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.