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Like Jonathan Richman, I’m in love with the modern world. I may not be driving around Massachusetts these days, but I’ve got my radio on. Only it’s radiotherapy. I started last Monday. Every day for two weeks they clamp my head into my own personal mask and put my brain in a microwave. Or the equivalent of, let’s not quibble over frequencies. Maybe I can smell burning. It’s actually not at all painful but it leaves me a bit more dizzy than usual, and these days I am Normal Dizzy the great jazz musician at the best of times.

So, slow me down. Let me build a garden which is a haven of peace and quiet beauty. And live in it a life full of respair where despair is repaired by hope, or at least calm acceptance.

But please don’t confuse me for some apolitical moron on a path to personal discovery and heightened spirituality. I still spit with indignation at mindless repeats of old history, where right-wing bigots use the misfortunes of “destitute foreigners” to advance their own interests. I snort with incredulity that anyone can believe that the Tory agenda for the NHS does not involve causing it irreparable harm. I laugh at ex-Army types who talk about “terrorist sympathizers” but clearly have never had a serious conversation with someone jailed for planting a bomb.

Maybe I’m just more aware of the passage of time. The average human lifespan in the UK is 972 months and we sleep for 324 of those. My current personal target is to have stayed alive for 720 months. Maybe I’m aware that a high probability of early mortality was once common with World War 1, Spanish flu, etc. Maybe I see the things around me with sharper acuity.

My English teacher at the Irish seminarian school was straight out of Chaucer – a short, billiard ball of a man rigged out as a priest in his black robes. He was an 8 ball. Round glasses in a moon face on a round head attached to his round body. ‘Cream buns’ was his nickname. If we only had a bit more culture in us we could have called him ‘Skoleboller’ (‘school buns’), which are Norwegian cream buns.

He tried as teachers will do to instill some love of literature in the unwashed sons of farmers and small town solicitors. “Boys, shur ye’ll like this one, he was only a youngfella like yersels”. He was talking about Francis Ledwidge (1887–1917). The centenary of his death will be on 31 July. Ledwidge was a war poet. He survived the battle of Arras (where the English poet Edward Thomas was killed), only to die at the next one in Ypres.

The poem that the portly priest was praising prolifically is called June. It begins:

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down.

I didn’t have much time for the pastoral in those days, but it was so easy to visualise that country cottage that I was a little bit impressed. A woodbine is the folk term for honeysuckle, in case you didn’t know. The Victorians didn’t like young girls bringing honeysuckle into the house because the smell of the flowers was believed to cause erotic dreams.

You could maybe pair it with a little bit of Seamus Heaney:

Were we not made for summer, shade and coolness
And gazing through an open door at sunlight?
For paradise lost? Is that what I was taught?

Even a shower of rain is good in June. Petrichor is the name for the earthy smell made when rain falls on dry soil. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) wrote about it:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

I try to see and hear things better now. Swifts that scythe the summer sky, madly and constantly screaming as they fly. The chuckle-cackle cry of a passing jackdaw. The mutually-reassuring chirps of long-tailed tits to the rest of their family group. A good day is spotting a Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly in the garden (and listening to Boris Johnson make a twit of himself on live radio).

Small pleasures.

Starting this year reminded me of that alleged (as in very probably made-up) quote from the diary of Tsar Nicholas II : “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better”. By March 1917, he’d abdicated and his family were imprisoned.

2017 didn’t start so well. I was going inwards on myself, fighting infections. A’s bike accident left her temporarily immobilized, unable to move from the sofa bed we had to prepare. It was becoming a small world with very little in it. I took to reading Harriet Martineau, the Victorian essayist and proto-feminist, who was very ill with a uterine tumor and spent five years from 1840 confined to her sick room. She wrote “Life in the Sickroom” as a sort of manual for invalids and their carers. As she said: “When an invalid is under sentence of disease for life, it becomes a duty of first-rate importance to select a proper place of abode.” Get it right, and the whole thing can be quite pleasant: “it is a comfortable season, if it may but last, when one’s friends have ceased to hope unreasonably, and not grown tired of despairing.” Those she charmingly called “the friends of my brighter days.

The only problem for us was that we were two invalids, and it was tricky trying to switch between the roles of the caring Housekeeper and the failing Invalid. I suppose it didn’t matter that much in the end. After all, as Harriet says: “how unavailing is luxury when the body is distressed and the spirit faint.” Sickness applies a filter that makes sensation less bearable. It’s like Sylvia Plath in her white-walled hospital when she is given a bouquet of red flowers: “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here. Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

I have ignored Harriet’s other piece of advice: “There is no point of which I am more sure than that it is unwise in sick people to keep a diary.” She advised this as she was herself keeping a diary, as a sick person. Where did that reputation for Victorian hypocrisy come from? I suppose we can’t be too smug. We look on death in the same way that the Victorians looked upon sex.

Harriet recovered (the tumor probably moved to a less painful spot) and went to live in the Lake District. She was a changed woman, post-illness, and took to describing the local scenery in magnitude rather than the sick room in miniature. She entertained, and each guest was encouraged to plant two trees in the grounds. Her visitors included Elizabeth Gaskell, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charlotte Bronte.

I too wanted that post-illness release. Peter Wildeblood was a gay man trapped by the same laws that did for Oscar Wilde. He fought back with a book published in 1955 that is often credited with changing the law. When he was released from prison he took off for a quiet life in the Canadian wilderness. There is a line in his 1999 obituary that resonates: “Here he cooked oriental meals, created a minute garden of exotic plants to attract hummingbirds, and photographed an amiable raccoon, which liked to sit in the branches of a pear tree.” That is what I craved most – an amiable racoon. Or, perhaps even just a sanguine squirrel. The other bits sound OK too.

But we came through our small-world existence in the sick room. Taking inspiration from those fine Victorians we discovered that one could simply scribble an order and then an errand boy from J.Sainsbury, the village grocer, would come tootling along with our victuals and other provisions. What a step forward in human progress!

Well, that’s been an interesting couple of weeks. An end to the European dream as set out by Winston Churchill in 1948, among others. The cold shivers of the first blast of the Economic winter waiting just around the corner. The simian-like racists with their freshly-issued permits to abuse. The loss of life opportunity for a whole generation of young people. A new low in the perpetually downward spiral of the body politic. And I still have this bloody annoying cancer.

“I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen once said. You could replace “death” with “Brexit” as far as I’m concerned. I’m looking at both right now, and death isn’t as far behind in the popularity polls as you might have been led to believe ;-).

When I’m drunk or upset I can only think in Galway-ese. It was weeks of internal dialogue along the lines: Well they’re all just a bunch a’ messers and chancers actin’ the bollix and you’d want to go flaking them with a hurley, so you would. They madden me somethin’ powerful, so they do. Will ya get down out of that, Nigel, ya feckin’ little amadáin ya. Now! will ya only look and see what he’s after doin’, the ugly little shite. He’s after shaftin’ the lot of us. Well, I hope he feckin’ dies roaring, God forgive me.

On top of that, I had the bad luck to click on a book called “Into Extra Time” which “comprises the powerful reflections of a Jesuit priest which he wrote during the final months of his life following a diagnosis of cancer”. God bless the poor dead man, and all that, but the feckin’ Amazon engine has me plagued and close to distraction with a barrage of recommended books by God-botherers. All trying to tell me how much comfort I can find. “Is it after givin’ me relief and solace ye’re after?” thinks I, “well, ye can all feck off for a start and take that pile of wasted trees with ye.” If it’s extra time, it’s like extra time in a dreary dull 0-0 game that you just know will go to penalties, and you couldn’t give a fish’s tit for either team.

Sorry. No, it’s fine. I’m alright now. But it’s no wonder I’m skipping along the watchtower with Bob and Jimi looking for some kind of way out of here. There’s too much confusion and I can’t get no relief.

Metaphorically, it’s turning into the year without a summer. Literally, the Year Without A Summer was an actual thing. It happened to be exactly 200 years ago, in 1816. It was down to volcanic eruptions in SE Asia that created dust clouds over the world and caused a volcanic winter. These days, I suppose we make our own volcanoes. Anyway, it caused food shortages and general privation everywhere, including England. It led to such things as the Littleport Riots in May 1816.

It coincided with the end of the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo was in 1815), and soldiers were coming home from the wars. The English Corn Laws had just been passed by a Tory government to impose huge tariffs on imported grain, in order to keep prices high in favour of well-off farmers (mostly Conservative landowners). The effect was to dramatically raise the cost of food, and it led to a protest movement against the “bread-taxing oligarchy.” To offset the damage, ‘Poor Laws’ were passed that would supplement wages and alleviate the lot of the poor. But these just kept wages low as farmers knew that their labourers’ wages would be topped-up by the system.

Plenty of John Bull flag-waving patriotism went on display, as once again the labouring poor were asked to pick up the bill for wars and greed. Lots of “tax credits” to hide the reality of a “zero hours”, low-pay culture where you worked for a pittance and got treated like dog shit. When it was repealed in 1845, it was partly because of the Irish Famine. Mostly, it was because the rich industrialists got fed up paying higher factory wages so that rich landowners could enjoy higher profits.

To go back to the riot for a moment, it happened close-by in Littleport, Cambridgeshire. A group of people had a “few scoops” in the Globe Inn (alas, it was demolished in 1962) and they then set off to relieve the local wealthy of some of their worldly possessions. Braved-on by this, they gathered up a few fowling guns and pitch-forks in a waggon and horses, and began a march to Ely. Needless to say, the Dragoons, Cavalry and gentlemen militia were soon dispatched against them. The culprits were rounded up, and trials were held in June. Some were transported to Australia, but five were condemned to death. There was then a delay for a week because they had to hire the black-draped Gallows cart and horses all the way from Cambridge – no one local was willing to supply. On Friday 28 June 1816, the five were hanged and buried in Ely. Their memorial plaque says “May their awful fate be a warning to others”. Indeed. Step carefully, you plebs and oiks.

If this happened in Ireland, we’d have a rousing ballad to commemorate them, and we’d still burn with the indignation of their killing. A few days now after the 200th anniversary of their deaths, a little traditional camaraderie goes out to them from me. Poor is poor, no matter what your national flag.

Ah, Memorials, Commemorations and all that. I went to a classical music event in Madingley last Sunday week that was surprisingly good. One song-cycle took the words from Orwell’s 1984: “In his waking thoughts he called it the Golden Country.” I went back to the book for a quick re-read. The Party slogan just seems to have special resonance for these times: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The mutability of the past is bad enough, but I keep looking at Media mind-twists on the present and constantly asking: who falls for this shit?

Winston Smith escaped the grey drudgery of his IngSoc existence by dreaming of the Golden Country. In truth, it sounds like a rather ordinary place. An old, rabbit-bitten pasture, with a foot-track wandering across it and a molehill here and there. The UK was asked to vote last week for a return to the past, to some long-gone image of a Golden Country.

I wonder how George Orwell would have voted in the referendum? Who knows, but his Internationalism was well-proven and there is that famous essay from 1945 in which he distinguished between nationalism (=bad) and patriotism (=less bad). Nationalism makes people disregard common sense and ignore facts. Patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” Not a great demonstration of logical thinking either, but at least a bit less bad. Still, at least you can impress your chums by saying that Gove is a misguided Patriot (doesn’t that just sound like a missile out of control?) whereas you have no time for those nasty Nationalists abusing people in the street.

So, here we are two hundred years on from 1816. Climate forces still background our experiences, and we play out the charade of history before it. We still have the under-privileged getting shafted by the Elite, and ever more elaborate tapestries of lies are woven to distract our eyes from it.  Hegel just about nailed it when he said that “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” We the Golden Country!

And so the story goes he wore the clothes. He said the things to make it seem… Probable.


When I was 12 and looking around for male role models, the standard issue on offer had long curly locks / facial hair, wore a cheesecloth shirt and faded blue denim flares, and had a gold medallion peeping through his unbuttoned shirt. He walked in a cloud of Brut after-shave, spoke of women as “chicks” and valued his masculinity more than anything else. Even more than The Eagles.

And then, there was this Starman on the radio. We picked him up on Channel 2. He told us it was alright to be different. We were pretty little rebels, driving our Mamas and Papas insane. As long as you knew who Jean Genet was (or were prepared to find out), you were in. If Life is a University, he was the hip Lecturer.

Back then in 1972, David Bowie made a palimpsest of mine and many a child’s life. Everything was scratched out, ready to be written again.

It’s been more than forty years since then. Not every song and new record seized on as avidly as in the beginning. But as I continued to think my life in song lyrics, it was frequently one of his that sprang to mind.

Time Takes A Cigarette, Puts It in Your Mouth

Five Years. That’s All We’ve Got

Looked A Lot Like Che Guevara

Always Crashing In The Same Car

Cancer, eh? Too soon to know what type. To know the back-story. It doesn’t really matter. I still owe you. I haven’t lost a father or a brother. I was a follower of the Prophet and now he has left us.

In the blessed and cold, in the crutch-hungry dark, was where he flayed his mark. Oh, and he is gone.

I’m still stuck in my différance somewhere between the delay of the past and the deferral of the future. Sometimes there seems to be an ocean of time ahead; sometimes it feels like the end-game has begun already. Bob Dylan says that “Time is an ocean. But it ends at the shore”. There (usually) seems to be an infinity of time left, but these infections are a reminder that maybe the shore is in sight. June was such a wipe-out that I wasn’t sure I would be up to going away on holiday this year. The long drive. constant fatigue, and unfamiliar environment was off-putting.

But, in July we travelled to the west of Wales and the Pembroke Coast. Rented a house in Fishguard Lower Town.

The old quay in Lower Town was the location chosen for the 1973 film adaptation of “Under Milk Wood” (you know, the one with the Richard Burton voice-over). You might have expected them to choose Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived, wrote in the Boathouse, and was buried. They didn’t see it as a match for the fictional village of Llarregub, and there was bugger all (sorry) that Laugharne could say or do about it.

Two weeks before we left for Wales I found an old copy of Caitlin Thomas’ book “Leftover Life to Kill”, which is an account of her trip to Italy four years after the death of Dylan in 1953. That seemed like a suitable book to read in Fishguard, but I have to admit after reading it that while she may emerge as a bone-fide bohemian, she did not seem to be a very nice person to know. And she had the opposite problem to me. I should write “Remaining Life Gone Missing”.

Dylan Thomas met Caitlin MacNamara in The Wheatsheaf pub off Oxford Street in April 1936. She was the youngest child  of Francis MacNamara, a poet/artist with Anglo-Irish roots in West Clare. Her father was a friend of Robert Gregory (son of Lady Gregory, patron of W.B. Yeats). Robert gave Francis the loan of Doolin House, and the Gregory family themselves de-camped for the summer from Coole to Mount Vernon, their house on the Flaggy shore. The MacNamaras also had a house in Ennistymon which they turned into the Falls Hotel. Francis was keen for interesting people to join him and his family in Ireland, and one visitor was the Welsh painter Augustus John. The family split when Caitlin was around four, and her mother took the four children to live with Augustus John and his large family at Alderney Manor in Dorset, a kind of 1920s hippy collective. Fast forward some time, and Caitlin was in a relationship with Augustus at the time she met Dylan in 1936. It was Augustus who made the introduction to Dylan in the London pub.

Later that year, Dylan was back in Swansea. His friend was planning to drive to Fishguard because he had a painting in an art exhibition that was to be judged by Augustus John. Caitlin and Augustus were both staying in Laugharne as guests of another writer. As Laugharne is around half-way on the road to Fishguard, they decided to invite themselves for a visit. All of them then proceeded to pub-crawl their way to Fishguard and back, in two cars. Tensions were high between Dylan and Augustus, and it ended with the latter punching the former to the floor. Dylan and Caitlin were married in 1937.

I was far more sober and peace-loving when making the same trip.

It is always good to make a break to the west coast. Any west coast. East Anglia is pretty, but the light is different. It always seems to be a pale silver-grey, like sun on a white calico sail-cloth and driftwood. The west is more fat yellow honeydew melon. It lingers and drips its juicy light down the chin of the horizon.

Not that the sun always shines in Pembrokeshire. But it did, sometimes. And at last I saw a dolphin in real life, after years of trying. Only the unicorn to go and I have a full list.

The saga of the low platelets continues. I probably knew I was on a mission of forlorn hope when I trekked off to Surrey for my latest chemo session last Tuesday. A few days before, my platelet count reached a new personal best – a low of 54. They took the blood sample around 9am, and by 11am the doctor was telling me to pack my bags and leave. It had soared to the dizzy height of 55.

So, that was that. Up at 4:50am and on a 6:15 train so that I could be there by 8:30. Out the door again with a three hour+ journey back home. I had hoped at least to hear the results of my CT scan from that previous week, but they only review those at their 1pm meeting, so the results were not available yet. My parting request was that they should phone me later that day when they knew.

I know the journey from Cambridge to Sutton very well indeed now. It started in the bleak morning darkness of January, and now the mornings shine with the jabbing finger of an April sunrise, the sun still low but now bright. I have two alternative routes out of London, depending on how fast I need to move. My preferred one is St Pancras to Sutton, which rumbles through the South London Hills (Tulse, Herne, Gypsy) that I have not set foot in since the 1980s. On the way back it passes though what used to be the terminus station for the old BedPan line. I remember that Pentonville Road station when it was new and modern. Now it is dilapidated with signs every few yards mandating “Do not alight here”. As if. They should have that as a sign over my hospital bed instead.

I like riding with the commuters. I do not mean to belittle their daily struggles, but I like to feel detached as the man with the death sentence striving to extend his time. We rumble through the City and it feels abandoned to me, even though it is crawling with people. But they are all silent. They bang rocks on their daily lives, trying to catch a fire. But the spark never takes.

My spark is feeble too. But, as Stevie Smith once wrote: “We carry our own wilderness with us”. My spark now is the buzzard that hunts near Baldock. Every trip, she is there hovering over the same field in the same gyratory like it alone knows where the gyres of air are found. She alone knows how to soar and hang; and is always in the right lane to suddenly swoop for a choice rodent or a rotund rabbit. We do not need to mention the earthworms that have to suffice when other prey is scarce.
As the train rumbles back into Cambridge it passes a demolition site. I think it is Homerton College clearing a space for a new conference centre. What caught the eye was a piece of street art / graffiti on a small building. A stone shed. The tag was “Nothing Lasts 4eva”. It seemed like an apt message these past two months as I trundled out or back from cancer treatment. In more ways of meaning than one. I resolved to take a photograph, but I was lazy or underestimated the difficulty of shooting from a moving train. So, I missed a part of the building. Never mind. Next time. But, the next time it was gone. Reduced to just a pile of bricks. It had lived up to its own message. Now I have only an incomplete record of a transient thing.

Transience has always been a bit of an issue. There is for example that graffiti said to be carved into a wall (of an entrance, a bar, or a bedroom, depending on who you read) in Pompeii just as the volcanic ash was settling:

Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo;
Cum bene sol nituit, redditur oceano,
Decrescit Phoebe, quae modo fuit,
Ventorum feritas saepe fit aura levis.

[“Nothing lasts forever; Once the sun has shone, it returns beneath the sea; The moon which was recently full, wanes; Love’s tempest often becomes a gentle breeze.”]

Apparently it is part of a poem by Catullus, probably written around 85-54 BC. It was discovered in 1913, but in the winter of 1915 there was a spell of very heavy rain and the wall collapsed, taking the message with it. Once again, there you have it.

So, take your portion of the timeshare of experience while you can, for tomorrow you are just the animated dust billowing in the streets of an abandoned city. I will follow my own advice, and make the best of the “controlled ruination” of what I have left.

Oh, and the CT results? It was a brief call. One word – “Stable”.

“I must confess I made a mess of what should be a small success”. From her new album “Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Think”. Apt title.

It is possible to miss a field like an old friend.

When I was a child in Ireland, with the summer coming in, we’d be encouraged to make a trek every evening in May out to a Marian Grotto at a country church two miles or so from home. These are shrines found in the churchyard, usually with a set of steps leading up to a statue of the Virgin housed in a small cave structure – hence the grotto. The idea was to recite the rosary bit by bit as you shuffle up the steps on your knees. I think you do a bit more of it each day, culminating in the full twenty decades or whatever by the end of the month. We laid our ears to furious prayers, but I was never that big on the detail.

For me, it was more about the journey there and never the destination.

Out over the back wall, across the last remaining fields on the edge of a council estate, until you reached a couple of country roads. Down along one of them for a few hundred yards, then over a low wall into a karst region. You may need reminding, but a karst is an area of exposed limestone slabs. The rain breaks down the surface into fissures until it looks like block paving laid by a giant. In every crack and crevice, dried leaves slowly turn to soil and support a little ecosystem of alpine plants. The slabs along the limestone top are known as Clints, and the fissures are called Grikes. They are the ghosts of little sea-creatures, glistening halftone grey from the graves they left in warm seas, 340 million years ago.

The most famous one is of course The Burren in Clare, but smaller karstic terrains are not uncommon across South Galway. One of my favourite places in Yorkshire is Malham Cove, and that is another example. Apart from these few places, there is very little limestone pavement found anywhere in the world.

The area I recall was nothing of the Burren scale. We’re talking around 1 square mile. I assume it was owned by somebody (isn’t everything?) but because it was so rocky I cannot recall any farm use. Not even a sheep. It wasn’t flat like the Burren. There was a mini-scale landscape of little cliffs and valleys. The deepest would be maybe twenty feet down. Like most limestone pavement, it was thinly vegetated but it supported quite a few small trees and bushes. I can be very precise in one recollection because it was our number-one destination for gathering hazelnuts in the autumn. And so many small birds flitted through those branches. I knew nothing about birds, but what I do know is that the yellowhammers seemed to be everywhere then, and they are nowhere now.

The poor old yellowhammer. It’s said to have made a pact with the devil. The eggs it lays have an intricate pattern that looks like writing, and said to conceal messages of harm and evil. Maybe they carried a lark-scribbled message of impending demise. Éiníní, codalaígí. Little birds, little birds, sleep, sleep.

The path to the grotto was not a straight one. You had to weave in a bend every few hundred yards to navigate the next bit. It was quite the adventure for small boys.

They would call it “undeveloped” in a property context. It wasn’t pristine. There was an Electricity sub-station behind large fences on the corner of the small road. There was a small and isolated country shop and butchers. But it was very much on the edge of town.

The little country road itself is worth a mention – it is called Bóthar Na Mine in Irish. That translates as The Maize Road –  mine buí is yellow corn or maize. During the Famine, maize was imported to make up for the potato disaster. Because it was too much to just give food to the starving people, it was customary to build “famine roads” as relief projects. Work through your hunger, get the corn. Most of these roads go nowhere, like the morality behind them.

Sometime in the early 1980s they tore it all away. I thought about including a screen grab from Google to show you what it was replaced with, but it is too depressing. Think car parks, small industrial units, and warehouses.

I suppose this is the customary point at which to be angry, to lament the passing of irreplaceable natural beauty. To mock the short-term views of local politicians who destroy one day, then apply for restoration grants the next.

But my reminisce is more about the inevitability of change.

Take the very fact that we were there in that place, in the first instance. It used to be parkland. A country estate with a fine view of the sea (and from hence it got its name). A fine country house built by successful merchants during the eighteenth century. Men who had grown rich from the abundant wine trade with Spain and Portugal. There is a good chance they also imported the yellow maize that paid for the road, given they made a donation of £1,000 in 1847 to fund ships carrying foodstuffs.

The family sold the house to a factory owner in 1953, and the local government saw a chance to build housing alongside. They tendered for the erection of over 250 houses, with a view to providing homes for people moving out from the city centre. They all moved in at more or less the same time, were all more or less adults in their 20-30s. Child-bearing, and Catholic, we were soon at least over a thousand children growing up on a council estate. Everything came in waves. The water pipes made of lead having to be replaced. The old people reaching their ends.

They might romanticise it now, but then it had nothing. They’d build a playground, and it was littered with broken glass a week later.

I remember it for the crows. There were hooded crows, closely related to the carrion crow and who also feed on dead animals. The only dead animals we had were in dustbins, but they seemed to cope well. They liked to move in flocks on the green. There were rooks, who liked to roost in the old trees behind the country house / factory. They kept themselves more separate, like a mafia gang you knew existed, but did not always encounter. After all, a group of crows is called a Murder.

None of us were eagles. We all just lived in the sinkhole of a corporation estate. If they wanted to name it again, they could call it Poll Na Préachán – the hole of the Crows.


When I was a child I learned much from an encyclopedia called The Book of Life that my father bought as a weekly and collated part-by-part into plastic binders (ah, the sophistication of the 1970s). It had a mix of medical, social and psychological topics; and one in particular on Synaesthesia  caught my eye because it quoted the poem “Voyelles” (Vowels) written by Arthur Rimbaud in 1872. Synaesthesia  is when you think about one  sense in terms of another – in this case the association of colours with the letters that are vowels. “A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles“.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked; “What color has the vowel A for you?’ So, for example, the letter U reminds Rimbaud of waves undulating in a green sea – “U, waves, divine shudderings of verdant seas”.

I’d never heard of Arthur Rimbaud, and it opened the flood-gates on a wonderful, sleazy river of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Genet, Camus, Bresson, etc. Before I knew it I was a young teenager sitting in the local University’s film society watching films by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Good character-building stuff for an impressionable age. As Woody Allen said, the problem with childhood is that you were so young.  If you’d been older you could have handled it better.

Rimbaud, of course, only wrote poetry when he was a teenager and stopped by the time he was 21. He must have had a better education than me because he was a true enfant terrible. In the same year that he wrote Vowels he went slumming it to London with Paul Verlaine. After a stint in Bloomsbury they shacked up at 8 Royal College Street, on the border between St Pancras and Camden Town. Rimbaud was 18. It didn’t last, however, ending literally with a slap in the face with a wet fish. Verlaine went back to France and they met up shortly after in Belgium. That ended with an argument and a gunshot wound delivered by Verlaine to Rimbaud’s wrist. It was time to stop.

After he had finished with poetry, Rimbaud settled down to a life of what might be called colonial servitude. By the year of his death in 1891 he was working as a merchant in Aden, Yemen – although Abyssinia sounds much more poetic.He had a pain in his knee he thought was arthritis. It was mis-diagnosed and his leg was amputated. It was in fact Bone Cancer, and he dies at just 37.

So when I am reading Patti Smith’s “rimbaud dead” poem in 1978, I didn’t know then that “he is thirty seven. they cut off his leg. the syphilis oozes.” was wrong. Maybe she did better with “dream of rimbaud” which is after all just a fantasy “oh arthur arthur. we are in abyssinia aden. making love smoking cigarettes. we kiss. but it’s much more. azure.”

I’d like to be azure.

Around the time that Rimbaud was born, an Irish child was leaving Dublin in the company of his parents to start a new life in Canada. It was not long after the Famine and emigration was at a high point still. Many of those who left just after the Famine years (1845-46) ended up on the Quebec equivalent of Ellis Island. It was called Grosse Île, or Oileán na nGael. Canada was exporting timber to England back then and it was cheap to fill the holds of the cargo vessels with people on the return journey. Ships sailed out of the west of Ireland, heaving with their human ballast. It was cheaper to put the poor on the ship (£3) than pay for them to enter the workhouse (£7 per year). And out of sight is out of mind. Between the starvation before getting on the boat, and the conditions traveling in those summers, many developed “famine fever” on the journey. They had to be quarantined on the island as the boats entered the St Lawrence river. If a family had just one sick member, they usually all elected to remain there. Around 15,000 of them never got any further.

But David Nelligan, the Irish child in question, was traveling in 1856 and it was better then. He did well in Montreal, and got a good position in the Canadian Post Office. He met and married Emilie. Another Catholic, but she was French-Canadian, not Irish, and that was unusual then. On Christmas Eve in 1879 they had first child, a boy they named Emile Nelligan. As Emile grew up, he became distanced from his father and grew closer to his mother. His father did not allow French to be spoken in the house. Ironic, given that his surname was pronounced “Nellig-A'” by the locals. Like Rimbaud, Emile was a teenage prodigy as a poet. Although influenced by the likes of Rimbaud and Poe, he decided to write in French rather than English. As a lonely teenager, he was befriended by a priest (careful, there) who helped him to get his poetry published later in 1904. The priest was later caught up in a bit of a scandal himself when it was discovered he’d been in an affair with a woman.

I like the story about when, in 1899, there was an anti-drinking Prohibition movement pushed mainly by Anglo-Canadians. This managed to unite the normally disparate Irish and French-speaking Canadians in protest against the bill. A case of Catholic boozers, unite and fight. When Emile read his poem “Le Romance du Vin” to a public meeting the crowd cheered wildly and carried him home in triumph on their shoulders.

Rimbaud wrote “Le Bateau ivre” (The Drunken Boat). Nelligan wrote “La Vaisseau d’Or” (The Ship of Gold).  Both surrealist masterpieces.

But all this came to a sad end. Some say it was the duality of language and culture he had to endure all his life. Some way it was guilty tension between his sexuality and his religion. He was like the lyric in a Red House Painters song: “bruised internally, eternally”. Whatever the cause, Emile was committed by his family to a mental asylum. Today his condition would probably be called schizophrenia. He lived the rest of his life in two institutions, until he died in 1941.

He had a deficit of what medics call “eunoia”, which is the state of normal mental health. It is also the shortest word in the English language which contains all five vowels. The shortest French word to use all five vowels is “Oiseau” (bird). Go gently, Arthur and Emile, little birds of poetry.


It’s unfortunate that the Irish name for Tuam is Tuaim, which means a burial mound (or tumulus).

It’s in the news because a Catholic order of nuns called the Bon Secours Sisters, who were set up as a nursing order, thought it was the right thing to do to dump the bodies of babies in an adapted septic tank on unconsecrated ground. The babies were born from unmarried women, at a Magdeline-style mother and baby home. Although these homes were run by the Church, they were state-funded institutions.

The body count is at least 796, and it occurred between 1925 and 1961. That’s not some ancient history, that’s (just) in my lifetime.

The tomb was discovered in 1975, but local people thought they were the bodies of famine victims. It took a historical researcher until now to uncover the real truth. She found that the infant mortality rate was 4 to 5 times higher than the general population of the time. The children were malnourished and prone to infections.

A priestly spokesperson for the Diocese said that we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. That’s a fair bit of revisionist apologism. Is he saying that it was the norm in 20th Century Europe, in a country not at war, to dump children in a pit intended for shit?

I’d offer him as an alternative the words spoken 4 years after the Salem Witch Trials by the jurors who found the women guilty of witchraft:

“We confess that we ourselves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand, the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness, and Prince of the Air; but were, for want of knowledge in ourselves, and better information from others, prevailed with to take up with such evidence against the accused, as, on further consideration and better information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the lives of any, whereby we fear we have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord the guilt of innocent blood; which sin the Lord saith, in Scripture, he would not pardon, that is, we suppose, in regard of his temporal judgments.”

It is truly puzzling how any group of women could act like this. But, then I remember the expressed view of my parents who felt that many nuns did not join through any sense of vocation, but instead because their marriage opportunities were limited and a ‘nun in the family’ brought honour. My parents were not alone in this view, circa the 1950s and 1960s and especially into the 1970s when it all started to become more open.

To put this in more perspective, the website of the Bon Secours order says: “Since 1824 the Sisters of Bon Secours have brought compassion, healing, and liberation to those they serve.”

And now, instead of donating a few pounds towards a memorial, the satanic-infested Catholic institutions of Ireland could open up their ledgers, and tell the whole truth.

The Germans have two words for experience: “Erlebnis” and “Erfahrung“.

An erlebnis is a specific “life-event”. So, this week I went for the first of my six chemo sessions and that was therefore one of those. But Erfahrung has to do with the accumulated experience of life. You can have lots of life-events and learn nothing from them. Or, you may amass your Erfahrung.

First rule of Chemo Club is not that you don’t talk about Chemo Club. It is rather that your first experience of chemo club may bear no resemblance to your fourth or seventh experience. So, this is my first report.

It wasn’t too bad, at all.

First point of note: no neuropathy. That rotten tingling that turns into a more intense sensation that flows like acid through your veins: nada. To make up for it I have something called a PICC line which is a thin tube that goes into my bicep and runs along a vein for 48cm to somewhere near my heart. It is used to insert the fluids. To infuse me. I’m convinced that I can feel the spot where it ends.

Some nausea, but then my old friend the Dom Perignon sound-alike (Domperidone) is the cure for that. They say that I will have hair loss and a dose of the shits to look forward to. We shall see, but not so far. The fatigue is there. I suppose the last time I was working from home so it was easier to manage.

I am upbeat about this. Make no mistake, however, this chemo stuff is like a poison and the shock of it to your body cannot be played down. Chemo feels like Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal” spreading their dark stems and tentacles along the veins of your body.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

(There all is order, naught amiss:
Comfort and beauty, calm and bliss.)
–“Invitation to the Voyage”, by Charles Baudelaire

One of the key critiques of Baudelaire was written by a German literary critic, philosopher, and essayist called Walter Benjamin. He was a German Jew who became a Marxist in the 1930s under the influence of Bertolt Brecht. His writing was extremely broad. This is a man who wrote a thousand-page work (unfinished) spanning thirteen years of his life, about the covered-passage shopping arcades of Paris. One of his quotes about Baudelaire is that his poetry is “grounded in an experience (Erfahrung) for which exposure to shock (Chockerlebnis) has become the norm”. I think it means that Baudelaire’s poetry is a shock experience on which Modernism is borne. I guess Chemo is a chockerlebnis too.

Walter Benjamin’s final years are a sad story. In 1937, he was living in Paris. Back in Germany, the Nazis declared all German Jews were stripped of their German citizenship. As persons with no state, Benjamin and other German Jews were arrested by the French government and put in a concentration camp for three months in Burgundy. Back in Paris during 1940, the German army were defeating the French. One day before the Nazis entered Paris (14 June 1940), he and his sister fled the city. They went to Lourdes (quelle ironie). By August, he was in possession of a US travel visa negotiated for him by friends and colleagues in America. But, he still had to get out. His plan was to get to the States from neutral Portugal. To do that, he had to travel through the also-neutral-but-fascist Spain, then under the rule of Franco. He made it across the French-Spanish border to the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia.

However, the instruction came from the Franco government that all visas were cancelled and refugees were to be returned to France. He kept going until the night of 25 September 1940, and then he killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets. The novelist Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, was in the same group and took the same morphine tablets, but he survived.

That is well proper Erfahrung. What I experience is but a pin-prick.