Tag Archives: RUC

The first time…

"Do you remember the first time?" Click on the pic to be reminded.

Jarvis Cocker: Do you remember the first time?

Me: Oh aye. Lots of them.

And oddly enough, members of the RUC arrived uninvited for quite a few of them. For instance, I can honestly say that it was the police who drove me to underage drinking.

I was on the wrong side of Belfast Continue reading

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Smile (for the Loose Bloggers Consortium)

Smiling has got me into a lot of trouble. It made me look guilty at school. Which is mad, because if I’d been guilty I’d have taken care to look innocently serious and preoccupied with work.

But maybe that’s why I wrote this take on smiling and how if you do smile, the whole world will not necessarily smile with you.

It’s an excerpt from my book Blackwatertown.

Here’s the context. Jolly Macken (Jolly being his ironic nickname) is a Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant in Northern Ireland in the 1950s. He’s been walking a tightrope. He’s viewed with suspicion by his colleagues because he’s a Catholic – nominally anyway – in a mainly Protestant pro-British force. He’s not trusted by his co-religionists because he is in the employ of the Protestant-ruled state. Macken has just, with bad grace, led a baton charge of police and Protestant marchers to clear a Nationalist barricade and so let an Orange parade proceed through a Catholic village. Though the police action was successful, Macken himself was embarrassingly entangled in a bicycle thrown at him by a protestor.

The main players in this wee bit include Jolly Macken, the District Inspector (Macken’s superior officer, in attendance as a civilian and member of the Orange Order), the Worshipful Master (boss of the local branch of the Orange Order) and Big Jim (Lambeg drummer in the Orange band). Oh, and the word “Fenian” is used as a derogatory term for Catholic.

Macken came to with a start, his face full of pedals and handlebars. During the seconds he had been stunned, the rest of the attackers had surged over the barricade and were now coming to blows with the defenders. It didn’t last long. The fewer Catholics were soon put to flight by the combined forces of law and Orange Order.

Soon beefy-faced farmers had planted themselves on top of the barricade, and were leaning forward with their hands on their thighs, catching their breath. The general back slapping began. They gathered in excited chatter round Big Jim, who now sat panting on a boulder, his vast girth quivering. The sight of that alone would be enough to send me running for the hills, thought Macken, still knotted up with the bicycle.

After a few moments watching the world from ground level, Macken began to try to shift the bike from on top of him. That brought the other pedal, the one not pointing skywards over his face, sharply into his side. He hissed at the pain and let the bike settle back on top of him for a moment.

By now his efforts had caught the eye of the victorious mob. The Worshipful Master was taking control of the celebrations now, quietening down the war whoops. He led three cheers and a prayer of thanks. He also managed to find time to thank the loyal officers of Her Majesty for helping to preserve the integrity of Her highways. And to draw attention to one person in particular: “Sergeant Macken there. Sadly, he does not have the stamina of people who are proud to walk the Queen’s highway. He’s found himself a bike to get himself home.”

The taunts began. “Come on you monkey!”

“Sure yon’s more of an old goat. He got his head stuck in the fence going for the pasture beyond. Can’t you hear him bleating?”

Realising that no-one was rushing to help untangle him, Macken summoned all his annoyance to turn on his side and pull his legs underneath himself. Then he was able to stagger, crab-like, to his feet, a walking deckchair. This delighted his audience all the more.

“Look at Jolly. He’s belongs in the circus.”

Macken gingerly extricated himself and slowly straightened up, leaning on the dented bike with one hand, rubbing his back with the other. But the scorn in the District Inspector’s look was far more withering.

“Come on Sergeant, stop horsing around! You’ll not be catching them on that pile of junk. They’re away off over the bog. Let’s take control of the situation here.”

Macken clenched his teeth and angrily dashed the bent and buckled bicycle to the ground.

The routed defenders were by now disappearing over the bog and hills in the distance. The Worshipful Master was attempting to calm his warriors back into walkers, and corral them into some sort of order in preparation for the resumption of the triumphal procession.

The District Inspector meanwhile was close shouldered in muttered conference with the man mountain that was Big Jim. Macken noticed the red piping on his band uniform trousers, but realised he had never seen him wearing the military style jacket. Maybe he couldn’t find one to fit. The shirt sleeves rolled up over his broad arms revealed dull flecks of blood drying on the skin. Looks like Big Jim has bloodied a few noses, thought Macken.

As he took in the scene, other band members joined in, making a circle, remonstrating in raised voices. Macken thought he had better give the District Inspector his support. What now, he sighed to himself. Isn’t winning enough for them?

He pushed his way through to beside his senior officer. They were all gathered round the Lambeg Drum, sat squat like a broad round table on the roadway. Laid parallel across it like an extra long knife and fork, were two Malacca canes – tapered and thinly splintered at one end, the fatter ends pointing to Big Jim’s brawny reddened arms.

You have to admire the sheer brute will it takes to lug that huge drum along the road for miles, thought Macken, whacking it with such furious abandon that the hillsides themselves flinch.

There was a scattering of red dots on the goat skin of the drum, near where the drummer was pointing a finger aggressively towards the District Inspector. Macken smiled ruefully to himself at his mistake – the blood had come from the drummer’s own wrists, from repeated contact with the wooden rim of the big drum. No matter how bad the situation was, he reminded himself, jumping to conclusions could always make it seem more blood thirsty than it really was.

Macken realised too late, he had just made another, worse mistake. In some cultures, a smile may be disarming. In Ulster, a nod will do just as well. In fact, far better. You nod in acknowledgement, respect or agreement. A smile may be devious, deceitful, ridiculing or weak.

“Funny, is it? Now we have this friend of the Fenians rubbing it in too!”

Spit from the irate drummer shot across the face of the drum hitting both Macken and his senior officer.

“Thank you Macken,” said the District Inspector under his breath. “I was half way to persuading them not to worry about it – until your helpful intervention.”

“But what…”

The District Inspector looked up the hillside. Macken followed his gaze, to where a couple of small figures were jigging about on top of a large flat rock. What they were shouting, Macken couldn’t tell from this distance, but he presumed it had something to do with the piece of cloth they had hung from the front edge of the projecting rock.

Macken closed his eyes for a moment and cursed silently. It was the green, white and orange flag of the Irish Republic. An affront the Orangemen were not willing to let go, even if it was but a pinprick in the hide of an elephant.

“Sort it out, will you, Macken.”

“Sir?”

“Just get up there and get the bloody flag and let’s be on our way.”

What happens next? Well Continue reading

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How many different words for snow, death… and farts?

Eskimos and Inuit are reputed to have many/seven/50/100 different words for snow. Though it may be a tundric myth. (And anyway, don’t we have snow, blizzard, sleet & slush – OK that’s only four, and I’m not sure about the last two.)

But anywhere with an unusually high number of different words detailing aspects of a phenomenon interests me. It evokes poetic lists. Like these from Belfast poet Michael Longley – The Ice-Cream Man.

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:

You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before

They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road

And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.

I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren

I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,

Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,

Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,

Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,

Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

You can listen Continue reading

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The inside story…


Crumlin Road Prison by Stephen Shaw. He's a super observant watercolourist in Belfast. Click on the pic for his online galleries. The old prison was said to be the most secure in the British Isles. It hosted many escapes and executions. A tunnel led from the jail to the courthouse opposite, which features in Blackwatertown.

Here comes the inside story of my book. It’s the brief synopsis I’m sending to agents. (Some agents prefer a different approach – longer blow by blow, chapter by chapter efforts.)

The next post will cover my recent calamities and a particularly juicy piece of gossip. But for now, have a peek inside.

Synopsis of Blackwatertown:

Blackwatertown by Paul Waters is a thriller set on the Irish border in the 1950s. The intertwining of fact and fiction is based partly on a murky episode of Ireland’s past, and partly on things discovered about my family’s own secret history.

It is the story of a reluctant and conflicted policeman called John “Jolly” Macken, who is drawn into a conspiracy, accidentally starts a war (the 1950s IRA border campaign) and inadvertently becomes a hero.

It is also the story of how complacency in a time of peace can quickly be shattered, if the underlying tensions in society are not addressed.

Jolly Macken begins with a personal crisis because of his leading role in a police action he knows is legally correct, but feels is morally wrong.

As a police officer, an RUC man, he is isolated from his fellow Irish Catholics because he serves the Crown. As a Catholic (in name anyway), he is by definition distrusted by his Protestant fellow officers and the State.

There are three main strands:

1. Macken is punished after a farcical episode of violence at the beginning, by being exiled to Blackwatertown village, a sleepy Co. Armagh backwater. He is sent there to replace the previous token Catholic officer in the district who died mysteriously. Was it an accident or murder? Were the killers fellow police officers? Will Macken be next?

2. Macken meets an unusually bewitching local girl whose bravado masks a certain innocence. However, is her innocence feigned? Will their romance endure? Is she an IRA spy or is she hiding a much darker secret?

3. Macken is caught up in a police conspiracy and cover-up that has unexpected consequences. Their fakery is so convincing that the conspirators are lauded as heroes and accidentally start a war. Macken becomes part of a web of political and personal intrigue, watching his back as genuine and imaginary sides go to war for real.

An ambiguous fourth strand weaves in and out of the action. It retains its mystery until near the end, when its true purpose and horrible identity is revealed.

As the tension and stakes mount higher, Macken is forced to choose sides when it comes to war and to his personal life. He embarks on a journey through a broken and twisted world to see if it is possible to salvage anything that is good, worthwhile and beautiful.

Blackwatertown conveys a sense of place in the tradition of Ulster writer Maurice Leitch, and is threaded through with flashes of humour reminiscent of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian Inspector Montalbano mysteries.

The story transcends time and place, but also parallels the current dangerous political situation in Northern Ireland today, and shows how a seemingly secure peace can be squandered.

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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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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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The opening lines (and Happy Christmas)

One Christmas drink too many

One Christmas drink too many. (Thanks to savagechickens.com)

 Happy Christmas and a mellow new year from Belfast, which is where I am right now.

People sometimes ask me: If this blog is supposed to be at least partly about your book, where can I read some of it?

Fair question. The answer is here: Here. Now.

The most important lines in any story are the beginning. The stakes are high. Go wrong at the start, and that’s it. The reader has moved on before any emotional committment has formed. It’s easy to cut one’s losses before getting in too deep.

So – with trepidation – here are the opening lines of my book, Blackwatertown.

But first, here’s a little context to the story.  It’s set in rural Ireland, along the border,  in the mid 1950’s. The hero, Macken, is a police sergeant in the RUC, the then police force of Northern Ireland.

And so the story, Blackwatertown, begins – like this:

Sergeant Jolly Macken didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. He clenched his teeth, and sucked in through his nostrils the cool air of the Mourne foothills. The butt of his hand pressed down on the polished handle of the baton, not yet drawn. He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back and the string of men blocking the road ahead. All  of them waiting, impatient for his signal,  muttering his nickname. He  hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!

 The stoney slopes of fern and heather and gorse would usually lift his  heart. The open land a refuge from complication and regulation. He’d  feel the tension ebbing from his shoulders. The small smile that would  quietly creep over his face, unbidden and unwitnessed. If Macken believed in anything, it was that there was no better place, nor way, for a man to be at peace than by quiet water, with a rod and line.  Alone, but never lonely.

Today was different. Today he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform. The Mourne mountain road he stood on was busy with intruders, eager for action. Stones bounced round his feet. The isolated serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the flutes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar, baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.

That’s it. More to come in a while. But I would very much like your comments on the opening.

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