The most recent of Roamer’s regular talks to local community groups and heritage organisations began with a very welcome surprise on Tuesday!
I arrived, as agreed, at the October meeting of the Upper Ards Historical Society in Portaferry with my script and slideshow for the requested presentation entitled ‘The Best of Roamer’.
I was apprehensive!
As the years go by it becomes increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to select a fair representation of readers’ accounts from the ever-burgeoning variety of topics that have sustained a total of almost 800 pages.
As the title of Tuesday’s presentation wasn’t intended to encompass the vast output of any previous Roamers, I’d prepared a summary of the most popular themes since I started compiling the then weekly-page almost a decade ago.
Vintage transport has undoubtedly been an oft-recurring favourite topic, more than adequately nurtured by readers’ accounts of old trains, ships, cars, buses, sometimes planes and occasionally balloons and zeppelins.
Heroic and often tragic stories from two world wars are regularly headlined on this page, along with memorable and/or historic people, places and events.
All sorts of local traditions get regular references, and to leave nothing off the list, I’d prepared a postscript for the Upper Ards history group entitled ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘odd’!
I was apprehensive in Portaferry, as I always am with my talks, because it’s quite impossible to properly summarise the awesomely wide-ranging content of Roamer’s page.
Then came the surprise.
Society President Gerard Lennon slipped me a book entitled ‘Around and About - The Roamer’, a compilation of stories shared on this page during 1988/89.
Published by the News Letter, and illustrated by cartoonist Ralph Dobson, this is rare book that I’ve only come across once in the past, when I had to return it urgently to its owner because it was “the only known copy available.”
My nervousness at borrowing it, even for a short perusal, greatly increased when I was told that the book was like ‘gold dust’!
Gerard Lennon’s copy doesn’t reveal its author - I can’t find a name anywhere amongst its 80 pages - though the News Letter’s greatly esteemed journalist Louis Malcolm was the Roamer back then.
And just like today, its pages are packed with readers’ reminiscences and accounts, mostly along themes that are still popular and often punctuated with humour.
The book’s introduction eloquently summarises its content, far better than the current Roamer managed on Tuesday in Portaferry!
The author refers to ‘the den’, presumably the News Letter’s main office.
“This book is a mixture of ‘culture’, agriculture, sentiment and wit - Ulster wit, which in my travels throughout the province and in the hefty post which reaches the den, invariably came to the fore without the slightest bit of coaxing.”
The introduction to the book continues with a statement of fact that still holds true today.
“Most of the stories and snippets of humour needed neither garnishing nor varnishing before making print. Day by day I simply passed them on to you as they were told to me - straight up.”
The introduction ended with the author admitting “from time to time by way of diversion I delved into a chequered past - having received my ‘higher’ education in the university of bitter experience - and this is the composite result: a book which I trust will bring a grin to your face.”
There’ll be more extracts from the book on this page in the near future - from the sublime to the ridiculous - but here are just a few excerpts to conclude Roamer’s page today - a page that still reverberates with the very distinctive narratives sent to Roamer’s mailbox by News Letter readers.
The book begins with a story that was published on the 1st November 1988 when Lizzie went into a shop and asked accusingly: “Is that bread today’s because yesterday’s wasn’t?”
A reader from Lambeg shared a gag about an Irishman who turned up at Olympic Games and was asked what he wanted to take part in.
He was “very much taken aback by the question as he had a coil of barbed wire under his arm.”
The Irishman said angrily to the official “Are you blind or stupid or what? I want to enter for the fencing.”
Contrasting with the jokes and japes, there’s an account in the book from the end of 1988 headlined ‘Gory Gutting Match Down on the Farm’!
The opening paragraph explains that the story contains ‘mouth-watering memories of the days when bacon was tasty, and bloodcurdling thoughts of how pigs were killed in the heart of County Down more than 60 years ago.’
Curiously - included in the book is a Christmas recipe for a Dutch dinner!
It was sent to Roamer by a Limavady reader.
“Boil a calf’s tongue with an onion and some mushrooms. Add a little salt and curry to the water. Use the boullion (sic) from that for the soup. Stir a couple of egg yolks to bind it and add a small pat of butter and the mushrooms, the onion sliced into small pieces and the calf’s tongue cut into discs.”
And finally - Pat’s doctor wrote him a prescription for pills for his nerves.
Pat inquired warily “Would there be any danger of becoming addicted to them?”
“Not at all,” his doctor replied. “Sure I’ve been taking them myself for the past 30 years.”