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Wednesday, 20 April 2016


Between 1972 and 1982, the only reason for me to buy The Observer every Sunday was to read Clive James writing about television programmes. Yes, there was news coverage and other columnists but they were less important than reading Clive James's flowing words and marvelling at his turns of phrase and beautifully crafted one-liners. As I write, I remember him describing Lucy Ewing from Dallas (played by Charlene Tilton) as "a blonde neckless sex grenade".  Anyone wanting to be a TV critic should study the master from his collected reviews in books like Visions Before Midnight and The Crystal Bucket.

In 1960s Belfast, there was the Sunday News and another columnist to savour. Patrick Riddell dealt with more serious subjects about human behaviour, mankind's stupidity and the quirks and foibles of everyday life, things that complicated the world unnecessarily. He wrote beautifully - humorist curmudgeon, observer, critic, opinionated to the point of raising readers' blood pressures. Patrick Riddell's book "The Irish, Are They Real?" is an entertaining analysis.

When I worked in London, Alexander Walker's film criticism in the Evening Standard was authoritative, informative and more often than not correct. Once, I sat close to him having lunch in the Swiss Centre, a long gone restaurant near Leicester Square. I was not part of his table but I could overhear the conversation. One of his friends said: "Alexander, you must write for the love of cinema."

"Oh no," replied Walker, "I write for the money." He wrote a ton of books including works on Stanley Kubrick, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Crawford.

Other columnists I have enjoyed over the years - Alf McCreary, John Pepper, Billy Simpson, Matthew Parris, Jeremy Clarkson, Philip French, Miles Kington, Bernard Levin and many more. Apart from a select few, I am not attracted to as many today because I think there is an abundance of second-raters and celebrity-wannabes who, rather than use intelligence and clever wit, choose to go down the smart-arse route, playing to a modern audience that enjoys unbridled rather than skilfully managed sarcasm.

I was born and raised in Belfast. I still have strong and close family connections to the city, so I keep a close eye on what is going on there. It is both a complicated and creative place. The wonder of the Internet allows me access to local media and I never miss Gail Walker's weekly column in the Belfast Telegraph. She gets to the heart of a variety of subjects. She is insightful, fearless, heartfelt and nostalgic, quite brilliant in analysing a story, often swimming upstream and more often than not concluding her pieces in such a way that I say to myself: "Why the hell didn't I think of that?"

I am sure there are other examples of modern-day columnists that would satisfy my appetite for great writing (if you read this and want to steer me, drop a note in the comments box below). I miss the old days but, as I have indicated, all is not lost.

Link to Gail Walker's Belfast Telegraph columns -

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