Thursday, 30 September 2021

The Clare Retreat

For the past three weeks we have been hiding out in a cottage by the ocean in Co Clare. We went there for a good break and chose a fairly remote location. Although the cottage had good internet connections (and a large satellite TV) we decided not to do any social media whilst we were away. Instead we walked the short way to the ocean and observed its rhythms and moods. From our house we could hear the sound of the waves and smell the salty air. I found myself remembering ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield, especially the second stanza, which I recall Ciaran Carson declaiming at the Queen’s Writers’ Group.

Of course I brought my bike with me. The main roads of West Clare are few and rather narrow, so I spent most of the time cycling the back roads and byways. There is a big network of these but the surfaces can be a bit rough in places. Most of West Clare is a peninsula with the broad Shannon estuary on the one side and the Atlantic on the other. The climate is very mild and the hedgerows and ditches are full of plants that you don’t often see around here, like purple loosestrife and fuchsia. The best ride was along the magnificent cliff road from Kilkee to Loop Head and back along the Shannon estuary. Kilkee was a Victorian resort visited by Charlotte Bronte and Alfred Tennyson and the cliffs are similar to the Cliffs of Moher.

I also brought a print-out the first draft of my novel. Reading through it carefully for the first time, I noticed lots of flaws but plenty of good things too. The main problem I saw was that the opening was rather ponderous as it contained plenty of scene setting and backstory (the novel is set in 1961 and also refers to 1940). The novel didn’t seem to really get going until about chapter five. I think this was a result of how I wrote the first draft. I embarked on the story with just two characters and a vague idea of where it was all going. So I decided that the novel had to start with what had been chapter five and began my rewrite. By the end of the holiday, I’d rewritten ten chapters. T had brought books to read and worked on journaling and watercolouring.

On other days we went to Ennistymon and visited the Salmon Bookshop, where my new collection is now stocked, and to Quilty, which has a seaweed factory that exports all around the world. At low tide several fellas could be seen collecting sugar kelp from the beach beside our house. We went to Doonbeg and ate in the magnificent Morrisseys restaurant. They have a fish wholesaling business so the fish are fresh from the boats. They also have a fish shop that is open a couple of days a week, where we bought turbot, brill and mackerel to cook at home. We even swam a little in the sea, but it was certainly cool. The one place we avoided was the Donald Trump Golf Links and Resort. We did walk along Doughmore Strand and glimpsed the place beyond the dunes, but it was off-limits to non-residents.

All in all, we had a great time and the weather was mostly good. One thing that did stick out was the very high level of compliance with Covid regulations, which are much tougher than up here. I didn’t see anyone in a shop without a mask on. And you don’t gain entry to a pub, restaurant and cafĂ© without being able to prove that you have a double vaccination. No wonder that vaccination rates are higher and infection rates are lower there. And when we got back, Minnie and Chip (who had been looked after by neighbours) were waiting for us excitedly. Perhaps they knew we had fish.



Friday, 27 August 2021

The Daring Young Chip

Chip has continued to grow and thrive. He has even started to eat solid food. When not sleeping, he spends plenty of time play-fighting with Minnie. The two cats chase madly around the back yard and end up tumbling together, biting and clawing each other. It’s very rough play, but they enjoy it. It also seems to signify a subtle change in their relationship, as Minnie has now become more like a big sister than his protective mother. This does have its dangers.

Chip tries to follow Minnie wherever she goes. Our back yard has a four foot rear wall. Minnie can leap from the back garden to the top of the wall in one bound. Chip was stuck at the bottom, looking longingly upward. But later on we saw him following her along the parapet. We had no idea of how he got up there. The next day we waited and watched. Minnie jumped to the top of the wall. Chip bobbed his head for a while, as if sizing up the wall. He gathered himself and leapt at the pebble-dashed wall. We thought he would fall, but he managed to cling to the vertical face about halfway up. He was hanging onto the pebbled surface with his claws. Then he began to climb. He pushed one paw above his head, grasped the wall with his claw and pulled himself up. In a series of adept rock-climbing moves he reached the parapet, then ran across to the waiting Minnie. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t actually seen it.

But getting down from the top of the four-foot wall was a stiffer challenge. Minnie leapt down without any difficulty. She sat in the garden below and called to Chip to follow her. Chip stood on the parapet and looked down, bobbing his head. Minnie called him. But he turned back from the edge and wailed. We thought we should go and lift him down. Then Chip walked gingerly along the parapet, glancing over the edge from time to time. Near to the far end of the wall, he stopped and peered down. Minnie called him again. Chip launched himself from the top of the wall. He flew through the air like a ginger missile and hit the flagstones with a sickening thud. Minnie ran over to him. We did too. Chip got up, shook himself and bounced away.

It was an incredible leap for a small kitten. Minnie is four times the size of Chip. The equivalent leap for her would be from the apex of the roof of a bungalow. Minnie could probably do this if she really had to. But in order to keep up with her, young Chip is making this huge leap several times a day. Frankly, we are concerned that he might fracture a limb. So we have now put a large upturned cardboard box on the flagstones where he leapt down yesterday. We hope that Chip will use it to break his headlong dive.



Saturday, 14 August 2021

The Chipster

May I introduce you to Chip, son of Minnie and the late Ginger Dog, who was born in our back yard. At one week old his eyes and ears opened. At two weeks he began to crawl. And at three weeks he began to walk. At first Chip could only stagger on shaky little legs. But with Minnie’s encouragement, he became stronger and steadier on his feet. We have been completely fascinated.

Chip was so tiny when he was born. Minnie could carry him easily in her mouth. For the first week he and Minnie nested behind the bins in our back yard. Chip was either sucking milk or sleeping. Minnie kept going by eating enormous amounts of food and drinking loads of the lactose-free milk we gave her. She has six nipples, but with only one kitten in the litter, Chip had no competition for feeds.

After a couple of evening visits from Ginger Dog’s brother, who we managed to scare away, Minnie became quite anxious and started hiding Chip away from view. Each morning we had to search for him, to make sure that he was still alive. Her favourite hiding places for Chip were between two large flowerpots and behind the central heating boiler. We then encouraged her to nest in a cardboard box in the garden shed, which she did.  The shed was more secure because it smelt of humans and no feral cat would be likely to venture in there. This worked well and visits to our back yard from ‘the brother’ became fewer and further between.

When Chip began to walk, Minnie took him out into the back yard. She sat about six feet away and called him. He sat perplexed. She called him again. He bobbed his head at the expanse of gravel and weeds he would have to negotiate to get to her.  Chip opened his mouth and wailed. She called him again. He just sat there and continued to wail. Minnie remained unmoved. After a very long period of contemplation, Chip got to his feet. He staggered a few steps and then fell. He lay amongst the weeds and wailed. Minnie called him again. He slowly got up and headed towards her, before falling again. After a couple more falls, he finally reached her. Minnie bent down and licked his ginger head and back. Then Chip got his reward, a feed of milk.

This tough love continued for a day or two, until he was more secure on his feet. In spite of it all, or perhaps because of it all, Chip has more than doubled in size. He could well become a bruiser.





Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Cat Genealogy

Two days before our ginger cat died, another feral cat appeared in our back garden. He was half-ginger and half-tabby, small and fairly thin. We thought he could well be the son of our cat and had come to take over his territory. So we chased him away. But he returned the next day, whilst our sickly cat was in the back garden. Much to our surprise, no fight took place. The two cats tolerated each other well. We christened the new cat Mini Dog. The day after our ginger cat died, Mini Dog reappeared and T began to feed him. He was always hungry and ate enormous amounts of food. Over the ensuing weeks he put on a good bit of weight. Then he disappeared, only to return with a tiny ginger kitten in his mouth. So Mini was in fact Minnie.

She made a nest behind the bins in the back yard and nursed the kitten. It was tiny and helpless, being blind and with its ears fully closed. We gave Minnie plenty of food and milk. The kitten lay still and silent in the grass whilst she was away. She bolted her food down and went back to feeding the kitten. We tried to get her to make a nest in a cardboard box in the shed, but she felt more comfortable behind the bins. We also did a search of the garden for the other kittens, but found none. We have since learnt that young cat mothers may only have one or two kittens the first time. Minnie was certainly young, not much more than a kitten herself.

We christened the ginger kitten Chip, as in ‘chip off the old block’. We reckoned that our ginger cat was either his grandfather or his father; or possibly both (as morality is not a major concern of feral cats). And this theory was supported that very evening, for the only other ginger tomcat in the area suddenly appeared in the back garden and challenged Minnie. This ginger tom was the brother of our cat and had never come here whilst he was alive. We feared that the brother might want to kill Chip as he wasn’t his offspring. So we scared him away and kept watch. Luckily the nest was underneath a motion-sensitive security light above the bedroom window, so we could get some warning. We are now on high alert at night, T especially, in our official capacity as the minders of Minnie and Chip.





Friday, 9 July 2021

Early Baths

Our shower stopped working just when I returned from a long bike ride on a hot day. So I took a bath. And this continued as we waited for an electrician to come and fix the shower. But it was a happy accident, for I had almost forgotten what an entirely different experience a bath is. I stretched out in the warm water and rested my head against the scooped end of the bath-tub. My tired body began to relax and I found myself recalling previous baths of note.

The first of these was an enamel bath tub. It was oblong in shape and I played and splashed in it throughout my early years. My favourite toy was a small plastic bucket. I think I got it at the seaside. And I would often pretend that I was sailing across the ocean in my little bath tub.

In those days, no houses had showers. And many older houses didn’t have baths. My grandfather had a zinc bath which was hung up in an outhouse and only brought into the cottage once a week. It was set in front of the fire and filled with hot water from the range. The family bathed in order of seniority. The youngest was last and had to wash in the same water that had already cleaned the others.

The first shower I had was at secondary school. But I was crammed in with thirty other kids, all sweaty from PE. I recall the cock and bum jokes that were shouted by the bolder lads through clouds of steam, along with my sense of embarrassment about my own body. If we stayed in the showers for too long, the PE teacher would turn the water to cold and then slap our buttocks with a wet towel as we scuttled into the damp changing room.

All of the flats I lived in during the 1970’s didn’t have showers. Unless you count the grey rubber tubing that you put over the bath taps and the attached sprinkler that you could hold above your head. The mix of hot and cold was very hard to get right and anything more than a trickle of water would force the tubes off the taps.

In the mid 1980’s I bought a small terraced house that had been built a hundred years earlier. The tiny bathroom had an electric shower behind a flimsy plastic curtain that hung from a rail. That shower was useless: the flow of water was puny, the temperature was virtually uncontrollable (you were either scalded or frozen) and water splashed out across the floor and dripped into the kitchen below.

My pal Phil and I took out the shower tray and installed a bath. I bought the smallest bath I could find. It was a sit-bath, with very tall sides and a bucket seat. Despite the bath being very short, we still had to chip bits off the wall to fit it in. I was an active runner in those days and every Sunday morning I would meet my club-mates for a long run in the New Forest. On the way back home, I would always buy the Sunday papers. I would have a lovely long soak in the sit bath and read the papers from start to finish. It was very therapeutic: mentally and physically. The water came up to my armpits and the newspaper often got wet. Of all the baths I’ve had, that little sit-bath was the one I remember most fondly.



Monday, 21 June 2021

A Wake for Ginger Dog

Our semi-feral cat, Ginger Dog, has passed away. He survived for just three weeks after the cancer diagnosis. He was only three years old. We are heartbroken. It is very special when a wild animal chooses to bond with you. Every morning I still look for him when I open the curtains. But I will never again see his little furry face. Or hear his loud purrs as he rubbed his head against mine. After his heart finally stopped we placed him on his favourite chair and told each other stories about his escapades. The next morning I carried his stiff body into the garden and we buried him with full honours. Rest in peace, Ginger Dog.














Thursday, 3 June 2021

A Gift from Ginger Dog

We have a three year old semi-feral cat. His name is Ginger Dog. A week ago he went missing for several days. We weren’t concerned, he’d done this before. But, on his return, he wouldn’t eat or drink. He just lay in his kennel in our back yard and steadily became unresponsive. A vet examined him, but couldn’t find what was wrong. To save his life, Ginger Dog was admitted to the pet hospital and put on a drip. The next morning he was a bit brighter, but still wouldn’t eat. So they decided to feed him through a tube. After three liquid feeds, he began to eat. We were overjoyed. Then the vet sedated him and scanned him. The next call brought the bad news. Ginger Dog had cancer in both kidneys.

Lymphoma is rare in cats, especially younger ones. But it is an aggressive disease. We were told that GD had weeks, possibly months to live. There was no treatment that could cure him. When we got to the vets, GD was waiting in a cat carrier with a towel covering it. As soon as we spoke, he began to miaow. We drove home, speaking to him soothingly. He tentatively stepped out from the carrier and sniffed his surroundings. With the three large patches of fur that had been removed for the scan and the drip, he looked a little odd. But he was still the same GD. After some food and water, he came and sat in T’s lap and purred. And for the rest of the day he followed us around, just like he had done when we first got to know him (that's how he gained his name).

GD arrived almost three years ago, shortly after our collie, Rex, died. He was small and weedy. We reckoned that he had been abandoned as a kitten. Early on he learned to enter the house for food. Sometimes he would stay and sleep for a few hours. He came and went as he pleased. GD far preferred the outdoors, whatever the weather. Often he would sleep in a bush in the garden, or in Rex’s old kennel. Regularly he would go to hang out with other feral cats at a nearby farm.

Because he was still very weak, we tried to keep him indoors. We cleared a space in the utility room and put down a bed for him, food & water and a litter tray (something he had never used, for he had learned to miaow when he wanted to go outdoors). The next morning I found he had been climbing the higher shelves trying to find a way out, as stuff had been knocked to the ground. We decided to allow him outdoors under supervision. GD lay down beside us in the garden and appeared to be sleeping. But when our attention was elsewhere he crept away. I caught him once on his way down the lane to the farm. That evening we again put him in the utility room. He began to howl. We thought he would stop and settle. But he continued to howl plaintively. We opened the back door. GD purred, ate some food and sloped off into the night. We said our goodbyes, wondering if we would ever see him again.

After an intense late night discussion, we agreed a way forward. GD had lived as a semi-feral cat. So he had to be allowed to die as one. It was no good now trying to turn him into an indoor cat. It was his right to decide how to spend his final days and we had to respect that. 

The next morning GD was not waiting on the kitchen window sill for his breakfast. My heart sank. I’d got so used to seeing his little furry face first thing in the morning. It was easy to imagine that he was lying in a ditch somewhere in pain. And I shed a few tears. But, mid-morning, GD appeared as if nothing had happened. He ate a hearty breakfast, groomed a little and lay down in the hall for a nap. A little later, I found a dead mouse on the front door mat. It was a gift from Ginger Dog. The very first time he had ever done that. We wondered what he was saying to us. Perhaps it was ‘thank you’.



Friday, 21 May 2021

My Own Little Bike Shop

People are very resourceful. The strategies for surviving lockdown have been many and varied. More books were read, more TV was watched and more video games were played. Sales of booze, fags and confectionery grew substantially. Although, as an antidote to being cooped up, many people went out more, going walking and cycling (having first dusted down the old trainers and the old bike from the shed). Plenty of people also got involved in new projects around the house. Whether DIY, writing, painting, knitting or art-journaling, what mattered most was the immersion and the sense of purpose it gave.

Over the past year of lockdowns, I’ve engaged in four big projects. I completed my second collection of poetry and I wrote the first draft of a novel. During the first long lockdown last year, I built a bike from scratch. And during this year’s long lockdown, I built another. I got a great sense of purpose from each of these projects But I gained much more than that. I also developed and extended my skills and abilities. And in each project I ended up with an artefact that I could look at with pride and say, I made this.

I began to learn bike-maintenance because I had to. Some twenty years ago I started to go on solo multi-week cycle-touring trips; at first on this island and then to different parts of Europe. I loved the freedom and flexibility of this type of travelling. But as I discovered, you have to be able to fix basic problems yourself as there may not always be a bike shop around when you need it. So, bit by bit, I learnt how to fix bikes. And through this I gained the confidence to undertake tasks that previously I would have left to a bike shop. Indeed, you can’t always trust a shop mechanic. Some years ago a local shop returned one of my bikes with a dangerous bodge, instead of fixing it properly. When you do the job yourself you can be sure that it’s right. My garage now doubles as a bike workshop; the walls and bench are lined with bike parts, bike tools and bikes.

As a birthday present, I bought myself a Trek Domane SLR frameset. This lightweight carbon frame and forks had the great advantage of built-in shock absorption. For my first new build on a carbon frame I took great care, paying close attention to the torque settings. I fitted Shimano Ultegra components throughout and custom-made lightweight wheels from DCR. I ended up with a splendid carbon endurance bike that weighs just 17 pounds; a whole three pounds lighter than the Granfondo titanium bike that I’d built a year ago.

The Domane is my first full-carbon bike and I am very proud of it. The bike is designed for endurance riding; it is agile and fast. Because I had a bad knee injury, I did little cycling over the winter. So I have only recently started to do some longer rides (the maximum so far has been 53 miles). The bike’s lightness and shock absorption help you to be less fatigued over longer distances on our poorly maintained roads. The Domane now joins my stable of five other bikes in the garage. It also happens to be worth more than my car. In our new Covid-limited world, pastimes and hobbies are more important now than they ever were.



Monday, 10 May 2021

The Break

It wasn’t the sort of down-time that we were looking for. My dearest T has broken a bone in her foot. She was leaning forward to pull the curtains and overbalanced, getting a sharp pain along the outside of her foot. It was very sore, so we rang the GP. Amazingly enough, she asked T to come in to the surgery straight away. The GP examined the swollen foot and recommended that T get an X-ray. Then she rang the Minor Injuries service and booked T in.

Shortly after T got back home from the GP, a triage nurse rang, asked about the injury and gave T an appointment an hour later at Daisy Hill Hospital. I drove T to the front door and she limped into the hospital on my late father’s walking stick. The Minor Injuries Unit is attached to A & E, and I think most hospitals in NI have one. I wasn’t allowed in with her, so I had to park and wait for updates by text message.

T didn’t have very long to wait. She was seen by a doctor and sent for an X-ray. When the images came back, the doctor pointed out that T had fractured a bone in her foot. But not just any bone. T had a small extra metatarsal on the edge of her foot and this had broken. Having this extra bone was very unusual and the doctor brought in several medical students to look at the X-rays.

The treatment was the same as for any broken bone. T was fitted with a large grey plastic boot and two elbow crutches. She was given two weeks supply of Co-codamol and Clexane anti-coagulant injections and sent home to rest. T would be reviewed in two weeks time at the Minor Injuries Unit and was given an appointment. I picked her up at the front door of the hospital and helped her into the car. The whole process had taken just three hours, much quicker than any visit to A & E.

When we got back home, I helped T into the house. She hobbled along the hallway on the crutches and sat down in an armchair. I went to make her a cup of coffee and some toast. At the back door was our semi-feral cat. He hadn’t arrived as usual that morning. I got him some food while the kettle was boiling. Then I noticed he was limping too, holding one of his forepaws up as he hopped to his bowl. Blimey, I was the only one in the house who wasn’t incapacitated. I had better take good care, they were all depending on me.


Sunday, 25 April 2021

My Anniversary

This is a special day. And one that I truly never thought I would see. Ten years ago today I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer. I remember the events vividly. How could I forget that awful night on a trolley in Casualty? The doctor grimly closing the curtains around my bed? And then those life-changing words? I shrank into the bed feeling sure that my life was at an end.

So much has happened since that day. And readers of this blog have learnt all about the many twists and turns of my journey. The two metastatic recurrences, the four major operations, the many weeks in hospital and the two occasions upon which I was told that I wasn’t expected to survive for very long.

But I am still here. Alive and very much kicking. I’ve come through a great ordeal. I’ve found a well of resources that I never knew I had. And I’ve gained the partner who I was always looking for. Someone who has stood beside me on every step of the way. It has certainly been a sea change in my life.

I am now a stronger and more resilient person than I was ten years ago. But that does not happen by default; these qualities are not just gifted to you. I had to find my way through the ordeal to gain these benefits. They are burnished by fire. And they are all the more powerful for it.  For I know that I can rely on them in any circumstance.

I am also now a better person than I was ten years ago. I’m clearer about who I am and how I want to live my life. I’m more open and honest; I’m more aware of my own limitations. I also feel that I have become more understanding of others. Most people are trying their best in their difficult circumstances. But I am less willing to suffer fools. Life is far too short.

So where do I go from here? Well, I travel hopefully. And try to make the best of things. I don’t think in the long term. In a month’s time I will have my next cancer surveillance scan. And all being well, we will be going on holiday to Co Clare in the late summer. Apart from that, I’m pretty much living day by day. Today is bright and sunny. I’ll post this blog and go outside to work in the garden or in the garage. Tomorrow, if the weather is still good, I’ll go for a bike ride.



Friday, 9 April 2021

The Jab and the Refusers

I’ve just had my second vaccination; with no ill effects, other than a sore arm. I was very glad to get it, coming as it did, ten weeks after the first. And in two weeks time I will be as fully protected as I can from Covid-19 and some of its variants. But I won’t be throwing away my facemask and going in search of crowds. The vaccination centre I attended gives several thousand injections a day. And the staff, mainly volunteers, continue to be cheerful in their work. As I stood in the socially-distanced line and noticed the great variety of people who had come to get inoculated, I suddenly thought about the Covid sceptics and the anti-vaxxers.

The majority of these are apparently ordinary people who have become highly disaffected by lockdown and who have developed grudges against agencies that they feel are conspiring to oppress them, such as the WHO or the NHS vaccination programme. These refusers have found meaning and purpose in social media groups that support their views and which organize anti-facemask/lockdown/vaccine protests or even invasions of hospitals to try and get Covid patients removed from ventilators and treated instead with vitamins. Social scientists would recognise these behaviours as symptoms of alienation, exacerbated by the mental health challenges of lockdown.

What I was shocked to find is that these strange views also exist in our little rural community. Walking down our quiet lane has become a popular activity for many local residents during lockdown. And when you meet someone you normally stop and pass the time of day. And before long the conversation will turn to Covid and vaccinations.

It’s not that I trust our Government. Far from it. For they have cynically used the pandemic to draw a cloak over a large number of dirty deeds: from lucrative contracts handed to their cronies, to swingeing cuts in social care, local government, overseas investment, fire safety in tall buildings, civil liberties and health workers’ pay. Because the refusers are looking through a distorted lens, they fail to notice these problems.

But I do trust the science. Have the anti-vaxxers forgotten about the many widespread diseases that worried our parent’s generation: polio, diphtheria, TB and the like, all of which have been brought under control by vaccination programmes? And what about the many people in the world who desperately need a Covid-19 vaccination? I’m not just thinking of the millions of people in Africa and Latin America, where the disease is out of control and healthcare systems are unable to cope, but of a friend of mine who lives in a nearby European country and who suffers from a severe lung disease. If he catches Covid he has been told that he is very likely to die. But he hasn’t been vaccinated yet and will have to cross his fingers and wait for a long time, because that country is vaccinating its people strictly in descending age order and taking no account of anyone with serious medical conditions.



Monday, 29 March 2021

The Shed has Landed

It didn’t come from another planet, but in sections on the back of a truck. Two fellas laid the base on concrete blocks, made sure it was level and then fitted the wall panels one by one. After that they screwed the roof panels on and covered them in bitumen felt, which they burned on to make sure it was watertight. In little more than an hour, the job was complete. We now had a new shed out the back of the house. Or to be more precise, T had a new shed where she could emulate Monty Don to her heart’s content.

The job had begun a week earlier, when two neighbours came round to help clear the back corner of debris and weeds. It was massively overgrown. Using a pickaxe and two shovels, we filled a wheelbarrow twenty times over. Along with thickets of briars and great tussocks of hard grass, we came across parts of an old boiler-house, the wreckage of a whirligig clothes line and two hula-hoops. After several hours of back-breaking work, we had it cleared.

The new shed is made of stained pine. Its two windows look out across T’s raised beds and containers to her greenhouse. The main elements of her cottage garden are now fully in place. The shed is sturdy and surprisingly roomy.  I wondered if she might consider setting up a counter where passers-by could get cakes, fruit pies and other delicacies made from produce grown in her garden. But down our lane there are more sheep than people. So I might have to eat the bigger part of it myself.

Then I thought of all the famous writers who had worked in garden sheds. George Bernard Shaw, Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman had all written large parts of their output in sheds. And most of these writing sheds were a bit smaller than ours. Then there was Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf, but they had worked in much larger and posher buildings, more akin to summer houses. A little voice began to suggest to me that T’s shed could also become a writing retreat. Then, I thought again. A lot of garden implements are pretty sharp and I didn’t want to upset her.



With thanks to Sheds NI



 

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Summer Holiday

We have just booked a late-summer break. We briefly considered going abroad, but then decided it was safer to stay at home. So we chose a seaside cottage in Co Clare. It’s a county we have visited before, for the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. But this time we will be staying in West Clare, in a wee house beside the ocean. During these burdensome days of lockdown it’s given us something to look forward to. And this morning I found myself humming a little tune that took me way back. ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday. No more working for a week or two.’

I can picture Cliff Richard and the Shadows singing this. The song was from a film of the same name. It featured Cliff and his pals driving to the Cote D’Azur in a red London double-decker bus, looking to pick up girls. But the plot wasn’t important. The film was a succession of song and dance routines. It was the second most popular film in the UK in 1963, only beaten by From Russia with Love. I don’t recall seeing the film at the time. But I do remember the song. It was No 1 in the charts in June of that year.

A decade or so later, I did the very same thing. My journey to the south of France with my mates wasn’t in a London bus. We went by plane to Corsica and stayed on a National Union of Students campsite. I recall getting sunburnt during the days on the beach and drunk on cheap red wine in the evenings. Unlike Cliff, I wasn’t very successful at pulling girls (my main preoccupation at the time). Halfway through the first week, I decided to go exploring on my own. I rented a tiny moped and set off down the coast for a ride. Instead of turning back, I just kept going. I ended up travelling around a good bit of the island.

Corsica is mountainous and the roads were pretty rough. The little moped wasn’t powerful enough to take me up the steep hills. It had pedals like a bicycle, but I often had to get off and push. I wasn’t in any way prepared for this jaunt. I had no map or tent with me. I’d headed off on the spur of the moment in just the clothes I stood up in. I was also fairly skint. I slept in woods on the edge of villages that nestled among the hills. I lay down on the sandy soil with pine trees for shelter. Despite the heat of the day, it got chilly by during the night. I lived on lemonade and baguettes for a few days. When I got back, my mates were still going to the beach each day and drinking red wine at night. On our last weekend, there was a great firework display to celebrate Napoleon’s birthday. I returned home fairly pleased with myself. I hadn’t pulled but I did have a great adventure (the forerunner of many such trips I would take by motorbike and cycle in the years to come).

T and I will be carrying our creature comforts with us in the car to Co Clare. Some days we will go out on trips, others we will just sit and think. The cottage has picture windows that overlook the ocean and a remote beach. In the evenings we may drink a little red wine, but it will more likely be cups of tea. Happily, my pulling days are behind me.



Saturday, 27 February 2021

About The Skylark's Call

The Honest Ulsterman asked me to write an article describing how my latest collection came into being and the rationale behind the book. As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a long story. I wrote it from the heart, in the style of a piece for this blog. My article has now been published in the journal (https://humag.co/features/paul-jeffcutt). I reproduce the text below, with thanks to the editor. I hope you find it illuminating. Please let me know what you think.

"Exactly ten years separate my first and second collections of poetry. This long time-span wasn’t deliberate. It was unavoidable.

My new collection, The Skylark’s Call, explores memories and meanings at the borderland between life and death. I was catapulted into that strange and complex territory just a few months after the launch of my debut collection, Latch. It was Good Friday 2011 and I had spent a sleepless night on a trolley in A&E at the City Hospital, Belfast. The doctor pulled the curtain around my bed and told me straight. I had Stage 3 cancer. The tumour had grown most of the way from my kidney to my heart. I shrank into the sheets, unable to speak.

I endured a month in hospital being prepared for a very big operation that might save my life. Bad news travels extremely fast. Family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen for decades, came long distances to see me. Between visiting times I moped, gazing at people who were walking unconcernedly along the pavements below.  The hospital offered access to the internet, so I was able to cancel my reading tour of Ireland and England from my bed.

The big operation took around eight hours and involved three teams of surgeons. I needed three blood transfusions and spent a week in intensive care and the high dependency unit. I was sedated and have few memories of these days. Afterwards my doctors told me that my health and fitness had got me through the ordeal. They also told me that they expected the cancer to return and spread. They concluded that I would be lucky to live beyond two years. Unable to cope with this prognosis, my partner left me.

Back home, I sat in an armchair and stared out at summer clouds scudding over the horizon. I was truly alone. My situation seemed hopeless and I felt helpless. Somehow, from these depths I was able to reach out. I saw a counsellor from Cancer Focus. Her support got me through the darkest of these early days.

My life had become stark and simplified. I realised that there were lots of things I wasn’t going to be doing again in the time that remained. Writing poetry was just one of them. Instead, I began to revisit places across these islands that I had loved, and looked up old friends that I hadn’t seen for decades. I was sort of paying my last respects.

At the same time, I desperately wanted to go back to where and who I was before. But all of my efforts were doomed, for these options had been removed. I had an exhausting whirl of conflicting emotions. I could only go on as best I could. Death was no longer a remote possibility. It walked beside me at every step. I could smell and taste it. I had to learn to live with this very present threat.

My new life was intensely stressful, filled with anxiety and fear. But it was also strangely liberating, for normal life could not be maintained and continued in the face of this threat. The peculiar borderland that I was in had an odd mix of dark and light, it was a place of vulnerability and of vitality.

It took me well over a year to recover from that big operation. I spent a lot of time on the internet. I found a blog by an American cancer patient which expressed exactly how I was feeling. He described himself as a ‘survivor’ and wrote openly about his cancer experience and how it was affecting his life. I corresponded with him. He told me he was trying to gain a small measure of empowerment over a deeply disempowering disease. This struck a chord with me. I decided to begin my own blog. I called it ‘Writing to Survive’, with the sub-title ‘writing from the here and now’. Since then, I have written a weekly blog describing what was happening with me and how I was feeling about it. My blog has hundreds of regular readers and has gained many accolades.

As time went on, I could find no inspiration to write poetry. Instead, I set myself little writing challenges. Like picking a word at random from the dictionary and trying to write a poem around it. For an experiment, I also tried to write poems that were stimulated by real-life stories I came across in news media. They weren’t found poems. The story was the jumping off point into a poem. But the poem also remained grounded in the story. They were separate but connected. I had begun to write poetry in a new and different register and I was enjoying it.

My two year anniversary came and went. I was getting regular surveillance scans, which showed that the cancer hadn’t returned. The fear was at times overwhelming but it didn’t stop me from trying new things. I was learning to live in the borderland. I returned to the Writers’ Group at the Seamus Heaney Centre and presented my new poems. The late Ciaran Carson was very encouraging and christened them my ‘discovered poems’. Looking back, I see that I was particularly attracted to real-life stories of loss and also those of rediscovery. I began to submit these poems to competitions and journals, with some success.

To mark the third anniversary of my big operation I went to my first literary event since 2010. On the first day of the John Hewitt Summer School, I met the woman who was to become my wife. It must have been written in the stars, for my dearest T was attending the event for the very first time. We went on holiday to Orkney, staying with a friend I hadn’t seen since I was nine years old. We explored Neolithic settlements, burial chambers and standing stones, marvelled at the Italian Chapel and got spectacularly close to plenty of wildlife. It was an inspiring trip that stimulated plenty of new poems.

Despite our hoping against hope, my doctors were eventually proved correct. My cancer returned in 2015 and again in 2016. What’s more, it had spread to the right side of my abdomen and my liver. I had advanced cancer and was given another poor prognosis, this time of just one year. My dearest T stood by me throughout the three major operations I needed.

I ended up spending a series of weeks in four different NI hospitals. I could write the Trip Advisor reports for each. The Royal and the Mater were excellent, but I’d have to mark the City down for putting me on a saline drip for twelve days without any food. Due to this, I had to spend Christmas Day 2015 on the ward. My dearest T decorated my bed with fairy lights and tinsel. The nurses called it Santa’s Grotto.

Cancer is a very hard taskmaster. I’ve gained so many scars on my torso that I could be a body double for a pirate without the need for make-up. After my last big operation, I had to rest sitting up in bed for three months and drink liquid morphine every couple of hours to get through the night. I had my cold turkey during Christmas 2017, and I’m not referring to the festive food.

Despite all of this, I think the physical pain of cancer treatment is easier to cope with than the mental stress of living with the threat of recurrence and death. This fear rises and falls in intensity, but it never actually goes away. I’ve been clear of cancer for four years now. But the type of cancer I had has been known to recur even twenty years later. So I will be living in the borderland for the rest of my life.

Looking back on my journey thus far, I know that I’ve gained much more than I’ve lost. I’ve learned to live in the here and now. I’ve learned to do what matters, and to do it as well as I can. I’ve learned not to waste time and energy on what doesn’t matter. I’ve found a resilience that got me through some serious ordeals. I travel hopefully but remain vigilant.

I’ve weathered a sea change in my life. And through it I’ve become a more developed person and a more developed writer too. I’m now more appreciative of what I do have, more aware of my strengths and limitations, more understanding of others and more open and honest.

After recuperating from my years of treatment, I took stock of the poems I’d written since 2013. What began as a creative trickle had built into a steady flow. There were well over a hundred new poems. Twenty three had won awards in competitions in Ireland, the UK and the USA. Fifty had been published, some of them in highly-regarded literary journals in Europe, North America and the UK.

I recall the late Ciaran Carson describing the meaning and rationale of a collection as something that emerges over time. You write a poem because you are inspired by something that fires your imagination. It is only when you begin to put a number of poems together that the themes which interconnect these pieces of writing can start to appear. And it may be some time before you are able to discern these relationships and underlying meanings. They are likely to not have been apparent to you at the time of writing the poems themselves.

Over some eighteen months I went through a good number of iterations of my second collection and tried a range of different titles. Special thanks are due to the late Ciaran Carson, Moyra Donaldson and Damian Smyth for their feedback. As Lagan Press had stopped publishing collections some years previously, I needed to find a new home for my work. Roger Robinson, the winner of the TS Eliot Prize 2019, said that after his manuscript got dozens of rejections from publishers, he was told to hone his craft and keep trying. I followed this excellent advice. Despite the rejections I received, I kept improving my manuscript and early last year my collection was taken by Dempsey & Windle, an independent publisher based in England.

The Skylark’s Call comprises fifty-two poems. Around a third of these are autobiographical. Only two of them are concerned with my cancer treatment. Some poems are mythic, some spiritual, some historical, some geo-political, and some are environmental. About half of the poems in the book are ‘discovered poems’. The poems span four continents and seven millennia, for the human condition is timeless and universal. All of the poems are in some way concerned with memories and meanings at the complex borderland between life and death. Together they explore the vitality and vulnerability of everyday life.

The poems that make up this collection are of course informed by my experience over the past decade. During that time I have been a cancer patient and a survivor. But that does not define me, nor does it define the scope of the collection. The emotional substance of my life over the past decade has been wide ranging and extremely diverse. The changes that have taken place in me as a person and as a writer are considerable in their scale and in their horizons. The scope and character of my new collection reflects this.

I began this period not expecting to survive beyond two years. 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 of course delighted that these and plenty more good things have come to pass. Life has so many and varied ways of surprising us.

The Skylark’s Call was launched two months ago. It seems to have struck a chord with many readers and sales have been brisk. Enthusiastic comments about the poems have been posted on social media. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic has played a part, for the territory that the collection explores is one that we are all now having to deal with."


The Skylark’s Call is available to purchase from Dempsey & Windle https://www.dempseyandwindle.com/pauljeffcutt.html

Paul Jeffcutt is offering readers personalised signed copies of the book http://www.pauljeffcutt.net/buy%20books.html




Saturday, 6 February 2021

Birthday Carriage

I had a lovely birthday yesterday. My dearest T went to great lengths to make it very special. I began by opening cards and presents. I received plenty of good wishes from family and friends. I got books, vouchers and an illuminated manuscript created by a retired monk. Later on there would be a three course dinner from a restaurant, cake and candles, the full works. But first, T took me to a secret assignation that she had arranged. The journey was mysterious. We drove into the hills between our house and the Mournes. After a while we turned into the yard of a remote farm. I was gobsmacked to encounter a carriage and two horses.

We were introduced to Fred and Navi, two six year old geldings, by Liz and Mervyn. I patted both horses on the neck and they nodded their welcome. The carriage was magnificent: shiny black wood with silver detailing, four great spoked wheels, a bench seat for the driver and a rear step for the postillion. It was a replica of a landau from 1780. Fred and Navi were harnessed. Mervyn opened the carriage door. We stepped up and into the plush red interior. There were two bench seats. We sat on either side, glancing out of the open windows. Liz took her place as the postillion. Mervyn cracked the whip. Fred and Navi shook their heads. The carriage jerked forwards and we were away.

There is something magnificent about the sound of a horse’s hooves. We clip-clopped along misty back lanes. From the carriage, we could see over hedges. Animals in the fields ran towards us excitedly. Apparently, even wild animals would stop and stare. Fred and Navi trotted along, panting a little on the slopes. The misty air was suffused with the beat of their hooves. We had gone back in time. It could have been 1780. I imagined that we were on a journey to the local town. I kept expecting us to be stopped by a highwayman.

Horsepower, or Shank’s pony, was how most people had travelled until the last century. For thousands of years the world had been arranged around the speed of a horse. By carriage that would be ten miles in an hour. And you would be stopping every twenty miles or so at a coaching inn to change the horses. You would glad of a break too. For even with rubber edged wheels and a tarmac road, the landau jolted around a good bit.

My father always loved horses. My grandfather had a milk round. As a boy, my father led the horse around village lanes doing deliveries, until he ran away from home aged fifteen to join the army. At that time, the army still relied on horses. Many army units only became mechanised in the run up to the second world war. My father fought in tanks across the Western desert, until he was captured and became a POW. After the war he left the army and worked in a number of factory jobs. Horses remained his love. Although, with a wife and three kids, he couldn’t afford to keep a horse as well.

Our hour in the carriage was so special. All too soon we were back at the yard. Fred and Navi were unharnessed and were champing at the bit for something to eat. We patted them and made our farewells to Liz and Mervyn. We’d highly recommend L & M Carriage Driving. Heading back home in our car, I reflected on what I really liked about cycling. It was the wind on your face as you travelled through the world at a slower pace, fully part of your surroundings. On a long day out, I would plan my cycle routes on an average of ten miles an hour, including stops for food and drink. That was a horse’s pace. I realised that for me cycling was the nearest thing to riding a horse.





Friday, 29 January 2021

The Vaccination

Due to my recent medical history I have been classified as clinically vulnerable and put on the shielding list. I was thus due to get the covid-19 vaccine early, along with the over 75’s. All of this month, I’ve been waiting for a call from my GP to come in and get the jab. But I heard nothing. On the practice website it says don’t ask when the vaccination is going to happen because they won’t tell you. On Wednesday evening, T spotted that the regional vaccination centres had just opened for online bookings from the over 65’s. I jumped at the chance.

The online booking process was a bit tortuous. You had to fill out a series of webforms, get an activation code sent to you by email and answer odd questions about a picture that was displayed for you. I had to go through the loop twice before I succeeded at getting in to the appointments diary. The process took about half an hour and could well have caused problems for someone less technically adept. But the good news was that they had appointments the next afternoon at my nearest vaccination centre. At the same time, I was automatically given an appointment for the second dose.

I drove to Craigavon in the pouring rain and found the South Lake Leisure Centre. The vaccinations were taking place in the main hall. I checked in at the desk with my photo ID. They asked me a series of questions, one of which was about allergies. I admitted that I was mildly allergic to the contrast solution that is injected before CT scans. This meant I was taken to one side by Sister and questioned further. Happily, I was allowed to proceed to a waiting area with twenty plastic chairs set out in rows, two metres apart. To my left was a basketball court. To my right was a line of dividers, screening off the rest of the hall.

After about five minutes, I was told to wipe down my chair with an antiseptic cloth and I was beckoned to come through a break in the dividers into the next area. Taped crosses were set out two metres apart on the floor and I stood in a queue in front of another set of room dividers. After a short while, a man in a mask and plastic apron beckoned me forward. I followed him through a gap in the dividers. He told me his name was Andrew and motioned me to a sit beside a desk.

Andrew was a retired nurse who had come in to help out with the vaccinations. He was from Glasgow and we chatted about the city as he got the paperwork out. He asked me a series of medical questions and marked my answers on a two page form. At the end he gave it to me to sign. It was the consent form for the vaccination. Then he jabbed me. After that I had to sit in another socially distanced waiting area for 15 minutes to see if there was any reaction. And then I could go home.

I thanked Andrew and the Sister before leaving. It had all been so well organised. I was delighted to have been given the Pfizer vaccine, instead of the Oxford one (with the questions about its efficacy for the over 65’s). The only concern I had was that the appointment for my second dose was ten weeks ahead and no-one knew if the immunity from the first dose would last beyond a month. I felt no ill effects that evening and slept soundly. This morning I woke to a sore left arm where the jab had been. No matter, that was just the vaccine beginning to work.

At this time last year we were about to go on holiday to Lanzarote. We returned to the beginnings of the coronavirus crisis. Over six million people in the UK have now received a first dose of vaccine. I’m very glad to be one of them. Fingers crossed that this will prove to be the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel.



Sunday, 17 January 2021

Anniversaries

My first wife, Gill, died thirty four years ago today. She was 27 years old. Gill died in an accident. It was just two weeks after we moved in to our new house. Although it was a long time ago, the shock of what happened then has never left me.  I was catapulted into a very dark place, which I was lucky to survive.  I recall standing at the parapet of a bridge above a river estuary. The voice inside my head was telling me that I could end the unbearable pain so very easily. I stared into the swirling water far below. Then I stepped back and walked away.

I chose life. But it was a very hard road. My boss, rather than being understanding, heaped extra duties upon me.  I ended up losing my job and the house too. My new job was 500 miles north, in Scotland. I moved and started afresh, where I knew no-one. Soon I met another woman. She was completely unlike Gill. That seemed a good thing, at the time. Myfanwy urged me to move in to her flat. Despite misgivings, I did. We settled down together. The relationship was competitive rather than supportive. I put a lot of energy into my work and got promoted.

With her encouragement, I began to apply for better jobs elsewhere. One of these was in Belfast. I came for the interview and was offered the job. We found an expensive flat on the Malone Road to rent. I moved in first. She was to join me several months later. Then, one Friday evening, I got a phone call. Myfanwy told me that she wasn’t coming to Belfast. She had found another man and was leaving me.

I crumpled. Great racking sobs convulsed me. I was howling. I ached all over. I rang a friend in England to tell him. I could hardly speak. Phil was so worried about me, he got on a plane and came over straight away. I spent the weekend keening. I hadn’t felt that sort of pain since Gill’s death. Some time later, I realised that I wasn’t crying for the loss of Myfanwy, but for Gill. The intervening eleven years had put a sticking plaster over the wound, and that had been torn away.

The catharsis was a turning point. In the time that followed, I made some important decisions about my life. I also began to write poetry again. I took a writing class at the Crescent Arts Centre and joined a writers’ group. I left the flat, bought a wee house in the country and settled down. After plenty of twists and turns, many of which have been discussed in this blog, I met my dearest T. And for me, it has truly been third time lucky.