1

The one which tells how it all began

imageEr, is this thing on? Ok here goes…..It all started on a grey weekday afternoon. Mummy was at work. I was cuddled up on the sofa with my young son watching He-Man on Netflix.

I could tell his attention was starting to waver as he began to ask me deep questions, which was unfortunate because it was getting to the good bit when Skeletor attacked Castle Greyskull.

He looked at me (my son, not Skeletor), golden curls framing his little face, eyes filled with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and asked: ‘Daddy, what’s a daddy for?’ I gave a throaty laugh, the sort which is supposed to mean ‘It’s truly adorable that you are so precocious but could you please shut up now.’ Jocular and proud, but with just a tiny hint of threat. But he kept at it, asking again, ‘But Daddy, what is a daddy for?’ the inflection in his voice rising at the end of the question as if he was pondering the utter pointlessness of the whole concept of daddies.

Worryingly I couldn’t think of an answer immediately. My usual tactic when faced with a tricky question (‘Ask mummy’) seemed not to be appropriate at this moment. Instead I settled for diversion tactics, bashing him repeatedly over the head with a cushion while doing my best evil giant voice and telling him I was going to use his bones as toothpicks.

However, the whole episode did start me thinking in a new way about the absolutely terrifying beautiful maddening wonder of being a parent and how it changes everything about your life. Usually when I start thinking I start writing. This blog is the result. I hope you enjoy it.

1

In space nobody can hear you scream

The first signal that it’s a day to be endured rather than enjoyed is the weather.

I open the blinds and it looks like the world has toppled off its axis and landed in a huge bowl of rancid chicken soup. There’s no definition to the sky, it’s just a ubiquitous sickly grey. The rain is incessant, steady and merciless, like a method of torture.

It’s a holiday, Easter Monday, so there’s no school to give some parental respite. Instead we’ll have to entertain our four-year-old, although we’re already weary from the daily struggle of finding educational things to do. Over the past week he has been at the zoo, the folk museum and an open farm. All attractions which have the advantage of large open spaces where he can run around inventing his own games while I’m forced to feign interest as a woman in period costume displays the ancient craft of basket weaving.

But the weather eliminates the chance of going to any outside attraction today. I’m tempted by the thought of just plumping him down on the sofa with a big bowl of popcorn while Peter Rabbit loops on the TV, but the guilt of failing to at least try to provide him with a day he’ll remember in years to come overcomes me.

Over a hurried and unsatisfactory breakfast mummy and I settle on the planetarium. As we run to the car, my socks already dampening, I’ve got a low feeling. None of us say anything but the weather is deepening the sense of gloom as I drive along the motorway. There’s a heaviness to the day which seems to infect us all, seeping into our bones and souls. Our son is crabby and angry and weeps at a series of imagined offences.

We arrive at the planetarium in good time. The car park is full but as I drive around a vehicle pulls out and vacates a spot. Perhaps things won’t be so bad?

I ask for admission for three but the stocky woman at reception meets my inquiry with a gaze somewhere between contempt and pity.

‘Have you booked for any of our shows?’

‘Uh…no. We just thought we’d turn up.’

She sighs. All the shows are fully booked. In order to get admission today we would really have needed to book several years before my son was born. I nod like a chastised schoolboy. Then, we are told, for two quid each we can instead explore the exhibition rooms and take part in the craft activities. I quickly hand over the money and stumble inside.

But there’s a problem. It’s a wet day and most of the parents in this solar system have decided to come to the planetarium today. The exhibition and games rooms are heaving with droves of screaming children and haunted parents pretending to read boards explaining lunar exploration. The craft rooms are like an episode of Blue Peter on speed, a whirl of flashing scissors, puddles of glitter and little boys and girls with their limbs glued to tables.

This is worse than I’d feared. My little boy hates crowds and despises noise so he disappears into himself, refusing to take part in any games or activities. Experience has taught us that we just have to wait for him to come round in his own time. Experience has also taught us that this usually occurs five minutes before closing time.

There seems little else to do other than to grab a cup of coffee. So we go to the smallest and most overpopulated cafe I’ve ever sipped in, presumably set up that way so patrons can experience the discomfort of an astronaut living in the space station.

My son keeps finding new ways to fall out with me, at one point bawling because he doesn’t like the way I opened his packet of crisps. I’m continually nudged and bumped by passing customers, invariably at the exact moment when I’ve got a mug of scalding black coffee just inches from my face.

It’s all going so badly that I ask my son if he wants to leave. I offer instead to take him to an adventure playground. He ignores me. I’m not sure he’s even heard me.

But then some other family members turn up to meet us, including my son’s three-year-old cousin. Presumably the logic is if we’re going to be miserable, we might as well all be miserable together. However, having more familiar faces here does reinforce my son’s confidence and we’re ready to have another crack at the craft activities.

In one packed room children are making astronauts out of plasticine. A very kind staff member welcomes us and then proceeds to show my son how to build his own spaceman. I’m presuming she has been chosen for this job because she has some artistic talent, perhaps some Tony Hart inspired gift for making things. Then she presents us with a slab of plasticine which resembles a limp phallus, rather than an astronaut. We decide to proceed on our own.

Soon we have our own clumsily assembled spaceman and an egg carton which I pass off as a spaceship.

Then we go to the dressing up and video game room, full of models of space shuttles, telescopes and space stations. It’s fun for a bit but quickly descends into a series of tantrums, with the two cousins apparently competing to be the most pink-eyed and lachrymose.

They argue over the choice of two seemingly identical space helmets and bawl over other children spoiling the game where they burst imaginary bubbles with their feet. At one point the weeping has become so persistent that I lift my son and ask him why he’s crying.

Between sobs he responds: ‘I….can’t….remember….’

We manage to put in most of the afternoon in this way, keeping an eye on our watches, thinking about what’s a decent amount of time before we go home. When we eventually announce our departure there are more inevitable tantrums. I manage to calm my son down with gentle hugs and encouragement. Then he asks.

‘So, are we going to the adventure playground now then?’

My explanation that it’s too late for that brings another flood. His tears mix with the rain as we walk back to the car. It feels like the rain, and the tears, will never end.

We tried very hard to make it an educational day. I did learn something. One day on Mercury lasts almost 59 earth days. So does one wet day as a parent.

1

Friday afternoon

Parenting, for me, is all about routine.

When you find something that works you stick with it. Yes, there are lots of new and exciting challenges, but a few faithful old familiar signposts keeps the rickety old vehicle ticking along.

And pretty soon a routine becomes something more, something automatic, almost sacred in its permanence.

So it is with our Friday afternoons. Ask my son what we do on Friday afternoon and he will unhesitatingly tell you ‘It’s McDonald’s and magazine day’.

I can’t actually remember a time anymore when I didn’t get him a McDonald’s and a magazine on a Friday. And I don’t want to.

I’ve come to believe that the whole stability of the world’s capitalist economic system may depend on my following this routine. Any divergence from it might lead to the value of stock markets collapsing, hyperinflation, rioting in the streets and widespread looting.

I just can’t risk it.

And so I find myself leading my son by the hand into the garishly coloured interior of our local McDonald’s restaurant.

My four-year-old knows independently how to order his Happy Meal on the touchscreen kiosk. He’s even able to use my debit card to make a contactless payment.

It occurs to me that this renders my role somewhere close to redundant. But I don’t let on.

We take a seat. There’s a huge photo on the wall facing us of a dark haired woman smiling as she’s about to stuff a burger into her mouth. It’s about as far away from reality as it’s possible to get. I’ve never, ever seen an adult smile in McDonald’s.

The Happy Meal arrives in its little red box. Chips, chicken nuggets and a plastic toy.

This week it’s Peter Rabbit, complete with his own carrot cannon.

I warn my son that if he fires the carrots in the restaurant he will likely lose them.

Not ten seconds later he fires the carrots off the end of the table. They skid along the floor and under a table where a scary looking man with tattoos is sitting alone.

He looks at me with tears heavy in his eyes (I mean my son, not the man with tattoos), so I have to go on my hands and knees under the table to find the toy while mumbling apologies.

And there’s something just a bit icky about being on your hands and knees on the floor of a McDonald’s. There’s something about the environment which just feels grubby.

Which is surprising because there always seems to be a team cleaning the floor.

You can accuse McDonald’s of many things but being under-staffed is not one of them. Like an army of ants the staff move around the restaurant. It’s not always clear what they are doing, but they’re definitely doing something.

I watch a young staff member with a mop as he determinedly cleans a small square of the floor. He looks around nervously to see if anyone is watching, and then cleans it again.

If you were to invent the environment least attractive for the consumption of food it would probably be something close to this. But my son, like just about every other young person, loves it so we keep going back.

Before I leave I take him to the bathroom to clean his hands. I notice there’s a sachet of ketchup in the water of the toilet bowl.

I flush the toilet but when the water settles the ketchup is still floating there.

We walk the short distance to Marks and Spencer to fulfil the second half of the routine. Buying a magazine.

There’s a huge market in over-priced kids’ magazines. I suppose I could pretend that buying them is justified as an educational reading aid. But the truth is the mag is always unread, my son just wants the plastic toy.

If I had to pick one aspect of being a parent I was not expecting it would be the abundance of plastic tat. Utterly useless cheaply made crap which is played with once and then thrown to the bottom of the toy box.

There’s probably a plastic island floating in the Arctic Ocean, populated by polar bears and seals which has been formed by discarded magazine toys.

Today my son chooses a Peppa Pig mag. He’s happy with his choice and ready to leave.

But I just can’t help myself. I look at the toy, a plastic Peppa and George and a little swing. It just seems a little lame.

I find a Chuggington magazine which has three little trains as the gift.

‘Are you sure it’s Peppa you want buddy? Look at Chugginton, three trains!’

My son thinks about it.

Then he decides he does want Chuggington. And Peppa Pig as well.

‘No, no buddy,’ I protest, ‘only one.’

He starts to bawl. Deep heavy sobs, snot dripping and tear stains on his cheek. I call it the MOAT (mother of all tantrums).

I try being firm, telling him that if he doesn’t behave he won’t get any magazine. All this does is make matters worse, the tantrum is now nuclear.

I congratulate myself quietly on my great parenting skills.

I settle on buying the Chuggington mag by using the logic that the sob he emits when I put it in the basket is slightly less than it is for Peppa.

He’s exhausted now and I gather him in my arms as we wait in the queue to pay. He keeps mumbling ‘mummy’ into my ear.

Sympathetic women around me smile and make encouraging remarks as the snot and tears creates a spreading dark stain on the shoulder of my jacket.

And that’s our Friday afternoon routine. As I write this my son is at my feet playing with the little trains. If the game lasts for more than 15 minutes I’ll consider it a fiver well spent.

There’s another routine closing in around us. He’ll fight against it to the end and I’ll welcome it like my oldest and best friend.

The routine of sleep.

PS Re-reading this post it occurs to me it is slightly gloomier than had perhaps been my intention.

Just after I published it I played Chuggington with my son. The Chuggington theme song quickly evolved into ‘Huggington’ which became a cuddling game.

Note to myself: Never forget the sheer joy of it.

It’s almost 7pm now. That’s our bedtime. Night night x

0

Fake news

If you have a spare moment put the words ‘police officer bomb car northern Ireland’ into Google.

A series of headlines will appear on your screen. Here’s just a few I’ve picked randomly.

‘Northern Irish police car catches fire after booby-trap bomb partially explodes’ from The Independent.

‘Police car on fire as ‘booby trap bomb explodes’ in Northern Ireland from Metro.

‘Police car ‘explodes’ sparking fears of ‘booby trap bomb’ in Northern Ireland’ from The Sun.

‘Police officer left unhurt after bomb explodes in Northern Ireland’ from the Daily Mail.

There are many more. All describing the targeting of a female police officer on the Belfast to Bangor road this week.

But there was a problem with this story. It wasn’t true. It was not a police car. The woman is not a police officer. And, most importantly, there was never a bomb. The fire was caused by a mechanical malfunction of the car.

Going back to the Google search, several of the reports have been updated to reflect that the incident is ‘no longer believed to be terror related’. But several have not been corrected. Most of the erroneous reporting is still there.

Some of the updated versions have been changed to now suggest that the woman was a former police officer, although it is hard to see the relevance of revealing such a detail at this stage other than as an extenuating circumstance as to how they got it wrong in the first place.

As a former journalist, who still likes to keep a loose understanding of what’s going on in the world, I found myself coming back again and again yesterday to the same question – how does this happen?

So I began to track the story backwards. In the middle of yesterday morning the following two messages appeared on the official Nolan Show Twitter feed.

‘Breaking: Ian Paisley MP has told the Nolan Show there has been a terrorist attack on a police officer this morning. He says a explosive device was placed under a female police officers car’.

And…

‘MP Ian Paisley – “terrorism will never prevail” after a female police officer has been targeted by what he describes as an “under car booby trap device”.’

Sure enough, skip across to Ian Paisley’s Twitter feed and, at around the same time, the MP posted this message.

‘I understand that a Terrorist attack on police officer in Ballyrobert Co Antrim has taken place. Suspected Under car booby trap device. My concern is for the officer and family of officer. Terrorism will never prevail.’

Within a few minutes he was corrected by the loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson that the incident described had actually taken place in Co Down, not County Antrim.

The other main driver of the story was Sky News which posted several updates, including reporting a comment from Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster, who was in Brussels.

According to Sky News, Mrs Foster said: “We’ve just received news from Northern Ireland which is very disturbing. We do condemn utterly those who would seek to bring violence back to Northern Ireland. We send our thoughts and our prayers to the police officer and her family.”

I should point out that I was not contemporaneously following the news yesterday morning so I don’t know which was the first organisation to report on the incident.

What is clear though, is that by late morning the supposed terror attack was being reported by most of the main news organisations, both locally and nationally. A number of Northern Ireland-based journalists tweeted that security sources had confirmed the details to them. Reporters were dispatched to the scene and began to prepare on camera reports.

But just an hour later the story had begun to unravel. Ian Paisley released a new tweet.

It read,

‘UPDATE reports suggest this was a major malfunction of the vehicle and not terrorist related. If so that’s a huge relief and I hope those involved are uninjured.’

The story quickly dropped off the news agenda. As I said earlier, some organisations corrected their earlier reporting, some just quietly dropped it.

And a few journalists took to social media to explain to the public what had happened. I was quite struck by the messages of those who said that multiple security sources had got it wrong.

It’s worth going back over what happened. A car went on fire. Bomb experts were sent to the scene, presumably because police had some suspicion that there may have been a sinister causation. At some point after arriving they discovered that the fire was mechanical rather than terror-related.

A well-placed security source would have been able to tell a journalist exactly that. Nothing more. Anyone who went further and gave inaccurate details was either not close enough to the incident to report back accurately or else they were jumping to conclusions. In any case they are not a reliable source.

Many years ago I worked as a security journalist. It was a job defined by the shadowy use of so-called security sources. In truth I wasn’t very good at it. In my experience, reliable security sources were about as common as hen’s teeth. And just as talkative.

But it seems to me that when faced with a story like this the obvious journalistic question to any source should have been ‘how do you know?’

A reasonable security source for this story might have been a police officer at the scene, or a superior officer who was receiving regular updates on what was going on. Anything beyond that and the water starts to get a little muddy. If the cause of the incident has not yet been determined for sure, then how can a source, not at the scene, know for sure that it is a bomb? Politicians are often more likely than a police officer to talk to a journalist, but their account should usually be treated with caution because they are several steps removed. They should be used for reaction, not as the sole source for reporting of a criminal act.

So, going by the news coverage yesterday, it seems that a lot of security sources got the story wrong.

Or, is the more likely truth that most of these reports, many of which were compiled by journalists who are not based in Northern Ireland, were simply copied from each other? In essence one website gets the story wrong and the rest rush to follow.

Reading the reports I noticed much use of the phrase ‘it is understood’ and the prolific use of inverted commas, which is a betrayal of the fact that the journalists have no way of standing over the ‘facts’ they were presenting to the public.

Journalism, now driven by digital news and social media, has increased the pressure as never before to be first with the story. The competition is immense. It seems that rivals would rather run the risk of copying and being wrong than being left behind on a story. The website report can always be updated later anyway.

And thus the integrity of the process of journalists presenting facts to the public is compromised. The faith in the art is slightly diminished.

Because, as I know from my years working as a security reporter and a news editor, there is one phrase that no journalist ever dares to utter. Words I’ve never heard said in a newsroom.

I don’t know.

The fear of being seen to be outside of the loop is paralysing.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here on the outside and criticise. A bitter ex-journalist waffling on about how much better things were in my day.

Not a bit of it.

Journalists have always been prone to make mistakes, and they always will. I made plenty myself. Several stories I wrote over the years that I wish I could get back.

And meaningful journalism can still be found easily today. Much of the truth about the collapse of a proposed deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont is only known by the public because of the efforts of Eamonn Mallie and Brian Rowan.

But in this age of rolling news with the accompanying rush to be first with the sensationalist headline, it is the desire for accuracy which seems to be the first victim. It is acceptable and human to make a mistake. But when the rest of the media rushes breathlessly to repeat that mistake then you have a bigger problem.

I have called this post Fake News. It is the expression of our time, and one that I hate because of the threat it represents to the craft to which I gave many years of my life. It wants to suggest that the trust has broken down, that none of us should believe what we read.

There are many, usually those with the most to hide, who want to throw the profession off the edge of a cliff.

And it doesn’t help when journalists line up like lemmings to assist them.

0

The garden shed

Jonny came from a time when people believed things were meant to last.

Televisions and vacuum cleaners were brought to the repair man when they broke down. You didn’t just throw them away and get a newer model.

You didn’t need a degree in computers to put your head under the bonnet of a car and clothes and shoes were passed down to other members of the family.

He had brought his old-fashioned attitudes with him as the world grew more disposable around him.

But as he sat at his desk, watching a pale watery sun sink into the horizon on a night which chilled you to the core, he couldn’t help thinking…

‘It’s about time I bought a new garden shed.’

0

The fable of McDonald’s, the greedy uncle and the brain injury

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have written before about my propensity for finding unusual ways to injure myself.

Perhaps it’s because my body is generally a few steps behind my brain.

Today I did it again. And then some.

The scene was that we were hosting some family members who had battled through the snow to visit us.

My little nephew and my son were enjoying a McDonald’s Happy Meal as a Friday treat.

They were so excited about playing in the snow that they ate no more than a few bites before they ran off to have fun.

I played outside with them, trailing a sledge up and down an icy hill without coming to mischief.

Then I came inside and spotted an uneaten Happy Meal on the kitchen table.

So I did what I always do when I find food lying about, apparently unwanted.

I ate it.

Urgently and desperately, like a pilgrim who’s been on a 40 day fast.

Rather than eating the chips one by one, I grabbed a handful and stuffed them in the general direction of my mouth.

But the fries had gathered in an irregular form. So while most did indeed enter my oral cavity as planned, there was a small level of divergence.

Leading to the unfortunate situation of me thrusting one of the fries right up my nose.

With no little force.

As I spluttered and quickly removed the offending chip, I found myself pondering the possibility that the sharp-edged ketchup-stained strip of fried potato had perhaps pierced my brain leading to an irreversible injury.

I steadied myself. It was clearly uncomfortable. I had a sharp nasal pain. The nostril may have been bleeding. Or it may have just been red sauce.

I waited to see if I would fall over.

I did not.

I found my mind straying to the case of the woman who had received a multi-million dollar compensation award from McDonald’s when she scalded herself on hot coffee.

Could I have a similar case?

I would have to prove that reasonable precautions had not been taken by the supplier against any supposed risk.

It seemed quite an ask.

But things were about to get worse.

My nephew now returned, rosy-cheeked, ravenous and keen to have the rest of his Happy Meal.

Having to explain to a hungry three-year-old that I had eaten his dinner was not my finest moment.

And even telling him that I may have given myself brain damage while doing it failed to bring any cheer.

If I was Aesop now I’d be saying there’s a very clear moral message here. The greedy, selfish uncle who eats his nephew’s dinner gets what he deserves when he impales his brain on a glass-like shard of potato.

That’s fair enough. I’d like to think I wouldn’t do it again.

But the truth is I undoubtedly will.

And before anyone asks, yes, I did eat the offending chip afterwards.

4

The rugby players and the weaker kids

It’s a rough generalisation but I’ve observed that there are two attributes which help towards being an effective rugby player.

The first is to be large. The second is to be fast. The very best players seem to be those who are large and fast.

When I played rugby at school I was small and slow.

I wouldn’t say that people at the school I went to were obsessed by the game, but participating in rugby certainly came to be seen as an important factor in boosting your social standing. Those who played for the first team were allowed to wear a different coloured tie than other pupils and were generally feted and celebrated by the teachers.

This was despite the fact, which seemed glaringly obvious to me, that this preferential treatment cultivated and encouraged in some an unwarranted sense of entitlement and magnified existing character flaws.

To put it more simply, a small number of the players were bullies. But because they played rugby, much of the thuggish and loutish behaviour was tolerated or ignored. Indeed, they were often portrayed as ‘lovable rogues’.

This is not to assert or even suggest that such behaviour is typical of those who play rugby. Most of the players I knew were perfectly decent and reasonable. A couple were my friends. Our school’s outstanding player, who later won The Heineken Cup playing for Ulster, was never anything other than friendly and fair in my limited dealings with him.

But it is undoubtedly true that the few who displayed aggressive behaviour towards weaker kids were indulged. Indulged because they were good at rugby.

Neither would I wish for it to be inferred that my teachers in proper academic disciplines ever treated me with anything less than perfect fairness. That would be unfair. I have no doubt they gave their best but, in truth, I revealed very little of myself for them to work with. I was a poor student. There’s only so much you can expect a teacher to do.

I’m strangely proud that a small number of my former teachers now read this blog. I certainly never did anything to warrant their loyalty.

What I’m driving at is this. A school is a community. A community must rally around something and, in this case, it became rugby. Our team reached the final of the Schools’ Cup when I was in sixth year and it caused a minor sensation. It’s easier to rally around a successful rugby team than around the quiet kids, the ones who have trouble looking you in the eye. And nobody wants to hear about the faults of those who have driven the adventure.

In every community there are those who fall through the cracks.

I was forced to play rugby at school for three years. This was the minimum period you were expected to compete before you could give it up. I despised every moment and got nothing from it. It fractured my already brittle confidence, displayed my physical frailty in front of others and made me a target for rough treatment from stronger kids. I dreaded the double Games period every week like it was a death sentence. I was usually unable to sleep the night before rugby and would be reduced to a state of physical and mental terror before going out onto the pitch. I know that several of my peers had similar feelings of doom about being yelled at while they were standing, trembling in a muddy field. Sadly those who taught rugby seemed to have no idea how to deal with us who had little aptitude for the game other than dripping abuse and mockery in our direction. The rugby pitch was not the place for empathy.

This was done in the name of education. At the time I was firmly of the view that it was destructive and damaging. Three decades on I remain convinced of that.

Our school was relatively small so there were just enough boys in a year to make up three teams, A, B and C.

For a short time in first year I found myself (remarkably) in the A side before my limitations at the game were exposed. When it was quickly revealed that I preferred not to touch the ball, to tackle or to be tackled, I was relegated to the B side.

On one occasion I remember our B team playing against a team from Coleraine Inst (I would have been in second year at the time). We were beaten 76-0. On the minibus on the way back to school our sports teacher told us that he had been in the job for decades but had never witnessed anything so ‘disgraceful’ as our efforts. The then principal refused to read out the score at assembly the next day, such was the obvious shame.

The sad irony of the whole affair was that I was far from the worst. I actually liked sports and was a useful footballer. I just wasn’t very good at rugby. There were several kids who disliked any participative sport who were forced to compete and I can only assume it was worse for them. But in my case the only thing that three years of playing rugby achieved was to push me towards having a dread of taking part in any physical activity which had a direct competitive element. This lasted for many years. It ruined my enjoyment of other sports.

Games was timetabled for one double period each week and one session of compulsory practice after school. The basic format was some running and exercises to warm up, perhaps some passing, tackling or scrummaging drills and then a practice match.

The practice match usually consisted of the A side playing against the B side. There was an obvious flaw in this. The A side were better. Bigger, stronger, faster, fitter, nastier. They were much, much better than us.

This resulted in a series of lopsided matches which, frankly, I could see no value in. The A players pushed us aside like annoying wasps as they racked up try after try.  It certainly did nothing for our morale to be so thoroughly beaten on such a regular basis and I couldn’t see how it benefited the A side to be facing such feeble competition.

One week I actually pulled together the courage to put this point to the rugby teacher. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to mix the teams up a bit? If you had some of the better players on either side then it might make for a more even encounter?

He looked at me, a mixture of scorn and amusement in his eyes. Then he said: ‘Well if I did that then you’d never get any better, would you?’

I stared at him. I can only presume these words made some sort of sense to him within his head when he uttered them.

And so it went on. A seemingly unending series of dismal one-sided practice matches. I was on the pitch for many of them, clinging to my allocated spot on the left wing, as far away from the ball and as close to the changing rooms as I could manage.

But sometimes when you dig a batch of spuds you uncover one that’s a funny shape. There’s often that one day when, for no reason that you can identify, things are a little different. Perhaps the sun was shining. Perhaps the wind was blowing in a different direction. Perhaps the A side were missing a few players, maybe they were not properly focused on the usual procession of sacrifice.

For whatever reason on that day (I was in third year at this point), things were a bit different. The match was competitive. One of our forwards seemed to have woken from a lifelong coma and was demanding the ball and roaring straight into the A side’s pack with a previously undiscovered relish.

This one boy’s enthusiasm seemed to be spreading throughout the side. I remember we scored a fine try when the ball was worked through several pairs of hands in the back line before one of the smallest kids in the year touched down in the corner. It was hard to know what was more satisfying, seeing the unfettered joy on his face or how quickly the backs in the A side turned on each other, mouthing abuse and blame.

Even I was carried along by the shift in momentum. I threw myself into a tackle when a much bigger boy ran at me. In textbook fashion my arms snaked around his waist and then slid down towards his ankles. Unfortunately instead of falling he just kept running and I was dragged along the grass behind him like Indiana Jones in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he clings on to the speeding Nazi truck.

But despite it all we were still losing. Although only by a few points rather than the usual avalanche. I was aware that we could still win with a try and there were probably only a couple of minutes of play left.

A scrum was formed on the left side of the pitch. I was hugging the left touchline as ever. The ball was fed into the gap between the opposing packs by the A side’s scrum half.

And then something unusual happened.

The ball popped out of the opposite side of the scrum to which it had just been fed, landing just a couple of feet in front of me. For a few seconds nobody seemed to notice. I had a moment of panic. Was I even allowed to pick it up?

I grabbed the ball from the grass.

Then I ran like I was being chased by death itself.

Now I know what you’re thinking. I’m giving you a lovely story about how I scored the winning try in the dying moments of the game. Not a bit of it. It soon became clear I had nothing like the pace needed to reach the opposition line. Indeed if I was thinking anything at all in those moments it was ‘How the feck do I get rid of this fecking ball?’

As I ran I glanced back and could see two of the faster, larger A players hurtling towards me, their faces full of bad intentions. No way did they intend losing to the Bs. They were clearly going to put me down. But just behind them, I also saw a B player, red cheeked and panting, struggling to keep up.

I veered further left and waited until the two A players were right upon me, grabbing desperately at my neck. Intuitively I knew they would both want to tackle me, to impose maximum damage. Just as they collared me I hurled the ball backwards, over my shoulder.

Where, quite astonishingly, it landed right in the arms of my teammate, who now had a clear run to the opposition line to secure the most unlikely of victories.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way. I hadn’t learnt very much in three years of playing rugby, but what I had learnt was that in order to score a try you must ground the ball. You have to touch it down.

As I crashed painfully to the ground under the weight of two larger, stronger boys I saw my teammate run unopposed between the opposition posts.

What happened next could be put down to panic, ignorance, excitement, defiance. I simply don’t know.

Rather than touching down the ball down, he hurled it to the ground in the manner of an American footballer celebrating a touchdown. The ball bounced straight back up again, hitting him in the face and knocking him over.

At this point the teacher blew his whistle. The A side had won. Just like they always did. We all stomped back to have a shower and get ready for the next class. It was unusually subdued in the changing room. Nobody on either team seemed to really want to talk about what had happened.

Shortly after this I was able to give up playing rugby. I felt like I had been massively unburdened, like a long-endured tumour had been removed. I remember feeling a certain levity which lasted for days. Perhaps life was worth living after all.

It’s so obvious as to be barely worth pointing out, but no child should ever be made to feel this way. To be so grounded in misery for the sake of a game.

It’s right that children should be encouraged to try as many things as possible. Give them every opportunity you can.

And it’s equally true that sometimes you have to persuade a child to persist. To get them to overcome their fears and find their potential.

But one of the surest truths of my lifetime was that I was never going to make a rugby player. The same could be said of countless other young boys of my generation. And it was surely equally obvious the desperate unhappiness that was being caused by forcing us to play.

And then for a school to build an honours system around the very practice which caused so much habitual dolour, when so many kids had already been made to feel like less than they should have been; it was…..well I’ll choose my word kindly….it was unfortunate.

My son will be going to secondary school in a few years. I hope to Christ things are better by then.

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Mullican Towers

Sometimes the infantile mind reimagines the world to suits its own narrative.

Adults do this too, but this is a different process caused by some sort of confirmation or hindsight bias which allows facts to be changed to fit an already approved direction of thought.

When children rewrite the world it is more innocent, more charming. The subject is altered through misunderstanding or error or innocence.

And the results can often be preferable to the real thing.

When I was a young boy one of my favourite songs was by Paul McCartney. It was called Mullican Towers.

I would sing or hum the theme often. I imagined Mullican Towers to be some huge, dark stately home in Scotland. Perhaps it had once been a boarding school. Full of dusty corridors, mahogany furniture and four poster beds. Undoubtedly there was a elderly patron called Digory with wild, white hair. It was probably haunted and a suitable location for all manner of childhood adventure.

It was many years later that I finally discovered that the song Mullican Towers which I knew and loved was actually known to the rest of the world as Mull of Kintyre.

‘Ugh,’ I thought. ‘That’s actually a bit crap.’

It’s never been quite the same since. I still much prefer my version.

And so I bring you to this morning when I’m driving into Hillsborough, my son in the seat beside me providing a steady stream of commentary and illumination.

Sometimes, on the outskirts of the village, a large fish and chip lorry can be found. I imagine the chosen market are lorry drivers travelling between Belfast and Dublin.

The lorry was there today. My son was excited.

‘Daddy, the fish and chip lorry! Can we have fish and chips tonight?’

I spotted an opening. Chips are a staple of my son’s diet. But fish? This was new. It’s all relative but compared to what he usually eats, it almost sounded healthy.

‘Fish?’ I responded incredulously. ‘Are you going to eat fish?’

He rolled his eyes.

‘No daddy, I said fish and chips. I hate fish.’

I took a moment.

‘But if you’re having fish and chips then that means you’re eating fish, as well as chips.’

I could see he was getting annoyed now.

‘No daddy! Fish and chips!’

This bizarre conversation continued in this way for some minutes. Like the DUP and Sinn Fein it seemed that we had reached an impasse. And just like them, it all seemed to be falling apart over language.

I tried to find a way through it. I told my son I didn’t understand. How could he want fish and chips. But not fish?

So he walked me through it. Nobody likes fish on its own. But everyone likes chips, which are stuffed with….fish.

Fish and chips. Fish ‘n chips. Fish in chips.

‘Is that why they’re called fish in chips buddy?’ I gently inquired.

He nodded.

‘Duh daddy!’

And so it is. That’s why we’re having fish in chips for dinner tonight.

And I don’t care what anyone says, Mullican Towers will always be a far better song than Mull of Kintyre.

Duh!