Saturday, December 27, 2008


I started into a captivating series of books this month that I have been meaning to read for years- literally. I always love the poetry of John Milton (also my mother’s favourite poet) so I was intrigued that Phillip Pullman had based his trilogy on a quote from Paradise Lost – “his dark materials”. The first book was published back in 1995, so why it has taken me this long to get around to them, I really don’t know. All I can say is once I started the first one I had to make sure the second book was lined up to start straight into afterwards. I loved “Northern Lights” (Paperback: Scholastic Press: 9.95), I was even drawn to the fabulous picture on the cover which is just how I s ay Lyra, the twelve year old heroine of the series. The book tells the story of the orphaned Lyra, who is growing up amidst a clutch of ageing and dusty scholars in an Oxford college. Not far into the novel however I was struck by the fact that this wasn’t actually our worlds, it was similar in many instances, but had a lovely unusual quality all of its own.

Pullman draws a world which by slight of hand is strangely different to out own experiences, a little like a skewed reflection in a mirror. In this “parallel universe” a person’s soul is represented by an animal who travels with them everywhere, somewhat like the American Indian’s belief in totems I guess. The souls or “daemons” as they are quirkily called have personalities which reflect their human’s nature and fascinatingly in children do not take a fixed form, but change rapidly from one animal to another, depending on the child’s state of mind. This sounds a little odd, but Pullman narrates his story with such skill that the reader quickly comes to accept and relish this as a feature of this mirror world.

The plot is fantastic in every sense and is cram med with powerful icons of good and evil – it’s easy to see straight away how it runs to a trilogy. Having devoured the first book in record time for me, I plunged straight into “The Subtle Knife”, the second in the trilogy and have just finished it. The novel both broadens and deepens Lyra’s story and introduces a poignant and inspiring charcter from out own world- Will, also twelve years old and searching for his missing father. The characterisation and the imagery in the second book is just as powerful, as the first and the plot development means it is really hard to put down. I am typically a slow reader, but flew through both of these. As their heroes are children I know they are often branded as children’s books, but to me they have a sophistication and wisdom that has huge appeal for an adult reader. I am now looking forward to the denouement of the riveting story in the third and final book – “The Amber Spyglass” – perhaps I will cancel all impending social events and just stay at home and read it?!

On a very different note , an interesting read for any amateur social scientists out there is Robert Winston’s “Human Instinct” ( paperback , Bantam Books :12.50), which is based on the BBC series ( I didn’t see it, so can’t comment…) It is an interesting trip back to our ancestors on the African Savannah and an investigation into primordial instincts that still operate today in our “sophisticated” society. Winston has a light-hearted style, which makes the scientific bits easy to understand, and it has so much relevance for today, it’s quite amazing. It’s also very amusing in places, whilst having good reference points, so that you know it’s not just pop psychology.

Enjoy your autumn reading on these darkening evenings – great excuse to curl up with a good book!

Angie Thompson

We are delighted to present for your entertainment “Carpe Diem” by Valerie Woods, winner of the Michael Ward Prize for creative writing and “Good Times” by Trudie Jeffers, winner of the Billy Evans Memorial Poetry Prize. Enjoy!

Carpe Diem

I fell I have lived in interesting times. My life has had many changes and getting cancer was one of them. While initially it was a complete shock, eventually it became a learning process.
I had worked in hospitals for many years and as time went on and I witnessed more and more patients with cancer going through their treatment, I developed very definite ideas about how I felt about some kinds of cancer treatments. Being very opinionated, I swore to everybody I knew that, should I be in that position, I would never have any of these treatments as they seemed to me to be worse than the disease itself. For years I went on and on about how I felt and what I would and wouldn’t do. I even refused to go for mammograms as it seemed pointless when I had no intention of following any of the standard treatments.

Then one day, my lovely local doctor persuaded me to go to the breast clinic and, more to please her than anything else, I did. I believed cancer was caused by repressed emotions and I had done so much work on myself over the years I didn’t believe I could get cancer.

I duly presented myself for my appointment at the breast clinic with no thoughts other than it was a nuisance as I was going to Wexford for a week’s holiday. I arrived into the brand new centre with the nice atmosphere and pleasant staff and had my mammogram. I noticed most of the women waiting had someone accompanying them – a husband, a friend. Not me of course, I wouldn’t need that.
Even when the letter arrived the next day asking me to return for a further mammogram, and ultrasound and possibly a biopsy, I still never considered asking anyone to come with me. I sat there chatting with some of the other ladies while I waited to speak to the doctor, having had the mammogram and ultrasound which were fine and the biopsy which wasn’t so fine and got a sense of how worried most of them were. Not me – I was invincible.

When I listened to the doctor tell me that they would have the results in a week, I instinctively knew from his manner that the news was unlikely to be good.
I went home and asked my husband to lift the dinner from the oven as my arm was sore. I didn’t mention to him why it was sore and the next day I drove off to Wexford with my good arm.
Under the wide open skies of Curracloe I tried to be quiet and listen to my heart. I walked the beach, paddled in the sea (I was afraid to swim in case my breast fell off) and just tried to assimilate what knew was coming. Where would this leave me? Could I get along with what the doctors would invariably suggest? What about all my trenchant ideas about cancer treatment. Would the cure be worse than the disease?

The next day I met a friend for lunch and told her all about it and the dilemma I now faced. She said “ sometimes the Universe tosses you a pebble and if you don’t catch it, it throws you a stone and if you don’t catch that it lands a rock on your head – if it were me – I would just catch the pebble” There was my angel giving me an answer. Driving back in the car the nurse called from the breast clinic called to check that I was coming in for my appointment. “Yes,” I said, “I’ll be there.”

A few days later back in the clinic, no husband, no friend with me, I got my results. As I Imagined the news was bad. I had breast cancer, a small tumour that would need to be removed in addition to my lymph nodes. I went a little crazy. All my theories came out, what I thought, what I believed, all I had read in my holistic healing books. But in the end I said that I wanted to be at my granddaughters wedding, she was five at the time, and that they could do whatever it took to achieve that. I asked the surgeon if he could perform the operation as I felt I could trust him.
With the decision made, it seemed sensible to do it as quick as quickly as possible and a week later I was checking into the hospital. Was this me? I don’t do illness, I don’t do doctors or hospitals or surgery. But there I was.
There was a lovely lady in the bed beside me who lived quite near me who was also having surgery for breast cancer, more advanced than mine. They gave her a pre-med and she drifted off to sleep. When she woke up she thought it was all over and was upset to discover that they had cancelled her surgery until the next day. My surgery, unfortunately, was not. I didn’t have the pre-med. I had been listening to a book and tape by Betty Shine all week. Positive thoughts going in all the time. In the theatre I met the surgeon. I took his hands in mine and told him I was putting healing into them. I imagine he thought I had had too much pre-med but he merely said “Dear lady – with your faith and my skill – you will be fine.” I woke up to find six people jumping the trolley up and down in an effort to bring me round – I forgot to tell them I was sensitive to anaesthesia. Then my lovely daughter was there at my bedside watching over me as I drifted in and out. The next day I was fine. I was up and off marching up and down corridors like a drill sergeant. This was one of the hospitals that I had previously worked in and so the transition to patient was strange but the staff looked after me wonderfully. They even managed to arrive with a cream cake and a candle on my birthday. They all sang Happy Birthday and I was mortified.
The next hurdle was going in to have my radiation. It was a while before I got an appointment and summer seemed long and hot. My wound was tight and sore, largely because I felt the physiotherapist was a sadist and neglected to do the exercises. My surgeon told me a long hot bath often worked as well and that seemed by far a better option.
One day as I was particularly down, I was walking up the street where I lived and noticed there was a cancer centre. I rang the bell and went in. It was late afternoon and everyone was gone with the exception of the lady who ran the place. She sat me down and made me a cup of tea and before I knew it I was crying my eyes out. Here I was a counselor and reflexologist – I shouldn’t be feeling this way. She gave me some literature and suggested that I come in regularly. After that I often dropped in to the centre. I took classes in meditation, relaxation, art and aromatherapy. I never did get around to doing the Tai Chi but it was a tremendous help in these months.
The most wonderful thing happened to me there. I met other people who were having it much tougher than I was. Women with mastectomies and courses of chemotherapy to face. I would listen to them and thank God that my cancer was caught early. There is nothing like a little perspective to stem the flow of self pity.
The date arrived for my radiation and I had to go to be measured – something akin to the dressmaker but not quite. They had to mark up the areas receiving the radiation. They asked would I prefer ink or a tattoo – I said a tattoo – I had always wanted one. The hospital where I had my radiation was a specialist oncology hospital and although you would think this would make for a depressing atmosphere, the opposite was true. Both staff and patients alike were friendly and upbeat. Being me, of course, I drove myself back and forth to the hospital every day, They used to laugh at me because I always needed a pillow under my knees for my wonky back and had to be free on Tuesdays to play Bridge. The weeks went by – drive to the hospital, have my treatment, have a cup of tea in the hospital cafĂ© and drive home. I got through it fine. My arm still hurt and I couldn’t do things like put a parking ticket in the machine. Back to the physiotherapists. Sadists or not, the exercises did help.
And now here I am, five years later, still attending both hospitals for regular checkups but thankfully cancer free.
Having cancer changes your life, changes your outlook on life. Perhaps for some of us it is a wakeup call. What I got out of it was “Carpe Diem” – seize the day – life really is precious.

Good Times.
We sat by the river’s edge the water lapping
My son and I, a-thinking and a –fishing
I thought of home, of farm life, sons and daughter,
He thought of school, exams and football, cubs, canoeing.
“We’ve got a bite—quick, play him in real slowly
He’s got away, and left the bare hook only.

We sat by the river’s edge the water lapping,
My son and I, a-listening and a-fishing.
We heard the pheasant, swooping in, a-cocking
The cattle lowing, fish jumping down the river.
We heard the birds a-twitter as they rested
And further off lads laughing as they tussled.
“I’ve got him this time, - help me reel him in, please”
“Ah gosh, he’s gone again” we’re learning patience.

We sat by the river’s edge the water lapping,
My son and I, a-living and a-fishing.
We breath’d the air all scented with the mayflower,
We touched the grass – all tender, young, and dewy,
We felt the dusk come swiftly o’er the meadow,
And thanked God for the beauty of creation.

“Come Mike – it’s time to make tracks homeward”
“We’ll catch that blighter next time round, I promise,
And we’ll have trout for breakfast – fat and shiny”-
There’s nothing like an evening, river fishing!


When a good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) gave me a gift of a parachute jump last year I initially thought – is she trying to get rid of me? However….I am sure like many others who have tried skydiving I am now a convert- it is FANTASTIC!

I went down to the airfield in Clonbulogue, where the Irish Parachute Club is based and was amazed at how helpful and friendly everyone was. After signing our lives away the training only takes around ten minutes and then it’s a case of waiting for clear skies as the guys are very safety conscious. I was lucky as the mist cleared into a stunning day and by the time my supporters club arrived down it was glorious.

The tiny plane takes you, your instructor ( who you are attached to, so feel completely safe…) and another duo up to 10,000 feet where you simply jump out. The freefall is great for anyone who loves the thrill of roller-coasters- I don’t particularly so luckily that bit only lasted about 30 seconds. At around 5,500 feet the parachute opens and then you can start to look around at this beautiful country we live in –its like gazing down from heaven- sheer bliss. The sensation is gentle and feels like flying- the nearest to being a bird you ever going to get. The landing is also hassle-free- the instructor takes the drop and you come down lightly. I did resist the temptation to get a DVD at first but was persuaded by my instructor and I must say it’s a great way to experience the beauty again, so I would recommend it.

So as well as flying like a bird I also got to raise 700 euro (100 of that down to Mary O’Neill’s extortion skills with her family members) for the Niall Mellon Township Trust. There was a whole team of footballers there the day I was down and apparently they had raised about 20k for their club, so it’s a great way to fund raise. It’s also easy to organise it via check out their helpful website or contact them on 1890 804100.

Angie Thompson.

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