Gill, died thirty four years ago today. She was 27 years old. Gill died in an accident. It was just two weeks after we moved in to our new house. Although it was a long time ago, the shock of what happened then has never left me.  I was catapulted into a very dark place, which I was lucky to survive.  I recall standing at the parapet of a bridge above a river estuary. The voice inside my head was telling me that I could end the unbearable pain so very easily. I stared into the swirling water far below. Then I stepped back and walked away.

I chose life. But it was a very hard road. My boss, rather than being understanding, heaped extra duties upon me.  I ended up losing my job and the house too. My new job was 500 miles north, in Scotland. I moved and started afresh, where I knew no-one. Soon I met another woman. She was completely unlike Gill. That seemed a good thing, at the time. Myfanwy urged me to move in to her flat. Despite misgivings, I did. We settled down together. The relationship was competitive rather than supportive. I put a lot of energy into my work and got promoted.

With her encouragement, I began to apply for better jobs elsewhere. One of these was in Belfast. I came for the interview and was offered the job. We found an expensive flat on the Malone Road to rent. I moved in first. She was to join me several months later. Then, one Friday evening, I got a phone call. Myfanwy told me that she wasn’t coming to Belfast. She had found another man and was leaving me.

I crumpled. Great racking sobs convulsed me. I was howling. I ached all over. I rang a friend in England to tell him. I could hardly speak. Phil was so worried about me, he got on a plane and came over straight away. I spent the weekend keening. I hadn’t felt that sort of pain since Gill’s death. Some time later, I realised that I wasn’t crying for the loss of Myfanwy, but for Gill. The intervening eleven years had put a sticking plaster over the wound, and that had been torn away.

The catharsis was a turning point. In the time that followed, I made some important decisions about my life. I also began to write poetry again. I took a writing class at the Crescent Arts Centre and joined a writers’ group. I left the flat, bought a wee house in the country and settled down. After plenty of twists and turns, many of which have been discussed in this blog, I met my dearest T. And for me, it has truly been third time lucky.

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Counting my Blessings

'It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’ The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, comes to mind for 2020. Despite this year being blighted by Covid 19, many good things came to pass for me. I am truly blessed to be married to the wonderful T. We have been together for seven and a half years, and our relationship is still getting better. We both were married before and know exactly how difficult ordinary life can be with the wrong people. During my treatment for advanced cancer, my dearest T was with me, every step of the way. She made a huge difference to this ordeal. I don’t think I could have survived it without her.

My second blessing is to be in good health. I am now four years clear of cancer. But I’m not counting my chickens just yet. The type of cancer I had has been known to recur even twenty years later. I travel hopefully, but remain vigilant (at times, hyper-vigilant). And this year, I’ve been doing plenty of that travelling by bike. The first lockdown was very good for cyclists with far fewer cars on the roads. I built up my strength and fitness to be able to regularly ride 150-200 miles a week. In August I rode 101 miles in one day. The furthest I had cycled in one go since 1998.

My third blessing is to be writing consistently. During my years of treatment and recovery I was writing very sporadically. This year I have been writing regularly and it has resulted in me finishing my second collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call, and finding a publisher. Roger Robinson, the winner of the TS Eliot Prize 2019, said that after he got dozens of rejections from publishers, he was told to hone his craft and keep trying. I followed this excellent advice. Despite each rejection, I kept improving the manuscript and early this year my collection was taken by Dempsey & Windle. I’d like to thank all of those who helped me along the way, with special mentions going to Damian Smyth, Moyra Donaldson and the late Ciaran Carson. But, unlike Father Ted, who in his acceptance speech for the Golden Cleric award, also listed everyone who had caused him trouble, ‘and now, I move on to liars’, I won’t be mentioning any of those.

When I’d finalised the poetry manuscript and sent it to the publisher, I began to write a story. All I had to start with was one character and a setting. But I wrote every day and the story grew and grew. After three months of getting up early and scribbling away, I had 155,000 words and the first draft of a novel. Now that The Skylark’s Call has been launched, my next project will be to turn my first draft into something publishable. I’d never really tried to write a novel before. It just goes to show what is possible if you turn up every day and keep working at it.

My fourth blessing is to have remained free of the virus (indeed, any virus, as I haven’t caught a cold or the ‘flu either). Given my medical history, I was put on the shielding list. And I haven’t visited a cafe, restaurant or pub since February.  But I’m not complaining. Somehow I don’t think the generations that experienced the war and rationing would regard this as much of a hardship. Indeed, living with the threat of a fatal disease for the past ten years has prepared me well for this new threat. My resilience was able to rise to the challenge and like most people I adapted to the covid protocols for daily life. But no-one enjoys having to cope with an unavoidable extra burden. So I’m looking forward to getting the vaccine and being able to live a fuller life in 2021.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Christmas Wishes

At this winter festival we not only celebrate the solstice but also the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, a celestial event which has not taken place for 400 years. I’ve cut sprays of conifer, holly and ivy, gathered them together and tied them to the brass knob of the front door. This morning we brought our living Christmas Tree from the back yard and put it pride of place in the front room. We’ve lit candles, set our handmade German Christmas ornaments on the mantlepiece and as the sun sets we sit in front of the fire with two glasses of well-matured sloe gin.

My toast is to my wife, the wonderful T. We have been together for seven and a half years now, and we are happier and more contented than we have ever been. She is the most warm-hearted and generous person I have ever met. She has great emotional intelligence. She is witty, resourceful, clever, hard-working and ever dependable. She is everything to me. I am truly blessed.

Soon we will sit down to the first dinner of our winter feast. There will be just the two of us. But that will not matter. We will pull crackers, put on party hats, laugh at the cheesy jokes and raise a glass to absent family and friends. I hope that many of you will have something that is very much like this.

But not everyone is able to be at home. In 2015, I was in Belfast City Hospital having had emergency surgery to remove a large tumour from my abdomen. After nine days of ‘nil by mouth’, the first meal I was given was the Hospital’s Christmas dinner. T came in to the ward and brought me presents and her warm smile. But she also brought small gifts for the doctors and nurses who had to be on duty. However you are spending Christmas this year, may you have love, warmth and good cheer.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Launch Video and Open Reading

I was delighted to be joined by many family members, friends old and new, and colleagues at the launch of my new collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call. The splendid gathering was hosted by my publisher Dempsey & Windle. I wished it all could have taken place in a local bookshop, with glasses of wine in our hands. But in these difficult days, the launch had to be done by Zoom. On the other hand, it did mean that friends from England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales could attend.

It was an honour to be joined by guest readers Moyra Donaldson, Kevin Higgins, Maureen Hill, John Knowles, Mary Montague and Damian Smyth. The Zoom chat was full of glowing comments about the readings; a great time was had by all it seems. My publisher has recorded part of the launch and posted it on YouTube. You can find the video here

The Skylark’s Call has now flown far and wide. Thank you very much to everyone who has bought a copy. A writer needs an audience, and a book needs readers. Many thoughtful comments on my poems have already been made by readers. I’m delighted to receive them. Please continue to let me know what you think about the collection.

You can still get signed copies of The Skylark’s Call, with a personalised dedication, at And for every copy that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus NI.

My final event of the year is to feature at the Over The Edge Open Reading, which comes live from Galway. This highly-regarded monthly gathering, hosted by Susan DuMars and Kevin Higgins, takes place on Thursday 17 December at 6.30pm. I'm very much looking forward to it. Please join me. The Zoom details are attached. There are open-mike reading slots available too.