Jonny McCambridge: Finding the reasons to keep doing this

When I first took on this adventure of writing a weekly column a couple of years ago, I sought advice from a friend who was more experienced than I in the practice.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 18th May 2022, 6:00 am
When lost in Ballymena, I called into Diamond’s newsagents
When lost in Ballymena, I called into Diamond’s newsagents

This individual provided some ready advice.

‘Be topical, be opinionated, and most of all … be outspoken.’

Of course, I listened and said thank you; then I proceeded to completely ignore the advice and move in entirely the opposite direction.

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My column has never been any of the things that I was told it should be.

I tend, perhaps due to my personality, to avoid confrontation. The closest I’ve ever got to controversy on this page was when I received some angry messages for daring to suggest that the movie ‘Ghostbusters’ had not aged well.

There are, of course, consequences of this gentle approach. Those who shout louder tend to get more attention. I’m unlikely to be asked to go on ‘The Nolan Show’ any time soon to discuss the fact that my son is a fussy eater.

And I’m fine with that. Although the audience is small, I know that there are people paying attention and I love to receive feedback from readers.

But having to produce a column every week does cause a strain, particularly when there’s no reliable landing spot of that week’s news events to ground it in.

Often, I find myself coming close to deadline and still searching for an idea on what I will write about next. These words are often composed late at night when I’m exhausted and weary.

I am also in full-time employment, I’m currently trying to write a new book and my priority is always to devote as much of my time as I possibly can to the wellbeing of my son.

I am forever conscious of taking on too much responsibility which might put strain on my fragile mental health and, I admit, there have been moments when I’ve wondered is the column really worth the trouble.

But there is another side to this argument.

I think of the messages and occasional correspondences I receive. The social media post from a person recently whom I have never met which said simply ‘Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re making us all smile’.

I have an old schoolfriend who now lives abroad. He contacted me a few months back to tell me that his father, a north Antrim farmer, cuts my page faithfully out of the paper every Wednesday and posts it to him.

Of course, the column can be easily accessed digitally from any location on the planet, but there was something undoubtedly sweet and charming about the man whose ritual is to post these words to an international location every week so his son will know how his old friend is doing.

On another occasion I wrote about my experience driving home to see my son after I had been in the United States for a week and the agony that the separation had caused me. I then received a phone call from a man I know professionally who read it while sitting on the bus. He is also a father.

There, he told me, amongst all the passengers, the words reduced him to tears and he was moved immediately to phone and tell me this.

I was in Ballymena a few weeks ago. It is a matter of some shame that, even though I was born in the Co Antrim town, my knowledge of its geography is appalling.

Thus, I called into the well-known newsagent shop run by Eugene Diamond to ask for directions. I had never met Eugene before, but I knew we shared several common acquaintances and so I introduced myself.

‘Ah, Jonny McCambridge,’ he said. ‘I was reading your story a couple of days ago.’

The story in question was a column I had written about bringing my son to the place where I grew up near the Ballinlea crossroads. Eugene told me he had forwarded the column on to a mutual friend, Lyle McMullan, who is local to the area and who had loved it.

There was a particular significance to this for me. Lyle, the former editor of the Ballymoney Times, is the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for me being a journalist.

I went to his newspaper for work experience when I a nervous young man who didn’t believe I had the necessary skills to succeed at this game. Despite my obvious shortcomings he told me, over and over, that I would make it and to stick with it.

My work experience, which was supposed to last two weeks, stretched on for six months.

The fact that Lyle, via Eugene, was reading my page and approved of it, made me smile on that rainy day when I was lost in Ballymena.

On the same week I was in a shop in Dromore with my wife shopping for dinner when I was approached by a diminutive, older woman who said she wanted to talk to me. I assumed she was going to ask me to fetch a tin of beans or some other such item from a higher shelf.

Instead, she began by asking me if I was Jonny McCambridge.

I replied that it was indeed the case.

She then told me a story. A story of how she and her elderly mother love to read my page every week. She said they look forward to the Wednesday paper to find out what adventures my son James and I have engaged in.

But, she told me, her mother has not been in the best of health. She has undergone a major eye operation and currently is unable to read as she recovers. So, every Wednesday her mother insists that she goes to the shop to buy the News Letter, goes straight to page 17, and reads this column to her from start to finish.

I stood there as this woman that I had never met before relayed this to me. In truth I was a little choked up and had to call my wife Debs over to join the conversation in case I should lose composure in the middle of the shop.

The three of us chatted for a few more minutes. Then we said goodbye and expressed hope that we would meet again. I wanted to say something which would express properly the impact that this meeting had had on me.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘You have truly made my day.’

‘Och, that’s nothing,’ the woman replied breezily. ‘You make our day every week.’

And with that she was gone. I was left with the same feeling that I have experienced several times over the last few months, after every one of the episodes which I have related here.

It is a feeling of warmth that defies the late nights, the exhaustion of having to file, of having to produce an idea every week. It is the certainty that, however hard they may be to find, there are people out there who get it. That, for me, is more than enough of a reason to keep going.