Sunday, 12 June 2022

My Free Lunch

There’s supposed to be no such thing as a free lunch, but I think I’ve found a way. Boosted by my fourth vaccination, I headed out on a little trip. The destination was the Strandfield Café in Co Louth. I was meeting a friend of mine, who lives in the ROI. He chose the venue because of its covered outdoor seating. But Strandfield is more than that. It comprises a bakery, a café with a great menu and a specialist grocery. Despite not being far from the motorway, there are plants and greenery all around. I did feel anxious being among people again. Almost all of them weren’t wearing masks.

We sat outdoors and chatted over tea and cake. I hadn’t seen my friend since before the pandemic. He is a film-maker. And he’d been busy, making programmes for both RTE and BBC NI. I told him about my novel and the Advanced Crime Writing course that I was doing. It wasn’t long before we were talking about story and narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the worlds of film and fiction are closely intertwined. I found myself telling him about my plot problems. And he told me about storyboarding the new documentary that he is working on. And before long, I realized that he was offering me a very helpful lens through which to see my plot problems.

We chatted for a couple of hours, and then went to our homes. The next day, I found myself reworking the first act of my novel. I repositioned some of the scenes, moving several between chapters. I also cut several scenes out. The end result was a much better and tighter opening to my novel.

I’d highly recommend the Strandfield Café. It’s got great food and a comfortable ambience. You never know who you might encounter. And just up the road towards Carlingford, you can buy diesel at 18 pence a litre cheaper than in NI. With a fill up of the car, your lunch at the café is effectively free.



Tuesday, 31 May 2022

The Moderna Booster

I’ve just had my fourth Covid vaccination. And I realize what you might be thinking. Well, I am an old git. But I’m not quite that old a git. I discussed the matter with my GP and he put me down for the jab. I am clinically extremely vulnerable, but I’m not immuno-suppressed or over 75. Not yet, anyway. I had no reaction to my previous vaccinations, other than a day of tiredness and a sore arm. I was given two Pfizers and a Moderna before. But this time, I did have a significant reaction.

About half an hour after this Moderna vaccination, I began to feel very tired. And this increased. Within a few hours, my head was befuddled and I started the shivers. It was just as if I was down with the flu. I also felt very hungry. All I could do was to sit in an armchair. I actually watched the Giro D’Italia broadcast in Welsh. I don’t speak the language, but I enjoyed the pictures of sunnier climes.

I went to bed early, thinking that I’d wake up feeling back to normal. But the flu-like symptoms persisted for the rest of the next day. I began to wonder how long I would be stuck with these symptoms and whether I was having an unusual reaction. I also realized just how bad it would be to get Covid itself. Thankfully, the following morning, my head had cleared. And I was just left with the normal post-vaccine tiredness. By the end of the third day, I felt pretty much back to normal.

It’s strange how the reactions have intensified over time. And also that they were significantly different to the Moderna booster I had last November. I suppose the fourth vaccine is different to the previous ones, as it is trying to protect you against new variants. Anyway, I am now up and about and grateful for the opportunity to take part in the world again.



Sunday, 15 May 2022

Advanced Crime Writing

I’m very pleased to have been selected for the first Advanced Crime Writing course run by Curtis Brown. Entrance to the course was competitive. I submitted the first 3000 words and the synopsis of my novel. The tutor is Emma Kavanagh. She has written six crime novels and one non-fiction book. She has a PhD in psychology and is an expert on the effects of trauma. I’m hoping to learn a lot and to improve my manuscript. At the end of the course, our book proposals are circulated to the agents of Curtis Brown.

The course takes place via Zoom and Curtis Brown’s online learning platform. During the course, you have to submit several extracts from your novel for comment from the tutor and the other participants. You also have individual tutorials with Emma. The weekly Zoom sessions cover key topics for crime writers.

The course is just starting and the participants have introduced themselves to one another. They include a novelist with two books published, a TV scriptwriter, a memoirist, a short story writer and a non-fiction writer. There is a diversity of work experience, from the Louisiana State Police, to a bookseller, a special needs teacher and a meterologist. The participants come from the UK, USA, Australia, Ireland, Germany and Hong Kong.

Over the next two months I hope to improve my understanding of crime writing, get insightful feedback on my novel and to be stretched as a writer. Emma’s introduction said that she wanted to help us get to the ‘next level’ as crime writers. I’m really looking forward to that.



Saturday, 30 April 2022

Cutting 'The Cut'

Editing is a special and essential skill for a fiction writer, as I discovered when revising my crime novel, The Cut. And what’s more, it is a skill that requires a lot of practice to develop. In essence, you are learning to look dispassionately at what you’ve written and to think about it forensically. You have to ask yourself a series of difficult questions about your writing. And find the answers that are going to make your book better. Editing is also a very immersive experience. You are focusing on the fine detail of your writing and how well it fits into the overall story. This was very welcome during my long wait for the results of my recent cancer surveillance scan. Editing the manuscript was the only thing that managed to divert my mind from worrying about the threat of recurrence for a few hours. So I did a lot of it. Draft two did work much better than draft one, and ended up being 35,000 words shorter. I then submitted this draft to a professional editor for feedback.

This, however, was another source of anxiety. I felt sure that the editor would be critical of my writing and find many flaws. After all, he was an experienced author with several prize-winning novels to his name. But when the report came, it was quite the opposite. He told me that much of what I’d written worked extremely well. He was very complimentary about the voice and character of my narrator, the relationships between the characters, the witty and believable dialogue and the richly realized setting. I felt a glow of pride as I read on. Then he got to a series of suggestions for improving the book. He felt that the motivations of the characters weren’t consistent in places. He also felt that the book would work better if certain scenes were altered and moved to different positions in the narrative. The final problem he saw was that the book was still too long and needed to be at least 10,000 words shorter.

So I started work on draft three. I began with the structural changes that the editor recommended. These also involved adding several scenes. The main job is now to condense the overall narrative. This means going through the draft again, scene by scene, and cutting out all but the essential elements. Then asking yourself, does the scene work a lot better after these changes? Could it still be improved? How well does it fit with the scenes that precede and follow it? Is the tone consistent with the development of the characters that are in the scene? Are there any continuity problems with the content of the scene? And so on.

I’ve certainly become better at editing. And the draft is improving all of the time. But places where I can cut text are getting harder to find. I’m still a bit away on my word count. So I’ll have to get whittling. And perhaps a little more ruthless.


 

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Ten Years Young

Today is the tenth anniversary of me blogging about my cancer journey. On 17 April 2012, I was almost one year on from my initial diagnosis, still in severe pain from the huge operation I’d had months previously, still coming to terms with being told I was unlikely to live very long and still trying to make sense of my partner abruptly leaving me. I had recently started getting counselling from Cancer Focus. This was a godsend. But it was only for one hour a week. I was climbing the walls for most of the other 167. I spent many dark hours searching the internet for help with my predicament. I was looking in particular for something from or about men with cancer. But I found nothing much at all. Then I came across a blog by an American cancer patient. It was a revelation. Rick was expressing exactly how I felt. I read back through his previous posts. He spoke about cancer being a deeply disempowering disease. And how speaking out about it had been empowering for him.

This made so much sense to me. I knew that speaking about my experience privately with the counsellor was helping me. So I began to speak about cancer more openly with friends. But most people I tried to talk to about it were unwilling to engage. They tended to close down the conversation by assuring me that I would be alright. Something I regarded as unlikely to be true. I now appreciate that this was because cancer was too fearful a topic for them to pursue. In the end, I decided to emulate Rick Dancer and blog about my own experience. Unsurprisingly, in that first post I wrote about my fear and how everything seemed to have changed for the worse in my life. And with great trepidation, I pressed the button to publish it.

To date, I’ve published 340 blog posts, received 42,695 visits to my blog from readers all over the world, and gained thousands of positive comments. Over the past ten years, I’ve done my best to write openly and honestly about what has been happening in my life. These years have encompassed two recurrences, Stage 4 cancer and more big operations. But not only that. There has been so much more. They have also featured my dearest T, marriage, publishing success, poetry prizes and a lot of good health.

But the greatest accolades I’ve received have come in messages from many individuals living with the Big C, who have found something that spoke to them and was of help in their time of need. Having cancer is like joining a special club. When you are in it, you understand. And when you have been in it, you never forget. Looking ahead, I sincerely hope that this is a club I never have to rejoin.




Thursday, 31 March 2022

Mongrels

T gave me a lovely present. A DNA testing kit. It was simple to use. I put a small amount of my saliva into a test tube. Added the blue stabilizing fluid. Screwed the top onto the tube, put it into a sealed bag and sent it away. After that, all I had to do was to register my details on the Ancestry website and wait. They said the results could take six weeks. At first I began to ponder what sort of old git I might be. Then I promptly forgot about it. Until I received the email telling me to log on and find the results.

My ethnic origins were traced back for 1000 years. England and NW Europe counted for 60%. The remainder was Scotland 15%, Wales 11%, Sweden & Denmark 6%, Ireland 5% and Germanic Europe 3%.

These results were very intriguing. Especially as there are no Danish, German, Scottish or Swedish connections in my family within living memory. But these make up 24% of my DNA. So how did this come about?

Stories of journeys, encounters and intermarriage are the stuff of living memory that is spoken of by Grannies and Granddads at family gatherings. What my DNA test shows is that this has always been true. My forebears moved around in search of better circumstances and interbred. Then they settled for a while, until the next move took place, however many generations later.

This is what has made me a mongrel. But I’m not exceptional. The other people on these islands are going to be mongrels too. These islands have been inhabited for around 30,000-40,000 years. And until 8000 years ago Britain was joined to Europe by land. So to move somewhere new and intermarry, all you needed to do was walk. And after that, our forebears became good at building boats.

The other thing it shows is that there is no such thing as ethnic purity. This means that national identity is a social construct (and not a biological one). So whatever flags we may choose to wave. Underneath we are all mongrels. And we have much more in common with one another than we have differences.




 

Friday, 11 March 2022

The Verdict

Early last week I got a letter from the Cancer Centre giving me a telephone appointment with my oncologist. Finally I was going to get the result of my cancer surveillance scan. But just a couple of hours before the appointment, I got a call from the secretary cancelling it. And then I really began to worry. Because exactly the same process had happened six years ago, when I had a recurrence of my cancer. The review appointment was cancelled at short notice to give the oncology team time to consider what action to take. Then a further appointment was made to tell me the bad news and what they were going to do about it. In a terrible rerun, another letter from the Cancer Centre duly arrived making a new appointment for this week. Our anxiety levels went sky high and remained there, day and night.

At last, the day of the appointment came. The letter said they would speak to me at 1.30 pm. I sat in my office beside the telephone, trying to stay calm. I was desperate to be put out of my misery, but I was so very fearful of what they were going to say. I found myself flicking to newsfeeds from the war in Ukraine. An hour passed and no-one called. Then another. And another. I was beginning to think that they’d forgotten to tell me the appointment was postponed again. Or even worse, that they weren’t going to call at all.

At around 4.30 pm the phone rang. I picked up the handset and pressed the button. Although the phone was ringing, no-one was on the line. I shouted to T, ‘There’s something wrong with the phone.’ She ran down the hallway towards the kitchen for the other handset. In her haste, she tripped over and went flying. But she still managed to crawl into the kitchen. As T grasped the handset, the ringing stopped.

I helped her up. She had bruised her elbow and grazed a knee. She was badly shaken. The phone began to ring again. It was my mobile. I ran down the hallway to my office and answered it. T hobbled after me. It was the Registrar. After asking me how I was feeling, he said, ‘I expect you want to know the result of your scan.’ My heart was going nineteen to the dozen. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘No real change from the last time.’ T, leaning on my shoulder, began to cry.



Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Limbo

I don’t mean the Trinidadian dance. Not with my poor old back. Nor have I died and become stranded in some other world. But I am waiting for the results of my cancer surveillance scan. I had the CT scan itself in the Cancer Centre two weeks ago and since then I’ve been dangling. Despite having been in this limbo plenty of times over the past eleven years, it doesn’t get any easier. Twice a year I also have a set of surveillance blood tests. I got the latest results from my GP three weeks ago. My kidney function score was significantly lower than usual. And soon I have to get a retest. But this has given me extra material to worry about. Because I know that the most likely place that my renal cancer would recur is in my remaining kidney.   

Limbo is a state of betwixt and between; traditionally between heaven and hell. This is very relevant to me. Because I’m in a strange place that is neither cancer-free nor cancerous. Both of these options remain possible. And I can’t cancel either of them out. It’s only when I have confirmation of the scan result that my status can become settled. Normally I get a hospital letter giving me the date of an appointment with my Oncologist. This would usually arrive a week or so before the appointment. But I have no letter. That means I won’t find out my result this week and probably not next week either. So my limbo continues.

Years ago I developed a simple strategy for living with the threat of cancer. Live just one day at a time. It is easier said than done. But I’ve become a little better at it as the years have gone on. During the day, I can immerse myself in writing or cycling. Or distract myself with television or a book. But the night is much more difficult. I often find myself awake at 4am, imagining the worst. Sleep doesn’t come easy to cancer patients. Perhaps I should get up and practice some Trinidadian dance moves.






Sunday, 6 February 2022

The Old Git and the Drug Lords

I had a lovely birthday. Thank you very much for all the good wishes. I am now officially an Old Git. In common with those getting on a bit, I don’t feel I’m an older git than I was before. But the calendar doesn’t lie, unlike my memory. T has been spoiling me. After opening my cards and presents, she took me on a secret outing. We drove up to Belfast and then well beyond. After a series of turns, we followed a narrow road to the edge of a forest and parked. She had taken me to the World of Owls, the only sanctuary for birds of prey in NI.

It’s a fantastic place. And we had it to ourselves. Around sixty birds of prey live in large net enclosures in the Randalstown Forest. They have all been rescued. Many are exotic species who were bought as pets and then neglected. There were five eagle owls, several eagles and snowy owls. These birds are huge. The owner told us that several of the birds had been rescued from paramilitaries, who had been keeping them in the backyards of terraced houses. Drug lords do seem to have a fetish for exotic pets. Pablo Escobar had pet hippos. After he was arrested for cocaine trafficking, the animals escaped and now have colonized part of western Colombia.

The owner of the sanctuary is a falconer. He gave me a leather glove, tied a cord to it and put a Lanner Falcon on my hand. After a minute or so, he took its hood off. The falcon flapped his grey wings, steadied his yellow feet, gripped my hand in his black talons and gazed at me with large dark eyes. His yellow nose swept into a dark curved beak, above a cream throat and a white breast with brown bars. The falcon had settled on my hand and was keeping watch. At any moment, I expected him to take flight after a pigeon and come swooping down on it at 100mph. It was marvelous to be connected to such an intelligent and agile bird. I could see why falconry became such a popular sport with the aristocracy.

After a fine meal at The Dunadry, we drove back home through heavy rain to find an unexpected present from the NHS. An appointment for my next cancer surveillance scan. It was strangely appropriate. After all the treatment I’d had over the past eleven years, the recurrences and the bad prognoses, I should be glad to reach my big birthday. Not many people who have stage 4 cancer go on to be old gits.



Wednesday, 26 January 2022

The Birthday Present

My birthday is coming up soon. And Chip has given me a present. To a semi-feral cat, a rat is a great delicacy. I’m honoured to receive the front half. Chip probably decided to see how it tasted and ended up eating a bit more than he intended. He is only six months old. This gift shows that he holds me in high regard. Chip does follow me around the garden and has invented some chasing games that he plays with me. And I am the one who fills his bowls with food and lactose-free milk each morning.

I don’t think I’ll be having his present for dinner on my birthday. I must admit I’d prefer to visit one of my favourite restaurants: Hara in Hillsborough or The Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum. Although, because of Covid, I haven’t actually been to a restaurant for the past two years. But I have had some fine meals from Hara as they do an excellent ‘home’ menu, where they prepare the three-course meal and you finish it off in the oven at home.

All of this reminds me of an unforgettable meal I had in Croatia, hosted by a famous professor. He took me to a renowned seafood restaurant in Istria. It’s the peninsula below Trieste with fortified towns that were once part of the Venetian empire, and has been written about by Dante and Thomas Mann. Anyway, the famous professor ordered a local delicacy, a whole fish cooked in wine and herbs. I must admit it was a marvelous meal washed down with a bottle of fine white wine.

I cleared my plate apart from the head, backbone and tail of the fish. I was just about to thank my host, when he said, ‘I see you’ve left the best bits till last.’ I had to admit that I didn’t exactly know what he meant. ‘Let me show you,’ he said. He inserted the point of his knife just behind the gaping mouth of the fish and levered out some flesh. It was the cheek of the fish. He told me that these muscles are very well developed in fish and are especially tasty. I followed his example, ate the cheek of my fish and put down my knife and fork.

‘And now for the greatest delicacy,’ he said. I smiled, thinking he was going to order something else. But he picked up the head of his fish in his hands, lifted it to his lips and sucked the eye out with a great slurping noise. ‘Aah,’ he said, ‘lovely.’ I smiled nervously. My fish looked up at me from the plate. I was very anxious not to disappoint my host. ‘Aren’t you going to eat it?’ he asked. I told him that I was, regretfully, completely full. He grinned, picked up the head of my fish and sucked its eye out.



 

Sunday, 9 January 2022

Drive Safely

Have you seen this man? He was found guilty whilst trying to renew his driving license. The crime? Smiling. The computer took one look at the photo I uploaded and said, ‘No’. I took another with a glum expression. The computer accepted that one and prompted me to check the categories of vehicles I was allowed to drive. I was shocked to discover that I can drive seven ton lorries and minibuses with trailers. But the computer told me that these entitlements would be removed if my license was renewed online. So if you see a lorry or a minibus roaring up behind you, it won’t be me in the driving seat.

I didn’t buy my first car, a Ford Fiesta, until I was 30. I couldn’t afford one before that. I was a mature student who did a Masters and PhD part-time at Manchester University. I needed to work in all sorts of part-time jobs to pay my way. So I was pretty poor for most of my twenties. Hence, I had a succession of motorbikes, from a Honda 50 to a MZ 250 to a BSA 500cc with a sidecar. I loved these bikes and had some adventures with them.

Immediately before going to Manchester to study, I was working in Cambridge. I’d just become interested in hillwalking and was reading a book about the mountains of Scotland. The book was full of praise for Knoydart as the remotest and most beautiful part of the Highlands. So I decided to go there for a week’s holiday. I strapped my rucksack and tent on the back of my MZ and set off. I hadn’t realized quite how far away it was (about 500 miles). It took me two days to get there. The final stretch was 20 miles along a narrow track beside a loch that finished in a dead end. And all the way along it I was being followed by another motorbike.

I got to the end of the track and parked. I was at the mouth of a great glen with high mountains all around. The other bike stopped beside me. I was apprehensive as the other rider approached me. But he turned out to be the stalker who was responsible for Glen Dessary. He lived alone in a cottage a little way down the glen. He showed me where to camp, beside a grove of trees not far from his cottage. That evening, he invited me in for a drink, whisky of course. I had a great holiday, going for hillwalks and chatting with the stalker in the evenings. It was also my first introduction to the Scottish Midge.

I actually began to drive at sixteen. I bought a scooter from money I’d saved working for a local farmer. With my green parka, Ben Sherman shirt and jeans, I felt very cool on my Vespa Sportique. It was also very handy, as the village I lived in was six miles from my school. I had some adventures on that scooter too. I remember being chased by four lads in a Ford Zodiac, who were throwing empty cider bottles at me. They were drunk, so their aim was bad and I escaped. Today I drive and old Ford Focus. My teenage self would be horrified.