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Acker's most popular hit fine-tuned in city theatre

By Eddie McIlwaine

Acker Bilk, who has died at 85, once told me that he put the finishing touches to his most famous hit Stranger on the Shore one night 55 years ago in the old Arts Theatre in Belfast.

"I was a comparative unknown, playing a gig for a week at the Arts with a band in 1959", he said. "I had already written Stranger but to while away a couple of afternoons in Belfast I did a little bit more work on it with my clarinet.

"For example it was in Belfast that I changed the name from Jenny (after his daughter).

"The first one to hear the melody was my landlady."

Whether Acker told this story in every town he played will never be known, but the star from Somerset always had a thing about Belfast and occasionally brought his wife Jean - his childhood sweetheart who was at his side when he died - with him.

His last visit here should have been last October with Chris Barber, but he took ill and Barber played the gig on his own.

Stranger on the Shore was the UK's biggest selling single of 1961 and was a hit in America, too, selling millions on both sides of the ocean. "My old-age pension," he used to joke.

Bilk taught himself the clarinet while he was serving with the Royal Engineers in the desert during his national service. I had a lot of time on my hands," he explained, "and an Army friend loaned me his clarinet. Turned out I was a natural on the instrument."

He was once invited to play his instrumental piece at a wedding in Belfast while he was here for an Opera House week and was so well received that he turned up at the reception too.

"I didn't think Stranger on the Shore was any more special than any of the other tunes I wrote," he always maintained.

But the public all over the world disagreed. Acker is survived by his wife Jean, daughter Jenny and son Peter.

Folksy favourite for Lyric

Barbara Dickson is the only diva I know who sings about a suitcase.

The Scottish lady who is at the Lyric Theatre tomorrow night once had a hit called Another Suitcase in Another Hall.

You’ll not believe this, but the first time we met she was actually carrying a suitcase. She had just arrived in Belfast for a concert and hadn’t been to her hotel yet.

Barbara enjoys her trips to Northern Ireland. At the start of her career she was a regular at our folk clubs and quite a favourite. She will be at the Forum in Londonderry on Thursday, November 20 and at the Riverside in Coleraine on Saturday, November 22.

Church gets festive for fundraiser

Usually, church members are content with one Christmas tree in their place of worship.

But at St Jude’s, Muckamore, rector William Orr is determined to have as many as possible.

“We are having a Christmas tree festival,” explains William. “Members and friends will have our place looking real Christmassey. How many trees will we have? I haven’t a notion, but this festival is for a good cause.”

Which is a bit ironic, as St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes.

The parish hall is in poor repair and money raised at the festival  will go to restoration.

The opening service is on Thursday, December 4 (7.30pm). Viewing is on Friday, December 5 (noon-10pm); Saturday, December 6 (10am-9pm) and Sunday, December 7 (1pm-7pm) with a closing service at 7pm.

Light lunches will be provided  on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday and Santa will put in an appearance, along with craft stalls.

What Rev William plans to do with all the Christmas trees he expects to be donated by organisations and individuals he isn’t saying just yet.

Jude became associated with desperate situations because in  a letter to the Churches of the East he said the faithful must keep going even in difficult circumstances. He is thought to have been martyred in Beirut in around 65 AD.

First lady of Aldergrove departing

A little bit of history has just been made at RAF Aldergrove.

Wing Commander Faye Wiseman, the first female CO at the base, set up in 1922, has departed for pastures new in the United Arab Emirates after a two-year stay in Northern Ireland.

This means that as well as being the first woman to command the base she is also the last. For the Army's Colonel Frank Cannon 38 Brigade is taking over. The Colonel is making history, too - the first Army officer to hold the post.

The Army and the Air Force now share the base along with the Army Air Corps and the recently re-formed 502 RAF Squadron so it was only natural an Army man should become top dog.

Did you ever shop in Bourke's?

Did you ever shop in C.E.Bourke's department store on the Newtownards Road at the Belvoir Street corner?

The question is from a lady called Mildred Bass who might have served you over the busy counter when she worked there in her spare time as a 14-year-old schoolgirl.

The store, owned by the late Charlie Bourke and taken over by his nephew Albert Northridge for several years after his uncle's passing, closed down for good in the early 1970s. She was prompted to write to me about the Bourke's place when someone asked after her late mother who was a buyer in the store and worked there off and on for 40 years.

Mildred would love to hear from former customers who remember her mother and Charlie.

When something's just a little deer

I love the story about a friend of mine who went into a shop in Monaghan and spotted two identical glass deer, exactly the sort of thing that he was looking for to adorn his fireboard.

"Only difference was the price," he told me at the time.

"One was £5.99 and the other £7.99.

"I picked them up, decided that they were definitely the same so I ended up buying the cheaper one."

And as he left the store, feeling ridiculously pleased with himself, he overheard one counter assistant say to another: "It never fails."

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