The make-up and beauty book

Continuing my occasional series on the educational books and leaflets sent home in my son’s schoolbag.

Today in his bag I found a book advertising the services of a local make-up and beauty salon.

Now I’ve always been open minded about boys and make-up, but my son is only four and, at the risk of sounding like Victorian dad, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable sending him to school wearing make-up.

The book offers everything from facials to manicures to Brazilian waxing, full-body tanning to massage.

It’s well produced and laid out. It seems a shame to throw it out,

I’ll keep it until he’s older and can make up his own mind about these things.


Do you want to build a snowman?

It was a few weeks back that mummy first suggested doing something as a family over half term.

‘Something nice.’

I nodded along. Like always. And then I did nothing. Like always.

Which means that I had no real right to complain when mummy announced that she had taken matters into her own hands and bought us tickets for Disney on Ice.

I complained bitterly.

But mummy brushed my objections away like drops of sweat and the plans were set.

In truth I had no real idea what Disney on Ice even was. Obviously I’d heard of Disney. And of ice. But I wasn’t sure how they fitted together.

But I am aware that there is a modern tendency towards cashing in on any cultural phenomenon by reproducing it while wearing ice skates. I’m looking forward to Breaking Bad on Ice. And Saw 7 on Ice.

But for now we’d settle for Disney. And so with a weak and watery sun rising on a bright winter morning we set off for the early show at The Odyssey in Belfast. (By the way, in case there are any pedants out there, I know it’s supposed to be called the SSE Arena now but I’ll stick with the name I’ve always known. After all I still call a Snickers bar a Marathon.)

We were excited but not without some worry.

The fact is that our wee man doesn’t do well at big events with crowds.

This first became apparent when we’d tried to take him to the Christmas pantomime at the Grand Opera House two years ago. We’d decided to make it a real treat and hired a box. The three of us sat there waiting for the show to begin, chatting happily and munching on popcorn.

And then the curtain rose.

The loud music started and our contented box rapidly morphed into the car scene from The Omen when the ambassador and his wife try to take the boy Damien to church.

My son screamed and flailed. I had to remove him from the show after less than five minutes and he was much too upset to return.

I did consider this might be an understandable reaction to seeing May McFettridge for the first time but had to conclude that he was just uncomfortable, indeed terrified, by the level of the sound, the movement and the crowd.

He’s still very dubious about the cinema, not happy with the juxtaposition of blaring music and darkness. We also had a mixed experience when taking him to a circus last year.

But as we watched the crowds queuing at the doors of The Odyssey we knew this would be on a different level.

Sure enough, we hadn’t travelled any more than a few steps through the front door when it began.

He became afraid. Really afraid.

Mummy took him into her arms and we spoke gentle words of encouragement. We’d be right there with him the whole time.

He started to recover. Then he decided he wanted some sweets and something from the merchandise stands.

I became afraid. Really afraid.

Programmes were a bargain at £9. T- shirts were £12. Teddies £18. I found a pen which was £8. Glowing sticks were £20.

I started to think that I would have to busk with my trusty harmonica for weeks to pay for this day.

Then I spotted the flags. They were the cheapest item on the stall at £5. I suppose it’s all relative but it seemed like a steal at that moment.

I gently nudged my son towards the flag.

Then I roughly shoved him towards the flag.

He decided he wanted the flag.

Then I had a very difficult conversation with an impossibly smiley American woman at the counter as a restless queue grew behind me.

As best as I can remember it went something like this.

‘What can I get for you sir?’

‘Can I have the flag?’

‘The pennant?’


‘The pennant?’

‘The pedant?’

‘Excuse me sir?’

‘Uh….can I have the flag please?’

‘The pennant?’


‘You would like the pennant sir?’

(She points at the flags/pennants).

‘Uh, yes please.’

‘Would you like Nick Wilde or Ariel sir?’


(Her smile fails for a millisecond before she fixes it back into place.)

‘Nick Wilde or Ariel sir?’

‘Uh…the fox….the one with the fox.’

‘Nick Wilde?’

‘The fox.’

‘Is there anything else I can do for you today sir?’

‘No thank you, just the flag.’

‘The pennant?’


We take our seats. The floor is sticky. I’m feeding marshmallows covered in chocolate to my son and myself. He’s waving his flag in the air and it keeps bumping off the head of the man in the row in front. The man in the row in front keeps giving me an angry look. The man in the row in front looks like he may recently have been released from prison.

The show begins. A kaleidoscope of flashing lights, noise, smoke and six feet tall mice on skates.

My son immediately begins to cry and panic. He buries his head in mummy’s chest and pleads to go home.

We could give in. Walk away like we have on other occasions. Cut our losses.

But it’s time to confront this fear. A day to build a little snowman.

Mummy softly covers his ears with her hands until he grows accustomed to the noise. I hold his little hand. We both talk to him constantly, reassuring, telling him Mickey Mouse is coming on in a moment.

First he’s terrified. Then suspicious. Then grumpy. Then curious. Then animated. Then excited. Then delirious with happiness and good emotion. We nurse him through all the stages until he’s ready to stand on his own.

The next show will be a little bit easier. For him and us. That’s the process. It’s a good snowman.

As for the show itself? Well it’s as slick as wet grass. Technically and acrobatically dazzling, full of familiar stories and songs.

My son loves the Peter Pan segment, complete with flying characters, an inflatable crocodile, a pirate ship and a duel between Pan and Hook.

I try to get involved after the interval when I see a shoal of giant colourful fish skating onto the ice.

‘Look son, it’s Nemo.’

‘Duh daddy! It’s the Little Mermaid.’


I must admit that I’ve got a guilty secret. A fondness for Frozen and its sentimentality.

Often when mummy is still asleep in the mornings and I take my son downstairs I’ll try to put it on the telly.

‘Shall we put Frozen on son?’

‘No daddy, Frozen’s for girls.’

‘Boys can watch it too.’

‘No daddy, put He-Man on.’

Pleasingly the Frozen story is the climax of the ice show, complete with falling snow, fireworks and the really catchy song which I like because it uses the word ‘fractals’.

The only glitch is when Prince Hans falls on his arse on the ice twice, although he probably deserves it for taking advantage of Princess Anna’s emotional impetuosity.

It did make me wonder though what happens to those whose performances fall below the required standard. Nobody else other than Hans puts a skate wrong.

I have visions of the wretched prince being tied to a table backstage and getting 20 lashes o’ the cat.

As the show concludes my boy is jumping up and down, waving his flag and shouting, ‘This is awesome, this is awesome.’

I think the trip has been a success.

The final act is when all the Disney characters from the performance return to the ice for a rousing chorus of Let It Go.

And just in case any of you hear reports of a man in his 40s standing on his seat and singing along at full voice…..well if you haven’t got it on tape then it didn’t happen.


The Dark Hedges and aunt Rosetta

Where are you from?

It’s one of those questions you’ll get asked countless times in your life. And the answer, of course, depends on who is asking.

If I’m abroad I’ll say Northern Ireland. But if the interviewer is struggling with that concept I’ll settle for Ireland.

If it’s someone closer to home I might say County Antrim, or north Antrim if they have some local knowledge.

But if I’m being asked by a native, with that inherent Ulster desire to know where and who you belong to, then it becomes a little bit more complicated.

I could justifiably claim to be from Ballymena. I was born and spent the first few months of my life there. But I’ve barely been back since, don’t know it well and feel no real bond.

Often I’ll settle for saying I’m from Ballycastle, the pretty little coastal town where I spent some of my teenage years. But it was always hard-wired into my psyche when I went to school there that kids from Ballycastle were townies and I was a country boy. It was a them and us thing.

Actually the place where I’ve lived for the longest period of my life is Belfast. I moved to the city as a timid student at 18 just weeks before the Shankill bombing and didn’t leave for almost two decades. At different times I’ve had homes in the south, east and north but never overcame the feeling of being an outsider. I didn’t lose my culchie brogue and I don’t want to.

If I’m from anywhere, and if it even matters at all, then I’m from Ballinlea.

The problem is when I share that name, I’m generally met with a quizzical look and the inevitable ‘where?’ Even when I tell people from north Antrim where I’m from they usually don’t know it.

So where is Ballinlea?

Well just a few miles south of Clare Forest in County Antrim, there is a flat area where a crossroads is surrounded by fields on a bleak landscape. I grew up calling it the Ballinlea Cross.

It’s an in-between place, an intersection where the roads to four locations collide.

There’s the windy road to Ballycastle, where I remember my Ma spinning her wee car on the icy surface before I was old enough to know that was a bad thing.

There’s the bumpy road which heads straight for the stunning rocky coast near Ballintoy, the panoramic sands at White Park Bay and the wonderfully named Lisnagunogue (which the spell checker on my computer refuses to believe is a word).

There’s the long straight Straid Road which stretches in the direction of the smoky cottages at Bushmills, Dunseverick and the the Giant’s Causeway.

And then there’s the road where I grew up. The snaking Ballinlea Road from which you can travel away from the Cross in the general direction of a myriad of small local villages including Armoy, Stranocum, Mosside, Dervock and Liscolman.

So Ballinlea is not a town, it’s not a village or even a hamlet. It’s barely a place at all. If I Google it I find the area referred to as a townland. I’m not sure what that means.

But it does have its own residents’ association, so presumably the people who live there must feel some sense of commonality.

There used to be a little petrol station just off the crossroads. If I had the money I would buy a penny chew there as I walked home after getting off the school bus. The business closed 30 years ago.

Travel further up the Ballinlea Road and the shell of a tiny one-room school is still there, partially restored and preserved as a museum. Its doors closed many years before I was born but my da had an education of sorts there. The school could cater for maybe a dozen children and Catholics and Protestants sat together.

Beside it is a small white chapel. The last time I was in there was for my granny’s funeral, about 15 years ago.

Across the road is the parochial house, an imposing, dark and crumbling edifice. Ballinlea was, and I assume still is, part of the same Catholic parish as Ballintoy.

Beside the priest’s house is a small, overgrown graveyard. With its crooked and cracked headstones and roughly hewn crosses it’s like something out of a gothic horror novel.

Many members of my family are buried there, including my grandfather who had the same name as my son.

Further up the road is a doctor’s surgery. When I was growing up it was small cottage operation. One doctor lived on site and there were no other staff that I remember. He examined and diagnosed you before going into a little room at the back and returning with a bottle of medicine which was always pink, no matter your ailment.

This was my puerile understanding of how doctors’ worked. It was only much later when I moved to Ballycastle that I understood that there was such a thing as a prescription which you had to take to the chemist.

Today the surgery is very different. It’s a large modern health facility called The Country Medical Centre. According to its website there are five doctors registered there and a large team of nurses and admin staff.

The name Ballinlea comes from the Irish Baile an Leagha, which means town of the physician, so I suppose this is a fitting progression.

Just past the surgery there is a handsome and sturdy old stone bridge locally known as The Dry Arch. Beyond this the road stretches on to the village of Stranocum and towards Ballymoney.

About halfway between the Cross and the Dry Arch there is a long, thin rocky lane, pocked by puddle holes and violated on both sides by wild briers. My granny lived at the bottom of it. Past her house and the lane crawls up a hill before splitting in two.

To the left is Listen Lane where old Spence lived alone in his little cottage without electricity until the end of his life.

To the right is a shorter passage which takes you to a little clearing and a small hill. My great aunt Rosina lived in a stone building with my da at the bottom of this mound. One of the earliest memories of my life is scavenging through the old derelict house and finding a tiny black crucifix which I kept for several years.

My da flattened the house with a digger while I was a small boy and all that remains today is a rusty old pump from where Rosina once drew her water.

My family lived for a time in a caravan beside the old cottage while our new home was being built. I think I have a memory of spending one of my first Christmases in that caravan huddled around a little portable black and white TV.

Then the following spring we moved into our new house on top of the little hill. Number 71 Ballinlea Road, a striking red brick bungalow designed and built by my da.

It was remote. I often had to walk a couple of miles in the dark just to get the school bus.

My da had to fight against BT who thought it was too isolated to be linked to the phone network.

Our electricity failed often. One winter day we woke up to find that the snow was lying higher than the top of the front door. With freezing, sore fingers and runny noses my da, brother and I dug out the wee grey Massey tractor and then drove it over the top of the snow to Ballycastle to get vital supplies.

My older brother and I grew up running through the fields, climbing trees and voraciously reading comics.

We had a dog. When it died we got another. When it disappeared we got another.

My granny at the bottom of the lane kept cats and hens. We had a couple of ponies and an old unfriendly goat which seemed to go mad at the end of his life and started drinking his own piss and trying to eat his own leg. We put him out of his misery.

It was my job to walk to the end of the lane to pick up the milk bottles. The shiny silver caps were usually pecked into pieces by the hungry crows who wanted the cream.

And that was the life we knew. Nothing remarkable for the time. An anonymous existence in an anonymous place.

And I spent years trying to explain to bemused people from Belfast and further afield just where Ballinlea was.

It was the place that nobody had ever heard of. There was no reason to hear of it.

But then, just a few years back, things changed.

Now, if someone asks where I’m from I don’t have to expend the energy anymore.

I can simply say, ‘Oh, just up the road from the Dark Hedges.’

The Dark Hedges. Ah, now you’re interested.

Suddenly you know exactly where I mean. Part Ballinlea Road. Part Westeros.

Just in case there is anyone out there not familiar, the Dark Hedges are two rows of ancient knobbly grey-green beech trees on either side of a thin road. They slope towards each other, as if reaching out for comfort. At the tops the thin branches cross like spindly fingers locked together, forming an arch which blocks out the sunlight, creating something almost sinister and disturbingly beautiful.

The trees have featured in the HBO television series Game of Thrones. A programme I’ve never watched but which has had a huge beneficial impact on the local economy.

I grew up about three miles from the Dark Hedges. Straight up the Ballinlea Road and turn left onto Bregagh Road.

I’ve got a friend who lived even closer. I used to stay at her house on weekends, just a few hundred yards from the trees.

The Dark Hedges are big business now. Bringing in visitors from all over the world to gaze at the haunting natural formations.

But it wasn’t until recently, when I was having lunch in Belfast, that I realised how important they are to some people.

I was halfway through my duck ravioli when an excitable American woman burst into the restaurant. She was just off a cruise ship. She had a few hours on land before it sailed away again.

And she had to see the Dark Hedges.

The poor waiter who she had accosted was Polish and hadn’t a clue what she was on about, so I stepped in. I told her where they were. She wanted to know the fastest way to get there, stressing that money wasn’t an issue. I gave her the number of a taxi company and she ran off.

I hope she enjoyed the spectacle. I hope she made it back in time.

The trees are in the news regularly these days with stories about the lack of signage and facilities, damage caused by weather or the little Bregagh Road being closed to cars.

More loftily there’s usually a nonsense story knocking around about how it’s been voted one of the top 10 most beautiful places on earth or one of the 20 places you won’t believe actually exist.

But it wasn’t always like this.

No, until Game of Thrones came to the Ballinlea Road the Dark Hedges were about as much a tourist attraction as the chilblains on my toes.

There’s a long list of places in County Antrim which have marketed themselves as places to visit for travellers. Torr Head, Glenariffe Forest Park, Cushendun, Cushendall, Ballycastle, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Ballintoy harbour, White Park Bay, Bushmills distillery, the Giant’s Causeway, Portballintrae, White Rocks beach, Portrush.

But I never remember the Dark Hedges being listed among them. There was never a visitors’ centre, a car park, not even a road sign.

There’s an old quote attributed to Samuel Johnson about the Giant’s Causeway. Asked by James Boswell if the causeway was worth seeing he is supposed to have said, ‘Worth seeing? Yes, but not worth going to see.’

This could have been adapted for the Dark Hedges. Worth seeing? Yes, but only if you can flipping well find them.

The huge old leaning trees which once framed the Frocess Road were much better known.

Until the last few years I never met a single person who was not from the immediate area who was aware the Dark Hedges even existed. Indeed there were many from the area who were unaware of them.

And not all who were aware were impressed. For years farmers who had to struggle with getting tractors and trailers up and down the route grumbled that the rotting old trees should have been bulldozed long ago.

I was only vaguely aware of their existence myself in my early years and I was a young adult before I truly appreciated their eerie grey elegance.

When I lived in Belfast I would sometimes bring friends north, and I always included the Dark Hedges in the trip. I showed them to my wife, and others several years before the TV cameras arrived. The reactions were always the same. ‘This is stunning’ and ‘How come we’ve never heard of this place before?’

Things are changing, but slowly. There’s now a road sign to help confused visitors. Cars have finally, many years too late, been banned from the road.

Can you imagine any other significant tourist attraction anywhere in the world where vehicles are allowed to drive right through the middle of it? Would cars be allowed to three-point turn in the middle of Stonehenge, giving one of the stones a little nudge as they go?

Opened in recent years is a rather strange, soulless hotel on the Ballinlea Road, just yards from the trees.

But the overwhelming feeling you still get when you visit the site is that there’s not much there. Very little has been done to capitalise economically on the trees’ popularity. This will undoubtedly change over the years and the location will probably be poorer for it.

Presumably it’s only a matter of time before someone opens a shop nearby, selling sticks of rock, T-shirts and replicas of whatever creatures inhabit the Game of Thrones world.

When this happens it will be closing a circle.

Because, and I have to assume this is a fact known by very few people alive on this planet, there was a shop at the Dark Hedges before.

It was quite a few years back and it was run by a relative of mine.

Rosetta McCambridge was my grandfather’s aunt. Which I suppose makes her my great great aunt, if there is such a thing (note; great great aunt Rosetta should not be confused with great aunt Rosina who appeared earlier in this story).

Her tiny shop was at the end of the Bregagh Road, where it meets the Ballykenver Road, just yards from the famous trees. Planning laws wouldn’t allow a shop there today because someone sitting in an office would deem it to be on the sight-line at the corner of the road.

If this seems like a very remote location for a shop then consider that in past decades, long before supermarkets, these little stores were dotted all over the country, helping to feed their communities.

The shop sold sweets, cigarettes and basic foods. It probably opened sometime in the 1930s and was in business for years. Rosetta lived in the same building and never married. Apparently she lived a long life and kept the shop open until near the end when she was incapacitated after a fall.

The shop then closed and went to ruin. The building was never knocked down, it just fell apart over the years. The stones were probably commandeered from time to time by local farmers to patch holes in walls or barns. It’s just a pile of overgrown grass today.

But I remember the shop. The sweetie counter. A kindly old woman pushing chocolates onto me and my brother. The stone unplastered walls and the slate roof. The smell of cigarettes.

It’s a lovely memory. A great link with my own family history and a way of life that is being rapidly forgotten. A great tale to tell people who are interested in the story of the Dark Hedges.

Except it almost certainly isn’t true. The maths just don’t add up.

Rosetta McCambridge was born in 1881. I’m not sure when she died. I was born in December of 1974. At the very earliest, for me to have a memory of her and the shop, the visit would have had to have occurred in 1977 or 1978.

By then my great great aunt would have been about 96 or 97. People were hardier in those times but it’s surely fanciful to think that she could still have been running the little shop on her own at such an advanced age. It’s much more likely that the shop closed years before I was born.

But the memory of a shop run by an aunt of my Da where my brother and I got sweets is fresher in my mind than any recollection of what I had for breakfast this morning.

My da would have told me the story of the shop when I was an infant. There were several other similar little shops still around which I would have visited. It seems my brain has simply written its own narrative. If the pieces don’t quite fit, the memory just makes up the best story it can. Well, mine does anyway.

But regardless of my confusion, there was a shop at the Dark Hedges for many decades. Long before the visitors came.

I suppose I should dedicate this story to great great aunt Rosetta, who I almost certainly never met. If she was alive and had her wee shop there today she’d be a bloody millionaire.


A wee Halloween tale

It was the boy who noticed it first.

The ghostly shape ascending from the water like a newly-born island in the ocean.

He tugged on his father’s sleeve.

‘What’s that white thing coming out of the water daddy?’

Its head was like the top of a glacier, barely visible the shadowy outline of facial features.

Thin arms like branches, webbed fingers reaching out towards the shore of the pond.

The father lifted his son into his arms.

‘Let’s go son.’

‘But what is it daddy?’

‘Let’s just go now son.’


Finding Margaret Gibney

Let me tell you a story.

But first a warning. If you’ve got something that needs done soon then read no further. If the kids need to be put to bed or you’re just killing time until Emmerdale Farm starts then this is not for you.

Only read on if you’ve got a little bit of time and a clear mind. Like the bubbling stream this story moves at its own pace. And not in a straight line.

It started last year. I think. Or it might have been the year before.

I’ll explain. I’ve got a group of friends who organise an annual football trip. Every January we go away to England to watch a Premier League match.

We’ve been doing it for about 15 years I think. When it started there were eight of us and we all worked at the Belfast Telegraph newspaper. Now none of us work there but the ritual goes on.

We’ve been all over. London several times, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton.

We’ve seen a lot of matches.

And I can remember virtually nothing about them.

In the early days my friends would have put this down to my alcohol consumption. But now I’m teetotal and the matches all still blur into one in my mind. Lots of well-paid guys running about a grass patch while the fans who help to pay their wages yell foul abuse at them.

Because for me the football is the least important part of the trip. I go for the comradeship. The retelling of the same old stories that we’ve all heard countless times. Being reduced to helpless mirth because one of my friends has ordered the hottest curry on the menu and now looks like a human hot press.

Knowing that we’ll all have our turn at being the sap at the sharp edge of the joke. Being able to laugh along when it’s my turn. Being comfortable enough to not care. Or not to have to say anything.

There have been so many trips now. So many times we’ve had the same animated drunken discussions.

And so it was that last year (or another year) we were all in a curry house in London (or another English city).

We were talking about music. The way middle-aged men do. This is always an awkward one for me. I love various sorts of music but have rather unconventional tastes. I don’t own a single album and I’ve never downloaded a piece of music in my life. I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin. There are many things I know about music but many, many more things that I don’t.

One of our number asked the group what was the best gig we’d ever been to.

We all started to think about it. It was quickly clear that the rest of the group had been to see much more live music than I had. One of them seemed to have been to every gig which had ever taken place in Ireland, even when there was more than one on the same night.

The truth is I’ve been to very few live music events. I had a disappointing exam result once which could probably be explained by my insistence on seeing the Saw Doctors in Coleraine the night before.

I’ve seen U2 live twice, once at Botanic Gardens in Belfast and once at Croke Park in Dublin. But I found neither occasion memorable, the music lost in the sheer size of the spectacle.

I’ve fond memories of experiencing The Pogues at Brixton Academy with my brother, although the truth is that by the time I was old enough to see them live much of their honest to God anger had already dimmed.

I thought about the question for a while. Then I came up with an answer. Eric Bogle at the McAllister Hall in Ballycastle.

It says something about the musical knowledge of my friends that most of them knew who I was talking about. That’s the guy who wrote The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. And Leaving Nancy.

Eric Bogle is a Scottish songwriter who has spent most of his adult life living in Australia. He’s written a few of my favourite songs.

And it is true that late in the last millennium he played the McAllister hall in the town closest to where I grew up. It’s a tiny venue. There were probably less than 200 people at the gig. But I remember more about that night than I do about U2. The thoughtful lyrics of his songs, the witty dialogue between them.

So this was my answer. I waited for the inevitable onslaught of beer-inspired verbal abuse. It never arrived.

Instead the group moved on to talking about what’s the best album of all time. I think my suggestion was The Beatles, Best of.

That night I was lying awake in my hotel room. It occurred to me that I hadn’t listened to Eric Bogle’s music in a long time. Many years. Here I was claiming him in front of my friends as an influencer but I couldn’t even be bothered to put one of his songs on now and again.

I didn’t even know if the man was still alive. What he wrote was important to me in my youth so why was I so neglectful of it now? Had the advancement of the years taken a bit of the art out of my soul? How could something which was once so important now be so remote? Are such things stored away like childhood toys in the attic?

It bothered me. But then many things which pop into my mind bother me everyday. I fell asleep. When I awoke in the morning I’d forgotten all about it.

And that’s probably how it would have stayed.

Except for the centenary of The Great War.

Again, I’ll explain.

Like most good folk singers Eric Bogle is at his most powerful when singing songs of protest. He is best known, among those who know him at all, as the composer of lengthy anti-war songs. A reviewer once described him as an artist who writes songs about the First World War which seem to last longer than the war itself.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda is one such piece. Probably one of the best folk songs ever written, it takes close to 10 minutes to tell its sprawling story of the young carefree Aussie rover who becomes a soldier with the Anzacs brigade and lands at Suvla Bay as part of the British ordered Gallipoli offensive in 1915.

The Australian and New Zealander troops are slaughtered by the waiting Turks and the subject of the song is caught in a bomb blast which rips off both his legs.

He returns to Australia aware that his young life has changed forever and haunted by what he has seen.

‘For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs two legs. No more waltzing Matilda for me.’

The song finishes with the soldier, now an old man, watching his former comrades marching in the annual Anzac Day parade.

‘And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.’

It’s lean, stark and powerful. I’ve listened to the song hundreds of times but it still always demands my full attention. Background music it is not. It’s been covered by artists as varied as Joan Baez, June Tabor, The Pogues and Johnny Logan.

But Bogle is also the composer of what, in Ireland at least, is an even better-known war protest song. He called it No Man’s Land. The Fureys made it famous as The Green Fields of France. Some people know it simply as Willie McBride.

The song’s narrator is walking through what was once the battlefields of France but what is now the location of graveyards for the fallen (‘countless white crosses’). He rests at the side of a grave. It belongs to a young soldier, Willie McBride, who died in 1916 while just 19 years old.

The narrator imagines what Willie’s life was like. And his death and funeral.

‘Did they beat the drum slowly? Did they play the fife lowly? Did the rifles fire o’er ye as they lowered you down.’

The story takes its time, building to a profound message about the futility of war and the misguided old men who send young men off to fight.

‘Did they really believe that this war would end war……for young Willie McBride it all happened again. And again, and again and again and again.’

The strong political message and humanity of the song do not remove from the fact that it is achingly beautiful.

And when the centenary of the Great War came round people here started to take notice of it again.

Joss Stone recorded a version of No Man’s Land which was horrible and, I’m assuming, merely tolerated because it was raising money for the Poppy Appeal.

I was reading The Guardian one day when I came across an article written by Eric Bogle distancing himself from Stone’s cover of his song.

I heard her version, and a few others, played on the radio.

I was working on the news desk of a daily paper at the time. Soon after I received a press release from a group of veterans who were going to France to visit the original grave of the young soldier, Willie McBride, who inspired the song.

The only problem with this is that Bogle has stated several times that the song is not inspired by any specific person. Apparently he choose the name as a reaction against anti-Irish feeling which was prevalent in England in the 1970s.

I remember briefing a young reporter on the story and trying to tell her about Eric Bogle and his song. She gave me that look of confusion and concern that I often see when I talk to people.

On another day shortly after an envelope arrived on my desk. I opened it and a CD fell out. I should explain that occasionally journalists get sent books or albums, for the purposes of review. But I hadn’t written a review in years and it wasn’t clear why anyone would send me anything.

I turned the CD over. Eric Bogle’s name was on the front sleeve. It was his new album. At least this answered the question of whether he was still alive.

But this was all getting a bit strange. I hadn’t had cause to think about Eric Bogle for many years but now, since the football trip, it seemed that I couldn’t avoid him.

I took the CD with me and put it in my car stereo. It was good. It’s been in my car ever since. My four-year-old knows all the words to some of the songs.

I went home. I started to listen to some more of his music, reacquainting myself with many of the songs of my youth. I was surprised by how familiar they still were. It seems that the things that are important to you when you are young never truly leave you. It’s the time when your mind is open to so much new information and possibility. Music seemed so much more important to me then. I felt some of that adolescent enthusiasm returning.

Then I started to wonder what Eric Bogle was up to now. Satisfied that he was still alive and active I searched for more information online. I found his website. I started to read.

It said that he was playing in Belfast the following week.

It wasn’t a tour. As I said before Bogle is originally from Scotland but lives in Australia. He was coming home to visit loved ones and friends. While here he was squeezing in a couple of gigs, including Belfast. He made it clear this was the last time he’d be making the trip to the northern hemisphere. I bought two tickets on the spot.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not in the slightest bit superstitious or spiritual but events seemed to be following a narrative of their own making now.

A few days later my wife and I were in the Elmwood Hall in Belfast. Unlike the previous occasion when I had seen Eric Bogle two decades earlier, the hall was full. And the crowd was knowledgeable.

Bogle, alongside his long-time sidekick John Munro played a long and intimate set. He chatted with the crowd, made jokes, told stories. Some of his songs and tales were funny. Some were sad. All were about the human condition and brought a reaction. He played every song that was asked of him. It was an experience as far removed from going to see U2 in a stadium as I could imagine.

Eric Bogle is in his 70s now. Making the long trip from Australia is exhausting. Several times he referenced the fact that this would be his last visit to Belfast.

The show ran on. As if he couldn’t bear to finish and the crowd couldn’t bear to let go of him. It must be strange state of mind to undertake a task that has been so familiar, but to know that you will never do it again in your life. It’s ahead of us all.

Eventually, almost unwillingly, he brought it to an end. The final song of the night, of course, was No Man’s Land.

He introduced it by telling a story. I’d heard it before but it never gets tired.

The year, he explained, was 1997. Tony Blair had just become Prime Minister and one of his goals was bringing peace to Northern Ireland. While he was still fresh in office he received a letter from a 12-year-old Belfast girl called Margaret Gibney.

Margaret had grown up on the Shankill Road and her whole life had been dominated by The Troubles. Her letter stated that she had only ever known one year of peace in her life and she asked Blair to do something about it.

Ever the opportunist, the young Prime Minister saw the PR potential straightaway and went public with the letter. He told the world’s media how a young Belfast girl has given him the determination to do whatever was needed to end The Troubles.

Margaret was invited to Downing Street. In her original correspondence she had asked Blair to contribute a letter of peace. Blair presented her with a framed copy of the lyrics of The Green Fields of France which he called his favourite anti-war ‘poem’.

Eric Bogle was on a tour of the UK in the same year. He was reading The Times newspaper when he came across a report of the Gibney visit. The accompanying photograph showed Tony Blair and Margaret Gibney together smiling and holding a copy of the lyrics to Bogle’s song.

The accompanying text included the sentence. ‘The Green Fields of France was written by a Scotsman, Eric Bogle, who was killed in the First World War…..’

As Bogle delivered this line on stage the audience emitted a huge roar of laughter. His sidekick John Munro chipped in with ‘He’s looking better now though…’

And then they played the song and nobody in the audience dared to make a sound until they were finished, such is the reverence. If you needed to cough, you held it in. No sound other than their voices and the gentle, melancholic strum of the acoustic guitar.

The crowd left happy. But a little bit sad too.

As my wife and I drove home we discussed the concert. The music was all new to her but she was dazzled by it. I felt the particular joy of introducing the person I love to a thing that I love.

We discussed the Margaret Gibney story. We’re both journalists and had the same thought. What is Margaret Gibney, the girl who met Tony Blair, doing now?

Then we went to bed and forgot all about it.

More months passed. I had other things on my mind. My health had started to fail. Old problems had returned. My doctor removed me from work to prevent a complete breakdown. My future was uncertain, my mood wretched. I suffered countless sleepless nights, worrying about the future. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to work again.

And then the football trip came around again. Looking back now I probably shouldn’t have gone. My mental health issues were raging almost out of control. But my doctor wanted me to maintain some level of normality and there was a part of me which thought a weekend away with the lads might help.

And so we flew off to some English city to see another load of millionaires kick a ball around. I’ve no idea who we saw play but I do remember having an outstanding spiced lamb shank in a wonderful curry house.

But other than that I struggled badly. I drifted in and out of the group conversations and several times felt as if I was about to fall to pieces. There was a thought which kept rolling through my mind and I couldn’t shift it.

It was, ‘I won’t be around for the next football trip’.

Late on the Saturday night we were chatting in a bar. The usual stuff, football, music, work. I was so low that when one of my friends asked me who my favourite artist was I told him that I hated music. And I probably did at that point.

Then the best live gig debate came round. Again. It gave me a chance to tell them the Eric Bogle story. How the conversation on the last football trip had started the process which led to me seeing Bogle live again. And this one was definitely my favourite gig. I thought it was a good story and I enjoyed telling it. It was probably the only time I felt anywhere remotely close to the person I am during that whole weekend.

The months wound on. I decided my health was more important than work and I left the company that had employed me for almost two decades. I started to recover slowly, enjoying being with my family and away from the pressures of deadline. I started to recover a little bit of my old confidence. I looked forward to meeting people I knew again and some of my intellectual curiosity returned. There was joy in the world once more.

I started a blog. People seemed to like it.

My writing took me in new directions. A bit of teaching, magazine writing, editing, charity work, some broadcasting. I enjoyed being my own boss and not having professional responsibility for anyone else.

And Eric Bogle was the soundtrack to much of it. As I was writing my blogs his songs were often playing in the background in the spare bedroom I pretend is an office. It was usually his CD on in the car when I was driving to a meeting or appointment.

And so it was that one afternoon earlier this month I was listening (again) to a recording of Bogle playing No Man’s Land live. Again I heard him recount the Margaret Gibney story. I smiled, as I always do.

It reminded me of the gig at the Elmwood Hall. The emotion of the night. My conversation with my wife afterwards. The question we asked. ‘What is Margaret Gibney, the girl who met Tony Blair, doing now?’

So what is Margaret Gibney, the girl who met Tony Blair, doing now?

I sat back in my chair. I’d been a journalist all my adult life. Proficient in all aspects of investigatory techniques. Cunning. Crafty. A master of the dark arts. Able to find the answer to the most challenging of questions. To track down the most elusive subject. A detective at heart.

I opened my laptop. I put the words ‘Margaret Gibney’ into Google.

Her Facebook profile flashed on the screen in front of me.

I smiled to myself. ‘Still got it’, I mumbled.

I scanned the Facebook page. Was it definitely her? I found some old photographs of her from 20 years back, meeting Blair at Downing Street. I compared them to the pictures of the smiling girl taken in the past few months. My instinct was that it was the same woman.

Without thinking it through I sent her a direct message. I introduced myself as a journalist. I said I was interested in talking to the girl who met Tony Blair. What did she make of the experience 20 years later?

I was conscious that I was making an uninvited approach to a woman who I’d never met before. I tried to sound friendly but authoritative. Not at all like a knife-wielding maniac.

I sent the message. I suppose I didn’t really expect to get a response.

Less than two minutes later a message flashed on the screen of my phone.

‘That sounds fine Jonathan. Just let me know when you are free to meet.’

This rather caught me out. First the speed of the response. Second the fact that she seemed so keen to help. Years of working in the media had taught me always to have low expectations. Most people are initially cautious and suspicious when approached by a journalist. I understand that.

But I didn’t really have the second part to my plan in place. In fact it wasn’t a plan at all, just a curiosity, an instinct. A path that I was following without a destination in mind. I’d sold myself to her as a journalist but I didn’t work for any organisation. It was more than a year since my name had appeared in any sort of publication. I had no idea what to do with the story. I had no idea if it even was a story.

I went ahead and made an arrangement to meet Margaret a couple of nights later. We agreed to make contact at the front of the Mac in Belfast. For the uninitiated, the Mac is a gallery and theatre in the fashionable Cathedral area of the city. I see it a representative of the new, post-Troubles Belfast so it seemed a fitting location to meet the girl who became a symbol of peace.

Plus it’s a busy public area so it was safe, which seemed important when meeting someone for the first time. Just in case Margaret was considering chopping me into bits and feeding me to her cat.

I arrived at the allotted location in plenty of time. It was a dry and cool evening, young couples were meeting up for dinner. It felt good to be there.

I waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. Half an hour after the agreed time I accepted Margaret Gibney wasn’t coming. I sent her a message, light in tone, hoping that everything was OK.

She responded quickly. She was mortified. She explained that she had so many things going on in her life that she had simply forgotten about our meeting. She messaged me again and again apologising. I quickly softened. It’s fine I told her, I forget stuff all the time. We agreed to meet at the same location a couple of nights later. The last message she sent me was one saying that she was going to write it in her diary and definitely wouldn’t forget this time. Lol.

Two nights later I was standing at the same spot. It was slightly damper this evening but still pleasant to be in the fresh autumn air. Being an (almost) full-time parent means I’m not often out of the house at night and it felt refreshing.

I waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. Half an hour after the agreed time I accepted that Margaret Gibney had stood me up for the second time in a week. I sent her another message. This time there was no quick response.

I have a journalistic motto. It goes something like this…

Be persistent. Be tenacious. But don’t make a buck eejit out of yourself.

As I walked back to my car I knew it was time to abandon this nonsense. After all, what was I even doing? Trying to find some bizarre train of logic out of a drunken conversation with my friends in a curry house and a funny anecdote from an obscure Scottish folk singer. Wasting my time chasing what exactly? A story that nobody even wanted to hear.

I drove home feeling the beginnings of a depressive episode. The whole sorry tale seemed to encapsulate how everything I had tried to do in my life had ended in failure. But it was deeper than that. A feeling that I was out of place with the rest of the world. Unable to sniff out what was really important. Allowing my own obsessions and whims to devour logic and sense.

When I reached the house I had a message of my phone. It was from Margaret. She was beyond embarrassed this time. She couldn’t believe that she had forgotten again. She asked if she could meet me the following morning and she insisted she was buying the coffee.

I sat in the car seat staring at the screen of my phone for some time. Then I responded. I told her it was entirely understandable what had happened. I agreed to meet in the morning. I went to bed wondering if I was the world’s biggest buck eejit.

The following morning I was standing at the same spot in front of the Mac. I waited. Soon I received a message from Margaret on my phone.

It told me that her bus was running late.

I have to admit I was highly dubious by this stage. Part of me wondered if Margaret Gibney actually existed. Was her phone really controlled by a gang practical jokers who were secretly filming me? Laughing helplessly at how many times this poor sap would turn up at the same spot to be stood up. Looking hopefully at every woman who walked round the corner.

Ten minutes later an attractive, confident young woman approached me and introduced herself as Margaret Gibney. We went inside to get a coffee. She was buying.

I had rehearsed the moment. I told myself again and again not to mention the Eric Bogle thing too early. I didn’t want to come across like an obsessive or a stalker.

As it was we almost reached the bar before I blurted it out.

‘Have you ever heard of Eric Bogle?’

She had not.

So I began to tell her the story. About her meeting with Tony Blair and his presentation of the lyrics of The Green Fields of France to her. About the press reports of the author of the ‘poem’ dying in the First World War.

About how Bogle now tells the story when he plays the song live and mentions her role in it. I played her a YouTube clip of Bogle telling her story.

Margaret was stunned. Almost speechless. She was familiar with the Fureys’ version of the song but not its origin. She had believed it written by some dead guy.

‘That’s what Tony Blair told me.’

It was going well. Then we sat down and Margaret asked me who I was writing the article for.

I mumbled something unconvincing about being a freelance and wanting to keep my options open. I heard myself say that I might try and sell it to the Sunday Times. The Ballymena Times seemed a more likely option.

And then we chatted.

I’d suggested that we simply talk during our first meeting. Rather than facing the pressure of a formal recorded interview it allows the subject to relax and tell their story. It also allows me to decide what lines and angles I like and then to guide the follow-up interview in that direction.

And Margaret’s story is truly astonishing. Growing up on the Shankill, she lived the early part of her life in the shadow of constant violence.

It was a school project when she was 12 which changed everything. She wrote a letter to Cherie Blair asking her to contribute a letter of peace for Northern Ireland.

But it was Cherie’s husband Tony, who had just become Prime Minister, who saw the potential of Margaret’s letter. During a visit to the US to meet President Bill Clinton he told a TV interviewer how a simple letter from a 12-year-old girl had strengthened his determination to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

It was classic Blair, well intentioned but opportunistic. Boiling everything down to its lowest level, replacing logic and argument with an emotional slap.

But it turned Margaret Gibney into a celebrity overnight. When she arrived at school the next day the world’s press was waiting for her.

Soon she had travelled to Downing Street to meet Blair. She rubbed shoulders with the Clintons. She worked alongside Jemima Khan as a UNICEF ambassador. She toured with The Fureys. She recorded Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas message. She travelled the world. She was invited to the UN headquarters in New York and the Winter Olympics.

This was an incredible life for a young girl from the Shankill. But what interested me even more was what happened afterwards. What became of Margaret Gibney after the journalists stopped being interested in the story? And what did she think looking back on it all?

Margaret now is a formidable and impressive young woman. It’s easy to imagine her as the 12-year-old writing that letter hoping to change the world because she’s still trying to do it. A sense of frustration and injustice rages within her against inequality in all its forms. She devotes her professional life to helping others and is eloquent in her scathing assessment of politics since 1997.

She is torn in her opinion of Tony Blair, the man who brought peace to Northern Ireland and war to Iraq. She said she thought her letter proved to be a convenient hook for him. When she used the word ‘pawn’ to describe his treatment of her and I knew I had a headline.

But her full anger was directed towards the Tories and their implementation of welfare cuts and the DUP and Sinn Fein’s current failure to reach agreement at Stormont.

‘Working class people are having to go to food banks and our politicians can’t even sit down together.’

But I don’t want to give the impression that Margaret is merely an angry young woman. She is generous and funny, completely selfless and totally dedicated to improving the lives of working class people in Belfast.

We chatted for a long time and I felt like we could have gone on a lot longer.

We said goodbye and arranged to meet up the following week to record the interview. There was a part of me thinking that I should not let her out of my sight in case she didn’t turn up again.

But I had something else to worry about. I needed to find someone to buy the story and I didn’t exactly have a catalogue of recent work to promote myself.

I had mentioned the Sunday Times and my wife encouraged me to go for it. I sent a pitch to the news editor. Margaret Gibney, the girl who was the face of the peace process now believes she was used as a pawn by Tony Blair. At a crucial time in Northern Ireland’s political evolution she tells how our leaders are letting us down

Within the hour I’d received a response. The Sunday Times loved the idea and wanted 1,000 words. It was the first time I’d been commissioned to write a piece by a major newspaper in several years. I was exhilarated and a little scared. But mostly relieved. I’d spent so much time thinking about this, put so much of myself into it. Now I had some measure of validation. My point was not lost on others. The time not wasted.

I met Margaret again the following week. She turned up. Just 15 minutes late. We had broadly the same conversation but this time I recorded it. She said all the things I wanted her to.

Then we went for a trip in my car. A tour along the peace wall between the Shankill and Falls. I’d seen the wall hundreds of times but its size never failed to daunt me. Margaret shared some of the stories of her youth, growing up here, in its shadow. The rain was pissing down but she kindly agreed to get out of the car so I could photograph her against the wall. I knew the Sunday Times would take proper pictures but I wanted one for my blog.

As we left the wall she told me a story about when she travelled around Europe with a Catholic friend. They went to see what was left of the Berlin Wall but were both taken aback by how small it was.

‘That’s nothing like the walls we have back at home. People there couldn’t believe we still have walls in Belfast.’

I started writing my feature as soon as I got home. I was keen to impress, determined to do a proper job. The words and images came quickly to my mind and soon I had the rough outline of an article. I spent some time polishing and refining it, changing words here and there. And then changing them back.

I sent it off to the Sunday Times news desk, feeling way more anxious than I should. I knew I was putting too much of myself into it but I couldn’t hold back. I dreaded any sort of negative review. I knew the Sunday Times would be thorough and I was expecting a long list of queries, complaints, alterations.

I kept checking my phone for a response but this only made the time go slower. Eventually a little message appeared in the inbox. Just four words.

‘Thanks Jonny. Looks good.’

I heard nothing else before the Sunday. Then I was up early that morning, fighting against the clock on my phone which insisted on going back an hour. The corner shop wasn’t open early enough so I went off in search of a 24 hour garage to buy the Sunday Times.

I carried the heavy paper to my car and opened the main section, magazines and fliers sliding onto the floor. There it was. Dominating a page. And the bit I saw first was ‘….writes Jonny McCambridge’. I had the same excitement I felt when I was a trainee journalist at college and I did my first front page story in the Ballymoney Times. The same as when I wrote my first splash for the Belfast Telegraph and I had to use the name Michael McCambridge because I was still working for another paper.

I read the article in full. They didn’t change a word. Not a single word.

Beneath my name on the page was a large picture of Margaret looking defiant in front of the peace wall. She was wearing a ‘Tories Out’ badge. For some reason this delighted me and I started to laugh. Sitting there in the empty carpark of a petrol station with the paper early on a Sunday morning. Just laughing.

Are you still with me? Full marks for stamina if you are. I almost gave up myself a couple of thousand words back.

When I started doing a blog a few months back I took some advice from someone much more experienced in the art than me. She told me that a blog should never be more than 250 words long.

But then I’ve never been much good at listening to advice.

So what’s the point of it all and why do I think anyone other than myself should care?

Well maybe there isn’t a point and maybe nobody cares.

Other than if you think you have a story to tell then go ahead and tell it. It might make a decent blog, or end up in the Sunday Times. Or it might just give you pleasure to tell.

And I’ve made a new friend. Someone who has a completely different background to me, different experiences from yesterday, but who shares my values and hopes for tomorrow.

After my story appeared in the paper the BBC approached Margaret asking her to talk on the radio. Maybe, just maybe, I do know what I’m doing.

I might arrange to meet Margaret for a coffee again someday. She might even turn up.

And I’m still listening to Eric Bogle and laughing at his stories. I’ll send him a copy of this. You never know, he might read it. After all it lasts almost as long as one of his songs.

And the guys are already in the advanced stages of planning our next football trip. Discussions continue on which match we’ll be going to. I don’t care because I won’t remember it afterwards anyway.

But I intend to be there. I intend being there for many more years having the same rows over favourite albums and gigs. Telling them how much I love music.

I can’t wait.


Does anyone give a shit anymore?

There’s a book for sale in the little village where I live.

It’s aimed at kids and written by a local man. I’ve seen it in a couple of gift shops and the community centre. It costs £5.99.

I’m always interested in local writers so I had a quick scan through the pages. I was worried that the production levels seemed to be very basic but this concern was overridden by my admiration that the author had managed to get his story into print. Fair play to him, I thought. Anything that encourages children to read books must be welcomed.

I also considered if it might be something that my own son might like to read. But the back cover says it’s for kids aged 9-12. My boy is four. Come back in a few years.

As I’ve moved around recently I’ve seen the book in a shop every now and then. Sometimes I wonder if it’s selling a few copies, secretly hoping that parents are supporting a local author.

And that really ought to be the end of this story.

But yesterday morning I met a friend for coffee and he asked me if I was aware of the book. Then he asked me if I had read it. He knows my thoughts on the importance of good and clear communication and wanted to highlight that the book was full of errors.

I suggested he might be exaggerating so he produced his phone. He had made a note of all the mistakes he had spotted.

It was a long list.

Apostrophes missing or in the wrong place. Commas incorrectly used or not at all. Basic mistakes. A catalogue of grammatical and linguistic confusion.

Now I was intrigued. This was something I had to see for myself. I went straight to the community centre where the book is sold. I opened it at a random page. This is one of the first passages I read:

‘The beds are plain. That’s the only way to describe white quilts on single shite beds against white walls.’

Single shite beds.

Now, I’ve got no particular interest in naming the book or embarrassing the author here but I’m assuming this cannot have been his intended sentence.

I said earlier that the production values of the tome were low. But I’m assuming that there must have been some process that allowed it to be published. Surely someone, if only the author himself, must have read it before it was committed to print.

The errors are compounded by the fact that the book is targeted at children. A parent might buy it thinking that it will improve their son or daughter’s reading or writing skills.

The incident left me with a feeling which is depressingly familiar.

People who know me or this blog will be aware that I try to make a living in the communications business. A little bit of writing, some editing and proof reading, teaching writing skills to others.

Sometimes I’ll be sent or given a piece of text to comment upon. Maybe a news article or feature, a press release or manuscript. Sometimes a whole magazine to proof.

What I generally do is make a list of things that need fixed. Typos, grammar problems, spelling mistakes, logic flow, clumsy construction, sentences which make no sense.

I’ll communicate my findings to the author or publisher. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they just ignore it.

I’ve seen press releases issued or articles appear in print containing mistakes which I’d previously pointed out needed to be corrected.

Tell someone that they’re not good at maths and they’ll probably laugh with you and agree. Tell them that their basic writing skills are poor and you risk making an enemy for life.

I was in the communications office of a major company recently (again I won’t be using the name). I was there to deliver some media training. It’s the sort of thing I do regularly. The company publishes an internal magazine, a short newsletter keeping employees up to date with relevant developments.

I was shown a draft of the coming edition. It was shocking. Just shocking. Riven with mistakes and inconsistencies. I took my red pen to the pages and soon they resembled a bloody mess.

With a growing sense of exasperation I went to the young man who was responsible for it and asked if it was too late to make changes. Had it already gone to press? He looked at me vacantly and shrugged his shoulders. I began to get angry and raised my voice.

‘Don’t you care that this is so bad!?’

Again he simply looked at me, an unmistakable trace of amusement in his eyes.

And suddenly it was clear. To borrow the parlance of our children’s author from earlier in this tale, he didn’t give a shit.

He worked for the company. I didn’t. He was laconic. I was apoplectic to the point that I was risking a coronary. I simply wanted the task to be done well.

And that’s it. Communication dominates society like never before. There is so much of it out there that we risk drowning in words.

Communication itself is the growth industry of our times. Governments and corporations pour money into controlling their message and protecting their image with countless press officers. Everyone with a smartphone now is a journalist or an author or (God forbid) a blogger.

But yet the respect and reverence given to the very medium itself seems more and more to be utterly lacking. Everyone is doing it. Most of them are doing it badly but most of them don’t know the difference so there’s no meritocracy. We’re all debased and impoverished by the very absence of respect given to working with words.

We are all in the gutter and it’s a cloudy fucking night.

Imagine such a slapdash attitude being taken in any other discipline. The mathematician who doesn’t care whether he’s got the decimal point in the right place. The surgeon who’s not quite sure which artery to cut so she just guesses.

And I’m not trying to make an elitist argument here. There’s no sense of exclusive entitlement. The language is for everyone and the more people who are encouraged to use it well the better society will be. That’s why I try to teach people how to write.

It’s just that….it’s just that how we do it has to matter.

We have to respect the form and treat it properly. And pass it on in good shape to the next generation.

And I’m not some grammar nazi foaming at the mouth over a simple apostrophe in the wrong place. There are some grammatical rules that are so obscure as to be baffling and too restrictive. More important is clear communication, good communication. Getting the point across in the most efficient and attractive way. Making yourself understood.

I make mistakes. A reader probably wouldn’t have to travel too far into my blog to find a word missing or a grammar mix-up. You might even find one or more in this post. I often find them myself. Then I fix them.

But the point is if you keep making the same mistakes over and over then it can only be that you don’t know what you are doing. Or you don’t care enough to check.

And the more this happens the muddier the puddle becomes. The intended meaning gets lost or confused. The reader loses faith or patience in the product.

A white bed becomes a shite bed.

Language is a leviathan. An organic, evolving thing. The spoken and written word were different a century ago. They will have altered again in another 100 years.

But the basic rules stay the same and should be respected. What do I want to say? What is the best way of saying it? What words and verbal images can assist? Then you write it. Then you read it and ask, is that the best way of saying it? Can I make it more efficient? More attractive? Think about the economy of language. Every word matters. Proper thought leads to proper language. Lazy thought leads to bad language.

Finish by reading it again and then asking yourself ‘Have I said something which is bloody stupid?’ (apologies to Orwell).

I was teaching a communications course in Belfast yesterday. I went straight to the class after checking out the infamous children’s book in the community centre.

It was a rare and enjoyable experience. A disparate group. There were a few students, some professionals. About half were young people from outside the UK or Ireland. They were all there because they wanted to be.

Another thing which united them was a desperation for information and knowledge. They picked my bones dry of anecdote and experience. Several times I was asked what is the most important thing about written communication. Every time I gave the same answer; get the basics right. Spelling, grammar, logic, flow. Write it, read it, improve it. And keep doing it. Master that and the whole exciting world of language can be explored.

The class went on for longer than I had expected. I couldn’t get away because the questions kept coming. They didn’t have experience but they had respect for the subject we were discussing. I probably learnt as much from them as they did from me.

When I eventually did leave I walked up the Stranmillis Road. Inevitably I stopped at a coffee shop. As I relaxed I felt more heartened. The day seemed a little brighter than before.

Was this the restorative power of mixing with some people who actually give a shit?

Or was it simply a very good coffee?


Back to work

My car pulls soundlessly onto the motorway. I raise a hand to acknowledge the driver who let me in but I’m not sure if he sees me. This bothers me for a moment.

It’s early. Traffic’s not a problem yet, but it’s dark. It’s the first time I’ve driven in the dark this autumn and I worry about whether the headlights are working properly. Winter seems inevitable when you’re out this early.

The traffic moves easily and I’m driving without noticing anything. I try to force myself to concentrate on the road, mentally marking every bright sign and dark tree that I pass. But I can’t keep it up and soon my attention drifts away like a line of smoke from a chimney pot.

I don’t feel great. My stomach is cramping and ripples of anxiety wash through my body. It’s my first day in a new job.

Actually it’s not as permanent or impressive as I just made it sound. The editor of a trade magazine has asked me to help out in the office with a bit of writing. A few days of work maybe. We’ll see how it goes, she says.

It’s not even full days, I’m only working until lunchtime. I told her I have to be finished in time to pick my son up from school.

I know what the work will be. Rewriting press releases, maybe making a few phone calls for quotes. It’s the sort of journalism I started out doing a quarter of a century ago. Filling little spaces in the magazine as they arise. It’s the other side of the world from working at the top of a daily newspaper.

But recently I’ve been becoming more aware of the need to get some money coming into the house. The phone hasn’t been ringing. This is the first thing anyone’s offered me in a while.

I’m getting dangerously close to Belfast so I slow the car down, as if this will somehow delay the day’s work.

All the old hateful feelings are back. The thought that nobody will like me. That I won’t be able to do the work. That they’ll laugh at me. That I won’t fit in. I’ll never fit in.

I shift in the car seat. I know it shouldn’t be this way. After all this is the closest thing yet to what I’ve been looking for. Flexible hours that I can fit around childcare, no real pressure, no responsibility. The work should be easy.

And it’s not like it’s the first work I’ve done this year. I’ve done a fair bit of teaching and media consultation. Shit, I’ve delivered a lecture at Queen’s University and made a speech at Stormont and I didn’t feel this bad.

There’s a burning deep in my throat. I think I know what’s wrong. It’s the feeling of reality crashing around me like waves at the wall of a pier. The incivility of civilisation.

The truth is that I’ve enjoyed my time away from the grind of work, being outside the system. Being with my wife and son. Devoting my life to making sure his is all that it can be.

But I always knew it couldn’t last. The money headache never goes away. Queen’s and Stormont were fine because I was able to come home afterwards and lock the door again. This feels more like a consuetude.

It’s the Monday morning bleakness. The despair and suffocation of the forced routine. Your life being ordered into a relentless series of fives and twos. Fives and twos. Knowing that if you leave the problem it will still be there the next morning when you get to your desk. Just the sheer grime of the whole shabby process.

I steer my car off Tate’s Avenue onto the Lisburn Road and pull up outside the little office. I was so worried about being late that I’ve ended up getting here more than an hour before it opens. This sounds extreme but it’s quite usual for me.

The office is in darkness, the door locked. I might as well go for a walk. I decide to find a coffee shop. It’s not so much that I’m desperate for caffeine but rather that my insides are in turmoil and I feel better just knowing I’m somewhere close to a toilet.

It’s still dark but the streetlamps and headlights of the cars make the rain shine on the road and footpaths. I used to live in this part of the city, more than 20 years ago. I’m trying to find any shop that I remember but they’re nearly all gone. Streets change faster than people do.

I’m looking for a cafe and there are many here but it’s so early that they’re not open yet. I walk past a line of people, heads down, waiting at a bus stop. I think about how this is the first morning that I have not been there to take my son to school. To watch him stumble uncertainly into the playground, turning briefly to give me that little wave and nod of the head before he scurries off around the corner.

I’m about to give up when I find a coffee shop with lights on. It’s part of a chain, a brand name that I see all over Belfast these days. I’d sooner have an independent shop although I’m not sure why. I enter the shop.

It’s brightly lit, full of soft black sofas and tall chairs. The gentle sound of Enrico Einaudi’s piano music fills the space and I’m encouraged. I take a bottle of sparkling water from a cold cabinet to the counter. There a young woman with short brown hair greets me with a genuine and warm smile, displaying a row of white teeth and dark eyes.

I’m a little disconcerted. Maybe it’s because I’m not in a very good mood, maybe it’s because I’m not used to being addressed in such a pleasant way by a staff member a coffee shop. She’s Eastern European. I order a coffee and we make a faltering attempt at conversation but I think she’s struggling to understand my Ulster Scots drawl so I abandon it.

I take my coffee and find a comfortable chair. I’ve brought a newspaper but I don’t feel like reading it now. Instead I watch the woman behind the counter. I’m slightly embarrassed that I can’t be any more specific than to say she sounds Eastern European. I wonder where she’s from, what her story is. She meets every customer with that same smile and attempts to chat with them all. Some of the customers are clearly regulars and she holds a conversation with them as she carefully pours steaming coffee into delicate white cups, before balancing them on saucers.

I’m enjoying the sound of Einaudi. I haven’t realised the change but I notice that I’m feeling a bit better. I watch a couple at the table next to me, at least I’m assuming they’re a couple because they don’t speak to each other. She’s trying to eat a croissant in a dignified way, brushing flakes of pastry off her skirt as delicately as if stroking a baby’s face. His eyes never leave the broadsheet paper he holds in one hand, even when he reaches for his coffee with the other. His fingers search for the cup.

A small car pulls up outside, but it’s still too dark to know which make or colour. Two girls in school uniform step out of the front seat and enter the coffee shop. They order drinks and then have a brief discussion about whether to sit in or have them to go. They pay by card and leave the shop.

I finish my coffee. I stand up, look around and go outside. It’s that time between darkness and light. A half light is starting to break through. It’s time for me to go to work.