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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.

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!

Wednesday, 10 October 2018


Coming up next week, great western supporting actor Don Collier will be 90. He was part of that cowboy world I lived in as a kid, especially in 60+ episodes of The High Chaparral in which he played foreman Sam Butler.

Pre-Chaparral, he starred in 50 episodes of Outlaws (1960-62) as Marshall Will Forman and guest-starred in various TV shows including Perry Mason, The Virginian, Branded, Death Valley Days, Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Waltons, and many more.

He appeared in movies with John Wayne; The War Wagon (1967), El Dorado (1967) and The Undefeated (1969). He was in Five Card Stud with Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. He featured in the 1973 Stephen Boyd film Key West.

He was a jobbing actor but I liked his Sam Butler role best of all, and especially his deep drawl, not quite Sam Elliott but very distinctive and effective.

A few years ago, I sent him a fan letter and he replied with a signed photograph of the core Chaparral cast. "To Joe, best wishes, Don Collier" and as if he had to clarify, he noted that he was Sam!

He last appeared on screen 10 years ago but thanks to the CBS Action channel, The High Chaparral is oft-repeated, a great show with a wonderful ensemble cast.

In the photograph, only four actors are still with us; Don Collier (89); Henry Darrow (85); Linda Cristal (84); Mark Slade (79).

I salute Don Collier.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018


Reporting the Troubles
Journalists tell their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict

Compiled by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little

The Blackstaff Press 2018

In the foreword to this powerful and emotional book, US Special envoy for Northern Ireland (1995 – 2001), Senator George Mitchell quotes Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Mitchell says: “This book will make a lasting impression on readers. It contains accounts of death and life, of loss and survival, of heroism and cowardice, all of which in the aggregate convey the swirl of emotions experienced by those who lived through the Troubles.”

In their introduction, compilers Deric Henderson and Ivan Little say that the book is “a series of deeply personal and engaged accounts of some of the key moments and personalities that defined and shaped the conflict. More than that, they are the testimony to the huge responsibility the journalists felt, to their commitment to putting things on the record, and to remembering.”

Gail Walker, editor of the Belfast Telegraph notes: “We could do worse than to remind ourselves that journalism is at heart about telling stories.”

Even before I read the first chapter, I was struck by the fact that this history happened in my lifetime. I was born and raised in Belfast. In 1968, I was fourteen-years-old, living in Andersonstown. A substantial number of the atrocities highlighted here resonate with me. In those days and onward, we all watched the news. As the sixties morphed into the seventies and on and on, we watched daily atrocities in Belfast and beyond. We lived through brutal and horrific times and, in my view, we took for granted the risks taken by on-the-spot journalists, camera and sound crews to explain to us what was going on. It is not practical in a review to comment on every chapter but I can say with certainty that each contribution to the book is compelling, and as a collective project, Reporting the Troubles sets the highest standards for recording history. Here are selected comments:

Martin Cowley, formerly of the Irish Times and Reuters Ireland, recalls the 5 October, 1968 when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association marched in Derry against police warnings not to, resulting in baton charges and severe beatings by the police. The incidents on that day triggered the start of what has become known as the Troubles. The difference with this day’s events was that, unlike previous street violence in Northern Ireland, this was “caught on tape, up close and very personal in daylight, and screened worldwide.”The accompanying Trevor McBride photograph of three policemen, one with gritted teeth and raised baton, restraining an eighteen-year-old student was a brutal example of what was to come across Northern Ireland.

Ray Managh, a freelance reporter and former B Special policeman, recalls a terrifying experience, when he accidentally found himself seeking sanctuary with others in an IRA safe house. “It was a little middle-aged woman in an apron, obviously the lady of the house, who turned out to be my saviour and liberator from what I saw as a doomed situation.” Thanks to the woman’s kindly instructions, Managh was escorted safely out of the area.

Martin Bell, the famed BBC correspondent and veteran of assignments in Vietnam, Nigeria, the Middle East and elsewhere – the man in the white suit – remembers the Reverend Ian Paisley, at an Armagh prayer meeting, calling him an employee of the Papist Broadcasting Corporation. “There is one man here,’preached Paisley, “who is no friend of the Protestant and loyalist people. Bell was jostled and made to feel very uncomfortable. Paisley was no Chuckle brother back then.

Peter Taylor, reporter and writer, describes his time covering Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, interviewing amongst others, a young Martin McGuinness. (“….. impressive, with a natural charm that belied the steel that lay behind it.”)

Gloria Hunniford, television presenter, remembers the horror of the Abercorn restaurant bombing in 1972 and the death threats she received during her broadcasting career in England. “Get that Irish bitch off the air or someone else will.”

Deric Henderson, one of this book’s compilers, tells the story of his Uncle Ted who was shot dead by a sniper. He doesn’t remember who told him his uncle had died “but I do recall the distress and the heartache, and a grieving process that seemed to go on forever. There was bitterness as well.”

Alf McCreary, veteran (and in my view legendary) journalist, reflects on some of the atrocities and heart-breaking stories he has covered over the years. “As I get older I become very saddened when I think of these things, and I wonder what all the suffering really achieved in the end. I can only hope and pray that it will never happen again.”

Denis Murray, former BBC Ireland correspondent, writes about the time he interviewed a ten-year-old boy – “a wee boy every bit as brave as his daddy”- soon after his father’s murder. Murray emphasised that “we in the media, and in Northern Ireland generally, are great at remembering the “big” tragedies, events in which there were multiple deaths. But the “little” individual tragedies are no less tragic.” Both “big” and “little” stories feature throughout the book.

John Irvine, senior international correspondent for ITN, writes about the ten funerals he attended in one week, describing his personal distress. “My tears came as a complete surprise.” He goes on to make this point: ”Covering Nelson Mandela’s passing a few years ago, I learned that those South Africans who entered this world after the end of apartheid are known as “Born Frees”. Perhaps people in Northern Ireland after the military ceasefires should be known as “Trouble Frees”. I worry they don’t know how lucky they are.”

There are many recollection of murders, injuries and destruction, the plague of tit-for-tat revenge killings of innocent people going about their daily lives, of bombs going off in busy cities and towns, of mouthy politicians stirring the cauldron, of quieter politicians trying to calm situations, of politicians and journalists from “the mainland” (I detest that term), clueless about Northern Ireland, its people and its history. The emotional descriptions of funerals and everlasting grief are powerful, as they should be.

The book’s final chapter by Gail Walker summarises superbly the book’s raison d’etre and reflects thus: “Some will say we should forget the past. Ignore it. Let it go. That it would be – ironically – the price of peace: a self-inflicted, self-imposed cultural amnesia that renders us, in the end, speechless. That’s a recipe for mass neurosis, delusion and moral hypocrisy – that, to keep the “peace”, we must inflict another kind of violence on survivors, censoring their stories, blue-pencilling the raw heart and hurt mind.”

Reporting the Troubles could well be the most important book ever written about Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and I don’t say that lightly. It is a potent collection of memories by people whose only axe to grind was finding and reporting the facts in the aftermath of atrocities. Sometimes it is a tough read, but that is surely the whole point.

Oh, and one last thing, please read it slowly. Let the words sink in. The victims and survivors deserve your time. The journalists herein have all earned great respect.