Wednesday, 16 August 2017

FODMAP

I’ve begun a diet. I’m not trying to lose weight but to improve my digestion. Over the past year in particular I’ve been getting symptoms of bloating, cramping, wind and diarrhoea. I don’t have these uncomfortable symptoms all of the time, they seem to flare up intermittently and unpredictably. T, who had previously suffered from IBS, did some research into my problems and came up with the FODMAP diet. I’ve tried it for a week and there has been a marked improvement.

The diet originates from research done at Monash University in Australia. They looked at the chemical structures of food and its absorption through the digestive system. They found that some foods were very poorly absorbed and the residues of these foods became fermented by the bacteria present in your gut, producing the bad symptoms. They then classified different foods by how absorbable they were. The FODMAP diet has been tried and tested over the past decade and is now recommended by the NHS.

For the past week I’ve been eating only foods that are relatively easily absorbable and doing my best to avoid those that are not. The FODMAP chart is quite odd. The badly absorbed vegetables include onion and garlic (two foods that I already instinctively avoided) but also peas, mushrooms and cauliflower. The easily absorbed fruit includes bananas and grapes but not raisins and sultanas as their chemical structure is changed by the drying process. You have to keep checking the list. I keep a copy in my pocket

I reckon that my flare-ups could easily have been associated with eating foods from the poorly absorbed list. It’s particularly difficult where processed foods are concerned as you have to scan a long list of ingredients. Indeed many of the sweeteners used in low-calorie foods and drinks are on the avoid list. The research also suggested that having bowel surgery (which I had a year ago) was likely to increase the irritability of your bowel.

The recommendation is that you eat only foods that are easily absorbable for at least four weeks to see if your symptoms improve. After that you can try and reintroduce foods from the poorly absorbed list as some people can tolerate some of these, but you should only do this one food at a time.

I’ve found that my symptoms have improved after only one week. Yesterday I went for a long bike ride. Previously all my long bike rides had left me with bloating and cramps in the latter stages. I changed my Kit-Kats and Snickers for nut and cereal bars and ate only dark chocolate. I also took some cheese and oatcakes. I kept the bananas. I was delighted that I managed a round trip of 65 miles through Co Meath without any gut problems. 


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Of Mice and Mother-in-Laws

Les Dawson built a comedy career around a series of mother-in-law jokes. A notorious one goes: ‘I can always tell when my mother-in-law is coming to stay, the mice come out and throw themselves onto the traps.’ It was the day before T’s mother was due to stay with us. T suddenly screamed. I rushed from my study to see what was happening. T was in the corridor, one hand to her mouth, the other pointing. Streaking past me along the corridor was a mouse.

The mouse ran into the front room.

We pursued it and closed the door behind us.

‘Now we’ve got it’, I said.

The mouse was lying low.

I slowly moved an armchair and peeked behind it.

T screamed again.

The mouse ran out, along the skirting board and behind the TV unit.

I strode forward, trying to flush it out.

The mouse stayed under cover.

T handed me an umbrella.

I looked quizzically at her.

‘You can bash it’, she said.

The mouse must have heard. It ran across the room and past the fireplace.

T screamed piercingly.

The mouse was behind us at the closed door. It was small and brown and desperately trying to find a way out.

I glanced at the crooked handle of the umbrella and back to the mouse. I didn’t want to kill it.

‘Can we catch it?’, I said.

We scanned the room, there was nothing to hand that would work.

The mouse was running backwards and forwards along the base of the door.

Resignedly, I grasped the umbrella.

The mouse stopped halfway along the door and began to squirm under. It’s rear legs and tail wriggled, then it disappeared.

I snatched open the door and peered along the corridor.

The mouse was nowhere to be seen.

We called him Usain and put down traps. It was the first mouse I had seen in the house for years. The next day T’s mother arrived. The visit went well. Each morning we checked the traps but Usain hadn’t thrown himself onto any of them. In Cyril’s continuing absence, we also thought about putting a poster on the front door: Cat Wanted, Enquire Within.




Sunday, 30 July 2017

Anniversary Days Out

The pattern of this summer seems to be set: good weather for a couple of days followed by three or more bad. We check the forecasts regularly and are primed to make the most of the good days. We have even become adroit at snatching the couple of hours of good sunshine that can appear amidst a rainy and windy day. We have also passed an auspicious milestone: our four-year anniversary.

The sun shone strongly on our anniversary day and we drove south to tour Co Louth. We started in Dromiskin which has the remains of a 5th century monastery with fine round tower and oddly a stone Viking longship which was built 5 years ago: commemorating both the monks and their raiders. We had a picnic lunch at the coast and went rockpooling and then paddling. Later we went to Monasterboice and saw the high crosses and round tower and then to Mellifont abbey. T had never been to either place and was very impressed. We rounded off the day with a trip to a Lebanese restaurant in Drogheda, reputedly the best in Co Louth. The food tasted fine but we both had bad guts after.

I’ve been keeping up my regular cycling. I drove down to Duleek, just beyond Drogheda and did a tour of scenic Co Meath. I rode past Tara and down the Boyne valley to Bective Abbey, another Cistercian monastery with plenty of its structure remaining beautifully situated beside the river. I had a snack lunch sitting on the monastery steps, entirely alone until a teenage girl in skimpy shorts and a bikini top came and lay down on the grass just a few feet away.

I rode on to Trim, a lovely heritage town with the largest Norman castle in Ireland (used in Braveheart) a medieval gate and monastery. Then back to Duleek through mostly quiet roads. It was a lovely day out and at 50 miles, my longest ride so far this year. I felt fine throughout with no gut problems and only got a bit tired in the last five miles. I’ve ridden over 100 miles in each of the past three weeks so I’m feeling cycling fit at present. I’m sleeping pretty well and have mostly stopped worrying about the impending surgery.

We also had a day out at the John Hewitt Summer School. This has a special place in our hearts as it was where we first met. After an excellent early evening meal at the Castle Tower restaurant we enjoyed Garrett Carr’s multimedia presentation of his Borderlands book and the exceptional poetry of Mark Doty. The Market Place Theatre during this week is somewhere you are bound to meet old friends and have the opportunity to make new ones.

I’m absolutely delighted I met T there four years ago. My life has changed so much for the good since then. The challenges that come along (such as my two recent cancer recurrences) are so much more easily faced together. A loving relationship makes all the difference.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Our Days Out

We inhabit an island with unpredictable weather. T’s mother says that there is only one rule for living here: when the sun shines drop everything and go out. On our staycation we have been doing our best to follow her advice. Our two long sunny days out were good in the main, but with an unexpected twist. And it is bucketing down as I write this.

Monday promised to be a hot day with unbroken sunshine. T arranged to meet a pal of hers in Belfast for lunch and some shopping. I took the bike down to Castlebellingham in Co Louth and followed the coast road south. My bike computer showed 80 degrees F with a cooling breeze coming off the sea. I stopped at Termonfeckin for lunch. It sounded like a place out of Father Ted, but the cafe brought me a good bowl of soup and bread. When cycling with my herniated diaphragm and restricted stomach, I know I need to eat foods that are easily digested.

I headed on into Drogheda, a pretty undistinguished place apart from one medieval gate. Turning inland I lost the sea breeze, the sun got hotter and the hills began. By the time I got to Mellifont Abbey, the remains of the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland, I was feeling rough. The lunch had disagreed with me, my stomach was inflating with wind and was depressing my left lung. I was overheating. I tried to drink more but it wouldn’t go down.

From there it was a lumpy 15 miles back to the car. I struggled up the hills, very salty sweat running into my eyes. The bike computer showed 92 F, the highest I had seen on this island. As I cycled on, via Monasterboice, I began to have irrational thoughts, almost delusions. I saw myself standing by the side of the road watching me inch my way up the hill in bottom gear. It felt a little like when I was cycling in Sri Lanka around ten years ago and I got a touch of heat stroke.

I managed to keep on going and thankfully reached the car. It was 6pm and still 80F. Despite the bad guts, depressed lung and dehydration, I had just completed my longest ride this year: 46 miles. I rested for a while; then drove home very slowly. T was already home and tended me caringly. I lay on the bed and drank rehydration salts. Enormous farts began and continued all through the night. I didn’t sleep much. Although I am accustomed to the sun, my face, arms and legs felt sore. The next morning I had the runs. My light lunch in Termonfeckin had indeed proved costly.

By midday I was starting to perk up and T was keen to go out into the clear blue afternoon. ‘It’s boiling’, she said. Unlike the day before, I packed a hat. We did a tour of Lecale by car, starting off at the stone circle in Ballynoe, which is the largest in NI and has a lovely holloway down to it. Unfortunately over recent years it has become festooned with hippy tat; ribbons, wool, bits of shiny metal dangle beside your head as you make your way there. Thankfully we were alone at the stones themselves.

We drove on through Killough and Ardglass, which was a major medieval port and a holiday resort for early Victorians, with a ladies’ bathing house in the harbour. At Kilclief Bay we had a picnic, went paddling and spotted small flatfish and a hermit crab in rock pools. After ice cream at Strangford we walked to Audley’s Castle and around the coast to Castle Ward.

Two grand days out in warm sunshine before four days forecast with unseasonable wind and rain. Mammy T had indeed been right.




Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Staycation

The deadline for confirming our hotel break was nigh but the weather forecasted for Mayo was very unstable. T and I had to make a decision about whether we would take the room or not. We talked it through but found it hard to decide. Then I confessed that I had first made the hotel reservation because I thought she wanted to go away. T confessed that she had agreed to this trip because she thought I wanted to go away. We laughed. We were both trying to please the other when each of us would have preferred something else.

O Henry wrote a story that illustrates this type of misunderstanding. A young but very poor couple want to buy each other a special present for Xmas. The woman has long, beautiful hair but sells it to buy her husband a gold chain for the pocket watch that he has inherited from his grandfather. The man sells his grandfather’s watch to buy his wife a jewelled comb for her beautiful hair.

The good thing is that we confessed to each other before any disappointment could occur. Otherwise we might have ended up driving all the way to Mayo, watching the rain beating against the hotel room window and feeling some resentment against the other. So we cancelled the hotel reservation and began to plan days out and days at home.

T wanted time to sort out her clothes, books and other things, having been hard at work and dealing with me in and out of hospital since she moved in a year ago. I wanted time to do a series of good long bike rides before I went back into hospital and became incapacitated for months.

The next day the sun shone and we embarked on both of these plans. T pulled out all of her things that had been stored in boxes and began to sort through them. She put them in piles to keep and piles to give to the charity shop. Then she set about rearranging her books and other possessions. It was a grand summer spring clean.

I got out my maps and planned to redo a bike ride that I had last done before I got cancer. I drove to Ardee in Co Louth and rode through winding back roads to Kells in Co Meath. I had lunch in a second-hand bookshop with a cafe and then returned via a new set of back roads to Ardee. It was a grand day out in warm sunshine, the bike ride was 42 miles and took me the best part of five hours in total. The drive to Ardee down the motorway took less than an hour.

At the end of the day we both felt happy and satisfied. Our staycation had begun well.




Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Getaway

June elapsed, day by anxious day. I was sleeping fitfully with bad dreams and plenty of wakeful episodes with worrying thoughts. I arose most mornings feeling worn out. My hospital bag was packed and sat on the bed in the spare room. I twitched every time the phone rang and again when the post dropped through the letter box. By not being called in to hospital I had a ‘stay of execution’, but it was an unhappy and stressful escape. After pondering for a while, I decided to face my demons. I would ring the hospital to find out when my surgery, planned for June, would actually take place.

I began with my surgeon’s secretary, but I couldn’t get through. I left a message on her voicemail. The next day she rang me back. I explained that I was waiting for surgery and had been told I would be operated on in June. She gave me the phone number of the person who scheduled cardio-thoracic surgery at the Royal. I got another answerphone and I left another message. The scheduler rang me back several hours later. I told her my story.

‘The soonest you could be admitted for surgery would be September,’ she said.

I gasped.

She went on. ‘His theatre list is already full for the summer with people needing surgery for cancer.’  

‘I understand,’ I said, ‘I’m only ringing because the surgeon himself told me that I would be brought in during June.’

‘That was a little unrealistic,’ she said, ‘he’s only in theatre one day every two weeks.’

I thanked her, put the phone down and sighed with relief. A heavy weight had fallen away from me. I told T. She was delighted.

‘We’ve been given the summer back,’ she said.

I grinned. ‘Let’s book a holiday.’ 

I turned to my computer and found the website of our favourite hotel: The Mulranny Park. It overlooks Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick. They were offering short breaks and we booked one. That evening we went out for a meal at our favourite restaurant: The Mourne Seafood Bar. The food was excellent as usual. Afterwards we walked on the beach at Murlough, fresh sea air blowing into our faces. And that night I slept more soundly than I had for many weeks.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Long Runs The Fox

The fox walked steadily up the centre of our lawn, nose to the ground. I grabbed my camera and took this picture through the bay window as it passed about fifteen feet away. The fox proceeded to the top of the garden and then came back down following the hedge. It was an adult fox, more brown than red, and the first fox I have ever seen in our garden. Although we live in the country, foxes are infrequently seen hereabouts. But the very next day, I saw a different fox, smaller and redder, coming towards me down the lane from our house. What should I make of this visitation?

The fox appears in mythology and folklore all over the world. It is an animal that is clever and resourceful, able to outwit the efforts of the more powerful to hamper or persecute it. For many cultures the fox is a magical creature, a spirit messenger. The fox can also take human form, most often as a woman. The fox is intelligent and passionate but rarely a malevolent spirit. The fox is most often a helper, offering its qualities of quick thinking and adaptability to those in need.

Meanwhile, I still twitch when the post arrives or jerk when the phone rings. But I have heard nothing from the hospital. My first thought was to phone them and chase up my admission for surgery. But then I thought that no news is also good news. I don’t have to ring and remind them. I have a ‘stay of execution’ in which I can enjoy more of the good weather of the summer and do a few more bike rides in the fresh country air. It also means that I am able to attend the end of year parties of my Writers Group and of the Sing for Life Choir.

I take it one day at a time and do my best not to think about the ordeal to come. However, anxious thoughts about the dangers of the surgery and the pain I will be in afterwards still come to me regularly. Sometimes I also imagine myself as crippled by the procedure and in permanent pain. I do my best to calm myself and dismiss these thoughts, but they still come to me unbidden, most often at night.

I am even starting to bargain with myself about the impending surgery. A little voice keeps saying to me – ‘well you are fine at the moment and can do most of the things you want to, so why do you need to have that terrible surgery at all? Haven’t you suffered enough already?’ I know there are a lot of good reasons why I should have the surgery but it seems so much easier to run away from it at the moment.

My hospital bag remains packed and sits on the bed in the spare room. I wonder if that fox was trying to tell me something?  After all, isn’t the fox an archetypal survivor?


Monday, 12 June 2017

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

It has been an eventful week, during which my mind has turned to the Scottish play. After a campaign of smears and mud-slinging by the right-wing press, I’m delighted the national electorate swung towards a message of hope. Discredited Theresa May is now said to be on ‘death row’ and there have been street protests in Britain about her new friends, the DUP. Locally, I’m sad that our hard-working constituency MP, Margaret Ritchie, has been beaten by an abstensionist. This effectively silences us on any issue, as our new MP will not turn up to do anything on our behalf at Westminster.

I have my hospital bag packed. But I’ve not had a call from Admissions. So I wait anxiously, try to stay well and don’t make plans. It’s not exactly ‘death row’ but each day I wonder if this will be the last time I am able to go for a bike ride, or mow the lawn, or go out for a meal, before I have the surgery and become incapacitated for a long while. I’m living normal life with a heightened intensity as there is an underlying sense of grief at the losses I will suffer for many months to come after going under the knife again. Allied to this is also the fear that something might go wrong and I could be incapacitated forever.

Being experienced at major surgery (having come through two episodes of it in the last 18 months) means that I also know how tough an ordeal it is. I know my body can recover but I have no illusions about the severity of the pain that has to be endured and the long, hard struggle of recovery.

Our dear ginger cat, Cyril, has been missing for several weeks now. We’ve looked everywhere for him, and have put posters up offering a reward. Next door were feeding him each day in the porch of our house whilst we were away in England for a long weekend. But he has been missing since then, whilst his nemesis the big grey feral cat has been very evident in the garden. We think Cyril was beaten up and chased away so that the big grey cat could take all the food. One day last week the big grey feral cat sat in our back yard all afternoon in heavy rain. He just shook his wet pointy-eared head and glowered at us, green eyes glinting. We have renamed him Grey Malkin after the witches’ cat in the Scottish play.

Perhaps I now need to boil a brew of toad, newt, snake, bat, frog, lizard and owl to help foretell my future. But even then I probably wouldn’t be much better off, as the witches’ spells for Macbeth were highly equivocal. The only way to reliably get to the future is to dig deep and live through whatever ordeal you are presently confronted with. This is as true for me as it is for the UK.



Sunday, 4 June 2017

Surgery Again

I am delighted with the all clear on my latest cancer surveillance scan. But there is a downside. It means I will shortly have to go into hospital for surgery: a thoracotomy to repair a diaphragmatic hernia. Last month I met the surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital. He explained the procedure and the risks and I signed the consent form. He told me that the surgery would be scheduled for this month, conditional on my scan being all clear. So now I am waiting for the phone call from the hospital. Frankly, I am dreading it.

This surgery is needed to repair a hole in my left diaphragm that was caused by the first big operation I had in 2011. I then needed open heart surgery to safely remove the tumour that had grown up my vena cava. My chest was opened up and the diaphragm cut as part of this procedure. At the conclusion of this long and complex operation, either the diaphragm was not sewn up properly or some of the stitches did not hold.

Some six months after the big operation I was offered surgery to repair the diaphragmatic hernia. I was still in a lot of pain from the big surgery, so I deferred it. Six months later I was again offered the surgery, I wasn’t mentally ready to go back in for another big operation so I deferred it again. At the next review, as I had learned to adapt to my limitations, the surgeon suggested that I continue to manage the problem conservatively (i.e. without surgery).

I did this for another year or so, but then I developed asthma. The specialist reckoned this was due to my left lung being under stress because my stomach was wedged in the diaphragm. I was living with restricted breathing, particularly after eating. He recommended that I again consider surgery to repair the hernia. I met the surgeon two years ago and was discussing having elective surgery when I got the first of my cancer recurrences, followed by the first of my post-operative lung collapses.

So to cut a long story short, here I am nine months after the surgery to remove the second cancer recurrence and I am now preparing to go back in to have more surgery. It aims to restore my normal anatomy and should prevent further lung collapses. Fingers crossed that this will be the end of it.

Because of the two recent operations I was forced to have, I am now much more experienced and know that I can recover from the ordeal of major surgery. But I realise that this operation is bigger than the two previous ones. And when the surgeon tells you that you will be ‘sore’ for three months afterwards (they normally minimise these cautions), it means you will be in a lot of pain for some considerable time: at least six months and probably longer.

A thoracotomy means that your ribs are split open to gain access to your lung and diaphragm. The muscles between the ribs are cut and they take a long time to repair. Nerves run along the edges of the ribs too and are easily damaged (one of the risks). Anyone who has had bruised ribs will know how painful it is just breathing, let alone coughing and sneezing.

The other issue is that the exact nature of the hernia and the extent of the repair will only be known after I am opened up. So how likely the procedure is to be successful is also unknown in advance.

My stomach has become fused to my diaphragm, so they have to be surgically separated. This means the very delicate cutting away of the tissues of the diaphragm from the stomach, being careful not to injure it (one of the main risks). Then the hole in the diaphragm is repaired with a polypropylene mesh patch that is stitched in place.

I am told I will be in hospital for up to two weeks and incapacitated at home for three months or more. I will also have to be very careful for a good while and not undertake any activity which could pull the stitches in my hernia repair.

I have met the surgeon three times and have asked lots of questions. But when I signed the consent form my heart sank. The rational part of my mind realises that it is sensible to have this surgery, but the rest of me is in a state of fear. I've had enough of hospitals and surgery. I am dreading the call. It could come any day now.


Saturday, 27 May 2017

Two Awards

I’ve just had the results of my cancer surveillance CT scan. Thankfully I continue to be all clear. After the long anxious wait, it feels like an award. It’s a bigger prize than the one I was shortlisted for in England. I’m relieved and delighted. My Oncologist says she is pleased with my progress. She still thinks I’m at medium to high risk of a further recurrence. But she will relax the surveillance regime a little. For the next year I will be scanned every four months (rather than every three).

Going away on a short break was a good strategy for coping with the enormous anxiety of waiting for the scan results. We stayed with my oldest friend Phil, who lives in the New Forest. We first met aged eleven. He lost his wife, Jean, to cancer four years ago.

Phil is a volunteer ranger in the National Park. He took us to some woodland near Lyndhurst which is being looked after by a local woodland management and charcoal-making charity. They take people on guided days out in the forest, show them how they manage the woodland, help them to make garden chairs from coppiced hazel and have a modern charcoal oven. Their guided days out are very popular and they will shortly be featured in a Channel Five documentary.

We walked through dense woodland, ungrazed by deer and ponies (kept out by high fences), and came across some ditches that dated from Saxon times. Wandering amongst the heavy green foliage felt like we had gone back in time to when the country was largely covered by broadleaved trees. It was a great distraction from the worry of waiting.

Phil drove us to the awards ceremony in Berkshire. The prizes for the Stanley Spencer Poetry Competition were presented by Lord Young in the little art gallery in Cookham. My heart raced as the names were read out. Alas, I was not called. My award was to be selected for the shortlist of this major prize.

At the reception afterwards I met the grandson of Stanley Spencer who is compiling his letters for publication in three volumes. Stanley had a very colourful personal life. He became infatuated with his life model and left his wife and children for her. After the divorce, he married the life model only to discover she was a lesbian and just interested in his money. He then sought reconciliation with his first wife and wrote very long letters to her, one of which was over 20,000 words. Understandably, his first wife remained unmoved. Stanley remained unhappily married to the life model, the marriage was never consummated and he kept writing to his first wife, even after her death.

On the way back we visited the Sandham Memorial Chapel near Newbury. It is a wonderful place, entirely covered with murals from Spencer’s experience as a medical orderly in the First World War. The chapel is filled with panels each detailing the everyday life of the soldiers: their work, encampments, relaxation, hospital treatment, death and resurrection. The place has an early Renaissance feel, indeed the chapel is based on one painted by Giotto in Padua. The central mural is the Resurrection of the Soldiers, where men and animals climb from their graves or from where they had fallen, carrying crosses. As a medical orderly, Spencer saw a lot of carnage and had to do all the worst jobs. He said he had buried so many dead bodies that he felt sure there must be something beyond death.

The murals are an immensely powerful work, most people in the chapel gaze at them without speaking. They capture the detail of everyday life and reveal the extraordinary that is within it. This forms the great theme of Spencer’s work, which he realises with such passion and intensity. Indeed, isn’t this exactly what poetry is seeking to achieve?




Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Scans and Writing

I’ve just had another cancer surveillance CT scan and I’m again waiting for the results. It’s now eight months since my surgery to remove the tumour and this is my third scan since then. The two standard resolution CT scans I had earlier were thankfully clear. I can’t have high-resolution scans because I am allergic to the fluid they inject you with to enhance the images. And even though I’m prepared to take the risk of the injection to get enhanced images, the radiologists won’t allow it. So if there is a regrowth of the tumour, I reckon that it should be big enough by now to show up on my standard resolution scan. And if not, I can then breathe a large sigh of relief.

But before any of that, there are the two long weeks of waiting until I see the oncologist and get the results of the scan. I’ve been in this situation before, of course, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier. I’ve just become more practiced at the coping strategies. One day at a time and do your best to keep busy. This works some of the time but certainly not for all of it, especially the wee small hours, when your fears stalk you remorselessly.  

This time around I am trying a new strategy: going away on a short trip. All the other times I have stayed at home, often pacing distractedly like an animal in its cage. We will be heading away to England to visit family and friends. I am also going to attend the awards evening of a major poetry competition that I have been shortlisted for.

When I got cancer in 2011, I stopped writing poetry. The poor prognosis I was given embroiled me in the biggest struggle for survival that I had ever experienced. Confronted by that, I could hardly function let alone write.

My first piece of writing was a memoir, which I embarked on for obvious reasons (it remains unfinished). And then I began this blog. Finally, after a couple of years, as I was still alive (to the surprise of one of my specialists), I tried writing poetry again. I didn’t write about my illness, that was too stark and raw, I set myself challenges to write poems around random words from the dictionary. I produced plenty of poems, but few of them were much good.

In 2014 I went on holiday to Orkney and found a fascinating place with layer upon layer of history – visiting the oldest house in Europe (from 5,500 years ago) on a windswept remote island and a series of magnificent Neolithic monuments built before Stonehenge. From this experience began to emerge a series of new poems, situated in time and place. In the end I wrote a sequence of ten Orkney poems.

After this I wrote poems in a different style. All were situated in place and time. Often they were stimulated by stories I had read in newspapers. They weren’t ‘found’ poems. The news story provided the jumping off point for the poem. Ciaran Carson called them ‘discovered poems’.

I began submitting my new poetry to competitions a couple of years ago. And I’m delighted to have had some success. I’ve won seven awards in poetry competitions and been shortlisted for at least another seven without gaining an award. I’ve only been sending my new work out to journals recently, but have already had poems published in The Honest Ulsterman and The Interpreter’s House. I think this confirms that I am pursuing a fruitful new direction in my writing.

My fingers are crossed for the upcoming Stanley Spencer Poetry Award. Indeed, it’s the biggest prize (£3500) that I’ve been shortlisted for. Reaching the final twelve in this competition is an honour in itself. Wish me luck.


Friday, 5 May 2017

A Dose of Books

I’m normally pretty healthy. I know that’s an odd thing to say, as I’m a cancer patient and I’m regularly in acute hospitals for treatment, scans and reviews with specialists. But apart from the Big C, which as far as I know I don’t have at present, I get ill infrequently and I lead an active life. So this past ten days has come as a bit of a shock, for I’ve been laid low with a bad dose of the ‘flu.

It began with a very sore throat, which quickly spread to my sinuses and chest. I went to bed surrounded by all the paraphernalia of a dose: boxes of tissues, bottles of Covonia expectorant and packets of Lem-Sip Max. I lay there for a whole week, blowing a nose which seemed to offer a never-ending font of mucous and coughing up a seemingly bottomless supply of green-yellow phlegm. I quickly became a Lem-Sip and Covonia addict.

The noble T ministered to me unstintingly. Meals were brought on a tray, binfuls of used tissues were dumped and regular trips to the chemist for fresh supplies of my drugs of choice were undertaken. When I wasn’t dozing, I lay propped on a pile of pillows. My only diversions were watching Cyril stretch, lick himself and go back to sleep at the end of the bed. Occasionally he would groan and twitch his way through a cat dream. I then moved on to Laurel and Hardy videos on Youtube.

After a few days I could concentrate enough to be able to read. I had a pile of books waiting. I began with ‘God’s Own Country’, a novel by Ross Raisin. It’s set in the North York Moors, an area I knew, and the narrator is a strange young man who lives on a farm, talks to himself and the creatures around him but has problems with other people. It is a compelling voice. The novel charts a peculiar relationship that develops between him and a young woman.

The next day I read ‘The Outrun’, a memoir by Amy Liptrot. It’s set in the Orkneys, another place I knew, where she grew up and where she returned, after a hedonistic decade in London where she became an alcoholic. The book describes her odd family and her recovery by spending time alone as a wildlife observer on one of the remotest Orkney islands (which I had also visited). It’s a brave journey of recovery through immersion in wildlife and the natural world.

Then I began ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan. This is a powerful multilayered novel of love and loss that brings together a passionate affair between a young man and woman, with the man’s later terrible experience as a POW forced to work on the building of the Burma railway by the Japanese. The book spans the entire life of the central character and gives voice to many of the other significant characters, weaving their extraordinary stories together very affectingly. I found it un-put-downable. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

Finally I read ‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry. It’s a whimsical novel that imagines a trip that John Lennon made to Mayo in 1978 to visit a deserted island in Clew Bay that he had bought anonymously. John encounters some very odd people including an incompetent local fixer and a group of Primal Screamers and he has some strange adventures. The book has some very witty and entertaining chapters but I felt it began to lose its way a little two thirds through.

After the week in bed I tried a couple of hours up, despite the sinuses and chest still troubling me. I switched from reading to watching TV in my dressing-gown and, despite not doing much, I felt tired. The next day I stepped outside for a short time. The weather was lovely, but I felt the keen wind. The day after, I began to feel that the bug was starting to dissipate a little. I sat at the computer and tried to write, ending up with this blog. I hope tomorrow will again be better. I’m still taking it easy, I know that real ‘flu often takes several weeks to clear.






Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Wanderer

Cyril has returned. We encountered him down the lane, not far from where I first found him. He cried out and came running over to us when we called him. We were delighted. In the back of our minds was the fear that he had been injured in a fight with the local feral cats or even worse. We walked together back towards the house, Cyril trotting along the lane in fits and starts. When we got near to the house he seemed to suddenly recognise where he was and ran ahead. He was waiting by the front door when we arrived.

As usual he tucked in to several bowlfuls of milk and food. He looked like he had been sleeping rough, his fur was a bit muddy and his ears were flecked with specks of dried blood. He licked himself all over and then went to sleep on the bed for some hours. Later on he got up and fed again, returning to bed after. That evening he went out into the darkness. As we closed the front door, we wondered if we would ever see him again.

But the next morning Cyril was back for a hearty breakfast. On the front doorstep was a piece of grey rabbit fur with a slice of flesh attached to the inside skin: a cat gift to reaffirm the bond. Afterwards I went to the local Post Office to remove the missing cat poster.

‘Did the cat come back on its own?’ said the postmistress.

I explained and thanked her.

‘Is it a boy?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘They do wander,’ she said, shaking her head.

Cyril had been away for the best part of two weeks. We had looked everywhere for him, especially down the lane where I first found him. Near the disused railway line was an old barn with bales of straw in it. I had pushed apart the brambles to reveal a cat sized hole in the straw in the corner.  We called and called but there was no Cyril to be found anywhere.

We had given up hope of seeing him again and had feared the worst. But wee Cyril has proved himself to be self-sufficient, in spite of our townland being full of wild creatures: feral cats, badgers and foxes.

His little purring presence and big personality have made a real difference to our house. He’s been with us all this week. We hope Cyril stays for a good long while before his next wander.


Monday, 10 April 2017

Cats and the Bonfire

We enjoyed having Cyril with us. He was easy to get along with. He would be out all night, returning early in the morning with a gift of a dead mouse or shrew. After his large breakfast he would sleep. Towards evening he would liven up and play with us and his toys. He enjoyed accompanying us on our after-dinner walks, trotting along like a little ginger dog. After a hearty supper he would go out for the night. Cyril was good company. Unfortunately, one day last week he disappeared. We have looked everywhere for him. We even put a notice in the local Post Office, offering a reward if he was found. But there is still an empty space where he used to sleep.

Despite Cyril only being with us for a short time, we miss him. We think he was attacked by one of the local feral cats. They regard our garden as part of their territory. I had been feeding them for several years after some rodents got into my loft. They solved the rodent problem. You rarely see the feral cats, but there are three that come into the garden regularly. The first was all black with green eyes, we call him Pangur. We haven’t seen him for a while. His place has been taken by a big blue-grey cat we call The Da. So named because we thought he could have been Pangur’s Da. But for all we know it might be The Ma. There is also a black and white cat we call Scruffy because he has lost part of his tail and is left with a bony stub. Any of these would be bigger and stronger than Cyril, who was fairly small and domesticated. We imagine that faced with a fight with any of the feral cats he would have run away.

With the good weather we have again been working hard in the garden. This also provided some displacement from worrying about Cyril. We cut back several ground covering conifers that had run amok in the rear border and had grown down into the back yard. Some of their branches were as thick as your arm and unable to be cut with my heavy-duty lopper, they had to be sawn. We collected these and all the prunings from the other shrubs, the apple tree and the ash hedge and ferried them into the corner of the farmer’s field next door. This took ages and built a huge pile. Then we burnt it.

There is something very satisfying about a good bonfire. Perhaps this is reawakening a primitive bond with fire. Perhaps it is a ritual cleansing of all the debris of winter that marks the turning towards the natural plenty of Summer. When the flames take hold, leaping through the branches and the smoke billows and rises into the sky there is something in my heart that sings. After you stoke it with fresh prunings and branches it burns all afternoon and evening. Then you are left with ashes – the symbol of mourning. 


Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Adoption

Following a long weekend of gardening, I went for an after dinner walk to try and ease my aching muscles. I was down the lane at the old railway bridge admiring the sunset when I heard a plaintive cry. A ginger cat was walking towards me mewing. It leapt up onto the parapet and began to rub its head against my arm. I stroked the cat and it began to purr. After a while I turned to go back home and the cat followed me.

I knew there were plenty of feral cats in our townland, although I hadn’t seen this one before. They always took the food I put out for them but were very wary of people. You couldn’t normally get within twenty feet of one before it would run away. The ginger cat was different, it seemed used to people.

The journey home was about three-quarters of a mile. The ginger cat trotted along with me. Often it stopped and went into the hedge or a field at the side of the road to explore a scent. I waited for it and called it to come along. It semi-ignored me, behaving a little like a dog, and only came on again when it was ready. At one point it climbed up the trunk of a tree, then backed itself down and carried on along the lane. With all these diversions it took the best part of an hour to get back to our house and it was dark when we arrived.

I opened the front door and the cat followed me into the kitchen. I gave it some cat food, which it ignored, then a bowl of milk which it drank eagerly. I refilled the bowl. The cat drank it all again. Then it started on the food and ate it all. Then it drank another bowl of milk. After four bowls of milk and three of cat food it seemed satiated and headed for the front door and out into the darkness.

The next morning the ginger cat reappeared, jumping up onto the kitchen window sill and mewing. Its hunger was somewhat abated for it only consumed two bowls of milk and two of cat food. When it finished the cat began to explore the house. We followed him as if his retinue. He sniffed around every room, then leapt onto our bed, kneaded the duvet and went to sleep.

T named him Cyril. I have no idea why. We asked around to see if anyone locally had lost a cat. Nobody had. One neighbour said they had seen a ginger cat down the lane recently. Several reckoned that someone from out of the area had driven here and abandoned him

Cyril remained asleep until the evening. Then he had another two bowls of milk and food and went out into the night. The next morning he reappeared for breakfast. But I noticed that he had left the half-eaten carcass of a mouse on the back door step and its entrails on the front door step. With these offerings the adoption was sealed.



Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Thankful for Small Irritations

It has been a normal week. Nothing dramatic has happened to us. Admittedly, there are plenty of small irritations in our lives which cause discomfort. But that is normal too. The smooth flow of life without setbacks is an illusion, perpetuated by lifestyle product advertising. Like most people, we do our best to live with the irritations.

My dearest T is getting accustomed to her breathing machine and it’s helping her a lot, although some nights it works better than others. The problem seems to be with the fit of the mask. During sleep it can be partially dislodged, meaning that the flow of air goes across her face rather than into her mouth to keep her airway open. On the bad nights she hasn’t slept properly due to apnic episodes and is very tired in the morning. She is experimenting with different pillows and has requested a different mask from the hospital.

I am still waiting to see the surgeon about my diaphragm repair. He agreed to delay the surgery until after my scan result was known, but also said that he wanted to see me again before the procedure. That was the best part of a month ago. I’ve rung his secretary to find out what is happening but she doesn’t know and wasn’t able to find out as the surgeon was away. So I feel I am dangling again, having to prepare myself for another hospital admission but having no idea when.

I ought to be used to this situation, given how often I’ve been here over the past six years. But I still find it frustrating and disturbing. As a cancer patient in the NHS, you always seem to be inbetween scans, treatments and reviews. It’s more a permanent state than a transitional one.

When I was first diagnosed, surviving to five years was the big objective. But that is an artificial target. Statistics on cancers and patient survival are only kept for five years. And many cancers, mine included, are known to recur significantly beyond this deadline – even decades later. So you are never really free of the threat.  

But surviving is what matters. All around us are many examples of the opposite: from famine in four countries in Africa caused primarily by wars, to the sudden deaths of family members, friends and acquaintances.

A group from Concern recently came back from the Central African Republic. It is the poorest country in the world, according to UN statistics. This large country, eight times the size of Ireland, has just 5 million people. They reported that outside the capital city there is no basic infrastructure: no roads, no water and no electricity. Most people get by in small-scale subsistence agriculture. There is no famine at present, but they are stuck in grinding poverty with many endemic diseases and virtually no medical care. The country’s mineral resources have been sold to the Chinese by the ruling elite, who also want to be the sole distributors of international aid. They don’t like NGOs. And aid is often distributed only at election time. This sort of fragile state is so easily pushed into famine by war, as has been happening in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan.

Earlier this week I learned of the untimely death of friend, who I was close to when I lived in Glasgow, but who I lost touch with after I moved here. His partner, expecting him to be at home, had rung him but got no reply. After several attempts she went round to the flat and found him lying on the floor, as if asleep. He had died from a heart attack.

Having to live with a series of small irritations is the stuff of normal life. It means you are alive and kicking. Making the best of your situation, with humour and resilience is what matters. I’m trying to get better at it. I hope that as I progress along this road, bigger problems might become a little smaller.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Sleep of the Lambs

It has been another tough week. My dearest T has needed to see two different specialists: an Endocrinologist and a Respiratory specialist. The good news is that she got a diagnosis and began a course of treatment; the less good news is that she will probably need this treatment for life.

Around a year ago I was at a clinic waiting for an asthma review when I saw a poster on the wall: ‘Does Someone you Love Snore?’ The poster explained that bad snoring can be a symptom of a dangerous respiratory disease called sleep apnoea, and said that there was a simple test for this. I went home and spoke to T about it.

She snores very loudly. I often found it difficult to sleep in the same room as her, even wearing earplugs. Not only was her snoring loud, it was disturbing in other ways because she sometimes sounded like she was choking. We looked up sleep apnoea; it was dangerous because your airway would become blocked whilst sleeping. Usually your nervous system would kick start your body and wake you from deep sleep to reopen the airway. But when you subsided into deep sleep, the airway would often block again and you would need another kick start. Over time this process would put a lot of strain on your heart and could lead to high blood pressure, a stroke or a heart attack. 

I asked T to go for the test. At first she was reluctant but I persisted. Then she began to suffer other symptoms: extreme tiredness, bad headaches, shaking, occasional blurred vision, pins and needles. She went to her GP who gave her some blood tests. The results showed that her hormone levels were abnormal. After some discussion he referred her to see the two specialists. Then, through an acquaintance of T’s, we learnt that sleep apnoea with disturbed hormone levels can be a symptom of a problem with the pituitary gland. Her husband had a tumour on his pituitary gland which had caused the sleep apnoea. We began to worry a good bit more.

The sleep apnoea test is quite odd. T was fitted with a heart (mini ECG) monitor and finger (blood/oxygen) monitor. A small microphone was also taped to her forehead. She wore this for one night, and returned the kit to the hospital the next morning. Then we waited. Strangely enough both of the appointments came in the same week.

The Endocrinologist was first. He spent the best part of an hour talking through T’s symptoms. His view was that the core problem was sleep apnoea because the majority of her symptoms were intermittent. He felt that if there was a problem with the pituitary gland these symptoms would be continuous. But to double-check he sent her for a suite of blood tests.

The Respiratory specialist told her that she had mild to moderate sleep apnoea. The test showed that she had woken up 15 times an hour for ten seconds or more. She was shocked, that meant she was waking up from deep sleep over 100 times a night. But this had been happening automatically, she was hardly ever aware of it. When your sleep is this disturbed it disrupts your body’s maintenance systems and can cause a whole host of distressing symptoms. No wonder she was feeling so tired and debilitated.

The treatment is a small breathing machine which keeps her airway open at night. The machine pumps in air to her nose and mouth through a close fitting mask. It makes her look like a cross between a Second World War pilot and Hannibal Lecter. We both laugh at it. But, given the dangers, it is a small inconvenience. The first night with the mask on her snoring stopped and, despite suffering from a bad cold, T began to feel a little better the next morning.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Pickle and Caravaggio

After all of the stress of recent weeks we had a weekend away in Dublin. The weather wasn’t good but it didn’t seem to matter. We wandered the streets in the cold and damp, managing to escape the rainstorms. There were two main highlights: a new Indian restaurant in Camden Street called Pickle and the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition at the National Gallery. Both of these experiences were filled with drama and intensity.

I’d lived in Birmingham and Manchester for many years and was used to eating good quality Indian food. These areas had substantial communities from the Indian sub-continent and this meant that they offered a range of authentic eating places. Many were small Indian cafes whose windows were stacked with brightly coloured sweets. There was normally only one curry on the menu. Indeed there was rarely a menu, just the dish of the day, usually a vegetable curry dominated by whatever produce was going cheap in the market at the time. In these cafes, set in the grimy streets of the inner city, the majority of the customers would be from the Indian sub-continent. In more affluent suburbs and in the city centre there would be more upmarket restaurants which would cater for the British customer, but amongst these there would always be some that produced good quality and authentic Indian food.

Coming to live and work in Belfast I was very disappointed to find that there was a very small community from the Indian sub-continent here and consequently very little choice in the Indian restaurants. The only one that I found which produced good quality food was the oddly named Lolita in Stranmillis, which unfortunately closed a few years ago. Sadly I’d not found a good Indian restaurant in Dublin either. But I’d heard that a new one called Pickle was good and was keen to try it. We were not disappointed.

We had the early evening menu, two courses for €22. I had Seek Kebab and Chicken Tikka, two items you would find on most menus. But the aromas and tastes of these dishes were extraordinary. The chef is from northern India. He grinds and mixes his own spices and it shows. As I drank in the flavours, I was back in Saleem’s in Balsall Heath where as a student I had first tasted those intensely rich and heady spices. I was almost expecting to find the dodgy jukebox in the corner filled with Bollywood anthems. But Pickle is squarely aimed at an upmarket customer and is more discreet in its style. On the a la carte menu, which we will be going back for, most of the main courses are over €20. As we left we noticed a plaque in the foyer which showed that Pickle had been chosen as the best Indian restaurant in Ireland.

Richness, drama and intensity also mark out the paintings of Caravaggio. The exhibition, on tour from the National Gallery in London, displays the huge impact that he had on other artists during his short life (1571-1610). There were only four Caravaggios on show. This confirms how highly valued and closely guarded his work continues to be. They included the iconic ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ and the ‘Supper at Emmaus’. The remainder of the exhibition featured paintings by his contemporaries who were seeking to emulate and utilise his powerful new style. Some achieved this so successfully that for many years their paintings were actually thought to be by Caravaggio himself.

What I love about Caravaggio is the extremely skilful composition of each of his pieces. The paintings are intense and dramatic, the human figures are in close up and every gesture connects you to another part of the scene that is realised in an intensity of light and dark paint (called chiaroscuro). Apparently he worked using sketches of live models who posed each figure in the drama, which he then put together into the final rich and powerful composition. You look at the whole painting and then your gaze is slowly taken around and across it by the shape of the bodies, the gestures of the figures and the play of light and darkness.

My favourite piece by Caravaggio is a triptych in the church of San Luigi dei Franchesi in Rome. On three walls of a chapel are displayed episodes from the life of St Matthew. The left wall appears to be a scene in a tavern; it is in fact at a tax collectors. Men are sitting around a table, lit from a window to the right. There is a complex interplay of gestures and sightlines. A bearded man has entered the room and points towards a young man in a feathered hat, brightly lit at the centre of a canvas. Jesus has chosen the disciple to follow him.  On the right wall an assassin in loincloth with rippling muscles is about to thrust a sword into the supine saint, who lifts up his arms in protest. Smartly clothed men look on almost impassively, whilst a young boy turns away in terror. The sightlines, gestures and chiaroscuro of these two pieces on opposite walls interact extremely powerfully and dramatically. The centrepiece is the least interesting, depicting the saint with a halo and an angel above. Apparently it is the second version. The first was rejected because it was considered too radical. The saint and the angel were depicted intertwined around his writing of the gospel. This picture hung in a museum in Berlin but was destroyed during the Second World War.

This triptych, painted in 1600, was Caravaggio’s first major commission and made his name. After that he became patronised by a rich Cardinal and painted many of the great works on religious themes that he is now known for. Unfortunately, you cannot transport a chapel in Rome to an exhibition in Dublin.


The Crucifixion of St Peter 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Appointment with the Oncologist

The Cancer Centre has self check-in. You input your sex and date of birth at a terminal and the system puts your details on the screen. You confirm them and your appointment appears on the screen. You confirm it and a ticket is printed with your number at the bottom. You take the ticket and go into the large waiting room and find a seat. It has comfy chairs. But the people there are not sitting easily.

No-one makes eye contact and hardly anyone is speaking. Most people are sitting blankly, staring at the panel on the wall which scrolls through the list of the consultants in the clinic today and the average waiting time for each. Then a number flashes onto the screen and a voice says ‘will patient number x please go to room y.’ All the patients in the waiting room glance at their tickets. Someone gets up and enters through the double doors that are opened by a push button at the side.

I wait for about twenty minutes, and I am called. Beyond the double doors is a white hospital corridor with a series of numbered rooms with closed blue doors. A slim young woman about half my age is standing outside the door that I have been called to. I haven’t seen her before. She introduces herself as my consultant’s registrar, escorts me into the room and asks me to sit beside the desk. An even younger man with a wispy beard is sitting in the corner. She says he is a fourth-year medical student and asks me if I mind him sitting in on our review meeting. I give a weak smile and say that I don’t mind.

‘How are you feeling?’ says the registrar.
‘Okay,’ I say, sitting stiffly in the chair. ‘I’m just over a bad cold.’
She nods and glances at a file on her desk. ‘Well, your interval scan shows no appreciable change.’
I gulp. ‘So there’s nothing sinister been found?’
‘No,’ she smiles, ‘not at all’.
‘That’s great’. I sigh and notice that my hands are clutching the arms of the chair.
‘It’s much the same as last time,’ she says.
‘Thank you.’ I smile and begin to relax my grip.

I ask for a copy of the scan report and she prints one off. I read through it and ask questions about statements I don’t understand. She explains the medical language to me. Apparently I have a gallstone. But don’t worry, she says, many people have them and they don’t cause any trouble at all. And I have an enlarged prostate. But that’s also normal for someone of my age, she tells me.

I finish my questions and she asks to examine me. I take my top half off and lie on my back on a paper covered couch behind a screen. She places one hand on top of the other and presses them into different parts of my abdomen whilst looking intently at my face. I feel no pain and tell her that I only have twinges when I use my abdominal muscles to sit up. The medical student watches from the end of the couch. She asks me to sit up. I lever myself up with my arms. She takes the stethoscope and listens to my lungs. Then she stands behind me and feels around my neck and under my chin.

That’s all fine, she says, you can get dressed now. They leave me behind the screen. When I come out, she is sitting at the desk looking at my file. The medical student is back on his chair in the corner. I return to my seat beside the desk. She looks up and tells me that I will be scanned again in three months time. I thank her. I explain that had been worrying that they might extend the interval this time. We’ll keep a close eye on you for the first year, she says.

I thank her again and leave. Out in the waiting room, the fear in the faces that are staring at the screen is plain to see. I wonder if they can see the relief in mine.