All by accident (5)

I thought I might finish this in the previous post, but there’s still a ways (as a Canadian friend of mine used to say) to go. If I’d really tried, I might have been able to say it all in a short poem or two. But short poems are not where I’m at right now. I want to be discursive and digressive and talk about meals and toilets and nasty hotels.

The next morning, having extricated myself and my plastered leg from the bed, packed my bags and sat myself ready for breakfast at 8.30, in time for my taxi at 9.00, I discovered the hotel didn’t run as smoothly as it would like to have customers believe. Come 8.45 my breakfast still hadn’t arrived. I rang reception and was told it was on its way. Five minutes later I rang again, and soon after a waitress from the restaurant with a delightful Scottish/Chinese accent appeared with the fruit I’d ordered and two glasses of orange juice – the larger one in case the smaller one wasn’t big enough. She also brought two sets of cutlery, assuming perhaps that because I’d ordered two portions of fruit I must be two people. She said with disarming frankness that she was very sorry but she’d been in the restaurant on her own and had forgotten about my order. She then rushed off to get the cooked part of the breakfast, which I now barely had time to eat: a flabby Quorn sausage,  totally tasteless scrambled egg and some rather good freshly cooked mushrooms. And a plate of toast, cunningly arranged with the burnt side downwards – as I discovered when I bit into it.

My breakfast abandoned – she didn’t charge me for it but that may have been an oversight – I struggled out to the lobby to wait for my taxi. One of the staff offered to carry my luggage but I didn’t think to tell him I’d need someone to open the doors for me. Another staff member helped when she saw me trying to manipulate myself, the crutches and the door all at the same time. It turned out that someone else had taken my taxi, so I was left waiting in the lobby. The nice Scottish/Chinese waitress thought to get me a chair, but before very long I was offered a taxi that nobody else had claimed.

The driver had long hair and a broken nose, and a Weegie accent I could just about understand. He said he’d take me to the drop-off point nearest the airport so I wouldn’t have so far to walk, but when I looked at the distance I knew it was much farther than I’d be able to manage. After some persuading he went off to get me a wheelchair, leaving me sitting on my suitcase on the luggage trolley. He said he’d asked someone and drove off. A quarter of an hour later, when no-one had come and I was still enviously watching all the people wheeling their cases at top speed into the airport, I asked another taxi driver if he could go and find someone with a chair. He too came back saying he’d asked someone and drove off. A quarter of an hour after that, when I was seriously worried about missing my plane and feeling like a small child with nobody to look after her, I managed to catch the eye of an airport employee in a high-vis jacket who looked as though he was probably on his way to check out something mechanical somewhere. By this time I was fairly distraught, and was pleading with him so desperately that he shut me up mid-sentence. Before very long he came back with another man in the same uniform who – to my utter gratitude and relief – had brought a wheelchair. When we got to the disability assistance desk it turned out that the taxi drivers hadn’t enquired there, though I like to think they did perhaps ask somewhere else.

After that I thought my troubles were over. The kind man wheeled me to the check-in, then to Security – still in good time as I’d been very early and the plane was delayed – and up to the departure lounge, from where, he said, I’d be taken by ‘ambu-lift’ up to the plane. The ambu-lift had a tail-lift that took me in the wheelchair into the cab of the vehicle. When we’d driven round to the far side of the plane, the cab lifted up till it was on a level with the plane door. From there it was just a short walkway into the plane. The man who’d brought me – more taciturn and less obliging than the other man – asked me if I’d be able to get along the walkway myself. I could see he was unwilling to wheel me and said yes. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a ledge to be got over in the plane doorway. I tried but couldn’t do it, and got my good foot stuck in the gap between the walkway and the plane door. That frightened me a lot. I asked the man if he would lift me over the ledge but he said, ‘I’m not allowed to lift,’ in a way that made it clear he couldn’t care less. The man taking tickets inside the plane didn’t offer to help either, so I had to beg the first man to take me in the chair – which he did, reluctantly.

Once I was on the plane, the crew couldn’t have been more helpful. I ended up getting two seats to myself and could stretch my leg out, and when we landed they reassured me someone would be coming to take me off the plane. The two men who wheeled me off at Exeter airport couldn’t have been more helpful either. They strapped me into the little transfer chair (which the other man hadn’t done), wheeled me down the ramp – no ambu-lift, thank goodness – put me in a proper wheelchair and wheeled me to the arrival lounge where a friend was waiting for me. But my experience at Glasgow airport had shown me with depressing clarity what life must often be like for people who have a permanent disability, for whom lack of help and consideration, or even awareness that you are there at all, is an everyday reality. The accident and the events that followed were traumatising, of course, but I have to say that in some ways what I went through at the airport was almost as traumatising, playing as it did into primal fears of being helpless and abandoned and horribly unsafe.

But I got through it, and was hugely grateful to the kind friend who took me home from the airport and helped me unpack, even putting all my dirty washing in the laundry basket. I’m grateful to her and other friends for doing bits of cleaning and shopping and washing and washing-up when it was hard for me to do them, and to friends who would have done some of that if I’d asked them. I’m grateful too to friends who’ve been there when I’ve phoned or texted or emailed. I’m more or less independent again now. I can’t get to the shops yet but I’ve discovered online shopping, and most other things I can do for myself. And yet, as I saw so clearly on Iona, what matters in the end is connection. I live on my own and am used to doing things for myself, but we’re not and can’t be isolated units. I need the kindness of others, and I hope that when the occasion arises I’ll be there to offer kindness to someone else.




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All by accident (4)

This account is coming near the end now. I hadn’t intended it to be so long-drawn-out, but these things seem to take as long as they take. That’s one of the blessings of a blog: that you can write as much or as little as you want and people are free to glance through it, read it from beginning to end or ignore it completely. So I’ll continue…

For obvious reasons I didn’t see very much of Iona. On my first full day there I walked up to the north beach, taking in the Abbey (and Abbey shop), passing the Iona pods, which are a bit like solid tents, and meeting some very beautiful sheep.

The beach itself is light  sand and shingle, scattered with dark rocks that reach into the sea. I wasn’t quite the only person there, but it had the clean, untouched feel of beaches on the Scilly Isles. I picked my way among rocks, some grey-green like arrested waves, and tangles of kelp like strands of wet leather. The sea wasn’t particularly rough that day, but I was caught by the drama of water hurling itself against rock time and time again, the ceaseless assault of white spray. I stood longing for each crash and slap as though I’d never watched the sea before. And of course I had to photograph it, both making it a picture and affirming its reality.

That, I’m afraid to say, was more or less the sum total of my exploration, but at least the the hotels and the cottage were within sight of the sea. Below is a view from the lounge of the hotel where I stayed at first, looking across to Mull. When I’m near the sea I can’t imagine how I can live without it, but when I leave it the feeling soon fades. For me as a child, going back our south London suburb after a seaside holiday was almost unbearable. I used to watch the horizon at the end of our road and imagine the sky was about to merge into the sea, just as it did each time at the edge of the Downs when my uncle drove us to Brighton.

At least there was more sea on the journey home: first the ferry across to Fionnphort, then the coastal drive along the Ross of Mull before the road turns inland through the mountains, and then the ferry to Oban. I’m grateful again to Roselle, who very kindly gave me a lift across Mull and off the ferry the other side. Apart from my aching leg, I didn’t have to think too much about being incapacitated while I was in the car. I could simply take in the landscape of Mull and watch the mountains loom towards us, brown with  bracken or a forbidding dark grey, streaked with white by tiny, fast-falling streams.   At one point we faced a sheer rise of dark rock, the water that ran down it glinting gold in the sunlight. Once I was wheelchaired on to the ferry it was a different matter. I was sat in an accessible set near the reception desk. It had a good view of passengers’ comings and goings from the cafe but the window was so high I could barely see out of it and strained for my last glimpses of the sea. I didn’t have far to get to the toilet, but there was an awkward ledge that, as an inexpert crutch-hopper, I found it hard to get over. Other people from the course brought me supplies from the cafe: an apple, an extra-large bag of crisps and a bottle of water – there were no vegetarian sandwiches.

At more great expense I’d booked a taxi from Oban down to Glasgow (and no, the insurance didn’t pay for that either), as I thought I might not be able to manage the train journey. The driver turned out to be the same one who’d taken me from the b & b to the ferry, an elderly man with osteoporosis who had several cracked ribs but couldn’t bear not working. As soon as we left Oban I fell in love with Scotland all over again. More beautiful mountain landscape (when does a hill become a mountain?) , but with trees and more sign of green. To avoid the traffic the driver decided to take the scenic route along Loch Awe and then Loch Lomond. I didn’t take any photographs; I just sat absorbing it for mile after mile, the brown hills/mountains, the greener land by the lochs, the sun on the water – Loch Lomond looks surprisingly muddy in places – and the occasional tree-covered island where it seemed the trees had risen straight from the bed of the loch. I could have gone on drinking it in for the rest of the day, but then came the familiar sinking feeling as the landscape gradually flattened and was replaced by buildings and traffic and the all-pervading grey of urban roads. There was still grass between the roads, but it was urban grass. By the time we reached Glasgow airport and were circling round it trying to find the entrance to the hotel, the disenchantment was complete. We could have been near any airport and it would have looked pretty much the same.

With some persuasion I’d decided – rightly, I think – that the seven-hour train journey back to Devon would be too much, so I’d booked a flight to Exeter for the next day. That was why I’d ended up in one of those big, factory-like airport hotels instead of the quirky Airbnb where I’d hoped to stay. I may have led a very sheltered life, but I’d never stayed in a hotel like that before. A lot of people do, I know, and seem to survive it well enough, but I was still in a sensitive state and struggling on crutches. Not that I would have liked it at the best of times. It had pink institutional carpet of a kind I associate with care homes, music full of crashing guitar chords blared out as soon as the door opened and lurid gaming machines blinked in an alcove off the reception area. I’d booked an ‘accessible’ room, i.e. one near reception, but getting there was about as far as I could manage. Didn’t they have a wheelchair? I asked. The receptionist looked at me as though I’d asked for a pers onal hovercraft and said, ‘Oh, no.’ I couldn’t believe I was the only guest (if that’s the right term in such a place) who had ever needed one. People have accidents or are taken ill – even while they’re in the hotel – and don’t always have a wheelchair about their person at the time.

The room itself, being wheelchair accessible, had awkwardly large spaces to traverse on crutches. Nevertheless it had a comfortable bed, or rather two twin beds together with just enough gap between them to make slipping a possibility. The duvets were warm, though, which was just as well as the room was surprisingly cold. And I could get dinner brought to me, and breakfast too (which is another story). After I’d had my spicy oriental beanburger I settled down to watch the Andrew Scott Hamlet on my phone, determined to be an oasis of culture in the midst of standardised everything. That night I slept surprisingly well.

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All by accident (3)

I hadn’t intended to write as much as this about a relatively minor injury and its aftermath, but the story seems to want to go on being told. So, if you’re still with me, here is instalment no.3, my 101th blog post.

Up till now I haven’t said much about the course itself, except that Roselle Angwin and the people on it were unbelievably kind and helpful. We were a group of fourteen women, fifteen counting Roselle, of varying ages and equally varied backgrounds as writers, from published or about-to-be-published novelists and poets to people whose writing had mainly been of an academic kind and people who hadn’t yet written very much at all. Some had been on the course once or several times before; some had been going to Iona for years and knew as much about the island as any local historian; some, like me, didn’t know it at all but had heard that this place had something special. I’d gone with two intentions: to make more space for writing again and, by doing so, find a new impetus; and to connect deeply with the landscape and the natural world, which for me always means reconnecting with the heart. Others were there for their own reasons, but all of us had come to write, to discover and to share with one another.

I’ve been to many excellent poetry workshops where the focus is definitely on the writing. Personal and often painful material arises, of course – how can it not? – but the understanding is that we’re there to write poems. This course was wider in scope. We were there to write if we wished, or not to write if that was what we needed. We were encouraged to open to ourselves in free writing exercises and, if we wished, to be open with others in the group. The fact that the group was all women seemed to allow a particular kind of safety where people shared not only their writing but difficult and sometimes previously hidden experiences. At the start of the morning and evening sessions we were read poems and pieces that might inspire our own writing, and at the beginning of the morning session there was quiet time for free writing or meditation, as we chose. The understanding was that this process was in some sense a spiritual one – in whatever way we might view the spiritual. Poets like Mary Oliver and Robert Hass and philosopher John O’Donohue set a certain tone, but there was much earthiness and laughter, and some hilarious writing by members of the group.

For the first couple of days after I came back to Iona I was so shaken and traumatised that it was hard to write anything much. What I did manage write was tinged with mortality and impermanence. I’d heard from the lifeboat superintendent, who rang to ask if I’d mind their video of me being used for training, that their previous rescue from Staffa, a young man who fell over the cliff, had not survived. At no time had I been in serious danger, but there was a frightened place inside me that didn’t quite know that. Meditation was what I needed, and the support of being in the group. The fact that everything was so much more difficult and time-consuming than usual made it harder to put mental energy into writing, so all I could do was listen to others as best I could, write my few unfinished scribblings and simply allow myself to be taken care of, a rare experience if you live alone.

After the singing in St Oran’s Chapel, which I wrote about in the previous post, I began to relax again and to feel deeply touched by the kindness around me, in the course sessions and at other times too. My desire to reconnect with the heart had been met not so much in nature but in the company of others. One of the course members gave my ankle some Reiki through the plaster, and I could sense the energy and its goodness. In the final session I sat open-handed and open-hearted, deeply touched by others’ writing (and a little envious that it was so much better than mine), and also touched by the magic of the connection between us all, something that happens in groups only when there is real safety and trust. I had so much to be grateful for, more than I’d ever expected, and I knew I’d come back to writing when I was ready.


A postscript: There’s one beach on Iona which is famous for its ‘green stones’: marble with deposits of serpentine, which can be any shade from pale lime to deep emerald.  Little flecks of serpentine are known as ‘mermaid’s tears.’ While I was away in hospital the rest of the group had gone on an expedition there and had brought back stones to be made into pendants and necklaces. I was touched that Roselle had thought to bring a stone back for me, and had taken care to choose one that seemed to have my name on it. I’ve worn it a lot since I came back, and it seems to hold some of the goodness I found on Iona.

To be continued, and probably concluded, in the next instalment.


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All by accident (2)

When I started writing about The Accident in the previous post I hadn’t intended to recount it all in such detail, but with any traumatic event – and by my standards this was fairly traumatic – there often seems to be a compulsion to tell and retell the story. So I’ll continue, noting in passing that this is my hundredth blog post. I started the blog in January 2012 and my calculator tells me that’s an average of approximately 15.8 posts a year (I’ll spare you all the decimal places), or one and a third per month.

At the end of the last post I was just getting ready to leave Oban, in time to catch a ferry at around 10.00. I’d booked wheelchair assistance, but when I arrived I was told this ferry didn’t connect with the one to Iona and I’d have to wait for the 12.20. The wheelchair, was brought, though, and I sat in it patiently with my crutches beside me – which was fine until the getting up and staggering to the toilet thing. A kind woman, who I think must either have been a nurse or else have known what it’s like to break a leg, asked me how recently I’d done it, opened the doors for me and actually waited till I came out to see I was safely on the way back to my seat. It made me start to realise both what a difference kindness makes and what it must be like to have a permanent disability and have to rely constantly on other people’s willingness to help. There were a lot more of those realisations during my time on Iona.

I enjoyed the shameless luxury of the taxi ride across Mull. It’s an astonishingly varied and beautiful island, with mountains still brown in April with last year’s bracken, secret lochs and miles of unspoilt rocky coast. (Below are a couple of photos I took from the bus on the way to the Iona ferry first time round.) The driver was a Geordie who’d lived there for years and used to teach maths at the high school in Tobermory. His accent was Scottish, still with the odd hint of Newcastle, and he had a miniature Newcastle United shirt hanging from the rear-view mirror. He told me how he’d slipped on some mud and broken his ankle – a spiral fracture like mine – but he’d been less fortunate and had to have it pinned.

The ferry from Fionnphort (pronounced ‘Finnafort’) on Mull across to Iona takes about ten minutes. I had to sit on one of the folding seats on the car deck as I couldn’t get into the passenger lounge. The hotel car was meant to be picking me up, but when we arrived on Iona it turned out they’d taken some other people instead. So I had to go back across to Fionnphort and then back to Iona again, by which time the car was waiting for me. Having teetered on the crutches into the hotel’s side entrance and along a narrow stone passageway, I then realised I’d have to give a new word prominence in my vocabulary: bum-shuffle. I did an awful lot of that over the next few days and, I must say, got quite adept at it. My room was not just upstairs but round a rather tricky bend in the stairs, and I needed quite a bit of help. Fortunately the room itself was small enough for me to move around by hanging on to the furniture, but there were some tricky bits. Nevertheless it was good to be back in a place that felt like home, if a very temporary home, even though the hotel owner and I decided between us that I couldn’t stay there. The stairs and the passageway were just too difficult.

By the next morning he’d found me a ground-floor granny annexe cottage a little way away and, with a helpfulness characteristic of people on Iona, moved me into it in the afternoon. Here’s the view from the window.  For the rest of that week I was taken back and forth to the hotel where the course was held (not the hotel I’d been staying in) by taxi, by hotel car, or pushed by kind course members in a wheelchair which one of them had miraculously managed to borrow. The taxi driver, a kind but somewhat overburdened woman, said to me at the end of the week, “You’re certainly getting your money’s worth,” as she pushed the wheelchair up the steep ramp to the cottage door. The course itself was held in a room that was up a flight of stairs from the hotel dining room, so that was where the bum-shuffle came in, attended by one or more of the lovely course members holding the crutches and making sure I was safe. I apologise for mentioning the toilet again, but when you’re incapacitated getting there and back really does loom large. People kindly volunteered to take me, most of them never having pushed a wheelchair before, until one person with a room near the course room, to whom I remain eternally grateful, let me use her ensuite bathroom. I must thank Roselle Angwin for her heroic journey to the loo with me before I had the wheelchair, when staggering there and back on crutches took the best part of half an hour.

I’ll say more about the course and how I felt in another post. For now here I am, wheeling myself round the little cottage – all wheelchair accessible apart from the bathroom (yes, that again), or being driven or wheeled to the hotel. Meals also loomed large, especially as we had to sign up for what we wanted for dinner by mid-morning every day. The vegetarian options were interesting. My favourite, and the most popular, was something called KFC (I can’t remember what that stands for), a pancake filled with mildly spiced potato, with dhal and char-grilled cauliflower on the side. I was taken to the hotel for breakfast too – with rhubarb from the organic garden, home-made potato scones and buttered spinach – and I was welcomed and accepted, rather than treated as a nuisance. Because the community on Iona is so small, people seem naturally inclined to help one another. And, as everyone says, there is something extraordinarily gentle and healing in the island’s atmosphere. Iona is often described as a ‘thin’ place, where the boundary between the everyday world and the ‘other world’ (however you see it) is more porous. It isn’t hard to feel that in its ancient sacred places, and perhaps something of it permeates into people’s lives.

For me the most magical part of the course was the evening we spent in the tiny, candlelit chapel of St Oran, which dates from the 12th century. According to legend St Oran was buried alive as a sacrifice to keep the walls of the first church built on the site from falling down, and the chapel still has a burial ground. John Smith, leader of the Labour party, is buried there. Getting into the chapel involved not only a wheelchair ride but a precarious hop-and-teeter on crutches along a narrow stony path. Once we were there, we sang together and shared songs. One of the group had grown up on Mull and in a beautifully soft and lilting voice gave us some of the Gaelic songs she had learnt at school. Other people shared rounds and chants, and we said afterwards how peaceful and joyful we’d found it. I love singing with other people and as we sang, close to one another, I felt the shock and difficulty lifting from me, as though I’d begun to come alive again.

There’s still more to come. As I said to a friend, ‘Sometimes you have to write about it, even if it’s as boring as hell’ – which I hope it isn’t.




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All by accident

In March, when I published my post about my cat Koala, I thought I was properly back into blogging.  I started drafting another post, about getting ideas for writing again, but then life started happening. With some other people, I’ve been involved in putting together a new anthology of poems by local poets – well-published and winners of competitions, many of them – I’ve had my usual psychotherapy work plus dissertation and essay marking, and I’ve been busy with… I’m not sure exactly what. Facebook comes into it sometimes, though not as often as it did, and so do long text conversations that range from glorious silliness to emotional profundity to what I/the other person had for dinner.  .And of course there was The Accident. I say ‘of course’ because it’s become such a given in my life.

In mid-April I went to Iona for a week-long course with Roselle Angwin, poet and writer and inspiring teacher of writing. One afternoon – I think the second afternoon I was there – a fellow course participant and I took a boat trip to Staffa, the island where Fingal’s Cave is. I was particularly hoping to see the puffins who nest there during the breeding season. Fingal's Cave

As you may be able to see from the photo, the isle of Staffa is a rocky cliff with grass on the top. The way to the top is up two or three sets of quite steep steps, but once there you find  soft, mossy, boggy ground. I was walking across the top when my foot slipped on a patch of mud. This has happened to me quite a few times before and I’ve landed flat on my back without injury. This time, however, the foot that slipped didn’t take the other one with it, so that while my left leg was stretched out on the ground, the right one stayed put and the ankle bent over much farther than it ought to bend. Picture me lying on the ground and moaning ‘My ankle!’ while various members of the party – which included three doctors – tried variously to feel for broken bones, get me up again and call for a helicopter to rescue me. The helicopter would have had to come from Stornoway, some sixty miles away, and my injuries weren’t deemed serious enough for that.

So in due course, propped up by a strong-armed person on either side, I had to be got across the island and down the steps so that the lifeboat crew could pick me up and take me over to Mull. Thank goodness one of the doctors happened to be a medic who accompanies expeditions. Though slight, she knew what she was doing and how to be reassuring. Another of the doctors, a retired GP, tried to pull me onwards, gripping me so hard it hurt and saying, ‘Don’t expect sympathy from me. I’m a doctor.’ I have to say that didn’t work so well. To cut a long story short, I was got aboard the lifeboat and whisked across to Tobermory – which I rather liked the look of – then taken off by ambulance to Craignure Hospital on Mull.What followed shows the effect of cuts to the NHS. The little hospital used to have a full-time X-ray department. Now it only operates three days a week. Having determined that my ankle was broken, the doctor at Craignure told me I’d have to be taken by ambulance on the ferry to Oban in order to get X-rayed the next day. I was given a temporary plaster, a hospital gown and a pair of crutches and settled down for the night. When I got to Oban Hospital in the morning, I found out they didn’t have an orthopaedic department, so any X-rays they took would have to be emailed over to Paisley Hospital, where I would be sent if I needed an operation. So there I was, now in a different hospital gown, lying on a trolley in a chilly room in A & E with nil by mouth except small sips of water, waiting for most of the morning to be X-rayed, being unplastered then after the X-ray plastered up again, after which I waited for most of the afternoon to hear from Paisley.  I could just about stagger to the toilet on crutches, but other than that I felt as helpless as a beached whale.

One of the nurses told me I’d probably be staying the night in the hospital, but come 5.00 or so a more senior nurse told me I didn’t need an operation. Would I be able to get dressed and use the crutches? The way she asked told me I didn’t have an option. No chance of a hospital bed, then. She helped me find a b & b with a ground floor room and a taxi to take me there and off I went, with little more in my bag than my purse and debit card (thank goodness I had those) and a hospital-issue toothbrush. Arrived at the b & b, I was dismayed by the (to me) vast length of the drive. Weakly I said I couldn’t get that far on crutches, and to my utter gratitude the owner – a man with strong arms and a proper Bristolian accent – carried me all the way. I was so relieved to have somewhere to stay that I could even be grateful for the huge turquoise irises on the wallpaper and the many-coloured portrait of a Highland steer.








The room was absolutely pristine, with gleaming white sheets, so that when I ate my take-away veg biryani (also brought by taxi) I had to cover not only myself but the bed all round me with a plastic sheet – thank goodness I had a large plastic bag with me that I could tear open. Knowing how messy I usually am, I congratulated myself on managing not to get curry stains on anything, especially given the voracity with which I devoured the food after my hospital fast and two very scanty meals the previous day. Once I’d eaten I felt more cheerful and less sorry for myself, though I have to say I was still pretty wobbly, what with the accident itself and all that had happened after it, as well as the fact that I had to move around on crutches without putting weight on the plastered foot, a real strain on the arms and the other leg. And I’d been sustained by text conversations with friends – one dear friend in particular – and kept my phone beside me all the time.

At that point I could have decided to go home, but somehow it didn’t occur to me. I’d left all my things in the hotel on Iona and the course had only just started. So I booked a taxi to the ferry terminal for the next morning and, at great expense, a taxi across Mull to the Iona ferry, having been told I could claim on my insurance for it. It turned out later that I couldn’t but I didn’t actually mind too much, because I wouldn’t have wanted not to go back. More to follow in the next post.


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The cat’s whiskers

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here, though it will be no surprise to my Facebook friends, that since July last year I’ve been sharing my home with a cat. So what? you may ask. An awful lot of people do. Yes, but I’ve never had one before and always thought I much preferred dogs – though I haven’t had a dog for many years. My house is home to  furry friends of a less animate variety, including of course the ever-helpful Adelina – but a cat??

The decision to get one crept up on me. I started to notice that nearly all my friends had cats and I enjoyed having them around (the cats, I mean, as well as the friends). Then I realised that although I’ve lived on my own for a very long time, I was feeling a bit lonely. And, strange as it may seem, images of cats – big ones and small ones – were coming to me in meditation or when I wasn’t thinking about anything else. It took a while to acknowledge that something was definitely telling me I wanted a cat in my life, despite dire warnings from a cat-averse friend  about shredded furniture, cat food all over the floor, disgusting cat litter and the general unhygienicness and inconvenience of having any kind of animal (other than human) in one’s home.

It took a while before I was ready to go, with a cat-loving friend, to the Cats Protection home and – with some trepidation – actually choose one. I’d decided I wanted a mature, quiet female but ended up with a lively (neutered) male kitten, called Koala because of the big black smudge round his nose. Here he is in his little cubicle, looking even more cute than in the photo above. My friend was very clear that the cat would choose me, not the other way round, and that’s what happened. As soon as the cubicle door was opened, he came bounding out on to my shoulders and seemed to like it there. The cat next door, older and more sedate, also seemed to take to me, but when I thought about it, I knew it had to be Koala. So the following week my friend (now his god(dess)mother) and I brought him back here in his new cat carrier. And then all the fun began of trying to extricate a small and inquisitive kitten from places where he wasn’t supposed to be, like the kitchen table (he still thinks it’s his), the saucepan cupboard, the dishwasher and the bookshelves. Once he was big enough to go out it was a lot easier, with one major caveat (see below).

I have to say that this furry purry creature has completely stolen my heart. I’ve come to expect his nibbling and nuzzling first thing in the morning (not to mention a few affectionate nips with his very sharp teeth) and his jumping on to my lap or shoulder whenever he feels like it. I understand (or think I do) whether he’s miaowing for food or for some other reason, and I talk to him, sometimes nonsense and sometimes whatever I happen to be thinking.He’s amazingly confident and friendly with humans and doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. He’s even come into some of my clients’ sessions, much to their delight, though I have to remove him if he starts playing with them too roughly. His first birthday is coming up next week and several people have told me he’s now the cat equivalent of a teenager. Well yes, that figures…

Being such a confident and well-adjusted cat, he’s not scared to exercise his hunting instincts. It started with the odd vole or shrew and a little bird or two, but recently this sweet, adorable creature whom people make such a fuss of has become a bird-killer par excellence. I won’t list all the species he’s had a go at but there are, I’m sorry to say, quite a few, all birds I would have loved to have alive in my garden.  It’s more upsetting that he’s not killing them for food. He just seems to enjoy playing with the little corpses and batting them round the room, then forgets about them and leaves them on the carpet, feathers strewn everywhere. I sweep them up and hoover away the feathers, hoping and praying he won’t do it again too soon. When we had snow I foolishly let him out, and of course that gave him some nice easy prey. Now I’m trying to keep him in between dusk and dawn, the birds’ most vulnerable times, but he’s still managed to get a couple of sparrows in the afternoon. Other than keeping him shut in all day and all night, which seems cruel to him, I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be responsible for adding to the decline in bird numbers and I wouldn’t want to lose my dear little friend, who has become an important being in my life.

“Well, he’s a cat,” some of my cat-loving friends say. “That’s what they do.” And it is. All cats are hunters, from the smallest to the biggest, and we can’t change their nature. According to the RSPB, the birds that cats catch may be on the whole those that are weaker or already dying of natural causes, but there isn’t any proper research to show that’s so. Nevertheless the RSBP estimate that in the UK domestic cats kill something like 55 million birds a year, which is an awful lot of birds. The problem is that the domestic cat isn’t part of the local ecosystem but has been introduced through human intervention. The species seems to originate from the Middle East and cats have lived alongside humans for a very long time,  seemingly with mutual benefits. But then humans aren’t great news for the local ecosystem either.

I’m quite ambivalent about the idea of having a ‘pet’. I prefer the term ‘animal companion’, which has less dominating overtones. At the same there’s no doubt that this animal has to fit into my life and, to quite an extent, do what I want. The reason he’s been neutered is that that way he’ll cause less smell and disruption in a human environment – and also, of course, that he won’t be able to sire unwanted kittens. But what right do I/we have to do that to an animal? And, as I’ve said above, by stopping him killing birds I’m fighting against his feline nature and trying to make him be what I want him to be. We all tend to anthropomorphise animals, whether we mean to or not, and I notice myself treating Koala and feeling towards him in a way that’s very similar to the way I’d feel towards a small child. I didn’t set out to get myself a child – or grandchild – substitute, but inevitably I’m making him into an honorary human, just as, when he rubs his head against me or ‘grooms’ my fingers, he’s making me into an honorary cat. And it’s lovely and feels like a real relationship, and all the time another bit of me wonders if really it’s all wrong. Unlike domestic dogs, domestic cats could fend for themselves in the wild, so by feeding and housing him am I just alienating him from his real nature for my own benefit? Or am I  making sure that this creature has a safe, well-fed and happy life, for his benefit as well as mine?

Either way, here we are, Koala and I, getting along together and trying to find a modus vivendi that’s possible for us and the other creatures around us – and perhaps not quite succeeding yet. But he is awfully cute (she said anthropomorphically) and if you met him I’m sure you’d like him.



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Those things which I ought to have done

It’s not that long since Imbolc, a time for reviewing both aspirations for the year and broken promises – not just this year’s resolutions but all the things I was going to do last year and somehow didn’t get round to. All the writing I was going to do. I promised several friends I would review their books on this blog or on Amazon, and I promised myself I’d review some more. I did write a few reviews and people were pleased with them, but that was quite early in the year. Perhaps I’ll just name some of the poetry collections I promised to review: A Sprig of Rowan by Rebecca GethinVoices in the Garden by Julie-ann RowellMarietta’s Wardrobe by Hazel Hammond and, from way back, Other Blackbirds by Alex Josephy. I’d like to apologise to all those people for not having done so. I know how valuable and affirming it is to be publicised in this way, and I’m enormously grateful to Rebecca Gethin, an indefatigably generous reviewer of other people’s work, for including a review of my collection on her blog – my only review to date.

I’ve also wanted to write about several prose books by friends: Hospital High, a novel for young adults by Mimi TheboIn Search of Grace, an account of an ecological pilgrimage by Peter Reason and, again from a long while back, The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay.  And I’d intended to write about other collections by people known to me that I’ve been impressed by, including bolt down this earth by Gram Joel DaviesAmazon by Catherine Ayres, nothing more to it than bubbles by Jane BurnThe Book of Tides by Angela Readman and Wild Gooseberries of Hailung by Frances Corkey Thompson. For the moment all I’m doing is mentioning these titles, but I know all of them deserve more than that.

And I had plans to set up a website, and in fact started doing so. A proper website that would showcase my work and tell the world that here I am, a poet and writer, who has published a book and self-published another one, and who writes real writing. Only I haven’t been writing so have wanted to keep quiet about myself, and when I’m not writing I tend to stop believing in my work and start to feel like a fraud for thinking it’s good enough to promote. Not that the desire to put my work out into the world has completely gone away. I’ve started entering competitions again and am even submitting work to one or two magaines, trying not to anticipate either acceptance or rejection. And I’m reading at a poetry event next week and haven’t taken myself off the list for that…

All of the above could be an excuse for a good old mea culpa session: I haven’t written, I can’t really write anyway, I’ve procrastinated and distracted myself and haven’t been getting down to it, so I don’t deserve to do it. As I said in my previous post, I’ve been there, done that all too often. It’s easy to get into the same frame of mind with meditation practice: I haven’t been sitting, which proves that I don’t really care about it, so how can I possibly start again etc etc. But both writing and meditation are infinitely forgiving: if you didn’t do it earlier on, you can always do it now. No need to make a fuss about it; just pick yourself up, take hold of the pen, open up the document, or sit on your cushion or chair. You don’t have to make yourself good enough to meditate – some Buddhist teachings suggest starting by remember all the good things you’ve done, however small they seem – and you don’t have to make yourself good enough to write. In both cases you just have to do it, and in both cases the less you try to show what you think is your acceptable face, the more worthwhile it will be. For me, both writing and meditating are about making a commitment to what feels deeper and more real than endless busyness and distraction. I hesitate to use a big word like authenticity, but I think most people can sense when it’s there, to whatever degree, in writing or in the way someone speaks about their experience.

For Christmas a dear friend of mine gave me a beautiful journal with a dragon on the cover – I’ve had an affinity with dragons for a long time. And when my collection was published my lovely writing group gave me not one but two very swish notebooks – writing, for purposes of. So even supposing I didn’t have a computer or any paper in the house (as if!) I’d have no excuse. Next weekend I’ll be on a residential course with Greta Stoddart, whose monthly seminars I go to, and in April I’m venturing up to Iona for a week’s course with Roselle Angwin.  I’m looking now to find ways of cutting down on work again and making more space for writing. In the last post I said a resurgence might be coming. Now what I have to do is (to mix metaphors somewhat) prepare a clear patch of ground for it to take root.



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