Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sing for Life On Tour

I joined the Sing for Life Choir when it started. It’s a vibrant and lively community choir for those who have been affected by cancer. The choir has played a really important role in my long recovery from Kidney Cancer. It’s been so therapeutic and a tremendous support for me at a very difficult time in my life. You can be feeling very low but singing your heart out among friends really lifts your spirits. I’m not a great singer, yet all together we make a great sound. I get a real sense of achievement and motivation from the choir.

The initial idea for the choir came from Tenovus, a Welsh cancer charity. They launched a similar project called Sing With Us, to run choirs across Wales for patients, survivors, their families and people bereaved through cancer.

The Sing for Life Choir now aims to travel to Wales to meet and sing with the people that inspired the setting up of our choir. To do this we need to raise £16,000 through crowd-funding. 

Please help by donating what you can and forwarding the campaign link to friends, family and co-workers.


All of the choir are very much looking forward to meeting Tenovus. We’re hoping to get new ideas about how to develop the choir, to learn new skills and to make the choir even better.

We don't want to leave anyone behind. If we can't raise the full amount unfortunately not all the members of the choir will be able to go on this inspirational journey. With your help and support our voices can travel further.

Please donate what you can to help us see our dream fulfilled and join the Sing With Us Choir in Wales. On the campaign page you can see all the perks that you will receive for helping us.

Please also help us get the word out and make some noise about our campaign. Share it, tweet it, email it, sing it from the roof tops; we don't care how you do it but please try to help us fulfil our aim.

The Sing for Life Choir was developed through a partnership between the Crescent Arts Centre and Cancer Focus Northern Ireland and began meeting in Belfast in September 2012. Research has proven that singing in choirs reduces anxiety and pain and helps to improve physical function and wellbeing.

The likelihood of you or someone close to you being affected by cancer is increasing all the time. My, and many others experience, is that the choir plays a vital role in recovery and support.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Gill's Memorial

I’ve just returned from Castlewellan Forest Park where I made a new memorial cairn for Gill Banks. I walked up through the forest to the top of the hill behind the house. It’s called Slievenslat and the summit looks out towards Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh and over Dundrum Bay. I built the memorial cairn nearby from stones I found below the summit.

Gill died in a mountaineering accident in Snowdonia on 17th January 1987. We were engaged to be married and had just bought a house together. On the same day, in a separate accident, I dislocated my ankle badly and was taken to Bangor Hospital. I was told about Gills death as I was being treated in Casualty, she was in the Mortuary below.

Gill’s ashes were scattered at a ceremony on Crib y Ddysgl in Snowdonia that Spring. For many years I returned there on every anniversary of her death. Then work took me far away, yet wherever I lived I found a good place and made a memorial for her. In 1999 after I arrived in NI, I made a memorial cairn on Slieve Commedagh. But this year, because of my knee and breathing problems, I wasn’t able to go there so I chose a place for a new memorial cairn. On Slievenslat it took me about an hour to find the stones under the snow, carry them to the summit and build the cairn. Then I sat beside the new memorial and talked with Gill.

When I approached the new memorial site for the first time, two ravens flew overhead calling to each other. I then knew I was in the right place. The raven is my animal of power. A raven came to me when I returned to Snowdonia for the first time after Gill died. I had gone there for the inquest into her death (a horrible ordeal) and had just started to walk again supported by a stick. Some years later, I did my best to capture this experience in a poem.


My animal of power appeared
on the day I returned to the mountain
(the inquest was to open nearby).
At the pass I limped from my car
and shuffled with a stick
to the start of the stony ascent
and halted.

My damaged leg throbbed
as I traced the craggy ridge of Crib Goch;
serene, smiling to the lens,
you’d forged ahead on the climb.

I laid flowers on a boulder beside the path,
an insignificant blaze of yellow and red
amidst bleak millennia of glacial erosion
and mumbled,
words flown
the wind spearing my core.

Unable to keep on
and join you, afraid to return:
I slump to the broken ground
and remain.

Swooping down from the mountain
the great dark bird heads for me:
arrowing near,
glossy-black overhead,
gliding effortless beyond.
The raven’s throaty cry booms out from the pass.
I hear the call.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Love is a Sheltering Tree

I didn’t send a round-robin letter with my Xmas card (I enclosed a poem instead). So it’s now the time for my review of the past year. I’m tempted to say that 2014 has been a very up and down year for me, but aren’t they all?

On the up side: I’m still free of cancer after three and a half years, I restarted hillwalking and cycling for the first time since my surgery, and I went to Orkney and reconnected with Patrick my best mate at primary school after a gap of over 50 years. On the down side: I got a bad knee injury that has prevented me from participating in many activities for over six months, and just as my injury was beginning to get better I was diagnosed with asthma. I've had more debilitating medical problems in the past four years than in all the rest of my life put together.

Perhaps swings and roundabouts would be a better summary; or one step forwards, one step backwards, one step sideways. But normal life is like this, I hear you say: never smooth and easy, always a challenge. Although when you are younger you get advice from older people (perhaps your parents) who try to intimate to you about the unexpected vagaries of life and the coping skills needed to deal with them. But the young with their more simplistic and inexperienced view of the world are never able to accept this advice and charge on until they encounter the switchbacks, roller-coasters and reversals for themselves. Yes, resilience and versatility are crucial and hard-earned life-skills.

Coping with life’s reversals does get a bit easier the more you have of them. But this doesn’t save you from the pain and unhappiness of each one: despite previous experience, it hurts every time. What you do seem to gain is the fortitude to get through it, alongside the knowledge that it probably won’t last forever.

Crucial to my life this year has been the love and support of a good woman. T and I have been together for 15 months now and our relationship has become an unwavering rock to rely on and a deep source of sustenance. This has been both my greatest up, and the help that has enabled me to surmount all the downs. We are committed to each other. I cannot imagine life without her.


Friday, 2 January 2015

Kilcannon House

Gertie and Pat are the ultimate hosts. They used to run a restaurant in Dungarvan and retired to open a guest-house amidst the lush river valleys and wooded hills of West Waterford. Gertie is an inspired chef, having been trained by Darina Allen, Jane Grigson, John Tovey and Anthony Worrall Thompson. Pat is an ex-mariner and a font of many stories, from the amusing to the hair-raising. Most of all, they welcome you into their home as a friend of the family.

Visiting Kells Priory and Woodstock Arboretum enroute, T and I arrived after an icy drive of over 200 miles. Leaving the car in the cobbled stable-yard of the old stone farmhouse, we were brought into the lounge, sat in armchairs on either side of the open fire and plied with mulled cider. The shutters were closed across the yard-thick walls and Pat entertained us with stories and chat whilst Gertie made our dinner. After an hour or so of unwinding amidst intriguing art and artefacts from Pat’s many travels, we were taken into the dining room.

A long table set with fine Aynsley china lay in front of another fire, our wine was opened and the first of three splendid courses was served. We ate hungrily, devouring the home-made pate with three types of home-made bread and several fruit sauces. Pausing, we sipped our Sauvignon Blanc until the main course arrived: pork in cider with apple gravy and five dishes of vegetables. Savouring the flavours, I undid my belt several notches and tucked in. The final course was home-made steamed sponge in toffee sauce. After that we stumbled back to the lounge for tea, coffee and liqueurs.

Gertie’s great skill as a chef is not in the creation of exotic new dishes but in the re-invention of dishes that you already know or thought you knew. With her selection of great ingredients and creative combination of flavours and spices, she takes traditional home-cooking to inspired heights. During our trip we went to the internationally renowned Ballymaloe House for lunch, but compared to the food we were given by Gertie it was a disappointment.

The five-course breakfast, which takes place not at a set time but when you get up, is an excellent example of Gertie’s craft. It begins with freshly squeezed orange juice, followed by vanilla pannacotta with banana caramel sauce (a magnificent dish) and is followed by stewed fruits, roasted nuts and home-made cereals. At this point you definitely need to pause, for soon it’s the next course: the best porridge you will ever have, served with Demerara sugar, Irish whiskey and cream. But then you need another deep breath, for your main course is about to arrive. There are seven options and I had a different one every day: although the traditional fry was delicious, my favourite was pancakes, maple syrup and bacon – a lovely combination of the sweet and savoury. After this you are almost finished off, but you must leave space for the final course of freshly-baked scones and bread with home-made preserves (rhubarb and ginger jam being my favourite).

Between the five-course breakfast and the three-course dinner you need to do a bit of activity, both to aid digestion and to prepare your system for the next set of indulgences. On the first day we went to Ardmore and did the cliff walk around the headland ending up at St Declan’s cathedral (the first Christian site in Ireland), the following day we went to Shanagarry (visiting the Pottery and Ballymaloe) and walked the strand, on our final day we walked along the Glenshelane River by Cappoquin and visited Lismore. There are plenty of other options, as the house is situated in rolling country between the Knockmealdown Mountains and the sea.

Kilcannon House is a place where you feel at home very quickly. Gertie and Pat are most attentive hosts but not obtrusive. You are indulged with wonderful food and stimulating conversation. It is a delightful place to get away to and fully relax. They have three ensuite rooms, but we were their only guests. Given the quality of everything and the very reasonable charges, we were astonished. We could not recommend this fantastic guest-house more highly. We will be definitely be back. T is eager to avail of one of Gertie’s cooking lessons. I’m thinking I might need to lose a few pounds before it would be safe for me to return.

Old Graveyard at Ardmore

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Every Breath You Take

At last I have an explanation for the breathing problems I’ve had for the past couple of months. I’d been coughing and wheezing with a sore chest, especially in cold air and during exercise. The problem began after a bad cold, but didn’t go away as the cold got better. The GP gave me one course of antibiotics and then another, but neither had any effect. After this I was sent for a chest X Ray, which identified inflammation in my lungs but didn’t explain why.

I read up on inflammation and respiratory problems and found a series of lung diseases, most of which were related to smoking or industrial chemicals, and all of which were progressive and incurable. I recalled my twenty a day habit as a younger man and the different factory jobs I had tried when seeking my way in the world and became very anxious.

This week I spent several hours in the Regional Respiratory Centre at the City Hospital being given a series of strange tests. I was connected up to a machine via a breathing tube with a clip across my nose. I was told to breathe in deeply then breathe out as hard as I could until I had no breath left, a needle tracing the volume and speed of my breath. I had to do this three times. Then I was led to another room and connected to a different machine that had a bellows which moved as I breathed and a computer screen that registered different aspects of my breathing. I was taken through a programme of tests: my regular breathing, my steady breathing out after a deep breath in, my hard breathing out after a deep breath in, my holding my breath, and so on.

The upshot of all of this is that I have a mild impairment to my airways and have been diagnosed with asthma. I greeted this news with a sigh of relief, so afraid was I of the other lung diseases I had read about. Asthma most often affects children, but adults can develop it too. Late-onset asthma is often associated with allergies, but I’m not aware of having any of the most common of these: pollen, dogs, cats, etc. The last thing they did was take a blood sample from which my allergic reactions to common irritants will be investigated.

Now I have an inhaler and twice a day I breathe deeply in some fine powder that makes me splutter. Already the wheezing, tightness in my chest and coughing has diminished. I don’t like the idea of having to do this every day for the rest of my life, but being able to breathe clearly is such a fundamental need. You don't realise how precious your breathing is until it becomes compromised.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Wilderness

At the edge of our known world another begins. A dense and dark forest where you could easily become lost, never to return home. A boundless place where wild and dangerous animals roam. A realm of menace and mystery that unfolds beyond the apparently safe boundaries of what we know. This primitive wilderness is lodged deep in our memories: a place not to venture, a frontier not to cross.

At times we stray near to that edge. Drawn by the allure of the unknown, we sniff the air and sense the threat.  Perhaps we even tread at the margins, then return to safer ground with a thrill, feeling revitalised.

At times the edge comes near to us. An unexpected danger comes shrieking in to startle and disturb our relative calm. Threatened and vulnerable, we hear the wild animals baying for blood at our door.

I think of them as wolves. But I have never heard the howl of a wolf in the wild. Only virtual ones, like the wolves that call in the night when I’m waiting for test results at my six-monthly cancer reviews. Or when I have some strange symptoms, like the unexplained cough and breathing problems without a cold at the same time that I’ve had for the past few weeks. A chest X-ray was done yesterday and now I’m waiting for the report.

I have heard the guttural roar of a lion in the wild. I was camping in a game reserve in Botswana and woke in the small hours with my skin prickling. The guttural roar resounded. I knew it was a big, dangerous animal. I quickly clambered out of my tent. I was twitching, ready to run. But I couldn’t work out where the roar was coming from. It reverberated, sounding both faraway and near. My two companions got out of their tent as well. We listened intently, no-one spoke. The roaring stopped. My companions went back inside their tent. For ages I kept listening to the many sounds of the African night. Then I went back to my bed but found it hard to sleep.

Over breakfast at the campfire the guide asked us had we heard the lion last night. Yes, we smiled. He said he had been listening inside his tent, rifle at the ready. As we drove out in the morning he found the lion's tracks about 500 metres from the edge of our camp. Later we encountered the pride sleeping in the shade of a tree.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Vikings: Pirates and Settlers

The Vikings have a bad press. The Norse raiders who pillaged and burned their way across Britain and Ireland over a thousand years ago are the stuff of legend. Their favourite destinations were monasteries, perhaps because of the relatively rich and easy pickings. But here the Vikings were robbing an educated Christian elite who went on to chronicle the barbarity and depravity of their pagan attackers in great detail - and the legend was made (from the victims point of view).

Viking is a Norse word meaning ‘expedition’, and the word came to specifically mean an expedition to plunder a foreign land. The people we call Vikings were in effect Norse pirates who went abroad to make money by looting valuables and taking captives who would be sold into slavery. But these pirates were a minority of Norse society, which was predominantly agrarian. Then as now you didn’t get rich quick by farming, and piracy was a dangerous occupation full of opportunity.

Norse society had three main classes: Jarls (earls) – the landed gentry who owned large estates and employed many; Karls (freemen) – the peasantry who owned land and livestock or who had a specialised skill and worked for a Jarl; Thralls – slaves who worked for both Karls and Jarls. There was limited social mobility, but with riches from piracy you had opportunity to better yourself.

Norse society also privileged male strength and bravery. The sagas tell of dynasties of Jarls and their great feats of valour in struggles for the dominance of particular lands. These were largely written during the 11th and 12th centuries by writers employed at the courts of the Jarls. They give richly detailed stories of great deeds by great men, but like the monastic chronicles cannot be seen as independent accounts.

Of particular interest are the ‘housecarls’, a troop of bodyguards or private army that was employed by each Jarl. It strikes me that these would be the most likely pirates. They were freemen and had both status and fighting skills; led by ambitious Jarls, these were soldiers of fortune like the conquistadores of later years. The Vikings were thus get-rich-quick types who were prepared to undertake the dangers of expeditions to inhospitable foreign lands for the rewards that would enable them to buy land and status back home.

So were these pagan Vikings any more violent than their Christian contemporaries? Well the standards of the day were pretty brutal, so they do not seem exceptional. For example, the Christian emperor Charlemagne executed four thousand five hundred Saxons after a battle in 782. Perhaps the Vikings primary mistake was to prey upon rather than to exempt the Christian Church from their piracy (thus making an articulate and influential enemy).

The Viking expeditionary raiding parties of the 8th and 9th centuries were very functional for the spread of Norse dominance in territory and trade. Foreign raids were followed up by the establishment of bases, then settlements, from which Norse trade and rule was spread within these territories. By the 10th century the Norse empire spread from Newfoundland to Central Asia, and Norse culture achieved great heights in wood, metal and stone-working. At the same time, the Norse were also converting to Christianity.

After dominating great swathes of Britain and Ireland for over a hundred years, the Vikings were defeated and displaced by local tribes in these islands. But in the 11th century the Norse invaded again from a territory they had established some time before in Northern France. This time the invasion was successful and lasting: we gave these Vikings a different name, we called them the Normans.