Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Seamus Heaney at the BBC

Not only did we have a great day out in Magherafelt (and a splendid meal at Church Street) but I learnt a good deal about Seamus Heaney. T and I joined the On Home Ground Festival last Friday and caught up with Geraldine and Eugene Kielt, Maura Johnston, Marie-Louise Muir, James Kerr and Medbh McGuckian. Excellent readings and performances of course, but for me the most memorable was to see two of the many programmes that Seamus Heaney made for BBC NI, followed by a talk from Pat Loughrey, the ex-Controller of BBC NI, about Heaney's work for the BBC.

I only had a sketchy knowledge of Heaney's broadcasting work. I didn’t realise that he had begun working for the BBC in 1966, having been introduced by Philip Hobsbaun, the leader of the Belfast Group. At first Heaney worked only for the Schools Broadcasting Department, writing and narrating radio broadcasts for children on diverse topics such as language, mythology, landscape, poetry, childhood and farming practices.

In many ways this was a radical step for BBC NI, for here was a Catholic nationalist writing and narrating programmes at a time when such voices were not normally in positions of authority on the airwaves. Yet Heaney also had impeccable credentials, as a lecturer at Queen's and being published by Faber and Faber. Surprisingly, Heaney's early radio work passed off with very little comment in NI. Whereas, his later television work (a series of programmes in a similar vein to his radio work) provoked more reaction, being described by some as 'papist propaganda'.

Heaney was a gifted broadcaster. The films I saw were apparently simple, but with considerable depth. The first concerned the language of boundaries as Heaney roamed across the landscape of his childhood in South Derry. The second was set in Lough Erne and concerned pagan beliefs and the early Christian church. Heaney had a natural flair for engagement with both his subject and the audience - he informed, educated and entertained. As Pat Loughrey observed, his scripts were almost written in verse.

Well done to Marie-Louise Muir for putting together the excellent Festival programme at Laurel Villa. Many thanks to Geraldine and Eugene for their hospitality. It's a little over a year since Seamus' passing and only now are we becoming able to assess the extent of our loss. He was not just a great writer but also a great broadcaster (amongst other things) - all in all, a great communicator.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

As I was Young and Easy under the Apple Boughs

My front room is filled with the sweet must of freshly harvested apples. There has been a good crop this year, around two hundred and fifty apples from my sole tree. Most fruits are large, well ripened and tasty. Indeed, this year some are very large, a fair bit bigger than an orange.

I grew up on a smallholding with a sizeable orchard filled with apple, plum and pear trees. There was also a hazel that produced a good crop of nuts. I patrolled the orchard every day, herding geese and chickens with a stick. My favourite tree to climb was the hazel, it had a spread of hanging branches and I would haul myself up to survey my demesne through its swaying boughs.

When, as a teenager, I began to read poetry, Fern Hill quickly became my favourite. I had left my orchard years before, when we moved to a village near Gloucester. So Dylan Thomas' tone of loss chimed with me, even though I was only fourteen. And then it was just a couple of years until I followed his path and began a drinking career - on scrumpy, of course, in a back street cider-house called The County Arms.

This hostelry, long since demolished, was a drinking den for those with little money. It sold only cider, most of it locally made, very strong and extremely cheap. The place was run by a wizened old woman, called Mother, and her son, called Ocker, a silent brute three times her size. They had little regard for the licensing laws, or any others for that matter, as long as you had money to pay for your drink you were alright.

The County Arms was dirty and disreputable - me and my schoolpals loved it. The place was full of characters: one old fella, called Bristol, would sing sea shanties and do hornpipes around the pub to earn money for his next pint of scrumpy, another would tell tales of his adventures which included fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Ah, when I was young and easy. I hardly take a drop anymore. I only have one kidney now and I'm looking after it. It's great that my apples are good eaters.


Friday, 29 August 2014

Rafa and Me

There is much I don't share with Rafael Nadal: a great forehand, latin good looks, vast wealth... but there is one thing we have in common - Hoffa's Impingement. This is the very knee injury that Rafa had last year, which curtailed his season so painfully. But, after an extensive programme of treatment, he came back as strong as ever this year. I'm doing my best to emulate him.

My new physio doesn't believe in treatment machines, she prefers to get to grips with your flesh with her powerful fingers and arms. Earlier this week, I lay on the treatment table and she began to manipulate my knee. Then she pointed her elbow, placed it on my patella tendon, leant her weight onto it and started to rub very hard from side to side. I gasped and gritted my teeth, red-hot knives were shooting across my knee.

'Is that your pain?' she asked.

'Aooow,' I howled in assent, thinking she would stop.

'Good,' she said, digging her elbow in further.

'Really, really hurts,' I gasped, gripping the sides of the table as my body began to shake.

'Don't worry,' she said cheerily, 'it'll go numb in a minute or so.'

'Aooow,' I howled again, sweat coursing down my face. It felt like she was trying to saw my leg off. I kept wishing I had a piece of wood to bite on.

'Gone numb yet?' she asked

'Yes, yes,' I moaned, thankfully.

'Fine,' she said, moving her elbow to a fresh part of my tendon and the intense pain began again.

After what seemed an age, she stopped and left the cubicle to get something. I lay back on the treatment table, took some deep breaths and tried to relax. My patella tendon was throbbing, but numb. No ball-boy came to proffer barley-water, banana or towel. I sighed. My physio returned and strapped my knee. The treatment was over, until next week.

I may never reach SW19 or trouble Hawkeye. At this point, all I want to be able to do is to walk to the bottom of the lane outside my house without pain.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Hoffa's Impingement

I've been given the results of the scan on my knee. I'm very pleased and surprised to find that my cartilages and ligaments aren't damaged. I went for the scan because my local Physiotherapist thought I had torn a cartilage. Happily, I do not need an operation. But I am still in pain. At this point, the Osteopathic Surgeon seemed to lose interest and handed me over to another Physiotherapist for further treatment.

What the scan did show is that I have swelling inside the knee joint, inflammation of the tendons that attach to the kneecap and some misalignment of the kneecap itself. But my primary problem is Hoffa's Impingement. This is where the large pad that fits between the ends of the shin and thigh bones (and behind the kneecap) gets pinched and inflamed inside the joint. This pad is the most sensitive part of the knee, having more nerve endings than any other, and gives an excruciatingly painful injury. When my knee is bad, it feels like red-hot knives are being stuck into me.

After two months of pain, confusion and disappointment, I'm relieved to finally get to the bottom of the knee problem. The treatment for this injury is frequent icing (I have two large packs of frozen peas that do the job three or four times a day), stopping the activities that cause the pinching of the pad (for me this means most walking and standing) and taping the kneecap to restrict its range of movement.

The next step is a programme of special exercises to strengthen some leg muscles and to stretch others, in order to achieve healthy alignment of the knee. Some of these exercises are quite odd, like squeezing a football between your ankles and doing gentle squats with the ball between your knees. My current exercise programme takes over half an hour and I need to do this twice a day. All being well, my knee should recover in a couple more months.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

My Long Lost Pal

Out of the blue, I got a message from Patrick. We were the best of mates at primary school. Patrick lived along the canal from me at Bridgend, near the small town of Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. I lost touch with him aged nine, when we moved house to the other side of the county. 

We used to play together along the canal tow-path and across the fields and railway line that separated us from the town. Yes, we grew up (literally) on the other side of the tracks. Patrick's family had a TV (mine didn't) and I used to go home with him after school to watch cartoons. I recall us eating sarnies and shouting at the screen. The Lone Ranger was another favourite of ours.
We walked to primary school down a lane, across a main road, over a railway line and along a footpath to the iron railings that guarded the school. It was a journey of about a mile and a half each way and we did this every day without adult supervision. The school was Victorian in its construction: there was a bell in a turret above the main entrance, with separate doors for boys and girls. And in its ethos: you would be beaten regularly, on pretty much any pretext. I recall being caned one day for failing to eat my pudding. I still hate tapioca.
Patrick now lives in Orkney, so other than through Facebook, there was little chance of us encountering one another again. I must admit I can easily live without the pictures of cute animals and obscure homilies that seem to represent the majority of the traffic on the site. But putting you in touch with someone who you lost contact with fifty years ago, that's a real achievement.

Stonehouse Primary School, outside the main building at break.
Picture courtesy of Stonehouse History Group, date uncertain (late 1940's - early 1950's, I'm guessing).

Monday, 28 July 2014

Pauls Knee (ii)

My bad knee continues to be a problem. It's been five weeks since my fall and I've been getting treatment every week. The swelling has now gone down to leave a large lump on the top of my tibia. The lump is egg shaped and gives a little if you press it. I'm told this is a haematoma, a blood blister that formed on top of the bone when it was bruised in my fall. The lump is no longer very painful and I'm told it will go away in time.
The knee joint itself is the most painful: it still feels weak and I get stabbing pains with certain movements, especially when walking. I've been wearing a support bandage a lot of the time. The physiotherapist now believes that I have torn a cartilage. I'm booked to have a scan on my knee which will tell for sure.
You have two pieces of cartilage in each knee. They are crescent shaped and look a little like the segments of an orange, thicker on the outside of the knee and thinner on the inside. The cartilages fit between your tibia and femur, working as shock absorbers. A sudden impact on your knee, particularly with a twisting movement, can damage them.
The outer edge of the cartilage has a blood supply and thus can repair a small tear. So I've been doing plenty of hot compresses on my knee to help stimulate this. The inner surface of the cartilage doesn't repair. It's possible to have surgery to repair large tears of the cartilage and for damaged pieces to be removed. But, especially given my recent experience, I don't want to go down that road.
As driving is a little painful, I'm leading a fairly enclosed life. At home with my injury I surf the internet and watch plenty of TV, which has driven me to fix the drip on the kitchen tap and other minor tasks around the house that I had been putting off. I don't seem to be in the mood for writing very often. It's pretty frustrating, this is the longest interruption to the active life that I've been enjoying over the past three years. And of course I'm very worried about what the scan will show.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Americano and Caramel Square

I've become a connoisseur of independent coffee shops. My usual is an americano and a caramel square. I've tried plenty of different places.

You sit and wait with anticipation: the coffee machine growls and hisses, a teaspoon clatters onto the saucer and a plate is loaded with your pastry. But so often the outcome is disappointment: coffee insipid or brackish, caramel square thin and tasting like sugary cardboard.
I end up returning again and again to the few places that provide consistent high quality: strong flavourful coffee and a delicious caramel square (smooth shortbread, caramel and chocolate in good proportion). My favourite independent coffee shops are:
Grounded Café, Monaghan St, Newry. On the corner near the Canal Court Hotel. A café with a youthful vibe, always busy but the quality never lapses. Great coffee and the best caramel squares I've tasted.

Green Bean Café, Townsend St, Banbridge. Just off the main street, behind Supervalue. A peaceful place, rarely full but always high quality. Fantastic bespoke coffee (they ask you how strong you want your americano) and great caramel squares.

I've tried independent coffee shops across much of Co Down and South Belfast. These two stand out as the best. Are there any others of note that I've missed?