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.

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Creating, catastrophising and the cake

I stare at the birthday cake that I have spent the last several hours baking, cutting, icing and assembling.

My son is going through a superhero phase and wanted his party cake to reflect that. I’ve tried my best and made a square chocolate cake covered with frosting and little superhero models perched on top.

Now that I’ve finished I consider what I have produced. I turn the cake and study it from all sides. The conclusion is obvious. It is terrible. Utterly pathetic and an embarrassment. All I can see are flaws. The parts which are lopsided, the bits where the icing is rough. Cracks, holes and imperfections everywhere.

I think of the last couple of children’s birthday parties I have been to in recent weeks. The immaculate cakes which the proud parents presented. How can I embarrass my son and myself by presenting this disaster of a creation?

I sit at the kitchen table and fight off some low feelings. I’m almost overcome by the urge to throw the whole cake in the bin. I steady myself by gripping a corner of the table. I take a moment, and then I call my son. He enters the room. My hand trembles slightly.

‘Buddy, here’s the birthday cake. What do you think?’

His little mouth falls open.

‘Wow! Wow daddy, that is so awesome!’

‘Is it ok? You’re not disappointed?’

‘It’s the best cake ever daddy!’

Then I call my wife. She is similarly enthusiastic and gives me a congratulatory hug.

I take a photo of the chocolate creation on my phone. I think about it for a while and then I post it onto social media. Within minutes I get a number of likes and comments from people complimenting me on the cake.

The cake which I nearly threw in the bin just minutes before.

It would be reasonable for anyone reading this post to ask why I posted a pic of the cake to a public forum if I was really so unhappy with it.

I could answer that I wanted to advertise the fact that it was my son’s birthday.

Or perhaps the weaker part of me was just fishing for praise, searching for people to tell me how well I had done, to shore up my crumbling confidence. There’s likely some truth in that.

And maybe there’s a part of me that was genuinely curious to know what other people saw when they looked at that cake. I was intrigued by how we can have such wildly different reactions to viewing the same thing. How what can seem blatantly obvious to me doesn’t present itself in the same form to the next person.

I’ve been here before. Many, many times. Once, just hours before my son’s christening party, I binned an elaborate cake that I had spent two days creating. I was convinced it was a disaster although other people kept trying to reassuring me that it was fine.

And it goes much wider. Often I have given large parts of my time and creative effort to writing stories and narratives. Stories which I have then abandoned or destroyed because I became convinced they were without merit.

I spent a year writing a novel when I was much younger. When I finished and surveyed what I had done I became so despondent that I erased the whole work. Not another person read a single word of that novel, or ever will.

The greatest challenge I have as a blogger is getting these posts past my harshly critical mind. Everything I have ever written on this forum I have tortured myself about publishing. The voices which tell me that it is not good enough, that I am embarrassing myself, are never quiet.

Often I compose a post then work myself into a state about publishing it. Sometimes I don’t publish at all. If I do, I then spend hours nervously waiting for the opprobrium which I’ve convinced myself must come in my direction.

Once, when I was a schoolboy, I was shortlisted as a finalist in a poetry competition. I was invited to the awards ceremony where the work of all the finalists was read out. Rather than being able to enjoy the occasion I squirmed with embarrassment because it was obvious to me that my poem was of a much lower standard than all the other entrants. At the end of the evening, after hours of suffering miserably, I was announced as the winner of the competition. 

Look even deeper still. I’m convinced my handwriting is an ugly, illegible scrawl while everyone else pens with an elegant hand. My mind believes my house to be always messy and untidy while everyone else I ever visit lives in organised bliss.

A couple of months back I planted grass seeds in my back yard with the ambition of growing a patch of lawn. Now I spend time every day studying the green growth, fretting over why my grass is inferior to every other lawn in our estate.

The conclusion is clear. My brain tells me if am involved in the process then it will be without worth. If I make it then it will be shit. That is how I see things.

But seeing things a certain way does not necessarily bring me to reality. Let’s go back to the cake and try to rationalise it. I’m no baker and I make one birthday cake a year for my son. With my limited skills I have produced a cake which is not perfect but probably far from a disgrace. It is not as bad as I first feared. And the cakes that the other parents produced for their children’s parties recently are undoubtedly not as perfect as my brain has remembered.

My son and wife were delighted with the final product. So were several social media friends. While there may be an element of some people merely being nice, the broader conclusion must be that the cake is not terrible.

Certainly not so bad as my brain tried to persuade me when I almost threw it in the bin.

Which leads to the assumption that I can’t trust what my brain is telling me.

Which is scary. Scary when everything I know, all my actions and thoughts, my version of reality, are determined by what goes on in my head. In other words, if I can’t trust my brain, what can I trust?

If this sounds slightly woolly or abstract, let me give this example. I’ve written before about how I looked in the mirror when I was very thin and all I could see was someone who needed to lose more weight (https://whatsadaddyfor.blog/2017/09/03/food-weight-and-the-obsessive-personality/).

The truth is that the capacity of the brain for self-deception and error is remarkable. Many of the memories in my head will be distortions, or in some cases inventions. Decisions I make will be based on assumptions rather than evidence and my views and instincts will be fed by pre-existing prejudices.

Add into this mix a character affected by low esteem, anxiety and depression and the potential for distortion is magnified.

Catastrophising is the term used used to describe a thought process where an individual thinks the worst possible outcome from every situation. I send a friend a message, they don’t respond immediately and I assume it is because that person now hates me.

And it is very difficult to change my own way of thinking. Difficult to break down the processes, to try and learn to separate emotion from thought, instinct from evidence. Difficult not to believe that every thought which pops into my head is an inalienable truth. Difficult not to get trapped in that vicious cycle of negative thoughts. Difficult to admit error and frailty.

I suspect I am not that different from many other people in having problems admitting when I have got it wrong. That my version of reality is not absolute. When I argue with my wife or son the stubborn part of my brain will insist that I am always right. How often do I admit that I am wrong?

So today we will host my son’s birthday party. He will hopefully have a wonderful time with his friends. My cake will be produced and he will blow out the candles and blush under the attention. I will sit in the corner smiling and making smalltalk with the other parents. The voice will be in my head telling me that everyone is laughing at me, thinking that I am a poor father, a lesser being, because I produced this monstrosity. Thinking that as soon as I’m out of the room everyone is talking about me, concluding that I’m just not good enough.

I will fight against it, urging my brain to consider it rationally. All these people are going about their own lives. They are not talking about my cake. They are not talking about me.

And at some point today I will go back and read what I have written here. As ever I will be flushed with shame and self-loathing over the inanity of what I have produced. I will be filled with the sense of waste over more time spent and nothing useful to show. The voice will tell me that I dare not publish, that the world will be laughing at me, pointing a mocking finger at my inadequacies.

And I will fight against this too. I will tell myself over and over that I have something useful to say, that my views are worth hearing. That if I am going to say anything at all then it must be utterly honest.

And then I will dig my nails into the palms of my hands, my head will swim with waves of anxiety and I will try to convince myself to publish…..

4

Letter to my pre-parent self

LETTER TO MY PRE-PARENT SELF

Dear Jonny

Knowing you, as I do, I’m sure you will be rather chuffed to receive a written letter. It may be hard to imagine but this form of communication will become rare in your future years. It is all instant and impersonal these days – texts, emails and social media. I’ve no doubt you would love me to tell you that you will get the hang of it all but we both know what you are like with technology.

I imagine you will have many questions about me and that’s ok. I don’t have time here to answer them all now but maybe we could keep talking and work it all out as we go? I’d like that a lot. I will settle now for telling you that I’ve been asked to write this letter because I do a bit of blogging these days. I know you won’t yet understand what that means and, even if I explain it, you wouldn’t believe it.

Of course the first question is which pre-parent era Jonny should I be addressing this letter to? Should it be the scared kid who used wit and humour to cover up crippling fear? The successful journalist who lost his way in a ruthless profession? No. I’m thinking of the day when you might need a letter from me the most. That day, in your early twenties, when you just couldn’t see the point anymore and decided it was too hard to go on. I don’t need to go into specifics, we both know the day I’m talking about.

Now I suppose you are hoping that I will tell you that it’s all going to be ok. That it gets easier. That you work it all out at some point and reach that place of serenity and peace that you have always dreamed about. The problem is Jonny, and I’m actually crying for you as I write this, but it doesn’t. The truth is that it will always be this hard for you. The fear and anxiety, the suffocation of depression will always be there. I’m so, so sorry to have to tell you this but that’s just the way your mind works.

And I’m sorry for another reason. Sorry that I didn’t know back then how to be kinder to you, to have any useful way of helping you. Sorry that I was so hard on you all the time. I’m afraid I just didn’t know how to love you and that will always be my deepest regret.

But there is something that I really want you to know. That you will have a family all of your own someday. You will meet a wonderful girl and get married. It will take a lot of time but you will eventually admit to her what goes on in your head. And guess what? She will still love you anyway and you will realise how many years were wasted keeping it all wrapped up.

And then there is your son, the reason why I am writing to you today. Your beautiful little boy who will change everything the first time you hold his writhing little body in your arms and he peers angrily at you. Get used to that look, you are going to see a lot more of it over the years. 

You will learn together and both stumble repeatedly along the way. You will at times be crushed by the awe-inspiring responsibility of trying to raise and shape another human being. In some ways it will take you further away from normal society because you never quite shake that early wide-eyed amazement of what you are doing. You never lose that desire to go up to total strangers in the street, grab them and yell ‘Look at my son! Isn’t he just wonderful?’ When people ask you what you do your first answer will always be the same. ‘I’m a father’.

But there will be many more bad days. I’m afraid to tell you this but some of them will be worse than you have yet known. The biggest challenges are still to come. But here is the thing you really need to remember. When they come you will have your family to help you through them. When it is really bad you are not alone. When the night is at its deepest there will be three in the bed and there will always be arms stretching out to hold you in the dark. I suppose it is what you and I have always been searching for. A reason for it all. It is home.

The problem with writing letters is knowing how to finish, finding a neat way of summing up all that has gone before. How about this? You will have a family that you love. They will also love you. But more importantly, because of them, you will learn to love yourself.

Take care Jonny. I love you so much. I’m sorry it took me so many years to say it.

Jonny xx

(This letter first appeared on the Mums NI website http://www.mumsni.com)

 

0

Our wee routine

There’s something different about a Saturday morning.

It’s nothing tangible, just a feeling, a sense, a lightness in your being and touch. And, I think, it’s universal, affecting adults and kids.

Without any planning my son and I have developed our wee Saturday morning routine. We wake early, lounge around for a couple of hours and then, at exactly 8:45am, we head to our favourite little cafe in the village.

It’s usually the two of us because mummy is either working, at a fitness class or just fancies a lie-in. Sometimes she meets us there later and completes the circle.

But my son and I like to arrive just as the front door is being unlocked. I hold his hand and we always go to the same table and sit in the same spot. The waitress brings us menus and chats for a moment or two about the weather. Then I’ll read aloud all the items on the kids’ breakfast menu and he’ll always pick the same thing – two rounds of toast and two sausages. I’ll agonise over whether to have a bowl of porridge or a fry. Sometimes I’m good, sometimes I’m not. 

The cafe is nothing fancy and is probably not even the best in our village. But it’s where we feel most comfortable and where the sound system plays 1980s anthems first thing on a Saturday morning. My son and I both call it ‘Rumbly Tumbly’s cafe’ and always will.

And then there’s the coffee. I can ask for it black and within a few seconds the waitress will pour a filter coffee from a glass jug. It comes in a little, smart, white cup, not a chalice big enough to bathe a kitten. And when I finish the waitress comes over and fills it again from the jug, at no extra cost.

Although I spend a lot of time in coffee shops the truth is that much of the explosion of choice, variety and style in contemporary coffee culture leaves me bored. I just want some hot water filtered through some ground up roasted coffee beans. I want it to be comforting – not rich, intense, aromatic, smooth, luxurious, frothed, silky, clean, discerning, invigorating, distinct or indulgent.

When I see guys wearing T-shirts with ‘Barista’ on the back wrestling with large silver machines I’m often tempted to intervene by suggesting that it would save us all a lot of time if they just kept a jar of Mellow Birds on the counter for people like me.

In our wee cafe when the waitress brings my filter coffee there is always a little chocolate on the side of the saucer. I make a big show of peeling off the silver paper and manoeuvring the sweet towards my mouth only for my son to pinch it at the last moment. Sometimes the waitress spots our game and slips me another chocolate. Then my son pinches that as well.

As we’re always first in our food will arrive quickly. I butter his toast and then he begins to nibble on the crust while playing a game on my phone. The toast comes from a square white pan loaf, which my son loves. The sausages are not award-winning or premium and they don’t contain herbs or spices. They’re just sausages, and my son loves them.

I’m a fast eater while my son prefers to graze leisurely so I’m usually finished my fry/porridge while he’s still on the first few bites of toast. So I sit back, relax and watch him, his eyes fixed determinedly on my phone. Often I’m moved to ruffle his hair or give him a quick cuddle and he pushes me away without looking.

Sometimes I’ll sing along to the songs being played, altering the lyrics to suit our situation. Spandau Ballet’s Gold becomes ‘You are bold!’ and Tina’s Turner’s Simply the Best becomes ‘You’re simply a pest!’ And Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark has evolved into ‘We’re just prancing in the park’.

Sometimes other diners give me a confused look. My boy gives no indication that he ever hears me sing at all.

And then, some time later, I’ll pay the bill and then we’ll head off and do something else. Our Saturdays are all different, but they start much the same.

And that’s it, that’s our wee routine. Perhaps it’s so mundane as to be hardly worth recording at all. After all, when I look back on my most memorable achievements in life the Saturday morning cafe visit is unlikely to feature prominently.

But then again, sometimes maybe it is worth making a virtue out of the unremarkable. Our routines are little signposts of stability in the middle of waves of confusion and uncertainty.

Life can be like choosing a coffee. There are always exciting concoctions on offer, new ways of putting it together, boundaries to be explored and different varieties to try. But sometimes, on a Saturday morning, you just need a black filter.

My son gets to do a lot of things. In his young life he has been exposed to a dizzying variety of choices and challenges which were never available to me.

But still, every week, he always asks me if we’re going to the cafe on the Saturday.

Like the past Friday night when he cuddled up beside me in bed.

‘It’s Saturday tomorrow, isn’t it daddy?’

‘Yes it is buddy.’

‘Does that mean we can go to our wee cafe?’

‘Yes it does buddy.’

‘And we’ll be the first ones there, won’t we?’

‘Yes we will buddy.’

‘And we’ll sit at our table?’

‘Yes we will buddy.’

‘And you’ll read out all the things on the menu, won’t you daddy?’

‘Yes I will buddy.’

‘And I’ll pick the sausage and toast?’

‘Yes you will buddy.’

‘And can I play on your phone?’

‘Yes you can buddy.’

‘And you’ll pretend to eat the little chocolate?’

‘Yes I will buddy.’

‘But I’ll steal it off you?’

‘Yes you will buddy.’

His little face is creased in thought for a second.

‘And will you sing the silly songs daddy?’

‘Do you want me to?’

‘Yes, it’s funny.’

‘Then that’s fine buddy. I’ll sing the silly songs.’

And then he closes his eyes and goes to sleep, a contented little smile upon his face.

1

12 magical moments from the Belfast Marathon

Some of my social media friends will know that at late notice I was asked to run the final two legs of the Belfast Marathon in support of Action Mental Health.

Despite having done absolutely no training or preparation I was delighted to help.

Today I completed the 11.1 miles. I’m sore now….but still smiling.

Here are my highlights of the day:

1 Getting off the bus at the starting point at the Falls Road and then realising I would have a 3 hour wait before my changeover. The guy sitting next to me said; ‘Sod this, lets go get a fry.’ I was tempted but declined.

2 Meeting a lovely family from the north coast who were running to raise money for cystic fibrosis. One excitedly told me that she had found a cafe on the Falls which had a notice in the window which read ‘Kangaroos tie their own shoelaces’. She then did an impression of a kangaroo before adding ‘After I thought about it for a while I realised kangaroos don’t even wear shoes.’

3 The man from the same family who realised he had forgotten his running shoes and was reduced to approaching relay finishers and asking them if they were a size 11.

4 Starting to run only to be inflicted with a stitch after about 300 yards. I kept running despite feeling like Darth Vader had stabbed me with a light sabre under my ribs.

5 The woman from St John’s Ambulance at the side of the road who kept shouting ‘Do NOT eat the Vaseline!’

6 The guy running right in front of me who suddenly bent over on the road. When I enquired after his health he assured me that he was fine, but had spotted a 20p coin on the tarmac.

7 The funny placards. My favourites were ‘You’re running better than Stormont’ and ‘1 in 100 runners poo in their pants. Will it be you?’

8 Overtaking a man dressed as a Minion as he slowed down to blow kisses and wave to the crowd.

9 Ten minutes later being overtaken by a man dressed as a Minion as he slowed down to blow kisses and wave to the crowd.

10 Being asked by a breathless red-haired man how far it was to the changeover and having to tell him we had passed it a mile back.

11 The crowd. The wonderful support from thousands who lined the route cheering, clapping and handing out water and sweets. The noise on Ormeau Bridge was magnificently encouraging. Best summed up by a placard being held by a young woman which read ‘Random stranger, you’re a hero.’

12 Crossing the finishing line. Getting a T-shirt and a medal and a cuddle from my wife. And deciding immediately that I want to do it all again next year.

0

Cutting the grass

I hold a hand outstretched while peering at the hazy blue sky. Despite my attempt to look doubtful we all know that rain is very far away. It’s a sunny Saturday and that means jobs in the garden. I could plead that this morning on the telly is the opening session of the World Snooker Championship but I suspect I won’t get a sympathetic hearing.

I try an old stalling tactic, walking up and down the little path with my hands on my hips, shaking my head and tutting over and over. But mummy is wise to the trick and gently points me in the direction of the garden shed.

I get to it. The shed is tidied, the barbecue wheeled out and scrubbed, the patio washed and the flowers watered. I’m beginning to consider that I might make it inside in time for the afternoon session at The Crucible when mummy comments on the length of the grass. And not in a flattering way.

Back when I worked full time I used to pay a man to cut the grass. When I left my job it didn’t really make financial success to keep this arrangement going but I liked the chap who did the job and didn’t have the heart to tell him that I couldn’t afford him anymore. So he kept cutting my grass. Then later, when he discovered I was unemployed, he kindly offered me a job working for him. This raised the bizarre potential situation where I would be paying him to pay me to cut my own grass. I refused the offer and let him go. Now I cut my own grass.

Mummy has to take our son to aikido class so she leaves me alone to do the job. Before she goes she makes a plea.

‘Please be careful. Just don’t do any Jonny things. Don’t cut your foot off or anything.’

This is borne of compassion, not cruelty. My wife knows how clumsy I am. Just yesterday we were preparing supper. Mummy was slicing tomatoes for a salad while I cut some bread. I looked over and watched her technique with disapproval. I knew I had to get involved.

‘Just be very careful with that knife,’ I advised.

Seconds later I jumped high in the air and howled with pain as I sawed the bread knife right into the top of my thumb.

I wheel the old mower out. It’s an electric mower which means a confusing entanglement of leads and plugs. As I begin to straighten the cords I can hear the dull roar of several other mowers. It seems that about half of the householders in my little estate are also mowing today. I don’t feel so alone anymore.

The back garden is quickly navigated. Then I take the mower outside of the yard to start on the long thin strip of grass at the side of the house. Exactly whose responsibility this strip of grass is has always been a bit of a grey area. It’s outside my fence but I’ve long been aware that if I don’t cut it then nobody else will. Last week a streetlight on this strip of land fell over. Within a day an official van had arrived to remove the pole. But they didn’t cut the bloody grass while they were here.

As I take my mower out onto the road I notice that several of my neighbours are similarly active. In the next house up from me the husband is also cutting the grass while his wife is weeding the flower beds. The man who lives across the road is also mowing his lawn.

I have to take the extension lead over my wooden fence to reach the mower outside the yard. As I walk past the woman next door looks up and smiles expectantly.

‘Great day,’ I say.

Then I put the plug into the extension lead and begin to walk back to the mower. As I walk past the woman next door looks up and smiles expectantly again.

‘Powerful heat,’ I say.

Then I begin to mow. Up and down. Each time I pass the women next door she looks up and smiles expectantly. I smile back. Unfortunately the noise of the mower spares her any more of my banter.

As I mow I become more and more conscious of the other two neighbours mowing in the other houses. It is hard not to notice that their mowers are substantially larger and more powerful than mine. While my little electric machine coughs and splutters its way through the long grass my two neighbours are effortlessly cutting neat straight lines into their lawns.

In my mind I become convinced that my two neighbours are unfavourably judging my grass cutting efforts. I’m flustered now and this means that my mowing becomes even messier than before. I keep missing bits and then having to go back over to fix it, creating an untidy patchwork.

Then I have to go and empty the grass cuttings into the compost bin. As I come back see that my two neighbours are now finished and have come together for a conversation. The way normal people do. 

I pass them as I walk back to my mower. They look up and smile expectantly.

‘That’s some day,’ I say.

And I return to the grass. But it’s even worse now because the two of them are standing just yards away, chatting. It’s obvious to me that they are discussing my mowing prowess. One makes a remark, the other laughs and I burn with shame.

But I struggle on until I’m finished. It’s messy but at least it’s done. The two neighbours are still talking as I begin to tidy up. As I start to wrap the extension lead I begin to relax. Now I’m wondering why I allowed to myself to become so flustered, why I became so obsessed at what they were thinking. Now I’m thinking that I might even join my two neighbours for a chat. I’ll gather up my things and go over and say hello. The way normal people do.

Then I step back. On the grass is a round, plastic reel which my extension lead winds into. My foot goes into a gap in the receptacle which is just large enough for my heel to become wedged. It’s like a giant shoe or a cast on the bottom of my foot.

I jump forward but my foot is stuck fast. At this point I should really sit down and remove my shoe, but I’m still self-conscious about the two watching neighbours. So instead I try to walk normally, as if giving the impression that having my foot stuck in a reel is all part of my plan for the day.

But this movement succeeds merely in pulling the extension lead, which is still plugged into my mower, taut. It wraps quickly around my legs and I fall face first into the grass. The newly cut grass.

I rise quickly, brushing bits of grass off my face and clothes and spitting fragments of soil out of my mouth.

I pass the two neighbours and the woman weeding the flower beds. They all smile expectantly at me.

‘Aye, that’s some day,’ I say.

Then I go back inside to watch the snooker.

0

The risks of journalism

As my wife and I settled down to sleep last night we were enchanted by a rare and precious form of excitement. The Easter break was upon us and we were just days away from a long-anticipated family holiday. More immediately, our son, a constant presence in our routine, was having a sleepover at his grandparents’ house. With no work commitments on Friday we were in the most unusual but welcome of situations.

‘Do you know,’ I said as I rested my head on the pillow, ‘that tomorrow morning we can lie in for as long as we want?’

But, as ever, circumstance was to intervene.

I woke early this morning, earlier than usual when being roused by my son. For a moment I was confused, even afraid. Then I realised something strange was happening with my phone. A solitary message was unlikely to wake me but the prolonged buzz of the mobile beside my pillow was enough to disturb my slumber. I checked the phone and, sure enough, there were multiple messages sent through a range of different apps and social media accounts from friends. While the exact wording may have differed the central message was uniform.

Lyra McKee has been shot dead in Derry.

I stared in confusion. At first I think my brain believed that two different messages had been mistakenly combined as one. I knew that there had been trouble the night before in the Creggan. Perhaps some poor innocent had been murdered. And then there must be a separate message about Lyra.

But as I read variations on the same text over and over the truth inevitably descended. I gently shook my wife awake and told her.

We got on with the day. We had breakfast, collected our boy and tried to make the most of the sun as a family. But nothing was quite as bright as it had seemed before, as if a thin layer of dust now covered everything.

To be clear, I did not know Lyra McKee very well. When I worked in daily newspapers I met her occasionally. We were Facebook friends and occasionally she would make a kind remark about something I had written. Once she asked for my help with a project she was working on in the area of mental health.

Recently I received another message from her. She knew that I was trying to write a book and she was making contact to offer any support or assistance she could give in getting it published. It was a selfless gesture entirely, it seems, in keeping with the nature of the person.

And now she was dead. I knew that I was feeling shock because a person I was acquainted with had been killed. But the sense of trauma was undoubtedly deepened by the fact that it was a journalist who had been murdered. My wife did not know Lyra at all but shared my feeling of gloom.

This was a journalist shot dead while doing her job, doing something that almost everyone who works in that trade here over the years will be familiar with.

One of the tragic ironies is that the first ever death of a journalist at a public order situation here has occurred at a time when that form of street violence is comparatively uncommon. That’s not to diminish the very real fears that it could return, that is always a fine line. The merest nudge in the wrong political or social direction could easily see a return of widespread unrest. 

There is no absolutely safe way for a journalist to cover a riot. No matter where you stand, or who you know, there is always an element of risk when dealing with large, volatile crowds intent on causing damage and harm.

While I was never hurt myself I have witnessed in distant years lines of heavily armoured police officers standing just yards in front of me being scattered like skittles by the force of missiles raining down on them. On another occasion I had to pull a female colleague (later to become my wife) off a roof as petrol bombs flew over her head during a republican riot at a flashpoint. We were also chased out of the Woodvale area once by an angry loyalist masked mob after we had witnessed them hijacking a double decker bus and setting it on fire (we had a strange form of courtship). As I was covering the rioting that followed the rerouting of the Whiterock parade in 2005 my trusty Renault Clio was completely destroyed in a petrol bomb attack.

But, in truth, I only truly became concerned about the human cost of covering riot situations when I later was appointed as a news editor and became responsible for sending other young journalists onto the streets to observe violence.

I sent my wife to the Ardoyne during one difficult Twelfth of July parade and she returned later with a large cut and bruise on her head after being attacked with a stepladder that a rioter had stolen from a photographer.

During the flag protests late in 2012 a young journalist asked me to be allowed to cover one of the demonstrations. I agreed, despite knowing that violence was likely, and sent him off with a warning to keep his distance and to be careful. Later in the evening he was manhandled and pushed off his feet by protestors. He fled on foot and returned to the office in tears. Two nights later he asked to be sent back out. This time I refused.

What was consistent then and now was the determination of the reporters to be able to understand, to tell the story. Even in the face of potential threats, intimidation, injury or even death.

In modern society the reputation of journalism as a profession has often taken a battering. Sometimes that is the fault of the journalists themselves, but more often it is caused by forces outside of their control. The job is poorly paid, the hours can be crippling to any hope of a work/life balance and reporters are set up to be regularly sneered at and mocked on social media.

But, when practiced by someone who truly understands the art, there remains a core nobility to the job. At its best the selfless struggle to provide a vital public service in the face of ever steeper odds and occasional danger can become a form of heroism.

Lyra McKee personified that nobility and heroism as well as anyone I have ever met.

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Black holes, and paying the credit card

Last week, along with many others, I watched in amazement as the first ever image of a black hole was unveiled to the public.

As I saw excited scientists explain how a network of eight ground-based telescopes around the world had collected data to produce the image of the circle of energy I found my mind becoming a bit dazed by the sheer, unfathomable scope of what had been achieved.

But that was the problem. I don’t have even a basic grasp of science. I want to understand, but no matter how much I read or watched I found that I couldn’t wrap any tentacles of comprehension around the central concept of what I was looking at. It was too big for my brain to process and I was troubled by my ignorance.

As a writer I knew that I needed a reference point. Something which could make the scale of the idea relevant for my brain. I considered what I had read. A black hole is unseeable. It is impossible for anything to escape from. Its gravitational pull sucks in everything in its path. All matter is sucked into the depth of the hole. It grows incessantly by absorbing mass. Conceptually we know it exists even if we can never properly witness it.

I pondered all of that. Then a notion popped into my head – my credit card debt. I let the comparison settle, it seemed to fit, both theoretically and in terms of sheer dimension. Hardly scientific but it certainly allowed me to make the hypothetical idea of a black hole more real.

Of course there may be another reason why the credit card debt slipped into my consciousness at that exact moment. It may have been due to the fact that while I was watching the black hole press conference I also received an email from my credit card company telling me that it would really be in my best interests to make a payment sometime soon. 

It was clear that the black hole algorithm was a dazzling technical achievement, a team of great minds overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to produce the image and further out understanding of science. I knew that similar ingenuity, persistence and raw luck would be needed for me to make the payment.

 

After several days of stalling I sat down with my phone today and opened the link sent by my credit card company. The first thing presented was a message.

‘Good news! We’ve made some changes to our website to improve your experience!’

I stared hard at the message. I feared that the finance company’s definition of good news was very far from my own. Undeterred, I ploughed on. After several minutes trying to navigate the unfamiliar site I found the ‘Log in’ link and clicked it. I was immediately asked for my Username and Password. I scratched my chin. Modern life is full of passwords, PIN numbers and codes. Which one was this? Was it numbers or letters?

I noticed that at the bottom of the screen my phone was making helpful suggestions about what my password might be. Perhaps it knew something I didn’t. I typed in the suggested password and a message flashed up. ‘Password not recognised’. I cast a reproachful glance at the bottom of my phone screen. Nothing, not even a sorry.

After some minutes of deduction and blind guessing I worked out my username and password and, like a contestant on The Crystal Maze, moved on to the next challenge.

Now the screen was asking me to insert the second fourth and seventh characters from my ‘memorable phrase’.

I stared.

Now I consider that I have a reasonable memory. I can even recollect some vague fragments from being in the cot as a baby. When I was 12 I had to learn by heart ‘Jacque’s Seven Ages of Man’ from As You Like It and then recite the soliloquy in front of my bored classmates. I reckon with a few drinks in me I could still do it.

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women…’ (Dramatic pause for effect. Pulls a face of grave authority)….’merely players.’

But despite it all nowhere in the dark or dusty corners of my brain can I ever remember entering a ‘memorable phrase’ into this account. Indeed I’m forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that my selection of a memorable phrase must have been the least memorable thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because I can’t bloody remember it.

I scratch my chin again. I’ve got that familiar feeling that the world is leaving me behind. I wonder if the black hole team of scientists had to overcome this sort of difficulty. Of course they did. I try to think what I’d likely select as a memorable phrase. Nothing comes to mind.

Finally I type in ‘Stick your memorable phrase up your…’ before I run out of character spaces.

Then I have to click on the button which admits I’ve forgotten my own details. The modern day equivalent of the practice of lepers having to carry bells.

The phone segues onto another screen, with larger lettering. First it asks me to enter my username and password. But, despite my breakthrough in entering them just five minutes ago, I’ve forgotten them again. I have three goes before I enter the right choices. Then I have to give my name and some other personal details before I’m asked to come up with a new memorable phrase. I do my best.

Then a new screen tells me that the company will now have to phone me to confirm it is me accessing my account. When they do I will have to repeat a four digit code which they are about to send. I click OK.

Within seconds my mobile begins to ring. I’ve just answered it when I hear the beeping sound that informs that a text has arrived. A recorded, mellifluous voice tells me to to say the code out loud when she stops talking.

But I can’t retrieve the code because it’s in the mobile. The same mobile on which I’m currently having a conversation with an automated voice. I try to hold the call while I go in search of the text. As I fumble with buttons I hear the lovely voice repeating.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that…..I’m sorry I didn’t catch that.’

I crack on the fourth or fifth occasion she says it, using the angry tone I usually reserve for my sat nav.

‘You didn’t fecking catch it because I didn’t fecking say anything because I’m still trying to get the fecking code that you sent to the same fecking phone that you’re talking to me on!’

There’s a moment of silence, then….

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.’

Then, in growing anger, I hit a button which inadvertently cuts the call. Now I have to start the whole process again from the beginning. Website, user name, password, come up with a memorable phrase (I pick another new phrase because I’ve forgotten the last one), the phone call, the text, the voice.

Of course it’s not straightforward. Technological innovation isn’t supposed to be. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

I manage it this time. I’m sweating and angry but I’ve finally accessed my account.

Then I see my balance. I revise my earlier opinion. The black hole makes a lot more sense than this.

I spend another ten minutes working out how to make a payment on the new, user-friendly site. I select the options and I’m asked to insert the details of the card I’m using to make the payment.

My phone, perhaps keen to atone for its earlier incompetence, automatically suggests the digits I should put in the box. I go along with this.

But it turns out that the card my phone is trying to use to make the payment is the same card that I’m currently trying to pay off and the credit card company isn’t having it. I take over and do it manually, using my debit card.

Eventually the payment is accepted and I’m able to log out.

I’m a little disturbed by the trauma of the whole process so I decide I need a distraction. I read a little more about black holes and come across a discussion online about what would happen if a human fell into a black hole.

One scientist suggests your body would move into a state in which it resembles ‘toothpaste being extruded out of the tube’. Another says your head would feel massively more gravitational pull than your feet so you would be stretched horrifically (‘spaghettification’ this is called). It ends with you being squashed into an single point of infinite density.

Or, to put it more simply, how I feel after paying my credit card.