Sunday, 3 May 2015

What's Yours Called?

I’ve just bought a new car. As I picked it up at the garage, an old Renault advert came into my mind. Not Thierry Henry and his ‘va-va-voom’, but two decades earlier when Renault had a campaign that focused on the ways that buyers personalised their cars: ‘what’s yours called?’ was the slogan. To a soundtrack of classic songs, people appeared on screen with their Renault 5 to reveal the often quirky names that they had given to their cars. Not only was this a novel attempt to make mass produced vehicles appear more customised, but it was also tapping into the notion of a community of people who were drawn together by their association with a particular brand.

Cars, like clothing and smartphones, are worn in public and provide social and cultural markers. Whether Apple, BMW or Chanel, it is unsurprising that people should be drawn to others who value the brands that they themselves choose. The Bugatti Owners Club was founded in 1929 and still holds regular meets, whilst in NI you often see dozens of ancient Massey Fergusons tootling along in file on rural roads.

Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production, had little interest in consumer behaviour: ‘any colour you like, as long as it’s black.’ Nowadays we take it for granted that people are choosing to purchase pieces of identity and meaning through the products that they consume. Our screens are full of knowing ads that display and celebrate particular identities, with the brand itself often appearing at the end of a series of lifestyle images as an almost ironic statement. Ads for mobile devices are perhaps the most iconic of this type and people have queued up for days to be the first to buy a new Apple Iphone upon its release.

For the past decade I’ve had an old Ford Focus, manufactured in 2003. I bought it in 2005 and have driven it most days since. The car has been reliable and has done me very well for over 100,000 miles. But last week I was told by my local garage that it had just about reached the end of its days. Reluctantly, I was forced to look for another. Since then I’ve been reading reviews of cars and trying them out at different dealers. I found this a strangely dispiriting exercise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve ended up buying a new Focus, the 2012 model, a turbo-diesel this time.

I’ve no desire to join a Ford car club. And I can’t stand Top Gear in general and Jeremy Clarkson in particular. I think I plumped for a newer example of the same model because it was a car that was tried and trusted. I was also offered a good deal in part-exchange on my loyal old motor. The controls and switches are in the same places, there are just more of them, so it makes the changeover to the new car much easier. I suppose I could have chosen a Bugatti or a Massey Ferguson. But I ended up with the Focus; I’m calling him Erik, after the famous Viking explorer.

Friday, 24 April 2015


The blackbird leaps from the sill and pecks and scratches at the window pane, wings beating hard, until it falls back to the ledge exhausted. The bird gathers its breath for few moments, sucking air through its yellow beak, then leaps again attacking the window pane with all its might. I approach the window from inside and it flies off into a bush at the rear of my house. I know it will be back.

These attacks on the window pane began yesterday at dawn, and continued throughout the day. At first I was curious, then amused and finally very exasperated. ‘Stop, you stupid bird,’ I roared, but I might as well have been telling the waves to cease and desist. My irritation on the other side of the pane only served to scare it away temporarily. And from dawn today the pugilistic bird has returned.

I imagine the blackbird has a mate and a nest in the bush and is convinced its own reflection is a rival that must be humbled. Earlier this week, I read that visitors to a country house in Devon had complained that their car doors had been badly scratched. CCTV revealed the culprits: the peacocks that graced the gardens with their long, flowing tails were attacking their own reflections in the paintwork. It is of course the mating season for birds and many other animals.

I recall standing in Kings Square, Gloucester on Saturday afternoons with hordes of other teenagers to witness ritual fights between lads. These always started with jostling, then shouting, and in a flurry of fists and feet two lads would fly at each other. The girls on the steps of Debenhams howled to these jousting beaus in the square below: waving, shrieking and swearing their encouragement.

The fights were always over quickly; one rival choosing to trot away from the arena, wiping a trickle of blood from his nose or lip. The victor would raise his arms and receive accolades from the girls and his pals spectating from the steps. The teenagers would then reassemble, sitting back down on the steps of Debenhams to banter, jostle and laugh with each other again. Shortly after, the vanquished would return somewhat sheepishly to the edge of the throng.

I was fifteen, in Levis, Ben Sherman shirt and an army surplus parka, just like all the others. There was a pecking order; the lads on the steps were older or bolder. I watched the display from the sidelines, desperately wanting to join the throng on the steps but also afraid of doing so. I was a Saturday boy at Woolworths and saving up for a scooter. Next year, I told myself, I’ll join in.

Monday, 13 April 2015


The Easter trip to Dubrovnik worked out extremely well. We were upgraded to a four star hotel and given a room with a balcony. I stepped out to a panorama of the glinting Adriatic with a scattering of tree-covered islands and steep mountainsides along the coast. Then we stuffed ourselves at the breakfast buffet: fresh fruit salad and yoghourt, cold cuts or eggs and bacon, followed by fresh bread or croissants dipped in honey. Replete, we headed out for the day.

The old town, rebuilt after the 1667 earthquake, was just a ten minute bus ride. Despite the warm sunshine, Easter was early and the old town had an out-of-season feel. Small groups of tourists wandered the narrow streets, touts for restaurants and shops waved brochures and called lazily, cats slunk through shadows and St Blaise stared down at the throng with his mad flowing beard. We walked the walls, a roof-top circuit of the old town, bounded by the jade sea on two sides; a jumbled patchwork of terracotta tiles with the towers of monasteries and the dome of the cathedral spearing the blue sky. In places you were looking into gardens and back yards filled with washing, children’s toys and cats. Plenty of roofs had bright tiles, replaced after the shelling of the city when it was under siege during the Yugoslav war.

At the old port all sorts of small boats, some with glass bottoms, were offered for hire; one, a strange red submarine that we later saw wallowing through the waves beyond the breakwater. We took the hourly ferry to the island of Lokrum, formerly a holiday escape for the Hapsburgs and now a botanic garden and nature reserve with many peacocks. We also made an all-day boat trip to the Elaphite Islands and wandered steep rocky paths around old olive groves and ate grilled hake with salad and fresh bread.

Back at the hotel after a day out, we would unwind in the sauna and then head to dinner. Again this was a buffet, with the delight of many new foods to try: lots of Mediterranean fish dishes, of course, the most interesting of many was black squid risotto (flavoured by its ink). There were also plenty of meat dishes to choose from, but nothing very unusual. We really liked the local white wine, Grasevina, which was akin to Sauvignon Blanc. The desserts were very good too: strudels made with apple, cherry and poppy seed, as well as excellent ice-cream.

We made several long day-trips: into Montenegro (the, well named, country of the Black Mountains) to visit Kotor, another walled city on the sea (formerly part of the Venetian empire) but this time with Eastern Orthodox churches and contemporary Russian influences. And into Bosnia to visit Mostar, a town divided between Catholics and Muslims that had seen much ethnic violence during the recent war, culminating in the destruction of the old bridge that spanned the river between the two communities. Despite the tourist influx to visit the rebuilt bridge, Mostar had an air of decline with a number of building still bullet and shell scarred. Our guide asked each of us where we came from, when I said NI he grimaced a little and shook his head, to him our wee conflict seemed incomprehensible.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Beyond the Miraculous

I had my urgent review with my lung specialist a couple of days ago. A month for an urgent appointment seemed fairly quick when NHS waiting times are so terribly long. The clinic was crowded and I spent the first hour waiting to see him. I then related my story of how the osteopath had worked on my paralysed diaphragm and I had improved. But after a while, I explained, my problem symptoms had returned. The lung specialist made notes in my file and sent me for a series of tests and an X-ray.

I returned with the results of the breathing tests. He was looking at the new X-ray and comparing it with the one I had taken in December. ‘Afraid I can’t see any difference’, he said and beckoned me over to the desk. Side by side were the two pictures of my chest. They were almost identical. On both, my raised left diaphragm was clearly visible.

I felt crestfallen. ‘He probably just moved your stomach a little’ said the specialist, ‘and lessened the pressure on your lung for a while.’ I was so disappointed. I thought I had been given a miraculous cure for my breathing problems. And now I had found it was an illusion.

The specialist explained that there was an operation, plication, which would lower the diaphragm and fix it in place. The trouble was that this surgery would mean that the diaphragm would never move again. He was keen for me to pursue this and referred me to a thoracic surgeon.

I agreed to go and see the surgeon to find out more. But this felt to me like a last chance option that I wasn’t yet ready to take. My diaphragm was only partially paralysed and weakly moving so I had to explore options for improving it first. I decided I would also go and consult a nerve specialist.

I left the clinic feeling extremely down. All my breathing problems and fears for the future came rushing in. After my raised hopes, these burdens seemed all the heavier. I sat with a pal in a cafe and related my story over a coffee and a caramel square. ‘What you need is a holiday,’ he said. I smiled for the first time that day - ‘we’re heading to Dubrovnik next week’.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Do you Believe in Miracles?

For most of my life I thought miracles were just ancient stories that had probably been recorded by the credulous. But now I’ve changed my mind. For the past five months I’ve had pronounced breathing problems and I’d been sent by a lung specialist for a series of tests. The last of these was a video fluoroscopy (an X Ray video); an odd experience, since you can see your lungs working in almost real time as the images are projected onto a screen in front of you. The report was brief and clear, I had a partially paralysed left diaphragm. It was a terrible shock.

A paralysed diaphragm is the result of damage to the phrenic nerve, the doctor explained. How did I get it? Probably during my major surgery in 2011 which opened up my chest to remove a tumour that had grown into my vena cava. The phrenic nerve runs from your neck around your heart and into your diaphragm. Apparently such paralysis is a reasonably common side-effect of cardiac surgery. These things happen, said the doctor. The nerve had been damaged and my diaphragm was raised and weakly flickering, allowing my stomach to move up and become wedged inside my ribcage; together these were putting pressure on my left lung and greatly limiting my breathing. And what could be done about it? Nothing much, I was told. It was a permanent impairment.

On top of the shock was fear. I’d had breathing and digestive problems ever since the surgery in 2011. After a series of tests three years ago, I was told that I had a hernia in my diaphragm and that this could be repaired by surgery. Still recovering from the first operation, I wasn’t keen for further surgery so it was agreed that I would have the remedial operation if my symptoms worsened. Over time I learnt to live with these problems. In January my breathing had deteriorated so much that I told my GP I wanted to go back and have the surgery. But now I was being told that this longstanding diagnosis was wrong and there could be no surgical solution to the problem. So did this mean that I was now moving inexorably to ever greater breathing impairment?

On top of the fear came anger. A moment’s carelessness by a doctor had left me with a lifetime of problems, which couldn’t get any better and may well get a lot worse. On top of that, when I had complained about post-surgical problems I was given the wrong diagnosis. If I’d been given the correct diagnosis three years ago, then perhaps something could have been done to slow down the deterioration in my breathing. I was full of questions. The GP couldn’t help me with any of them. I wrote them all down in a letter to the lung specialist asking to be seen urgently.

On top of the anger came depression. I tried doing breathing exercises I found on the internet but these irritated my already inflamed lungs. The stress on my lungs had given me asthma too. I felt I was in a downward spiral. Walking and cycling in the great outdoors had been such a big part of my life; I would have to face up to letting go of them. I began to imagine myself housebound with an oxygen tank as my constant companion.

In truth these were not separate phases but all mixed up together. Each day became a real struggle. I found myself getting very frustrated and reacting to irritations that I would previously have brushed off. With no response from the specialist to my urgent request, I decided to explore other options. I had been to an osteopath in Holywood who was trained in Eastern medicine and acupuncture, I booked an appointment.

Ralph McCutcheon listened to my story and asked me to lie on the treatment table. He got me to open my mouth and pressed his thumb hard into the roof of my mouth telling me to breathe deeply at the same time. Next he worked on vertebrae in my neck and back. Lastly he manipulated my abdomen at the bottom of my ribcage for a while. That’s fixed it, he said.

I left the treatment room and did some breathing exercises. There was an unusual ache in my left side. I thought it was due to his pressure. But the ache persisted and later I had more feeling at the base of my ribs where my left diaphragm should be. That evening, my breathing seemed easier. I began to hope that he had made a difference. I spent an anxious night. On waking I tried the breathing exercise and felt the left diaphragm flex. It got sore quickly but my diaphragm seemed to be working much better than before; I could fill my lungs and breathe more clearly. And my stomach and digestion felt better too; instead of feeling bloated after eating just a little, I felt hungry and was able to eat heartily without stomach ache.

It was miraculous. I’d been told by conventional medicine that there was no hope. I’d been given the laying on of hands. And I seemed to be cured. Thanks to the blessed Ralph I have a new lease of life.

Monday, 2 March 2015

A House for Pangur Dubh

I’ve been putting food and milk out for Pangur Dubh for over two weeks now. He comes each day and eats it all. I don’t know when he comes; he doesn’t seem to have a regular pattern. Some days I see him several times, other days not at all. But each morning the bowls are empty.

I started off by putting the bowls under a trailer at one end of the house. I did this to prevent the magpies from stealing the food before he arrived. Then I moved the bowls to the other end of the house behind a wooden panel. Pangur had no problem finding his tucker. I noticed that he had sprayed the panel to mark it as his territory. After another five days in the same place I moved the bowls and panel to the side of the house next to the bins.  

My plan was to move the food bit by bit to the back of the house. An old shed languished there and I wanted to fix it up for Pangur. I reckoned he slept in the old graveyard, probably under a fir tree. This was probably the place where he had been born and had grown up. He always ran off in that direction if I came out of the house and startled him. I wanted to offer him a home. I was hoping that he would become my resident guard cat against rodents.

I had a cat box that my late father had made. My ex-wife had a cat and my father made the box as a present. But her cat, called Izvestia (my ex-wife had been a Young Communist), never took to the box. When we parted I reclaimed the box and stored it. I brought it down from the loft and cleaned it up. I would put the box, lined with old clothes, in the shed and place the bowls next to it.

All seemed to be going well, when one evening I came home to see a strange ginger cat on the black bin above the bowls. Pangur Rua - was this a pal or a rival? I had got used to Pangur Dubh and didn’t want to see him ousted. On the other hand, if Pangur Rua was a practiced rodent killer he would be welcome too.

I proceeded with my plan and fixed up the shed at the back of the house with the lined cat box. I just didn’t know if one of the cats would take to it.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Pangur Dubh

I got home from the hardware store and opened the yellow sachet. The bait was wheat seeds impregnated with poison. It was a lurid green colour. I put it in dishes at either end of the loft. The rodents loved it; every night I could hear them scurrying above my head. The row was very disturbing, I couldn’t relax and sleep. I tried earplugs, they helped a little. Each morning I refilled the dishes and looked carefully around the loft. But apart from the eaten bait there were no signs of them. I imagined the rodents were under the insulation, sleeping off their nocturnal exertions.

This was war. I decided to escalate. I went back to the hardware store and bought four traps. The woman advised me to bait these with something sticky that the rodents couldn’t steal without activating the mechanism. She suggested I use peanut butter or chocolate. I put both on all four traps. The next morning I eagerly went up the loft ladder to see if there had been any success. None at all, I was crestfallen. The rodents were avoiding the traps but kept eating the bait in the dishes. They were smart, but not smart enough. After a week or so, the scurrying and bait eating had stopped. No trap had ever been sprung.

I looked around the outside of the house to see if I could find the holes that they might have come in through. I found nothing. Perplexed I asked a neighbour who was a builder for advice. He told me that mice can get through tiny holes. ‘If you can put a biro through it’, he said, ‘then they can get through too’. Apparently mice semi-dislocate and flex their bones to do this. Mice are also great mountaineers; with their sharp claws they can climb vertical walls. Getting into the loft of a pebble-dashed bungalow would not present a great problem. He told me to check the edges of door and window frames as these were likely places for small holes. I spent two hours going around the house investigating holes with a biro. I found three tiny holes high up above door and window frames and filled them.

I kept the bait in the loft for over a week. It wasn’t touched. I started to hope that the rodent war might have been won. I called the alarm engineer who came and replaced the cable. He advised me to remove the bait as it was an attraction, but to leave the traps. He also said the best deterrent was a cat, as rodents had sensitive noses and were afraid of the scent of a cat.

There are several groups of feral cats in the parish; one of these seemed to live in the old graveyard not far from my house. A neighbour about a mile away had been feeding a different group of feral cats regularly, they came every day for food and slept in one of her outhouses. What a good idea, I thought and put out some cat food and milk. I kept a watchful eye during the day and was very disappointed to find that by twilight my offerings hadn’t been touched. But the next morning the food and milk were gone. It might have been a fox in the night I mused, but I put the food and milk out again. No sign of anything during the day, but in the morning the bowls were clean again. This persisted for several days. Then I saw him. A muscular black cat slunk across the lawn late one afternoon. He drank the milk first then ate all the food. With a stubby tail, he looked to be a real bruiser. Pangur Dubh himself. The next day he came again. Those rodents had better watch out.