Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Unexpected Call

A week ago I got an unexpected phone call. It was from the office of a bone cancer specialist at Musgrave Park Hospital. I needed to come in and see Mr Barr. I was given an appointment, it was for just five days ahead. As I put down the phone, I began to worry.

I knew the scan I'd had last month had shown up something strange - a lesion inside my left femur. I'd sent the report to my kidney specialist, who'd treated me for cancer in 2011, and he told me he was sending it on to a bone cancer specialist. It was good to see the NHS working so quickly, I told myself. But being called in by phone with just five days notice was suspiciously quick. Too quick. It could only mean one thing - bad news.

I looked up the lesion on the internet. These bone lesions were common and ninety percent of them were benign and untroublesome. The rest were sinister: early-stage chondrosarcomas. Oh dear, I thought, I'd done well over the past three and a half years but now my luck seemed to be running out. The five days to the appointment were interminable. I did my best to distract myself: easier in the day, almost impossible at night.

At last, I drove in to Musgrave Park and sat in the waiting room. The clinic nurse, a Sri Lankan, couldn't pronounce my surname and called out 'Mr Paul'. I stood up and she escorted me along the corridor to the small consulting room. I sat alone for a while, then a young man of Middle Eastern appearance came in accompanied by three pasty-faced teenagers. He introduced himself as Mr Barr's Senior Registrar and asked if I minded the medical students being there. Too wound up to speak, I shook my head. He told me to get on the couch and roll up my trouser leg. I complied and he conducted a thorough examination of my left knee, giving a running commentary to the students.

The Senior Registrar then fixed me in his gaze, 'I've looked at your scan,' he said.

I nodded.

'You have a lesion in your left femur,' he said, pointing to the spot.

I nodded again, trembling.

'It's nothing to worry about,' he said.

I heaved a large sigh, then grinned.

He smiled back, 'it's probably been there since childhood.'

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Seamus Heaney at the BBC

Not only did we have a great day out in Magherafelt (and a splendid meal at Church Street) but I learnt a good deal about Seamus Heaney. T and I joined the On Home Ground Festival last Friday and caught up with Geraldine and Eugene Kielt, Maura Johnston, Marie-Louise Muir, James Kerr and Medbh McGuckian. Excellent readings and performances of course, but for me the most memorable was to see two of the many programmes that Seamus Heaney made for BBC NI, followed by a talk from Pat Loughrey, the ex-Controller of BBC NI, about Heaney's work for the BBC.

I only had a sketchy knowledge of Heaney's broadcasting work. I didn’t realise that he had begun working for the BBC in 1966, having been introduced by Philip Hobsbaun, the leader of the Belfast Group. At first Heaney worked only for the Schools Broadcasting Department, writing and narrating radio broadcasts for children on diverse topics such as language, mythology, landscape, poetry, childhood and farming practices.

In many ways this was a radical step for BBC NI, for here was a Catholic nationalist writing and narrating programmes at a time when such voices were not normally in positions of authority on the airwaves. Yet Heaney also had impeccable credentials, as a lecturer at Queen's and being published by Faber and Faber. Surprisingly, Heaney's early radio work passed off with very little comment in NI. Whereas, his later television work (a series of programmes in a similar vein to his radio work) provoked more reaction, being described by some as 'papist propaganda'.

Heaney was a gifted broadcaster. The films I saw were apparently simple, but with considerable depth. The first concerned the language of boundaries as Heaney roamed across the landscape of his childhood in South Derry. The second was set in Lough Erne and concerned pagan beliefs and the early Christian church. Heaney had a natural flair for engagement with both his subject and the audience - he informed, educated and entertained. As Pat Loughrey observed, his scripts were almost written in verse.

Well done to Marie-Louise Muir for putting together the excellent Festival programme at Laurel Villa. Many thanks to Geraldine and Eugene for their hospitality. It's a little over a year since Seamus' passing and only now are we becoming able to assess the extent of our loss. He was not just a great writer but also a great broadcaster (amongst other things) - all in all, a great communicator.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

As I was Young and Easy under the Apple Boughs

My front room is filled with the sweet must of freshly harvested apples. There has been a good crop this year, around two hundred and fifty apples from my sole tree. Most fruits are large, well ripened and tasty. Indeed, this year some are very large, a fair bit bigger than an orange.

I grew up on a smallholding with a sizeable orchard filled with apple, plum and pear trees. There was also a hazel that produced a good crop of nuts. I patrolled the orchard every day, herding geese and chickens with a stick. My favourite tree to climb was the hazel, it had a spread of hanging branches and I would haul myself up to survey my demesne through its swaying boughs.

When, as a teenager, I began to read poetry, Fern Hill quickly became my favourite. I had left my orchard years before, when we moved to a village near Gloucester. So Dylan Thomas' tone of loss chimed with me, even though I was only fourteen. And then it was just a couple of years until I followed his path and began a drinking career - on scrumpy, of course, in a back street cider-house called The County Arms.

This hostelry, long since demolished, was a drinking den for those with little money. It sold only cider, most of it locally made, very strong and extremely cheap. The place was run by a wizened old woman, called Mother, and her son, called Ocker, a silent brute three times her size. They had little regard for the licensing laws, or any others for that matter, as long as you had money to pay for your drink you were alright.

The County Arms was dirty and disreputable - me and my schoolpals loved it. The place was full of characters: one old fella, called Bristol, would sing sea shanties and do hornpipes around the pub to earn money for his next pint of scrumpy, another would tell tales of his adventures which included fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Ah, when I was young and easy. I hardly take a drop anymore. I only have one kidney now and I'm looking after it. It's great that my apples are good eaters.