Friday, 25 September 2015

Double Dose

Last Saturday T went down with a bad dose of flu. After several weeks in school with hundreds of children she wasn’t too surprised to pick up a bug. Having only just recovered from a dose myself, I was well practiced at administering soluble paracetamol, vitamins and minerals, so I sprang into action. By Sunday evening she had become so ill she begged me not to leave her alone in her house. So I packed her up in my car and took her home to Casa PJ, stopping at Tesco enroute to replenish supplies.

I installed her in the guest bedroom and brought in whatever she wanted: bowls of soup, toast, bars of chocolate and fizzing concoctions of over-the-counter medicines. The next day I noticed that my throat was getting sore. Just a coincidence, I thought, as my system must have plenty of antibodies from my own recent dose. Unfortunately, her virus proved to be different to the one I had taken and by that evening I was laid up again with a new dose of flu.

With both of us ill in bed, who was to be the nurse? As T seemed to be the worst off, it had to be me. For the next day or so I struggled to make us meals and keep up the regular medications. It was exhausting and stressful to be nursing her and myself at the same time. Then, as I began to significantly worsen, she started to improve. So the nursing duties switched.

This dose of flu was much more intensive than the last. For several days I was laid out flat with a heavy fever, headache and bad chest. Going down the corridor to the toilet was a major expedition from which I would come back to bed feeling exhausted. T presented me with porridge laced with whisky for breakfast, soup for lunch and a good evening meal. As the intensity of her dose receded, she was left with a dry cough, bouts of sneezing and waves of exhaustion. After a few days feeling that I would never get better, I began to join her on the winding road to recovery.

I suppose I could have called her Typhoid Mary. But as they so rightly say, a friend in need is a friend indeed.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Dose

For the past week I’ve been down with the ‘flu. Stuck indoors and wrapped in bedclothes or a blanket, I’ve been hitting the drink. But my glass has only been fizzing with soluble paracetamol and vitamin C; I’ve never found hot whisky to work for me. Getting up late after a feverish night, I’d plonk in an armchair, blanket around me and consume a diet high in Film 4, live cycling and assorted documentaries (from Indian wildlife to Time Team).

A bad dose is a great leveller, in more ways than one. Not only does the virus make you feel unwell in the head, nose, throat and chest but it also leaves you feeling unhappy, frustrated and depressed. Because I lead a very active life, I always find this latter part of the dis-ease the most challenging. You just have to give in to it, I’ve been told many times. But that has never been my way of living.  Like Hamlet, I would always choose to take arms against a sea of troubles. However, this is a strategy that doesn’t seem to work very well with viruses.

In times gone by I would have done my best to ignore a virus and carry on regardless with whatever had been planned in my life. But more often than not this led to the virus lasting for several more weeks and/or an episode of bronchitis which would necessitate antibiotics to clear up. So I do now try to give in to it, but that is only on the surface. Underneath I’m seething with frustration at my unwanted confinement.

It’s been a bumper week for cycling on TV, with highlights of La Vuelta de Espana every evening and the Tour of Britain live every afternoon. I’ve been watching both avidly. The Tour of Britain has gone from North Wales, through the Pennines to Scotland and back. Each day the race has passed through beautiful countryside under unseasonably warm sunshine. I’ve enjoyed this increased diet of TV cycling, but I’ve also been itching to be out on the bike myself and deeply frustrated that I am presently unable to.

I’ve always been a doer rather than a spectator. The trouble with a dose is that it seems to make you into a sort of spectator on your own life. You are just watching and life seems to be passing you by. And for me that is never a happy place to be. Although, unlike Hamlet, I have no plans at present to murder my mother and uncle.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015


Hannah and Davide live on a hill near Rathdrum. They have two children under five and an eco-house that was built in a day. The house came in panels on the back of a lorry and was lifted into place by a crane. It’s highly insulated, with extra cladding inside and out, and sits on layers of gravel below the concrete foundations. Heating is under-floor and there is an air-conditioning system that works on heat exchange. It’s a comfortable dormer bungalow with a spacious open-plan kitchen and living room area. There are large triple-glazed windows and the views are spectacular.

We first went for a walk at Avondale, the former home of Parnell, which is now a forest park with giant redwoods and a great trail along the Avonmore river. The air was lush, the blackberries were plentiful and fungi abounded. To celebrate recent birthdays we drank white wine and headed for a meal at a local restaurant with a menu of Thai, Sri Lankan and Mediterranean dishes. The next day Hannah and T took the children blackberry picking, Davide went surfing and I went for a bike ride.

I headed up Glenmalur on a single-track road that meandered between steep wooded hillsides with streams cascading to the valley floor. The road ended at a bridge by a youth-hostel and I retuned back along the valley to Ballinaclash. I then took the long steady climb that traversed the side of Ballinacor Mountain. This climb was very like the Yellow Water road out of Rostrevor, and though a challenge was something I knew I could do. I reached the pass at 800 feet and descended steeply to Sheenamore.

Then the road steepened again and disappeared up through the trees. I wasn’t expecting this, and muttering began to climb again, legs and lungs already tired from my earlier efforts. I glanced down at my cycle-computer, the gradient was over 10% and increasing and I still couldn’t see the top. You could always get off and walk, I thought, but why not keep going as long as you can. The road curved up further still and the gradient increased to 15%. I was panting hard. I began to zigzag the bike across the narrow road to try and give my legs and lungs a bit of a rest. Coming around a bend, I saw the road rearing up to what seemed to be the top. I pushed my aching knees and lungs into a final effort. The gradient increased to 18%, then began to reduce. I stopped at the crown of the hill and panted for a good few minutes. That was the steepest hill I had climbed on a bike since before my illness.

I had come up a very steep 250 feet or so and was now at about 900 feet with heather clad hills spreading all around me. I had a huge sense of achievement. My lungs were much better than I thought they were. I didn’t set out to test myself so forcefully; I just hadn’t read the map carefully enough. After my rest I traversed through forestry plantations to Aghavannagh and descended the long river valley to Aughrim. I stopped for apple pie across the road from the 1798 memorial, and then headed back up the main road towards Rathdrum. Overall I did 40 miles with 2300 feet of climbing, the hardest ride of the year so far.

We all met up at the house for a roast dinner and related the tales of our days. The girls had picked a load of early blackberries that Hannah would make into jam. Davide had caught some good waves. And I was delighted to learn that my lungs (and knees) were more capable than I thought they were.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Tour of Britain

It was an eventful trip. The night before we left home I got a text from the ferry company telling us that the boat we were on was cancelled. They had booked us onto the next one. This meant we would arrive in Holyhead after midnight and wouldn’t get to the farmhouse B & B in Snowdonia until much later. We rang to tell them; our hostess wasn’t impressed as she had to get up at 5 to do the milking.

We arrived to find the farmhouse lights on and knocked the front door. No reply. We knocked again. All was quiet. I tried the door, it was unlocked. They’d probably gone to bed and left it open for us, we reasoned. Creeping in, we found an upstairs bedroom with the door open. We collapsed and slept deeply till 9. Going down for breakfast, we got a challenge. ‘Where were you last night?’ Our hostess bridled, ‘I stayed up waiting for you.’ I explained what had happened. She looked daggers, then she smiled; she must have fallen asleep in the chair in the back parlour and hadn’t heard a thing.

It was a bright sunny day with clear blue skies. We did a hillwalk on the LLeyn peninsula to an extensive iron-age settlement on a hill-top. But unused to this weather, we got sunburnt. The next day we toured around North Wales visiting Portmeirion, The Great Orme, castles and gastropubs. Then we moved on to my cousin’s in Birmingham, enduring long motorway queues for a great foodie night out with Mike and Esther in the Chinese Quarter.

Next we went to Ross on Wye and the Forest of Dean, visiting Tewkesbury Abbey and its splendid vaulting on the way. After a lot of detective work we found the old cottage in which T’s grandfather had been born. It was built in the 1740’s and was just up the road from an old cider pub with an apple press in the yard. Then we went on to Stonehouse and walked along the Stroudwater canal past the old house, built in 1760, where I grew up.

Afterwards we drove to the New Forest to stay with my old schoolpal Phil. We went on some great walks: to Hurst Castle, where Charles the First was incarcerated prior to his trial, and in Rhinefield to see the magnificent tall trees. We also had a day out in Southampton by train, a shopping mecca where all the twinkling sheds that you normally have on the edge of town have been built on brownfield sites in the city centre. We finished off with a great meal at an upmarket restaurant in a country house near Brockenhurst – The Pig.

Our return journey began with a trip to Salisbury Cathedral, famous for its tall spire and copy of Magna Carta and Avebury for its fine circles of standing stones. We arrived in Bristol for my brother Allan’s 60th birthday do: a big family get-together in a local church hall with four generations present. A splendid occasion with plenty to eat and much cake, then we headed back to Allan and Christine’s for more. And the next day we all went out again for a big Sunday lunch. We also had plenty of walks with their hyper-active dog across the common.

The last leg of the journey was to drive back to North Wales to again stay in our first farmhouse. We arrived earlier, around 10, to find our hostess safely tucked up in bed. We let ourselves in to the same bedroom. The last day of the trip was again bright, cloudless and very sunny. We spent it on Anglesey at the beach near Aberffraw and at low tide walked out along the causeway to the small 12th Century church on the little island. There I was bitten on the hip by an Alsatian. We shouted at the owners, who mumbled sorry. T bathed my wound in antiseptic and in the kerfuffle the screen on her brand new mobile got broken. Nothing for it but to drive the short distance to the ferry, which took us smoothly to Dublin in just two hours. As we got back home I checked the milometer. We had travelled 1200 miles in 12 days and visited 14 different counties. It had been a very eventful tour; the sort of trip that leaves you ready for another holiday.

Sunday, 2 August 2015


My partner has a screensaver app on her smartphone which shows a forest that becomes populated by different animals. One day there is a woodpecker, the next a rabbit or a hedgehog. It makes her happy. I think it’s odd. I grew up in the country, whereas she’s a city girl. From childhood, I’ve regularly seen these animals in real life.

Living in an environment that is shared with wild native animals is not always easy. At present, from dusk to dawn, a plaintive whistling resounds from the trees at the bottom of my garden. It is a young long-eared owl that has fledged but hasn’t yet learnt to hunt for its own food. The young owl sits in a tree and whistles, so the parents know where to bring the mice or voles they catch. During the daytime the owls sit high up in the branches of a tall tree and rest. If you are lucky you may be able to spot them.

The old graveyard across the lane, a favourite haunt of owls and bats, is also home to a colony of badgers and several feral cats. The badgers are very wary and difficult to see, but if the wind is in the right direction you might catch them at dusk coming out of the sett. One evening I saw four of them scurrying across the lane.

Half a mile away is a foxes earth; T and I once saw a cub playing outside in the daytime. Late evening is a good time to see the adults, when they go out hunting. Recently, T and I spotted one in the barley-field beside the earth. The fox saw us first and bounded away through the green field, its red fur shining in the golden light of the setting sun. A powerful and strangely cinematic experience.

In the midst of this life is always death. A couple of days ago, when cycling, I came across a badly injured wild ferret. They are black, whereas the domesticated ones are sandy coloured. The ferret was lying beside the towpath not far from Scarva. I imagine it had been hit by a bike or attacked by a dog. On its last legs, it could hardly crawl. When I got home I rang the USPCA, but they don’t seem to be too interested in injured wild animals. It must have gone to meet its maker and given sustenance to a buzzard or raven.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Cycling Again

I’ve been a keen cyclist most of my life. I got my first bike aged eight; it was my vehicle of freedom until I became sixteen and bought a Vespa Sportique scooter (along with Ben Sherman shirt, Levis and a parka). I turned my back on cycling for a further sixteen years, then I went on a cycling holiday around the Ring of Kerry and became hooked again. For the past thirty years I’ve always had a bike.

First I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. It was my trusty steed for fifteen years and took me on tours of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy and Spain. Then I branched out to a Bontrager mountain bike (which I modified into a lightweight touring bike), a Dawes Sardar for laden touring, and a Dawes Audax for faster day rides. Over the first decade of this century I cycled avidly, visiting every county of Ireland by bike as well as undertaking cycletours of Southern Europe, Sri Lanka, Southern China, North Vietnam and Southern Chile. I also completed a number of endurance events, including the Wicklow 200 and Maracycle.

Then I got cancer, had major surgery and didn’t get on a bike for several years. Two years ago I tried some gentle rides and by early last summer I was cycling regularly until my knee injury in June. After this I had the best part of a year of treatment and inactivity during which I developed breathing problems. In April this year, very tentatively, I tried the bike again. Riding along the towpath from Scarva, I was very pleased to find that neither my knee nor my lungs were a significant limitation. I began to venture further and before too long I was riding to Newry for lunch at Grounded, then returning to Scarva (some 25 miles). Later I carried on up the towpath to Portadown, before returning to the car. Later still I extended my ride beyond Newry to Warrenpoint and Rostrevor.

What I love about cycling is that sense of freedom: the wind on your face, the country roads, the natural world all around you. I love exploring a new area or country by bike. You are travelling at a slower place and are more inside the culture. I avoid cycling in built up areas, always preferring to take the bike on the car to a rural place and head off into open country. Happily I have plenty of backroads right from my front door; the only problem is the hills. The drumlins extend all the way to the Mournes and then you have road passes through the mountains, the highest of which is Spelga at 1350 feet. In the old days I would cycle up there for the challenge. I hope to be able to do that again one day.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Outage, Adaptability and Migrants

I returned home from a couple of days away to find the phone line completely dead. This had happened before but had only lasted for an hour or so, presumably due to repairs taking place at the local exchange. On checking next door, I was surprised to find that their line was still working. I rang BT to report the fault and got an Indian call centre. They were polite, but told me I wasn’t their customer anymore. I’d transferred my line rental to my broadband provider a couple of years ago. I rang Plusnet; they got me to do some simple tests then ran a line check.

The problem lies somewhere between the local exchange (a green box in the next village) and your house, they said. Okay, I replied, but how long will it take to fix it? We have to contact Openreach, they said. In the privatised UK, the phone system is just like the railways, one company maintains the network and other providers rent space on it. The unwelcome answer came fairly quickly - an engineer would be sent out within three days. I remonstrated, but it did no good. I’d have to manage for the coming days without the phone or internet.

Day one: I looked at my diary and all the things I’d pencilled in to get done for the rest of the week. Most of these required the internet. I sat at my desk in the house and stared at the unconnected screen of my desktop, feeling very resentful and frustrated. I picked up my mobile (not internet connected) and made some calls and sent some text messages. After that I thought I’d take some time out, and watched Wimbledon and the Tour de France on TV.

Day two: I began the day as usual, sitting at my desk to check my messages. Without the internet, these were just a series of texts. I got frustrated quickly and decided I’d go out for the rest of the day. I took my bike on the back of my car to Scarva and cycled to Newry along the towpath. After a late lunch at Grounded cafe, I cycled back up the towpath to Portadown, then returned to Scarva. I was tired in the evening and made calls on my mobile and watched some TV.

Day three: I broke my habit of sitting at my desk in the office. Instead I sat at the table in the lounge and read. This felt better; first I read long articles from broadsheets, then I picked up a book. Suddenly, there was a row outside. What are next-door up to now, I wondered? I put down the book and went to the front door. There was a white van parked in the driveway with no-one in it. I walked around the side of the house and found a burly man at the top of a ladder hacking at the phone cable with a knife.

What’s happening, I shouted. I fix phone, he said in a heavy East-European accent, continuing to hack away with the knife. Okay, I shrugged, and went back inside. It didn’t look promising. Five minutes later, he banged on the front door. You check now, he smiled. Sorry, my English no good, he added. I got the phone and tried it; there was an odd regular bleeping but no dial-tone. I handed the phone to him. He listened then smiled, okay, I check. He sat in the cab of his van, picked up a tablet computer and began to enter stuff with a touch-stick. A couple of minutes later he said, okay now. I checked the phone again; there was a dial-tone. I grinned and thanked him. He beamed and proffered the tablet with touch-stick to me. You sign, he said. I obliged. I fix temporary, he said. Must new line, he said, pointing to the nearest telegraph pole, I order now. Thank you very much, I said. He winked and reversed the white van out of the drive with a cheery wave.

When I began this piece, I thought I would end up commenting on my own difficult adaption to the loss of my phone and internet connection. But there is a much more important issue to do with adaptability here. Many migrants have made their home in NI and plenty of them do skilled jobs in essential services, such as utilities, healthcare and education. We need our foreigners. They are not a drain on our resources; they are a useful and welcome addition. Correspondingly, bigotry and hate-crime is always wrong - whoever it is directed towards. Surely people who have grown up here should know that better than most.

Images from Belfast