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.

3

The free drink voucher

Several times I’ve raised the issue of whether it is appropriate for promotional leaflets for private companies to be sent home in my son’s schoolbag.

There was Slimming World, the cosmetic dentist and the private tuition company.

Today my son told me there was a letter in his bag.

The letter turned out to be a leaflet advertising a local pub and restaurant.

It included a ‘Complimentary Drink Voucher’ which could be exchanged, it explained, for a glass of wine, a bottle of beer or a soft drink.

I prefer my four-year-old doesn’t drink wine or beer. I’m old fashioned that way.

The leaflet also explained an offer where groups who visit this establishment could receive a ‘complimentary cocktail’.

Why….how….who……????

Sorry, I’ve officially run out of things to say 

0

The storm

I’ve just put my son to bed.

He was awake and alert at 6am this morning. School was closed today. We couldn’t really go too far from the house because of the storm. My wife’s employed as a journalist so she’s been working relentlessly without a break all day.

I make that 14 hours of me and him together. Cooped up. In the same room.

That’s a lot of role-playing. Plenty of episodes of Peppa. A fair smattering of computer games. More chocolate buns than I’d like to admit. A few fights. A couple of incidents of blackmailing him into eating.

And one exhausted daddy.

And we all know exactly who to blame.

Ophelia.

I must admit that until yesterday morning Ophelia was nothing more to me than the love interest of Hamlet (‘Get thee to a nunnery!’).

I was listening to Love Songs on Radio 2 (I know! I know!). When it broke for the news the reader informed us that Northern Ireland had been placed under amber alert, with the potential for ‘risk to life’. Hurricane Ophelia was rapidly travelling north.

Northern Ireland seldom makes the national news anymore so it was an announcement which certainly made me pause over my cornflakes. Well, for a couple of seconds at least.

And then I waited.

It was still Sunday morning. The storm wasn’t coming until Monday. I assumed we’d be kept up to date with arrangements throughout the day.

My first thoughts were for my son. Would it be safe for him to go to school? He goes to a tots rugby class on Mondays; would that be going ahead?

I don’t know if it’s significant that it was a Sunday. I don’t know if it’s significant that we have no functioning government. But nothing seemed to happen.

There was no flow of information. Not here anyway. South of the border things seemed to be moving at pace. The army was put on standby, the government held emergency meetings, the schools were told not to open.

One of the jokes which I saw repeated through the day on social media is that Ophelia must be set to blow itself out just at the border.

But as the evening darkened into night the joke didn’t seem funny anymore. Anxious parents were communicating on WhatsApp. All asking the same thing. Did anyone know what was going on?

It was just before 11pm when I saw the announcement from the department of education that they were advising schools not to open. It was after 11:30pm when my son’s school sent a message via text to confirm this.

I shared the message with as many parents as I could but it was clear many had already gone to bed. I knew plenty would be waking up to a desperate scramble to make alternative childcare arrangements.

I’m not in the worst position. When I work I usually do it from home. There were a couple of projects I wanted to start today. I knew the twin factors of my son being at home and the certainty that my wife would be busy at work meant that now wouldn’t be possible. So be it.

The morning was unnaturally peaceful. The lull before the squall.

I composed a couple of tweets suggesting I was annoyed at how late the school announcement had come. Within minutes I was live on the Nolan Show being grumpy for the whole country.

I did venture out a couple of times. I took my son to the supermarket. I sold it to him on the premise that we were going on a secret mission to get supplies before the hurricane struck. And I had to promise to buy him chocolate buns.

I bought two torches. I suspect I’ll never use them.

My wife asked me to buy her a memory stick. I forgot.

Then when I got home I realised I had forgotten to get milk. In fact the only thing I did remember to get was the chocolate buns.

So with the wind now rising I trudged off to the corner shop. I wasn’t sure if it would be still open. It was. I got the milk and asked the man behind the counter how long he was staying open.

‘Till 11 o’clock. Same as every other day’, he shot back with a scowl.

‘But what about the storm?’

‘Load of balls.’

With this I decided it was time to go back home.

I tried to stabilise some moveable items in the back garden. The wobbly shed door. The loose wooden gate.

With the first serious gust both blew open. My wife looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders.

I tried to lighten the mood by saying that our garden always looks like it’s been hit by a hurricane. It didn’t work.

The worst of the wind arrived when I was making dinner. Some violent gales which shook the large trees in the back garden at their roots.

But it seems quieter now, late in the evening. Still blustery but nothing out of the ordinary. I’m not sure if the worst has passed or is still to come.

In the midst of it all the department has already announced that the schools will be closed again tomorrow. After being dissatisfied by the sloth-like pace of yesterday’s response, I can’t shake the feeling that they’ve been too quick with this new decision.

The storm, which has not impacted us as badly as feared, will have passed by then. I know there will be a significant clean-up operation and many homes still without power but the closure of every school in the country is unprecedented and radical.

We were due to have our first ever parent/teacher interview tomorrow. Our first progress report on how our son is managing in P1. That will have to be rearranged.

I told the wee man before I put him down that we have another day together to look forward to.

As I tucked him in and kissed him goodnight he whispered, ‘Daddy, don’t eat all the chocolate buns tonight.’

0

Star of the Day

Sometimes it doesn’t take very much to change an unremarkable day into something more meaningful.

Just a little bit of effort. Remembering to remember that every action, no matter how insignificant, is significant.

We’re going through the normal school day morning routine. It’s automatic. And chaotic.

We’re late out of bed. Again. My son says he wants to watch TV. I tell him there isn’t time. We argue about it. I turn the TV on.

I try to persuade him to eat his breakfast. We argue about it. I end up feeding him. Mummy tries to persuade him to get dressed. They argue about it. She ends up dressing him.

I have to make his lunch. I’m searching through his schoolbag. I decide I should probably check if there are any notes or messages sent home from teacher (I know I should have done this last night, but you know how it is).

Between the books I find a sheet of paper which changes everything.

It’s a little certificate. Simple bright colours.

It says that my son was awarded the class accolade ‘Star of the Day’ yesterday.

It’s there in his bag. He’s forgotten to tell us about it. Forgotten it happened.

The certificate says he’s got the award for ‘using his voice to ask for help’.

It’s worth making a fuss over. It’s the first time we’ve ever received anything from school that we can use to make him feel good about himself.

I call mummy down and we start to express our wonderment and admiration.

He begins to get excited. He wants the certificate pinned up on the fridge and keeps sneaking in to have a look at it. He asks me if I can make up a ‘Star of the Day’ song. He tells us proudly all about the dedication and sacrifices needed to be Star of the Day.

He couldn’t have been anymore pleased if he’d won the Best Actor Oscar, the Nobel Peace Prize, a Pulitzer and the cuddly toy off The Generation Game on the same day.

And we couldn’t be any prouder parents.

It’s a lovely little thing for the teacher to do and, undoubtedly, all the kids will have their day of glory.

But there’s something quite perceptive about it as well.

I know my little boy is very shy. It’s probably my main worry about him going to school.

The fear that he’ll come up against a problem and not have the courage to ask for help to get through it. That he’ll just sit there miserably suffering in silence while the rest of the class leave him behind.

Obviously the teacher has spotted this tendency. She’s been gently encouraging him to find his voice. Helping him along the way.

It’s a big hop for him to put his hand up and ask for help. It would be the same courage I would need to go for a job interview or to sing live in front of an audience.

But he did it. And the reward he got for it will help him to do it again. And from such little pips does a strong fruit tree grow.

It’s also a valuable little window into what goes on in the classroom. That mysterious environment where secrets are not shared, confidences kept within the circle.

Every day I ask my son what happened at school. It’s always a shrug of the shoulders and the curt response ‘nothing’.

I’ve spoken to the other parents. It’s the same for them. We have a shared WhatsApp conversation where we mostly spend our time trying to guess what goes on when the door closes.

The Star of the Day fuss made us a few minutes later than usual. But it was worth it. He talked about his certificate excitedly all the way into the playground. He kept asking us, ‘It’s really good to be Star of the Day, isn’t it?’

When I come home again I find myself going straight into the kitchen to have another wee look at his certificate. Silly daddy.

But the phrase ‘using his voice to ask for help’ pricks something in me. It keeps coming back to my mind until I know I have to sit down and write about it. That’s how most of my posts start, with an emotion rather than a thought. I usually don’t know what I’m going to say until I start to type.

Using your voice to ask for help.

It’s so simple. But so difficult. And so central to everything we do in life.

We all need to be able to ask for help.

I’m forced to think about my own difficulties in being able to ask for help. The times when I’ve just struggled on by myself. In misery.

This must be one of the most important things we can teach our children. To use their voice to ask for help.

But it’s not just for kids. I’m trying to do a lot of new things in life. The truth is I sometimes need help. And I need to find the courage to ask for it.

If my son can do it then so can I. He’s the inspiration behind everything I do.

And to bring me back to where I started the unremarkable has now been changed into something meaningful.

My son feels good about himself.

So do I.

We all deserve to be Star of the Day sometimes.

0

The Troubles

Being a parent forces a thought process that otherwise may not have troubled my mind.

It’s a reflection on the passing of generations. Old memories that are dry and dusty resurfacing. What was the world like when I was the age my son is now? How did I deal with problems then? Have things got better?

Yes, that’s the proper question. Have things got better?

It’s a difficult concept to grasp because I’m still living my life and it’s hard to think of your own existence and memories in a linear way. The historian generally does not examine his own life and times.

Despite this, watching my son take his first stumbling steps towards civilisation keeps bringing me back to that same question. Is the world a better place for him growing up than it was for me? Can I find some comfort in a sense of progression?

There’s an intellectual instinct against saying things are better now which can muddy my judgement. A lazy assumption that things must have been better back in the day. A simpler time.

But all rational thought and experience leads me to the opposite conclusion.

The standard of living is certainly better now. I grew up in a comfortable home but my son experiences a standard of material affluence that would have dazzled my infantile mind.

There is an abundance of opportunity today. The ethos of education has improved. When I was a pupil you were either ‘smart’ and you learnt or else you were in an academic wasteland. The system now does not work for everybody, but it’s geared to give the best chance possible to the largest number of children.

Furthermore my son has the opportunity to participate in a range of recreational activities and pursuits that were not available to me. If he’s going to be very good at something then we’ve got a much improved chance of finding it.

Health is better too. Vaccines prevent my son from suffering from some of the diseases I had as a child. His life-expectancy should be longer than mine.

Diet has changed out of recognition. My son is the fussiest of diners but I can generally always find something that he will eat. When I was a kid it was boiled potatoes every night or go hungry (I still have a psychological aversion to over-boiled mushy vegetables). Lard has been replaced by olive oil.

There are many other improvements. More tolerance of diversity, less deference to organised religion, greater access to international travel and the almost dizzying possibilities and promise created by new technology.

And then there’s the violence.

Or rather, the lack of it.

Violence was all around when I was growing up. It was as much a part of society as the milkman.

There was the violence of parents to their children. Of teachers to their pupils. Of children to each other.

Perfectly sane and rational human beings, who today would not think of striking a child, did it routinely when I was growing up in the 1970s.

I recently told an acquaintance, who is not from Northern Ireland, about the culture of beating children which existed in my primary school. He looked horrified and asked me why I didn’t tell my parents.

I thought about it for a moment and then the answer became obvious. Because the same thing happened at home. It was just normal behaviour then.

This is not to cast any derogatory inference on my parents or on any teacher I had. In truth it would have been considered unusual, remarkable even, in that time and environment if they had not resorted to the stick, ruler or cane.

Many practices which were common then look extremely shabby to our eyes today.

And then there was the societal violence.

I was born at the end of 1974. One of the most violent years of The Troubles.

The first IRA ceasefire was in 1994.

For the first 20 years of my life I knew nothing other than incessant, relentless violence taking place in the little country where I lived. That doesn’t mean it directly touched me but, simply, that it was impossible to ignore.

It dominated the news every night on our black and white portable telly. It was always on the front page of the newspaper which was delivered to our home. I was continually conscious that it was going on. Like the air, it was everywhere. There was no time or existence before The Troubles.

The whole of my youth (and everyone else of my generation) completely swallowed by an ubiquitous, inexorable series of shootings, bombings, murders and mass atrocities. That’s all the years of schooling, of playtime, of learning, of joy and wonder. Of innocence.

One of the saddest things about adolescence is that you only get one go at it.

To explain quite how ingrained The Troubles were in my mind I draw attention to the first ceasefires in 1994. I was at a point where I literally couldn’t understand how it could work. It was almost unsettling.

The Troubles had always been there. They never went away. How could there be no more Troubles? They were as inevitable as the movement of the tides. I couldn’t imagine a world without them.

Much attention has been given, and rightly so, to trying to find a proper way of dealing with the legacy of the violence. Of somehow giving some closure to the thousands of victims and their families who are still suffering.

Considering how difficult this task has proven it’s presumably too big a question to even ask what the effect was on a whole generation who grew up almost desensitised to violence, such was the commonality of it? One murder on the news was barely even noticed. It had to be a mass atrocity before we would stop playing.

I was never directly impacted. I was lucky to grow up in a part of the country where incidents were rare.

But not unknown.

When I was barely a teenager masked gunmen came to our front door one cold evening. It was two nights before Christmas.

There was no significance in the choosing of our house. It was simply that our lights were on. I was asleep but my mother, father and older brother were awake. They were held at gunpoint for some time and our car was taken. Supposedly to be used in a shooting.

As I said I was unaware of the events as they occurred. But apparently one of the gunmen watched my younger brother and I as we slept.

The next morning I was the first one awake in the house. My da woke next and told me what had happened the night before. The police came to the house and then we had to try and prepare for Christmas. Life always goes on.

A couple of years later one Saturday morning my brother and I were in the centre of the town where I lived. There was a massive bang which made the windows in the shops shake.

We knew immediately it had to be a bomb so we did what you would expect any teenage boys to do. We quickly went to where we thought the noise had come from.

We arrived just as the police were sealing off the scene. What had once been a car was ablaze. We found out later that day that the car belonged to an off-duty policeman who was killed when it exploded. He was visiting his mother and parked in the same spot every week.

I remember seeing something on the ground. A rock or perhaps a piece blown off the car, I thought at first. Then I realised it was a lump of flesh, badly singed. There was a smell I recognised as burning meat.

It was hardly normality and hardly something you’d want a child to see. Certainly I hope my son never sees anything like it.

Of course what was once commonplace is now extremely rare. Violence at all levels of society is now much less common.

It is banned from schools and a criminal act in the home. Political violence is not unknown but vastly reduced. The most common forms of violence now are related to alcohol or drugs consumption, when judgement is impaired.

And it’s striking how quickly an idea which once had permanence can seem outdated. Imagine for example if you were out for dinner in a nice restaurant and the couple at the table next to you lit a cigar and a cigarette. The concept seems socially barbaric now but it was unremarkable not that many years ago.

By the time I left school I had found a solid group of friends. There were half a dozen or so of us who ran about together as we discovered alcohol, girls and cars. There were members of that group with backgrounds in both of the established religious traditions. But, to us, the pull of the tradition of friendship was much more powerful.

I try to keep in touch with these friends but they’re scattered all over the world now. Of the group I’m the only one who still lives in Northern Ireland. The rest left in search of new opportunities and a better life long ago. Most of them are now married and have their own children. Sometimes I’ve heard them or others say they didn’t want to raise their kids in this place.

Conversely I now know quite a few people from other parts of the world who have moved here to raise their families. Attracted by the cheaper cost of property and the pace of life.

A few times in my life I came close to leaving Northern Ireland. Now I’m glad I didn’t. There are many things I don’t like about it but it’s where I want to raise my son. I like the friendliness and community of the little village where I live. I don’t want to think about living anywhere else.

My son has plenty of friends and close access to a large extended family. He’s happy and thriving.

Yes, things have got better as the generations have passed. Experiences from my youth now seem so alien as to be completely irrelevant in my son’s world.

Civilisation is not just a thing but a process which keeps moving, always being reshaped by people. Undoubtedly in a few decades there will be things about society today which seem primitive. And so it goes on.

One of the most powerful parental instincts is wanting better for your children than you had. It’s just as natural to shield your child from the more ugly parts of the world.

There are plenty of ugly things out there.

Just not as many as there used to be.

0

Postman Pat the racist?

This morning I was stirred from my CBeebies induced stupor by something quite unexpected.

The daily ritual of trying to convince my son to eat some breakfast was continuing. With as much success as usual. He was more concerned with watching Postman Pat over my shoulder.

When suddenly I heard something which made me stop.

‘Did Postman Pat just say Northern Ireland?’ I said to my son.

‘That’s where we live daddy.’

I turned to the TV. I listened, sure that I must have made a mistake. Then he said it again.

This set me running excitedly around the house, yelling at mummy who was in the middle of the mysterious process of hair-drying.

‘Mummy! Postman Pat’s coming to Northern Ireland!’

The premise was this. Pat’s latest special delivery required him to travel to Northern Ireland to rescue a pigeon called Cedric.

I told mummy to hurry up, CBeebies doesn’t get much better than this. Special Deliveries usually take us no further than Greendale and Pencaster.

Pat crossed the Irish Sea flying his own private plane (naturally).

Then things became even weirder.

He landed on some remote and green clifftop. A solitary cottage was perched near the edge. The sound of diddly-dee folk music told us where he was.

There he was met by a pleasant shaggy-haired local called Sean McGuinness (or Shaun Maginnis if you prefer).

I clenched my fists. Don’t do it Sean. I grinded my teeth. Come on Sean, you’re better than this.

Then Sean spoke.

‘Top of the morning to you Pat.’

Sean’s parents, I can but assume, came from different parts of the island. At first he spoke with a slow southern lilt. However this later morphed into an angry Antrim burr which became so pronounced that at one point that I half expected Sean to bellow ‘No surrender Pat!’

Anyway the pigeon was duly rescued, leading a dazzled Sean to ask: ‘Do all postmen carry mountain climbing gear where you come from Pat?’

Pat flew off, no doubt mumbling ‘For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country,’ a la Reginald Maudling.

And that was it. Or that was as much as I watched anyway. I must admit that it was only when I stopped laughing that I thought about the crudeness of the racial stereotyping. It doesn’t offend me, but then little does. Perhaps I should have been more bothered that it was sending out an insulting and simplistic characterisation of the Northern Irish for very young children?

It did make me think of the infamous Eastenders ‘Oirish’ episode from 1997 which led to the BBC apologising after the programme featured cows, sheep and donkeys wandering along a street.

I’ve always observed that CBeebies bends over backwards to be inclusive and non-offensive.

Which led me to ask if any other ethnic group would be characterised in the same way as this.

And the answer, of course, is yes.

Rastamouse tells the story of a gang of Rastafarian crime-fighting mice who speak Jamaican Patois (‘Tings is ruff. Me tink me know who de t’ieving mouse may be’).

Rastamouse has been accused of portraying a racially simplistic stereotype but it’s still broadcast and kids seem to like it. To me the most disturbing part of Rastamouse is that he insists on wearing a hat and a jumper but no trousers.

The portrayal of Northern Ireland in Postman Pat was simplistic and unrealistic. Just like a show about a postman who flies his own plane and gets into adventures everyday is simplistic and unrealistic.

That’s the world children understand. If it doesn’t bother them then sometimes it isn’t worth making a row about.

I have to go now.

Top of the morning to you.

2

The little tree

We have a tree in our front garden.
A small, pretty fruit tree planted by my wife some years back.

I’ve never given much time to it before. In the summer it blooms modestly and then in Autumn little buds threaten to turn into fruit before they wither and rot like unfulfilled dreams.

That’s always been the way. Nothing much to see.

Until this year.

Whether by some shift in the weather or the composition of the ground I can’t say but the hardy little tree has come magnificently of age these recent weeks. Its branches have been weighed down by a dazzling display of proud crimson orbs. It looks like the happiest Christmas tree.

The fruit is a variety of crab apple. Smaller than eating apples, a much fiercer shade of red.

Watching the little apples grow, crowding together like baby birds, has given me a lot of pleasure as I’ve left and entered my home. While I can take no credit for the harvest, I can still enjoy the outcome.

But just watching the process of growth isn’t enough. I’m struck by the potential for waste if I don’t preserve the fruit. It seems almost immoral to just let the apples become wrinkled and soft and drop onto the grass. I know that I have to pick them.

I’ve held off as long as I can, playing a game of dare with the lurking hungry crows. This week the apples seem like they’re set to burst if I don’t act. They’re perfectly ripe and I plunder every single little globe, leaving the tree bare.

I dash into the kitchen and empty the bulging bucket of fresh fruit into my largest pot. It’s only just big enough. I fill it with water to just cover the apples and start to boil them. I can’t see any point in chopping or peeling apples of this size. A quick rinse is all I allow before I begin the heating process.There’s something splendid about cooking with crab apples in that they’re one of the few foods I can think of which isn’t available to buy commercially. I’m sure they can be purchased at some farmers’ market somewhere but the most common source is the garden tree.

I boil the apples for about half an hour until they are soft and pulpy, revealing the scarlet flesh. Now it’s time to strain.

I’ve got a straining kit which looks like one of my son’s broken toys. An ugly red scaffold holding a jelly bag over a bowl. A thin tea towel over a fine sieve would do just as well.

The real trick here is patience. The straining process should last for 8-12 hours so overnight is ideal. It can be massively frustrating watching the pure juice trickle out so slowly but I resist the temptation to hurry it along by squeezing the bag. I know this would ruin the beautiful clear quality of the jelly.When I have strained the apple juice it’s time to make jelly. I return the liquid my biggest pot and add sugar. Ten parts liquid to seven parts sugar. I have about two litres of juice so I add 1.4kg of sugar. And the juice of one lemon

I use caster sugar but granulated is fine too. Special jam-making sugar with higher pectin levels is available in the supermarket but I’ve never seen the need.

I bring the mixture to a rolling boil. It bubbles away for about 40 minutes while it reaches setting point. If you want to do it scientifically with a thermometer then it is 105 degrees Celsius. If you want to do it the old-fashioned way chill a spoon in the freezer. Dip the spoon in the boiling mixture and if a fine film sets on the back of it you’ve reached setting point.

While the mixture boils I remove the white skin which comes to the surface because I don’t want that ruining the colour of the jam.I’ve got some sterilised jars ready. Some people tend to go overboard about sterilising but warm when straight out of the dishwasher is fine.

I pour the mixture into the jars. It begins to set almost immediately.There’s a beautiful clarity to the jelly. It’s clear and vibrant, almost violent in its bright shade of red.

I allow it to cool in the jars but seal with lids while they’re still tepid. I add little wax discs below the lid as a disincentive to mould in case any of them are not opened for a long time.The next morning the jars are cooled and the jelly is properly set. I want to keep most of them as Christmas presents but I can’t resist opening one up for a taste before breakfast. The jelly is firm but with just enough give to be spreadable. The taste of apple is unmistakeable but it’s more tart. There’s an earthiness which makes the top of my mouth tingle. It’s absolutely delicious. I imagine you could have this on toast, or as an accompaniment with cold meats or crackers and blue cheese. It’s less sickly than cranberry jelly..

And the best thing is knowing it came from my own garden. The unrivalled satisfaction of the process of growing, picking, preserving and eating. Understanding and harnessing the processes of nature. As a Christmas present it’s got to be way more thoughtful and personal than aftershave and socks.

This morning as I leave the house to take my son to school I pass the little tree in the front garden. It looks a little miserable and puny shorn of its brightly coloured fruit. Soon the little bit of green that is left will wilt when the frosts come.

Then it will all begin again.

0

Meeting a childhood hero

Reading through the Belfast Telegraph today I came across a promotion for an interesting event.

Next month the paper is hosting an evening at Windsor Park with former Manchester United players Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath.

I don’t follow football very closely these days but something about these names brought me back to my childhood.

A time when football really mattered. When whether Man Utd won or lost could determine the happiness or misery of my day.

The ongoing battle for bragging rights with the Liverpool fans in the playground. In my juvenile mind Liverpool occupied a space alongside Darth Vader and Giant Haystacks.

It was simply inconceivable to me how any right-minded young boy could follow Liverpool over Man U. It was an epic and never-ending struggle for supremacy.

At that time football had not yet been totally immersed in the madness of unbridled commercialism.

It was still a rarity to see a live match on TV. At the World Cup in Spain in ‘82 Whiteside broke the record held by Pele as the youngest player ever to appear in the tournament.

That event was lit up by the exotic brilliance of the Brazilian team featuring Zico, Eder and Socrates.

Much of their appeal lay in the fact that we had never seen them play before and knew we would probably have to wait another four years, until the next World Cup, to see them again.

It’s simply inconceivable today to think of a situation where you can’t see the best players in the world perform on a weekly basis.

Closer to home the figure of Norman Whiteside represented something important to me.

Growing up in shitty Northern Ireland in the late 70s with the daily terrorist outrages, he represented a way out.

A local boy playing for the world’s most glamorous team.

It could happen. It really could.

That was something you could hang on to in the bleakest of times.

Of course I’ve seen scores of better players represent Manchester United since Whiteside was there.

I’ve also witnessed the team go on to enjoy unparalleled success.

But none of them, and none of it, seems to matter as much as when Big Norm was kicking lumps out of the Liverpool midfield.

Last year, when I still worked in the Tele, I got the opportunity to meet Whiteside.

He’s a friend of the paper’s sports editor Jim Gracey. Jim brought him into the newsroom and introduced us.

As often when you meet someone you’ve grown up admiring, I was a little bit tongue-tied at first.

But Whiteside was quite charming and modest and soon we were chatting.

Inevitably I had to ask him about the famous winning goal he scored in the ‘85 FA Cup Final against Everton.

He must have told the story thousands of times in his life but it was quite endearing to see the obvious boyish enthusiasm as he recounted it again.

How he had used the Everton defender van den Hauwe as a human shield so goalkeeper Southall wouldn’t see the vicious swerving left foot shot until it was too late.

I told him it was still the most important sporting memory of my life. Ranking much higher even than when United won the treble in ‘99.

He seemed slightly discomfited by this. A natural shyness railing against the outrageous compliment.

At the time Northern Ireland had qualified for Euro 2016 and Norman had been invited by ITV to do some punditry on the games.

But as well as the NI games he had to provide studio opinions on a couple of the matches featuring other teams.

I was quite startled by his shyness when he said to me. ‘What do I know about them? What will I say?’

I wasn’t sure if it was a rhetorical question but I answered anyway.

‘You’ll always think of something to say Norman’.

And he did. He was funny and engaging on his TV appearances.

Both Whiteside and McGrath have plenty to say. Stories of excess, adversity and injury. Of triumph and survival.

They’re a breed apart from the footballers of today.

It should be a really good night.