Friday, 4 April 2014


After the elation of the all clear came the relief and then the exhaustion. I was up in Belfast for a celebratory meal with T and barely made it home before conking out. Almost three months of high stress has a legacy that isn't easily dissipated. You seem to have to work your way back down to everyday levels of stress. It's like travelling down a large multi-storey car park and stopping on each of the floors to acclimatise.

To help this process, I'm going away to visit family and friends for a while; a trip to Wales and England that had been put on hold whilst I was waiting for my scan appointment. It's also a time of memorials: the anniversaries of the deaths of my good friend Jean Morgan (9 April) and my father (11 April). These anniversaries will be marked in different ways: Jean's husband Phil has arranged a get together in Gloucester at a rugby game, and the day before I will put flowers on my father's grave and go for a walk in the Malverns (a place where I feel particularly close to him).

I'm going over by ferry to Holyhead and will first stay in Snowdonia for a couple of days. I plan to walk the Snowdon Horseshoe, the hillwalk that Gill was doing on the day she died. There is a memorial to her that I carved from a piece of slate and placed there in 1987 on the occasion of her ashes being scattered. It's a place I've returned to a good number of times, but not since I became ill almost three years ago.

It's very good to make and return to memorials. You are marking out people who mattered in your life and giving them a special place of memory. You dont need a focal place to do this, but it can help - I've made a memorial to Gill in every place I've lived. For when someone who has departed really matters, they are with you all of the time.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Scan (3)

After a ten week wait, I finally have my CT scan tomorrow. I've never waited this long for a scan before, it's been very stressful and has really stoked up my anxiety. It doesnt really help to learn that there are three million other people on NHS waiting lists in the UK at the same time. You have to get through the dark nights and difficult days yourself as best you can.

I've tried to take it one day at a time: some days have been bad, others have been better, few have actually been good. I found myself putting things off because I just couldnt commit to them when I could be called in to the hospital at short notice. The whole process grinds you down remorselessly. It's a type of torture that you have to do your best to resist. And when some other problem comes into your life, as inevitably happens, your stress levels go off the scale very easily.

Still, I've made it through the ten weeks reasonably intact - with plenty of help and support from friends and family. The scan itself, as far as medical procedures go, isnt too terrible. You sit and drink a liquid with metals in for an hour, then your take off your clothes and are laid on a narrow bed that sticks out from the scan machine. The operators retire to a glass fronted control room and the narrow bed slides you inside the machine. The machine whirrs and tells you to breathe in, hold your breath and breathe. It spins noisily around you for a while, stops, gives more instructions, spins again, stops and then slides you out.

You're done, you can go and get changed. Then the really bad waiting starts - for the results.

on the skyline
a turreted house
the letter in my grasp
paint blisters
from the leaden door
one twist of the handle
and a draught sucks me in
overturned chairs
table laid for dinner
stove empty
the threshold
where steps echo down
to the knife-man basement
I crush the letter in my hand
and descend
a room
a single bed
I strip and lie supine
arms stretched beyond my head
Hold your breath
the wind howls
and the house spins around me
clothes broken plates and chairs fly
to the rattling walls and stick
my bed stays firm
the wind roars
and the house turns
every place I've lived screeches past my eyes
the wind eases
This gothic poem was written during my long weeks of waiting.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Misty Mulranny

I'm just back from another great trip to Co Mayo with T. The Mulranny Park Hotel has an exceptional location overlooking Clew Bay and matches this with great friendliness and service (although we werent given the bridal suite this time). Each day we did go out on good walks and stuffed ourselves in the delightful Nephin Restaurant both before and after.

The first day of our trip was bright and sunny with clear blue skies so we did plenty of sightseeing, visiting Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, Ballina and Lough Conn (see above) en route to the hotel. Next morning it was quite a shock to find the sea and land covered in mist. I checked the weather forecast and thought it would burn off so I headed out for a long hillwalk, the Corrannbinnia - Bengorm Horseshoe (T decided to go for a local walk).
By the time I reached the first summit the mist was thicker, giving about 20 yards visibility, so my options were either to return or go on using compass bearings. I was very unsure because I'd not done this sort of mountain navigation for many years (the Mournes are easy, in mist there's a wall to show you the way). I was also in mountains I'd never walked before. I decided to carry on for a little while and try to find the next summit on the route, if not I would retrace my steps.

Map in one hand, compass in the other, I headed on over very rough ground with no real trail. My old navigation skills, honed in the mountains of Snowdonia, were coming back to me despite the difficulties of walking bearings and estimating distance. The main problem was my glasses misting up with water droplets and not clearing too well as I wiped them again and again with what rapidly became a soggy handkerchief. I was overjoyed when the next summit appeared from the mist.

I paused, I could now return the way I had come or go on. I felt happy rediscovering my old skills and was enjoying the challenge, so I decided to continue. I found my way along a broken ridge then up a steep face to the summit of Corrannbinnia. The trig point loomed out of the mist and I stopped for a snack. Perhaps it was just my eyes, but the mist seemed to thin and I even thought I saw some watery sun for a few seconds, then it was swallowed up by the whiteness.

I was just over halfway around the horseshoe and it felt better to go on than to return. Suddenly the summit ridge narrowed into a rocky scramble and I traversed steep drops that, thankfully, I couldnt see. At the end of the summit ridge was a broad shoulder that the map showed as leading to a ridge that offered a reasonably safe way down. I set the bearing and headed off into the mist, keeping the steep edge to my left. Sodden hanky working overtime, I descended on a sheep track for the best part of an hour until I could see the valley again. I'd been in thick mist for well over 4 hours and had found my way around a complex of mountain ridges and safely back down again. I was delighted to pass this mountain leadership test.

The next day was again misty so we went to Achill Island sightseeing, beachwalking and birdwatching. There are still some great places on the island, Keem Strand and the Deserted Village especially, but since I first went there 15 years ago Achill has become afflicted with holiday homes blight. Bad Government policy and lax planning produce ugly results and a special place has become somewhat spoiled.

On our last day the wind came bringing sunshine and showers. We went for a long walk across peaty moorland to Lough Furnace and back via the Greenway. After a late lunch in Newport at Kelly's Cafe we visited the striking stained glass of Harry Clarke in the local church. The town was established by Ulster Quakers who brought linen weaving to Mayo. Afterwards we went sightseeing on the shores of Lough Carra, to Ballintubber Abbey and the excellent Castle Carra.

A longish drive back (four and a half hours, with a break in Manorhamilton) brought another great Mayo trip to a close. Tired but happy, we slept soundly.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Slieve Donard

A year ago I was in the early part of a journey to recover my health after a long illness. I hoped I would be able to become as fit and healthy as I was before I became ill. This was an aspiration, I knew I was on a journey of recovery and I didnt know how far I would be able to travel along it. So I imagined some ultimate achievements that would show I was fully fit again. One of these was to climb Slieve Donard.

As soon as I was mobile again after my cancer treatment I had begun to walk. I decided to walk every day: at first a little, then further, then for a quarter of an hour and so on. I walked on the roads around my house and then along the beach at Murlough with my friend Avril. Looking up I would see the saddle that divided the peaks of Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh and wondered if I would ever be able to go into the mountains again.

As time went on I completed a charity walk around Belfast and extended my walking into Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks with plenty of rough trails and small hills. I then ventured into the Mournes on long upland trails to Lough Shannagh, Hare's Gap and the Brandy Pad.

Last December, I ascended my first real mountain - Slieve Meelbeg. I set out with some trepidation but it went well, the climb wasnt anything like as tough as I expected. After that I did hillwalk's once a week or so, choosing the better weather days and gradually ascending the other main summits of the Mournes. The last, of course, was Slieve Donard - the highest mountain in the north of Ireland at 2,789 ft.

On Thursday the sun shone brightly and I headed steadily up the river to the Ice House and along the glen to the base of the saddle. I stopped for tea from my flask and a snack then set off again up the steep path that curved up to the saddle. No-one was at the saddle and I felt in a good rhythm so I decided to keep on going up the last steep 1000 feet. I trudged steadily upwards beside the Mourne wall, choosing my footholds and trying to keep my breathing even. The wind pierced through gaps in the wall and brought the sharp croaks of a passing raven. A harbinger? I kept on, one foot after the other. As the ground began to even I looked up, the turret and trig point at the top was in sight.

I placed a stone on the summit cairn and relaxed. I could see Newcastle and the beach at Murlough shining below. I'd made it in good style, reaching the top of the mountain in half an hour from the saddle and a little over two hours from Newcastle.

The wind was strong and cold, I sheltered behind the wall and had more tea and food. The summit cairn is in fact a neolithic passage tomb, dating from 3000 BC, the highest ancient site in these islands. It is also associated with St Domanghairt (or Donard), a disciple of St Patrick, who it is said made pilgimages to the summit from his monastery in the village of Maghera and lived there as a hermit until his death in 507 AD.

Within five minutes a storm blew in and sleet began to fall. In ten more minutes the top of the mountain was carpeted white. I thought about the detachment of Royal Engineers who camped on the summit for four months in 1826, making it a base for the triangulations of the Ordnance Survey in this part of Ireland. Two of the party had died in a snowstorm.

The storm subsided and was gone as quickly as it had arrived. The sun came out again and the summit shone. I had completed my journey back to health and vitality. It was time to return.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Squat Pen

Another great Squat Pen evening at No Alibis on Wednesday. And another full house. Thanks again to all performers, helpers and supporters. The next event is planned for April.

We got underway with with a great poetry showcase featuring Ross Thompson (winner of the FSNI competiton), Colin Dardis (the host of Purely Poetry), Stephen Connolly (of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry) and Barbara Pilcher (BBC radio gardener and poet).

The musical interlude was by Keith Acheson (flute) and Megan Boyd (piano) who played pieces by Faure and Saint-Saens. As well as being excellent instrumentalists, Keith and Megan lead the Sing for Life Choir and Crescent Arts Centre.

The Desert Island Poem was selected by Ruth Carr, a founder member of the Word of Mouth Poetry Collective who has two collections with Summer Palace Press. She chose 'Xiii Dedications' by Adrienne Rich, which is reproduced below.

Our Special Guest Poet was Jean Bleakney who brought the evening to a close with a rousing performance of poetry from across her three collections with Lagan Press.

'Xiii Dedications' by Adrienne Rich
I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Glossy Ibis

I went to Oxford Island today with my birdwatching group. The level of Lough Neagh was very high and the surrounds were all boggy and waterlogged. Not an unusual winter scene hereabouts, but amongst the birds on display was a very rare visitor - a Glossy Ibis. It stood about two feet tall with a long downcurved beak and glossy green and purple plumage.

Normally these birds live in Southern Europe and Africa. Why this bird would exchange the marshlands of the Camargue or Costa Donana for the cold bogland of Co Armagh is indeed a mystery. Most local residents would gladly do that exchange in reverse.

Yet here the Glossy Ibis very much is. And this rare visitor has been attracting birdwatchers from across the island. So much so that the farmer whose land it was feeding on had locked the access gate, so inundated has he been by curious birders. So today we stood on the verge at Oxford Island and gazed across waterlogged meadows to where the Glossy Ibis grazed amongst swans, lapwings and golden plovers. As my feet and fingers grew cold, I felt a strange and beautiful connection with warmer climes.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Scan (2)

Over the past two years I've had a series of CT scans on the NHS. The normal waiting time for a routine scan is four weeks. After three weeks of waiting and still no letter of appointment, I rang the scan office. The scheduler told me that there is a backlog of scans in the Belfast Trust and waiting times have now been extended to nine weeks.

I expressed surprise at this delay and was told that the NHS was going to buy capacity in the private system to try and reduce the backlog. As far as I know, in Belfast there is only one private CT scanner that could be contracted - in the Ulster Clinic. As a private patient there you would get a scan within one week, however the charge to you for this would be £779.

Who said there was no rationing of healthcare? The NHS is under stress. And so am I.