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.