Monday, 31 December 2012

The Blessing of Paradox

One year ago I posted 'Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness' by John O'Donohue. I had just joined a cancer support group and one of the members quoted these lines from it:
            'you feel that against your will
             a stranger has married your heart.
             Nothing before has made you
             feel so isolated and lost.'

There were murmurs of recognition and nods of assent from around the room. These startling words captured where I was with the illness perfectly. I went home and found the whole of the blessing on the internet. I read it again and again, all of its first half spoke to me very powerfully:

            'Now your time on earth becomes full of threat;
             before your eyes your future shrinks.'

I must admit that I found the second half of the blessing quite incomprehensible. For example, I should seek a way 'to embrace this illness as a teacher who has come to open my life to new worlds'! What in hell was he on about?

I knew what I wanted: exactly the opposite. To be rid of the illness as soon as possible, so that I could return to the relative safety of who and where I was before the diagnosis. My world had become so very dark and difficult. I had a long, red post-operative scar down the centre of my torso, stretching from neck to groin. Every day I had to face the prospect of my own death. I certainly didn’t need any 'new age' claptrap to add to my pain and confusion.

            'May you use this illness
             as a lantern to illuminate
             the new qualities that will emerge in you.'

            'Fuck, fuck, fuck', I shouted: 'give me a break!'

But, strangely enough, something like this now seems to have happened. I'm still not exactly sure how. I do know it's been a very hard journey that's taken the best part of a year thus far. I also recognise that I had much further to descend into the slough of despond before I was able to begin to recover. And herein lies an important paradox.

It seems to me now that within the very power of the illness, its overwhelming ability to break you, to sever your grip on who and where you used to be, there also lies the seeds of healing, the resources for rebuilding and growth. The veritable treasure of darkness.

To John O'Donohue, this is a journey of faith (not necessarily the progress of a pilgrim) and belief (not necessarily in a higher power). He describes it as a journey of faith in your own possibilities, a journey of belief in becoming and emergence within yourself. A journey 'to release whatever has become false in you'. A journey of learning and revaluing 'to become more fully yourself'.

Such a journey is of course a struggle. For becoming is, by its very nature, ambiguous and uncertain. Furthermore, it is pursued between the heavy pull of opposites (for we come to know light in relation to darkness, and vice versa) so the journey is filled with paradox.

For me this journey has been a huge ordeal. I'm strong, resourceful and was determined to escape from my situation and find my way back to before. Stress, fear and sleeplessness were my companions, until it dawned on me that the journey I was trying so hard to make was unavailable. A terrible realisation. I felt consumed by the shadows of death. Then, very slowly, I began to discover that the different life and self I did have wasn't necessarily worse: indeed in some ways it could actually be better.

As John O'Donohue perceptively observes, the struggle of becoming takes place over the span of each day, in which you are trying to 'bring this night-wound gradually towards the healing and freedom of dawn.' We all have been there and will again be there, our struggles rising and falling over the journey of a human life.

I'm still finding my way: doing my best to accept where I am, to value it differently and even to enjoy it. I know that I cant go back to who and where I was before. Indeed, I wouldn’t want to. I'm now more fully myself than I have ever been. A patchwork of strengths and limitations: sure. A work in progress: of course. And long may that journey go on.

Sadly, just two months after his 'Book of Blessings' was published, John O'Donohue died suddenly (in his sleep) aged 52.

Monday, 24 December 2012


Gushing between glaciers
and the ocean bed,
a vast, unremitting tide
sculpts the reluctant land
as the moment needs,
sweeping particles for sediment
or in raging spate, whole trees.

Tugged from the awkward bank,
I’m torn beyond the shallows -
currents and tows rip me,
               You ravel onward
in sleek rolling waves,
plunging deep and dangerous
I embrace the cascade.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


I went to the cinema last night and saw this film. Its a very powerful and affecting study of ageing and care, of love and of death. In short its the best film I've seen all year.

Anne and Georges are retired music teachers in their eighties. The film is largely set in their apartment. We see the elderly couple going about their daily life, caring for each other in many small ways. They have a rather self-obsessed daughter who lives abroad. Then Anne suffers a minor stroke and has to go for treatment in hospital. When she returns in a wheelchair she makes Georges promise that he will never put her back in hospital or in a nursing home. Georges agrees and the core of the film is the day to day love and care of that relationship. There are many challenges of course. Georges is elderly and a little infirm. Anne is frustrated by her incapacity. But they surmount these with humour and respect.

Anne suffers another stroke and becomes paralysed down one side, then begins to show signs of dementia. It is a struggle for Georges but he continues to be her carer. Despite Anne's infirmities they sing and play little games together. One day their daughter arrives, insisting that her mother be put in a home. Georges refuses and the daughter departs. But even with the assistance of a nurse and neighbours, the task of caring for the severely incapacitated Anne slowly becomes too much for Georges. Over the course of the film he deteriorates perceptibly. In the end there is a dramatic twist (the film opens with the police breaking down the apartment door to find Anne's body and concludes with the daughter walking around the now empty rooms).

Having sketched the plot, I imagine anyone who has not yet seen the film is thinking: this is such a painful story, how could it be a great film? Well it is great because it focusses on the little and large acts of kindness, love and selflessness that make human relationships work. It is great because it shows that this care, humanity and respect can surmount even the most demanding circumstances. It is great because it unflinchingly shows us our futures (ageing and death) and reminds us that we can't change this outcome, but then says - how you get there as a human being is what really matters.

Above all, it is honest and heartfelt. It comes as no surprise to find that the film was based on real events in the family of writer/director Michael Haneke. Amour won the main prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year. In its scope and tone there are echoes of Tokyo Story (one of the greatest films of the last century).

I immediately thought of my father, who was paralysed down one side after a major stroke. Especially, the many hours I spent trying to communicate with him (he had lost the power of speech) and the long debates inside the family about a suitable care home. But all to no avail, as he died from pneumonia after three months in hospital.

Then I thought about myself. In particular, my own incapacity after the big operation last year and the care I'd been given in the early days by Joanne (which I never fully thanked her for). As Georges struggled with Anne, I relived the many problems that everyday things (that we normally think nothing of) bring for someone who is incapacitated: getting in and out of bed, washing, the toilet, walking, etc. I knew I'd come a very long way since those dark days. I'm hoping I still have a good distance to go.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Marks and Spencer

It was Saturday morning and I was in my local Tesco, wire basket in hand. I'd collected some bananas and was heading to the vegetables when I bumped into a friend from the town. We smiled, stood and chatted, wire baskets dangling beside our knees.

The first topic was the local Pantomime, we were both going to help out there in the evening. Then we got on to what we were going to do that afternoon. I said I would be watching the rugby international on TV - Ireland v Argentina. 'Should be a good match', I added. He grinned and nodded.

'How about you?' I said, expecting him to be doing the same as I knew he was a keen follower of the sport.

He shook his head, 'I'm going to Marks and Spencer', he said ruefully.

'OK', I said, a little quizzically.

'I've been told I've got to get a new jacket', he said with resignation, glancing down at the carrots in his basket.

I nodded sympathetically.

'They've got a sale on', he shrugged, '25% off', and studied the carrots again. 'My wife keeps her eye on these things', he added quietly and then looked up.

I nodded again. Our eyes met. We said nothing.

'Oh well', I said, 'you can always record it'.

He nodded brightly. Then he paused. 'But I don't know when I'd get to watch it', he said, scanning the row of shiny vegetables beside us.

'OK', I said, glancing down at my basket.

'Better get on', he said and lifted his basket to check the contents.

'Fine', I said, raising my hand in a wave, 'see you later'.

'Sure', he smiled and turned towards the cheese aisle.

As I wandered away I thought about the very hard year I'd had since Joanne left. How at times it had got so painful and tough that, despite all the problems we had, I would have welcomed her back. Then I thought again about how far I'd come over that year. A journey of real growth in so many ways. A journey that I'd needed to take alone.

Joanne had been regularly critical of a whole series of things: most often it was my home and then it was my clothes. I smiled and strode up to the checkout. I was glad I wasn't being compelled to spend my Saturday afternoons in Marks and Spencer.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


My father ran away from home and joined the Army. He was just 14. The third eldest of nine, he was tall for his age and passed for 16. After basic training he joined The King's Own Hussars and was posted to Egypt. Each week he sent money home.

The regiment did a lot of reconnaissance, long expeditions into the desert in Riley armoured cars to explore the terrain and make maps. He enjoyed this work and was good at it: he got promoted to corporal and sergeant, climbed the pyramids, learned how to deal with scorpions, drank mint tea. Then the war began. He became a 'Desert Rat', fighting a series of losing battles against Rommel as the 8th Army retreated across North Africa towards Cairo. My father distinguished himself under fire and rose rapidly through the ranks to Major, with command of a squadron of tanks.

The decisive battle of the campaign took place at El Alamein in 1942. At the opening of the battle my father was ordered to undertake a night attack on the German lines. His squadron of tanks were caught in an artillery crossfire and most were destroyed. A shell exploded into my father's tank: the gunner and driver were killed, he was blown clear. Half of his unit were killed in the attack, the rest were captured. He later learned that this attack was diversionary and all of his unit were deemed expendable. He never forgave Montgomery.

Wounded, my father was captured and sent to a transit camp near Bari in Italy. After months of only pumpkin soup, the prisoners were loaded into railway cattle-trucks and taken to Germany. At first he was held in a large camp Stalag VIIIB (in Silesia) then he was transferred to a smaller camp Oflag VA (in the Black Forest). Here he spent three years as a POW until the camp was liberated by Patton: he recalled him standing on the bonnet of a jeep with two ivory-handled revolvers. The American soldiers gave the prisoners bars of chocolate, which they wolfed down and then were violently sick. After years of starvation their stomachs just couldn’t cope with the rich food.

After the war he was slowly squeezed out of the Army. The British class system reasserted itself: the son of a village milkman couldn't really be a senior member of the officer class. He tried a range of jobs but didn't find anything that suited him. He ended up working in a nylon factory, got married and had three sons.

'What did you do in the war, Dad?' As a kid, I asked him again and again. Often as we sat together in the front room watching war films on TV: John Wayne, John Mills, et al, being heroic. But he would always leave me unsatisfied, only saying that he had fought in the desert and had been a POW. He never disclosed any other details. When pressed he would shake his head and say 'it's nothing like in the films - a lot of good men never came back', then he would leave the room. And when at mealtimes, I or one of my brothers would say, 'I'm starving!' He would snap, 'you don’t know what starving is'. Cowed, we would stare at our plates as mother dished out the spuds.

I left home, became a student, took drugs and grew my hair long, identifying with anti-establishment figures such as John Lennon. My father's Army career was an embarrassment. We became estranged.

Much later I read Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi, books that brought home to me the horrors of incarceration in camps and the desperate everyday struggle for survival. I bought copies of them for my father. He thanked me for the books. Next time I asked him what he thought. He said he didn’t get on with reading them.

I tried another tack. Buying him a lined journal and pens, I suggested he could write down some memories. Secretly I hoped he would use his neat, precise handwriting to describe the story of his life. Again he thanked me for the present, but on my next visit I noticed the pages of the journal were still blank.

My father's place was outside, especially the garage. This was his workshop: stuffed with timber and carpentry tools, sweet with wood-shavings and sawdust. Here he smoked his 'forbidden' cigarettes, cupped furtively in his hand, and designed the pieces of furniture he would make.

Deeply troubled by my own past, I sought him out. Gill, the woman I was going to marry, had been killed in an accident. After burying the pain for a decade, I was going through therapy. Slowly I unfolded the story of my loss to him. He listened raptly, nodding and pursing his lips. When I stopped, he reached into his pocket and offered me a cigarette. I smiled and shook my head.

Then he started towards me and began to speak. How he ran away from home because he had been made to go to work as an assistant in a draper's. How he joined the cavalry because he loved horses, but they changed them for armoured cars and tanks. How the desert became so cold at night and the sky would be sparking with stars.

His stories spilled out across the workshop. Mine did too. Belated confidences offered like treasure. We spent hours talking and then went indoors. My mother knew something was happening, but couldn't work out what it was. We kept our exchanges to ourselves. The next morning he went out to the workshop, I joined him and we did it all over again.

I came home regularly that Autumn and sojourned with him in the workshop. On New Year's Day I got a call from my brother, my father was in hospital after a massive stroke. I rushed to his bedside. He was paralysed down one side and had lost the power of speech. He remained in hospital, but never spoke again. My father died three months later.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Belfast Festival

The Festival is in its fiftieth year and still going strong. For a couple of weeks in the Autumn the city is packed with arts events. A veritable portmanteau that I always look forward to sampling.

In case of sell-outs, I booked all my tickets before I went off to England. Then, over the Festival, I went down with a bad cold and bronchitus: but wrapped up well, I still managed to attend most of the events I'd booked. The highlights for me were:

Junk Ensemble (The Falling Song). Very inventive contemporary dance: quirky and full of ideas. They employed live percussion, piles of mattresses, a children's choir and ten kilos of apples in the show.

Gregory Porter. Soulful New York Jazz. Gregory, a big black guy, does ballads with power and feeling. His sidemen play fast and super-cool.

Buena Vista Orchestra. The Cuban oldies are still going strong (without Ry Cooder). They might have to sit down to last out the set, but boy can they play. The Ulster Hall was swinging with son.

Polyphony. Pitch and tone-perfect choral ensemble performing works from Britten and Whitacre in Clonard on Halloween, fireworks exploding all around.

WillFred Theatre (Follow). A marvellous one man show around the theme of deafness. Shane O'Reilly does inspired physical theatre.

The main disappointment was the Michael Clark Company. A big reputation but a timid and tedious show.

Finally a mention for The Moving Word, a live poetry, music and image extravaganza from the Heaney Centre. 25 poets and musicians filling an afternoon in the Queen's Film Theatre. I was one of these poets. A well attended show with a good mix of performances.

I'm sad to say that it's all over for another year. But pleased to report that the cold and cough is on the way out.

Friday, 26 October 2012


I've started treatment with a new physiotherapist for a long-standing injury. The problem began a couple of years ago with a muscle tear in my right groin (acquired pushing a heavy mower out of a ditch). At first I was impatient with my slow recovery and eager to prepare for two overseas trips I'd booked (to Chile and Bhutan) so I began my activities again (walking and cycling) and built up the intensity. But soon my groin became sensitive, then painful and then intensely painful and I was forced to stop. So I rested for a while (days perhaps weeks), then began again: but each time I built up my activity, the pain would return and the unhappy cycle would repeat. I became stuck in a series of peaks (rising activity) and troughs (pain and depression) – the pattern of a chronic injury.

I ended up having to cancel my overseas trips and claim the money back from insurance. Then I became seriously ill and all thoughts of such activities evaporated. This year, as I recovered, I began to walk further and more often. Stupidly, I managed to pull the muscle in my groin again working in the garden. I rested for a while, then returned to easy walking and started to do more. But the old problems quickly recurred and again I found myself stuck with a chronic injury. I began to fear that I would be unable to do hillwalking and cycling ever again. These were activities I had enjoyed for many years; I valued them and I wanted to be able to have them in my life. So I resolved to try all available treatment options before I abandoned hope: I went to a physio, then an osteopath, an acupuncturist and most recently to a new physio.

The new physio started out my treatment in a different way, by explaining what was happening to me in the chronic injury cycle. I thought that each time I got to the point of intense pain I was re-injuring myself – and this had happened again and again. She said no: the level of pain in my groin was a warning sign (the level of tissue damage was a good way beyond). And each time I exceeded the level of pain (before backing off), I was actually lowering the level at which my groin would become painful the next time. In effect I was teaching my brain to become more and more hypersensitive about my right groin.

In her opinion the injured tissues in my groin should have healed up some while ago. Her treatment strategy was twofold:

Firstly, to get me to do gentle and regular stretching to correctly align the underlying postural muscles around my pelvis.

Secondly, to get me to do my activities at much lower levels of intensity and in a much more controlled way. I should build up carefully and slowly to the point of sensitivity and then scale back. Importantly, I should not stop at this point, but do my activity again the next day (or the day after) and carefully build up to the level of sensitivity again and scale back again. In this way I would progressively be raising my body's threshold of sensitivity and expanding my level of pain-free activity.

I've been following this new approach for just a couple of weeks – so far so good.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Moving On

I've recently returned from two and a half weeks in England visiting friends and family.

This was my first overseas trip for over 18 months (since my illness). I chose the long ferry from Belfast to Liverpool, an 8 hour crossing, because I wanted to be travelling over there in my own car.

When it came to packing for the trip I found it really hard to decide what to take. I was full of anxieties. I'd arranged to stay in peoples' houses: seven in total, right across the country, moving from one to another. Would I feel OK staying in other peoples houses for such a time? Would I be faced with food that upset my sensitive stomach? And each family I was staying with was different, so I should take particular clothes and things for this activity with these people but then I'd need some different stuff when I was at the next place with the next people? And so on.

I ended up with two holdalls full of stuff. Then I filled two carrier bags with my breakfast food and other snacks. I stared at the pile. My first reaction was pretty self-critical. The old me went on long bike trips abroad with everything I needed in just two pannier bags. Get a grip I grimaced, shaking my head.

Then I sat back and laughed. It really doesn't matter, I thought, there's no weight limit. If the pile of stuff would fit in the boot of the car, it could go. I hauled the bags outside and the boot of my old Focus swallowed them easily.

The first thing I noticed in England was all the traffic. Apparently there are 30 million vehicles on the roads there. This makes normal driving extremely stressful; during peak times it becomes overwhelming and brutal. When I lived there I never thought about all the stress I was absorbing every day (such is the power of normalisation). Irish roads are so relaxed in comparison.

England has many attractive and intriguing places to visit of course (travelling between them is the tough bit). I was using a guidebook to historical sites written by Eric Newby in 1968 and particularly enjoyed Stonehenge (after bouncing on Jeremy Deller's version, I just had to go again), The Square and Compass in Worth Matravers (a Dorset cider-house with its own archaeological museum), Stourhead (the landscape gardens, lake and exotic follies), Clifton Suspension Bridge (aesthetic engineering), The Backstage Tour of the new RSC theatre (almost in the round), Ilam and Thor's Cave in the White Peak (most atmospheric, despite the heavy rain), My Bespoke Tour of Radical Nottingham (that started and finished beside the statue of Brian Clough) and the splendid Babington Chantry in Kingston upon Soar.

It was great to catch up with lots of people who hadn't seen me since I was ill. I offered my thanks for all the support they'd given me (last year in particular) and I gave each of them an Ash seedling from my garden. Everyone said that I looked very well. I responded that I felt very well - physically recovered, fairly fit (20 pounds lighter) and mentally pretty good. Several later admitted they feared they would find me somewhat incapacitated, and were very pleased to encounter the opposite. I was given great hospitality wherever I went.

Some of the friends I caught up with I hadn't seen for many years. There was lots of reminiscing and taking stock. Their children had grown up and were now away at college. I had undergone immense change over the past decade. We were reconnecting through and beyond who we used to be.

And my anxieties? Well, they evaporated. I felt pretty relaxed wherever I was and I never needed my comfort food (despite losing a filling en route). I also managed some very tough days of travelling (longest 13 hours) and drove 1200 miles in total.

My envelope was extended and I realised that I was much more robust than I thought I was. Thanks again to my friends and family for all your help.

Nephew Andy and his son Will.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Lance Armstrong

Today's revelations are truly shocking. The case against Lance Armstrong as a serial doper seems to be overwhelming. And he has chosen not to contest the allegations.

Lance's story of his recovery from cancer (with a bad prognosis) to become a professional cyclist again and then to achieve success in the Tour de France meant a great deal to me. I read 'It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life' as I was recovering from cancer. And Lance's story became a talisman to me. I empathised with his ordeal of treatment and I was enthused by his story of recovery and success.

In 'It's Not About the Bike' Lance describes his path from cancer patient to winner of the Tour as not just a victory of determination and courage, but as a triumph of self-knowledge and reconstruction. At the core of his journey is an intense personal transition (wrought by the ordeal of cancer) and through this renewed understanding of himself (strengths and limitations) he became a better person and a better cyclist: better able to focus, do the hard work, make the right strategic choices and ultimately to succeed.

All cancer patients know that story. How you are suddenly removed from the life you lived before. How all the things that used to make sense to you are changed. And how all you can do is to feel your way forward, rebuilding yourself and your life with whatever resources you can find.

Lance's story offered me hope at a very dark time.

Since I read his book I've made huge strides on my own journey. I know myself better than I ever did before. I've become more fully myself, more complete, more self-assured and more capable.

I will never ride the Tour de France. But I think I'm ready for whatever may come.

After the severity of his illness, it was a magnificent achievement for Lance to finish the Tour - let alone to win it seven times. I also recognise that Lance appears to have done what most other professional cyclists were then doing (taking banned substances to improve their performance), as many have since confessed.

But I still feel hurt and betrayed because my talisman turns out to be tarnished.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Pond

Not the Atlantic Ocean, but an actual wildlife pond in my garden.

This pond was originally dug out some years ago (by the JCB that was preparing the foundations for my garage). It filled invitingly with water. But then my life became more dramatic than I wanted and like many things, the pond was neglected.

Early this Summer I decided it was time to sort out the pond. The first step was to remove the old water, which had become a soupy dark green. I tried to siphon it out through a hose pipe. This worked at first, but the pipe kept clogging up. After plenty of mouthfuls of putrid water, I gave up. The pond was still half full.

I put my wellies on and waded in with a bucket. The remaining water was stinking and thick with debris - mainly decomposed leaves, I think, but who knows what else could have died down there. I started to sling bucketfuls out. It was heavy work shifting this putrid slurry. With sore arms I heaved and a jet of slurry landed with a filthy slop on the lawn. I started to think of the night soil men that removed the contents of Victorian chamber pots and the horrible diseases I might now be going down with after my ill-advised siphoning. I smiled nervously and began shouting 'gardeloo!'

Next I hired a power washer and blasted the neoprene liner. It took several goes to shift the slippery but gummy deposits that were stuck all over the surface. At the same time, the washer was filling the pond with water again and I had to stop regularly to bucket it out or else my wellies would have been overflowed. My arms ached, but at least all this water was diluting the dark sludge on the lawn.

Then it was digging, and plenty of it. I had planned a bog garden along the one side of the pond. I worked the spade, filled my wheelbarrow with earth and trucked it up the lawn to the edge of the drive. After a couple of barrowfuls, I mopped my brow and began to regret the idea of the bog garden. After twenty or so I crawled into the house, lay down on the carpet and almost went straight to sleep.

Thankfully the rain came and I sought advice on plants for the pond. The very knowledgeable Sally calculated the volume of water in the pond, some 1200 gallons, and told me how many plants of which type I would need to create a healthy environment. I wanted a natural wildlife pond in which the plants would make the oxygen and keep it in balance.

I also wanted the pond to be edged by natural stone. I'd been collecting flat stones from beside the gates of local fields, where they'd been left after ploughing. But I found I didn’t have anything like enough, for the circumference of the pond was some fifty feet. Thwarted, I was chatting to my neighbour who told me that he had demolished an old byre some years ago and had dumped the stone in a field. He said I could have all the stone from there that I wanted.

I went to the field but found it hard to locate the stone. Then I saw the mounds of earth covered in thistles. There were about eight of them. I dug into one a little and hit stone. It was a quarrying job. With pickaxe I levered stones out of the dirt, selected the ones that were flat enough and stacked them into my trailer. After working through five large mounds, I had a trailerfull. At home I washed the stones, cleaned the old mortar from them and trucked them down to the pond in the wheelbarrow.

As a kid I always liked jigsaws. Making the stone pavement around the pond was like that, only you didn’t have a picture to work to. You picked up a stone and set it down in place, wedging small flat stones under it to keep it stable. Then you picked up another stone and tried it next to the first. Then you turned it around and tried it again. Then you tried another. Then perhaps you changed the first one. And so on. Eventually you got a feel for the stones that would fit together.

I really enjoyed this work. It brought me back in touch with rural skills and crafts that I recalled from my childhood. I'm sad that these are now being lost, like hedging and dry stone walling.

After this craft-work, it was again back to graft. Although the end was in sight. Digging through the large pile of earth at the end of the drive, I cleaned the stones from it and added in sharp sand and horse manure. Then I trucked another twenty barrow-loads down to the pond and filled up the trench of the bog garden, first having lined it with gravel. To finish off, I joined the stone pavement to the lawn with cut turf.

And so to the plants. Water lilies and mares tails for the deepest part of the water, flag irises and crimson lobelia for the shallows and astilbes and hostas for the bog garden. A fantastic display (thanks to Sally and Avril).

I sat in a chair beside the pond. It felt very peaceful and restful. It was a good place. And I had made it myself. Newts, water boatmen and diving beetles had already found their way to the pond. Next year I would introduce some fish.


Monday, 27 August 2012


It wasn't an auspicious opening.

A dingy part of North Belfast. And a gang of teenagers stealing paving slabs at the park entrance. They pause, sneer a little as I walk past, then resume work.

I ascend the grassy slope. A familiar view from atop the rise, huge grey stones standing in a ring.

Screams and howls. Many people careering about.

Not a neolithic sacrifice to a pagan god. But the fun of running, jumping, tumbling and bouncing back up - on an art work.

Jeremy Deller's life-size model of Stonehenge as a bouncy castle had come to Belfast.

Shoes off and I join in. Me and my inner child race helter-skelter through the stones. Different generations from divided communities are happily larking about. The masts of Black Hill above and the great yellow cranes of Harland and Wolff below.

And why shouldn't public art be fun? There are some particularly stodgy examples locally. The dull geodesic globes at the roundabout on Broadway and the turgid maiden with the ring beside Queen's Bridge. Afraid of causing any offence, committees of public officials seem bound to choose the most boring and least memorable designs.

Well done Jeremy Deller. Unleash that inner child.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Living Now

Some time ago a good friend sent me a postcard. The front of the card contained just two words: in bright and bold letters it said 'Enjoy Now.' I smiled and put the card on the office wall, beside the door, and turned to some mundane task or other.

Had someone then challenged me – are you really enjoying now? I would have said (without thinking too much) yes, of course. If pressed I would have added, I'm trying. Then some setback or disappointment would occur and my gaze would linger on the postcard. It stared back at me implacably, posing a tough question about how I was living my life that I didn't know how to answer. So I would look away, sometimes with a sigh, and get on with things.

This situation persisted for years, during which I finally left my job (with an early-exit package) and became a full-time writer. On leaving the office I took the card with me. It got bundled up with other things.

Several months ago I found the card again and put it in my bedroom, on the chest of drawers facing the bed. Now it is the last thing I see before going to sleep and the first thing I notice upon waking.

Actually doing what the card advises isn't so difficult anymore. I am learning to live in the here and now. With short-term horizons, my path seems clearer. Either I do things or I dont. I avoid maybe's. This brings a focus and an intensity to my living.

'Take care of today, and tomorrow will take care of itself.' This derives from Matthew (6:34) and I now feel its truth. In the past, I spent a huge amount of time and energy trying to take care of tomorrow

The change in me has of course been wreaked by the illness. When your longer-term survival is actively in question, everything becomes different.

Yet the big question of life is posed for everyone – and truly, nobody knows. So most people go around avoiding thinking about this challenge (with real determination), like I did for all those years.

Perhaps you're wondering whether I've become a Buddhist? Despite spending several nights in a temple on top of a holy mountain in Japan, going to sleep as if it was my last day and rising as if it was my first remains beyond my reach. As does living with no possessions other than saffron robes and a begging bowl (I'm glad to have the comfort of my home and the financial package I left work with).

What seems to have happened is that the traumatic power of the illness broke down the edifice of the old me. It left me in pieces. But unlike Humpty Dumpty, I have put myself back together again. In this process I did need some help (from local cancer charities, instead of all the king's horses and men). And through doing so I've become more truly and fully myself.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The All Clear

I've just come through another series of medical tests, examinations and reviews. These have ranged from the simple (various blood tests) to the more onerous (collecting all my urine for 24 hours in a large plastic container - to test my kidney function). At first I wondered why they had given me such a big bottle, but later I began to be concerned that I would fill it to overflowing. In the end it reached the brim, a whopping three litres.

I have most of these medical tests every six months. They are all mentally and emotionally troubling, especially when you are waiting for the results: each test could signify that an important part of you is not working properly (after all, I only have one kidney now).

By far the worst is the CT scan. This is to check whether there is any evidence of the return of the disease.

The scan itself is no real problem. You come to the hospital an hour before the appointment and steadily drink a large jug of clear fluid. It has an aniseed taste. The fluid is called contrast, it contains metal particles and helps to clarify the images taken of your soft tissues. Then you lie down with your arms above your head on a slim bed in front of an enormous white ring doughnut. This is the scanner. The radiologist goes to the control room. Suddenly the bed slides into the centre of the scanner. It feels a bit claustrophobic. Then a strange mechanical voice tells you to hold your breath. The scanner spins and whirrs like an aero engine. A little panel at eye level counts down in seconds and the voice tells you to breathe. You go through this procedure several times and then the scan is over.

The weeks leading up to your scan are filled with anxiety. And afterwards it gets worse. The stress is intense, until you hear the results. For you know that if the disease did return it would most likely be fatal.

After the scan is done the images are assessed by a consultant radiologist and a report is written for the medic who requested the scan. The report is usually done within 24 hours and uploaded to the hospital information system. It is the responsibility of the medic requesting the scan to relay the results to the patient.

The result of my latest CT scan was all clear. A fantastic relief. And all the other test results were normal too. That means I'm out of the clutches of medics for the next six months.

But I didn't receive this news from the medic who requested my scan, my Urology consultant. Indeed, I still haven't been contacted by him. And I had the scan almost four weeks ago.

By chance I found out through a short-cut. One of my GP's has special access to the hospital information system and he logged in and downloaded the scan report for me a few days after it was posted. Such access for GP's is under trial in Belfast, I believe it is intended to become the norm.

If I was still waiting to hear the result of my scan (by letter from my consultant) I'm sure I would by now have become very ill due to prolonged stress. And of course this would be highly detrimental to my longer-term health.

Communicating with out-patients is a big weakness of the NHS. Last year, when I was an in-patient in the same hospital (Belfast City), I was given the results of each of my scans within 24 hours.

Sunday, 22 July 2012


Over the road from the Titanic building and underneath an enormous yellow crane, 1500 donated objects are laid out across the concrete floor of a huge warehouse. In the main they are everyday objects, but each one is special: they are mementos from thousands of lives in Northern Ireland. Each has its own story, written by the donor on a small magnolia label attached by string.

The long rows of objects lead to the far end of the building where sits the 100 piece Ulster Youth Orchestra and a community choir, 200 strong. A note sounds, Brian Irvine raises his hands and the performance begins. It's the opening of a new oratorio and art installation, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

The orchestra play beautifully, exuberantly then wildly: the choir sing movingly then stamp their feet, chunter in unison and eventually howl like dogs. All the pieces are inspired by the donated objects and their stories: such as 'a mermaid with a mechanical tail' and 'two penguins and a snowman'.

They form a grand sound-scape that reverberates throughout this industrial cathedral. A tribute to memory and everyday things in a site replete with its own history of manufacture and loss. The oratorio closes with all performers ringing bells and one by one slowly leaving the stage, until silence once again reigns.

John Donne's powerful meditation on his life-threatening illness came to mind, where he speaks of interconnectedness. And then its later transposition by Hemingway to his novel of the Spanish Civil War. Such resonances are strongly present, from so many mementos of the twists and turns in everyday life to the recent bitter conflict here.

'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

John Passey RIP

I met him at secondary school. Central Technical School for Boys in Gloucester. A school that was staffed by a weird collection of misfits, incompetents and sadists. Most teachers had their own preferred instrument of violence (often referred to by pet names) and particular method of inflicting pain and humiliation. I recall being beaten with various sticks, a plimsoll, large books and a board compass (as well as being punched and kicked). They repeatedly told me I was useless and stupid, that my lack of learning was my own fault.

Amid this sea of educational darkness there was a shining light. He was John Passey: the English teacher. John was full of enthusiasm and encouragement. He loved poetry, particularly Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he instilled that love in me. He also encouraged his pupils to write poetry and short stories, no mean achievement for 14 year old boys who thought they were tough. And when, full of fear, we read our work out in class, he praised it highly. My adolescent poetry was, of course, dire and highly derivative. But through John, I left the school believing that, although I was stupid, I did have a story to tell.

John Passey's funeral took place in Gloucester Cathedral last Friday. He was a talented and generous man and had touched many lives. The tribute was delivered by his son, Alan. He explained that John was so very proud of the boys he taught and what they went on to achieve. And despite the limitations of that school, these achievements were many.

In his will John had asked for his coffin to be carried by us. Unfortunately, this was vetoed by the Cathedral. But as professional pall-bearers transported John's coffin through the nave of the cathedral, two long lines of 'old boys' formed a guard of honour. It was a fitting send off for the man.

Chris O'Ryan, John Taylor, Dave Ballard and myself (with Alan Passey on my back): a chance encounter with the Passey family in Weymouth.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Nietzsche, Tractors and Limits

Last year a cardiac surgeon sawed open my sternum (breastbone) from top to bottom. This is called a median sternotomy. He then undertook open heart surgery, whilst a vascular surgeon worked on my vena cava. After this surgery was completed, the two halves of my sternum were joined with wire sutures (titanium, I believe) to hold them together so it could heal. Needless to say, my sternum was extremely sore for a good six months as the bone was growing back together.

There is now a long white scar that runs down the centre of my chest. Underneath it are a series of small ridges and little lumps. These are the wire sutures. Here my chest is still very sensitive to touch. My GP told me that full healing takes around two years. Little by little, the bone grows over the wire sutures and incorporates these into the sternum. When that process is complete, he said, my breastbone will be stronger than before.

Recently, I related this to a farmer friend of mine. He nodded and pointed to a welded repair on his tractor, telling me that the weld itself became the strongest part of two pieces of metal after they had been fused together.

Then I thought about Nietzsche’s infamous dictum - 'what does not kill me makes me stronger.' Not because I see any of this experience as heroic. But because we normally live within safe limits and when we are tested to the very edge of our limits, we either fail or come back stronger.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Scan

I'm currently waiting for a CT scan. It's a time of heightened anxiety. This scan is the only way of knowing that you are clear of the disease.

I'm scheduled to have a CT scan every six months for the first three years.

I had a review with my Urology consultant last Tuesday (delayed from the previous month). He marked my scan requisition as 'urgent' and sent it to the CT Department. Today I rang them to find that I will get this scan in 3 weeks time.

I wonder how long 'urgent' is in other parts of the NHS?

Friday, 8 June 2012

One Year Old Today

A year ago today I was opened up from neck to groin, my heart was stopped and the tumour inside my vena cava (along with my left kidney) was removed. Four blood transfusions, three teams of surgeons, several machines and my own spirit kept me going throughout the seven hour operation.

I came round a day later to bright lights, pain and morphine. My new world was filled with noise, faces (some familiar), injections, indignities, sleep and survival. Three days later I was moved from intensive care to the ward. After another week I was sent home.

At the time it was all desperate and bewildering. I felt I was just hanging on.

Now I see it as a rite of passage.

I struggled, crawled, tottered, stumbled and began to walk – taking the first of thousands of tiny steps (that got bigger as I went). I don't remember a nappy stage and I always could talk.

I was finding my way through a world that I recognised, a world that appeared to be the same. But my situation felt radically different. It took me quite a while to understand that I had become estranged and the life that I had known was changed for good (see this blog, especially April 2012).

My huge thanks go to all the many friends and family who've helped me over the past year. I was so caught up in surviving that I don't think I was able to say how much I needed your help along the way. To each and every one of you, thank you from the bottom of my restarted heart.

And to the few that ran away: you have only your own inadequacies to blame.

On my desk stands a little man. He's nine inches tall. His face is covered by a mask, painted with red, white and black zigzags. The mask is fringed by a long white beard and extends to a tall, rectangular, black and white striped hat. His torso is painted with red and yellow lozenges. He wears a grass skirt. His arms and legs have red and yellow stripes.

I bought him in Zambia in May 2010 because he appealed to me. I knew he was called Mwengo, but I had no idea what that meant. Little did I also know that the tumour was then growing inside of me.

I've since learnt what an important man Mwengo is. He takes groups of boys away from their homes in the village to the ritual place. Here they go through many days and nights of ordeals and ceremonies. He then leads them back to the village as men.

Mwengo looks at me and I at him. I know I've grown so much over the past year.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Robert Jeffcutt

The second anniversary of my brother Robert's death has just passed.

He got cancer in the soft palate at the back of his throat. The initial symptoms were toothache, but the true cause wasn't spotted by the dentist. The cancer was aggressive and by the time it was diagnosed it had grown substantially.

Rob was given a heavy programme of radiotherapy. This progressively destroyed his ability to swallow. Before long he was only able to eat and drink through a peg into his stomach. Despite this radical treatment, the tumour wasn't killed off quickly enough and the cancer spread.

Rob was a very fit and energetic man. He wasn't fazed by anything. Whatever the challenge, he was prepared to take it on - from running a marathon to rebuilding a house. The depredations and indignities of his treatment were huge, but he remained calm and cheerful with his characteristically silly sense of humour.

Rob was only 56 when he died. I miss him a lot.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012


in memory of Robert Jeffcutt (1954-2010)

A songthrush warbles,
the syringe-driver whirrs
and blossom flutters from the cherry tree
my brother pruned last year:
soughing, he doesn't notice.

I reach down, clasp his skinny arm
and haul him yelping into the hazel.
Trade winds take our sails and atop the mizzen
we voyage to the lagoons of Hispaniola,
munching nuts and squawking like parrots.

At the new house we square-up, hollering.
My fist bashes his nozzy - give in!
Defiant, he shakes side-to-side
and a bright slick trickles from one nostril,
a red question mark.

The face of my father,
the hands of my mother.
I gather the covers and stroke his hair:
hawthorn and cow-parsley bedeck the way,
you're singing with the skylark.

Paul Jeffcutt (2010)

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Unnamable

I don't know,
I'll never know,
in the silence you don't know.

You must go on,
I can't go on,
I'll go on.

Samuel Beckett (1954)

Monday, 7 May 2012

Vulnerability and the Carapace

Cancer strips you down and makes you vulnerable.

Not only have you been exposed to the physical pain of surgery and the indignities of hospital treatment, but you also have been laid bare by intense emotions - anxiety and the fear of death. No wonder you're left feeling raw and unprotected, afraid of the next blow.

Before the 'big C', I often felt indestructible and only intermittently thought about my own mortality. Since then, I've often felt rather fragile and find myself very sensitive to stress.

In astrology cancer is a crab. And a crab has a hard shell on the outside and a soft body on the inside. For a crab to develop it has to discard its existing shell and grow a new, larger carapace.

Before the 'big C', my defensive protection was so strong that my vulnerability was kept safe from threat. But I had also reached my limits.

Last year, my old carapace was discarded. I now see that it couldn't fit me anymore.

I'm sidling forward, sensing my way through the challenges. I know that I've grown in so very many ways. I have to trust that I'm also developing a new protective shell.

Monday, 30 April 2012

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver (1990)

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Searchlight of Inadequacy

There's no hiding place with cancer. It shines an intense, unyielding light - onto and into you.

This light marks you out from those who do not have it (see post of 17 April). And this light exposes you.

There's no hiding place for your inadequacies. They slump there, awkward and blinking. Despite your best efforts, you can't seem to avoid tripping over them.

And when you're under real threat, there doesn't seem much point in kidding yourself (or others) about them anymore.

All survivors talk about the great change that cancer brings to themselves and their lives. Especially how they became able to think and do things that previously were impossible for them - from saying sorry, to winning the Tour de France.

Owning up to inadequacies that you've hidden for many years is a very big step.

A big step towards release.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

A Stranger in Your Own Life

You didn't book the trip and you didn't pay the ferryman, but you were taken across anyway. On the other side you found everything you knew. Your house, your family, your friends and acquaintances, your everyday activities. You recognised them all. The light was stark and piercing.

But it all seemed different. More mundane than you remembered, somewhat shabby and trivial. You smiled and played the good soldier. But things you previously enjoyed were now peculiar, even troublesome. You were full of questions and doubts.

You smiled again and tried harder. After all, you were doing your best to be normal and do normal things. But this remained unsatisfying and oddly out of reach.

You put it down to the illness. And the rehabilitation from the ordeal of treatment.

You were right. But it wasn't just a phase you were going through. You had crossed a real divide. You couldn't go back to the life you had lived before. The stranger was you.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Learning to Live with the Big C

There is something inside me that produced (or produces) cancer. It turned up as Kidney Cancer last year. Now my question and my fear is - will it show up as something else soon?

I don’t know. No one knows. You can tell me I’ll be fine, but you don’t know.

It’s so good to talk with other cancer survivors or fighters. There are things we understand that the rest of you don’t, can’t or won’t until you too have a doctor put a big “C” on your head.

We used to be men who feared little. Any fear was managed or covered up. Now our fear is pervasive and unmanageable. It shows up as insecurity and worry. This fear has become obvious to those who love us most. It makes us look weaker than we like to think of ourselves. Our changed outlook brings tears and depression.

Fear and paranoia are always knocking at the door of our minds trying to gain access. A persistent pain whispers in our ears that the cancer has spread, when it fact it’s just ageing or too much exercise or something ordinary that feels extraordinary. The wait for the next scan feels interminable.

Cancer has been described as something you learn to live with or around. That cohabitation doesn’t end with remission or 'cure'. Learning to live, knowing that little enemy may still be inside, is our reality now.

Adapted with thanks from Rick Dancer (2011)

Friday, 23 March 2012

Rewriting and Gardening

Been back working on the novel for a couple of weeks now. I'm mainly fixing the writing flaws in the first draft, rather than making structural changes to character and plot (I'm generating ideas for these). I guess I'm on draft one and a half.

Must admit I'm finding it slow going and unsatisfying work. The first draft had the energy of the unfolding story to keep me interested. This stage is pretty much hard graft. I almost have to make myself do it. Each day I try my best for a couple of hours then switch to something practical that provides more feedback and sense of reward. The garden is looking a lot better already.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Lady Verglas

You drifted in
like shivering mist.
I lost traction
and came round
in wreckage:
twisted scars,

You wraithed me
with soothing words,
entreaties, promises.
                      A miasma
of groans and thuds,
crackling with sparks
and the acrid drip
of petrol.

Paul Jeffcutt (2011)

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Door

Go and open the door.
Maybe outside there’s
a tree, or a wood,
a garden,
or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye,
or the picture
          of a picture.

Go and open the door.
If there’s a fog
it will clear.

Go and open the door.
Even if there’s only
the darkness ticking,
even if there’s only
the hollow wind,
even if
                    is there,
go and open the door.

At least
there’ll be
a draught.      

Miroslav Holub (1962)

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Finished First Draft

Well oh well. I've reached the end of the story. Fifteen weeks. 62,000 words. I've really surprised myself. I've just done something I never thought I could. I'm astonished and proud at the same time.

But novel writing is like painting the Forth Bridge. When you get to the end, what remains is to go back to the beginning and get going again. Who was it that said all writing is rewriting?