Monday, November 29, 2010

Latest news

Much going on behind the scenes...

• Ghostwriting continues, on 'The Father' (an autobiography), with another biography in discussion

• Client communications consultancy, for Children on the Edge and Health Poverty Action, as well as other institutions and campaigns

• Regular journalism, including pieces for Wired magazine, The National, Sunday Times Magazine, and The Reader's Digest

• TV discussions continue, on documentary and drama projects (Canadian project in-discussion at moment).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

R.I.P. Jacob, our faithful friend

It's funny how the loss of a pet affects you. Many times I've scoffed at others who seem to (over) dote on their animals; at the old ladies feeding scraps to the local cats; or the dog owners who treat their pets as children and can't believe they'd hurt a fly.

But the sudden loss of my own animal, Jacob, who'd been with us exactly 12 years (almost to the day) brought the reality crashing home. The animal - if it's treated well - is really a "companion". In fact, I didn't realise it but there's a lot of literature and studies done on "companion animals" and how beneficial to our physical and emotional health they can be. Now I find myself grieving - real grief, weird - for what is basically a small animal.

Of course, the cynic or journalist in me "knows" that the cat or dog gets a free home, food, shelter etc and you can't "impose" your emotions onto an animal. So whether it - or should I say he, or she - knows "love" is debatable. But they can certainly show affection, playfulness, sense when you're not right (Jacob would come up to us if we had a fight and start miaowing constantly, as though trying to get us to stop), etc.

Part of what hurts so much is that they become this companion; part of your family; a far more elevated status (to you, their owner, at least) than just a "pet". I couldn't put a hamster, gerbil or rabbit on the same level, but having taken in a one-year-old (or thereabouts, as they didn't know) big ginger rescue cat from Battersea Dog's Home (which, yes, does have a cattery!) at the end of August 1998, a big change came into our lives. Basically, it *is* like having a child: they're reliant on you for everything.

In our case, Jacob was a rescue animal with two previous homes who was recovering from gingivitis and cat flu in the quarantine area of the cattery. He was reserved for one of the veterinary nurses, who had fallen in love with him. The minute my other half saw him, she knew he was "the one". I was summoned and, reluctantly at first, agreed to take him home. Hah! If I'd known how soft I was to become on that cat, I would have laughed at myself and my reluctance then.

Through thick and thin, Jacob was my (particularly mine) constant companion: I worked from home in inner London. I would get threatened by oddballs during my work, go through periods of penury when work wasn't coming in or paying well, even through near-relationship breakup - and Jacob was there for both of us. He might not have known it, but I think he had something, a small part at least, with keeping us together and healing the rifts.

Jacob moved with us as we moved, and stayed with us as we started a family. At first, he wouldn't even sit in your lap. He was a nervous animal, but gentle as a babe. He hardly ever swiped anyone, or anything. By the end he wanted to sit on my lap all the time. He would ride around on my shoulders. We always said he was more like a dog than a cat: very faithful, very loyal, not really into hunting or staying out all night. Our one time we left him at a cattery (so we could go on holidays), he returned a nervous wreck. Never again!

I treated him a bit like a dog too, chatting to him during my days, "patting" him on his haunches (which he seemed to like, weird I know) and he became, to me at least, "man's best friend." I even taught him to come when I clicked my fingers, and you'd see him hurtling down the road or the garden towards you when you did, particularly if you also crouched down on your haunches. He was incredibly loyal. He was there for me the night before my son was born ... I guess the thing about a companion like this is that they're a "link" to your past; they are there through some of your strongest memories, whether good times or bad.

My only guilt is that once we had our son, Jacob was somewhat relegated from his favoured status: no longer could he sleep on the bed, no longer was he pampered as much as before. He still got fed, watered and attention, but not as much. Still, I remained the ridiculously attentive "dad" figure: if the neighbourhood cats were giving him a hard time, I'd walk with him out in the garden. He would literally *follow me* down the road, or out into the front garden - where otherwise he'd rarely go - if I was out there; safe; then run up a tree or do some mad stunt which always made us laugh. Gah, brings a tear to my eye just to remember those times ...

Sadly for him, the health problems began about five years ago. He was getting blocked urinary tracts (his urine), clogged up with painful struvite crystals. My other half tells me he had his first vet stay in 2005, then another in 2006, then finally in 2007 he had a full-blown major operation to remove his penis. Ouch! Poor Jacob. Despite the pain he was still a loving pet; still with us. I couldn't bare to see him in pain, or to face him dying. It cost me thousands, literally thousands, of pounds to save him. It dented my credit cards: but he was my Jacob, my friend, I wasn't prepared to let him go for the sake of my bank balance. (Some people would and did call me foolish of course) I can't explain it other than to say would you kill your own kid? I guess that was how I felt at the time.

But with family expanding, poor old "jub-jub" as we called him (or, unPC but meant affectionately, "poof-job" as our housemates also dubbed him) got less attention. And unbeknownst to us his health problems were building. He'd be getting thinner, skankier looking, always begging for food, his rug would be dirty and he'd grab any food if you left it out - somewhat stressful, as he was on a strict vet diet and we had been told that one of the old ladies near us had probably been feeding him scraps, which had led to all his bladder problems in the first place. (Male neutered cats are more prone to urinary tract disease, so beware if you get one: don't feed them dry food!)

We were so busy with "life", looking after our kid, being stressed with work, etc, that we just got fed up with Jacob. I feel eternally guilty about that, even though he is (or was) "only a cat". He would get shunted out of the way, or a slipper or other soft object chucked in his direction as he would begin "yowling" (or "maowling" as my son called it) at 5am every morning. He was desperate for food but not eating; always drinking. A trip to the vets last year failed to diagnose anything, but it was only a locum and he just weighed him and did nothing else.

The problems were getting worse and worse this year, however. The desperate hunger, the weight loss, the yowling. Eventually, with our second baby due, I figured I couldn't put off the vet any longer. I hated going to the vets with him: he would yowl all the way there, then be sick or poo himself on the way back. It was horrible. This time I didn't feed him before going, and he was ok. Once at the vets he got blood tests and it was clear something was wrong. He had mouth ulcers, making eating hard and caused by excessive acid. A day or two later, confirmation came of renal (kidney) failure: not as horrendously-advanced as some animals, but still ultimately fatal. We started him on (another) special (and expensive) vet food, and a set of tablets. Then came a second confirmation: he had hyperthyroidism. This was causing his excessive hunger, a feeling of heat, extreme weight loss. Combined with the renal problem, and a "leaking heart" (I think heart murmur) he wasn't looking good.

I was all convinced for trying a second set of drugs, along with the first, and expensive prescription food, to try and keep him going. Then he pissed himself on Saturday evening, soaking the settee, and the vet said that was a sign of his renal failure. Not only would it cost loads to keep him going, but his quality of life was going to suffer: second kid about to arrive, and I was seeing my son used to "kicking" out at the cat, mimicking my attempts to shunt Jacob away when he begged, and begged, and begged for food. I felt terrible. So did my wife, who was also extremely close to him (I may sound as though I'm the only one grief-stricken, but that's not true).

We took the final decision to have him put to sleep on Sunday; by Monday we had done it. Although, annoyingly, we had to wait for two sets of people to finish appointments (one bloke was only there to ask the vets if they could x-ray his crash helmet for cracks!!), and my wife was crying, we did get to open Jacob's cage, stroke him, and he was relaxed, lying down inside. I've never seen him like that in a vet's. Never.

Inside, they shaved a foreleg and tried to find a vein for the drug, but the veins had collapsed - a sign of the kidney disease. So he was given a sedative, which he fought for a short while, but then went limp and after laying down in his cage for a while - my god, I can't believe what a good boy he was through all this (one of the reasons so many of our friends and the vet and nurses liked this cat was his extremely good nature) - he was laid out on the table. We all stroked and kissed him, said our goodbyes, told him what a good boy he was, etc, then the final drug was given to an artery via his stomach. A few flutters and his breath left him. He was sedated already, his eyes open and his legs twitching slightly whenever we stroked him or talked to him. He died as that, eyes open, the last thing he saw in this world was my face and the wife's voice in his ear, telling him we loved him. I can't believe how brave he was. Ok, he probably didn't know "brave", but that's how I'd like to interpret it. I was actually proud of him.

Now there's a gaping hole of course. Our son asks: "Where's my cat?" and when told he's no longer with us, will go "ohhhh" with a sad tone. He's not too cut up, he doesn't really understand. I guess in time we'll get another animal and he'll bond more closely with that. But not yet. We have another new life - a new baby - to welcome any day now, and perhaps it's prophetic that we got dear old Jacob at the end of August 1998; he died at the end of August 2010; and a new life, our new baby, is due at the end of August, too. Who knows? Sounds nice to think it though.

For now, the pain is real: as real as with any human loss. It will fade with time, I know. But I and my wife want to remember our first "child", our companion, Jacob here. You were only 13 but you had a good life. And I loved you. Rest In Peace buddy. We'll never forget you.


p.s. This article describes the grief well. Throughout it all, our South African veterinarian has been great, so hats off to her.

Friday, July 09, 2010

'Just Have Hope'

Been working on a short prologue, a taster of a new non-fiction book set in Northern Ireland and South Africa.


A hand trembles on a closed door. It is a simple barrier inside a small corridor sealed from the township.

"Duu-mehla, Laaa-feyla … "
"Duumu Laaaa'feyla"
"Duu-mehla, Laaa-feyla … "
"Duumu Laaaa'feyla"

I can hear no dogs, nor feel the familiar sting of the cooking fires. But for the aging female chorus, the township is silent.

"Everything is fine"
"Just have faith"
"Just have hope"
"Everything is fine."

Here are the women, marching in a line, gold teeth flashing, heavy chests swaying.

Matron, a formidable figure, the matriarch, but with a heart of gold. Tshidi, our deputy, who lost her husband but found a new life with the hospice. Then Mildred, faithful Mildred, who runs it all and whose mummy we buried not long ago. Patricia is here, the lead choirister – and competitive she is too! – before last-in-line our creche manager, holding one of her young charges as she sings.

"Duu-mehla, Laaa-feyla … "
"Duumu Laaaa'feyla"
"Duu-mehla, Laaa-feyla … "
"Duumu Laaaa'feyla"

Ah. It is the funeral lament. You might call it the township song.

"Everything is fine"
"Just have faith"
"Just have hope"
"Everything is fine."

The wind has whipped up. Ochre dust blows through the walls of the compound. Now I can taste the fires on the back of my throat. And something else.


"Duu-mehla, Laaa-feyla …"

The undertaker is outside. The gurney is wheeled out. The door is open, the singing thunderous.

"Everything is fine … "

The shroud drops. A white hand slips...

Then I am looking down at my own face.

Oh God. Oh God.


Random fiction extract

Random fiction – extract from a work I called 'The Lost'.

The stink of fish. It lingered over the dockside. The rusting hulks of ancient liners bobbed slowly on the swell. The young man crooked his head up to the now-covered sun, bright behind the veil of cloud. He appeared lost in thought.

A tattoo sat on the young man’s arm. He looked down at it. He remembered.

From across the bay thin filters of smoke lifted from burning dumps, the acrid tang of rubber and waste coating the back of his nostrils. He coughed and spat in disgust, cursing his luck.

The note on the portakabin said the Wansella had already sailed. That meant another day, two, maybe a week before the next boat out of here.

He stretched. The wake was always slow. The sun warmed his back, lent strength to his shoulders. He was tired. The night had been long, unforgiving.

He got up, walked down to the quayide and bought some raw cockles. The fisherman gestured, offering something that he took to be vinegar. The sour taste burned for a moment on his dry tongue. The fisherman smiled, went behind the counter, then surfaced again holding a bottle of dark liquor.


The taste melted the last of the vinegar. He shook, then composed himself in the lea of a shed. He looked over at the hanging nets, wondering how the fishermen suffered it – each day, in and out, at the mercy of the ocean.

Early morning sun flashed and caught the bronze of his forearm again. That squirming shape.

“Michael, Michael!”

He turned back to the hangar.

“Don’t worry,” said the voice. She had slipped close, surprising him. He turned as her arms drifted over his shoulders. Her smiling face was planted close to his. She tickled his nose with one insolent finger.

He grinned, inspite of himself.

They had met just a few week’s before. Picking fruit up in the north, near Macedonia. Iskander's country.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Burma, Romania, South Africa and more

Keep your eyes peeled for new stories from myself on:

• Burma's British Heroine – profile of Rachel Bentley, head of the charity Children on the Edge. Stories coming on Rachel, and the charity's cutting-edge work in and around Burma, in The Times Educational Supplement, The Tablet, and M Magazine (The National), soon.

• The Father – story out now on the heroic Father Kieran Creagh, the Belfast priest who runs Leratong Hospice in South Africa. How did Fr. Creagh survive the night he was accosted and shot three times at point-blank range? Out now in The Reader's Digest; look out for a follow-up 'Life in the Day' interview with Fr. Creagh in The Sunday Times Magazine.

• Pocketing Pixels – the rise, and rise, of virtual currencies. BBC News | Technology section.

• Video games composers, sci-fi directors and more ... keep your eyes peeled for new interviews in WIRED magazine.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Busy Spring

Life has turned busy this spring.

Elections are coming. I'm now doing media work with a number of NGOs (working in Burma, Tanzania, Romania and elsewhere), as well as preparing a biography on an amazing Irish priest and working hard to develop storylines for a potential drama series based on one of my major stories. (Sadly a drama for HBO based on another story fell through)

I'll be returning to 'Ryan's Rants' when time allows. Soon, inshallah, soon ...

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Starting 2010

As I write this, a blanket of frost descends onto England and we veer between sub-zero temperatures and extended downpours of rain. Plus ├ža change!

2010 has started and with it new chances, changes and opportunities. As well as giving up the old mince pies and ensuring I stick to a fitness regime, I've two books to get on with, some TV ideas to prepare, and a bunch of new stories waiting to roll off the line.

Check The Reader's Digest for my next piece on the fascinating Belfast priest based out in a South African township; and then a profile story of the leader of an amazing little children's charity working with Burmese refugees across Asia.

Then the BBC will be running a story from me about virtual currencies ... after which I hope to be printing a travel story on the Virgin islands, then penning some more book reviews for my favourite paper in China, the South China Morning Post.

Before that, though, to administration: a tax return to prepare! Wish me godspeed as I get down to that and, in the meantime, a very happy New Year to one and all. May 2010 bring us all good cheer and luck.