Old friends

I met a dear old friend for coffee this morning.

I hadn’t had a proper chat with this person in more than a decade. It’s shocking how lax we can be at keeping alive the communications which are important to us.

But proper friendships never age and soon our conversation had gathered its own momentum, a mixture of blowing the dust off old stories and sharing new photographs of kids and grandkids. There was no struggle to find the right words.

What was equally interesting was where we met today. A delightful little coffee and gift shop in the centre of Glengormley.

I worked in this same building almost two decades ago when it was the offices of the Newtownabbey Times newspaper.

I sat there and sipped a black coffee in the very same corner where my desk had once been placed. Back when I was a younger man, determined to leave an impression in the sand.

It was a lovely morning, but edged with just a tiny bit of sadness. All the things that have happened in those years. Have I become the man that I hoped I would be?

It was impossible not to think about the power of change. How the world spins just a little bit faster than most of us are comfortable with.

Every newspaper office I worked in during my career has now gone. The Ballymoney Times closed its office in the Co Antrim town years back. So did the Carrick Times. And the Newtownabbey Times.

These papers still exist but without any physical base in the town which they report about.

Even the Belfast Telegraph vacated its magnificent city centre office where I worked for more than 15 years in favour of a smaller base out at Clarendon Dock.

It’s easy to say that these events tells us something about the declining power and influence of newspapers, and undoubtedly that’s true. But what’s really different is the way we communicate now.

Sometimes when I’m training young journalists I tell them how I used to carry a pocketful of loose change everywhere when I was starting out, in case I stumbled upon a scoop and had to phone it in. Invariably they laugh, as if I’m a character in a Monty Python sketch telling tall tales from the far distant past.

But that’s how it was. And not that very long ago. I remember sitting in this very same spot of the Newtownabbey Times office when I heard the news about the September 11 attacks in New York.

The next morning we learnt that a Ballyclare man had been in one of the towers but survived. There was no internet in the office then. No social media. So I started where I always did in those days, with the phone book.

I went through every person who had the same surname in the directory until I stumbled across his mum. She gave me his number in New York and agreed to supply a photograph if we could call at the house. It was deadline day so I sent our photographer speeding down the road to pick it up while I called the US.

Luckily, despite the time difference, the local man answered. I suppose he didn’t sleep too well that night. Within an hour of starting the search I had finished the interview and written it up, the photograph had been collected and we were putting the package together to appear on the front page of that week’s paper.

It’s a form of journalism that might seem very primitive to many in the business today. But we learnt to be resourceful, persistent and crafty.

But soon the communications revolution was to change the profession profoundly. The same inherent personal skills were necessary but the outlets were radically altered. Like all changes, some things were positive, but there were also casualties. Budgets and staffing levels were slashed in many news organisations. Proper journalism was replaced in too many places by the insidious nature of the cut and paste industry. Curiosity seemed to have been squeezed out.

The truth is my son, like every other child of his generation, will probably never hold a newspaper in his hands the way I do. He’ll never sit down with a sandwich and just lose himself in the features or comment sections, enjoying the rub of the dry paper between his fingers, wiping the grimy grey ink off his hands.

But journalism will survive, perhaps better than before. Information has to find its channel.

And now, in the deepest irony of all, I’ve become the world’s least likely blogger. The man who still listens to the news on a battered old wireless which has the frequency for Radio Luxembourg marked on the dial (if you’re under 50 ask your parents).

But it has allowed me to feel the power of connection again and in a more direct way than I’ve experienced in the past. Analytics tell me I’ve got followers from Vietnam, South Africa, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Chile and Peru.

I’ve met new people, some who I now regard as very good friends even though I’ve never met them in person and probably never will. My virtual friends.

I’ve also reconnected with many old friends, relationships which I’d unforgivably neglected over the years. My new old friends.

And this takes me back to my now tepid coffee with this voice from the past in the building which used to be my office. Where I learnt the trade.

My friend and I drink up and step outside. It’s raining now, a warm light spray which is pleasant and refreshing. We walk to her car and wish each other well. We embrace, holding it for a moment to make up for lost time.

She says she hopes we can meet again soon. I do too.

Nothing ever stands still and only a fool tries to live their life backwards. But in a virtual world of communications it is more important than ever that we still make the little effort to sit down together and talk.

4 thoughts on “Old friends

  1. Only one of your blog posts has the power to captivate me at 5.45am on a dark rainy Thursday! I know I sound like a broken record but your writing is amazing Jonny; I get totally immersed when I’m reading! Your talent is such a breath of fresh air in the blogging world. And sorry for saying no one ever reads newspapers in a previous comment haha! It was a misinformed throwaway remark! It’s a shame that print on paper is being pushed aside in favour of the screen; I much prefer to read a real book or newspaper than one on my laptop screen or phone.
    Brilliant work as always Mr J, although I can’t forgive it that you take your coffee black!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jonathan . This brings back memories of the police press office. I had great conversations with journalists once the paper / bulletin was done and dusted – for a while at least . Everything from our kids to dogs to the political sagas were all debated and I loved it. Now I’m a full time Granny and wouldn’t change it for the world but I do enjoy reading blogs and messages from each and everyone of us who have ‘moved on’. Happy Christmas to you all xx

    Liked by 1 person

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