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?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Paul's Knee

Home sweet home is a dangerous place. Three million of us visit A & E every year because of an accident in the home. I'm afraid to say I've joined this unhappy band.

I don't recall exactly what happened. One moment I was stepping out from my front door to collect something from the car, the next I was lying on the gravel outside with a terrible pain in my knee. I guess I must have tripped on the steps down to the driveway.

Many accidents must happen just like this. You are in a well known place doing something routine, and your attention lapses momentarily. It's the sort of thing you find yourself doing pretty often, thankfully without unpleasant consequences most of the time.

On this occasion the top of my shin bone (tibia) took most of the impact of my fall, pushing it upwards and across into my knee joint. I've been told that I've sprained two knee ligaments (patellar tendon, lateral collateral ligament) and bruised the cartilage. It could all have been a lot worse, had the impact been an inch or so higher it would have hit the side of the kneecap itself.

I've had a couple of ultrasound treatments and one of electrical stimulation, where a pad is placed either side of the knee and electric current passed through. It's a very odd feeling, intense pins and needles, like you're attached to a farmer's electric fence for a couple of minutes.

During the good weather it's been tough having to sit quietly at home and give my knee hot and cold compresses. Thankfully I've also had the distractions of Wimbledon, the World Cup and the Tour de France. All being well, in another couple of weeks my knee could be back to normal.

Friday, 27 June 2014

From Kabul to Moss Side

This journey took place a few days ago in Dublin. I was talking with Concern's new head of operations for Afghanistan and asked him if he was worried about being kidnapped or murdered by insurgents in the course of his work.

He assured me that he took security very seriously, but personally he didn't feel under threat. Why, I wondered, because he had armed bodyguards? There were guards on all Concern workplaces, he told me, but these guards weren't armed. After all the footage I'd seen on TV, I was surprised by his response. But isn't it really dangerous in Afghanistan, I asked, especially for foreigners? It depends who you are and what you are doing, he replied.

He went on to explain that Concern's operations in Afghanistan depended on the support of the local communities in which they worked. If what you were doing was perceived as being beneficial to the community then you received support from that community. He told me that this support included Concern staff being warned when it would be dangerous to travel to and be in any of the places in which they worked.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world: it is ranked 175th (out of 187) on the UN index of development, calculated from a range of indicators such as under five mortality rate, life expectancy, years of schooling and so on. Concern's operations take place in Kabul and two rural districts and are focused on maternal and child health, water and sanitation, agricultural development and the empowerment of women. Despite the threat of the insurgency, these developments are wanted by the communities in which Concern works.

It was a fascinating conversation, over lunch at a Concern away-day (I am in my tenth year as a member of the Board), and reminded me of an experience I had thirty years previously. Whilst studying for a PhD at Manchester University, I was supporting myself by working on an experimental community project in in Moss Side, Manchester. The team ran a drop-in advice and education project from an empty unit in the Moss Side Shopping Centre. I worked there for two years.

At that time Moss Side was a notorious district synonymous with very high unemployment, enormous social deprivation, drug gangs, drive-by shootings and riots. My friends and acquaintances were shocked at where I worked, they would never have ventured anywhere near the place. Yet the project team were told again and again how valuable our work was for the community and all of us felt safe working there.

There is a further link between Afghanistan and the inner-cities of developed countries. Afghanistan is the source of 90% of the worlds heroin and the production of this cash crop is largely in the hands of the Taliban: this is how the insurgency is financed, how small farmers in remote districts are kept under control and how some people choose to try and escape from the disadvantage that shapes their lives.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Have You Seen the Fish?

Over the past year, I've often asked this question. Unfortunately, the answer has been no.

I built a wildlife pond in my garden in 2012 and a botanist installed a mix of plants chosen to provide oxygen naturally. After frogs, water beetles and invertebrates had colonised the pond, I decided to try some fish.

At my local pet-shop I purchased two small goldfish and brought them home in a plastic bag, as if returning from the fair. I needed to find out if fish could survive in the pond; they were going to be the canary in the mine. Last June I put the goldfish in the water. I checked every day and was delighted to see them. They liked to nestle under lily-pads in the centre of the pond.

Pleased that my experiment had succeeded, I began to think about koi. Then, after a couple of weeks, the fish disappeared. I kept checking, but nothing there. Oh dear, I thought, perhaps a heron had eaten them. Or maybe they had died from a chemical imbalance in the water and a crow had scooped them up for breakfast.

As time went on, I stopped looking for the fish. There was plenty of wildlife in the pond after all: great diving beetles, water boatmen and so on. But I couldn't really hide my disappointment.

Then, one sunny day last week, I noticed two orange bodies under a lily-pad. Their fins were slowly moving as they raised their mouths and sucked in air. It was lovely to see the fish again. The prodigals had returned after one whole year. And, yes, they had grown; so there was oxygen in the water and enough food too.

All along the goldfish had been living in the depths of the pond. They had hunkered down and got through the winter: not only surviving, but thriving. I wont be buying koi now. I'm happy with my resilient goldfish.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The New Normal

Today is my anniversary. I've been all clear for three whole years now. When I was first diagnosed, I never expected to get this far. Happily I have, and from here on I'm regarded as having a much lower risk of recurrence.

On my first anniversary I had a meal out in a Belfast restaurant, one of the first times I'd done this since my surgery. On my second, I hired a motorbike and relived a much younger normality of mine by doing a weekend tour of the northern counties.

For my third anniversary I'd booked an away from it all weekend on Rathlin with T. This was a place I'd never visited and I was really looking forward to it. But fate intervened and I went down with a bad head cold and sore throat, so the weekend away was postponed.

Instead, I've been at home having a quiet time with paracetemol, vitamin C and throat pastilles. It's been ordinary and mundane instead of celebratory. But in a strange way this is entirely appropriate, for the occasion marks my return to normal, everyday life. After all, there's little so human as having a cold.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014


I discovered some strange tracks across my lawn this morning; neither sheep nor cattle, both of which had wandered in through the gate before. I followed the tracks towards the back hedge and looking over saw two stags in the field behind my house. I stared at them and they stared back. We eyed each other for several minutes then they sauntered away up the hill - a truly magnificent sight.

The stags are fallow deer, they are still in their dark winter coats which will soon become dappled with light spots. Their antlers are growing, covered in velvet, until Autumn when they become unsheathed for the rut. The stags had loped across my lawn as I was sleeping - almost a Narnia experience (no lamp-post in sight).

The most common wild animals I see around my home are rabbits, which live in burrows under the hedge and delight in digging up the lawn for their favourite roots to eat. Because of this we have a love-hate relationship, but I cannot bring myself to harm them. Next are a colony of wild cats that live in an old graveyard nearby and forage the land around my house. They will eat whatever they can, recently I saw one munching a small rabbit it had killed. The wild cat spotted me, picked up the rabbit carcass in its jaws and scampered away.

In the old graveyard is also a badger's sett and at dusk they can sometimes be seen out foraging. I once saw five together beside the hedge. From time to time a fox comes by, sometimes in broad daylight, it follows a route around the perimeter keeping near to the hedge. Overhead are a good cross-section of country birds, the most spectacular flyers being buzzards, ravens and red kites.

I'm a country kid who left home for the city at eighteen, vowing never to return. After decades of city life, I moved here thirteen years ago as an experiment. It's been great to live in the country again, I won't be leaving now.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

A New Girlfriend?

Does Tesco have an aisle where you can find a new girlfriend? I glanced again at the shopping list that T had prepared, below 'Milk' and 'Bananas' there it was - 'New Girlfriend'. Perhaps I needed to look somewhere between 'Seasonal Goods' and 'Tastes of the World'.

Instead of visiting at weekends, T had come to stay with me for a week. The day she arrived she asked to stay for two weeks. I, of course, agreed.

When I told my brother about it, he said, 'she deserves a medal!'

'And what about me?' I replied.

'Oh yes,' he said somewhat belatedly, 'you deserve a medal too.'

I wondered what sort of medals might be awarded. Distinguished Service? Two weeks seemed a bit short for this. Bravery? No frying pans had been raised and no household utensils appeared to have been secretly sharpened.

It wasn't an ordeal. Our couple of weeks passed pretty smoothly with plenty of happy, normal life. I found myself, quite naturally, thinking for two. I'm going to really miss her next week when she's gone.

And about that new girlfriend - there's no vacancy.