Monday, 28 December 2015

Nil by Mouth

My Xmas holiday in Belfast didn’t quite work out as planned. Like many journeys the beginning seemed to go as expected. After a light breakfast at 7.30am I had come in to Belfast City Hospital on Tuesday Dec 15th and was registered at the Day of Surgery Unit. Mine was to be the final procedure in theatre that day. I got into the gown and lay on the bed, holding hands with T.  After an anxious age the porters were there and I was being wheeled along the corridor on the bed, fluorescent lights blinking past my eyes.  T followed me to the theatre door. We blew kisses. Then she was gone.

The consent form had a long list of possible problems, but I signed it. Then I was moved onto a narrow surgical bed with ankle rests, banks of bright lights overhead and a group of people in theatre scrubs talking jocularly in the corner. The anaesthetist introduced himself, put an injection into my spine and then settled me back with a mask over my face. ‘It’s now 3.20’, was the last thing I heard him say. Then I was in the Recovery Room, mask still over my face.

‘Hello Paul, are you in pain?’ Yesssss: fire burning in the centre of my guts. She gave me a shot of morphine. Do you need more?  Yes, oh yes! She gave me another. The fire continued to burn. I pleaded for more. ‘I can’t’ she said, ‘you’ve had the maximum dose’ and went to get the anaesthetist. He asked me about the pain and then gave me some ketamine, saying ‘this might make you feel a bit disorientated.’ The room spun but the fire receded. They told me it was 5.30pm.

A couple of hours later I was wheeled into Ward 3 South. I asked a nurse to get my phone. I rang T. Soon she was beside me and we embraced. I asked a nurse for a drink of water, she brought me a glass filled with small ice cubes to suck on. This was all I was allowed. A foot-long wound sliced down my belly, looping around my belly button. And a catheter had been fitted. I was very sore front and back and extremely bloated. A saline drip was hooked up above, with paracetamol and antibiotics pumped in through the cannula on my arm. After T left I tried to sleep, but I felt so disorientated that all I could do was doze and even this was interrupted by checks of blood pressure, pulse and temperature (‘the obs’) every hour. I woke up to the recognition that I was installed in the same bed-space that I had been placed in during my last incarceration in the ward. No wonder I had been so afraid of T leaving me last night.

At the ward round on the first day (Weds) I was told by my surgeon that they had a problem with the incision into my abdomen. My small intestine was very compacted with adhesions from my major surgery in 2011 and when removing these they had caused a small tear in the bowel which had to be stitched. The good news was that the tumour appeared to be fully encapsulated in healthy cells (its disguise), was only attached to the abdominal wall and was easy to remove. He thought I was likely to be in hospital for up to a week.

I remained in bed all day on drips and munching on little ice-cubes. In the evening I was helped by T to get out of the bed and sit in the chair. It was a painful struggle to get one step from the bed. And just trying to sit still for half an hour took all of my strength as staying upright seemed to use all my very sore abdominal muscles.

I soon got used to the regular patterns of ward life (wake-up, bed-making, obs, breakfast, ward round, drug trolley, obs, dinner, drug trolley, obs, visitors, tea, obs, visitors, drug trolley, bedtime) that I remembered from my previous time in the ward in 2011. As the days went on I found I remembered many of the nurses from before; indeed, several recognised me as a returning customer.

On the Thursday I managed an unsteady little walk, aided by T who kept tight hold of my arm. I still felt very sore and bloated. I was allowed fluids and drank water and Ribena but suffered also from belching, hiccups and waves of nausea. I still felt very disorientated and found it hard to concentrate or read. Friday was similar, but I managed to get out of bed by myself and walk down the corridor on my own.  I began to cough up some phlegm and did so regularly thereafter.

On the Saturday the catheter was removed and I was told I was allowed to try solid foods. I tried an inch of vegetable soup in the bottom of a bowl. My guts felt compacted and completely bloated. It was hard to get even a tiny bit of soup down. Afterwards my belching and hiccups increased then I vomited. Despite being given anti-sickness medication, I vomited five times during the rest of the day, my temperature spiking up too. They sent me for an X Ray, the report said that there was no obvious obstruction to the bowel.

On the Sunday I was put back on fluids only but there was more vomiting with fever spikes, followed by dry retching. Exacerbated by my abdominal wound, this was very painful and distressing. But the worst was still to come. Overnight I had four hours of hiccupping. Once or twice might be amusing, but when it goes on and on and on without any break the experience is deeply purgatorial. The nursing staff could give me no relief. I rang T at 2am howling with anguish.

On the Monday, despite my protestations, the team decided to continue with the same treatment as the day before. My fever increased, as did my nausea and distress. I spent much of the day lying on my bed in a sort of hallucinatory dozing. Strange faces appeared to me, looming in front of my eyes, along with the routine sounds from the room. The nurses seemed to be avoiding me. The consultant said he would come back to see me but didn’t arrive. I spent the evening dry retching and then the hiccups started again. This time they went on for seven hours. I moaned and groaned throughout in complete despair. I pleaded for help from doctors and nurses but they said there was nothing they could do for me. At 4am in complete desperation I called out to God for help. Within a minute the hiccups had stopped.

I lay panting with exhaustion. The nurse checked my temperature, it was nearly 39 degrees. She brought me a fan to try and cool me down and began to administer intravenous antibiotics. I dozed for a couple of hours and woke on Tuesday morning feeling lucid for the first time since the operation. At the ward round they decided to send me for an urgent CT scan, suspecting some infection in my abdomen. As usual I was asked to drink a litre of heavy water beforehand. I thought I would be unable to manage it without vomiting, but strangely enough I managed to drink about half of it and keep it down.

I was taken down in a wheelchair by a porter for the scan. As I was wheeled back into the ward a doctor was waiting for me. She pulled the curtain around and told me to get up onto the bed. You have a collapsed left lung and a chest infection she said, caused by the bloating of your stomach. I need to put this NG tube down into your stomach to relieve the pressure. She produced a long coil of plastic tubing with a valve at the one end and began to spread anaesthetic gel on the other end. Then she got me to sit up and put my head back. She threaded the end of the tube up my nose and down the back of my throat. I began to gag and retch but, with some words of encouragement, she kept pushing the tube right down until I could feel the end almost under my ribs. She then got a large syringe and attached it to the other end of the tube and began to pull out the contents of my stomach. At first little appeared, then, with a gurgle, a flush of greenish fluid appeared in the tube. I gasped. Bile, she said, the liver produces it at a constant rate, so we need to drain it. She finished up by taping the tube going into my nose and around the back of my ear. Now you’re Nil by Mouth again she said. I sat on the bed confused, I told her that I had been much worse overnight and the day before.

I also need to take some arterial blood, she said, producing a small hypodermic. It’s an accurate measure of blood oxygen levels, but it can hurt a little. She grasped my wrist and felt for my pulse. Then she dug the needle in deep. At first nothing came, so she hoked around until blood spurted up into the barrel of the syringe. Finally, a nurse came in and fitted a small clear bag to the end of the stomach pipe. She put up a drip again and left me with a cup of ice with a plastic teaspoon in it.

In the next couple of hours I was visited by three concerned specialists. First, the head of the Intensive Care Unit came, who was assessing me for being transferred there. I told her I would gladly have gone to the ICU yesterday but I felt I was improving today. She agreed. Second, two general surgeons came who were assessing me as to whether I needed emergency surgery to save a major organ from failure, they were worried about my collapsed lung and the possibility that my constricted stomach might lose some blood supply. After some discussion between them they turned to me and said, well we’re not going to operate tonight. I gasped with relief. They seemed a little disappointed and strode away saying they would be monitoring my bloods carefully.

I felt exhausted and rested for much of the day on the bed, taking some small walks with T up and down the corridor. I noticed that people seemed to avoid eye contact. Then I caught sight of myself. I looked like an alien: a tube emerging from one nostril, looping across one side of my face, behind one ear and then down my neck into a clear bag with greenish liquid at the bottom. I was glad that my problem was now being taken seriously. My condition had been much much worse and the ward staff had not acted on it soon enough.

On the Wednesday morning I was visited by a specialist from Respiratory Medicine. He told me that he had looked at my scans from before and after surgery and concluded that my diaphragmatic hernia had not got worse. He thought that the collapse of the lung was caused by surgical gas distending the stomach into the lung cavity like a balloon. This meant that the problem would go away as the gas dissipated and would also improve as my bowels moved. I had been bunged up now for eight solid days. This was normal after abdominal surgery and was called ileus, bowel movements usually began again naturally. He encouraged me to walk more and do more breathing exercises, which would be good for both my lung and bowels. He told me that my blood oxygen levels were now normal.

I went out of the ward and down in the lift to the ground floor, I walked to the front entrance around the foyer and up the steps to the Cancer Centre, and then returned to the ward. The alien carrying a bag with green stuff in it got plenty of strange looks from strangers who rapidly glanced away as soon as my baleful eye was upon them. During the rest of the day, I did this three times. Each time I got farts but nothing more. There seemed to be a log stuck in my back passage that would not move.

On the Thursday morning I was given an enema. I walked up and down the corridor but did not stray far from the toilet. A wise move as I was soon in there straining away at the log, which put up strong resistance but eventually emerged.  Next the bag was taken off the end of my nose tube and sealed. This made walking around much easier. I was also told I could sip fluids and try some light food. After nine days without eating this was great news. At first I had felt so rough that I wasn’t hungry, and then I felt very nauseous so food smelt unpleasant. So not eating anything had become normal. And now I was very weak.

I first tried a strawberry yoghourt. It tasted good. I ate half of the small pot then stopped, it was a lot to get down. After about five minutes I ate the rest. It was a strange feeling to have food in my gut again. I decided to wait and see how it went before I tried some more.

A porter took me for a chest X-ray and when I got back I had tea and toast. I went on my regular walkabout a few times. Later I tried some chocolate. T arrived with a big bag of Xmas decorations. My bed soon becomes Santa’s Grotto: red lights across the back, tinsel across the top and sides, flickering candles, and a large red stocking. He certainly shouldn’t be able to miss me this year.

For tea I had scrambled egg on toast, then another yoghurt. It was Christmas Eve, a nursing auxiliary came in wearing a Darth Vader cape and a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer headdress. T and I went to the small hospital church three floors down for a candlelit service. The alien was one of only four patients in the packed room. We sang carols and took communion.

I never expected to be spending Xmas Day in hospital. But you never know how things can turn out. I woke up in the morning in Santa’s Grotto. The normal routines were happening around me. For the hospital it was just another day. My chest felt clear for the first time. I put my hand into my red stocking and pulled out sweets and lovely card from T. She’s been so very loving and thoughtful every day. I don’t know what I would have done without her. And thankfully I don’t need to find out.

My second Xmas present was the NG tube out. It was great not to have it irritating your nose and the back of your throat. My third Xmas present was to be told that the X-ray showed that my lung had reinflated. Then a porter dressed as Santa walked the ward ringing a bell and shouting: Merry Christmas.

The first meal I ate was the hospital Xmas dinner. We pulled crackers and I placed the party hat on my head. I managed some white meat, mashed spud and carrots, but felt pretty full after. I went for my normal walkabout and was very pleased to then have a natural bowel movement (my fourth Xmas present). T arrived and stayed the afternoon and evening. We spend it eating treats, watching TV in the ward day room and going walkabout in the empty hospital.

But my best present of all was being told on Boxing Day that I could go home. All in-patient treatment had been completed. All my bodily systems were fully functioning. And what I needed most of all was to recuperate. Hospital was not the right place to undertake that. It was an environment that was bright and noisy by day and by night, a place where your rest would always be interrupted.

I was given a bag with five days of oral antibiotics and three weeks of blood thinning injections to administer myself. Then T came and helped to dismantle Santa’s Grotto. We decided we would postpone our Xmas to New Year. I couldn’t wait to get back home. I’d spent my twelve days of Xmas in hospital, nine without any food and three of these nil by mouth. It was certainly an Xmas experience to remember. 

Monday, 14 December 2015

Keeping the Faith

Thank you all very much for your friendship, support and good wishes. I shall carry these with me.
I go into Belfast City Hospital tomorrow morning. Surgery is scheduled for the afternoon. I expect to be in Ward 3 South afterwards.
I will be back in touch as soon as I can.
Paul xxx

Friday, 11 December 2015

Keep the Faith

I have some bad news. My cancer has returned. After four and a half years of being all clear I thought I had escaped. But apparently the type of renal cancer I had can produce localised recurrences many years later. The lump in my abdomen was discovered seven weeks ago and I am scheduled to have surgery next week. My specialist told me that, despite a poor prognosis, I had done extremely well against this cancer the first time round. And there was no reason to believe I would not do so again.

I hope to be out of hospital and back home for Xmas to recuperate with T.

Keep the faith.

Paul xxx

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Biopsy

At 7am the normally bustling foyer of Belfast City Hospital is almost empty. Outside the cafe a tired looking doctor in surgical gear is grasping a coffee and bun. I walk past her and down the long stark corridor to the Day of Surgery Unit. It’s busy, the eight bed ward has two nurses taking case histories from anxious looking men. I am directed to the bed in the corner, my name and my consultants name is written on a white-board above it. I sit in the chair beside the bed and sigh. I have become a patient again.

In a short while Nurse Josie comes, draws the blue curtain around the bed and begins to take my case history. Between the questions about my medications, previous surgery and whether I have been at risk of CJD, we chat about places we knew in Glasgow (where she trained and I used to live). At the end she takes four vials of blood for different tests and attaches a label to each of my wrists. Sometime later a junior doctor appears, double-checks most of my case history and inserts a cannula into my forearm.

There is nothing left to do but get into my gown, sit on the bed and wait for the procedure. I exchange anxious glances and a few sentences with the patient opposite. James is in for an angioplasty. But soon we subside into our own well of fears. I try and distract myself reading the newspaper. Then a porter arrives and manoeuvres James’ bed out of the ward. All that is left is the whiteboard with his name and a pile of clothes on the bedside chair.

It’s not too long before they come for me. I am wheeled into a small theatre in Radiology. My details are checked and the surgeon shows me the long thin pair of scissors he will use for the procedure. Soon I am watching them on a high magnification screen as they are inserted into my side. The scissors penetrate under the skin and muscle and into my lump. It doesn’t look like a satsuma, more like a knobbly potato; it bulges at one end and is slimmer at the other. The surgeon clicks the scissors and they cut a sliver from my lump and capture it in a tiny tray. He withdraws the scissors, places the sliver in a little jar and does the procedure again, taking a piece from a different part of the lump. It’s a very strange experience. I feel next to nothing as I’ve been given local anaesthetic, just like at the dentist.

Afterwards I’m wheeled back to the ward and prescribed four hours bed rest with my pulse and blood pressure to be checked every half an hour, in case of any internal bleeding. I’m also allowed to eat and drink (having been fasting from midnight) but my first bite is an NHS cooked dinner: cold mashed potato, soggy cauliflower and a greasy slab of grey pork. I’m not allowed visitors.

At 4pm I’m permitted to leave. After nine hours in the same hospital that I spent five difficult weeks in during 2011 I’m feeling exhausted. I trudge back to the foyer and get coffee and cake from the cafe. I’m very glad that T is there to take me home.

The samples from my lump will be sent to the laboratory and I’m told I ought to get the results in a week or so. The anxious waiting continues.

Monday, 23 November 2015


I switched on my mobile at around 9 am and found a voicemail from my GP. ‘Please come and see me, I’ve made an appointment for you at 11.30 today.’ I gulped and put the phone down. This could not be good news. T drove me into Belfast and we sat in the waiting room. It was full of parents and babies.

The GP handed me the results of the CT scan and talked me through the report, at one point drawing a diagram on the page to illustrate the medical terms. The scan confirmed the lump in the right side of my abdomen. It was two inches in diameter, the size of a satsuma. I now needed a biopsy to test whether the lump was cancerous.

I walked out of his office, scan report in hand, and we went down the stairs to the street. T held my hand tightly. I had to concentrate hard on walking, my legs seemed very far away. We sat in a coffee shop and tried to absorb the news. She peered at my GP’s childlike drawing, strangely incongruous with the weight of the words on the page.

I began to recall my younger brother, who had died of cancer five and a half years ago. His tumour had been misdiagnosed and before it was treated had already spread. He lasted about nine months.

‘We’re in this together’ said T. I nodded and stretched out my hand across the table to her. We clasped. Our time of waiting had become harder.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015


I had a routine ultrasound scan on my abdomen three weeks ago. The two radiologists spent a long time investigating my right side, moving the sensor over the area again and again, asking me to breathe in and hold my breath. I wasn’t expecting such a going over. At the end, one told me that they had found an abnormality below my right kidney.

What sort of abnormality, I said?

A lump, he said.

I gasped.

He smiled nervously. We’re sending you for a full CT scan.

When, I asked?

With your history, he said, glancing at my notes, I think you’ll be called in pretty soon.

I went home. It was difficult to focus on anything other than my fear. I rang T.

We’ll get through this, she said, whatever it is.

I hope so, I said. I didn’t want to put down the phone. But in the end I had to. I reckoned the CT scan wouldn’t happen for weeks. And I didn’t know how I would get through this day, let alone all the others.

It is four and a half years since my cancer diagnosis. Then I was told that I had a one in three chance of dying within five years. That prognosis hung over me like a very dark cloud for several years. But I’d fought back and had turned the tables. This year I’d been doing so well and feeling fit and healthy again. Now the odds seemed to have turned against me.

I rang my brother. Try not to worry, he said.

Easier said than done, I replied. I’d been doing nothing else all day.

Don't worry, was the advice I was given most often. I became tired of hearing it. It felt depleting and seemed to add to my burdens. I spent a restless night.

In the morning I began to remember how I had found a way to get through the early dark days of cancer treatment. I broke each day down into parts. Then I organised something for each of those parts. I would do something, meet someone, and so on. It could be as simple as going for a walk: sufficient unto the day.

The night is a separate challenge in itself. But if you have filled your day then you will be tired and will sleep a while even if it is interrupted (as it surely will be).

None of this stops you having bleak episodes. They come unbidden. They come whenever they will. They can insert themselves into any moment. They come when something reminds you of the dark past. They come when something triggers a sense of loss of the future. They can always subvert the here and now. You just have to get through and beyond them.

This is a survival strategy. Like Ivan Denisovich, you do your best to get through each part of a day and a night. And then you do it all over again. And again.

In a week or so the appointment letter for the scan came. The date of the appointment was ten days ahead.

I kept on keeping on: living and worrying.

The CT scan has just taken place. And now I am waiting for the results. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Azure Coast

Between St Tropez and San Remo lies a coastline that is warm throughout the winter. It is also blessed with a famous clarity of light that intensifies colour. Over centuries it has attracted a series of visitors: invalids, the aristocracy, painters, writers, starlets and the super rich. T and I joined this odd list last week and found plenty to enjoy and much to bemuse.

We were staying in Cannes and made day trips to Nice, Antibes, Grasse, St Paul de Vence and Monaco. Every day was warm and most days were very sunny with clear azure skies and temperatures up to 25 degrees Celsius. The coast is very attractive, rocky bays girded with pines that back onto steep hills topped by fortified villages that rear up again to snow-capped mountains.

Ostentatious displays of wealth and privilege are commonplace. The Croisette at Cannes has palm trees and sand (both imported) with grand hotels and upmarket fashion shops. The marina has row upon row of large motor yachts, whilst the bay holds those yachts too big to be moored at the quay. These vulgar displays attract an audience of wannabees, imitators and hangers on with an associated bling industry that supplies their needs.

Yet there is also much that is genuine in the town. A large market filled with a cornucopia of fresh local produce: fish, meat, vegetables, herbs, cheese, fruit, spices, bread and conserves. Everything seems to grow well in this climate, including bananas. The narrow streets that surround the market are filled with small cafes, bars and restaurants. These are predominantly places for locals. We frequented Aux Bons Enfants, a great little restaurant with a fixed price menu that offered new dishes every day, depending on what they had bought that morning from the market – fantastic food at a very reasonable price. They had a small picture on the wall of Nicholas Sarkosy and Carla Bruni, who had once eaten there.

Most of the places we visited seemed to have this character: an ostentatious front that was focused on exclusivity and charging the highest prices, and a more genuine background, which you had to dig for, that was more local and traditional. In Antibes, the old walled town and its market was alongside the largest marina with the most expensive motor yachts on the Riviera. In Nice, the narrow streets of the old town with their captivating little church squares were below the grand hotels that were built on hillsides for the European aristocracy who, during the nineteenth century, set up court there for six months of the year. The exception of course was Monaco, a very exclusive tax-haven with a famous casino (the top floor of a beautiful opera house) whose raison d’ĂȘtre is wealth and privilege.

We enjoyed St Paul de Vence, a medieval walled town built on the crown of a hill, now filled with art and trinket shops and adorned with sculptures. Grasse, another hill town, was the traditional home of the French perfume industry and has a most interesting perfume museum. Our favourite place was the island of St Honorat, just 30 minutes by boat from Cannes but also a world away: we wandered through the pines, picnicked on the battlements of a fortified abbey at the edge of the sea and soaked up the warm sunshine. Soon we would be going home to cold and fog.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Play's The Thing

During October, T and I have seen a play a week. We’ve enjoyed being avid theatregoers. All of the plays we saw are featured in the Belfast Festival. They all have been very different in their approach and some have worked much better than others.

We started off with ‘The Night Alive’ by Conor McPherson at the Lyric. Despite the excellent acting, Adrian Dunbar and Laurence Kinlan in particular, and direction, a series of well staged exits and entrances to a scruffy bedsit in Dublin, I came away disappointed. The characters were all somewhat stock: the struggling antihero, his devoted best mate, the tart with a heart, the father figure, the threatening outsider. Too much time was spent building the two central characters, which we know anyway, and not enough on the development of the other characters who remained as sketches. The drama of their interactions suffered as a consequence. Conor McPherson is very good at dialogue and is an excellent director, but I felt there was a much better play straining to get out.

Next was ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ at the Grand Opera House, based on the book by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. I have nothing but praise for this play: a compelling story told from the point of view of an autistic teenager that is very well acted, an extremely innovative square set with spectacular back projection, fantastic sound and lighting design, and excellent direction that took us from the garden of a house in Swindon to Central London. No wonder this play has won a series of major theatre awards in London and New York. We rarely get touring theatre of the highest calibre in Belfast. Well done to the Belfast Festival for helping to bring the National Theatre here. The play was almost sold out a month beforehand and we only managed to get seats in the gods.

Finally we saw ‘To Break the Window of Opportunity’ by Campo at the MAC. This was experimental theatre from a pair of young Dutch performance artists: a spare set with a painted rear canvas of a desert with cultural icons inserted into the landscape, odd home-made wooden props that were brought onto stage and animated in unusual ways by the two performers, excellent sound design and no speech at all. It was like seeing a strange silent movie that presented a series of cultural rituals and then subverted them in interesting ways. I found it curious and stimulating. There were only about twenty people at the performance we attended. The play deserved much better than that.

It’s been a fine way to spend our weekday evenings, I came away feeling that we needed to do this more often.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Tour of Lough Neagh

Much beloved by eels, ornithologists and Seamus Heaney, it’s the largest freshwater lake in these islands. The lough measures 150 square miles, is up to 80 feet deep and mythologically was formed from horse urine. Oddly enough it provides around forty percent of Ulster’s water supply and is also used as a sewage outfall. There is a cycle route around it called the Loughshore Trail. After I began to cycle again this route lodged in the back of my mind as a challenge that I would one day like to have a go at. After six months of regular cycling and encouraged by our Indian Autumn, that day came.

The night before my attempt on lapping the lough, I went to stay at T’s in order to be nearer the start. I got up at 7am and put my cycling clothes on. Trouble was I couldn’t find my leggings. I’d forgotten to pack them. I wouldn’t be able to do the ride in just my cycling knickers, so I wolfed down my porridge and drove hastily back to my house. After toast and tea there I set off for Portadown and parked up at Tesco by the Bann. I began the ride just before 10, over an hour late, knowing I would be up against time pressures for the rest of the day.

It was another calm Autumn day and a light wind was behind me for the first part of the ride. I sped out past Drumcree and crossed into Tyrone by the footbridge at Maghery. I made good time to Ardboe (23 miles) and stopped beside the high cross for a break and an invocation to the spirits for success in my attempt. Up to now, most of the way had been on small back roads and tracks but near Ballyronan I came out onto a busy road and stayed on it until approaching Toome. Here I found even busier roads, with large trucks roaring past. I was tired, hungry and drizzle began to fall.

The main street of Toome (37 miles) has many empty shops but one good wee cafe, Grans. After wolfing down a fine bowl of stew with wheaten bread I had no real time for a rest. Happily the drizzle had also stopped as I headed on. The route turned into the wind but also onto back roads towards Cranfield. My lunch was weighing on me but I pressed on to Randalstown (48 miles) with its impressive stone viaduct and castle gate. Then the route was alongside the main road into Antrim, after some miles of air pollution there were attractive park gardens down to the lough. I stopped at the Loughshore Cafe (54 miles) for coffee and a scone. I was feeling pretty tired, it was 3.30pm and I still had over 30 miles to go. The sun came out and I pressed on.

From the cafe the route followed a narrow trail through woodland. But only part of me enjoyed the verdant scene, I was also worried about getting a puncture and my stomach was a little sore. Coming out of the woods near Greenmount, I went along another busy road and turned down onto backroads again that followed the shore to Ardmore. My stomach was cramping up. I stopped but found it hard to drink or eat. I made myself eat half a banana and take a mouthful of water. I pressed on. The cramps got worse. There was something definitely wrong with that scone.

Near Crumlin I headed along a busy road with homegoing traffic then down on backroads to the shore again. My guts were rebelling on me. Groaning, I stopped for a call of nature in a field near Portmore but it gave me only temporary relief. My stomach still ached and my lungs were getting sore. I stopped again at Bartins Bay, the light was closing in. After that I limped along, my sore guts and lungs complaining, especially on the hills. I got to T’s house just before dark, parked the bike and flopped into the kitchen. She had made a big meal for me. My stomach was so sore it was several hours before I could eat anything. All I could manage at first were rehydration salts. She had also bought me a splendid bunch of celebration lilies, they had a marvellous scent.

After our late meal I conked out and slept fitfully but long. The next day I felt reasonably well, ate a lot and did a gentle walk with T around Brownlow Park. I’d cycled 85 miles with 2300 feet of climbing at 11.7 mph. The ride around the lough had taken me 9 hours and I’d visited five of the six counties of NI. This was the furthest I’d ridden for ten years, I was delighted with myself.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Harvest

A sweet aroma began to assail my nostrils. Toast, I mused and continued searching the internet. The smell got stronger and more acrid. Something was burning. And I wasn’t making any toast. I leapt up and raced into the kitchen. The large pan on the hob was black at the edges. Apples, marrow and ginger were boiling madly. Making jam, I’d put the mixture on low. Then I’d completely forgotten it. And an unwatched pot always boils. I rescued what I could of the mixture and put it into a new pot. Adding more apples and ginger, I finished making the jam. It turned out bronze in colour with an intriguing smoky flavour. But there were only three jars.

This year the harvest has been late and not very good. We picked the apples from my tree three weeks later than usual. The tree only produced about a third of its normal crop. And many of the apples were pecked by birds (mainly magpies I think), hence their use for jam. Added to this, the blackberries in the hedgerow were also late and few were ripe enough to eat. Whilst there were plenty of fruits on the briars, most were still green or red.  Despite the relatively mild autumn thus far, we are still suffering the legacy of the coldest summer for twenty years.

In such a year, our early ancestors would have been worrying about how to survive this oncoming winter and praying to whatever deities they could muster to help them. Their norm would be to feast on the harvest of fresh wild food, getting as fat as they could. They needed these extra layers to help them through a winter of cold, dwindling food stocks and privation. These were not called thin times for no reason.  

I was reminded of this practice by reading an article about a modern day hermit who had lived unseen in a tent in the woods of Maine. He managed to get through the very hard winters there for thirty years by using this ancient strategy. As he didn’t want to be discovered, he did not build a fire. During the freezing cold winter he became nocturnal. To be active at night was the best way to keep warm; he could sleep during the less cold days. To go to sleep at night would be dangerous, it might be a rest from which you would never wake.

Despite living this hard life, the hermit never got ill. Although, when he was discovered he looked much older than his years. This sort of outdoor life leaves its toll on the body. Our ancestors invariably died young. Reaching your thirties would have been considered old age. I finish reading the article, turn up the central heating, switch on the electric blanket and snack on toast with home-made jam. Modern life is easy in comparison.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Double Dose

Last Saturday T went down with a bad dose of flu. After several weeks in school with hundreds of children she wasn’t too surprised to pick up a bug. Having only just recovered from a dose myself, I was well practiced at administering soluble paracetamol, vitamins and minerals, so I sprang into action. By Sunday evening she had become so ill she begged me not to leave her alone in her house. So I packed her up in my car and took her home to Casa PJ, stopping at Tesco enroute to replenish supplies.

I installed her in the guest bedroom and brought in whatever she wanted: bowls of soup, toast, bars of chocolate and fizzing concoctions of over-the-counter medicines. The next day I noticed that my throat was getting sore. Just a coincidence, I thought, as my system must have plenty of antibodies from my own recent dose. Unfortunately, her virus proved to be different to the one I had taken and by that evening I was laid up again with a new dose of flu.

With both of us ill in bed, who was to be the nurse? As T seemed to be the worst off, it had to be me. For the next day or so I struggled to make us meals and keep up the regular medications. It was exhausting and stressful to be nursing her and myself at the same time. Then, as I began to significantly worsen, she started to improve. So the nursing duties switched.

This dose of flu was much more intensive than the last. For several days I was laid out flat with a heavy fever, headache and bad chest. Going down the corridor to the toilet was a major expedition from which I would come back to bed feeling exhausted. T presented me with porridge laced with whisky for breakfast, soup for lunch and a good evening meal. As the intensity of her dose receded, she was left with a dry cough, bouts of sneezing and waves of exhaustion. After a few days feeling that I would never get better, I began to join her on the winding road to recovery.

I suppose I could have called her Typhoid Mary. But as they so rightly say, a friend in need is a friend indeed.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Dose

For the past week I’ve been down with the ‘flu. Stuck indoors and wrapped in bedclothes or a blanket, I’ve been hitting the drink. But my glass has only been fizzing with soluble paracetamol and vitamin C; I’ve never found hot whisky to work for me. Getting up late after a feverish night, I’d plonk in an armchair, blanket around me and consume a diet high in Film 4, live cycling and assorted documentaries (from Indian wildlife to Time Team).

A bad dose is a great leveller, in more ways than one. Not only does the virus make you feel unwell in the head, nose, throat and chest but it also leaves you feeling unhappy, frustrated and depressed. Because I lead a very active life, I always find this latter part of the dis-ease the most challenging. You just have to give in to it, I’ve been told many times. But that has never been my way of living.  Like Hamlet, I would always choose to take arms against a sea of troubles. However, this is a strategy that doesn’t seem to work very well with viruses.

In times gone by I would have done my best to ignore a virus and carry on regardless with whatever had been planned in my life. But more often than not this led to the virus lasting for several more weeks and/or an episode of bronchitis which would necessitate antibiotics to clear up. So I do now try to give in to it, but that is only on the surface. Underneath I’m seething with frustration at my unwanted confinement.

It’s been a bumper week for cycling on TV, with highlights of La Vuelta de Espana every evening and the Tour of Britain live every afternoon. I’ve been watching both avidly. The Tour of Britain has gone from North Wales, through the Pennines to Scotland and back. Each day the race has passed through beautiful countryside under unseasonably warm sunshine. I’ve enjoyed this increased diet of TV cycling, but I’ve also been itching to be out on the bike myself and deeply frustrated that I am presently unable to.

I’ve always been a doer rather than a spectator. The trouble with a dose is that it seems to make you into a sort of spectator on your own life. You are just watching and life seems to be passing you by. And for me that is never a happy place to be. Although, unlike Hamlet, I have no plans at present to murder my mother and uncle.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015


Hannah and Davide live on a hill near Rathdrum. They have two children under five and an eco-house that was built in a day. The house came in panels on the back of a lorry and was lifted into place by a crane. It’s highly insulated, with extra cladding inside and out, and sits on layers of gravel below the concrete foundations. Heating is under-floor and there is an air-conditioning system that works on heat exchange. It’s a comfortable dormer bungalow with a spacious open-plan kitchen and living room area. There are large triple-glazed windows and the views are spectacular.

We first went for a walk at Avondale, the former home of Parnell, which is now a forest park with giant redwoods and a great trail along the Avonmore river. The air was lush, the blackberries were plentiful and fungi abounded. To celebrate recent birthdays we drank white wine and headed for a meal at a local restaurant with a menu of Thai, Sri Lankan and Mediterranean dishes. The next day Hannah and T took the children blackberry picking, Davide went surfing and I went for a bike ride.

I headed up Glenmalur on a single-track road that meandered between steep wooded hillsides with streams cascading to the valley floor. The road ended at a bridge by a youth-hostel and I retuned back along the valley to Ballinaclash. I then took the long steady climb that traversed the side of Ballinacor Mountain. This climb was very like the Yellow Water road out of Rostrevor, and though a challenge was something I knew I could do. I reached the pass at 800 feet and descended steeply to Sheenamore.

Then the road steepened again and disappeared up through the trees. I wasn’t expecting this, and muttering began to climb again, legs and lungs already tired from my earlier efforts. I glanced down at my cycle-computer, the gradient was over 10% and increasing and I still couldn’t see the top. You could always get off and walk, I thought, but why not keep going as long as you can. The road curved up further still and the gradient increased to 15%. I was panting hard. I began to zigzag the bike across the narrow road to try and give my legs and lungs a bit of a rest. Coming around a bend, I saw the road rearing up to what seemed to be the top. I pushed my aching knees and lungs into a final effort. The gradient increased to 18%, then began to reduce. I stopped at the crown of the hill and panted for a good few minutes. That was the steepest hill I had climbed on a bike since before my illness.

I had come up a very steep 250 feet or so and was now at about 900 feet with heather clad hills spreading all around me. I had a huge sense of achievement. My lungs were much better than I thought they were. I didn’t set out to test myself so forcefully; I just hadn’t read the map carefully enough. After my rest I traversed through forestry plantations to Aghavannagh and descended the long river valley to Aughrim. I stopped for apple pie across the road from the 1798 memorial, and then headed back up the main road towards Rathdrum. Overall I did 40 miles with 2300 feet of climbing, the hardest ride of the year so far.

We all met up at the house for a roast dinner and related the tales of our days. The girls had picked a load of early blackberries that Hannah would make into jam. Davide had caught some good waves. And I was delighted to learn that my lungs (and knees) were more capable than I thought they were.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Tour of Britain

It was an eventful trip. The night before we left home I got a text from the ferry company telling us that the boat we were on was cancelled. They had booked us onto the next one. This meant we would arrive in Holyhead after midnight and wouldn’t get to the farmhouse B & B in Snowdonia until much later. We rang to tell them; our hostess wasn’t impressed as she had to get up at 5 to do the milking.

We arrived to find the farmhouse lights on and knocked the front door. No reply. We knocked again. All was quiet. I tried the door, it was unlocked. They’d probably gone to bed and left it open for us, we reasoned. Creeping in, we found an upstairs bedroom with the door open. We collapsed and slept deeply till 9. Going down for breakfast, we got a challenge. ‘Where were you last night?’ Our hostess bridled, ‘I stayed up waiting for you.’ I explained what had happened. She looked daggers, then she smiled; she must have fallen asleep in the chair in the back parlour and hadn’t heard a thing.

It was a bright sunny day with clear blue skies. We did a hillwalk on the LLeyn peninsula to an extensive iron-age settlement on a hill-top. But unused to this weather, we got sunburnt. The next day we toured around North Wales visiting Portmeirion, The Great Orme, castles and gastropubs. Then we moved on to my cousin’s in Birmingham, enduring long motorway queues for a great foodie night out with Mike and Esther in the Chinese Quarter.

Next we went to Ross on Wye and the Forest of Dean, visiting Tewkesbury Abbey and its splendid vaulting on the way. After a lot of detective work we found the old cottage in which T’s grandfather had been born. It was built in the 1740’s and was just up the road from an old cider pub with an apple press in the yard. Then we went on to Stonehouse and walked along the Stroudwater canal past the old house, built in 1760, where I grew up.

Afterwards we drove to the New Forest to stay with my old schoolpal Phil. We went on some great walks: to Hurst Castle, where Charles the First was incarcerated prior to his trial, and in Rhinefield to see the magnificent tall trees. We also had a day out in Southampton by train, a shopping mecca where all the twinkling sheds that you normally have on the edge of town have been built on brownfield sites in the city centre. We finished off with a great meal at an upmarket restaurant in a country house near Brockenhurst – The Pig.

Our return journey began with a trip to Salisbury Cathedral, famous for its tall spire and copy of Magna Carta and Avebury for its fine circles of standing stones. We arrived in Bristol for my brother Allan’s 60th birthday do: a big family get-together in a local church hall with four generations present. A splendid occasion with plenty to eat and much cake, then we headed back to Allan and Christine’s for more. And the next day we all went out again for a big Sunday lunch. We also had plenty of walks with their hyper-active dog across the common.

The last leg of the journey was to drive back to North Wales to again stay in our first farmhouse. We arrived earlier, around 10, to find our hostess safely tucked up in bed. We let ourselves in to the same bedroom. The last day of the trip was again bright, cloudless and very sunny. We spent it on Anglesey at the beach near Aberffraw and at low tide walked out along the causeway to the small 12th Century church on the little island. There I was bitten on the hip by an Alsatian. We shouted at the owners, who mumbled sorry. T bathed my wound in antiseptic and in the kerfuffle the screen on her brand new mobile got broken. Nothing for it but to drive the short distance to the ferry, which took us smoothly to Dublin in just two hours. As we got back home I checked the milometer. We had travelled 1200 miles in 12 days and visited 14 different counties. It had been a very eventful tour; the sort of trip that leaves you ready for another holiday.

Sunday, 2 August 2015


My partner has a screensaver app on her smartphone which shows a forest that becomes populated by different animals. One day there is a woodpecker, the next a rabbit or a hedgehog. It makes her happy. I think it’s odd. I grew up in the country, whereas she’s a city girl. From childhood, I’ve regularly seen these animals in real life.

Living in an environment that is shared with wild native animals is not always easy. At present, from dusk to dawn, a plaintive whistling resounds from the trees at the bottom of my garden. It is a young long-eared owl that has fledged but hasn’t yet learnt to hunt for its own food. The young owl sits in a tree and whistles, so the parents know where to bring the mice or voles they catch. During the daytime the owls sit high up in the branches of a tall tree and rest. If you are lucky you may be able to spot them.

The old graveyard across the lane, a favourite haunt of owls and bats, is also home to a colony of badgers and several feral cats. The badgers are very wary and difficult to see, but if the wind is in the right direction you might catch them at dusk coming out of the sett. One evening I saw four of them scurrying across the lane.

Half a mile away is a foxes earth; T and I once saw a cub playing outside in the daytime. Late evening is a good time to see the adults, when they go out hunting. Recently, T and I spotted one in the barley-field beside the earth. The fox saw us first and bounded away through the green field, its red fur shining in the golden light of the setting sun. A powerful and strangely cinematic experience.

In the midst of this life is always death. A couple of days ago, when cycling, I came across a badly injured wild ferret. They are black, whereas the domesticated ones are sandy coloured. The ferret was lying beside the towpath not far from Scarva. I imagine it had been hit by a bike or attacked by a dog. On its last legs, it could hardly crawl. When I got home I rang the USPCA, but they don’t seem to be too interested in injured wild animals. It must have gone to meet its maker and given sustenance to a buzzard or raven.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Cycling Again

I’ve been a keen cyclist most of my life. I got my first bike aged eight; it was my vehicle of freedom until I became sixteen and bought a Vespa Sportique scooter (along with Ben Sherman shirt, Levis and a parka). I turned my back on cycling for a further sixteen years, then I went on a cycling holiday around the Ring of Kerry and became hooked again. For the past thirty years I’ve always had a bike.

First I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. It was my trusty steed for fifteen years and took me on tours of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and Spain. Then I branched out to a Bontrager mountain bike (which I modified into a lightweight touring bike), a Dawes Sardar for laden touring, and a Dawes Audax for faster day rides. Over the first decade of this century I cycled avidly, visiting every county of Ireland by bike as well as undertaking cycletours of Southern Europe, Sri Lanka, Southern China, North Vietnam and Southern Chile. I also completed a number of endurance events, including the Wicklow 200 and Maracycle.

Then I got cancer, had major surgery and didn’t get on a bike for several years. Two years ago I tried some gentle rides and by early last summer I was cycling regularly until my knee injury in June. After this I had the best part of a year of treatment and inactivity during which I developed breathing problems. In April this year, very tentatively, I tried the bike again. Riding along the towpath from Scarva, I was very pleased to find that neither my knee nor my lungs were a significant limitation. I began to venture further and before too long I was riding to Newry for lunch at Grounded, then returning to Scarva (some 25 miles). Later I carried on up the towpath to Portadown, before returning to the car. Later still I extended my ride beyond Newry to Warrenpoint and Rostrevor.

What I love about cycling is that sense of freedom: the wind on your face, the country roads, the natural world all around you. I love exploring a new area or country by bike. You are travelling at a slower place and are more inside the culture. I avoid cycling in built up areas, always preferring to take the bike on the car to a rural place and head off into open country. Happily I have plenty of backroads right from my front door; the only problem is the hills. The drumlins extend all the way to the Mournes and then you have road passes through the mountains, the highest of which is Spelga at 1350 feet. In the old days I would cycle up there for the challenge. I hope to be able to do that again one day.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Outage, Adaptability and Migrants

I returned home from a couple of days away to find the phone line completely dead. This had happened before but had only lasted for an hour or so, presumably due to repairs taking place at the local exchange. On checking next door, I was surprised to find that their line was still working. I rang BT to report the fault and got an Indian call centre. They were polite, but told me I wasn’t their customer anymore. I’d transferred my line rental to my broadband provider a couple of years ago. I rang Plusnet; they got me to do some simple tests then ran a line check.

The problem lies somewhere between the local exchange (a green box in the next village) and your house, they said. Okay, I replied, but how long will it take to fix it? We have to contact Openreach, they said. In the privatised UK, the phone system is just like the railways, one company maintains the network and other providers rent space on it. The unwelcome answer came fairly quickly - an engineer would be sent out within three days. I remonstrated, but it did no good. I’d have to manage for the coming days without the phone or internet.

Day one: I looked at my diary and all the things I’d pencilled in to get done for the rest of the week. Most of these required the internet. I sat at my desk in the house and stared at the unconnected screen of my desktop, feeling very resentful and frustrated. I picked up my mobile (not internet connected) and made some calls and sent some text messages. After that I thought I’d take some time out, and watched Wimbledon and the Tour de France on TV.

Day two: I began the day as usual, sitting at my desk to check my messages. Without the internet, these were just a series of texts. I got frustrated quickly and decided I’d go out for the rest of the day. I took my bike on the back of my car to Scarva and cycled to Newry along the towpath. After a late lunch at Grounded cafe, I cycled back up the towpath to Portadown, then returned to Scarva. I was tired in the evening and made calls on my mobile and watched some TV.

Day three: I broke my habit of sitting at my desk in the office. Instead I sat at the table in the lounge and read. This felt better; first I read long articles from broadsheets, then I picked up a book. Suddenly, there was a row outside. What are next-door up to now, I wondered? I put down the book and went to the front door. There was a white van parked in the driveway with no-one in it. I walked around the side of the house and found a burly man at the top of a ladder hacking at the phone cable with a knife.

What’s happening, I shouted. I fix phone, he said in a heavy East-European accent, continuing to hack away with the knife. Okay, I shrugged, and went back inside. It didn’t look promising. Five minutes later, he banged on the front door. You check now, he smiled. Sorry, my English no good, he added. I got the phone and tried it; there was an odd regular bleeping but no dial-tone. I handed the phone to him. He listened then smiled, okay, I check. He sat in the cab of his van, picked up a tablet computer and began to enter stuff with a touch-stick. A couple of minutes later he said, okay now. I checked the phone again; there was a dial-tone. I grinned and thanked him. He beamed and proffered the tablet with touch-stick to me. You sign, he said. I obliged. I fix temporary, he said. Must new line, he said, pointing to the nearest telegraph pole, I order now. Thank you very much, I said. He winked and reversed the white van out of the drive with a cheery wave.

When I began this piece, I thought I would end up commenting on my own difficult adaption to the loss of my phone and internet connection. But there is a much more important issue to do with adaptability here. Many migrants have made their home in NI and plenty of them do skilled jobs in essential services, such as utilities, healthcare and education. We need our foreigners. They are not a drain on our resources; they are a useful and welcome addition. Correspondingly, bigotry and hate-crime is always wrong - whoever it is directed towards. Surely people who have grown up here should know that better than most.

Images from Belfast

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Our Weekend Away

It all started out so well. I had a Concern meeting in Dublin on the Saturday so we decided to travel down early that morning. T would meet friends and do some shopping whilst I was in the meeting. We would get together during the afternoon and then travel out to Westmeath to stay at a farmhouse near the village of Fore. On the Sunday T would visit the ruined monastery complex that the village adjoined and I would go cycling in search of new historic sites.

The weather forecast was good for both days with rain happening overnight. Because of the early start we packed the car and secured my bike on the rear carrier on Friday evening. The next morning in bright sunshine I reversed the car down the drive and swung back towards the bank at the side of the lane. T got out, closed the gate and we were away. The journey to Dublin went smoothly and we chatted enthusiastically about what we were going to do.

I dropped T on Camden St and joined the Board meeting. It was warm and very humid when we met up in the afternoon. Driving out on the road to Sligo, we visited some inscribed wayside crosses at Killucan, a fortified mediaeval church with battlements and firing slits at Taghmon and a restored Franciscan Friary at Multyfarnham. After stopping at Hotel Castlepollard for a fine meal, we drove to the farmhouse at Fore very pleased with how the day had gone.

We were the only guests and were given a very comfortable room with large brass bed. After unpacking our bags we went out for some fresh air. The breeze was getting up and the rain was starting to come in. Something strange about the back of the car made me look down. The rear wheel of my bike was twisted at an odd angle. Anxiously I unclamped the bike from the carrier. The wheel rim was bent and cracked. I threw my head back and howled in frustration. With a broken wheel, my bike was completely useless.

Our hosts came out to see what was happening. I showed them the wheel and explained that when reversing into the lane that morning, I must have damaged it by bending the bike on the carrier against the bank. They sympathised and invited us in for a cup of tea. We learnt that they were both pretty active. John did marathons and Grainne did show-jumping. There were plenty of photos of them in action on the wall of the lounge.

This was T’s first time in Fore. I’d visited the site three times already and had been looking forward to going somewhere different, cycling across north Westmeath into Longford to see the motte at Granard and the ruins at Abbeylaragh. Oh well, it would have to be another time. I only had myself to blame.

Then Grainne said - would you like to borrow my bike tomorrow? I looked up and beamed at her. It’s not a bad bike, she said, I’ve done a couple of triathlons. Thank you, I said, that would be fantastic.

After a great breakfast, which included our hosts free-range eggs and homemade bread and jam, we got ready in bright sunshine. T packed her little rucksack with several guides to the monastery complex that John had lent her and headed off towards the village. I adjusted the saddle on Grainne’s bike and pedalled away through the leafy lanes of Westmeath, the wind in my hair.

We both had great days out thanks to our very friendly and most generous hosts at Hounslow House, Fore, Co Westmeath. It’s a 200 year old farmhouse overlooking the verdant Fore valley. A fantastic place to stay run by kind-hearted people: www.hounslow We couldn’t recommend it more highly; we will definitely be back.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Animals

My third writing workshop at the Banbridge Box turned into a brainstorm. We began by looking for a topic to work on. The best idea sprouted from recent events in Tiblisi where floods had destroyed part of the zoo. Many animals had escaped and run wild through the city. The notion that captured the imagination of the group was - what would happen if wild animals came to Banbridge?

We started off by reminiscing about zoos. I recalled going to Bristol Zoo as a child. I felt the animals were unhappy in their pens, they appeared so sad and subdued. Many did not seem to welcome visitors and some were openly aggressive towards them. I vividly recalled the chimpanzees that used to pee out through the bars of their cage and applaud when they happened to catch a visitor with a jet of urine. There were also the camels that spat lumps of white phlegm a remarkable distance beyond their cage towards the unwary. Of course, my brothers and I enjoyed these animals best of all.

Many of the workshop group had similar reminiscences, which led us to the next theme. What would the animals do in Banbridge and why? This quickly developed into a revenge story. The animals would be retaliating for the mistreatment and exploitation that they and their kind had suffered at human hands. They would be targeting different shops and businesses to wreak their revenge: buffalo trashing the butchers, rhinos destroying the Chinese Medical Centre, etc. This theme gave us a lot of pleasure and plenty of inventive links with local shops were made.

Then we went on to what the animals would do after they had taken over the town. Some said they would go to the cinema and we had fun selecting the films they might have chosen to see: Jurassic Park, King Kong, etc. Others thought they would seek to destroy all symbols of progress (e.g. cars, mobiles, etc) and try to restore the world to a sort of pre-lapsarian harmony. Others suggested they would go on their holidays to the seaside, eating ice-cream and getting spa treatments in the finest hotels.

This very productive journey lasted some forty five minutes and generated a lot of ideas. After this the brainstorm seemed to run out of energy. When the workshop drew to a close, I was left with pages of notes and the task of coming up with a poem. The fact that there were so many ideas made this a real challenge. I ended up writing a piece around the revenge story, deciding to park the other ideas for the time being.



They swarmed across the Bann
uphill and through the Cut
emperor penguins
perched on hippos backs
stately giraffes
pythons round their necks
leopards and tigers roaring
black vultures overhead
at the Old Town Hall
four elephants trumpeted
and a rhino jabbed his horn
into the clinic of Dr Shi
crocodiles invaded Donaghys
snapping at killer heels
buffalo demolished Quails
trampling ribs into the street
meanwhile at the Downshire
grizzlies made barmen dance
as monkeys vied for coconuts
hurling rocks at drinkers heads
another fanfare sounded
and the commotion died
folk stumbled out howling
are the creatures still around?


Monday, 15 June 2015

My workshop with the under-fives

I arrived at the Banbridge Box to do a writing workshop. The place was full of women and small children. There was an art exhibition on called ‘A Mother’s Earth’. The women were the artists and they had their children with them. I’ve come to do a writing workshop, I explained. Why don’t you do it with the children, suggested one of the women. I was a little hesitant; I’d never done a workshop with small children before. But then I thought, go on, why not.

There were five children aged between three and four. We all sat down on the floor. They watched me carefully. I brought out a linen bag in which I had placed a variety of small objects. When I did the workshop with adults I asked them to close their eyes, reach inside the bag and feel for an object. In essence it was an imagination exercise that went from holding an unfamiliar object to writing about the ideas that it had stimulated. I had no real notion of how it was going to work with the children. I knew they wouldn’t be writing something, I thought they might be able to tell me a story.

We began. I offered the linen bag to them. They had no hesitation in joining in (adults often had to be cajoled). A young boy closed his eyes and dived his hand in. Have you found something, I asked. He nodded and pulled his hand out, opening his eyes straight away. Moo-cow, he said, looking at the small plastic animal. He began to move it straight away. The cow began jumping all over the floor, leaping onto other toys. He was making growling noises and the cow was boring into a truck head down. What’s the moo-cow doing, I asked. Eating, he said, stopping growling momentarily. I was distracting him with my question. He turned back to the cow and it was off again, jumping around the room. I offered the linen bag to a young girl. She closed her eyes and put her hand in, pulling out a seashell that spiralled to a point. She beamed and began to move the shell around her in loops and dives. Then, at the behest of one of the mums, she put the shell to her ear.

Other kids pulled out different objects. They all began a game with the object pretty much straight away. They didn’t really want to verbalise. My questions about what was going on were an intrusion into the imaginative worlds that they were engaged in. The stories that they were making were being acted out.

After a while they left my objects and moved on to other toys and playthings that were in the room. In a box in the corner were wigs and hats, old stage props left by the theatre company. So the next game was dressing up, both kids and adults. I wore a top hat and blew up balloons. The kids pranced around in costume with them. When this game was waning, one of the mums suggested I read a poem. We all sat down on the floor and I read one of my poems. They listened rapt to the sounds right through to the end. Another, said one of the mums. I read again, but their attention began to wane. We finished up with cake and drinks, with several children running around shrieking.

It was a great workshop. The kids had made imaginative stories with their play. And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I think they did too. I then sat at the table in the centre of the room and sketched out a poem. Later, one of the mums matched it with a photo she had taken.