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...