Saturday, 23 May 2015

Hobs and Bats

I’ve known my mate Phil since we were eleven. We met at secondary school and have been firm friends ever since. He came to visit me this week. The first time he had been over since his wife Jean died of cancer two years ago. Talking on the phone regularly is no substitute for face-to-face. We had a great time catching up and packed a lot in to four days.

Phil is very handy. He and Jean often bought old, rundown houses and did them up whilst still living there. Then, just as the house was looking fine, they would sell it and invest in another rundown one. Plenty of times I went to visit and they were living in a couple of rooms with the rest of the house a bit like a builder’s.

Phil was the right fella to ask how to repair a kitchen hob; one of the rings on mine had just broken. ‘Don’t bother,’ he said, ‘get a new one, they’re easy to replace’. We went to B & Q and found that hob and single oven sets were being sold off (double ovens are now fashionable). So I bought a set, it was only £50 more than a hob on its own. Back at the house we set to work. I was the apprentice who handed Phil the tools and did the easier tasks. I’m very glad he was there as I would never have taken on such a DIY job on my own, especially as it involved electrical wiring. The job turned out to be mostly straightforward, but there were a few tricky bits that would have flummoxed me. Half a day later the new hob and oven were installed and working.

Phil is a park ranger in the New Forest and very knowledgeable about plants and animals. We went on a couple of good walks at Murlough and Castlewellan, then a cycle along the Newry Canal. At Murlough we saw a peregrine and a cuckoo - the first either of us had seen for many years. Like swallows scything after insects, the call of a cuckoo is a harbinger of summer, but you rarely see them.

In the evenings we went on a couple of bat hunts. T had bought me a bat receiver. You turn the dial to different frequencies and can hear the sonar that bats emit to navigate by. Different bats emit at different frequencies and you can go a good way to identifying the bat by the frequencies that they use. The sounds are very eerie, a series of clicks and longer sonic pulses. You hear the bats flying around nearby but it’s often hard to see them. There are sixteen different bats in the UK and they are all very small, none bigger than the palm of your hand. Bats fly very fast and with great agility, rather like nocturnal swallows, as they pursue insects on the wing. If you are lucky you will see them briefly silhouetted against the moonlit sky.

Going out at dusk, under a crescent moon and a gleaming sky, we saw small pipistrelle bats darting around the old graveyard near to my house. We also spotted a long-eared owl in a tree, its pointed ears swivelling from side to side as it listened for its prey. Down at Hillsborough Lake we saw Leisler’s bats flashing across the shadowy surface of the water. These bats are much larger than pipistrelles, they have distinctive hairy arms and emit very eerie long pulses of sound.

The bat receiver was an excellent present. I’ve loved going on the bat hunts; you are entering into a strange and exciting nocturnal world that is normally hidden. I’m becoming the Bat-man of Ardbrin.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Blame it on El Nino

Headache, sore throat, chest pain and aching limbs; no need for a specialist diagnosis, I was down with spring ‘flu. On Tuesday I began to feel ill. I’d probably caught the bug from T who started hers last weekend and has been off work all week with it. I rued my luck, we were booked to be away in Galway for the weekend; now paracetamol and throat pastilles were my companions.

I sat in an armchair in several extra layers of clothes with a blanket tucked around me. I drank peppermint tea, watched daytime TV and read the newspaper. One article described some new medical research that believed our immune systems to be seasonal: boosted in the winter and reduced in the summer. This seasonal variation was reckoned to be evolutionary from a time when surviving the winter was touch and go for our species. The downside for us now was that more inflammatory markers in our bodies when the immune system was cranked up could lead to other problems such as heart attacks, strokes and depression.

I thought back to the last time I had a ‘flu bug. It was October last year. And wasn’t this a normal pattern? Didn’t I always catch a virus around the start of the academic year? I’d put this down to coming into contact with students and all the new bugs they brought with them from their travels. So, after the fine early spring weather, had my immune system begun to wind itself down and I’d been caught out by the return of cold and damp conditions?

‘Isn’t the weather terrible,’ said a friend, ‘one minute you’re roasting, and the next the wind is cutting through you. I don’t know whether it’s summer or winter.’ In another part of the same paper, I read that a significant El Nino was under way this year. This major reversal of warm and cold currents in the Pacific hadn’t happened for the past five years. The article went on to explain that in years when El Nino had taken took place there was increased instability in weather around the world, including severe floods and droughts.

After a few good summers, we look to be in for a very mixed one. We should expect our immune systems to be confused. As will be deck-chair and ice cream sellers. Nothing for it, I thought, but to sit tight, keep reading and wait for better weather. I pulled the blanket closer, supped my tea and took another paracetamol.

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.