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Author Tony Macaulay: 'I'd love to travel to the year 3000 in a TARDIS'

 

Author Tony Macaulay is best known for his memoirs of growing up during the Troubles. Here, he tells Lee Henry about his latest book, Little House On The Peace Line, due out next week, family life in Portstewart and his Doctor Who obsession.

If an  author's work can be informed by and concerned with a specific place - think Roddy Doyle, think Dublin, for example - then few are as closely associated with Belfast as writer, broadcaster and peace campaigner Tony Macaulay.

"I love the city," says the 53-year-old father-of-two. "I love the people. I love the landmarks and the history and the craic. I love to write about all of it. I'm very much a proud Belfast boy."

Born in 1963 and raised at the top of the Shankill Road in west Belfast, he has since become synonymous with the city, mainly through the publication of his three acclaimed memoirs Paperboy (2010), Breadboy (2013) and All Growed Up (2014).

He had not yet reached his teens when the Troubles erupted in 1969, and has channelled all of his memories - good, bad and hilarious - of living in the capital into his work.

Tony grew up in one of the most divided communities in the whole of Northern Ireland, but fondly remembers "a very happy childhood" spent mostly in the company of his elder brother Terry (57) and younger brother Barry (47).

The siblings shared a love of Manchester United and Linfield FC, and played in rugby and cricket teams together at Belfast Royal Academy and Woodvale Cricket Club.

"Of course, the Troubles had an impact," he recalls. "I remember the barricades, the vigilantes, paramilitaries, soldiers everywhere, helicopters whirring above all the time, shootings and bomb blasts echoing off the Black Mountain. For me it was normal, but that's true of children in any context who grow up in conflict. 

"My most traumatic memory was when our neighbour was shot in his car in the street outside our house. My mother went to help him but he died in her arms. I wrote about this incident in Breadboy, and when I sat down to write about that awful day I was amazed at how much detail I remembered."

Readers will be aware, however, that he rarely dwells on the dark side of life in his books. He has more in common with the long and illustrious roll call of Northern Irish humourists adept at seeing the past through an often light-hearted prism. Tony cites his late parents Betty and Eric as primary influences on his positive outlook.

"My parents and their friends ran a youth club in Ballygomartin Presbyterian Church, known by generations of kids from the top of the Shankill as the Westy Disco, and my father was the DJ. My parents were just trying to keep us off the streets and safe from sectarian attacks or paramilitary involvement.

"They also took us on trips to Corrymeela and Scotland and further afield every year. My father took old cine film of all the trips and we still have them. These trips are among my clearest memories of childhood. One year we even won a prize in the Lord Mayor's Show dressed as The Bay City Rollers."

He also recalls fond memories of watching Doctor Who as a child and is a fan to this day.

"One of my earliest memories is sitting in front of the black and white television in our living room waiting for Dr Who to start. My first Doctor was Patrick Troughton, so I must have been only five years old. I was transfixed by the opening titles and the spooky music, and of course I hid behind the sofa at the scary parts. I've been a fan ever since. I'm just back from a week in the USA and the first thing I did when I got back was catch up on the latest episodes on iPlayer."

He is a committed Whovian: "For the 50th anniversary we went to the ExCel exhibitions and convention centre in London - we actually won tickets to go as a family - with 5,000 other fans dressed as various Doctors and monsters. We visited the TARDIS set and got to see five of the actors who have played the Doctor. Then we went to a cinema in Leicester Square to watch the 50th anniversary episode in 3D."

Tony says if he could take the controls of the famous blue police box, trips back and forth over the centuries would be on the cards.

"I love the idea of being able to travel through time and space in a box that is bigger on the inside than the outside. I'd love to visit prehistoric Belfast when there were cavemen on Cavehill and I'd love to travel to the year 3000 to see the future. Hopefully the peace walls will be gone by then."

It was Tony's father's interest in literature that inspired his own. Taken to Shankill Library every week, he quickly developed a love of fantasy author JRR Tolkien, Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole books and novelisations of his beloved Doctor Who, for whom he retains a great fondness.

"At Springhill Primary School I had a brilliant P5 teacher named Ruth Hutchinson, who encouraged me to write and involved me in the school orchestra, school plays and the Scripture Union. I loved my school days.

"My years at BRA were very happy, too. My A-level English teacher Moore Dickson, who later became the headmaster of the school, also encouraged my writing and expanded my knowledge of literature.

"These days I love to read books set in places that I know very little about. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, for example, as well as the works of Louis De Bernieres and Carlo Ruiz Zafon. My favourite book, though, is The Bridge On The Drina by Ivo Andri. It tells the story of a Bosnian town over three centuries from the point of view of a stone bridge that divides the town."

If Macaulay's previous books focus on his childhood, his newest autobiography, Little House On The Peace Line, published next Thursday, is more concerned with his emerging adult preoccupations. In it, he marries his 'culchie' girlfriend from rural Co Derry and sets out on a career in broadcasting.

"Lesley and I met in our first week at the University of Ulster in Coleraine in 1982 and became good friends," he recalls. "We started going out together in second year and in third year we got engaged. We got married in Bellaghy in 1986 and the story of the wedding day and the honeymoon are in the new book. 

"We go to live on the peace line in north Belfast in 1985. Lesley is a youth worker in a loyalist area and I'm a youth worker in a republican area. We try to bring the young people together in early cross-community work. We wanted to bring peace to Belfast - so you can imagine how that went."

Shortly thereafter the Macaulays started a family, with the birth of their two daughters Beth (23) and Hope (21). Now "all growed up", as their father might say, Beth is living and working in Sussex, while Hope is finding work as a freelance filmmaker in Belfast, having graduated with a degree in fashion textiles and design from the University for the Creative Arts in Kent.

"We are very proud of our girls," says Tony. "And we get to see them regularly. But now we call Portstewart home. We moved there after the girls were born and we absolutely love it there.

"The Strand beach is my favourite place in the world.

"When Lesley and I first met and started going out together we went for romantic walks on the promenade and along the beach, and when Beth and Hope were young we had many family holidays on the beach and many delicious pokes from Morelli's.

"Portstewart is also my favourite location to write. A perfect writing day for me involves working my way along all the coffee shops on the Prom and going for a dander along the Nun's Walk cliff path in between chapters." To date, Tony has enjoyed a varied and rewarding career, beginning as deputy director of the 174 Trust - a Christian social action project in north Belfast - and currently as managing director of TOWARD Ltd, a Belfast-based company that provides coaching, leadership and cultural programmes for teams in the private, public, elite sport and charitable sectors across the globe.

He spends much of his year travelling abroad. "Last year I was invited to give a preview reading from Little House On The Peace Line at the National Arts Club in New York hosted by the WB Yeats Society of New York City. It was a real honour to read in such a prestigious venue, and earlier this year I gave a book reading outside in the Malibu hills at the home of Geraldine Gilliland, one of the top restaurateurs in LA, who's originally from Andersonstown.

"I love visiting colleges and universities in the USA, as the students are very interested in Northern Ireland and I think they see me as an historical artefact," he jokes. "I remember when Paperboy was first released how proud I was to see it on the shelves in Eason's on Royal Avenue in Belfast. Now I see it on sale in Barnes & Noble in Fifth Avenue in New York. I still pinch myself."

It has certainly been an eventful journey for the socially conscious and creative paperboy from the Shankill, and he says that one of the satisfying aspects of his career as an author is meeting fans.

"I remember once being on a plane to New York and the couple sitting beside me turned out to be fans," he says. "They started quoting parts of the book to me. Then another woman across the aisle introduced herself and said she had gone to the Westy Disco before she emigrated to America 30 years ago. We had some craic on that flight.  

"On the other hand, I will never forget the first time I saw someone reading my book on the train. I was travelling from Coleraine to Belfast when I noticed an elderly woman reading Paperboy. I sent a text to Lesley right away to tell her. She texted me back and told me to introduce myself to the woman. But when I turned back to speak to her she had fallen asleep and her head had dropped into the pages of the book."

When he is at home, and not writing or anticipating a book launch or tour, Macaulay likes nothing better than to indulge his love of all things sci-fi. In that, as in so much else, he shares a passion with his wife and daughters.

"Lesley is one of the few women in the world who could tolerate my obsession with Doctor Who," he laughs. "We've been to the cinema together to see every alien imaginable. We've been there, done that and got the Dalek T-shirt."

  • Little House On The Peace Line: Living On the Other Side by Tony Macaulay, will be available from Amazon on June 9, priced £9.99

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