Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Counting my Blessings

'It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’ The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, comes to mind for 2020. Despite this year being blighted by Covid 19, many good things came to pass for me. I am truly blessed to be married to the wonderful T. We have been together for seven and a half years, and our relationship is still getting better. We both were married before and know exactly how difficult ordinary life can be with the wrong people. During my treatment for advanced cancer, my dearest T was with me, every step of the way. She made a huge difference to this ordeal. I don’t think I could have survived it without her.

My second blessing is to be in good health. I am now four years clear of cancer. But I’m not counting my chickens just yet. The type of cancer I had has been known to recur even twenty years later. I travel hopefully, but remain vigilant (at times, hyper-vigilant). And this year, I’ve been doing plenty of that travelling by bike. The first lockdown was very good for cyclists with far fewer cars on the roads. I built up my strength and fitness to be able to regularly ride 150-200 miles a week. In August I rode 101 miles in one day. The furthest I had cycled in one go since 1998.

My third blessing is to be writing consistently. During my years of treatment and recovery I was writing very sporadically. This year I have been writing regularly and it has resulted in me finishing my second collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call, and finding a publisher. Roger Robinson, the winner of the TS Eliot Prize 2019, said that after he got dozens of rejections from publishers, he was told to hone his craft and keep trying. I followed this excellent advice. Despite each rejection, I kept improving the manuscript and early this year my collection was taken by Dempsey & Windle. I’d like to thank all of those who helped me along the way, with special mentions going to Damian Smyth, Moyra Donaldson and the late Ciaran Carson. But, unlike Father Ted, who in his acceptance speech for the Golden Cleric award, also listed everyone who had caused him trouble, ‘and now, I move on to liars’, I won’t be mentioning any of those.

When I’d finalised the poetry manuscript and sent it to the publisher, I began to write a story. All I had to start with was one character and a setting. But I wrote every day and the story grew and grew. After three months of getting up early and scribbling away, I had 155,000 words and the first draft of a novel. Now that The Skylark’s Call has been launched, my next project will be to turn my first draft into something publishable. I’d never really tried to write a novel before. It just goes to show what is possible if you turn up every day and keep working at it.

My fourth blessing is to have remained free of the virus (indeed, any virus, as I haven’t caught a cold or the ‘flu either). Given my medical history, I was put on the shielding list. And I haven’t visited a cafe, restaurant or pub since February.  But I’m not complaining. Somehow I don’t think the generations that experienced the war and rationing would regard this as much of a hardship. Indeed, living with the threat of a fatal disease for the past ten years has prepared me well for this new threat. My resilience was able to rise to the challenge and like most people I adapted to the covid protocols for daily life. But no-one enjoys having to cope with an unavoidable extra burden. So I’m looking forward to getting the vaccine and being able to live a fuller life in 2021.

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Christmas Wishes

At this winter festival we not only celebrate the solstice but also the great conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, a celestial event which has not taken place for 400 years. I’ve cut sprays of conifer, holly and ivy, gathered them together and tied them to the brass knob of the front door. This morning we brought our living Christmas Tree from the back yard and put it pride of place in the front room. We’ve lit candles, set our handmade German Christmas ornaments on the mantlepiece and as the sun sets we sit in front of the fire with two glasses of well-matured sloe gin.

My toast is to my wife, the wonderful T. We have been together for seven and a half years now, and we are happier and more contented than we have ever been. She is the most warm-hearted and generous person I have ever met. She has great emotional intelligence. She is witty, resourceful, clever, hard-working and ever dependable. She is everything to me. I am truly blessed.

Soon we will sit down to the first dinner of our winter feast. There will be just the two of us. But that will not matter. We will pull crackers, put on party hats, laugh at the cheesy jokes and raise a glass to absent family and friends. I hope that many of you will have something that is very much like this.

But not everyone is able to be at home. In 2015, I was in Belfast City Hospital having had emergency surgery to remove a large tumour from my abdomen. After nine days of ‘nil by mouth’, the first meal I was given was the Hospital’s Christmas dinner. T came in to the ward and brought me presents and her warm smile. But she also brought small gifts for the doctors and nurses who had to be on duty. However you are spending Christmas this year, may you have love, warmth and good cheer.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Launch Video and Open Reading

I was delighted to be joined by many family members, friends old and new, and colleagues at the launch of my new collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call. The splendid gathering was hosted by my publisher Dempsey & Windle. I wished it all could have taken place in a local bookshop, with glasses of wine in our hands. But in these difficult days, the launch had to be done by Zoom. On the other hand, it did mean that friends from England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales could attend.

It was an honour to be joined by guest readers Moyra Donaldson, Kevin Higgins, Maureen Hill, John Knowles, Mary Montague and Damian Smyth. The Zoom chat was full of glowing comments about the readings; a great time was had by all it seems. My publisher has recorded part of the launch and posted it on YouTube. You can find the video here

The Skylark’s Call has now flown far and wide. Thank you very much to everyone who has bought a copy. A writer needs an audience, and a book needs readers. Many thoughtful comments on my poems have already been made by readers. I’m delighted to receive them. Please continue to let me know what you think about the collection.

You can still get signed copies of The Skylark’s Call, with a personalised dedication, at And for every copy that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus NI.

My final event of the year is to feature at the Over The Edge Open Reading, which comes live from Galway. This highly-regarded monthly gathering, hosted by Susan DuMars and Kevin Higgins, takes place on Thursday 17 December at 6.30pm. I'm very much looking forward to it. Please join me. The Zoom details are attached. There are open-mike reading slots available too.

Monday, 7 December 2020

Book Launch

My new collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call, published by Dempsey & Windle, will be launched on Wednesday 9 December at 7.30pm via Zoom. The launch will feature readings from my special guests, Moyra Donaldson, Kevin Higgins and Damian Smyth. There will also be readings from Maureen Hill, John Knowles and Mary Montague from the Queen’s Writers’ Group. I’m delighted that so many outstanding poets will be contributing. Over 80 people have signed up for the launch and some of these will be joining in from long distance, including my cousin from New Zealand. With such an exciting and varied programme, I’m sure it will be a great evening.

Moyra Donaldson is a writer and creative writing facilitator from Co Down. She has published nine collections of poetry, including a limited edition publication of artwork and poems, Blood Horses, in collaboration with artist Paddy Lennon. Her most recent collection is Carnivorous, Doire Press, 2019. A new collection, Bone House, is forthcoming from Doire Press in 2021.

Kevin Higgins is a Galway-based poet and essayist. He has been described by The Stinging Fly magazine as 'likely the most read living poet in Ireland'. His new book, The Colour Yellow & The Number 19 – Negative Thoughts That Helped One Man Mostly Retain His Sanity During 2020, has just been published by NuascĂ©alta. His sixth full collection of poems Ecstatic will be published by Salmon in June 2021.

Damian Smyth's collections are Downpatrick Races (2000), The Down Recorder (2004), Lamentations (2010), Market Street (2010), Mesopotamia (Templar 2014) and English Street (Templar 2018). Irish Street is due in 2021. He is Head of Literature and Drama with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Maureen Hill is a retired teacher who spent most of her professional life in Northern Ireland, apart from a year in Madrid, teaching English as a foreign language. Her work has been published in various literary magazines including Abridged, Crannog, The French Literary Review, Magma and The Stinging Fly.

John Knowles is a librarian at Queen’s University, Belfast. He has published poems in a number of literary journals, including Envoi, Poetry Ireland Review, Oxford Poetry, Rialto and the Shop.

Mary Montague is a biologist with a PhD in ornithology. Her poetry collections are Tribe (Dedalus 2008) and Black Wolf on a White Plain (Summer Palace 2001). Her poems are in a number of anthologies, most recently Her Other Language (ed. Ruth Carr & Natasha Cuddington; Arlen Press 2020), and have been translated into French, Italian and Russian. She contributes to The Guardian’s Country Diary. 

The Skylark’s Call is priced at £10 and can be bought online from and from  And if you buy the book through my website, I’d be delighted to sign it for you. For every copy of my book that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus Northern Ireland. In these difficult times, it’s important that we continue to give support to those suffering from cancer.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Broadcast and Cancer News

Tomorrow I’ll be talking to Marie-Louise Muir about my new book, The Skylark’s Call, in The Culture Cafe on BBC Radio Ulster. I’m delighted to have been invited to appear on the show. Please wish me luck, because the interview will be broadcast live. The show goes out on Saturday 5 December at 6.05pm.

The Skylark’s Call, published by Dempsey & Windle, is my second poetry collection. The theme of the book is the vitality and vulnerability of everyday life. All of the poems were written during my years of treatment for and recovery from advanced cancer. The poems don’t seek to address my cancer experience directly, but explore the fragile and often invisible boundary between life and death. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this is a territory we are all now having to deal with.

And on this topic, I have some great news. I’ve just got the results of my latest cancer surveillance CT scan. I’m delighted to say that it shows no evidence of any recurrence. That makes me clear of cancer for four years now.

Thankfully, I can begin the process of trying to calm down. It’s not easy when you’ve been on tenterhooks for weeks on end. I hope the sleepless nights will soon abate. It would usually take me around a week to come down from all the stress and anxiety of a surveillance scan. However, this time the disturbances will likely last a little longer, because next Wednesday, I have my book launch. I will say more about that in my next post.

The Skylark’s Call is priced at £10 and can be bought online from and from And if you buy the book through my website, I’d be delighted to sign and dedicate it for you.

For every copy of my book that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus Northern Ireland. In these difficult times, it’s important that we continue to give support to those suffering from cancer.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

New Book meets Readers

I’ve had a lot to do this week. And at times I wished I had a house-elf to help me. I’d offered to sign my new book, The Skylark’s Call, with a personal dedication for anyone who bought it through my website. And many people have taken me up on this. I’ve got skilled at signing my name with a flourish, and adept at writing the dedications. Most people have asked for the book to be dedicated to someone in particular, perhaps as a Christmas present. The most unusual request, and the most gratifying, was to be asked to write two lines from a poem in my first book as the dedication.

The house-elf could have put each of the books in an envelope, addressed it and sellotaped it closed. Then the house-elf could have gathered the envelopes up and carried them all to the Post Office. But I’m not complaining. I’m delighted, because for each book that has been sold, £1 is being donated to help local cancer survivors and their families. And in just a few days, I’ve raised over £40 for Cancer Focus Northern Ireland.

Because my book is now out, I’ve also begun to get feedback on my work from readers. When you write, you work in a sort of vacuum. Yes, you can discuss early drafts and work in progress with other writers. But you don’t encounter real readers until the book is completed and actually published. I’m absolutely delighted with what has been posted by readers of the The Skylark’s Call on Facebook.

‘Paul Jeffcutt’s poetry is searing, current, humorous and mournful. He emphasizes world news, political issues, the environment and migrant crisis with pain and wit.’ Fiona Murphy McCormack.

‘I can thoroughly recommend this latest book of poetry by Paul Jeffcutt. It has a great variety of themes, styles and voices. It’s a tribute to his persistence that all these poems were written during his three serious bouts of cancer. An amazing achievement.’ Paul Burrows.

The Skylark’s Call is priced at £10 and can be bought online from and from  And if you buy the book through my website, I’d be delighted to sign it for you. The Skylark’s Call is also stocked by No Alibis bookstore in Belfast. For every copy of my book that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus. In these difficult times, it’s important that we continue to give support to those suffering from cancer.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The Skylark's Call and Cancer Focus

I am a cancer survivor and I’d like to support the work of Cancer Focus through the launch of my new book, The Skylark’s Call. During my years of cancer treatment I got a lot of help from this charity, especially from their counselling service and from the Sing for Life Choir. Now I want to give something in return. For every copy of my book that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus. The Skylark’s Call is priced at £10 and can be bought online from and from And if you buy the book through my website, I’d be delighted to sign it for you. The Skylark’s Call is also stocked by No Alibis bookshop in Belfast. In these difficult times, it’s important that we continue to give support to those suffering from cancer.

As you know, I first got cancer in 2011. It came back in 2015 and again in 2016. I wasn’t expected to live for very long. I didn’t think I would write poetry again and I certainly never imagined that I would complete a second collection. I learned to live for each day. I’m delighted, of course, that all these and plenty more good things have come to pass. Life has so many and varied ways of surprising us.

The theme of the The Skylark’s Call is the vitality and impermanence of everyday life. All of the poems in the book were written during my years of treatment for, and recovery from, advanced cancer. The poems don’t seek to address my cancer experience directly, but reflect on the memories and meanings that surround a cluster of places, people and artefacts. Together the poems explore the fragile and often invisible boundary between life and death. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this is a territory we are all now having to deal with.

Cancer Focus is a very worthy cause. In 2019 they celebrated 50 years of working to reduce the impact of cancer on people’s lives in Northern Ireland. They provide care and support services for cancer patients and their families; offer a range of cancer prevention programmes to help people lessen their risk of getting cancer; fund scientific research into the causes and treatment of the disease and campaign for better health policy to protect our community and its future.


Tuesday, 10 November 2020

The Skylark's Call

A box of books has arrived on my doorstep. It contains my new collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call, published by Dempsey & Windle. I’m delighted of course. And I think it looks great. But I am a bit biased. It’s almost ten years since my first collection, Latch, was published by Lagan Press. That seems an absolute lifetime ago. So much has happened to me over the past decade. The negatives are clear: three large cancerous tumours and four major operations. The positives, similarly so: being together with T for seven happy years and being clear of cancer for almost four.

The theme of the book is the vitality and impermanence of everyday life. This is a subject I know intimately. All of the poems were written during my years of treatment for and recovery from cancer. The poems don’t seek to address my cancer experience directly, but reflect on the memories and meanings that surround a cluster of places, people and artefacts. Together the poems explore the fragile and often invisible boundary between life and death. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this is a territory we are all now having to deal with.

The manuscript was in development for the best part of two years. In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the debt of gratitude I have to the late Ciaran Carson. He read and commented on an early draft of the manuscript and led the Queen’s Writers’ Group in his own inimitable fashion, where early drafts of all of the poems in the book were discussed.

The Skylark’s Call has received endorsements from Moyra Donaldson, Kevin Higgins, Damian Smyth and Ian Sansom. I’m grateful for their well chosen words and generous comments on my poetry. The book does contain my best work to date. Individual poems have been published in well regarded journals, such as, Agenda, The Honest Ulsterman, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, Magma, Orbis, Oxford Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Stony Thursday Book and Vallum.  In the book are fifteen poems that have won awards in Ireland, the UK and the USA. There will be a launch via Zoom in December, to which you will all be invited.

The front cover photo is of Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran. Many thanks to Stuart Waugh of

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Finished First Draft

I’ve just finished the first draft of my new novel. For three months, I’ve been writing every day. I've gained a new dimension to my writing and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. The first draft is 155,000 words. That’s an average of 1700 words a day. Although, some days I only wrote a few hundred words. My maximum in one day was 4000 words. And that evening, my brain was well and truly fried. When I set out I didn’t really have a plot. All I had was a sketch of a main character and the notion that the novel would involve some crime and some romance. I started writing and just kept going, making it up as I went along. Now I have a raft of characters, two settings that are twenty years apart, plenty of interwoven plot lines and enough loose ends to set the scene for another novel.

Over the past three months, I’ve neglected almost all other things, including this blog. Some days I only wrote the novel, ate and slept. My inbox overflowed, I didn’t deal with correspondence, I didn’t engage in social media and even Ginger Dog began to wonder who I was.

Now I’ve got to the end of the novel, I must admit I’m feeling a slight sense of loss. But this is only the first draft and there is plenty still to do. As I went along, I made changes to the characters and the various plot lines. But I didn’t go back and alter earlier chapters, because that would have interrupted the momentum of writing the story. I just kept a set of notes on the alterations that I would have to make. These now run to twenty pages.

All the advice I’ve seen recommends that you leave the first draft for a number of weeks before you begin to make any alterations. You need to look at the first draft again with fresh eyes, so that you can more clearly see the flaws and the opportunities to improve it.  After all, 155,000 words makes the novel a bit longer than average. So I’ll probably need to cut some of the characters and the plot lines too. That won’t matter too much if it improves the novel. Indeed, when you’ve got to the end, you’re better able to work out how the story should start and unfold.

This is a good time for a gap before beginning work on the second draft. When I began the novel in late July, I was also making final corrections to the manuscript of my second poetry collection, ‘The Skylark’s Call.’ My book will shortly be published by Dempsey & Windle and I now have plenty of work to do for that.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Novel Writing and Ginger Dog

My new novel is going well. I’m almost at the milestone of 100,000 words. I’ve been writing every day for eight weeks. It’s been very intensive so far, with plenty of early starts as well as often getting up in the middle of the night to write notes. I’m a long way through the story now, but I keep getting new ideas. So I’m going to keep writing until I either run out of ideas or I become completely exhausted. During my many hours at the computer, I’m grateful to have a writing companion. His name is Ginger Dog.

Ginger Dog likes to lie on the corner of my desk wedged between the computer screen, my diary and the telephone. Despite his name, Ginger Dog is a cat. I’ve written about him before. You may recall he arrived here a little over two years ago, just after our dog died. He was small, thin and very wary. We since discovered that he wasn’t a true feral cat. He must have had experience of people as a kitten. But then he was abandoned.

Over time, Ginger Dog became used to us and came to the back door regularly to get food. He now spends most of his time in and around the house. From an early age, he began to follow me around. So we called him Ginger Dog. I don’t know why he does it. Perhaps he sees me as a parent or a provider. He also likes to lie down next to me when I’m doing my stretching exercises. He never does any of the the exercises himself (see photo), as he’s flexible enough already.

When he isn’t asleep on my desk, Ginger Dog is writing his own novel. He often feels the urge to stretch out and tap the keyboard with his paws. And when inspired, he stands up and presses the keys. I have no idea what he’s writing, because it is in Cat. But I can give you an exclusive extract below. If you know someone who can translate Cat into English, please get in touch.



Monday, 31 August 2020

Writing a New Novel

For the past five weeks I’ve been writing a novel. It’s been going well. I’ve written 64,000 words so far and I’m enjoying it. There seems to be more freedom in writing prose, compared to writing poetry. But it’s just as compulsive. The story is in my head pretty much all of the time. But novel writing is more tiring, because it is so sustained. Usually it would take me only a couple of days to produce the first draft of a poem (which would then be revised over the ensuing weeks and months). I’ve been writing intensively every day for six weeks now, but I’m still only about halfway through the first draft of the novel. I just hope my creative energy and momentum keeps going.

The novel is set in 1961 and in a fictional place. So I suppose that makes it a historical novel of sorts. The place is based on the small country town where I grew up in Gloucestershire. I was inspired to choose 1961 by the Philip Larkin poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the first two stanzas of which are below (although he wrote the poem in 1967). The beginning of the 1960’s is interesting to me because it is a cusp between an older social order that has been marked by wartime and rationing and a nascent social order that is in search of new freedoms. Although the Larkin poem focuses on sexual freedom, the novel is concerned with a broader range of issues. That time was also the heyday of British social realist novels, plays and films.

I‘ve been doing little else than writing, eating, sleeping and cycling, for the past six weeks. It’s been much more exhausting than I expected. One day I wrote 3,500 words and my brain was fried. But I still woke up in the middle of the night with ideas for the plot and had to get up and write them down. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have got back to sleep at all. I began the novel with only a very sketchy plot, which has become deepened and massively altered as I’ve moved along through the story. As I’ve been writing one chapter, the next couple have also been in my head. But I’ve not been working a lot further ahead than that. This gives you more freedom to insert plot twists and turns. I’m thinking that any plot problems can be fixed in the second draft. However, I’ve just been able to envision the end of the book. All I have to do now is to get the characters there.

Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Philip Larkin

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Doing the 101

‘Did you enjoy the summer?’ asked the newsagent this morning, as I walked into the shop from the rain. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘pity it was just for one week’. We both smiled, knowing that summer here is often brief and fleeting. At least we’d had an unbroken week of fine and warm weather, before grey skies and rain had returned. I told him that on the last day of summer (yesterday) I’d gone for an all day bike ride and had done 101 miles, my longest ride since 1997. ‘That’s some ride,’ he said, ‘you don’t look knackered, you must have been doing plenty of freewheeling.’ I laughed and told him that I was feeling reasonably okay today. ‘Weren’t you in hospital again recently?’ he said. ‘That was almost three years ago,’ I said. I told him that I was completely recovered from all my cancer treatment and that, strangely enough, I felt I’d even gained things from the ordeal. ‘Well done,’ he said, ‘that bike ride proves it.’

Riding for 100 miles is an endurance challenge, which has two main aspects: physical and mental. The physical challenge is to be healthy enough to keep going at a good pace for eight hours. Here the series of major operations I had was more of a disadvantage. I was chopped open three times in two and a half years, which left lots of internal scar tissue, muscle and nerve damage. Some of these limitations have been overcome with the help of physiotherapy and regular stretching; some just have to be lived with. The other problem was that each time I recovered and built myself back to health after one operation, I was put back to zero by having to return to hospital for yet another operation. This meant that I experienced an accumulated loss of physical health that has taken several years of uninterrupted building up to regain. During my long ride I’m glad to say that I had no major aches and pains, just a few niggles from time to time.

Nutrition is obviously very important too. When I returned, I calculated that I had burnt 4320 calories on the ride. However, I reckon that what I ate during the day came to almost 4000 calories, for I stopped every 20 miles to eat. I began the day with a big bowl of porridge with maple syrup. During the ride I ate one and half malt loaves, eight cereal bars, six bananas and four mini-cheeses. At the end of the ride, I demolished a big slab of pannetone before I drove home for a huge pasta meal. It wasn’t cow pie, but I might well have managed one.

The mental aspect of an endurance event is probably the greater challenge. Keeping up a high level of physical activity for eight hours does require significant determination. This is where I think the ordeal of the cancer treatment, particularly the series of operations, has helped me. Coping with all the setbacks of my treatment required great resilience and mental strength. I had these qualities beforehand, but I know they developed significantly during this ordeal. I experienced two very severe operations with several years of significant post-operative pain. But I found the resources to survive these and to rebuild my health. So I know I have the resources to cope with an eight hour bike ride.

Oddly enough, the most difficult time mentally was from 50 to 60 miles. At 50 miles I stopped to refill my water bottle after completing the hilliest section of the ride. I was starting to feel tired and it suddenly struck me, I now have to do all that again. In a flash, the end of the ride became an extremely long way away. Drawing on my cancer survivorship skills, I broke the challenge down into smaller parts. I didn’t think of 100 miles, but of another ten miles, to get me 60. When I got there, I had a short break, ate some food and relaxed. I was sitting beside the River Blackwater, on the border between Armagh and Tyrone. The sun was shining, no-one was about and it was pleasantly warm. Just before I left, a fella drove down to the riverside in his car, wound the window down and spoke to me. ‘It’s too damn hot,’ he said, turned the car around and drove away. Typical, I thought, we’ve only had one week of summer and people are already complaining.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

The Summer

On the fourth day of autumn (Lughnasa happened on Tuesday), summer put in a surprise appearance. In the north of this Atlantic island, summer had been absent for most of the past two months. And without a sick note, unless you count the tract that had been nailed to a tree down the road: ‘Repent for the days of Noah are upon us.’ Meteorologically, it had seemed to be true enough. We’d got used to a blanket of dark skies, cool northerly winds and squally rain. So the sudden appearance of the bright sun in a clear blue sky came as quite a shock. I put away my Vitamin D supplements, hunted around for my sunscreen, rescued my short-sleeved cycling top from the bottom of a drawer and went out for a good bike ride.

As usual I started at Scarva and headed up the canal towpath. The boost to cycling that lockdown gave has been continued in these strange beyond times. I’m glad to say that it is no longer unusual to see whole families out on bikes. Although, I’m careful when small kids are coming towards me on their little bikes, for they are often wobbly and unable to keep going straight on. But the only way to get better at riding a bike is to gain experience, and the towpath is a safe place to start.

At Portadown the towpath takes you almost into the centre, so you have to ride carefully. Along the path there will often be gangs of teenagers jostling one another, piles of broken glass (usually in the underpass) and a group of adults swigging cider. This is all concentrated in the last half mile of the towpath, and once these challenges have been negotiated there is only another mile of city streets to do before you reach back-roads and fields.

I followed the cycle route to Maghery, had a break and turned inland towards the Argory and Blackwatertown. These are quiet roads through undulating country, farms and small villages. In the fields contractors were cutting silage. A heavy mower is followed by a large vacuum machine that picks up the cut grass and blows it into the back of a huge trailer that is being driven alongside. But beware, the big trailers are always driven at high speeds along the narrow roads between the field and the farm. Contractors are paid a fixed price for the job, so the sooner they are finished, the sooner they can start earning at the next job. They take no prisoners on the road and drive their huge tractors at full speed, expecting everyone else to get out of their way. On a bike it’s easy to hear them coming.

I did a loop, almost to Armagh, and then turned back towards Loughgall. The drumlins are steeper here and covered with apple trees. It looks like it’s going to be a good harvest, for the trees are heavy with fruit. It was warm, around 26 degrees. Plenty of people were out working in their gardens. There are few little shops around here, so I stopped at a house and asked for water. They almost seemed glad to have an excuse to pause and refill my water bottle. After a break, I headed past Crowhill, a striking white house sitting on top of a drumlin, to rejoin the return route towards Portadown and Scarva.

On the way, I stopped for a chat with Lila, who lives alone in a small roadside cottage. Despite being 85, she’s always out working in her garden or painting the walls white or the window-frames red. She’s tough countrywoman who hates being idle. The sky was still blue and the sun remained strong. Portadown and the towpath were fairly quiet. I got back to the car at 6pm. It was still 20 degrees. I’d had a great day out, done 70 miles with over 2000 feet of climbing. And it had been summer all day.


Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Four Counties Ride

Yesterday I cycled for 80 miles across four counties. It was a grand day out, with plenty of interesting places en route. I spent six and a half hours in the saddle for my longest bike ride of the year. The old body is still going well, despite all the surgery I’ve had. There is a legacy of aches and pains, particularly across my pelvis, but I’ve found ways of coping with them. Given my current tiredness, I can safely say that I wouldn’t be keen to get back on the bike again this afternoon, but by tomorrow I think I’ll be ready for another wee ride.

I started off in Scarva, Co Down, and cycled up the canal towpath towards Portadown. The morning was overcast with a cool NW breeze. I’d consulted three weather forecasts: the BBC, the Norwegian Weather Service and Met Eireann. There was not unanimity. Met Eireann gave a warm and sunny day. The other two forecast a cool and overcast day. I decide to wear shorts and my versatile windproof top with long-sleeves, which could be zipped off to form a short-sleeve. I hoped the sun would come out, but like so many days here recently, I was prepared for cooler conditions.

The towpath was quiet until I got to Moneypenny’s Lock, then the normal groups of dog walkers were out and about. Dark clouds rolled in from the west and I felt the temperature go down until I began to chill. I stopped to put my cap on under my helmet and to switch my road lights on (one front, one rear). A good thing about Portadown, Co Armagh, is that the towpath brings you right into the centre and then it is just a short ride up the Garvaghy Rd to escape into minor roads and green fields. After about a mile you are out of town, past the dark spire of Drumcree and away.

Around the southern edge of Lough Neagh is pleasant cycling through undulating country. The settlements are very small and well spread out. The place names all seem to have the stem Derry, so assumedly there were plenty of oak groves here at one time. The main businesses now seem to be market gardening with polytunnels. At Maghery there is a footbridge over the River Blackwater that takes you into Co Tyrone. The small roads on the other side head across peat fields until you get to Brockagh and Mountjoy Castle (built during the plantation).

There is a shop here and, at 23 miles, I made it my first stop. I bought water and a banana and sat on a bench in the graveyard and ate my snacks. In my saddle-bag I had slices of malt loaf, snack cheeses and cereal bars. A graveyard is usually a peaceful stop and is always a good place to contemplate. In front of me were the graves of Michael, who was ‘everyone’s friend’ but died aged 18, and baby Ciara ‘born asleep’.

I carried on around the Lough taking all the smaller roads I could. The land is a bit hillier here and you get some excellent views of the water. But the best viewpoint by far is at Ardboe, the hill of the cow, where you can sit on a bench besides a ruined church and see the Mournes and Slieve Gullion across the Lough on the horizon. It also possesses one of the finest high crosses in NI, sited at a place where a magic cow reputedly emerged from the Lough.

Eventually I was forced to return to the main road that goes around the Lough. At this point I turned west towards Cookstown until I reached Coagh, a wee village which looks very down on its luck. It sits at the border between Cos Tyrone and Derry. I stopped for a snack in the picnic area beside the River Ballinderry. No-one was about. I’d travelled 42 miles and I was feeling pleased with myself. It was early afternoon and time to head back. I’d return using a variation of my outward route. The weather had warmed up a little, but it was still windy and overcast. It certainly didn’t feel warm enough to zip my long sleeves off. You needed sunshine for that. It was another typical summer’s day in NI.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Clear-Out

After a long fine spell, the normal NI summer has resumed: one or two warm and bright days, followed by three or four cool, wet and windy ones. At this time of year, I don’t enjoy being stuck indoors day after day. Besides, the editing of my poetry manuscript was largely finished and I was mainly doing background reading for my next writing project. On the spur of a moment, I decided to begin another long-neglected task: the clear-out.

My wardrobe occupies much of one bedroom wall. It has a long hanging rail, chockfull with trousers and shirts, and a shelf above, which was overflowing with jerseys. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d sorted through it. T had suggested I do this, several times. But I’d been avoiding it. She sat on the bed and encouraged me.

On the upper shelf were several folded piles of jeans. I pulled them out and started to try them on. Some were narrow leg, others straight or flared, but few of them now fitted me comfortably. T got a roll of bin bags from the kitchen and soon one was half-filled with my discarded jeans.

Then I turned to the trousers. Some were ancient with turn-ups. Others were casual cords. I found two suits that I’d bought when I began work at QUB, some twenty two years ago. In my department, it was expected that a professor would wear a suit. I followed the dress code at first, and then my attire became more relaxed. By the end of my time, I was wearing cords or jeans to work most days. Another charity bin-bag became filled with these work clothes.

My favourite jerseys were piled on top of the long shelf. Underneath were many others that I’d not worn for years. Some were odd styles and colours, some were faded, and some had even been eaten by moths. T laughed at some of my older jerseys but wanted to keep others for herself. We opened a fresh bin-bag for charity and another for clothes that I could wear for gardening.

Looking through my clothes was like looking back through my life. I remembered occasions when I had worn something or who had bought it for me. I also realised why I had been putting this task off. I had to be feeling strong enough to do this sorting out, because I couldn’t know what memories I would encounter. They could be amusing or troubling or anywhere in-between. I found plenty of these, and recounted funny, embarrassing or sad episodes for T.

In the end, I became quite exhausted by this work. We had three full bin-bags for charity and one for the garden. And I hadn’t even sorted through the shoes. We’d save that for another day. When I rested, I read that plenty of people had been through similar clear-outs during lockdown and newly-opening charity shops were being inundated with donations. As people go out and meet others, a key question will be – what sort of lockdown did you have? For many, this seems to have been a time for reflection and of taking stock.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Lockdown Review

The lockdown has effectively been over for several weeks now. You can see it in the streets thronged with people and the roads clogged with vehicles. It ended with the Dominic Cummings fiasco. During which a national newspaper posted a ‘cut out and keep’ mugshot of DC on its front page and invited readers to put it on and do whatever the hell they wanted. And since then many people have pretty much been doing that, whether or not they bothered to wear DC or any other masks. On a national level, it is plain to see that the government’s handling of the crisis has been woeful and inept. But on a personal level, I have to conclude that the lockdown has mainly been beneficial for me.

Why do I say this? Well, during lockdown I’ve completed a series of major jobs around the house that I’d been putting off for a good while: building my new bike, cutting the heavily overgrown back hedge and clearing the clogged garden pond, to name but three. I’ve also done a substantial amount of writing and editing work. I’ve completed the manuscript of my second poetry collection and succeeded in gaining a book contract with Dempsey & Windle. I’ve formatted the manuscript and secured the rights to a photo for the cover. And I’ve now started work on my next book, which will be a novel.

Lockdown gave me the uninterrupted time and space to take on a range of multi-day jobs, whilst also removing most of the distractions that would have encouraged me to avoid them. So I can now congratulate myself on having successfully achieved a series of important tasks, some of which had been neglected for a while.

The low traffic of lockdown and the associated good weather enabled me to do a series of long bike rides on major roads that I would never have dreamt of riding on in normal circumstances. The best of these was along the Castlewellan Road to Newcastle, around the coast to Kilkeel and Rostrevor, into Newry and back along the canal to Poyntzpass. Lockdown has certainly encouraged people to get out bikes that had been left in the shed for many years. This can only be a good thing for people's health. I hope that the boost to cycling continues, despite the increase in traffic.

As T has been working from home, it has meant that we have spent much more time together. We have shared many breakfasts and lunches together and have been able to talk more and more often. These everyday connections have strengthened and deepened our relationship.

As for living with the stress of a life-threatening disease? Well, I’ve been doing that for the past nine years. You have to take things day by day and not expect too much of yourself. It’s not easy, but this has become my normality. You take all the precautions you can, do the right things and hope for the best.

Lockdown has meant that I haven’t had a haircut, a cup of coffee in a cafe nor been to an event for three months. But in the great scheme of things, this has been a small price to pay. I’m aware that we don’t have little children to care for, or a business to run. And I’m not wishing for lockdown to return, just doing my own assessment of the past three months. For me there have clearly been many more gains than losses.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020


I just got a call from my consultant about my recent cancer surveillance scan. She told me there was 'no evidence of disease'. That makes it 3 years and 9 months in the clear. 

Needless to say, I'm delighted.

It is a great relief that I got the news so quickly. In my nine years of getting surveillance scans, I have never ever heard the result within a week of the scan taking place. The norm has been two to four weeks of inevitably high anxiety.

I'm glad that these strange times seem to have changed the protocols of the Cancer Centre for the better. When the scan result is negative and there isn't any change to the treatment plan, there is no real need for the consultant to meet the patient in person. All of this can be done by phone, more quickly and effectively. It saves the consultant time and it saves the patient weeks of unnecessary worry.

Friday, 29 May 2020


I travelled the thirty miles from home to Belfast today. It was a journey I hadn’t done for ages. I was going to the Cancer Centre for my CT scan. My appointment was at 9 am. Due to heavy traffic and congestion, I would normally have left home at 7.30 am to get there in time. Today, I left home around 8 am and got to the hospital in half the usual time. And the multi-storey car park was half empty, rather than full to the brim. More signs of how much normal life has changed in the past ten weeks.

At the entrance to the Cancer Centre were two nurses kitted out with PPE. One took my temperature with an ear thermometer, whilst the other asked me a series of questions about symptoms and filled out a questionnaire. With her mask on, the questions were hard for me to make out, so she had to repeat several of them. When the questions were finished, I was given the document, which detailed my temperature and my responses, and I was allowed in to the Cancer Centre. I went to Radiology reception, handed over my document and was given my CT scan form to take to the CT scan reception.

After that, the procedure was much the same as usual. I sat and drank a litre of contrast, one cup every ten minutes. And when I was finished I was called in to the scanning area. I changed into a gown, removed all metal objects and was taken into the scanning room. A CT scanner looks like a large ring doughnut with a narrow bed attached to it. I lay on the bed, which moved me inside the machine. The scanner whirred and growled. A disembodied voice told me to ‘Hold Your Breath’, the bed moved, the machine howled and the voice told me ‘Breathe’. This sequence took place a couple of times and then the scan was finished. I was inside the machine for perhaps five minutes. But in this time I got the same radiation as in 800 X-rays.

I changed and walked out of the Cancer Centre to see a new sign above the entrance to the main hospital building. The City Hospital is now called the Nightingale Hospital and at the entrance there were now two security guards. I went back to my car and munched on some oat biscuits and a banana. You are not allowed to eat in the four hours before a scan. Normally I would have gone to the hospital cafe and had a good breakfast, but of course the cafe was closed, as was the shop. I started my car and began the journey home.

But this was not the end. The scan itself has nothing to trouble you. The result is what matters. You don’t get that until you meet your consultant for a review. I have no appointment as yet. The letter giving me the appointment would normally come two weeks beforehand. So I knew I had at least two weeks of high anxiety before I could find out the result of my scan. Indeed, it could be longer. In these abnormal times, who could predict how long it would actually be before I got to see my consultant.  I swallowed hard and gripped the wheel. As with so many times on this cancer journey, I would have to take it just one day at a time.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Skylark's Call

I’m delighted to say that my second collection of poetry will be published this autumn by Dempsey & Windle. The launch is planned for late October or November and I very much hope that such a gathering will be permitted by then. This will make it almost ten years since my first collection, ‘Latch’, was launched in Belfast by Lagan Press. Just a few months later, I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and had to cancel my reading tour of Ireland and England from my hospital bed.

All of the poems in ‘The Skylark’s Call’ were written, on and off, during my years of treatment for, and recovery from, cancer. The poems don’t seek to address the cancer experience directly; I did that in this blog. The poems probe the memories and meanings that surround a cluster of places, people and artefacts. Together, they explore the vitality and impermanence of everyday life. These are complex issues, which, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, many more people are having to address.

‘The Skylark’s Call’ is my working title. I began work on the manuscript almost two years ago and it has gone through many iterations and a series of different titles. My manuscript is now finalised apart from the title. However, the only poem in which a skylark appears is the second to last one, ‘Birdsong’, a eulogy for my younger brother, Robert, who died of cancer in 2010. The thinking behind my choice of title is to bring together two very contrasting meanings that are evoked by the skylark in poetry: on the one hand, symbolising hope and inspiration (eg Wordsworth, Shelley); on the other, symbolising earthly suffering and death (eg Ted Hughes). These difficult contrasts describe the territory I have been inhabiting since 2011 and that of this collection of poems. I’d very much appreciate any thoughts and comments people may have on my working title. There is a short while before it has to be finalised.

All writers experience rejection from publishers. I began submitting early versions of my manuscript about 18 months ago, without success. Since then the manuscript has been transformed, with many new poems alongside many revisions. I’d very much like to thank all of the people who have helped me to improve this collection, in particular, the late Ciaran Carson, Moyra Donaldson and of course my dearest T. Working drafts of most of the poems in the collection have been discussed in the Queen’s Writers’ Group over the past six years and I am very grateful for the constructive feedback I’ve received from members of the group.

For those who may not have come across them, Dempsey & Windle are an independent publisher based in Guildford, England. They have been publishing poetry for the best part of a decade. They specialise in debut pamphlets but have also published a number of full collections from well-regarded writers during this time. I’m very much looking forward to the launch of ‘The Skylark’s Call’ this autumn and I shall be sure to invite all of my friends to join me at this celebration.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

My Life in Bikes (part two)

Part one, posted a week ago, covered this story up to the time I became settled in Northern Ireland. After exploring this island, I embarked on a series of solo cycle-tours in France, Italy and Spain, taking these as my summer holidays from work. I packed up my bike in a bag and put all my kit into one medium holdall. When I arrived, I took a taxi to the hotel I had pre-booked for the first night, unpacked the bike, transferred my stuff into my panniers and set off the next morning. On a cycle-tour, life is simpler and freer; I was exploring somewhere completely new for three weeks with all my possessions in just two panniers on the back of my bike. I was also leaving many of my normal bothers behind, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on more significant issues. I always wrote a reflective journal during the tour and returned with a sense of renewal.

Every morning I would ring to book a room for the night (in a small pensione or hostal) and then have the day to explore places along the way to my evening’s destination. I would always leave my bike bag at the first hotel, having pre-booked the last night of my trip there. The main disadvantage of a solo cycle-tour is that you have to carry all your own luggage. However much you minimise your stuff (and over time I got good at this), it still makes the bike fairly heavy. Being alone is not a problem, for you are bound to meet other travellers on the way. My favourite tours were of La Mancha, the Basque country, Brittany and Puglia.

I then decided to try a supported cycle-tour, where your luggage is carried for you between destinations. I was particularly interested in exploring faraway destinations where I would have had difficulties organising a cycle-tour on my own. With the Cyclists’ Touring Club, I went on multi-week tours of Sri Lanka, SW China, Patagonia, Laos, N Thailand and Vietnam. By far the best way of exploring a developing country is by bike, for you travel at a slower pace, alongside the people, and really get to experience how others live. I’ve had some brilliant adventures: staying with a family in a stilted hut in a small village in Laos without electricity or running water; meeting ethnic tribes-people, dressed in all their finery, on a market day in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas (on the road to Shangri-La).

I think the main things that these experiences taught me were self-reliance and humility. Seeing the developing world at first-hand shows you that human beings are much the same. The main differences are that us Westerners, despite being in a minority, have most of the world’s resources and privileges. The majority have less, because we have more. But the poor of the world are remarkably skilled at making the best of what they do have. They recycle, repurpose and reuse all of the time (because they have to). And if you find yourself somewhere far away and in need of help, you will be pretty sure to find it.

Sadly, due to cancer, I have not been on such a tour for a decade. But I have been cycling when I’ve been able to; increasingly so over the past couple of years during my recovery from the last major operation. I have also been honing my bike maintenance skills that I first developed during my cycle-tours. This was given an added impetus by the failures of a local specialist bike shop. They took my money and handed my bike back to me without the headset being fixed properly. Because my bike had been left in a dangerous state, I decided never to give them any work again and that I had to learn to fix my own bikes.

There are a series of tasks that are needed to fix up a bike. I tackled them one by one, as I needed, finding that each of the tasks is not that difficult on its own. I learned many of these by trial and error. There are plenty of instructional videos, but you have to be careful as some of these are misleading. And I’ve now put all of these skills together, for I’ve just built a bike completely from scratch for the very first time. It only took me five afternoons in total, spread out over a week or so. I am very pleased with this achievement.

I now have a titanium-framed superbike, built to my very own specifications like a bespoke suit from a tailor. I bought the frame in a sale last year and then chose all the parts to go with it to fit my precise needs. This was an enjoyable but complex part of the process, because compatibility between parts from different manufacturers can be problematic. Indeed you cannot be sure that they will all work together until you try them.

I am delighted to say that my new bike works beautifully. It is a Kinesis Gran Fondo (Italian for big ride) designed for long distance cycling. It is three and a half pounds lighter than my existing Audax bike, but is very comfortable. What is more, it rolls well up the local hills and speeds down them very surefootedly. The handling is brilliant. I’m sure we will go on to have many great rides together. Although, nobody knows when (or if) overseas cycling trips will become possible again.

Monday, 4 May 2020

My Life in Bikes (part one)

Bikes have always been very important to me. My first was a tricycle, which I got when I was 3. I think I was only allowed to ride it on the lawn, as I am in the picture, with my brother Rob (now deceased) on his rocking horse with Patsy (a neighbour’s daughter). But I’m pretty sure I also rode it down the lane beside our house. I had to walk a mile to the local school and pestered my parents for a proper bike, which I finally got aged 7. It was a gold and white Raleigh with three gears and whitewall tyres. I soon set off on rides along the towpath of the Stroudwater Canal, which our house was beside, and then went on to explore the local lanes, many of which had gravel surfaces. After all these years, I’ve never lost that love of the air flowing across your face and through your hair; that sense of freedom and self-reliance.

I had several other bikes until 16, when I bought a scooter: a Vespa Sportique. I had worked on a local farm from the age of 14 and saved up the money to buy it. I think it cost me £30. It was red and black with plenty of chrome. I can still remember the registration number: 724 BFH. I wore a parka and had Levis and a Ben Sherman shirt. I rode the scooter to school and at weekends around the local town, Gloucester, thinking I was pretty cool. Not everyone agreed. Once I was pursued by four local yobbos in a Ford Zodiac who threw empty cider bottles at me, trying to burst my tyres.

My sense of adventure and love of the open road transferred to a series of motorbikes in my 20’s. Being a self-funded postgraduate student, I was pretty poor at this time and could only afford cheap bikes. I had an old BSA with sidecar and a MZ. After reading an article about the remotest area in Britain, Knoydart in the Western Highlands, I strapped my camping gear to my bike and set off on a 500 mile journey to explore it for a week. I didn’t earn enough to buy a car until I was 30.

Climbing and mountaineering were my main pursuits until 1987, when my first wife, Gill, was killed in an accident in Snowdonia. This crisis, which I only survived by the skin of my teeth, changed my life completely. When living with my kind friends Phil and Jean in Poole (I couldn’t bear to stay in the house Gill and I had just bought in Southampton), I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. It was a life-saver; cycling and running helped to give me a temporary sense of purpose in a world that was undeniably bereft.

I lost my job, moved to Scotland and met my second wife on a cycle-tour of the Western Isles. The cycle-tour was brilliant, but the marriage was ill-advised (too soon after the death). I became workaholic, runaholic and restarted hill-walking. Then a bad back injury meant I had to give up running. This happened around the time I moved to Yorkshire for a better job. At weekends I took my trusty Dawes Galaxy on long rides through the Dales and Moors, rekindling my love of cycling. A couple of years later I got the Chair at QUB and moved to NI. My then wife didn’t come too. It was a shock, but for the best in the long run.

Strangely enough, moving to a place where I knew nobody has ended up being the most significant change in my life. I finally got to grips with the problems from my past and I settled down in a house in the country that reminded me of where I was a child. 

I can also say that this island is the best place I’ve ever lived for cycling. There are so many wee back roads with light traffic. I’ve travelled the entire coastline of the island in four long cycle-tours and written a reflective journal during each. I began in the North-West in 1998, the first summer after I arrived here. I’ve also explored each of the 32 counties by bike. Eventually, my faithful Dawes Galaxy had to be retired. In its place, I bought two new bikes: a Dawes Audax for day-rides and a Dawes Sardar for cycle-tours.

To be continued...

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Leather Anniversary

I’ve just passed another significant milestone on my cancer journey. It is nine years since I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer of the kidney. I remember the occasion vividly. I had spent a night on a trolley in A&E with excruciating pain in my left side. In the morning, it was Good Friday, I was scanned. The young doctor who gave me the result was matter of fact. The tumour had grown significantly beyond my kidney and had travelled most of the way up my vena cava towards my heart. I remember shrinking down into the bed as the world closed in on me. He asked me if I had any questions. I could hardly speak. I thought that I was going to die.

When I saw the consultant the next day, I found my voice. I asked him what my chances of survival were. He gave me an odd answer. He said ‘I can tell you the average outcome for people with the type of tumour you have’, and went on to offer a poor prognosis. ‘But I can’t tell you what will happen to you, because that is written in the stars.’

At the time, I found his answer puzzling and very irritating. I was in a terrible predicament and I wanted clear answers. In retrospect, I can see that it was a good answer. Medical experts can only ever tell you what the average outcome is for people in your situation. Because how an individual responds to a disease, and vice versa, varies enormously. There are so many factors that make a difference to the outcome, from genetics to levels of health and fitness, to factors that we just don’t understand yet

I went on to have a series of major operations as well as two recurrences, but my worst fears are yet to be realised. I thank my lucky stars that I have come through this ordeal. So far, so good; for I am now over three years clear of cancer. I’m due another surveillance scan next month, but I expect that will be delayed. A year or so ago I ran into the same consultant again. He explained that he hadn’t expected me to live beyond the first two years and told me that my recovery had been ‘miraculous’.

I don’t know exactly what I’ve done, or not done, to have a better than expected outcome. I do my best to live well, eat healthily and keep fit. The poor old body has had a lot of surgery and there is plenty of scar tissue and physical limitation. But every morning I do a set of Pilates-type exercises. And each day I do some exercise in the outside world, either cycling or walking. I was told that my levels of health and fitness helped me to get through the series of major operations I had.

I don’t drink alcohol, not out of principle, it just doesn’t agree with me anymore. Besides, one of the major reasons why I used to drink, a stressful job, has gone as I took early retirement not long before I got cancer. I live surrounded by fields and farms, a relaxing environment with low levels of air pollution (apart from when the fields are being spread with slurry). But perhaps, most important of all, I am happily settled down with T in a loving relationship, and have been for the best part of seven years. This gives me enormous stability and great peace of mind. She is my rock and I cannot imagine life without her.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Groundhog Days

I have a confession to make. I love watching films in the daytime. This began whilst I was a student; that escape from the bright and busy world into a darkened cinema to immerse myself in a story on the silver screen. And it has continued ever since. Indeed, it even intensified when I moved to Northern Ireland, for my office was a short walk from the front door of the Queen’s Film Theatre and I would regularly pop in. Under lockdown, I have been able to indulge myself as often as I wish, albeit on a smaller screen. Yesterday I saw a film that I hadn’t seen for decades and I was struck by the intriguing metaphor that it offered for these strange times. The film was Groundhog Day.

I expect you know the story. Egocentric and narcissistic TV weatherman, Phil (played by Bill Murray), is compelled to relive the same day over and over again in a small American town that he is desperate to escape from. The camera closes in repeatedly on the radio alarm-clock in his hotel room, which turns to 6 AM, and he wakes to the tune of ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny & Cher as the same day begins again. And despite whatever he does in each of these repeated days, every day begins and unfolds in exactly the same way. At first he is unbelieving; then he becomes exasperated. Later he exploits the situation by binge-eating and drinking, anti-social behaviour, seducing beautiful strangers and robbing a bank. After all of these excesses he ends up in despair. But even repeatedly committing suicide makes no difference. At 6 AM the radio alarm comes on and he wakes to the same day again.

Is this not somewhat like life under lockdown? I am stuck at home, like most others, and I have built up a routine that helps get me through the day. The outside world is threatening, with an unseen enemy, the coronavirus, that we fear we cannot escape from. Every day at 5 PM we are told what the deaths from the virus have been for that day. And the next day will be much the same. We have no idea when this lockdown will end, it could even intensify. Many people feel trapped. Our strategies for coping may include binge-eating and drinking or anti-social behaviour. We may develop depression. We may engage in self-harm. But, unlike the film, these actions will indeed have consequences for ourselves and for others.

Groundhog Day is a highly moral fable, for it is only when Phil actually changes and genuinely becomes a better person that he is able to escape the confines of his repeated reality and win the love of the fair maiden, Rita (played by Andie McDowell). Films are, of course, adult fairy-tales, and trade in archetypes that we know from reading the stories of Aesop or the Brothers Grimm as children.

But how does this moral fable translate to the coronavirus crisis? Well, there are plenty of unreconstructed Phil’s who have stockpiled guns and built electric fences around their homesteads. But, at the same time, there are many others who have gone out of their way to help people that are in need. For example, the many small community groups which have sprung up to help the old and vulnerable who are now stuck in their own homes; doing, amongst many other things, the shopping for the vulnerable and delivering it to their front door. The nub being that when we are less egocentric and more altruistic, when we reach out to help others, we actually end up helping ourselves too. Because giving something beyond ourselves does not just make a difference to the recipient, it also leaves the giver with a sense of purpose and of self-worth. In the end, these are qualities that the lockdown, by its very nature, seeks to take away from us.