A DECENT MAN: Captain Terence O'Neill
By ALAN FRAME
NOW THAT the foppish Robert Peston has finally arrived at ITN, there has been much speculation as to whether he will smarten up, sartorially that is. It reminded me of the time 50 years ago when, as a very young reporter on Belfast’s morning paper, the News-Letter, I turned up to cover a meeting of the then all-powerful Ulster Unionist Party, in an old tweed jacket, home-knitted (Mum not me) brown cardigan and baggy cords. Sort of young fogey without the Jacob Rees-Mogg style. Oh, and longish hair and a beard.
Addressing the meeting was the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Capt Terence O’Neill, a decent man who did his limited best to end the appalling treatment of the province’s Catholics and the gerrymandering and criminality (Vote Early, Vote Often) which scarred politics in those parts.
For some reason O’Neill took exception that I was not dressed for such an important meeting (in truth not much more than one staged by a local council) and complained to the editor. Complaint duly passed on with no great force. What O’Neill didn’t know at the time was that I was pally with his daughter Ann through her friendship with the sister of a good chum of mine. Come the following Sunday the four of us drove to the Glens of Antrim in my 12-year-old Riley which, it has to be said, had seen better days.
At the end of the day I had to return Ann to her parents. As we were about to turn into the drive of their grand country house near Ballymena the exhaust pipe and silencer decided to part company with the car making such a noise that could have been heard 30 miles away in Belfast (and sadly would be with great regularity within a couple of years). The problem was O’Neill, being PM and none too popular with many of the natives, had a driveway flanked by two sentry posts, housing two cops with machine guns. Hearing the racket from the Riley and assuming an attack, they jumped out, guns at the ready, about to shoot their boss’ daughter and her friends.
Worse was to come a few minutes later when we walked through the front door, only for the Rt Hon Terence O’Neill PC MP to realise that the scruffy bugger at the UUP meeting a few days before was also responsible for the terrorist scare at the end of his drive.
I wasn’t invited back.
I was telling a pal at lunch today about the O’Neill saga and he responded with the following. My chum, who has to remain nameless, is a retired general and was a very senior officer in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. One evening at Army HQ he answered the phone to be assaulted by the tones of an irate Ian Paisley berating him for some perceived ill. My friend immediately put the phone on to loudspeaker to let colleagues enjoy the future Chuckle Brother’s tirade. When finally Paisley had to pause for breath, General X said: ”I’m sorry father, I didn’t catch your name”… Oh to have been there!
STEWPOT, A DECENT CHAP
I WAS SAD to learn of the early death of Ed Stewart, the erstwhile DJ and one of the few not to have had his collar felt by Inspector Knacker. In a former life in the village of Tatsfield, high on Surrey’s North Downs, I was a member of the village cricket team. At some point in the late 1970s we decided to stage a celebrity cricket match, a sort of Tatsfield v Rest of the World.
We trawled for celebrities, the usual suspects including the great Colin Cowdrey, a near-ish neighbour but unavailable; Tim Rice, a serious cricket nerd whom I had just interviewed but playing for his own team that day, and many others. All politely unavailable except for Ed Stewart, singer Jess Conrad (nice bloke but even in 1979 past his best) and Johnny Speight, creator of the ghastly Alf Garnett.
Ed, pictured, was a delight. He played well – that is to say better than any of us though we were hardly worthy of Wisden – but importantly was a very decent chap, especially when the heavens opened and we retired to the pub. Ed was charming, good fun and very clubbable. Ditto Jess C who had come all the way from Herefordshire for the, er, honour of playing with us, poor sod. As for Johnny Speight, he ‘fielded’ on the long on boundary, legs apart to aid unimpeded travel of the ball, chain smoking and never moving an inch. He felt much more at home when we reached the pub.
ALL DRIED UP
LAST WEEKEND we embarked on a dry January (really a dry-what’s-left-of-January). Not because we listened to Nanny (that usually has the reverse effect) but because we had never done it. In other words, a spot of self-flagellation, particularly curious as one half of us is a Born Against Catholic (her copyright by the way). I’ll let you know how we get on – all I can say for now that it is too bloody boring for words. Real flagellation must be preferable.
THIS morning I was subjected to a very charming 25-year-old relating her (short) life story by frequent scatterings of ‘Back in the Day’. God, how I hate that ludicrous phrase, now as common and irritating as a goodbye which concludes with ‘Take Care’ and/or ‘See you tomorrow yeah?’ Back in MY day we had plenty of verbal irritations: the older generation would bid farewell with TTFN dating back to the war (Ta ta for now), the Cilla Black generation with Ta Ra, and the early rock’n’rollers with ‘See you later alligator’ to which one would be expected to respond ‘In a while crocodile’ after the Bill Haley hit of 1956. As for hellos, Mohamed al Fayed used to greet me (and other blokes) with “How’s your cock?”. No reply was needed and rarely proffered.
For a while after the release of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, that brilliant phrase invented by Ringo became commonplace in every workplace as in “How are you this morning?”; “Oh, it was a hard day’s night”, usually accompanied by a snigger.
At which point, I shall take this opportunity of bidding you a fond and temporary farewell…