Most of us have been plagued by insomnia at some stage in our lives; there are few things as wearying or soul destroying than wakefulness in the wee hours, tossing and turning, acutely aware of every sound around us, desperate for sleep, and becoming more fretful by the second because we know how tired we will be the next day.
However when Co Tyrone born man Arthur Magennis discovered that he was failing to get any sleep for two nights each week, because of the powerful steroids he had to take as part of his cancer treatment, he decided to make use of the extra hours he found in his schedule - and wrote his life story.
The pensioner - who turns 88 this year - travelled back in time to the days of his early childhood growing up in Derryvarn.
He tells me it is a “sub-division of Derrytresk”, a townland deep in the heart of the Tyrone countryside, just a few miles from Coalisland - and began to pen his memoirs, recounting his time growing up with his siblings and his neighbours ‘the Hughes’, whose home was an open one to members of the travelling community and indeed a variety of weird and wonderful characters who came from all over the country to visit.
Much to his disbelief, when he took the final result to Lancashire-based publishers Beaton Track Publishing, they agreed to publish it, and on April 5, Living in the Past – A Northern Irish Memoir hit the bookshelves. He admits he was “thrilled” with the response from Beaton Track.
And now Arthur, who has well and truly caught the writing bug, is in the middle of penning his second book - and this time, it’s a crime fiction novel. “Writing a second book has been no trouble at all - I have found I’ve got a talent for it!” smiles the father-of-two, who trained in Belfast as a pharmacist then moved to England to work in the 1950s. English was always my strong subject.”
I jokingly advise that he was sensible to stick to pharmacy, as surely there was more money in that career and he replies with typical Tyrone humour: “Oh I don’t know. If it had been a success I could have gone and lived in Capri or somewhere and written behind the counter!” Indeed, Arthur admits that he has been writing poetry practically all his life.
He reveals: “At birthdays etc. I would write little poems on the cards. Noreen (his wife) would hand me a card sometimes just before we went out and say, ‘write a little poem on that.’ I would start to write stories but they always finished up as poems. I had a jotter full but they were all lost in the last move. I also wrote songs.”
However despite his naturally artistic tendencies, it was through circumstances that he came to finally putting pen to paper properly and realising his dreams of getting his work published.
In October 2009 he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is a type of bone marrow cancer. He was told that without chemotherapy, he had just six months to live.
His daughter Nuala explains: “As a keen crown green bowler, his aim was to live to play for one more bowling season and this kept him going through the six months of treatment.”
He had to have more chemotherapy in November 2012, and it was then that the double bout of sleepless set in. To fill those dark hours, he began to write the story of his childhood in Northern Ireland in the 1920s and 30s, through World War Two and up to leaving his home in Northern Ireland.
His wife and the couple’s daughters Marie and Nuala had asked him to commit his memories to paper many times, having heard his amusing stories often over the years.
“There were a lot of characters around our place, and I was always telling my daughters stories,” Arthur tells me. “They often said, ‘why don’t you write this down?’
“Writing was a great way to pass those hours, and I’d become so engrossed that before I knew it the sun was rising and another night had passed by,” says Arthur, who lives in Southport.
His book is a fascinating and amusing insight into a lost way of life in a poor farming community where the main mode of transport was the bicycle and, as such, when a weekly bus was introduced to the area, travelling via Coalisland to Dungannon, the excitement was immense. It features an interesting cast of neighbours and local characters each with their own views on life.
Arthur wrote the book by hand, filling several notebooks as the weeks and months of chemotherapy marched on.
“At first, it was just a way to pass the time but the more I wrote, the more I wanted to see if my stories were worth publishing,” he admits. And he adds: “It’s hard to believe the first book I have ever written has been published. It’s very exciting and I hope people will enjoy it.”
He recalls the “terrific” feeling he got when he realised that writing came so easily to him, and after his first chapter was complete, he felt compelled and enthused to go on. “When I started to write, I just lost track of time and it was terrific,” he says.
“We had a house beside us where a family called the Hughes lived and they welcomed everybody. People would come and stay for a few days, then go away again, and Peter Hughes would put them up in the loft or any place. He was a very, very good man.
“They were terrific people. We practically lived there. From we were fit to walk we twiddled down there. The start of the book is all about them.”
Arthur had a rural background, growing up with his siblings - Seamy, Kathleen, Elizabeth, Margaret and Philomena (“we called her Peggy”) - on a farm, like most of the families in the area.
“There were a lot of farmers with small holdings,” he says. “The place was full of characters. There was Jimmy Hat who lived in his hat; he had a hard hat and a good one for Sundays, and he had everything in his hat. There was Kate Shaw and Paddy The Guy.
“They all lived in Hughes or came to stay with Mrs Hughes for a few days, and Peter and their daughter Eileen. That’s who I start my story off with - Eileen - because she was larger than life, Eileen was, and had lots of boyfriends with cars. Then I just carried on from that.”
The introduction of the inaugural bus route to Dungannon from Tamnamore corner caused a bit of excitement in Derrytresk, as Arthur documents.
“Before, we rode the bicycle or walked to Coalisland, which was about three miles away, and to (get to) Dungannon you walked to Dungannon corner which was a mile and half - that wasn’t too bad.
“Suddenly we heard the news that there was going to be a bus and it was going to come every Thursday. Everybody was queued up, all the old ladies.”
His book also recounts of growing up during the Second World War, although Arthur admits that he confesses to readers “we had more interest in the new cinema in Castle Hill.”
Overall, before his move to England at the age of 27, to seek a job as pharmacist, his memories of life in Tyrone as a child are fond and I feel summed up by his comment: “There was no television, there was only the radio, and people made their own craic, telling yarns and everything.”
Living in the Past – A Northern Irish Memoir is available in all good bookshops and online at www.amazon.co.uk and through www.beatentrackpublishing.com. You can buy the paperback edition for £6.99 and the kindle edition is priced £3.09.