Category Archives: history

Why is it easier to teach kids about Hitler than Stalin?

I’m telling my children about Hitler. But how do I teach them about Stalin?

Looking back to when I was at primary school, I was appallingly ignorant about the Holocaust.

I don’t want my children to be as in the dark. Continue reading

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The Romans? Were they Italian?

What I want from a musician is a bit of chat between songs. A bit of meandering banter. Destination digression. And does anyone lead into a song better than Continue reading

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Blood and Gifts or Why America is in Afghanistan

“Great men are almost always bad men.” That’s the tagline to the wonderful play, Blood and Gifts, about US involvement in Afghanistan from 1981-1991. I’ve just seen it.

That depressing opening sentence is also the missing third line from the famous and much cited quotation from Lord Acton (aka John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton):

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Continue reading

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Paddy the Pigeon

The real deal

This is the story of World War Two hero Paddy the Pigeon from Carnlough in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Desert Fox, Mad Dog McGlinchey, Richard the Lionheart, the Border Fox, Carlos the Jackal and the Black Panthers – Paddy really does what it says on the tin. He actually is, or was, a pigeon.

But not just any pigeon. He was the speediest RAF messenger pigeon during the Normandy landings.

Fake #1

The late (as in dead, not slow) Paddy has been in the news because he’s just been honoured with a fly past near his home. A fly past of pigeons. Loads of them. No doubt local car owners were delighted.

Paddy, courtesy of his medal, has Category Three Pigeon Status. (Category One: Airborne Vermin – includes nearly all  other pigeons. Category Two: Stool Pigeons. Continue reading

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Gossip and grenades

I based a character in my book Blackwatertown on a friend I used to work with. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I just used his name and nickname. But Tom (who becomes Tomas) Greenard is now far away in Australia, so he is at my mercy.

His nickname was Tom Grenade. I never did find out why.

Tom, you’ll be pleased to hear that your alter ego lives up to your nickname in the book. Though I cannot promise that he survives to feature in the sequel.

Tom – in Australia sends this uplifting story:

Sócrates

Keep this in mind the next time you are about to repeat a rumour or spread gossip.In ancient Greece (469 – 399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom.

One day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about Diogenes?” Continue reading

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Invisible People

Yesterday upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away (from Antigonish, by William Hughes Mearns )

In this case it was children I met who weren’t there. As well as women and men. In fact a whole village. But officially they didn’t exist. “Never heard of them.” Or so I was told by the authorities. I got them to check just in case. “No such people,” I was told. I sought official confirmation. And got it. Definitely no such people in this country. And by now the man they wished would go away was me.

So naturally, I decided to have a look for myself. Continue reading

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What I’ve learned

Its been tumultuous in Blackwatertown Towers lately. Normal service will soon be resumed. Once we establish just what the new normality will look like. But in the meantime, I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned lately.

Yes, it looks like a roof slate because that's what it is. (You get a shiny medal for Sport Relief.) The glamorous person holding the slate/trophy is presenter Rachael Hodges, flanked by "the prestigious" Richard Bacon, and me. I didn't think the beer bottle would be in the picture. Missing from the line-up are top guru Louise Birt, indefatigable Garth Brameld, podcaster Harri Ritchie and inspirational listeners Jon Hillier and the Digger. The award was for the Special Half Hour - SHH.

  1. I haven’t completely lost it, thank God. I’ve just left the BBC after many years, but can proudly brandish two new awards. The first one is the highly prestigious Most Innovative Programme Award from the admittedly slightly obscure annual Audio and Music Awards. I shared it for a radio show I produced up until Christmas. The award-winning bit was the Special Half Hour – SHH – of which it was an honour and a privilege to be part. (Rule No. 1 You don’t talk about the Special Half Hour. But it’s been axed, so I dare to speak of it.)  The second is the also prestigious and much better known Sport Relief Mile. My running partner and I distinguished ourselves by completing the three mile (Count ’em! 3!) circuit before any of the six milers crossed the finish line. (Question: For which award did I contribute more to the sum of goodness in the world?)
  2. Whenever someone claims to be the first to ever do something, they’re wrong. Continue reading

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Attention seeking

Please don't invade us! It's manky here. (Bigger version below.)

Writing is attention seeking. You want readers. But there’s no guarantee they’ll like what they read. And then there may be those who never actually read a word you’ve written, but form opinions through hearsay.

Those were the fellas on my mind even before I started. My book, Blackwatertown, is fiction. But it’s set in a real time, the 1950s IRA border campaign. And it’s based on real events which involved real people.

Some people whose views I respect urged caution on me when they learned I what planned to write. Not because they feared it would be rubbish. (Or if they did, they were too polite to say.) But because they feared what people might think.

Those dread words. The book might trouble people, offend them or annoy them. Even worse – it might attract attention.

You’d imagine attention would be a prerequisite to getting published and selling a few copies. But when the normal modus operandi is “Whatever you say, say nothing” – drawing attention is discouraged.

Of course loads of people write prose or poetry, sing or create images related to violent times in Ireland. And good for them. Perhaps, like I have, they decided to put other people’s sincere concerns to one side and plough on regardless.

Now I’m close to completing my Blackwatertown story, brows around me are furrowing again. While I’m worrying if anyone will publish/read/enjoy the book, others are dreading adverse reactions. Will publication dredge up old resentments? How far might critics, especially the hearsay merchants, go to express their disdain? What might be the practical consequences? Who might be vulnerable?

When people pass on warnings to me, I do take them seriously. But living life head down, shoulder hunched is a waste. So, publishers permitting, the book carries on.

And to any critics tempted to vent their criticism in an extreme fashion. Please at least buy a copy of Blackwatertown when it comes out, before you do something unpleasant. It’s only fair.

Ireland - Not Worth Invading, Honest... This map comes from the incomparable Strange Maps website. The map title is "Cautious Cartography". Apparently it appeared in the August 1940 issue of the Irish satirical magazine Dublin Opinion. According to Strange Maps: The map purports to portray Ireland in as unappealing a perspective as possible. The text accompanying the map explains how cartography may be at least partly to blame for Europe’s misfortune: " Feeling that the present unrest in Europe may have been largely caused by the well-intended, but highly mistaken policy pursued by countries of boasting about their natural advantages and attractions, a policy which has had the not unnatural result of exciting the cupidity of other countries, our Grangegorman Cartographer has designed the above map of Ireland, which is calculated to discourage the inhabitants, much less strangers. The trouble is, he feels, that, even as depicted, the country still looks more attractive than the rest of Europe." Well, yes, that'll be World War Two, Southern Ireland remained neutral during the conflict, managing to avoid invasion by either Britain or Germany, (though many volunteered to serve in the Allied forces). NB: Obviously it's all lovely in Ireland these days. Come and invest, why don't you?

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Oi! No smirking at the back there.

RUC Hastings Street garrison, Brickfields district, Belfast. 1923/24.

What a difference 30 years makes. In this police photograph from the 1920s almost no-one is smiling. I have another of new recruits to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) taken in the 1950s where nearly everyone is beaming. Two photos, two different sets of people, two different times, two different generations.

This one includes the father – my grandfather. When this post was originally published I included his name, rank and where he is in the picture. But I’ve been asked to remove the name – so I have done so.

But he’s easy to spot. The handsome one with the patrician air. (God no, not yon dopey-looking one.)

You’ll notice they’re a serious bunch. I suppose given that they’re in a tough area – the Belfast’s Brickfields police district – and that some of them will have survived World War one, the Irish War of Independence, civil war, pogroms and general rioting – it’s understandable. Or perhaps it was the rule back then. No smiling while on duty. Perhaps Smiler in the back row, left hand side, is actually squinting, not grinning.

I was struck by the contrast between this photo, and another from the mid 1950s. In the later one they’re all smiling. Including the son of the handsome one above. (I hope to put it on display shortly.) Maybe it’s because peace has broken out and war in Ireland is a sufficiently distant memory. They weren’t to know that the next round of hostilities was heading their way in a couple of years time – the IRA’s 1950s border campaign (which is the setting of my book, Blackwatertown).

So the men in this photo are the fathers or uncles of the police officers who fought in the ’50s campaign. They were a formidable bunch.

But back to 1923/24. Does anyone else remember those snake-clasp belt buckles? I remember coveting one when I was small. (Which was only the other day. Or perhaps the day before.)

Perhaps some faces in the picture are familiar. Drop me a line if you recognise anyone. (I’ve posted pictures of some other branches of the family policing tree: Dan Waters & Michael Murphy.)

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Saffron Walden youth on tour to Belfast

Interesting piece from Bobballs:  “A really strange story in the Saffron Walden Reporter, it ought to be uplifting but I’m concerned about it…

It’s the story of how Stansted Youth Centre sent a group of young people over to Corpus Christi Youth Centre in Ballymurphy as part of an exchange programme…”

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