Wednesday, 14 November 2018


Thankfully, I don't have to bother my local health centre too much, but I was reminded of the inefficiency of booking NHS doctor appointments.

On Monday, I popped in to make such an appointment, nothing serious, just checking on medication.

Me: Is there a doctor available anytime this week?

Receptionist: Well, we are fully booked today and tomorrow.

Me: Okay. Can I book an appointment for Wednesday?

Rec: You have to ring up on the day from 8 in the morning and I'm sure we can slot you in.

Me: Can't you look online now to see if there is a free slot?

Rec: No, sorry. It's a phone-on-the-day system.

Me: (biting my tongue) Okay. Thanks.

This morning (Wednesday), I am on the phone at 8.01 and until 8.53, I am listening to terrible music and frequent apologies for having to wait. 8.53:

Rec: Hello, this is (name given). How can I help you?

Me: Is there a doctor available today, please?

Rec: I'm sorry, we're at capacity today. I recommend you phone in the morning from 8 and I'm sure we can fit you in. (Tongue in grave danger!)

Me: I tried that today from 8 and this is the first time anyone has answered.

Rec: Is it an emergency?

Me: No. (I should have lied!!)

Rec: Try again in the morning.

Me: Hmmm. Thanks.

Altogether now: "All my life's a circle..........."

Wednesday, 7 November 2018


A Rainbow in the Drawing Room

Shutters closed, except one
Left slightly ajar, a thin beam
Of light permitted, aimed
At a prism, a white light
That produced colours,
Seven colours from one,
Colours that solved a mystery
And proved a human point.

Electricity in a Leyden Jar

What is lightning?
He built a kite from strips of cedar
And silk cloth, attached wire,
A key and string, then launched
It towards the storm clouds,
Waiting for rain to soak the line
And lightning to sprint towards
The jar – excitement felt and captured.
A Flintlock Flash and a Pistol Crack

As far away as possible but still within sight,
The assistant prepared the pistol. The scientist,
Telescope to eye, dropped a handkerchief.
A flash followed by a sharp crack, timed
One to the other, the speed of sound calculated,
Eye, ear, stopwatch coordination rehearsed
For this moment of revelation that time
And distance are all we have.

Lighting Up a Page

Saints sit enthroned, emblazoned 
In vermillion, gold leaf and azure blue, 
And ringed by a giant capital letter. 
Entwined garlands of briar roses 
And meadow flowers climb the margins. 
Armoured knights pursue outlandish dragons 
And serpents across the foot of the page.
Delicacy, colour and imagination, 
Dry text infused, illuminated.

A Charcoal Drawing

A blurry dome not unlike St. Paul’s Cathedral
Or Belfast City Hall, or a thousand other domoids.
No matter, the drawing begs you to think,
Make up your own mind, let your eyes do the work
On the softened lines, the rubs, the smudges,
The expressive and subtle darkness relieved
By daubs of whiteness, of lightness. No matter.
Three-quarters of what you see ahead is black.

A Man, a Cat and an Upstairs Light

Doorways in the dark draw me in,
Shadows of something or imagined catch
My attention but there is nothing there,
Almost always, there is nothing there.
One day, walking at night, I might hear
A cat’s miaow, a slight shuffle of hard shoes,
And, briefly, lit up by a bedroom light:
Is that the man who used to be my father? 

Portraits of Dukes

There they are, preserved as wall-hangings,
Ramrod-straight in pose, frozen expressions,
Noblemen in noblemen’s uniforms,
Hair long and curled, beards trimmed,
Aristocratic hippies, dedicated followers
Of traditions and family expectations,
Painted in awkward light and shade, and I admit
A failure to be moved by grandeur.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018


every time I see or hear
the Rolling Stones
I see and hear you too
inextricably linked
forever in my head
since our first handshake
with Darren and Simon
2007, Heathrow
(Four Go To San Francisco!)
man of anytime
but certainly man of the 60s
great wit and charm
part-way through writing
a first novel
The Ghosts that Sell Memories
an extract leaving me bamboozled
but good on you
man who met Ronnie Wood
man who met Tony Curtis
in the Persuaders years
man who introduced me to
Maurice Roeves
an actor’s name that no one knows
an actor’s face: ‘Oh, him. Yeah’
you had those shops
motorcycle gear
you liked your bikes
you liked bikers
we talked about Steve McQueen
the Great Escape
and Bud Ekins
who did that stunt
Triumph TR6 Trophy
you liked your bikes
the last ride
14 September 2016
all over now

Tuesday, 30 October 2018


In random moments
I become a little boy again,
Brave and adventurous
In my dishonest imagination,
Reinventing my structure,
Stretching the long ago
Into a widescreen distortion
That no one will bother to challenge.

I squirrel away lapses,
Wasted opportunities
Through timidity
And unnecessary nervousness.
It was not a broken home,
Chipped and fractured perhaps,
But never broken, never broken.
She saw to that.

Friday, 26 October 2018



Here are ideas for November features. Some of them may be in your diary already. Some of them may be added to your diary after reading this. Some features may be written by in-house journalists. But maybe, just maybe, I can write something for you.

Let me know what you want, word count, deadline and fee and I will get to work. 

Here are some ideas and, if I can help, I look forward to hearing from you. If anything else comes up, I'll add to the list.


2 Lewis Hamilton became youngest ever F1 champion 10 years ago
4 Barack Obama was elected 44th US President 10 years ago
4 Poet/soldier Wilfred Owen died 100 years ago
5 Richard Nixon was elected 37th US President 50 years ago
7 Evangelist Billy Graham born 100 years ago
11 Cookstown-born Typhoid Mary Mallon died 80 years ago
13 Larne-born Valerie Hobson (Mrs John Profumo) died 20 years ago
14 Prince Charles will be 70
17 Singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot will be 80
18 Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse's screen debut released 90 years ago
22 The Beatle's White Album released 50 years ago



Open for Writing Commissions 2018/2019


Most of my published pieces have appeared as two-page features in the Belfast Telegraph.

On the death of my brother;
On a 1928/29 Belfast tourism guide;
On my mother;
On the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC);
On homelessness and begging;
On my education;
On my runaway father;
On family history;
On the closure of retailer BHS;
On my father;
On actor James Ellis’s short stories;
On the golden age of television;
On singer/songwriter David McWilliams;
On leaving Belfast in 1976
On the actor Sam Kydd
On the singer/songwriter David McWilliams
On the film star Stephen Boyd
On collecting autographs
On the history of the Ulster Hall
On junk mail


Retail Confidential (2010) – career retrospective
Much Calamity & The Redundance Kid (2011) – coping with job loss
Stephen Boyd: From Belfast to Hollywood (2013) – the star of Ben-Hur, etc.


BBC Radio 4 Saturday Live (2018)


Link to Dropped The Moon blog:

I can write seriously or with humour on shops, shoppers and shopping; nostalgia; old Hollywood and television; personal experiences, general lifestyle, and about my hometown, Belfast. I write reviews of non-fiction books.

Thursday, 25 October 2018


Richard Harris (sent following a speculative request via his agent. 
On Concorde notepaper, probably late 1990s)

Dame Maggie Smith (I have not kept a record of 
when I requested this or which London theatre it was sent from. At a guess, 2006/2007)

Jay Leno (sent following a request via The Tonight Show, May 2006.)

Maurice Roeves (sent at the request of my friend and his, 
Nigel Usher, circa 2007)

Richard Wilson (sent from New Ambassador's Theatre, London, 
where he was appearing in Whipping It Up, March 2007.)

Clint Eastwood (sent in response to a request via his Los Angeles office
in early 2016. Received May 2017.)

Johnny Carson (sent in response to a request 
to NBC's Tonight Show, mid-1980s.)
Lee Van Cleef (sent in response to a request 
via his Los Angeles agent, circa mid-1980s)
Timothy Dalton (sent from National Theatre, London, 
where he was appearing in His Dark Materials, January 2004
Rex Harrison (sent from Theatre Royal, Haymarket 
where he was appearing in J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, November 1988.)
Bill Bailey (sent from somewhere on his 2003 comedy tour.)
Jack Lemmon (sent from Los Angeles, circa 1999)
 Francesca Annis (sent from Comedy Theatre, London, 
where she was appearing in Harold Pinter's Epitaph for George Dillon, November 2005)
 Brian Dennehy (sent from Lyric Theatre, London, 
where he was playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, August 2005)

Gordon Jackson (sent in response to a question I asked him about Stephen Boyd, in the mid-1980s. It was accompanied by a very informative letter.)

Dame Judi Dench (sent from Haymarket Theatre, London, 
where she was appearing in Noel Coward's Hay Fever, April 2006.)

Roger Lloyd Pack (sent from Royal Court Theatre, London, 
when he was appearing in Jez Butterworth's The Winterling, April 2006.)

Humphrey Lyttelton (sent during his time hosting Radio 2's 
The Best of Jazz, circa 2001)

Dick Van Dyke (sent in response to a request 
I made via his agent, circa 2005.)

I collect autographs.  It is almost but not quite as nerdy as train spotting and stamp collecting, but an odd thing in it’s own way.  I try not to analyse the collecting thing but if I did, I might find some psychological deficiency in my make-up, something that forces me to make emotional connections to the rich and famous via their photographs and signatures.  But enough of the deep thinking, collecting autographs is fun.  Like many things in life, however, it is becoming a tougher challenge to get responses because a growing number of celebrities assume that a request for an autograph is just one step away from an online auction.  I am sure their fears are justified, but I can put my hand on my heart and say, that apart from one, I have never sold any item from my precious collection.  For the record, it was a Kenny Everett signed photo and it fetched £10 about twenty years ago – all in the best possible taste, of course.

Whilst some celebrities do not trust the motives of some autograph hunters, it is true to say that some autograph hunters are sceptical about autograph providers.  I will offer a true story.  In the 1980s, I was working for a prestigious company that decided to sponsor a premium golf tournament.  The face of the tournament was a very, very famous golfer – let’s call him Al Batross.  One day, as I walked along one of the office corridors, I stuck my head round the door of the guy who was coordinating the event on behalf of the company.  We chatted about the exciting launch and he even allowed me to hold the very first trophy.  On his desk, I noticed a pile of photographs of Al Batross and I asked about them.  The guy said that he expected quite a few letters from the public requesting signed pictures and he wanted to be ready for the onslaught.  I commented that Al would be busy signing the photographs on top of his other commitments and the guy laughed saying that Mr Batross would not be signing the pictures.  “He’s far too busy for us to bother him with a job like that.  Someone from the office will sign them as ‘Best wishes, Al Batross’.  Who’s going to know?”  I was flabbergasted and to this day I wonder how many people have treasured signed photographs of Al Batross (wink, wink) not signed by him but probably by Doris in accounts or Colin in goods inward.  The top golfer, no doubt, was oblivious to all of this but it stands as an example of how easy it is for autograph hunters to be duped.

But as I rummage through my box, I have to rely on my gut and believe that what I have in my possession are genuine signatures.  My passion for collecting started thirty years ago when I began gathering biographical information about actor Stephen Boyd.  Treasures here include signed correspondence from actors Alec Guinness, Charlton Heston, Honor Blackman, Gordon Jackson Leo McKern and George Baker , as well as major directors John Huston, Ronald Neame and Guy Hamilton.  As I got a taste for it, I would keep an eye out for big name actors and actresses making appearances in London’s West End and try to illicit responses.  I have to say that I have experienced more non-responses than responses, but it is a thrill when a photo turns up “to Joe” or, indeed, when a photo shows up at all.  I had success with Brian Dennehy, Kathleen Turner, James Nesbitt, Jeremy Irons, Martin Shaw, Warren Mitchell, Peter Bowles, Timothy West, Ian McKellen, Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter, Felicity Kendal, Edward Fox and his brother James. 

US stars tend to drift to the UK for the pantomime season or for short runs and it is a good chance to try your luck by writing to them via the theatre that will be their home for a couple months.  In past years, I have scooped the legendary Mickey Rooney, Stefanie (Hart to Hart) Powers, Steve (Police Academy) Guttenberg, Henry (The Fonz) Winkler and Bea (Golden Girls) Arthur.  Then there are the ones that are just worth a flyer. Most times it’s zilch but occasionally the postman delivers a nice surprise - US chat show king, Jay Leno, cult movie director Robert Altman, Richard Harris, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Laurence Olivier, Joan Collins.  The only James Bond that replied was Timothy Dalton.

Writers are good at responding because they like writing, I suppose. Jilly Cooper, James Herbert, Wilbur Smith, Seamus Heaney, John Le Carre, Jeffrey Archer and Maeve Binchy all took the time to compose a little note as well as providing an autograph.  Politicians Edward Heath and the Reverend Ian Paisley are amongst the non-showbiz names in my collection.  I remember writing to Paisley, in the 1980s, and asking if he had any ambitions. He responded with an emphatic “No”.  Of all my autographs, my favourites are the three theatrical Dames – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg, and three of my favourite actors, Jack Lemmon, Dick Van Dyke and, western baddie, Lee Van Cleef.  Lemmon and Van Dyke’s signed photos were personalized, adding to the thrill.  Van Cleef just looked deliciously mean and moody.

My biggest disappointment was Robert Vaughn, hero from The Man From UNCLE days. I wrote to him during filming of TV’s Hustle.  Some months later, I received back my original letter, clumsily folded and upon it was his scrawl.  At least he replied, but I had higher hopes for Napoleon Solo.

As I said, autograph hunting is fun and here are a few tips if you want to get involved.  Once you’ve found the address of an agent, a theatre, a TV or radio location or even the home address of the celebrity, write a nice, polite request, with a compliment thrown in.  Keep your letter short and sweet, and always include a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  Be prepared to wait for months or, in a lot of cases, forever.  But once you get two or three hits, the whole effort will be worthwhile.  Remember, first and foremost, do it for fun, be sincere and enjoy whatever comes.  You might get duped or conned occasionally (Al Batrossed?), but mostly what you get will be the genuine article.  It’s up to you what you do with your collection, but mine is staying as a little box of nice memories of the great and good that bothered to get in touch.

There, I’ve name-dropped like crazy, although I’ve only just scratched the surface.  Time for me to, er, sign off.

Monday, 22 October 2018


The Saint Patrick's Treasury
Celebrating the myths, legends and traditions of Ireland's patron saint
by John Killen

The Blackstaff Press

If I was suddenly confronted with the question: Tell me everything you know about St Patrick, I reckon I would stutter and stammer, hum and haw stuff like patron saint of Ireland, something about Downpatrick and Armagh, a French connection, something about Wales, a nod towards Glasgow, snake expeller and a sort of emblem for an annual booze-up on 17 March every year when shamrock, green suits and hats and black stout define Oirishness. In other words, I could not stretch my thin knowledge to more than three sentences. Shameful, for a Belfast boy.

But now, there is no excuse, thanks to John Killen who has compiled The St Patrick’s Treasury, celebrating the myths, legends and traditions of Ireland’s patron saint. This is a brilliant and comprehensive collection that is both informative and entertaining. It covers St Patrick’s life, his writings, his travels and all manner of things that make him three-dimensional compared to my miserable two-dimensional thin sketch.

‘He was the son of a Roman official, Calpurnius, living probably in Wales. As a boy, Patrick was captured by raiders and sold to an Irish chieftain, Milchu. He spent years in slavery, herding sheep on Slemish Mountain in County Antrim.’ But he escaped, boarded a ship and headed for France. In a dream, ‘he heard voices calling him back to Ireland’and back he came on a mission to get rid of paganism and convert the Irish to the Christian faith ‘until Judgement Day’. His years and journeys are recorded in fine detail, even though the story contains things that might have happened, perhaps happened and probably happened, such is the vagueness of his life. In one section of the book there is ‘A Possible Chronology for Saint Patrick’ but, and this is the fascinating thing, it doesn’t matter about the details because John Killen maintains our interest throughout. We have a sort of a timeline and that will do.

Patrick’s writings are explored in The Confessions and Epistle to Coroticus, both humble yet forceful and encouraging essays/sermons setting out his beliefs, failings and unbending faith. His geography and journeys are explored in Places of Pilgrimage; several County Down locations, Leinster, Munster, Lough Derg, amongst others, and ‘across the water’ in Auxerre, Tours and Rome to name three. His last resting place was Dundalethglass (Downpatrick).

Americans go nuts for Patrick from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Charleston to Savannah to Washington. At least one day in the year, much of the world smiles through Irish eyes. Not only is St Patrick a saint, he is also a brand, no matter how much of a shiver that provokes.

A look at Relics and Representations of items linked to St Patrick (check out the jawbone story) and an analysis of the man, the myth, the legend concludes a mesmerising book that is written superbly, blending facts and assumptions on this fascinating man of mystery. Hail, glorious Saint Patrick!

The St Patrick’s Treasury is beautifully produced and illustrated and I and many others will have no excuse whatsoever for stuttering and stammering when asked about St Patrick. I know a lot more now and if ever I get stuck in conversation, I’ll just reach for my ‘John Killen’, a masterwork, to be sure, to be sure.

Saturday, 20 October 2018


On 25 November, 2016, I purchased a MacBook Air 13 inch from John Lewis online. After research, the reason I chose John Lewis was because of their 2-year guarantee.

Since the purchase, I have been the sole user.

Around the beginning of September, 2018, the MacBook's track pad (the in-built mouse) stopped working.

I took the MacBook to John Lewis, Sheffield and reported the problem to the technical support department. They recorded the problem, gave me a receipt and said they would send the MacBook to their repair centre.

At the end of September, I received a phone call from someone at the repair centre who said they had investigated the problem and they had found liquid damage inside the MacBook which they classed as accidental damage and therefore not covered by the 2-year guarantee. I said that I was the sole owner and nothing has ever been spilt on or near the MacBook whilst it has been in my possession. I said I have no idea what might have happened to it whilst in John Lewis's possession. The repair person stuck to his script and said there was nothing he could do. He said it could be repaired but at a charge. Very annoyed, I told him to send the MacBook back to John Lewis, Sheffield.

On 2 October, I collected the MacBook from a rather lacklustre assistant and returned home to consider my options. At the time I felt seriously let down by a company I had been pretty loyal to for a long, long time and where I spent thousands of pounds over the years. The supposed 2-year guarantee clanged like a big con.

After a few trips away, and on the advice of my son, I took the MacBook to the Apple store in Meadowhall shopping centre, near Sheffield. They couldn't have been more welcoming and helpful. Nothing lacklustre here.

A technician took my MacBook to a repair room to have a look inside. He returned and said that the inside was "immaculate" and, as he noted on his report, "no signs of liquid on internals of device" and "no signs of customer misuse". At this news, I felt misled or even lied to by the John Lewis repair centre.

The technician recommended that I return to the Sheffield store with the MacBook, which is still within the John Lewis 2-year guarantee, along with his Apple report and present them with another chance to resolve this matter satisfactorily and free of charge, with some "inconvenience" compensation for time and travel.

I will return to John Lewis, Sheffield, next week.

Update 1

21 October 2018

Nick, from John Lewis, picked up my blog post above on Twitter and responded:

"We're concerned to see this, Joe. Please send us a DM confirming your billing address and any reference numbers you have linked to the MacBook so we can look into this further for you."

I replied with the requested information and as at 13.15 on 22 October 2018, no response yet.

Update 2

22 October 2018

I travelled to John Lewis technical support in Sheffield and explained the story from the beginning and highlighted the very different reports from John Lewis's repair centre and Apple's diagnostic check.

In brief, the technical support people in Sheffield said they would send the MacBook back to the repair centre with a clear instruction to fix the problem as per the John Lewis 2-year guarantee. No quibble. No fuss.

Sometime, within the next 28 days, I will get a call to collect my repaired laptop.

So far, I have accumulated 3 x 40-mile round trips to Sheffield re this problem and 1 x 35 mile round trip to Apple at Meadowhall, plus car parking and time wasted.

Update 3

24 October 2018

I got a call from John Lewis customer relations, KMcC, who introduced himself as my personal contact until this matter is resolved. He had the whole story in front of him and said he would monitor the MacBook repair until its conclusion. He gave me his direct contact number should I need to get in touch. This is a good step.

Update 4

26 October 2018

Email from John Lewis & Partners Tech Support


This is to confirm that our workshop has received your APPLE Laptop Computer. 
Our technicians will assess and diagnose the fault with it, and will then carry out the
necessary repair.
If we need to discuss your repair at any point, a member of the Tech Support team will be in
Thank you.
Kind regards
John Lewis & Partners Tech Support

Update 5

1 November 2018

Customer relations contact KMcC phoned to update me. He said (and I paraphrase) that after a second check, the John Lewis repair people stand by their original 'liquid damage' diagnosis. Confusing as this is coupled with Apple's exact opposite analysis, KMcC said the MacBook would be repaired under the guarantee at no charge to me. 

Update 6

12 November 2018

After an email at the weekend, I travelled to the John Lewis store in Sheffield to collect my repaired MacBook at no charge. All fine and dandy.

Now, I ponder 5 x 40-mile round trips during the course of this after-sales palaver and a considerable amount of inconvenience to my freelance writing.

In addition, I am very nervous about trusting the 2-year John Lewis guarantee and I may well avoid buying any big price items ever again. I trusted John Lewis for many years but that trust has been dented severely.

Don't get me wrong, I am pleased to have my repaired MacBook back. But I have serious concerns about JL's after sales service.

Final update

13 November 2018

KMcC called today to ensure the matter was resolved to my satisfaction. In addition, he offered a satisfactory goodwill gesture. 

I have my MacBook back. I have a welcome goodwill gesture. I thanked KMcC for seeing the matter through to the end.

Case closed.

Friday, 19 October 2018


Keira Knightley says she has banned her three-year-old daughter from watching Disney films whose portrayal of women she disagrees with.

(Fair enough. But a few wider thoughts.)

So went a "news" headline recently and it got me thinking about all the films and television I watched, nay absorbed, as a child. Did what I watched influence my route to adulthood? Did I succumb to personality or character flaws because of what I was drinking in through my eyeballs? I don't know for sure but here's my thinking. By the way, this is me about me. There may well be academic studies out there linking screen images to major crimes and societal issues, et al, but that's for others to analyse. 

As a child of four, five, six and beyond, I was a sponge soaking up westerns. I am sure I have watched thousands. Several decades on, I can put my hand on my heart and say that I have never had the urge to be a gunslinger, bank robber, cattle rustler, bar brawler or Comanchero. Hell, I have never had any enthusiasm to ride a horse. I loved the action, the stories, the humour. I did not have the intellectual capacity as a youngster to identify "real world" problems. Yes, the majority of my western stars were men but, so what? In a lot of westerns, women were mothers, ranch wives, saloon keepers or good time gals. Men, generally, were the tough guys, providing and protecting. Maybe, that's the way it was way back in the real West.

In the movies, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell and, especially, Maureen O'Hara were not to be messed with. There are others, of course, but modern day issues are not on my mind when I'm watching.

Even now, in this strange, complaining world, I don't watch westerns with a spreadsheet in front of me to see if it ticks all the boxes to satisfy all those who might be offended genuinely or who may be offended because they like stirring controversy for the hell of it. I watch westerns because I enjoy the genre, even the ropey ones. It's my thing. And I can't see anything negative in my mature years that I can attribute to westerns. 

And away from westerns, I thrilled at watching Tom & Jerry cartoons but I have never chased anyone around the house with the intention of hitting them in the face with a skillet!

Today there are more campaign bandwagons than there were wagons on Wagon Train and I am very selective about which ones I will climb aboard. 

Adios, pardners!