Saturday, 27 May 2017

Two Awards

I’ve just had the results of my cancer surveillance CT scan. Thankfully I continue to be all clear. After the long anxious wait, it feels like an award. It’s a bigger prize than the one I was shortlisted for in England. I’m relieved and delighted. My Oncologist says she is pleased with my progress. She still thinks I’m at medium to high risk of a further recurrence. But she will relax the surveillance regime a little. For the next year I will be scanned every four months (rather than every three).

Going away on a short break was a good strategy for coping with the enormous anxiety of waiting for the scan results. We stayed with my oldest friend Phil, who lives in the New Forest. We first met aged eleven. He lost his wife, Jean, to cancer four years ago.

Phil is a volunteer ranger in the National Park. He took us to some woodland near Lyndhurst which is being looked after by a local woodland management and charcoal-making charity. They take people on guided days out in the forest, show them how they manage the woodland, help them to make garden chairs from coppiced hazel and have a modern charcoal oven. Their guided days out are very popular and they will shortly be featured in a Channel Five documentary.

We walked through dense woodland, ungrazed by deer and ponies (kept out by high fences), and came across some ditches that dated from Saxon times. Wandering amongst the heavy green foliage felt like we had gone back in time to when the country was largely covered by broadleaved trees. It was a great distraction from the worry of waiting.

Phil drove us to the awards ceremony in Berkshire. The prizes for the Stanley Spencer Poetry Competition were presented by Lord Young in the little art gallery in Cookham. My heart raced as the names were read out. Alas, I was not called. My award was to be selected for the shortlist of this major prize.

At the reception afterwards I met the grandson of Stanley Spencer who is compiling his letters for publication in three volumes. Stanley had a very colourful personal life. He became infatuated with his life model and left his wife and children for her. After the divorce, he married the life model only to discover she was a lesbian and just interested in his money. He then sought reconciliation with his first wife and wrote very long letters to her, one of which was over 20,000 words. Understandably, his first wife remained unmoved. Stanley remained unhappily married to the life model, the marriage was never consummated and he kept writing to his first wife, even after her death.

On the way back we visited the Sandham Memorial Chapel near Newbury. It is a wonderful place, entirely covered with murals from Spencer’s experience as a medical orderly in the First World War. The chapel is filled with panels each detailing the everyday life of the soldiers: their work, encampments, relaxation, hospital treatment, death and resurrection. The place has an early Renaissance feel, indeed the chapel is based on one painted by Giotto in Padua. The central mural is the Resurrection of the Soldiers, where men and animals climb from their graves or from where they had fallen, carrying crosses. As a medical orderly, Spencer saw a lot of carnage and had to do all the worst jobs. He said he had buried so many dead bodies that he felt sure there must be something beyond death.

The murals are an immensely powerful work, most people in the chapel gaze at them without speaking. They capture the detail of everyday life and reveal the extraordinary that is within it. This forms the great theme of Spencer’s work, which he realises with such passion and intensity. Indeed, isn’t this exactly what poetry is seeking to achieve?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Scans and Writing

I’ve just had another cancer surveillance CT scan and I’m again waiting for the results. It’s now eight months since my surgery to remove the tumour and this is my third scan since then. The two standard resolution CT scans I had earlier were thankfully clear. I can’t have high-resolution scans because I am allergic to the fluid they inject you with to enhance the images. And even though I’m prepared to take the risk of the injection to get enhanced images, the radiologists won’t allow it. So if there is a regrowth of the tumour, I reckon that it should be big enough by now to show up on my standard resolution scan. And if not, I can then breathe a large sigh of relief.

But before any of that, there are the two long weeks of waiting until I see the oncologist and get the results of the scan. I’ve been in this situation before, of course, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier. I’ve just become more practiced at the coping strategies. One day at a time and do your best to keep busy. This works some of the time but certainly not for all of it, especially the wee small hours, when your fears stalk you remorselessly.  

This time around I am trying a new strategy: going away on a short trip. All the other times I have stayed at home, often pacing distractedly like an animal in its cage. We will be heading away to England to visit family and friends. I am also going to attend the awards evening of a major poetry competition that I have been shortlisted for.

When I got cancer in 2011, I stopped writing poetry. The poor prognosis I was given embroiled me in the biggest struggle for survival that I had ever experienced. Confronted by that, I could hardly function let alone write.

My first piece of writing was a memoir, which I embarked on for obvious reasons (it remains unfinished). And then I began this blog. Finally, after a couple of years, as I was still alive (to the surprise of one of my specialists), I tried writing poetry again. I didn’t write about my illness, that was too stark and raw, I set myself challenges to write poems around random words from the dictionary. I produced plenty of poems, but few of them were much good.

In 2014 I went on holiday to Orkney and found a fascinating place with layer upon layer of history – visiting the oldest house in Europe (from 5,500 years ago) on a windswept remote island and a series of magnificent Neolithic monuments built before Stonehenge. From this experience began to emerge a series of new poems, situated in time and place. In the end I wrote a sequence of ten Orkney poems.

After this I wrote poems in a different style. All were situated in place and time. Often they were stimulated by stories I had read in newspapers. They weren’t ‘found’ poems. The news story provided the jumping off point for the poem. Ciaran Carson called them ‘discovered poems’.

I began submitting my new poetry to competitions a couple of years ago. And I’m delighted to have had some success. I’ve won seven awards in poetry competitions and been shortlisted for at least another seven without gaining an award. I’ve only been sending my new work out to journals recently, but have already had poems published in The Honest Ulsterman and The Interpreter’s House. I think this confirms that I am pursuing a fruitful new direction in my writing.

My fingers are crossed for the upcoming Stanley Spencer Poetry Award. Indeed, it’s the biggest prize (£3500) that I’ve been shortlisted for. Reaching the final twelve in this competition is an honour in itself. Wish me luck.

Friday, 5 May 2017

A Dose of Books

I’m normally pretty healthy. I know that’s an odd thing to say, as I’m a cancer patient and I’m regularly in acute hospitals for treatment, scans and reviews with specialists. But apart from the Big C, which as far as I know I don’t have at present, I get ill infrequently and I lead an active life. So this past ten days has come as a bit of a shock, for I’ve been laid low with a bad dose of the ‘flu.

It began with a very sore throat, which quickly spread to my sinuses and chest. I went to bed surrounded by all the paraphernalia of a dose: boxes of tissues, bottles of Covonia expectorant and packets of Lem-Sip Max. I lay there for a whole week, blowing a nose which seemed to offer a never-ending font of mucous and coughing up a seemingly bottomless supply of green-yellow phlegm. I quickly became a Lem-Sip and Covonia addict.

The noble T ministered to me unstintingly. Meals were brought on a tray, binfuls of used tissues were dumped and regular trips to the chemist for fresh supplies of my drugs of choice were undertaken. When I wasn’t dozing, I lay propped on a pile of pillows. My only diversions were watching Cyril stretch, lick himself and go back to sleep at the end of the bed. Occasionally he would groan and twitch his way through a cat dream. I then moved on to Laurel and Hardy videos on Youtube.

After a few days I could concentrate enough to be able to read. I had a pile of books waiting. I began with ‘God’s Own Country’, a novel by Ross Raisin. It’s set in the North York Moors, an area I knew, and the narrator is a strange young man who lives on a farm, talks to himself and the creatures around him but has problems with other people. It is a compelling voice. The novel charts a peculiar relationship that develops between him and a young woman.

The next day I read ‘The Outrun’, a memoir by Amy Liptrot. It’s set in the Orkneys, another place I knew, where she grew up and where she returned, after a hedonistic decade in London where she became an alcoholic. The book describes her odd family and her recovery by spending time alone as a wildlife observer on one of the remotest Orkney islands (which I had also visited). It’s a brave journey of recovery through immersion in wildlife and the natural world.

Then I began ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan. This is a powerful multilayered novel of love and loss that brings together a passionate affair between a young man and woman, with the man’s later terrible experience as a POW forced to work on the building of the Burma railway by the Japanese. The book spans the entire life of the central character and gives voice to many of the other significant characters, weaving their extraordinary stories together very affectingly. I found it un-put-downable. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

Finally I read ‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry. It’s a whimsical novel that imagines a trip that John Lennon made to Mayo in 1978 to visit a deserted island in Clew Bay that he had bought anonymously. John encounters some very odd people including an incompetent local fixer and a group of Primal Screamers and he has some strange adventures. The book has some very witty and entertaining chapters but I felt it began to lose its way a little two thirds through.

After the week in bed I tried a couple of hours up, despite the sinuses and chest still troubling me. I switched from reading to watching TV in my dressing-gown and, despite not doing much, I felt tired. The next day I stepped outside for a short time. The weather was lovely, but I felt the keen wind. The day after, I began to feel that the bug was starting to dissipate a little. I sat at the computer and tried to write, ending up with this blog. I hope tomorrow will again be better. I’m still taking it easy, I know that real ‘flu often takes several weeks to clear.