Dicing with death to get a story on Ulster's streets

Reporting during the Troubles was a risky business. Sunday World editor Jim McDowell recalls his time at the News Letter when venturing into bomb blasts and shoot-outs for a story was just a part of the job

The tragedy-filled euphemism known as the Troubles and I have something in common. We both started in the same year.

Now, I'd be the first to state that the Troubles – and I've always called that softish label a euphemism for a dirty, vicious, cruel sectarian war which no cause or so-called 'political ideology' could justify – were no laughing matter.

I know, I helped cover some major stories for the News Letter: Operation Motorman, the murder of Lord Mountbatten in Co Sligo, the slaughter of the 18 paratroopers at Narrow Water near Warrenpoint the same day to mention but a trio.

Nowadays, it is a matter of fact that The Troubles wreaked carnage and havoc on this land. But on a lighter note, there are those still around nowadays who would say that since I started in my dearly beloved oul' News Letter – in those days 'the Grand Old Lady of the Peacock' in Donegall Street, downtown Belfast – in 1969, I have done the same thing to a few newspapers.

Not to mention to the English, or any other, language...especially when I was doing those Thursday stints on BBC Talkback on the Beeb and greeting listeners with a voice akin to coal scraping under a door by delivering the opening line of 'Good afternoon, Ulster...what about yez?'

The late, great Barry Cowan, a one-time Talkback presenter, dubbed that 'Tabloid Radio'. Other people dubbed it worse. I couldn't disagree with any of them...!

And looking back over my 40 years in journalism, there's another thing this grizzled oul' hack with a road map of scars on his baldy head – well, somebody had to report the riots! – can also not disagree with.

And that was that the News Letter gave me a start, a foot in the door, in this game that I loved from the age of 14, which I pined to work at from that age, and which not only gave me the grounding in what has become my life's work (in spite of my late, great Da-in-Law, a stone mason by the name of big Rab McIlvenna, eternally dubbing me a mere 'pencil-pusher' to the delight of the rest of the family: and myself), but, because of the characters involved, ingrained in me the one word which sums up journalism for all who work in it.

You cannot work in this job – print or broadcasting – without romance pulsing through your bloodstream. And that came early to me. The first night myself and Gary Gillespie (later of UTV), both cub (or, in those days, indentured) reporters stood in that old Press room along the side of Talbot Street, and heard the roar of those old Vickers presses pumping out tens of thousands of papers, smelt the pungent aroma of printers' ink, and felt the rolling thunder of the huge presses rocking the very ground under our feet like a mini-earthquake: that was love not only at first sight, but at first sound.

And the product that rolled off those presses, right through the 37-year depths – there was no 'height' – of The Troubles encapsulated and portrayed one word: professionalism.

And that was sheer, quality professionalism, right from the men who printed the paper on the ground floor, through to the printers up above who put the pages together, through to the sub-editors and sports rooms, through the photography and features departments, and into the newsroom where the news stories of the day, and the dark, often blood-stained nights, were commissioned and collated.

And, of course, there were the van drivers who diced with death each night on the streets of Ulster. There were the advertising boys and girls, who risked their lives daily even getting to work: and then got into a real battle royal with us in editorial over advertising/editorial quotas.

There were the boys in the company garage: the 'bean crunchers', the accountants, who kept the books – and, more importantly, doled out the wee brown envelopes every Wednesday with our expenses inside.

The names of those involved – right through from the days of hotmetal setting (when I started in 1969) through the 'paste up' of pages through to modern computer make-up and laying out of pages – are too legion to list here.

But if I compile just a wee kind of Print Roll of Honour, perhaps those I fail to mention (because of a failing memory) will accept the same accolade in the spirit in which it is intended.

First and foremost, there were the editors I worked under. Cowan Watson gave me my first job in the News Letter. A big, blustering, barnstormer of a man with a thatch of hair which could have roofed a cottage in Donegal, he put out a daily 'Beano', a memo summarising his opinion of that day's newspaper, which either slapped you on the back in black and white for a job well done...or slapped you down for one that wasn't.

John Trew was the opposite. Built like a rugby front row forward (which, indeed, he was at Belfast's Annadale Grammar School), he preferred not to bulldoze his way through each day as editor.

Instead, his way was to encourage, cajole, and re-construct the News Letter as he saw it evolving through changing times. Of course, one person John could simply not re-construct, was the legendary Charlie Fitzgerald.

Gilbert Ash and McLaughlin and Harvey combined couldn't have done that. But John Trew tried: valiantly, if in vain.

Cowan has, sadly, passed on. John and I remain friends.

The editors had their office across a wee skinny corridor from the reporters, sports and subs' (sub-editors) rooms in those days.

And all three of the latter were populated with characters as big as, and who could have been carved out of, the Cave Hill.

In the reporters' room there were news editors of the calibre of the meticulous David 'Always Check The Facts' Kirk Snr., and the equally accurate Bertie Sibbett, a veteran night news editor and leader writer whose trousers were always at

half-mast, but whose standards never were.

Bertie – or RSM – always took longhand notes over the phone at his desk from reporters out on stories.

And that was particularly laborious in the days when you were standing at a riot in Ballymurphy at two o'clock in the morning sticking two bob bits into a BT payphone (in the days before mobile phones) to dictate running, riotous copy to Bertie..... with the bricks and bottles bouncing off the phone box.

Mind you, there were a couple of us – Ray Managh and myself – who thought of a way of getting a bottle of stout down our necks to warm the cockles of our hearts during those marathon night stints out in the sleet and rain reporting riots.

If it looked like nothing major was going to happen for a while – like the guns coming out – we'd simply take a biscuit tin with a few stones in it to a 'safe' pub, order a couple of pints, and take turns at phoning Bertie from the pub payphone... filing a couple of pars of copy, and occasionally rattling the biscuit tin to give dear Bertie the impression we were still in the phonebox being pelted at the riot.

It wasn't inaccurate copy, either.

For sure weren't 'the lads' streaming in and out of the pub during the riot keeping us completely au fait with the shenanigans on the street?

And there were other great characters in that reporters' room filing reams of copy every day from where shenanigans of another kind were a daily occurrence: the Stormont Parliament.

The then parliamentary and lobby correspondents' team up there was headed up by the suave and phlegmatic Mervyn Pauley: who once drove over a bomb on his way home from a late-night reporting shift in the News Letter.

'Merve the Swerve' – he was a rather dashing full-back on the rugby paddock – lived to tell the tale in the Duke of York pub: time, and time, and time again.

Two other integral parts of the Stormont reporting team were Hammy McDowell, a World War Two veteran of the Italy campaign, who had the honour of having a clerihew written about him, and Jimmy Kennedy, whose shorthand was, well, short. And whose stories were famously shorter.

However, the clerihew composed in Hammy's honour read:

'Hammy McDowell

Was hard to thole,

Especially when

Waxing wittily,

About Italy.'

There were rumours at the time that Jimmy Kennedy penned that wee poem: a rumour that Jimmy denied, vehemently, and especially after 10 bottles of Single X porter. And normally sharing the Single X sustenance with him was his long-time buddy and brilliant columnist, Ralph 'Bud' Bossence.

But houl' on, folks, I'm falling into the trap of letting this wee epistle of my 16 years at the News Letter run away with itself: even 'though the commissioning editor, Billy Kennedy, told me: "Let it run, McDowell".

So I'll just mention a few more iconic colleagues who peopled the aforementioned 'wee skinny corridor' outside the Editors' rooms in my time. Reporters' room: Stewart Mackey, Billy Kennedy, Gary Gillespie, Maureen 'Mo' Martin, Penny Henderson, Mervyn Robinson, Peter Neill, Brian Orr, Maurice Withers, Harry 'The Hat' Robinson, Joe Oliver and Louis Malcolm.

Indeed, there was one time a lad from the country who didn't know much about Belfast put down the phone after ringing the police Press officer and stated: "They say there's a bomb outside the Irish News in Donegall Street. Where's Donegall Street?"

He had to be told, gently: "You're sitting in it…."

Sports Room: The one and only sports editor, George Ace, who threw better Christmas parties than Aristotle Onassis – and owed more money to the bookmakers than the same Greek shipping magnate ever had in his bank account.

Also in that illustrious department, for which I once reported rugby, boxing and athletics (anyway but illustriously, it must be said) were Glenman Stanley Wright, award-winning horse race tipster Herbie 'The Quiet Man' Cooper, and soccer writers supreme Billy Oliver, John Hamilton, the late Jimmy Dubois, Denis 'Down From The Glens' O'Hara, golf writer Eoin 'Shuie' McQuillan, sports 'Sub' Gil Croft and the current sports editor Brian Millar.

The subs' room, where the pages were laid out and designed was awash with personalities: albeit wielding pencils that could crop (cut) both copy and pictures with the abandon and ruthlessness of Attila the Hun and his hordes scything through the Samaritans.

The late Cyril 'Thack the Hack' Thackway cut his teeth, and plenty of hacks' copy, in there. He became a brilliant sub-editor on a string of newspapers. We know this, because he told us – often.

'Thack' also met his wife, Maggie, a copytaker, in the News Letter: and what a fine bunch of girls those copytakers – Patsy, Yvonne, Jacqui, Margaret, and secretaries Nessie and Luise – were down the years.

There were also Richard Riddell, Pete Montellier, the hirsute Jack Midgley and a stable of other sub-editors who worked in there nightly in spite of the bombs and bullets flying outside.

The features department dripped with talent: Kay Kennedy, Norman Ballantine, Ken Nixon, Pete Rea, Niki Hill, Chris Moore, Brian Ogle, Ralph Allen, Lindy McIlvenna, Olga Craig, Richard Young and David Ballantine, to name a few in my time.

Mind you, there were some of those who not only dripped with talent, they were also not alien to draping themselves…over a bar counter.

Indeed, Norman Ballentine once commented that a week after a bomb had gone off outside the News Letter office: "You know, that blast blew Kay Kennedy, Ken Nixon and Pete Rea the whole way over into the Blouse Club (a pub) in North Street…and they haven't been seen since!"

That kind of banter also permeated the rooms in the bowels of the building where the boys from the Dark Room, rather than the Boys from the Black Stuff, delivered their stuff.

That was the photographic department headed up by Cecil McCausland, and lads like Bob 'Hammy' Hamilton, Eddie Harvey, Randal Mulligan and Trevor 'Give Me The Tools and I'll Do the Job' Dickson not only snapped and printed pictures which got splashed across our front page during the span of the Troubles, and then got flashed across the world, but then won Photographic Award after Photographic Award.

Prestige newspaper, indeed.

And all of those mentioned here, and, with my apology, those not mentioned, simply quality newspaper people.

Aye, Happy 270th Birthday, News Letter.

IOU, big time.

I'll never forget you for giving me my start in this game, and giving me so many good times with the folk – all of them – I met in the pristine premises of The Grand Old Lady of the Peacock in Donegall Street.

As I wrote at the start, the journalism I learned there was all about one word: romance.

Well, there's another angle on romance for which I am indebted to the News Letter. I met my wife Lindy when both of us worked there.

I'll never forget the oldest English written newspaper in the world for that. And, probably, never forgive it, either!