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How Splendid Book for Boys was my primer on Dunkirk saga

By Eddie McIlwaine

The Second World War was still raging when, in July 1944, a very young Eddie McIlwaine received a present of The Splendid Book for Boys.

Although victory for the Allies was in sight, it was a brave decision by publishers Birn Brothers of London to include a story about Dunkirk in its 156 pages.

It was called We Will Return, and, at eight years old, was my first acquaintance with that miraculous evacuation of troops way back in 1940.

In fact, the cover of The Splendid Book for Boys features a little bit of the action at sea, as volunteers from all walks of life put themselves in jeopardy to line up with the Royal Navy to bring the soldiers home from France in their fragile little boats.

That book, still in near-perfect condition even though it is 73 years old, occupies a special place in my library.

We Will Return, the Dunkirk tale, was written by one R Ernest Bailey early in 1944 and, of course, at the time he put his words on paper, the ending had to be incomplete.

Even though D-Day had happened, nobody knew for sure if the war would be won and the Nazi menace overcome.

This vintage publication is actually a time capsule made up of how writers and readers were feeling as the war progressed in a year when food rationing was the order of the day and a loaf of bread cost four old pence and little boys like me looked on an occasional bar of chocolate from the village shop as a luxury.

The Splendid Book for Boys also includes another war story, called The Clue of the Tin Loaf, about two German spies hiding out on the coast of Cornwall, waiting to be picked up by friends from Cork and smuggled into the Republic of Ireland after they dropped into England by parachute.

The new Dunkirk film stars, among others, Belfast-born Ken Branagh, Harry Styles, James D'Arcy and Tom Hardy, and is already making an impact everywhere, except in France, where it is claimed veterans aren't given enough credit for the part they played in the retreat.

Let me remind you that there was an earlier Dunkirk movie, in 1958, starring John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee. Today, as the new Dunkirk film is being screened in cinemas, I've taken down my Splendid Book for Boys for a browse, just to remind myself of how the action at sea and in France in 1940 first came to my attention.

Be an Angel, Myleene, and play my request

I hear say that musician and broadcaster Myleene Klass, who used to be a class act in Hear'Say, will be in Belfast this winter at the Waterfront Hall.

I hope Myleene will treat me to my favourite Hear'Say hit, Angel In My Heart.

These days, she is better known as a television and radio presenter and has hosted several successful shows, including Popstar to Operastar.

Away from Hear'Say, Myleene released two successful solo albums and has been a favourite panellist on the TV chatshow Loose Women.

She is also a loyal Arsenal fan and occasionally appears on stage in the Gunners' colours.

NI Olympian still a Lords regular

I was mentioning sportsman Robin Dixon in a previous column. You know, the former soldier who won a gold medal in the two-man bobsleigh at the 1964 Olympic Games in Innsbruck with Tony Nash.

I have to tell you today that Robin - also known, of course, as the Third Baron Lord Glentoran - is still a regular in the House of Lords, even though he celebrated his 82nd birthday a few months ago. His Lordship is now a retired farmer living in Doagh, and he tells me: "I always find something to talk about in the Lords and I'm delighted and relieved that attempts by some uncaring politicians during the General Election to have the Upper House abolished, failed."

You'll remember that Robin was given leave from the Grenadier Guards to compete at Innsbruck. "I was game for anything in those days", says the farmer, who I knew well in his sporting heyday.

He is president of the British Bobsleigh Association and was president of the jury at the 1976 Winter Olympics, also in Innsbruck.

He and Tony, the bobsleigh driver, were inducted into the British Bobsleigh Hall of Fame as a result of their Olympic gold-winning exploits.

My fault Frank got a dressing-down

How on earth could Dan Gordon have failed to consult me when he sat down to write his one-man play about the late Frank Carson, in which he plays the role of the Belfast comic? I knew Frank better than anyone outside his family.

Just the same, I know that Dan's Rebel Without A Pause is special and from the pen of a man of talent.

I agree with Dan when he says that Frank, who died in 2012, always had a smile on his face and led a happy life.

He and his late wife, Ruth, were devoted to one another ... except one time he dressed up in female garb for the cover of an album he had just cut.

Unfortunately, I broke the news of the dress to Ruth on the phone at their home in Blackpool - Frank was banking on the fact that it was to be an Ireland-only release and that she wouldn't find out. Ruth wasn't best pleased, but Frank talked her round.

Walking up Royal Avenue with the man himself when he was home took hours - everybody wanted to talk to him.

One lovely story about Frank is the time he was asked by Pope Benedict in Rome if he had ever met the late Elvis Presley.

"Not yet," replied Frank.

Why Sam's smuggling days at uni are not a shaggy-dog story

I wonder if author Sam Angus has ever written a tale about a dog being smuggled into and out of austere Cambridge's Trinity College?

You see, it did happen, and it was she who did the smuggling.

Sam, who was at university studying English literature, got into trouble when the dog was discovered.

She was told she would have to leave unless she got rid of it.

Sam's latest novel for children is School for Skylarks (MacMillan £6.99), set in 1939 just as the Second World War is breaking out and Lyla, the central character, is being evacuated from London to a safe haven in the country.

The house, owned by a great aunt, is being used to accommodate an entire school of evacuated girls and is being overrun, not only by young ladies, but by their pets too.

Can Katherine shine a little light on meaning of puzzling hymn?

Now that golden-voiced Katherine Jenkins has taken over as presenter of television's Songs of Praise, perhaps the lady will solve a little mystery for me.

It concerns the famous hymn Lead, Kindly Light, which was written way back in 1833 by a young Anglican vicar, John Henry Newman, who later became a Catholic Cardinal, on board a ship upon which he was travelling back home to England. His ship was becalmed in the Strait of Bonifacio and, to pass the time, Newman wrote the hymn. One line reads: Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see/The distant scene; one step enough for me.

And here is the puzzle. Why did this priest use that line about not wanting to see the distant scene? Did he not think he was good enough for Heaven? Can Katherine help me?

When gentleman Gerry made my son feel like a soccer star

I have to tell you today that the broadcaster's voice that cheers me up on a rainy afternoon belongs to Gerry Kelly.

His dulcet tones always make me feel good when I catch his show on BBC Radio Ulster - and the tunes he plays aren't bad either. Mind you, I'm certain Gerry isn't on the Beeb's list of high earners.

My only complaint is that I'm not always available when he is on the air, so I listen in to him only occasionally. But he and I go back a long way. Remember his hit chat show on UTV?

One evening, I recall, he had the football team from Loanends Primary School on screen with their teacher, Deirdre Ferguson, because they had done something special in a match.

My son, Edward, who has just had his 34th birthday, was in the team and still recalls that night like a Wembley final.

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