From the wilds of the Falklands to the football terraces of Iceland and beyond!
It may seem a strange maxim – ‘Work for your local newspaper and see the world’ – but that’s how it turned out after I was “press-ganged” into the Portadown Times in May 1970.
Countries stamped on the passport include Canada, Finland, France, Iceland, Bulgaria, Germany, the Falkland Islands, and (no need for a passport) various parts of GB and Ireland. Not bad for a humble local hack.
Former colleagues like David Armstrong, Brian Courtney and the current sports editor Patrick Van Dort also travelled widely, including Italy, America, Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, Portugal, Yugoslavia (as was), Belgium, Serbia…
Thankfully, most of the visits were paid for by Morton Newspapers (mainly to follow the Portadown Football Club to far-flung European lands), or by groups and organisation keen to have their projects publicised. There’s no such thing as a free trip, of course, but I loved the experiences of being there and having to inform our eager readership. Sadly, they are fewer trips now, due to the ravages of the economy.
A stand-out week was a trip to the London area (1996) to report on locals who had shone at their chosen profession. I sat within the cloisters of Oxford University with Professor Ernest Nicholson (and his charming wife Hazel, nee Jackson). They’d hardly aged since Portadown College days and I suggested they’d kept a picture of Dorian Gray up in their particular dreaming spire! Ernest wore the fact on his sleeve that he’d failed the 11-plus and yet went on to become a world authority on The Classics. “You can achieve anything” was his mantra.
I was with Gloria Hunniford at Westminster during her ‘Ladies of the House’ series on women MPs; called with Diana Madill at Radio 5 Live; sat in with Niall Sloane (now Head of Sport at ITV) when he was editor of BBC’s ‘Sportsnight’ – Alan Hansen was his guest; met John Draper of ITN where Sir Trevor McDonald was lazily watching cricket on telly; interviewed finance journalist Sarah Coburn at the BBC’s morning show. It was the week of the Dunblane School massacre and the studios were buzzing.
My visit to the cinema with world-respected critic Alexander Walker was the particularly satisfying – we sat through ‘Get Shorty’ (starring John Travolta and Danny de Vito) and he produced his usual masterpiece for the London Evening Standard.
Davy Armstrong sent me (1989) to Germany to report on a concert tour by Portadown Male Voice Choir, and I ended up joining the darned ensemble and am still in the ranks. We were centred in Bremen and took in the horrors of Belsen. They say birds don’t sing there, but one feathered fellow was making a joyful noise. Incidentally, our party included Irish dancing champion Bronagh Magee, now the wife of NI football manager Michael O’Neill. She went down a treat with the German audiences. (Good luck against Greece, Michael!)
Ten years later I was despatched with the choir to Ontario – Niagara Falls, the Mennonites and well-received outdoor concerts. Mr Armstrong suggested a feature on Portadown emigrants. It ended up a six-part series! (No such thing as a free trip…)
I visited The Somme in 1991 (75th anniversary) and we were billeted with French Army rookies and had to share their diet – some sort of beans which looked like caviar but tasted vile. But I did get to see my grandfather’s grave (Sergeant William Gordon was killed on the first day, July 1), and I’ll never forget that.
The fortnight in the Falklands (a year after the war) was something else – helicopter rides around the islands (Goose Green and all that), wildlife safaris among the penguins, the silent cemeteries, little to eat but mutton, and learning that the locals’ singing hero was Philomena Begley! We flew via Senegal and Ascension Island in a carry-all Hercules and the screeching to a halt at Stanley Airport, feet from what passed for the terminal building, was a sure cure for constipation!
In Finland (inside the Arctic Circle) we met “the real Santa” with a group of kids – his sleigh bouncing across an erstwhile summertime fast-flowing river was something to behold, and the crabbit old reindeers pulling our own sleigh went over bumps on purpose, throwing us into a deep snow drift!
Disneyland Paris at Christmas with another group of kids was wet and cold, and we – like the kids - loved ‘It’s A Small Word’ as it was underground and warm and weatherproof.
There was also a trip to Arnhem, Holland, in a monastery of all places, where Jesuit Priests tried to get our group of Ulster Protestants and Catholics at each other’s throats during the Troubles – but we weren’t interested and had a whale of a time, especially with our own DIY Hooley.
I’ll end with a sad trip and a hilarious one. I went to Bulgaria with ‘Save the Children’ to report on the conditions of orphanages, and it was indeed harrowing. Children with nothing, confined to rooms that, frankly, stank, where some rarely left their beds. We brought toothbrushes and it was as if they’d been handed a pot of gold. And when our party visited a notorious slum, we were unceremoniously told to clear off. A man, in broken England, said they were fed up with westerners using them as a peep show and doing nothing to improve their lives. Quite right...
And so to Iceland with football fans to see Portadown draw 0-0 with Valur of Reykjavik, a boring encounter bordering on chloroform. But we did get to see the hot springs, an erupting volcano, and another local team, Fram, playing Real Madrid. It was there that Ports fan George Whitten endeared himself to the locals.
By law, they were restricted to a local hooch called ‘Aqua Vitae’ (water of life) and they invited George to sample it. He did, and sprayed it out like a blue whale surfacing in the ocean. “Jees!” he exclaimed to a large Viking type, “That’s terrible, son. Try some of this.”
George was a connoisseur of the finest whiskies which he took, hot, to the matches in a plethora of hip flasks secreted in various pockets. Big Magnus sipped and held the hip flask up like a trophy and announced loudly – “Ah ’tis GOOT!” Whereupon, bold Icelanders flocked around the popular Mr Whitten, raved about his elixir, and he made several lifelong friends in the North Atlantic.
There are rumours that the Icelandic licensing laws were changed soon afterwards!