Marking the season with reminiscences and accounts from the year about to end

Storm bound for three weeks in 1938. Rathlin Island harbour today
Storm bound for three weeks in 1938. Rathlin Island harbour today

The much-syndicated, often-quoted, Pulitzer-nominated American journalist Douglas ‘Doug’ Lincoln Larson died last year aged 91, perhaps fittingly on April Fools’ Day, for he was widely known for weaving frivolity into his usually insightful daily columns!

He once wrote a piece looking back at times past, concluding with a line that was succinctly rich with both truth and humour – “nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”

John and Barbara Campbell, nee McArthur, on their wedding day

John and Barbara Campbell, nee McArthur, on their wedding day

“Utility is when you have one telephone,” he quipped in another column, “luxury is when you have two phones, opulence is when you have three – and paradise is when you have none!”

Phoning long-time friends and sending them Christmas cards is a national obsession at this time of the year, perhaps because it tends to draw inspiration from the best of the past, and as reminiscing is such a traditional recreation at Yuletide, Roamer is joining in!

Until the New Year dawns this page is drawing on the last 12 months for its inspiration, looking back to pages that looked back!

The first, from the beginning of the year that’s ending, was about an evening spent with Belfast’s greatly-loved docker-poet John Campbell.

Docker poet John Campbell

Docker poet John Campbell

Like Doug Larson, John writes with colour and comprehension.

He’d just published a 50 poem retrospective entitled ‘Port of Retirement’, dedicated to his wife Barbara, not long passed away after a loving, devoted, happy 60-year-long marriage.

In the corner of John’s cosy front-room off Belfast’s Shore Road was Barbara’s empty armchair.

The shelves and walls were bustling with family portraits and above the fireplace was a large black and white photo of glowingly-happy newlyweds John and Barbara in 1966.

The Sirocco works at work, 1898

The Sirocco works at work, 1898

“Barbara was the rock of this family,” said John, whose poetic debut came after the death of his father in 1948.

“I was 12 years old,” he recounted, “and we were all sitting around the coal-fire with mum who was trying to write dad’s obituary for the paper.”

Much to his mother’s surprise John recited a profound little rhyme:

“You never know the moment,

Sirocco fan advertisement

Sirocco fan advertisement

You never know the day.

You’ll never know how long

Upon this earth you’ll stay.”

“Mum looked at me, baffled,” John recounted, “wondering where it came from and I said I’d just made it up. I don’t think she used it because she couldn’t afford the space in the paper!”

With 10 books to his credit, and after a busy life as a dockworker, trade union representative, van-driver and family-man, John compiled ‘Port of Retirement’ (details at www.lapwing at the end of 2017.

Many of the poems are about his beloved Sailortown, a historically nautical part of Belfast that was demolished to make way for motorways, link-roads, flyovers, roundabouts and new buildings.

A poem entitled ‘Once There Was a Community Here’ recalls York Street “before the bulldozers came.”

Back in 1999 John was shopping with Barbara in the York Gate Complex.

“I looked across at the jungle of grass and trees that used to be York Street and murmured to myself ‘once there was a community here.’”

“Now commuter trains speed above my head” he wrote, and the area is “virtually people-dead.”

Changed and changing times were a constant thread in the tapestry of memories in Roamer’s mailbox during 2018.

With Storm Eleanor raging around our countryside and coastline in January, Mitchell Smyth marked the 80th anniversary of another Atlantic tempest that splashed Rathlin Island across the world’s front pages.

Even though the gales of ’38 were the longest lasting winds ever to hit Rathlin, the islanders’ emergency was further ‘elaborated’ by fake news!

The subject of Mitchell’s turbulent tale started raging on January 11 and continued incessantly.

A news story went around the globe on February 1st 1938 – “A plane today dropped food to famine-stricken inhabitants of Rathlin Island… bad weather for three weeks has marooned the islanders.”

The phrase ‘famine-stricken’ was something of an exaggeration.

Food was becoming scarce but nobody was starving and supplies weren’t completely cut off.

And there were no medical emergencies, but one islander, Margaret McCouaig, went into labour at the height of the storm.

History was made when her son Laurence, delivered by the local midwife, became known as ‘the storm baby’.

Local history of quite another sort was shared on this page when an announcement came early in 2018 that plans for the first phase of development on the site of the former Sirocco Works had been submitted to Belfast City Council.

Along with Sirocco’s famous, internationally-exported, industrial ventilation units, News Letter readers remembered the days when the River Lagan was a vital industrial artery to the rest of the world, supplying the planet with essential products for the progress of mankind.

The most recounted exports were ships, heavy engineering, ropes, cotton, tobacco and linen, with the manufacture of smaller and lighter goods less hailed – like glass, pottery, confectionary, fizzy drinks, gingham and straw bonnets!

And many readers mentioned the tall, red-brick chimney which is all that’s left of the Sirocco works, and hailed founder Samuel Cleland Davidson, the man who made one of Belfast’s most famous brands.

There’ll be more of Roamer’s people, places and reminiscences from 2018 on Friday’s page.

It has been a privilege to share other folks’ stories here during the past 12 months: as Doug Larson once said: “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk!”