Beach day

There’s a permanence in this November rain. You can’t tell where it starts or finishes, you only have to be outside for a few seconds and it’s all over you, cold and inescapable. A fine mist that cloaks every blade of grass in the garden.

It’s a day for the house. But it’s also the last couple of days of the mid term break and we don’t want to waste it. We watch the weather through the smears on the window.

‘What do you want to do today buddy?’ I enquire gently.

His small, round face is twisted in concentration for just a moment. Then he brightens. A breakthrough.

‘Let’s go to the beach daddy!’

I shiver involuntarily.

‘The beach? It’s not really a beach day buddy? What about the cinema? Shall I see what’s on?’

‘No daddy, I want to go to the beach, please!’

I glance at mummy but she just shrugs her shoulders. I turn back to my son and can see the hurt coming into his features. I soften.

‘OK buddy, the beach it is. But we all have to wrap well up.’


We’ve got the beach virtually to ourselves. Of course. There’s the occasional dog-walker and a haughty seagull which looks big and nasty enough to pluck out your whole eyeball, but they are just hurrying through. Seeking shelter.

The fog rolls across the top of the tide like a thick sauce. There are piles of dark, slippery seaweed creating formations like military defences on the sand. Our nostrils are full of the scent of its pungent brine.

And we’re playing in the sand. And at the edge of the water. My son loves to play dare with the sea, creeping out as far as he can, where the sand is softest, and then retreating quickly with delighted squeals as the waves come in.

Soon his wellingtons are glistening with glassy sand particles and there are spreading dark patches of moisture on his jeans. His cheeks are ruddy and his golden hair plastered across his forehead. He glances at mummy and I regularly, just to check we’re standing close by. He’s still young so makes no effort to disguise the enthusiasm and joy in his expression.

We stay here for some time and eventually the weather begins to change. The plucky sun begins to poke through the ubiquitous blanket of cloud and a gentle breeze scatters the mist, exposing MacNeice’s Smoky Carrick on the far side of the Lough.

The new lustre also reveals colours. The ochre and rust of the leaves on the hard path, the pallid yellow and dirty shale shades in the expanse of sand. The grimy water washing just a little bit further up the shore each time.

I’m aimlessly throwing stones into the foam. My son grabs a fragment of a branch and begins to draw shapes on the flat sand which is pocked by pebbles, fragments of shells and discarded plastic.

I notice he is drawing a large shape which might be a heart, might not. Inside it he inexpertly begins to scrape the outlines of letters. James. Debs. Jonee.

We pass some more time this way but soon the rain returns, harsher and more persistent than before as if to make up for an unexpected interruption. It falls now as fast moving sheets which sting your face and make your clothes cling to your skin.

It’s time to leave the beach.

My son is the last one to exit the sand. Moving a few steps behind us as he keeps inventing new games and mischief, trying to delay his departure for just a few more seconds.

Soon it will be time to return to work and school. But not quite yet.

Mummy and I are on the path, close together, arms linked as we walk back to the car. Our boy moves level, forcing us apart and taking his place in the narrow gap between us.


Licensing laws, Sunday trading and downright silliness

Sometimes it takes the young to point out the downright silliness that we meekly go along with every day.

Like the time when I was in Marks and Spencer and tried to explain to my son that we couldn’t go to a particular till because I had a bottle of wine in my basket and that counter was ‘No alcohol’. But, I told him, we could buy the wine at the next till.

He looked at me and said: ‘Daddy, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’

And, of course, he was right. I could have taken the time to explain that due to an anachronistic law retail premises which sell drink still have to have specific areas where alcohol cannot be purchased, but what would have been the point? My five-year-old had spotted in an instant the goofiness of being able to buy a bottle of wine at till number 2 but not till number 1.

My local corner shop has found an interesting way to get around this conundrum. They have two tills which sell alcohol and one which does not. But in the six years I have lived at my current address I have never once seen the No alcohol till opened. So, in essence, they have set up a phantom till to get round the legislation.

Another similar issue arose this morning. Mummy and I had taken our boy to Dobbies Garden Centre in Lisburn for breakfast. We arrived shortly after 10am. After munching on sausages and toast my boy excitedly asked if he could look at the toys and the Christmas displays.

Soon he had found a little toy he liked and asked me to buy it for him. He’s been very well behaved recently and I wanted to reward him, but there was a problem.

I scratched my head sheepishly as I explained to him.

‘Sorry buddy, but the shop doesn’t open for another two and a half hours.’

He gave me a long stare, one which seemed to say: ‘Daddy, if you’re going to make up a fib to get out of buying me a toy, at least come up with something better than that.’

It is easy to understand his supposed reasoning. After all, we were inside the shop which was fully lit, music was playing and all the displays were active. We had already eaten in the restaurant and there were a few other shoppers strolling up and down the aisles. There were even staff members in the store, including a woman standing behind one of the till counters (presumably to ensure that none of us merely filled a trolley and walked out of the store without paying).

But despite all of the visible signs pointing in one logical direction, the truth, I had to tell my son, ran contrary to it. We couldn’t buy anything until 1pm because of restricted Sunday opening hours. Yes, we could have breakfast in Dobbies, but that was different.

We were caught in a strange no man’s land, like ghosts on a shipwreck. Able to shop for hours but not able to buy.

For more of this silliness let’s travel back to Marks and Spencer. The store closest to my house is probably one of the busiest in the country. On a Sunday, as I’ve already explained, they can’t sell any goods until 1pm. But there are large numbers of impatient shoppers who don’t like to wait. To get round this the store simply opens its doors earlier. The customers swarm in and begin to fill their baskets and trollies.

At about 12:45pm the queues begin to form at the checkouts. The staff take up their positions about five minutes before the hour. As the minutes tick off towards 1pm the lines can swell to consist of several dozen people who all simply want to be able to buy their shopping and go home. The retail assistants are also keen to get started as they know the longer they have to wait, the further the queue stretches.

But wait they all must. Then, at exactly the stroke of 1pm, the computer unlocks the tills and the customers rush towards the desk and frantic buying begins.

I always try to see both sides in any argument but, in all of the practical examples I have listed here, it is hard to see who benefits from the situations which have been allowed to develop.

The current rules for Sunday trading came into force in Northern Ireland in 1997. They state that shops with a floor area of up to 280 square metres can choose their own Sunday opening hours. Shops with a larger floor area (eg Dobbies or Marks and Spencer) can only trade between 1pm and 6pm on a Sunday.

I’m not sure what the origin for this 280 square metre figure is. I’ve checked The Bible but can find no mention or reference to it there.

What this all means, in real terms, is that Tesco can open its Express stores between 6am and midnight on a Sunday but its larger Extra stores only between 1pm and 6pm. Again, it’s difficult not to pose the question, who does this benefit?

There are, of course, those who see merit in restricted Sunday opening. Those who believe in keeping the day sacred due to spiritual belief or those who simply think an agreed day of rest is a good idea. Some also argue of the disruption to family life of having to work on a Sunday.

Some smaller and independent traders also make the case that restricted Sunday opening for larger outlets gives their stores a chance to compete with the retail giants.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever walked around Belfast city centre on a Sunday morning may conclude that it’s a strange and unnerving experience, strolling past endless shopfronts with their shutters down.

I used to be employed in the city centre and part of my job determined that I work on Sundays. Often I would go for a walk along the streets before I headed to the office.

On a couple of occasions I remember encountering confused tourists and having to tell them there was simply nothing open yet. They had the same look of bewilderment that I saw on my son’s face when I tried to explain to him why I could buy him breakfast in Dobbies, but not a toy.



Conkers are bloody dangerous

The act of writing an honest blog can often involve sharing information which does not necessarily present any advantage for the author.

To my mind that’s the worth of the format, the realisation of a faithful communication between writer and reader, even if it makes me seem feeble, weak or absurd.

But sometimes a little too much honesty can be uncomfortable. I can imagine my dad, for example, reading what I’m about to write, shaking his head and quietly mumbling ‘Jesus Christ.’ Others may have the same reaction. So be it.

I think it’s safe to suppose that this one can be safely stored in the ‘It could only happen to me section’.


It was a couple of days ago that my son first mentioned conkers. I was only half listening at the time because he was directing the conversation towards mummy while I was enjoying some valuable moments of respite.

I don’t think he had any proper understanding of what a conker is, or what he could do with one. Presumably he had picked something up from a playground conversation and merely had a vague idea that it was a concept he should express an interest in.

I didn’t think any more about it. Not until this morning when I found myself in the grounds of a hotel in Dublin staring at a tree.

I was there for a conference but, as I’d turned up a little early, I’d gone for a walk to pass the time. There were several beautiful trees and one of them was a splendid horse chestnut which had shed an array of ochre leaves and fat conkers on the surrounding grass.

Suddenly I remembered my boy’s words from earlier in the week. It all seemed to fit. Here I had been presented with a sure way of getting some super daddy bonus points. I stuffed a dozen or so of the conkers into my pockets before I went to work.

It was only much later in the day, as I drove back north, that my thoughts returned to the seeds I had collected. I was a little excited but it was tempered with caution. I knew that conkers was a game I had enjoyed in my youth but the world has changed so much. There were half-remembered snatches of stories about conkers now being regarded as a dangerous activity for young children, schools which had banned the activity from the playground and the insistence that youths wear safety goggles to participate.

While I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the conkers argument, I figured that a lot of this was erring too far on the side of caution. Using a sledgehammer to crack a conker, you might say. 

I got home. Because I had been in Dublin my son was spending the afternoon with his grandparents. This gave me a little time to prepare the conkers. I soaked them in vinegar and baked them in a very hot oven as I had memories of doing from decades ago.

Then I set about piercing the conkers. At this point I exercised extreme caution because I remembered stories of boys who had suffered nasty injuries by sticking pencils or screwdrivers into their hands when holing conkers.

I was slow, steady and deliberate and after about half an hour I had ten conkers which were successfully pierced and dangling jauntily from pieces of string.

Then I drove off to pick up my son. I brought the conkers along also because I had assumed,my boy would be so excited he would want to play with them without haste.

Half an hour later I was at my in-law’s house and proudly presented the two largest conkers to my son.

He looked up from the game he was playing for the briefest of moments.

Then he said: ‘Mummy got conkers for me yesterday daddy.’

And then he went back to his game. I was left feeling foolish with an unwanted conker hanging pathetically from a length of cord in each hand.

Then we drove home. My son is going through a phase where he is fascinated by the physical world and he insists on bringing a large light-up globe wherever he goes. Still reeling from my conker rejection I thrust the globe onto the front seat of my car alongside the conkers and headed back.

By the time we reached our house I was pretty firm in my conviction that my son’s fleeting interest in conkers had long since evaporated. The truth was that I was more interested. I was pleased with the conkers I had found and nurtured and I was unwilling to let go of them too readily.

I carried his stuff indoors and laid the objects on the living room floor. My son’s globe is attached to an electrical cord and plug. Somehow the strings from the conkers had wrapped themselves around the cord in an unseemly, tangled mess.

Now, this was an obstacle which a person of patience and a reasonable mind could certainly have overcome.

I was not that person.

After a couple of minutes of useless fumbling I began to pull the conker strings agitatedly in an effort to free them. This only succeeded in creating a large, stringy knot around the cord which was bound so tight that none of the conkers could be extricated. My son sat and watched me as I struggled with the strings.

I lost my composure and went straight for the kitchen to grab a knife. At this point I have a memory of a passing thought that scissors might be a better option, although this may merely be hindsight trying to recover some of my grace.

I began to cut the conkers free.

At first it worked well.

Then it didn’t.

What happened next is entirely predictable but also quite hard to explain.

As I hacked at a string I was overcome by a wretched stinging pain in my fingers. I knew at once I had cut myself and that it was a nasty gash. I leapt to my feet and muted my profanities because my son was still beside me.

He followed me as I rushed from the room, blood dripping and leaving a trail on the floor like a slug.

I put my right hand under the cold water tap and identified a long gash on my right index finger. Even though I was forcing considerable pressure onto the wound the blood kept coming. At this point I noticed I had also sliced my right thumb.

I wound the cloth tightly around my thumb and finger but the blood still kept coming, turning the material a deep and startling crimson.

Now, and I admit this was an unexpected development, I realised I had also opened a sizeable wound on my left index finger.

I should explain that I’m left-handed and hold the knife handle on that side. To cut two fingers on my right hand was unfortunate but I could just about understand how I’d done it. To add a further gash to the hand which I use to hold the knife had left me scratching my head, or it would have done if I’d had any undamaged finger left to scratch with.

But it was not the time to ponder my folly because I was bleeding all over the kitchen floor. I managed to prise open the first aid box and pulled out a box of plasters with my blood saturated fingers.

And now I realised the glaring flaw in the design of sticking plasters. You need working fingers to open them. I struggled gamely with the little plastic covers but it was like trying to knit while wearing oven gloves. Meanwhile the blood kept flowing.

In desperation I attempted to gnaw through the plastic covers but succeeded only in biting a plaster clean in half, leaving a strange antiseptic taste on my tongue.

As I did this I realised my son was still watching the whole performance. My son who is supposed to learn from me, to follow in my footsteps, to enjoy the benefits of all my wisdom.

I smiled and laughed manically.

‘Daddy’s just playing a game buddy. It’s great fun!’

Eventually I managed to prise some plasters from their covers and stuck them to my injured fingers. It wasn’t elegant but it held the bleeding back.

Soon after my wife returned home. Pathetically I showed her my bloody hands. She smiled, a smile that said I’ve seen it all before.

‘Come on, let’s get you cleaned up then.’

With my hands properly bandaged I started to feel a little better.

However, as I think Newton’s third law of motion states, for every staggeringly stupid action there is an equal and opposite staggeringly stupid reaction.

Having both index fingers injured curtails your ability to do simple tasks.

Like putting your pyjama trousers on.

Which probably explains why I fell over and bumped my head while doing it.

I’m in bed now. My fingers are throbbing. Which is good in the sense that it takes away from the pain of the bump on my head. No more harm can come to me tonight. Surely.

And it all goes to prove that my earlier fears should not have been so quickly dismissed. Conkers are dangerous, nay, lethal objects.


Postscript: The next major parent/child interactive task in our house will be the carving of Halloween pumpkins. I think I’ll leave it to mummy.


Piers Morgan, papooses and custard pies

As a pathway into a new day it was certainly novel.

Usually I’m roughly shaken into consciousness by my son at a hideously early hour asking one of the great questions of life. Such as who would would win a fight between myself and Wonder Woman?

But this was different. It was still dark when the little buzz from my phone revealed a text message. I wiped my bleary sleep-filled eyes and peered at the screen.

Would you be able to talk to Frank about papooses and Piers Morgan?

I stared without comprehension. The truth was that my brain was mostly still asleep and I couldn’t quite fit the pieces together yet.

Firstly it was an unknown number.

Also who was Frank?

Sinatra? Bruno? Bough?

As some air seeped back into my brain I finally computed that the message was from a producer asking me to appear on the Frank Mitchell morning radio show. This was fine, but what was the subject?

I read the message again. Papooses and Piers Morgan. I stared blankly.

I certainly knew who Piers Morgan was. But papoose was an unknown word. The phonetics brought to mind images of a giant underwater creature. Had Piers been eaten by a sea dragon? It seemed unlikely.

I Googled the word. Papoose, I learned, is an American rapper. Had Piers launched an unexpected gangsta rap collaboration? Straight Outta Good Morning Britain? Hmmmm….

I explored further and soon it all made sense. A papoose is also the name for the baby sling which parents use to secure little infants close to their bodies while keeping their arms free. Piers Morgan had poked fun at actor Daniel Craig for wearing a papoose. He said that 007 had been emasculated.

It seemed that this had started an online controversy that was now sweeping across the media. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone except me, the journalist, who hadn’t heard about it.

But even though I was late to the argument I was happy to go on the radio and give my thoughts. I had used a baby sling when my little man was an infant. When he was just months old I carried him around much of the Algarve on a family holiday in a sling, his little arms and legs dangling like those of a scarecrow in the wind.

Also, I had been forced to admit, my career as a radio commentator had slowed recently. After a slew of broadcast appearances last year I hadn’t been asked to go on in many months. It seemed that the market for my incoherent culchie ramblings was not bottomless after all.

I readily agreed to appear and a couple of hours later was giving my views to a jovial sounding Frank. He played a clip of comedian Harry Hill thrusting a custard pie into Piers’ face (in truth this didn’t really work on radio) and I praised Daniel Craig for his parenting.

There was undoubtedly an element of attention seeking on Morgan’s part in manufacturing this whole, pointless row and now, here I was, indulging it live on air.

After my brief radio appearance I went back to some more mundane tasks. Then my phone rang. It was a producer from BBC’s Evening Extra radio show asking if I could go on tonight to talk about…..Piers Morgan and papooses.

So, later that day I was sitting alone in the green room of the BBC NI building sipping on water from a plastic cup. I was led into the studio and, as ever, resisted the urge to yell expletives while they were doing traffic and travel.

On this occasion I was joined in the discussion by the excellent feminist journalist and columnist Fionola Meredith. Seamus McKee started by asking me about the custard pie incident. I said I had never thought so highly of Harry Hill until this moment. I got a little laugh in return.

I made a few more silly gags and Fionola made the important points about the serious issue of the perception of men as parents.

Then Seamus, who seemed determined to treat the whole episode humorously, asked me would I wear an Elsa dress if my son asked me to. In truth during my preparation I hadn’t anticipated this one and I sputtered something weak in response.

Then it was over and I was led out while they did the sports headlines.

Driving home I contemplated how strange it was that I would be asked to do broadcast twice in one day after several months of radio silence. Perhaps it was just a matter of waiting for the right subject.

The truth is, as I had explained to two different audiences that day, wearing a sling (or papoose) is a beautiful and intimate way for a father to get close to his new child. Certainly after the mother has carried the baby for nine months it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for daddy to help.

If that means, as some would say, that you’re emasculated, then that’s just fine with me.

As dark descended again I felt quite pleased with my day’s work. I had been back on the air, if only thanks to Piers Morgan.

I had made sure to enjoy my time on the radio because, as I had learnt, you just never know when or if you’re going to be asked again.

I have something to say and my own particular way of saying it (that’s why this blog exists). Sometimes a lot of people are interested, sometimes just a few, sometimes none. But I just keep plugging on regardless, sticking to my own views.

I suspect I’ll never make a regular commentator. The fact is that I try too hard to be reasonable, I never want to go for the throat, always want to consider both sides of the argument. I never say anything just to get a reaction or to wind people up. I’ll leave that to Piers Morgan. It’s usually the people who shout the loudest who get asked first. Usually, but not always.

As I reached my house my phone rang again. This time it was BBC Radio Foyle. A journalist asked me if I would be prepared to go on their breakfast show the following morning to talk about fathers who have suffered from postnatal depression.

Sure, I said, just tell me when.


Walking in graveyards

Being a parent means confronting the question of what to do with all the time.

It’s most acute on weekdays after school. I pick my son up at lunchtime but mummy is usually not home until mid-evening. The hours can stretch long before me, daunting and empty.

Homework fills some of the gap. My son also has the wonderful ability to invent his own games which temporarily distract him.

There’s also the option of just dropping him in front of the TV or iPad and knowing that he will be able to pass several contented hours. But my instinct tells me that this is lazy and should be controlled rather than encouraged.

Being an only child also means that there is no brother or sister for him to play and fight with. When he gets bored in the afternoon he always comes looking for me. Unlike mine, his reserves of energy seem to be limitless.

So I try to be organised and creative, always having a physical task on the agenda. We go to the playground on a couple of afternoons, maybe one day a treat in a cafe or a trip to the lake to feed the ducks. Sometimes I try to get him involved if I’m creating something in the kitchen or take him for a ride on his bike.

And some days we just go for a walk and have a little chat.

It’s a fine Autumn afternoon. The wind is blowing the red and brown leaves across the road like a blizzard. We’ve already been to the park and now we’re strolling. It’s a gentle and aimless walk, filled with his questions about the world.

We walk into the grounds of the large church in the centre of the village. It’s not a spiritual gesture but my boy loves to run on the large strip of grass in front of the dark, imposing steeple.

We play races for a bit, bringing a tut of disapproval from the elderly couple leaving the church. I’m a little chastened but my boy is wonderfully unaware and is gaily throwing leaves into the air.

I ask him if he wants to see inside the church but he prefers to stay in the open air so we follow the path which goes around the side of the building.

Then we meander down the steep little path which takes us into the graveyard.

We haven’t decided to come here, there were no words exchanged. We’ve just ended up here, almost by accident, like one of those autumn leaves being blown randomly in the breeze.

My son knows what a graveyard is. Once, when he was quite a bit younger, he told me he was looking forward to me dying because he liked to visit graveyards. He understands a little of the concept but hasn’t quite worked it all out. Just like his daddy.

It’s an old-fashioned graveyard. The type that you often see beside ancient churches with lumpy ground and crumbling crosses and gravestones haphazardly laid out. There’s no logic or order in evidence. The site is from a time before it had occurred to anyone that they might run out of burial space someday and turned interment into a professional and organised business.

We walk along the narrow paths and pass some marble plates which have Biblical quotations etched on them. My son asks me what they say so I read the verses. He knows a little about Jesus from what he’s learnt in school.

Then he starts to ask about the gravestones. Some are large and shiny, with golden letters chipped into the black stone. Some are so old and worn by the years that it is impossible to read the inscriptions. Some have a lot of information, like the one about the man killed in the helicopter crash. Others just have a name and a date.

But my son goes round them all in turn, pausing briefly at each one and asking me what it says.

Fresh and brightly coloured flowers have been laid at some of the plots while others are overgrown and neglected. Several of the older headstones have fallen over.

There’s a little wooden bench at the back of the graveyard. I gingerly sit on it and when I’m satisfied it will take my weight I allow my son to move next to me. I’ve brought him a packet of crisps and he munches happily while he begins to pepper me with more questions.

He asks me what happens to people when they die. He asks me if God is the biggest man in the world. He asks me why some of the graves have little children in them rather than old people. He asks me why people have to die.

None of these are questions that I know how to answer and I don’t try. I just give neutral responses and tell him there are lots of things we don’t understand and that lots of people believe different things.

He’s momentarily confused because in his world his father should have a simple answer to all of his queries. But it passes soon enough and I pull him closer to me on the bench. I tell him that this is a place where people come to remember those that they loved. After a moment he tells me that he likes the graveyard.

Then it is silent. Silent apart from the sound of his little teeth crunching. Some of the crisps fall lightly onto his school trousers but he doesn’t notice.

We sit like that quietly for some time. There’s a beautiful unspoken intimacy that I can’t bear to break with words. A closeness that I want to last forever. A fear that once it’s gone I may never be able to find it again.

The wind is getting up again. My son hands me the empty crisp packet and I wipe crumbs off his fingers. Then I tell him that we’d better go and get mummy’s dinner ready and we walk out of the graveyard, his little hand inside mine.


Death knock

I’ve recently started watching the BBC series Press, an enjoyable and polished drama which follows the adventures of the staff on two fictional daily newspapers.

While certain shortcuts are taken or cliches pursued for dramatic purposes, there is enough in there which is familiar to pique the interest of an old newspaperman.

The conflict of the approaches of a left-leaning liberal publication which flounders while it attempts to maintain strict editorial principles with the thriving tabloid where the editor demands his reporters dig up ‘dirt’ is a quandary many journalists will have wrestled with.

Similarly the struggles of a diminishing industry dealing with the new commercial challenges of a digital age is well observed. The scene where the editor of the Guardian-like Herald explains to her groaning staff how the following Monday’s edition is going to have an advertising ‘wraparound’ covering the front and back pages is accurate. I’ve been in the room on more than one occasion while that very conversation has taken place.

Also the underlying theme of how being at the forefront of driving the news agenda requires sacrifices which can destroy family life or good mental health is a little too recognisable for me to properly enjoy.

But it is another scene altogether which I perhaps found most impactful. The first episode of the drama is called ‘Death Knock’ and part of the story surrounds a young reporter on the tabloid Post agonising over having to rap the door of the grieving parents of a young footballer who has taken his own life. Just watching it made me uncomfortable.

For several years I was the crime reporter on a daily newspaper. In far distant days the paper produced an evening edition. This meant that the reporters started work very early in the morning to meet the deadlines of a PM print run.

As the crime reporter my first duty was always to check the overnight police notes. Then, not always but often, while the rest of society was just waking up I would be on the road to do a death or crime knock.

I would be reasonably confident in stating that for several years back near the start of this millennium I had at least as many of these difficult encounters as any other journalist in Northern Ireland.

But despite the multitude of death knocks, the ritual never seemed to get any easier. My stomach never quite settled, my nerves were always raw. I could never shake the persistent feeling that I was doing something quite awful.

Yes there was and is a clear and genuine public interest in allowing bereaved families to tell their stories, but I always felt mercenary. Newspapers peddle in grief and anguish and I knew a strong human interest story would always make the front page.

In addition I had to balance the guilt over talking to a victim’s family with the fear of having to go back to the office to face my editor empty handed.

Often I thought about how I would react if I had been bereaved and a young journalist came calling at my door reeking of desperation to get the story.

Techniques evolved through practice. Most people’s original reaction is to tell you to fuck off. But if you can just get them talking first, just a little opening before the door slams in your face, the smallest of human connections, then you know you’re in with a much better chance of getting the interview.

And all people are different. The death knock demonstrated the hugely varying methods that the human nature uses to cope with great adversity. Often I was verbally abused and described as ‘scum’. On a few occasions I was advised to leave property for my own health and was pushed and shoved more than once.

But then there were the people who just wanted to talk, who found something cathartic in sharing at a time when their grief must have been overwhelming.

I’ll never forget the family of one high profile murder victim in Belfast. I was the first journalist to find their house and knocked on their door less than six hours after their son had been killed. The parents invited me into their home and were unfailingly generous and open with their time. The tearful mother asked me if I’d had any breakfast and then insisted on making me tea and toast. A more compelling example of human strength and dignity I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed.

There were disasters too. Hours spent unsuccessfully knocking on doors asking if this was the right house, cases of mistaken identity or where incorrect information which had been passed on. I remember once waking a middle-aged gentleman from his sleep to ask him if it was his son had been lost the night before. It was the wrong house but the momentary look of fear and horror on his face disturbed me greatly.

It never happened to me but I’ve heard of occasions where journalists or photographers found a victim’s house so quickly that the family had not yet been informed of a tragedy.

In my later years in journalism things changed. I was on the newsdesk so became responsible for sending other reporters to do death knocks rather than carrying them out myself.

But the routine was always the same. The reporter was loathe to leave the office, often hanging around or killing time until I firmly told them they had to do it. Several times journalists informed me they were uncomfortable. I told them that was the natural reaction, the day when they were not uncomfortable was when they should begin to worry.

In more recent times social media and the dwindling resources of newspapers changed the situation further. Rather than knocking on a stranger’s door and asking them for a picture, photographs can often be found online. Rather than needing to get live quotes from a family member, there is usually a flood of online tributes which can be harvested. Doors are still knocked but perhaps not quite as often.

But this new situation presented a new series of problems. On occasion I received angry phone calls from grieving relatives who demanded to know the source of our photo or quotes. When I told them that they freely available online it rarely placated their hostility.

The truth is that there is just enough grey area about the rights of information publicly accessible on social media that newspapers are able to charge right through the vacuum and hoover up what is available. It is a rare and brave journalist who will decline the chance to lift a photo from social media when he or she is aware that all of the competitors have almost certainly already done so.

There is no doubt that much of the most powerful journalism comes from families telling their story of facing grief or adversity. I know personally of instances where families have channeled the story of their tragedy through the media to push for justice or vital societal change.

The death knock will always be part of journalism. And it should be.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to perform.

As a former hack now there are still many parts of the game which I fondly remember and miss. The early morning rap on the door is not one of them.


Alcohol and glory days

These days I get to go to the pub about as often as my son decides to have a lie-in (for the non-parents that means virtually never).

It wasn’t always so. I used to have an active social life and regularly enjoyed bars.

Back then the names of beers were easily recognisable – Harp, Stella, Smithwicks.

Now, on the very rare occasion I’m at a pub, I find myself squinting at the logos on the taps and the bottles in the fridge gamely searching for a brand I recognise amid the myriad of brews with strange names such as The Headless Leprechaun or Goat Manure.

My relationship with public houses changed when I essentially gave up alcohol about four years ago. My decision was based on the logic that having a very young son and suffering from hangovers mixed about as well as gin and milky tea.

I felt I needed my full reserves of energy to cope with the incessant demands of looking after a toddler rather than the soft leaky-tyre state of physical exhaustion that drinking the night before inevitably brought.

There were other reasons for deciding to abstain from alcohol. I wanted to become healthier, both in mind and body. I had grown tired of struggling to hold conversations in crowded, noisy bars and then desperately searching for a taxi to take me home at the end of the night (few words are more demoralising to hear after midnight than ‘Nah, I’m booked mate’). I was utterly fed up of pissing in dingy pub toilets, fighting my way back to my table and then realising I needed to go again the moment I sat down.

And, the reason which I seldom mentioned but which was perhaps most profound of all, I simply didn’t much like myself when I’d had a few drinks. All of the worst elements of my personality became magnified – the anecdotes were exaggerated, the comments became more cruel and I had a unhealthy tendency towards dark moments of morose introspection – when under the influence.

It’s probably not overstating the mark to say that most of the actions which I really regret in my life were carried out after alcohol had been taken.

If I had the opportunity to remove such a negative influence from my life, it seemed logical and obvious to take it.

So I made the decision to banish alcohol.

And here’s the thing. It turned out to be much easier than I had anticipated and I found that I didn’t really miss it at all. My wife still enjoyed her glass of wine on a Friday night but I wasn’t struck by the inclination to wrestle the goblet from her hand.

I simply fell out of the habit of drinking, to the point where the action of opening a bottle of beer became as alien and unlikely as sticking a large carrot in my ear.

I never described myself as teetotal and didn’t beat myself up if I decided to have a glass of wine at a wedding or a cold beer on a warm day on holiday. I just found, that for the most part, I didn’t bother.

Naturally I found myself attending fewer social occasions and, when I did, I was always the designated driver. Being in a bar or restaurant when you are sober but surrounded by very drunk people is often humorous but occasionally disconcerting or even threatening. More often it just seemed less bother to stay at home.

And this became my habit. While I have tasted alcohol on a few rare occasions I have not been drunk or in any state close to it for four years.

However, last night I did go to a bar and I drank. The occasion was a catch-up with two former colleagues from my newspaper days. Although none of the three of us work in the daily news market any longer we’ve all loosely stayed in contact and had been trying to organise a get-together for close to a year. Finally we managed to set a date which was mutually convenient.

My original intention had been to drive to the bar and home again at the end of the evening. As I prepared myself I did wonder what my old mates would think about me not drinking. I’ve not been out with them since I’ve been abstemious. Indeed the last occasion I drank with these mates was the very last time I was drunk. A heavy night in their company finally persuaded me to kick the alcohol habit.

I readied myself for some good-natured ribbing but assumed they would be understanding and supportive.

And then fate intervened. Shortly before I was due to depart a nasty traffic accident brought the roads between my house and Belfast to a standstill. I was faced with the unwelcome prospect of being stuck in traffic for a sizeable part of the evening when I should have been catching up with old friends.

So I abandoned the idea and jumped on a train. Ten minutes later I was in Belfast City Centre dandering towards a pub I had never visited before in my life.

I met my friends at the bar. One immediately asked me what beer I wanted. Perhaps I was already a little bit intoxicated by the pleasure of seeing former colleagues so I just went along with it. I asked him to select an ale for me and was quickly given a dark bottle which contained liquid which looked like goat’s piss and tasted and smelled quite foul.

However, I stuck with it and soon we retired to a table in the corner and were blowing the dust off some of our favourite insults about each other. By the second or third bottle the goat’s piss had started to taste a little better. It was clear my mates were drinking a lot faster than I was but they didn’t say anything when I sat out a couple of the rounds.

Having not drank seriously in several years my resistance to alcohol was severely diminished. Soon it was a case of, as I think Wilde put it, alcohol, being taken in sufficient quantities, producing all the effects of being rightly pissed.

My head began to swim pleasantly. However, I was wary because I know it’s a small leap from there to spending the evening with your head down the toilet. I slowed down.

And the three of us fell into a routine of drunken banter. Most of this was built around anecdotes from the period we worked together in newspapers (‘d’ye remember the time when….’)

Frequent parts of the conversations were hilarious. But it was, I think, laced with a trace of poignancy. Poignancy borne of the fact that the common experience that had bound us all together is now gone, that in a very narrow sense our professional lives are not as interesting or fun as they once were. We’re all in different places now. In the end it became like that Bruce Springsteen song where the characters all sit around talking about how great things used to be.

It was my first drunken conversation in a long time but it was just like all the rest, looking backwards rather than forwards.

And then it was over. Except it wasn’t.

I had left myself plenty of time to walk back to Great Victoria Street station to catch the last bus home to Hillsborough. But one of my friends was travelling in the same direction and floated the idea of a last pint in The Crown. I was pleasingly drunk at this point and idiotically agreed.

We supped the pints and talked nonsense agreeably until my mate looked at his watch and we concurred that the position of the hands proved beyond reasonable doubt that I had missed my bus. This meant I had to wait forty minutes to get the last train to Lisburn.

Eventually it arrived and was full to capacity. I had to stand the whole way while a group of drunken women on their way home from a night out danced, tripped over each other, laughed and sang chart songs.

When I reached Lisburn I tried to phone several taxi companies but was met each time with a voice of exasperated amazement that I would be so foolish as to expect that a taxi may be available.

Eventually I conceded that I would have to walk. It is probably about four miles from Lisburn train station to my house. When I reached the outskirts of Lisburn it began to rain. Heavily.

As I got to the countryside a couple of times I had to disappear into a darkened field to relieve myself. I trod miserably and wet along a lengthy stretch of the A1 where there are no streetlights and it was so dark I could not see where I was placing my front foot.

At some point after 2 am I reached my house and collapsed, exhausted into bed. I was very sober by now.

When I woke this morning, my feet still aching, I checked my phone. I had a message from one of my mates.

‘Great night lads. Let’s do it again soon 👍