Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Old New Year

Looking back I see just how far I've come over the past year. In short, I've fully recovered from a life-threatening illness and now I'm thriving. Here's wishing you all, near and far, a Happy New Year.

A year ago I was still very much under the bleak cloud of the illness, very afraid I'd have to go back into hospital for more surgery. In January I was told this wouldnt be necessary and I walked forward with a spring in my step for the first time for a year and a half.

Sadly, Jean, a very close friend for 30 years, had the opposite news. Her cancer came back aggresively and she died in April. At that time I was also helping a group of cancer survivors from the Sing for Life Choir prepare for the Belfast Marathon Walk. All completed the 9 mile walk successfully and we raised £2500 for Cancer Focus. I continued singing with the choir (the earliest of my new activities) and have learned to sing better, or at least to make fewer mistakes.

During the Spring I began to write poetry again, for the first time since my illness. I challenged myself to write new poems around words chosen at random from the OED. This was stimulating and very productive. I also noticed that I seemed to be writing in a different style.

Indeed, this was true of many of the activities I picked up again. The illness had been a watershed and I wasnt (indeed couldnt be) the same afterwards. Like Humpty Dumpty I'd had a great fall, and painfully and painstakingly I'd been put back together. But the pieces didnt quite fit like they had before: some parts of me (and my life) were now more important and others had diminished in significance.

For the two year anniversary of my 'big op' I rented a motorbike and went on a tour of the northern half of this island. The weather was great and the touring was good, once I got used to the motorbike: my old skills, unused for 30 years, came back. But I couldnt help envying the cyclists I passed as I sweltered under the sun in my all black bike kit.

The longest day found me on holiday in Shetland, my first real trip away since my illness. A great place for wildlife and costal walks. The evening light was fantastic, indeed it hardly gets dark - its called the Simmer Dim.

On my return I decided to try cycling again. At first I was tentative and managed small trips along the towpath at Scarva, then I got bolder. Before long I was doing the whole trip, some 40 miles. It was great to feel the wind on my face and through my receding hair. During my illness and recovery I thought I'd never be able to cycle again.

In the Autumn I joined a birdwatching group and went on field trips around NI and to Donegal learning much from the very knowledgeable Ivor. With Ray Givans from the Writer's Group, I began another new venture - a poetry night with a difference called The Squat Pen.

Lately, I extended my regular walking through Tolleymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks to actual hillwalks in the Mournes. Like cycling, this was another old activity I feared I would not be able to do again. But over the Xmas holidays I've climbed four mountains and managed each well.

Finally and most importantly of all, I've begun a new relationship. I met T during the Summer and we quickly became close. Since then its got better and better. We are undoubtedly an item. We begin the New Year together with a trip to a hotel in the far West of Ireland.


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Tying the Knot

Only relatively recently has the Church and the State become involved in marriage: the Council of Trent (1564) decreeing that a marriage was only valid if it was conducted by a priest, and the State registration of such marriages commencing in the 19th Century.

But people have lived on these islands for the best part of 30,000 years, forming couples and raising children. The folk tradition of marriage here is called handfasting. For thousands of years, a couple would come to a special ceremonial place where their hands would be joined through a portal and then bound together with rope. This is the origin of the expression 'tying the knot'.

At the handfasting ceremony the couple vowed to stay together for a year and a day. At the end of that year they had a choice: to renew their vows permanently, to renew their vows for another year or to part. Under the latter option, the responsibilities of each as regards any children and the property they had held in common would be specified.

The word handfasting derives from Old Norse and refers to the making of a contract by joining hands. It is believed that handfasting was used to formalise the exchange of all manner of goods and property.

Handfasting ceremonies took place at special sites with a portal through which the hands of the couple were joined and bound. Some of these sites had special standing stones with a natural hole, or a hole bored through - such as the Holestone (see below) near Doagh, Co Antrim. Many portals were made of wood, perhaps the trunk of an old tree, and thus have not survived to the present.

At Lughnasa there were special fairs where young men and women from different tribal groups would meet and could become handfasted. One of the main sites in Ireland for this was at Teltown in Co Meath.

Handfasting remained a legal basis for marriage in Scotland until 1939. To this day, couples who have been married in church also come to the Holestone for a handfasting ceremony.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Christmas Concert

The Sing for Life Choir Christmas Concert took place at Fisherwick Church, Belfast last night, compered by our patron Noel Thompson of the BBC. Over 300 people filled the church to hear an almost flawless performance of carols, traditional songs and classic ballads.

The choir began with Gaudete and Lean on Me by Bill Withers, followed by a mix of The First Noel and Pachabel's Canon and then John Rutter's arrangement of All Things Bright and Beautiful.

In the first interlude, The Elderflowers Dance Theatre Company performed to Ave Maria sung by the excellent Roisin Gallagher.

Taking the stage again, the choir sang I'll Tell Me Ma and a rousing version of Unchained Melody, made famous by the Righteous Brothers, followed by Howard Goodall's arrangement of Love Divine and Fields of Gold by Sting.

The second interlude saw solo performances from Keith Acheson (flute) of Gabriel's Oboe and Maria Redondo (violin) of Faure's Pavane, both accompanied by Megan Boyd on piano.

The final section saw the choir and Roisin Gallagher sing The Lamb by John Tavener, followed by John Rutter's arrangement of For the Beauty of the Earth and then Irish Blessing, the choir concluded with our signature tune Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffre.

We were in very good voice throughout and gained our first standing ovation. Thanks in particular go to our conductor Keith Acheson and to our accompanist Megan Boyd, both of the Crescent Arts Centre.

It was a show with real heart by a community choir each of whom has been in some way affected by cancer. Well done to Cancer Focus NI and The Crescent Arts Centre who have supported the choir from the outset. A great night indeed.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Just back from a great long weekend in Inishowen. Went birdwatching and beachwalking, revisiting some of the places that I took my late parents to in 1999. Stayed in Ballyliffin, a small village on the North West coast with four hotels: hardly credible even in the boom years, two are now closed down. It's at one end of Pollan Strand, a two mile stretch of sand with foaming Atlantic breakers that leads to a ruined castle. The weather was typical of Donegal, moody and misty.

The birdwatching was very successful, we saw several Great Northern Divers and Red-breasted Mergansers (in Pollan Bay and Tullagh Bay) and a flock of Barnacle Geese at Malin Head. In olden days these large black and white birds were thought to hatch from the Barnacles that washed ashore in November. Now we know that they migrate here from Iceland. We didnt see any Choughs but did go to the nature reserve at Inch Island and saw many swans, including several Black Swans (natives of Australasia) that escaped from a collection and have now made it their home.

After catching up with friends that live near Buncrana, we went to Derry to see the Lumiere light sculptures. A great show with some very imaginative pieces, I particularly enjoyed the vivid light projection onto Austins that was inspired by Jules Verne; also notable was Grove of Oaks and Conned Fused. A fine evening completed by a lovely meal at Ballyliffin Lodge.

The next day was brighter but colder, after more birdwatching and beachwalking I went in to the Verbal Arts Centre to make a recording of some of my poems for their website. Then it was a quick drive to Moneymore for a performance of the Sing for Life Choir, a fundraiser for Cancer Focus. I got back home about eleven, pretty tired.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Blue Jasmine

One film stands out above others in my cinema-going this Autumn. Trailed as a return to form for Woody Allen, I feel that Blue Jasmine is quite simply one of his greatest films.

Much has rightly been made of the central performance from Cate Blanchett as the delusional Jasmine. She dominates the film, being both protagonist and narrator. It is her tragic descent from snooty Manhattan nouveau-riche to penniless San Franciscan wannabe that marks the trajectory of the film. Through flashback we find that her rich socialite past was funded by criminal extortion as her husband was a crooked financier, Bernie Madoff style. Then Jasmine turns up on the doorstep of her down-on-her-luck sister and proceeds to arrogantly lead her through a lifestyle makeover. What unfolds is an exquisitely sad cocktail of deliciously comic and ultimately tragic scenes.

Jasmine's arrogance is at the heart of the film. Fuelled by alcahol and prescription drugs, she always knows better than those around her and lets no opportunity pass to tell them so. At first her condescension is comic, over time it becomes grating and eventually tragic. The film ends as it begins, with Jasmine in close-up haranguing someone. Over the course of her fall from grace and her desperate attempts to regain the heights of the American Dream we see that she has learnt nothing. In the end the camera pans away from Jasmine in close-up and we see she is on a park bench talking to no-one but herself. It is self-delusion that has been driving her arrogance.

The filmmaker that Woody Allen most admires is Ingmar Bergman. This is most clear in works such as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992), where he explores human relationships in a much more serious vein than he had previously. In Blue Jasmine he has gone further, making a perfectly balanced tragi-comedy: a bitter-sweet film in which comedy blends almost seamlessly into tragedy (and vice-versa).

Moreover this is an authentically American tragi-comedy in which the core of the American Dream is itself the subject of critical appraisal. Jasmine (a girl adopted into a blue-collar family) believes in this dream and follows it to success, reaping great socio-economic rewards whilst turning a blind eye to her husbands criminality. After that failure and fall from grace she seeks to recapture the dream by hustling (lying, reinventing herself, editing out her inconvenient past). But, at the exact point of her apparent success (getting engaged to a rich upper-class man with political aspirations) she is undone. Outside the jewellers with her prospective husband she is upbraided by a victim of one of her ex-husbands scams who shatters the illusions about her former life that she had created. Even at this point of (seemingly) complete failure she cannot let go of her delusions of grandeur. The tragedy is compounded when she then walks out on her sister (the only refuge she has) and is last seen on a park bench peddling her delusions to no-one but herself.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Squat Pen

The Squat Pen is a new poetry night, hosted by myself and Ray Givans.

We wanted a poetry night with a difference. An event that would bring together written-for-the-page poetry and performance poetry, poets from different generations, poetry and music. We wanted an event with plenty of diversity that packed a lot into a relatively short (one hour) show. 

The inaugural Squat Pen took place last night at No Alibis Bookshop in Belfast.

First off, we had four great up-and-coming poets in showcase: Olive Broderick, Tory Campbell, Erin Halliday and Colin Hassard.

Then Colin Hassard played guitar and sang a couple of songs.

Next was the Desert Island Poem, selected by Paul Maddern. Which poem would you choose to bring with you to that mythical desert island? 'Song for the Last Act' by Louise Bogan was his choice.

Finally, a spirited reading from our special guest poet Damian Smyth.

It all went well, indeed very well. All of our contributors gave great individual performances. I enjoyed being the MC again, a role I hadnt performed since before my illness. There were over 40 in the audience and the feedback from them has been from good to glowing.

And best of all, David at No Alibis has agreed to host the rest of the series. So the next Squat Pen will take place there in the New Year.

Thanks again to everyone who took part and helped to make the night a great success, with particular thanks to my co-organiser Ray and our host, David.

Erin, Damian, Paul, Olive, Colin and Tory

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


Today is the ancient pagan festival of Samhain. This quarter day marks the end of Autumn and the beginning of Winter. A point at which the harvest would be completed and animals would be brought down from their Summer pasture on the hills. Samhain thus celebrates the gathering together of foodstuffs to enable survival through the darkest and coldest part of the year. It is a time of both looking back and looking forward.

Traditionally this festival was marked by special fires and feasting. A ritual bonfire would be made by a community and lit. The smoke and fire was thought to have both both purificatory and divinatory powers. Burning embers would be taken into each home to kindle the flame that would remain lit throughout Winter.

Spirits (deities and the departed) were believed to take close part in the festival and places would be laid for them at the feast table. People would also dress-up as spirits in order to invoke their powerful help for survival through the winter and for good fortune in the coming year. This signficance has led some to suggest that Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Like all the main pagan festivals, Samhain was diverted by the early church into a Christian festival. All Hallows (or All Saints) Day has been celebrated on 1 November since the 9th Century and is followed by All Souls Day (2 November). These twin festivals celebrate the departed: those who have achieved sainthood and those who have yet to reach heaven.

All Hallows Eve (31 October) is now known as Halloween. Originally exported to North America by settlers from Ireland and Scotland, it has since become re-imported as a secular festival with striking pagan elements. There is the dressing up in costumes that mimic the dead, the divination of fortune (trick or treat), the use of fires and flames and the celebration of the presence of the dead amongst the living.

Tonight is also Guy Fawkes (or Bonfire) Night, a British festival with clear pagan associations which celebrates of the execution of a Catholic conspirator who sought to assassinate a Protestant monarch. Established in 1605, this sectarian festival had at its centre a community bonfire at which an effigy of the Pope was burnt. Over time the effigy became transposed into that of Guy Fawkes and later the event became secularised as Bonfire Night. Surprisingly, this festival does not appear to have taken root in NI.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Belfast Festival

The main annual arts festival in Belfast has just closed. It used to be three weeks long but in these austere times has shrunk to ten days. And alongside the budget, it's probably fair to say that the scope and ambition of the festival appears to have become reduced too. Despite this, the festival continues to hold a special place in the cultural year by bringing a range of international performers and events that you would otherwise not get to see here.

I went to a different event on most nights.

'Bullet Catch' by Rob Drummond. This play puts the art of illusion centrestage and was indeed entertaining. I enjoyed the deception and artifice but didnt feel drawn to ponder greater themes, such as the nature of free-will (one of the greater themes that other writers observed during its successful run from the Edinburgh Festival last year).

'Belfast by Moonlight', written by Carlo Gebler and performed by Kabosh. An intriguing play in which six female spirits tell tales from the bloody history of Belfast. I enjoyed the great mix of song and soliloqy in the very atmospheric setting of St Georges Church but didnt feel moved beyond the tales themselves.

'Odarrang' and 'Girls in Airports' at the Elmwood Hall. Two interesting jazz bands from Finland and Denmark. I enjoyed the mix of instruments and styles, Odarrang in particular had Cello and Trombone alongside Guitar and Drums, but the evening was let down by poor sound balance.

The highlights for me were both at the Elmwood Hall.

'Carminho' a Portugese Fado singer with a fantastic voice of real emotional power backed by a wonderful acoustic three-piece band - 12 string guitar, spanish guitar, bass guitar. Powerful songs of love and loss reverberated through the hall, it didnt matter that they were from another language.

'Efterklang' an indie band from Copenhagen who were magnificent. A set of intriguing songs with quirky arrangements performed with wit and aplomb. At times there were echoes of early Roxy Music, at others echoes of the Human League - but there was so much much more beyond this, taking you into jazz and contemporary classical music. All in all, a compelling and unique sound. One of the best concerts I have seen in recent years. Well done Moving On Music.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Sing for Life Choir on BBC1

The Sing for Life Choir meets every Monday at 6pm in the Crescent Arts Centre. The choir is for people who have in some way been affected by cancer: whether yourself, or as a partner, friend or relative. This means it's pretty much open to everyone.
We are a community choir of over fifty strong. None of us are particularly expert singers but together we make a good sound, and we all get a great buzz from taking part. We sing a wide range of material from medieval (Gaudete) to traditional (Danny Boy) to soul (Lean on Me). We perform too, with gigs in Arts Centres, Churches and Schools thus far.

Now you can see the Sing for Life Choir in action on the BBC website. Go to www.bbc.co.uk/niappeals  and click on Lifeline.

There you will find the programme that was broadcast yesterday afternoon on BBC1 which featured the choir and also see footage of us in rehearsal singing 'For the Beauty of the Earth' by John Rutter.

Warning: this footage includes a close up of me with my mouth wide open.
Cancer Focus Northern Ireland - Belfast, United Kingdom
A few months ago I did the Belfast Marathon Walk with a team of walkers from the choir to raise money for Cancer Focus (the charity behind the Sing for Life Choir). The sponsorship money is now all in: I raised a total of £830 and together the choir walking group raised over £2500. Thanks again to our many donors for all their generous support.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Summer: In Memoriam

I've finally admitted it. The long, warm Summer is over. It fooled me for a while by extending into early Autumn with bright, sunny days. But nowadays, as soon as the sun goes behind cloud, the cool air bites right into you. And this morning it's lashing.

I luxuriated in the sunshine. Getting a bike from the garage, I began to cycle again - the first time for almost three years. It was wonderful to feel the warm breeze on my face, arms and legs as the hedgerows rushed by and the sun glinted. I went out cycling as regularly as I could, the lack of strength in my legs the main limitation, especially given the steep-sided drumlins you get round this way.

Short-sleeved cycling shirts and shorts were de rigeur for months on end. NI had become Mediterranean: at least in climate, if not in cuisine and consciousness (but lets avoid talking about the rioting season for now). No more was our Summer characterised by three days of downpours for every one of sunshine.

You could actually live more in the outdoors: lunch in the garden and leave the chairs out overnight to do so again the next day; embark on extended outdoor DIY projects secure in the belief that tomorrow you could pick up where you had left off because it would again be warm and dry.

I developed cyclists knees. Firstly, a weathered brown smudge from kneecap to mid-thigh (a line that marked the edge of my cycling shorts). Secondly, an ache in the patella tendon that came on when grinding uphill (a classic overuse injury).

Because of the latter I left the drumlins, did stretching exercises and began to cycle on the Newry canal towpath. This worked well until a couple of weeks ago when I was knocked off my bike by a mad pedestrian. Thankfully I avoided a dip in the canal and stopped short of a bank of nettles, but I came away with bruises and grazes. The pedestrian wandered on with little concern for the havoc they had caused.

I returned to the canal yesterday but was fully togged up with leggings and windproof jacket. It was pleasant, but not the same as those warm halcyon days. Like the swallows, I wish I could migrate to the sun.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Rare Birds

I've just joined a birdwatching group. On my first field trip we spotted migrant birds from Canada and Iceland as well as a rare visitor from Scandinavia.

I'm not used to early starts on Sundays, so I made my sandwiches and packed my bag the night before. At least driving in to Belfast and then up to the north coast was easy going after the shock of the alarm.

As the sun came out after drizzle, the group were esconced in a hide on the Bann estuary with binoculars and telescopes raised. The tide began to fall and the birds became active, finding food on the muddy foreshore. We saw Dunlin, Redshank, Curlew, Greenshank, Grey Plover, Snipe and Bar-Tailed Godwit.

Moving on to the Foyle estuary, near the mouth of the Roe, we saw a large flock of Golden Plover (around a thousand birds) that had flown here from Iceland. At the waters edge around a hundred Brent Geese just arrived from Eastern Canada, via Greenland and Iceland.

On the way between the estuaries we spotted Swallows and Swifts catching insects on the warm breeze, readying themselves for the long flight to Southern Africa. An arduous and attritional 6,000 mile journey that only half of the birds that set out would survive to return here next year.

And striding through the shallows of the Foyle estuary, a huge grey bird with black and white markings - the head of a heron and the body of an emu. A European Crane: a rare visitor from Scandinavia blown off course on its flight to Spain, the first sighting in NI for 30 years. When the winds changed and the air cooled, the Crane would head south for its winter home.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Two Sheds

For most of the past month I've been undertaking a big DIY challenge: the renovation and reconstruction of two garden buildings. Not only did I wrestle with wet rot and win but I also got in touch with the spirit of my late father, a skilled carpenter.

The woman I bought my house from owned a local pet shop, in the corner of the garden was a wooden shed with a small aviary attached. Over the twelve years that followed I happily used these buildings as a storage and dumping ground for gardening tools and suchlike.

Earlier this Summer I generated a list of DIY tasks, one of which was sorting out these buildings. I thought I would just have to paint them with preservative, so I left it to the end of the Summer and got on with other things. Given the years of neglect, I suppose I shouldnt have been surprised to find that both of them were in a very poor state: some wall and floor panels had rotted and worst of all so had parts of the frames. I decided to try and save the shed but thought I would probably have to demolish the aviary.

I set about stripping out the rotten panels and wood from the shed. I treated the remainder with wet rot wood hardener and plugged the large holes in the frame with structural wood-filler. Worried that this repair wouldnt be robust enough, I added structural timbers to the inside of the frame and then replaced the rotten wall panels.

This was a lot of hard physical work. It was also very challenging mentally. Deciding how to renovate the structure, then getting the timbers, cutting them exactly and fixing them in place with heavy screws.

As I child I wanted to be different to my father. He was very good at DIY and gardening. In later life he became a successful carpenter. I often watched him working - but usually from afar.

When I reached a point in my DIY when I didnt know how to do something, I stopped and wished my Dad was still around so that I could ask him. But instead of being completely flummoxed, I found that somehow I did know what to do. The knowledge I needed seemed to be inside me and I was able to puzzle it out. All those years ago, despite my studied separation, I had been paying attention.

After fixing the shed, I set about stripping out the rotten wood from the aviary. All the floor had to go. The frame was in a poor state with wet rot in the one end and down one side.  Emboldened, I decided to try and rebuild it (rather than completing the demolition).

I went through the same process of renovation as with the shed, but this time with larger timbers, more sawing and fixing, more hard physical work. Then I put new wall panels on, made a door and lo and behold I had a second garden shed. After working at this project most days for the past two weeks, I finished painting it yesterday afternoon.

I'm pleased with the results and with my success at this DIY challenge. I feel sure my father would also have been proud of me.

"It is not enough to have a good shed. The main thing is to use it well." Rene Descartes

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Lone Ranger

Panned by many critics, I decided to see this film for myself. Fond memories of the stirring William Tell Overture from the 1950's American TV series, repeated throughout my childhood on British television, drew me into the cinema.

I found an adventure film that was clunky in places but pretty entertaining overall, in a Pirates of the Carribean sort of way (after all, it was directed by Gore Verbinski). In other words, a film destined for repeat TV broadcasts on Boxing Day afternoons for semi-desperate families in search of distraction. And given the reputed $150 million loss on the film that the studio is said to be facing, there would need to be plenty of repeats.

Johnny Depp plays Tonto. With grey and black facepaint rather than Jack Sparrow eyeliner, he is a wily Commanche with a raven on his head and the witty narrator of the story. What unfolds is a myth of origin in which John Reid, a somewhat inept Texas lawyer, becomes transformed into the Lone Ranger after an ambush by outlaws that almost kills him. In the same ambush, his brother, a Texas Ranger, and five deputies are killed. Tonto rescues this gravely wounded tenderfoot and helps him to become the the legendary defender of justice who will right the wrongs perpetrated by the lawless on the frontier.

The film stays faithful to the original features of the Lone Ranger story, played out over 3000 American radio shows in the 1930's and 1940's, but at the same time cutely sends them up. This creates a tension which at times is funny and at others is rather grating.

Furthermore, the wrongs that the Lone Ranger now has to right have become much greater and include: gangster capitalism, the extermination of Native-Americans and the subversion of the military. This makes the film overlong and somewhat indigestible in places.

Yet there is great cinematography, the frontier West has rarely looked more starkly beautiful, and some dramatic action sequences. Overall I'd give it three stars.

Switch on Rossini and pass the Christmas cake. High-ho Silver, away!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Writers Group and Seamus Heaney

A workshop group for writers was begun in Belfast by Philip Hobsbaum in 1962. It was based at Queen's University and attracted young writers such as Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker, Bernard MacLaverty and Seamus Heaney.  

The writers group met weekly to share and discuss work in progress. In the early days, it also hosted an annual dinner and writing competition, as the pictures below show, with young Heaney and Longley to the fore. In 1966 Philip Hobsbaum left Belfast for Glasgow and Seamus Heaney became chair of the group.

This writers group has continued to meet ever since. Its membership list would almost read as a veritable roll-call of writers in Northern Ireland of the past 50 years. For example, the group has included Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson and Sinead Morrissey, to mention but a few of the many writers that have brought drafts of their work for fellow writers to read and comment on.

This is a very important and developmental process for any writer. I have been part of the writers group for the past 12 years and in that time the group has been led by Colin Teevan, Daragh Carville, Sinead Morrissey, Ian Sansom and Ciaran Carson who have helped a new generation of writers to come to the fore.

The writers group is holding its own tribute to Seamus Heaney on Weds 11 September. Please bring one poem of his to read that has a special meaning to you. We meet as usual in the Heaney Centre of Queen's University from 4-6 pm. All are welcome.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney

In June I went on a tour of the Heaney Country with a group of friends. The tour was led by Eugene Kielt, a native of Magherafelt and a Heaney enthusiast who has many Heaney artefacts in his guest house.

We travelled to Heaney's birthplace at Mossbawn (between Toome and Castledawson) and visited places in rural South Derry that had featured in many of his poems. At the age of 12 he began to move away, gaining a scholarship to a boarding school in Derry and from there he went to Belfast to study at Queen's.

His early life experience features so much in his poetry. This trip showed me just how formative his childhood wanderings and close observation of rural life had been. And just how much had changed in that country during the sixty years or so since. Instead of being populated by thatched farmsteads on wee lanes through the bogland, the country was filled with large detatched houses with wrought-iron gates and agribusinesses. But we went to two special places that were pretty much unchanged.

The forge: a tiny thatched cottage, where we were given a guided tour by the retired blacksmith, a contemporary of Seamus's, who had grown up there. The tiny cottage was divided in two by a curtain: on the one side the forge and bellows, surrounded by anvils, hammers and all manners of blacksmiths tools; on the other, a hearth with small black range and two armchairs, the family slept in the eaves on a wooden platform.

Lough Beg: not a true lough, but a widening of the river Bann into wetlands where cattle grazed and Seamus used to play with friends, most notably his cousin who was murdered by paramilitaries in 1975. This was the source of one of his finest poems.

May he rest in peace.

The Strand at Lough Beg

In Memory of Colum McCartney

All round this little island, on the strand
Far down below there, where the breakers strive
Grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand.
--Dante, Purgatorio, I, 100-3

Leaving the white glow of filling stations
And a few lonely streetlamps among fields
You climbed the hills toward Newtownhamilton
Past the Fews Forest, out beneath the stars--
Along the road, a high, bare pilgrim's track
Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads,
Goat-beards and dogs' eyes in a demon pack
Blazing out of the ground, snapping and squealing.
What blazed ahead of you? A faked road block?
The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?
Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights
That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down
Where you weren't known and far from what you knew:
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island's spire, its soft treeline of yew.

There you used hear guns fired behind the house
Long before rising time, when duck shooters
Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes,
But still were scared to find spent cartridges,
Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected,
On your way across the strand to fetch the cows.
For you and yours and yours and mine fought the shy,
Spoke an old language of conspirators
And could not crack the whip or seize the day:
Big-voiced scullions, herders, feelers round
Haycocks and hindquarters, talkers in byres,
Slow arbitrators of the burial ground.

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

RLS and Shetland

Robert Louis Stevenson is connected with Shetland in a number of interesting ways. Orkney and Shetland were the destination of his first sea voyage in 1869. He travelled there with his father (a renowned engineer) on a tour of inspection of the many lighthouses he had built in the islands. The most spectacular of these being on Muckle Flugga, a rocky outcrop off the wild north shore of Unst, the most northerly island of the Shetlands.

RLS was eighteen and his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a lighthouse engineer. He trained for this career for some months, but then went on to study Law at Edinburgh University. Here he began to write and gained his first publications. Towards the end of his life he wrote a series of essays about this early part of his life, explaining that he enjoyed the outdoor adventure part of being an engineer but not the office-bound majority of the work.

RLS was a prolific travel and adventure writer. And despite always being in poor health, he managed a great many adventurous journeys in his short life: travelling by canoe, donkey, train and boat across Europe, America, the Pacific and Australasia. He ended up living in Samoa and died there aged 44 years.

After publishing many articles and essays, his first major success was 'Treasure Island'. This work was started in 1881 and first serialised in a childrens magazine under the pseudonym Captain George North. The manuscript was revised and published as a book under his own name in 1883. RLS's map of Treasure Island bears a strong resemblance to Unst, the most northerly of the Shetlands.

I still have my copy of this book, given to me as a present on my seventh birthday.

The Sea Dog

I'm a plain man
been where it's hot as pitch
and colder than winter frost
huge sea tossing the fore-deck
ropes and mainsails thrumming
nor-easterly cutting yer bones,
many's the shipmate never come back
left under stones in a cove
wreck-wood across the grave -
skerries groaning, gulls screaming
black crags cleaving the surf.

I talks square I do
none can tell why he picked it
the Cap'n always a careful man
atop the cliff with his spyglass
no fields, not a tree
nary a lubber on the land
and us hauling the sea-chests after
cursing the wind and sleet.

Buried 'em?
                         I reckon us did
The map?
                         I won't peach
                         Thank'ee kindly
                         it's been meat and drink
man and wife to me.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Lughnasa, Cycling and the Wild Cat

Monday was Lughnasa, the pagan festival that marks the midpoint between the Summer and Autumn Solstices. Traditionally this festival celebrates the beginning of harvest and is marked by ceremonies of thanksgiving that often take place at the tops of hills and mountains.

Like many pagan festivals, Lughnasa has been assimilated by the established church in Ireland; for example, the blessing of fields and the annual pilgrimmage that takes place to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo.

I havent been to the tops of any mountains recently. Although I have been climbing hills, for I have begun to ride my bike again after a gap of three years. It feels very good to be back in the saddle with the fresh air on my face, especially in the warm weather we've been having.

There are plenty of fine rural rides that begin from my front door and proceed through back roads towards the Mountains of Mourne. This country is full of drumlins and you cannot go far without coming to steep little ascents (and descents). The old legs spin in my lowest gears and I just about manage to get up the hills with my thigh muscles complaining. Then the delight of sweeping downhill at speed, fields and hedgerows rushing by - before you reach the next uphill. I'm steadily getting fitter, but after the long layoff it's a slow process.

As I was nearing my home on my last ride, I spotted one of the wild cats that lives in the old graveyard. They arent true wild cats but are feral cats of a domestic breed; they behave like wild animals and keep well clear of people (they will run off if you get within thirty feet).

The wee cat leapt down from the hedge with something heavy in its mouth and began to trot up the road ahead of me.  Noticing my approach, the small cat (not much bigger than a kitten) tried to speed up, but was weighed down by what it was carrying. As I gained on it, the cat dropped its burden in the road and disappeared into the hedge.

I rode towards the little grey lump it had left lying in the road and saw that the cat had killed a baby rabbit (only a little smaller than itself). The cat had been hauling its prey back to its lair when I had startled it. I passed by feeling sure that the wee cat was watching me carefully and would retrieve the dead rabbit just as soon as the coast was clear.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Summer School

I've just returned from the John Hewitt Summer School. A writers' week of readings, talks, workshops and performances; all taking place in the Market Place Theatre of the dual-cathedral town of Armagh. A short stride across the leafy Mall (not a large shopping centre, but an Eighteenth Century racecourse) and you were soon immersed.

I particularly enjoyed the readings of Carlo Gebler, Penelope Shuttle, Gavin Corbett, James Byrne, Deirdre Madden, Conor O'Callaghan and Anne Enright. The Voice Squad in concert were great too - celebrating the melancholic in popular song. But my highlight was The Play of The Book by Ian Sansom and The Wireless Mystery Theatre. This was a very witty and inventive insight into the life of a writer and the trials of the creative process. It managed to be funny as well as profound - no mean achievement.

Writing is of course a solitary pursuit. Writers create things and interact with characters inside their head. So for me the past week has been a veritable overdose of stimulation. Each day filled with writers and talk about writing from nine in the morning till after closing time. Plenty of recollections and banter with old friends as well as the delight of making some new ones. It's all been great and now I'm coming down, like an addict from crack cocaine.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Old School

I recently revisited my old secondary school in Gloucester. This trip was not driven by nostalgia, for I have already written here that most of my teachers managed to instil in me a sense of inadequacy and failure which was reinforced by a culture of sadistic violence. Indeed, there was just one teacher who stood out as quite different, who managed to instil in me an enthusiasm for words and literature. His name was John Passey, and I wrote a tribute to him on 10 July 2012.

This return trip was driven by curiosity, for Central Technical School for Boys was about to be demolished. I felt the need to have one last look around the old place before it became rubble. It would then be transformed into playing fields for the new Gloucester Academy.

The old school hosted an open day for former pupils - in truth, a farewell. There were 55 years of memorabilia: old photos of pupils and staff, school magazines and files of newspaper cuttings. There was even a former teacher: Pierre, the spiky French teacher (nicknamed The Twitch), who was only 15 years older than us (although, at the time, he seemed ancient). On the day, Pierre was sought out and upbraided by Steve Pitman for a particularly humiliating exam mark given to him some 45 years ago - as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold!

Around 400 people attended this open day - a surprisingly large number. As I walked around I noticed how small everything seemed. The interior of the school was altered but I could still reel off the name and nickname of each teacher as I walked past their classroom. Few rooms were open. One of these was Nero's - the forbidding Welsh Maths teacher, who would prowl around while you slaved silently over your equations. Nero was well named, for he would often erupt into random violence. His speciality was repeatedly banging a kids head against the wall whilst getting the victim to recite the correct answer. I once saw him hit a kid so hard with the long pole that opened the top windows that he broke it in half across his back. To this day I have a fear of anything mathematical.

Astoundingly, some parts of the school were completely unchanged. The woodwork and metalwork rooms still had the same battered old benches with vices attached. And the gym still had the same wallbars, ropes and changing rooms. I remember Benny Hill standing at the exit from the showers with a cricket bat, whacking each kid across the buttocks with it as punishment for using too much warm water.

There were many such reminiscences and plenty of humour too. One of the exhibits was photos of graffiti found inside the small cupboard of the Geography room, where Basil Harris would exile kids in the dark after he had spreadeagled them over a desk and beaten them with his dap. The dap had a name, written across the forefoot (which for the life of me I cant recall). The kid that was to be punished was forced to go to the cupboard to collect the dap and bring it to Basil for his beating. The graffiti in the cupboard was a series of scratched names and dates effected by the kids in exile, one of which had the rider - 'the boy that Basil couldnt tame'.

I took lots of photos. I was glad I went back to see the place before it was demolished. In retrospect I still gained a great deal whilst I was at Central, despite the violence and humiliation that was normal there. I was young and a good learner, I made many friends, some of which I am still close to. But I dont believe they were the best days of my life. For, after I left the school at 18, it took me another decade to discover that in fact I wasnt stupid (the overriding message of the education I had received). At a turning point in my life, I took the plunge and returned to study as a mature student. I really enjoyed the challenge but was very surprised to gain a distinction in the Masters degree at Manchester University. Following that I was awarded a bursary to study for a Ph. D. and this led me into a successful career in academia.

My class photo, aged 15. Can anyone pick me out?

Wednesday, 26 June 2013


I followed-up the anniversary bike tour with a week's holiday in Shetland. I'm just back from that fine trip.

Shetland has a beautiful and dramatic coastline with great walking, loads of wildlife (Otters, Seals, Great Skuas, Puffins, Guillemots, Fulmars, Gannets, etc), well preserved neolithic settlements and at this time of the year it doesnt really get dark (the locals call it the Simmer Dim).

Shetland feels somewhat Scandinavian, its nearer Norway than Britain. There is an odd mix of very traditional lifestyles and the cosmopolitanism that comes with the international oil industry.

Surrounded by all that sea, the weather is extremely changeable. And different parts of the islands can have quite different weather. Over the week there was lots of fine sunshine (like New Zealand, the sun is very strong due to thin ozone and clean air) and several heavy storms. You can see how all those dramatic cliffs and sea stacks got sculpted.

This was my first holiday for over two years. All in all, it went very well. I gained a great deal (e.g. extended my boundaries) and managed the few setbacks OK. One of which was being attacked by the Shetland pony pictured below - they may be small and look cute but they are also vicious.

Here's looking to the next holiday - not arranged yet, but very soon.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Anniversary Tour

Saturday 8 June was a significant anniversary for me: two years since my big operation and two years free of the disease. I decided to mark it with an adventure. I would rent a motorbike (complete with clothes, boots and helmet) for the weekend.

I had passed my motorbike test in my twenties (before I gained a car license) but in those days, being a very poor mature student, I could only afford a cheap East German bike. On my trusty, but rather agricultural MZ I did plenty of trips to the mountains of Wales and Scotland (whilst also lusting after better bikes that were impossible for me to afford). In my early thirties came regular employment and cars. And in the years that followed I never returned to a motorbike.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up the Kawasaki 650cc Versys (the bike shop had recommended it as a good all-round machine). Nervously I circled the little industrial estate beside McCallen's bike shop a few times. Then I headed for the open road. I managed to stop and start without stalling at the first traffic lights. Before long I reached the dual carriageway and began to get up through the gears. Finding that 50mph felt alarmingly fast, I turned off onto side roads for the rest of the trip home.

After lunch I packed a small bag with maps, a change of underwear and my toothbrush. Strapping it to the pillion seat, I set off on my adventure. I hadn't a firm plan. I wanted to revisit some of the interesting places I'd found on my many cycling trips; I also wanted to explore. But I wasn't sure how I would get on with the bike and thought I might just do a day trip.

I headed off through backroads and down the dual carriageway into the Republic. I turned off to visit Monasterboice and Mellifont (the first Cistercian monastry in Ireland), then on through backroads to Kells and Trim, with its huge Norman castle that I first saw on my first trip to Ireland (shortly after I became a car driver). Feeling a little more confident, I rode on to the splendidly situated Fore Abbey and through Loughcrew to Oldcastle, where I found a room for the night.

Sunday was another fine sunny day. I headed cross-country through Cavan and over the Glenroy Pass to the Cliffs of Magho above Loch Erne. There I sat on a rock and lunched, whilst car-fulls of out-of-town police (here for the G8 summit) came up to photograph the views. After it was on to the coast at Mullaghmore (bunged with day trippers) and then back through the side roads of Donegal and Tyrone into the Sperrins. I was certainly getting more confident on the bike (despite the sore bum) and found some of my old skills returning, especially on the very winding and scenic backroute through the Owenkillew Valley.

Early in the evening I arrived at one of my favourite places, the stone circles at Beaghmore (built some 5000 years ago). I've visited this wonderful complex of stone circles and stone rows deep in the Tyrone moorlands many times and never found more than two other people there. Today in the warm evening sunshine I was completely alone. I wandered, reflected and took pictures. Then it was into Cookstown for food and petrol, and an hour and a quarter's ride home (with 65mph on the motorway feeling fast but just about okay).

I arrived back at dusk, very satisfied with my big weekend. Over 400 miles in a day and a half of touring. I had become a motorbike rider again. I decided that I'd rent a different bike another weekend and go away again. I all likelihood, I'd end up buying one of these bikes. 


Monday, 27 May 2013

The Halving

I attended a wonderful poetry reading by Robin Robertson in Dublin. I had been a fan since reading his collection, Swithering. In the small, seventeenth century, theatre in Temple Bar, he read from two more recent collections: The Wrecking Light and Hill of Doors, which was being launched in Ireland.

He is a marvellous reader. His resonant voice filled the rectangular cockpit space with its exposed brick wall and seats on three sides. His poems are fresh, compelling, and full of tension: being austere and powerfully imagistic, spare and deeply moving.

Early in the evening he read The Halving. A poem he wrote about his heart surgery and its aftermath. I was immediately transfixed. Then I began to shake with recognition.

After the reading I disclosed that I had suffered a similarly brutal invasion of my person and we spoke about surgery, post-operative depression and recovery. He explained that he had written this poem recently, some 25 years after the operation. I was at first a little surprised, given how fresh the poem felt. Then I told him I understood the necessary delay completely. After my hospitalisation, it had taken me the best part of two years to begin to write poetry at all again - and I hadnt written a word about my surgery.

The Halving

General anaesthesia; a median sternotomy
achieved by sternal saw; the ribs
held aghast by retractor; the tubes
and cannulae drawing the blood
to the reservoir, and its bubbler;
the struggling aorta
cross clamped, the heart chilled
and stopped and left to dry.
The incompetent bicuspid valve excised,
the new one - a carbon-coated disc, housed
expensively in a cage of tantalum -
is broken from its sterile pouch
then heavily implanted into the native heart,
bolstered, seated with sutures.
The aorta freed, the heart re-started.
The blood allowed back
after its time abroad
circulating in the machine.
The rib-spreader relaxed,
the plumbing removed, the breast-bone
lashed with sternal wires, the incision closed.

Four hours I'd been away: out of my body.
Made to die then jerked back to the world.
The distractions of delerium
came and went and then,
as the morphine drained, I was left with a split
chest that ground and grated on itself.
Over the pain, a blackness rose and swelled;
'pump-head' is what some call it
- debris from the bypass machine
migrating to the brain - but it felt
more interesting than that.
Halved and unhelmed,
I had been away, I said to the ceiling,
and now I am not myself.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Balmoral Show

This was the first time I had been to a large agricultural show. I found it fascinating: so many different animals, from huge Aberdeen Angus bull's to furry little rabbits. And every type of breed too: I saw so many strange sheep, including some that were all black apart from a white stripe down their nose.

I had a free ticket because Kabosh Theatre were doing a show called Inventors in a pop-up barn beside the cattle sheds. It was a series of short pieces on 19th Century Irish inventors, done in Music Hall style. We sat on bales of straw and watched the witty and wacky show, filled with songs and props as quirky as the inventors they were depicting.

Outside I roamed again and became engrossed in the show jumping. I stood right next to one of the fences and watched horses and riders soar over. A great day out.


Thursday, 16 May 2013

Robert Jeffcutt

This is the third anniversary of the death of my brother Rob.

Much loved and sadly missed.

Rob, Al, Gill and myself in 2009

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Celebration of Life

On Saturday, Phil and Nathan held a Celebration of Life party for Jean Morgan. Around eighty people gathered at the Community Centre just above the beach at Branksome Dene Chine for an afternoon of sharing stories, thoughts and photos of Jean.
There were friends, relatives and colleagues from the many places Jean, Phil and Nathan had lived and worked: Gloucester, Plymouth, Bristol, Poole, Woodgreen, Bath, Southampton, Brighton and many others. We ate, drank and chatted. I met people I hadn't seen for years and made friends with some people I had never met. It was a bittersweet occasion.
In the middle of the afternoon Phil called everyone together and invited us to join him and Nathan for a dip in the sea in memory of Jean. There was little hesitation from a majority of the company. Soon the Community Centre had become a changing room, as people stripped to reveal a range of bathing costumes.
We assembled on the beach. A cool wind blew under an overcast sky and most clutched towels around their shoulders. Waiting for stragglers to join us, we huddled like penguins on the Antarctic ice shelf.

Then Phil shouted 'cmon, lets go' and ran towards the sea. Some raced to join him, others strode purposefully. All gasped as the water hit them. It was chilled to 9 degrees. The skin tingled and smarted. Some dived in and swam. Others paddled, meeting the bracing waves on tiptoes. All returned to the beach with shivers and smiles.

About fifty members of the party had entered the sea. An element that Jean was at home in had briefly become ours too. Returning to the Community Centre we celebrated her life and her memory, enlivened.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Belfast Marathon Walk

I'm very pleased to say that all of the Sing for Life walking team completed the 9 mile Marathon Walk in good time today. The advance group, myself included, finished the walk in a little under two and a half hours. The weather was fine and with the enthusiasm of the event, we walked a good bit quicker than we had done in training.

A good proportion of the walking team are cancer survivors. I feel very proud of them all as I've been their trainer for the past couple of months. We undertook this challenge to raise funds for Cancer Focus, the primary cancer charity for Northern Ireland. People have been generous, many thanks to all of our donors. The Just Giving page is still open for donations.

I managed the walk very well, despite a few aches and pains en route. It felt very good to be involved in a mass participation event again (there were about 18,000 taking part today). I was remembering that my last big event of this sort was running the London Marathon in 1992, when I equalled my best time of three hours and twelve minutes (posted a decade earlier).
But that was a swansong of sorts, for a persistent back injury put paid to my running career a couple of years later. So I took up cycling and was very actively involved until not long before I became ill in 2011. I'm looking forward to getting back on the bike this summer.

The advance group all smiles at the finish

Monday, 29 April 2013

Sing for Life Walk

There is one week to go to the Belfast Marathon Walk and I am in good form and in good heart.
Around 15 members of the choir are walking 9 miles next Monday to raise awareness of the Sing for Life choir and to raise money for Cancer Focus.
Many thanks to those that have donated already.
At present we are a little over halfway to the £500 total we are trying to reach.
Remember, all donations are going to a very good cause - Cancer Focus.
The link to the online donations page for Sing for Life is below.
Every pound you donate will go straight to Cancer Focus.

So please dig deep.

Thank you,


Donating to good causes through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell them on or send unwanted emails. Online donation saves time and cuts costs for the charity.


Monday, 22 April 2013

Jean Morgan RIP

The natural burial took place on a sapling-covered hilltop near Yealmpton, between Dartmoor and the sea. Skylarks were singing and the sun shone.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Jean Morgan

Jean died in hospital on Tuesday aged 56 following a short illness. After years of being all-clear, in January her cancer came back very aggressively. Jean was given chemotherapy but to no avail. She is survived by husband Phil and son Nathan.

Jean and Phil were married for 35 years. Phil is my oldest friend, we met when we were both eleven and became good mates. As a teenager I spent all of the weekend at his house countless times and made friends with younger brother Terry. We kept in close touch as we moved in different directions to study and for work.

Phil and Jean were living in Poole when Gill and I moved to Southampton. We became very close as couples: spending weekends with each other, going on walking trips and holidays together. Especially memorable were our tours of Normandy and Brittany, where we drove around staying in Logis de France. At lunch and dinner we challenged each other to find the most interesting dishes on the menu. All four of us would chose something different, try each others food and then vote on who had chosen the best dish. Jean was often the winner.

This all came to a halt when Gill was killed in an accident. I couldn't bear to go back to our new house, we had only moved in three weeks previously. So Jean and Phil kindly invited me to stay in their house. I did this for many weeks before I plucked up the courage to turn the key in my door and walk in. Even then I would only go to the new house during the day and then return to Phil and Jean's for the evening and night. It took me several months before I was able to return home and stay overnight.

Not long after, Jean became pregnant with Nathan. I was pleased to be the first visitor the day after he was born. Jean had told Phil she wanted a drink of Guinness and we brought several cans with us to the hospital. Jean eagerly opened the can and a jet of foaming Guinness flew all over her, the bed and the baby. Yes, Nathan was christened in the black stuff. Perhaps this might go some way to explaining his later prowess at rugby.

Jean and Phil had a very good relationship. They were also unconventional: Jean was the breadwinner and Phil the house-husband. This was a very unusual arrangement for the late 1980's but it worked successfully. Indeed, Nathan has grown up to be a very well-balanced young man who has already achieved a great deal: professionally and in sport. After I moved from southern England I would meet them for trips away, or stay with them for long weekends or sometimes meet them at Gloucester rugby games (see below).

Jean was an information systems specialist who worked for banks and big insurance companies both directly employed and as a freelance. She was a very strong swimmer and loved to be in the sea, an affection that had been nurtured from her childhood in Plymouth. Jean was a person of principle. A committed environmentalist and a long-standing member of Greenpeace, she lived a green lifestyle: campaigning, organics only, no flying, etc.

When I became ill with cancer in 2011, Jean was one of the key friends who supported and encouraged me during my treatment and recuperation. I did my best to reciprocate during her illness. We were companions in the fight against the 'Big C'. Jean endured this great struggle with good heart and concern for others.

A small family funeral will take place near Plymouth next Friday. In keeping with her wishes, Jean will be buried in a wicker casket in woodland. May she rest in peace.

Jean, Terry, Nathan and Phil in Gloucester in 2008

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Snows

A couple of weeks back we had a prolonged Easterly blizzard. It was late March and unusually cold with strong Arctic winds. Where I live is 130 feet above sea level and we got about one foot of snow at most. But it was quite different in the low hills behind my house. These hills are 500-800 feet high and were soon very deep in snow. Many hill farms were cut off and much livestock was lost as lambs had only recently been born.

After some days many of the wee roads were opened by snow blower, farmers were able to move around by tractor and some livestock were rescued. On a journey that took me into the hills, I went through snowdrifts that ranged from 5 to 10 feet deep.

Two weeks later, all the snow around me has melted but on the hills and mountains it is still deep. The main road through them has now been closed due to the avalanche risk. Over 8000 farm animals died in the snowstorm.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Sing for Life - online donations

In my last posting I gave my news about entering the Marathon Walk on May 6 to raise funds for Cancer Focus. The Sing for Life walking team might not be the fastest on the route but we should certainly be the most tuneful.
Since then I've received several offers of sponsorship.
That's great, thank you very much.
So I've set up a JustGiving page for online donations.
Donating to good causes through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell them on or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to the charity. Online donation saves time and cuts costs for the charity. Every pound you donate will go straight to Cancer Focus.

So please dig deep.

Thank you.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Sing for Life

I joined a new choir last year. It's called Sing for Life and was set up by Cancer Focus and the Crescent Arts Centre. The choir is for anyone affected by cancer, whether that person is yourself, a family member or a friend. With these criteria, it pretty much includes everyone.

We are a community choir of over fifty strong. None of us are particularly expert singers but we all get a great buzz from taking part. We sing a wide range of material from medieval (Gaudete) to traditional (Danny Boy) to soul (Lean on Me). We perform too, with gigs at the Black Box (16 April) and Fisherwick Church (22 April) coming up.

This year Cancer Focus is the main charity of the Belfast Marathon, which takes place on 6 May. Their aim is to raise awareness of men's cancers and to raise funds. They asked if they could use my cancer story in their publicity and I agreed.

I also suggested to choir members that we formed a team to enter the Marathon Walk (9 miles). A walking group began and we started meeting every couple of weeks to train for the event. I'm pleased to say that the walking team is now 15 strong and we're looking forward to taking part on May 6.

Is anyone willing to sponsor me (every pound will count) to complete the Marathon Walk on 6 May?

The Daily Mirror is the newspaper linked to the Belfast Marathon and last Saturday this piece appeared (apologies for the cheesy headline).

Sunday, 17 March 2013


Eggshells, yoghourt, poultry, bones,
brussels sprouts with daughter's groans,
breakfast scraps - organics only,
peelings, gristle, slice of pony,
blancmange, tapioca, scorched cake,
curled-up sandwiches from a wake,
dead-heads, clippings, twigs, leaves,
couscous, penne, spuds and cheese,
brown bin swallows with a belch,
regurgitates all as garden mulch.
A found poem,
derived from a recycling leaflet.