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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Ill, at Ease - Dealing With Terminal Illness

Following my article ‘Travelling Hopefully’ recently published in ‘The Friend’, I have received a number of emails, enquiries and comments asking for more information about how I am dealing with my terminal illness. They usually ask if I am having counselling or other support? My answer is that I usually find the support that I need within my ‘reserve bank’ of Quaker wisdom and beliefs, together with the love and support of my partner, family and friends. Since my diagnosis in October 2021, I have experienced much the same roller coaster of emotions as many other sufferers. I have no answers, but I hope that my limited experiences so far will be of some help to others in my position.

A good friend of ours passed into the Light recently after dealing with cancer bravely for many years. Although we had corresponded spasmodically over the last thirty years or so, we counted Bob as a good friend. I recall his last letter to me; one that he had written shortly after hearing of my own cancer diagnosis. I recall one sentence with clarity because, at that time, I was a little puzzled by what he meant. “We each deal with cancer in our unique way”, was one of his comments; several months on the cancer journey, I think I now know what he meant.

Following diagnosis, particularly of the terminal cancer kind, there comes a period of acute distress, denial, which is often followed anger and, if we are fortunate, a kind of dull acceptance, often coupled with a determination to fight on. I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but this is my experience so far in this journey. Much, of course, depends upon one’s personal faith, or maybe lack of it, the love and support from family and friends, and the individual circumstances that we find ourselves in. We all hope that, in time, we are given the strength to deal with whatever is finally waiting for us.

From my own experience and observations, I have found that after a diagnosis of cancer has been given, many are either in denial and try to put the issue at the back of their minds, until they are ready, or forced, to deal with it; or they gratefully accept advice and support from whoever is offering it. In my case, I am blessed with an oncologist who understands, and appreciates my need to be told the unvarnished truth with as much clarity as possible. I am supported by a wonderful, caring group of nurses and ancillary staff who do their best to answer my endless questions, whilst retaining both humour, compassion and professionalism in their supportive words. The cancer charity, MacMillan supports patients brilliantly with excellent information, whilst offering support and assistance whenever they can.

Following my own diagnosis, I did as much research as I could on the Internet, quickly recognising not to trust many of the websites and information given. Spurious claims of wonder drugs and alternative therapies are freely available, and I quickly learned only to trust the NHS website and information given by organisations, such as Macmillan. I also read a lot, particularly about personal experiences of those living with cancer. Not all were helpful in my search for information, particularly about dealing with approaching death, which, as a society, we are very bad at acknowledging and facing realistically.

I recall one book in particular. It was one that I read about half way through, but became so irritated and at times angry with the author that I could not bear to finish it. The author was a woman who had her own unique way of dealing with her own advanced cancer, which was to unleash her anger and bitterness upon those who were trying to help her. She claimed that by insisting that she would only attend those appointments that fitted into her own busy diary, that she had access and personal detailed explanations of all scans, tests and drugs, and being generally unreasonable to all those that she came into contact with, empowered her and gave her the strength to fight her cancer. Some of her demands may not seem unreasonable to some, but within the scope of an exceptionally busy, overworked and underfunded NHS, her demands were unreasonable. The author was clearly a very unhappy and troubled woman who had yet to come to terms with the inevitable. I hope writing the book helped her to comes to terms with her anger and eventually result in acceptance and peace.

One of the reasons that I objected to the author’s anger, so vehemently expressed within the pages of this lengthy book, was that, as a Quaker, I try to avoid conflict whenever possible and “fighting cancer” is an expression that does not sit easy with my own philosophy. This is not to say that I do not get angry and depressed at my condition. I do, but I try to channel it in a positive way, recognising that in some ways I am fortunate in knowing the approximate timing of my departure, that I can plan and prepare in the best way that I can for my partner, making the choices and decisions that I want to make for myself, as well as hopefully avoiding the curse of dementia, or worse.

I also try to look at cancer as an organism in a positive way. Of course, I do not welcome its invasion into my body, but I also have to remember that it is a God created organism, created in a similar way to ourselves. The organism lives with its main purpose of reproducing itself as quickly and efficiently as possible. As far as I am aware, cancer cells do not wittingly intend to create untold damage to other cells in order to kill off the host body, but it does so presumably unaware of the consequences of its invasion. In many ways, the life cycle of a cancer cell has some similarity with human and animal life. Its determination also fascinates me, because as one cancer expert recently told me “Cancer always finds its way around the treatments that we use to try to control it. As yet, it won’t be controlled, and it nearly always finds a way through.”

As I progress through my own personal and unique cancer journey, I now understand Bob’s words. In some ways, I am grateful for the clarity and understanding that an ‘end of life situation’ can bring. Of course, I would prefer not to be in this position, but we have to deal with whatever situation that we find ourselves in. In my personal cancer journey, a Quaker perspective is both positive and helpful, which has added clarity and meaning to my life.

This article was recently published in 'The Friend', a Quaker magazine, published weekly.


Travelling Hopefully

It was over 50 years ago that I met my partner, lover and best friend, David, when we were both studying at teacher training college. Looking back over the years, I have concluded that we did well to get through it and still be together in a relationship that remains as strong today as it did over fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, relationships between same sex couples were illegal, we were unable to share our feelings to anyone, knowing full well that any hint of our relationship would mean expulsion from teacher training and making a future in our chosen careers impossible.

Over the years, we learned successfully how to hide our feelings, to be vague and non-committal about ‘girlfriends’. We ‘hid’ quietly in a Dorset village, only maintaining a very tight circle of close friends and never discussing the issue with our families. Looking back, it was a lonely and, in some ways, an unfulfilling period of our lives. David’s skills as an organist became quickly known to local vicars and church leaders, who were desperate for both increased congregations, as well as a reliable and talented organist. Despite this, as soon as there was any hint that we might be a couple, the shutters came down, and invitations to church and community events quickly disappeared.

Against this backdrop, and perhaps surprisingly, I was appointed as the deputy headteacher of a Roman Catholic school. Apparently, I was appointed to keep the visiting nuns and headteacher from quarrelling, as well as my skills in debating my long-held beliefs in vegetarianism and animal welfare. Later, both David and I became headteachers of Church of England schools. Once again, secrecy was essential and I recall the school governors looking horrified when I was asked after my interview if I would care to move into the dilapidated school house with my wife. “Maybe she could help with the choir,” began the Lady of the Manor. The governors appeared shocked when I politely declined. I am sure that the Governors wished they had asked that question before appointing me as their new headteacher.

Our busy lives as headteachers provided a period of relative stability, mainly because David and I knew how to play the ‘I am not gay’ game. We could never attend each other’s school functions, or attended staff ‘get togethers’ and or talk about our weekends, as is usual with most school staff. As usual, we had to remain aloof and non-committal. Even our families believed that we were just “good friends”, although this view was dismissed many years later by my nephew who claimed that they knew all along. How we wish they had told us, it would have made life so much easier.

One memorable day, David had a breakdown. He was very ill and was told that he would never work again. Much was due to work-related stress as a headteacher, as well as what the psychologist described as “repressed sexuality”. David was put on permanent medication and retired from teaching. It is one of my greatest sadnesses in life that an excellent teacher and headteacher ended an otherwise successful career in this way.

I continued my working life as a school inspector for OFSTED in England and Estyn in Wales. I enjoyed the job, not only for the privilege of working with so many excellent people, who were committed to doing their best for the children in their care, but the escape that it gave me. I was in a different school every fortnight, leading a different team of inspectors. These were people that I had a professional relationship with, but we rarely had time to talk about our personal lives, and we would probably never meet again; it was the kind of non-committal relationship that suited me just fine.

Working away from home meant that David spent a lot of time on his own, which was not a healthy situation for either of us. We decided to move to Bournemouth, which was one of the best steps that we could have made at that time. My relationship with God had been severely tested over the years. I had explored a number of spiritual journeys, visiting Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, United Reformed and other churches. All made me feel that, as a gay man I was not welcome. I was excluded, always on the outside looking in. The best way that I can describe it was searching ‘for the Light’, which was clearly not switched on for gay men and women, and certainly not for me. Neither did I feel comfortable in the traditional ‘White Jesus’ worship, when I had read and began to explore Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths. Why did I have to choose a particular brand when I had already suspected that we were all sharing similar faith experiences?

One day we found ourselves joining a service at the Metropolitan Community Church in Bournemouth. It was a revelation and a treasured memory that I will never forget. David and I entered the building and spotted a huge illuminated purple cross glowing from the front of the church. The pastor at that time ran down the aisle to greet us, and beaming with arms outstretched. “Welcome boys”, he said warmly, grasping our hands. It was the first genuine welcome that we had ever received in a church, and it was wonderful to experience.

Metropolitan Community Church in Bournemouth was at that time best described as “a church for broken people”. Gay, lesbian, transgendered, the confused, straight, alcoholics, the homeless and the drug dependent were all welcome. It was a wonderful mix of humanity; we learned so much and made many good friends, and many of whom we are still in contact with today. We both felt that we were meant to be there and savoured every moment of our new relationship with the Spirit and our new-found friends. This church was also incredibly supportive of David’s condition, and much of his growing recovery was due to the warmth, support and blessing of this amazing community.

Over time, I became uneasy about taking a white European Christian approach to my relationship with God, or ‘the Light’ as I began to call it. As much as we admired the gifted and inspirational pastor and his team, I had a strong feeling of “Why do I need a middleman in my relationship with God?” Maybe I don’t, but I freely accept that there are many who do, and find this relationship both comforting and reassuring. Who are we to judge? I started being aware of the life and teachings of George Fox and other Quakers. Our pastor was about leave Bournemouth to take on a new challenge in the US, and for us it was also time to take the next step in our spiritual journey. Bournemouth Quakers, here we come!

When we entered the Meeting House for the first time, we were warmly greeted by one of the wardens who took time to explain what would happen at the Meeting. We met many other wonderful, warm-hearted people who took us under their wings. We felt immediately at home and became members in 2000. It was a time when I began to feel the warmth and spiritual support in personal worship that had been sorely missing in my other church experiences. Wisdom shared during Meetings opened new challenges and areas to explore. Of course, these Meetings were always followed by often noisy discussions, as well as laughter over a welcome coffee.

In 2003, we felt that another significant change in our lives was needed. We had often talked about moving to Spain, which was already a favourite holiday destination. I continued to be concerned about David’s health, and continued medication. As for me, I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the OFSTED school inspection process, which had moved from one of supportive discussion with school staff about the best way to move a school forward, to an adversarial system that seemed intent upon breaking down goodwill and making matters worse. I decided to quit my work as a school inspector, and in discussion with David planned our move to Spain.

One of the reasons that David and I get on so well is that once we make up our minds, we simply get on with it. Within a few weeks we had moved to our new home in the Costa Blanca. What a breath of fresh air that was. Our next-door neighbours were a gay couple. We had a lesbian couple living opposite, and a few doors down was a middle-aged couple, who had a gay son and didn’t quite know how to cope with it. Indeed, our new home was in a street named San Gabriel, which we were told is the patron saint of gay people, but that might be an exaggeration. Within a couple of weeks, David was pain free and no longer needed any medication. Within a couple of months, David had been interviewed and appointed as the manager of the office of an English-speaking publication, intended for the British community. I resumed my working life delivering newspapers, and later becoming a reporter and photographer for the same newspaper. The paper was owned and managed by a gay man, and all the staff, apart from one confused secretary, were all gay. A wonderful time of healing for us had begun and we no longer felt like outsiders looking in.

A couple of years later, our boss declared that he wanted to expand the newspaper as it was doing so well. I suggested the Canary Islands, and our boss asked us to prepare a business plan for him to consider. Not one to waste time, three weeks later, David and I were on a ferry to the Canary Islands accompanied by our two dogs, Barney and Bella, and a laptop computer. We were to launch and manage a new English language newspaper in Gran Canaria, and with an intention to launch across the seven islands. Amazingly, Gran Canaria was one places where we had always wanted live, but thought impossible. There we were, with a full-time contract and health insurance. We were indeed fortunate.

The ‘live and let live’ attitudes of people in this wonderful island has always been an inspiration to us, and so much in contrast to the narrow, judgemental and often cruel experiences and attitudes that we had experienced in the UK, some of which very sadly continue today. Our work editing the newspaper was often challenging, but we were always refreshed and invigorated by wonderful people from so many nationalities that we worked and enjoyed being with.

Our thoughts and prayers often returned to Bournemouth Meeting. We would usually sit together with Barney and Bella and a lighted candle at 10.30 am on Sunday mornings, in an attempt to link with Bournemouth Friends. One day we had a knock at the door. It was a Belgian couple, long-term Quakers, who had attended a Meeting in Stuttgart and seen our names as Quakers living in Gran Canaria. They visited the island often, and wondered if we could meet together on Sundays? It was such a strange coincidence, or was it?

As a result, we continued to meet regularly with the Belgian couple in our home for several years until we returned to the UK. We were joined by a Spanish and German couple, a Welsh harpist from the island orchestra and a Russian academic who had managed to escape persecution with his partner. The stories that were shared over coffee after our meeting were true eye openers. During those years, we regarded our house group as a kind of Bournemouth ‘spin off’, and we continued to receive newsletters and newsy emails from Bournemouth Meeting that inspired us and were readily shared between all members of our house group. Although I doubt that Bournemouth friends were aware of their Canary Islands outpost, our Belgian, Spanish, German and Russian friends were certainly well aware of Bournemouth Meeting, and may well visit Bournemouth Meeting one day.

All good things come to an end eventually and, for us, Brexit was the final curtain. We had heard enough of promises from both the UK and Spanish governments to make us uneasy. We had to make a decision, which would mean the end of our amazing life in the Canary Islands, leaving friends and work that we loved, as well as our lovely home. Nothing is forever and we looked to the future with confidence, as well as some apprehension.

As I write this, I have been diagnosed with cancer that will no doubt change my expectations of a long and fulfilled life in the UK. Despite my diagnosis, I am thankful for finding Quakerism in general, and Bournemouth Meeting in particular, and their love and welcoming support has been a comfort over many years. I know my life has been changed for the better by Quaker philosophy and wisdom shared over many years; I face the future calmly, and with continued hope and strength.

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

Don't do as I do, do as I say

“Three rashers, three sausages, two eggs, black pudding twice, fried bread twice and no tomatoes,” boomed the voice in front of me in the queue. “Oh, and two rounds of toast and a large mug of coffee.”

“Beans?” responded the unsmiling automaton in the white overall, a woman with no facial expression whatsoever.

“Goodness no, I’ll have wind all day if I do,” came the reply.

Wind is the least of your worries, I thought, as I watched the layers of cholesterol being piled onto a very large plate. I like a cooked breakfast as much as the next person (albeit the vegetarian variety) when I am on holiday, but I know enough about healthy eating to ensure that for most of the year, fresh fruit and muesli is the healthiest way to start my day at home.

“Yes?” snapped the automaton, looking vaguely in my direction.

“Do you have any fresh fruit, apples or bananas maybe?” I enquired hopefully.

“Bananas, no, but you may find some apples in the basket by the till. They may be a bit old though, there’s not a lot of call for them in here. I may have got some tinned fruit in the back.”

I turned and looked at the two forlorn apples in the basket by the till and decided to give them a miss.

“No, I’ll leave that. Just two slices of toast please.”

“Do you want them spreading?”

After having seen the thick layer of butter spread upon the previous customer’s toast, I declined.

“Do you have some vegetable margarine?”

“Over by the till, but that costs extra.”

“Just the toast then, please. No butter.”

Whilst I was waiting for the toast, I attempted some conversation. I was curious to know the reasoning behind the massively unhealthy diet being served in the hospital’s canteen for visitors. As with so many hospital facilities in the UK nowadays, the hospital restaurant had been privatised, and I was amused to see it being run by the same company that is involved in school inspections, as well as refuse collections in the UK.

The hospital restaurant was in one of the UK’s large city hospitals and I had been visiting an elderly relative in its care. As is often the case with sick, elderly patients, they can only cope with short visits and so I decided to take a short coffee break before returning to the ward.

“Don't you think it is a little strange that you are serving such unhealthy food in a hospital restaurant?”

“I just does what I’m told. They decides what’s to be served,” was the snapped response, although now, at least, the face showed some expression and feeling, which was an encouraging development.

“Yes, I can see that, and I’m not blaming you,” I protested, “but you are killing your customers. Maybe your previous customer could have been offered a healthier alternative? Surely it’s a good opportunity to encourage visitors to consider healthy eating when they visit patients. Maybe some fruit? With a diet like that he’ll soon be in here as a patient.”

The woman snorted. “He’s no visitor,” she laughed. “He has that for breakfast most days, and he’s a doctor here!”

I ate my toast slowly, with a mixture of disbelief, anger and amusement, but wondering if my elderly relative was receiving the most enlightened care in that hospital after all.

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

Live and Let Live

One of the many things that I love about our island in the sun is the ‘live and let live’ attitude of most of its people. No, I don’t mean the thousands of tourists, but the true Canarian people, those who were born here and have stayed in this little corner of Paradise. As long as it is broadly legal and does not interfere with anyone else, in the main, anything goes. For many of its present day expat population, with its heady mix of faith, culture, colour and sexuality, it takes time to get used to not being judged. Maybe this stems from the time, it is said, when Spain’s General Franco, intolerant of gay men in the military, would ship them off to Gran Canaria, which became a kind of penal colony for homosexuals. Whether there is real historical substance to this claim or whether it is an urban myth, I do not know for sure, but it sounds reasonable enough to me, although I am quite sure that the Yumbo Centre wasn’t there then!

For me, one of the real unsung heroes of the Second World War was the code-breaker, Alan Turing. 23 June 2012 saw the centenary of his birth and it was thanks to this mathematical genius that the war against Nazi Germany ended two years earlier than it otherwise would have done. He managed to intercept and crack ingenious coded messages that gave detailed information to the Allies about the activities of German U-boats. However, there was only one problem with Alan Turing - he was gay.

Alan’s reward for his pivotal role in cracking intercepted messages was quickly forgotten when, in 1952, he was prosecuted for ‘indecency’ after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. As an ‘alternative’ to imprisonment, this unsung war hero was given ‘chemical castration’ - a newly devised treatment for such ‘disorders’ at the time. In 1954, at the age of 41, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple, which was apparently inspired by the story of Snow White. Needless to say, as with much of history, this version of events is currently being challenged and massaged for the financial gains for another film, documentary or book. However, I rather like the original version of the tragedy, agreed by the coroner at the time; it is just so dramatic!

Or was this the end of Alan Turing? This amazing man is also credited with creating the beginnings of computer technology and artificial intelligence, which led to the development of one of the first recognisable modern computers. Alan Turing's brilliance and personal life came to the attention of present day computer programmer, Dr. John Graham-Cumming, who began a petition asking for a posthumous apology from the government. Many thousands of people signed it and a previous UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, finally apologised for how Alan Turing was treated in the 1950s. Whether it was through political motivation or genuine compassion for this brilliant man, and I like to think it is the latter, he said that "on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.”

My thoughts also go out to the many thousands of gay men and woman who have been persecuted over the years - just for being themselves.

All this serious stuff brings me back home to Gran Canaria. Spain’s General Franco certainly had his faults, but I cannot help thinking that being shipped off to a life in the sun in the penal colony of Gran Canaria, just for being gay, was a far preferable alternative to ‘chemical castration’!

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

It’s an island thing

I have always loved islands. Maybe it was reading just too much Robinson Crusoe, Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ and other stories about islands that inspired me, but I always knew that one day I would live on an island.

Maybe it was that first glimpse of the magical and mysterious Brownsea Island pointed out to me by my elderly great aunt. We could only view it through binoculars from Poole Harbour in Dorset, because, in those days, as my great aunt explained, it was inhabited by an old witch and her elderly manservant, and they cooked and ate all newcomers to the island. Animals, birds and insects that lived there were special and unique to that special place. Indeed, the giant ants could eat people alive. As I discovered many years later whilst accompanying classes of schoolchildren to the island, she was partly right about the giant ants! Great Aunt Gertie did have a vivid imagination, but it was the stuff of inspiration.

For many years I thought that my eventual island destination would be the Isle of Wight. Career opportunities often seemed to lead me there, and on one occasion it was the dreadful realisation that I was about to be offered a job that I didn't really want, that made me flee the island at 5.00am one morning and well before the final interview, and I didn't return for many years.

We visited the Scilly Islands - a delightful destination, but I soon realised that the rusting bath tub, which the islanders call a ferry, was a nightmare, and after one terrible voyage with myself and other passengers vomiting for most of the journey, I flew back to the mainland by helicopter realising that I could never attempt that journey by boat ever again, let alone live there.

We spent many glorious summers exploring islands around the UK and beyond. We tasted delicious malt whiskies on the Isles of Skye and Islay, exploring the Outer Hebrides, avoiding tweed jackets in Harris and Lewis, as well as tasting the relative decadence of Orkney and Shetland.

Islands as diverse as Majorca, Cyprus, Ibiza and Madeira were also visited, but although wonderful in their own unique ways, none seemed to inspire me as a possible home for the future. That is until we visited the Canary Islands in general, and Gran Canaria in particular. I knew then that this would be home and found myself gripping the handrail and forcing myself up the steps of the plane going home at the end of our first visit. I was determined to return again one day.

So what is so special about islands? It is a difficult one to answer, because people are inspired in many different ways. Maybe it is the feeling of being part of a small community, never being far from the sea, or the reminder of a primitive form of survival instinct. Maybe it is just that feeling of “Getting away from it all”, although critics of this view will quickly point out that this can be difficult to achieve on islands such as Tenerife, and parts of Gran Canaria and Lanzarote! If you really do want to get away from it all, I suggest heading to El Hierro, La Gomera or La Palma instead!

An elderly friend visited a few days ago. “I could never live on an island,” she declared loudly after critically peering out to sea. What do you do for shopping? You have only got one small shop,” she asked.

“We have many good local shops nearby, and you can get anything in Las Palmas, the seventh largest city in Spain,” I replied.

“It must be so difficult to get off the island in an emergency?” she frowned.

“Not really, after all Las Palmas airport is the third largest in Spain. Flights are always available, but the fares vary depending upon demand.”

“I would need still need to be in Europe, because of the health service”.

“The Canary Islands are part of Europe and offer some of the best medical treatment available anyway. Indeed, patients are often flown to Las Palmas from the Peninsular for specialist treatment.”

“Hmm, well, I still wouldn't like to live in an island...” she mumbled.

Great, I thought. I am so pleased you are not going to move here. Intending islanders need to be committed to island life and be aware of the disadvantages, as well as the advantages. Islands are rather like Marmite, Blackpool or Benidorm. You either love them or hate them.

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

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