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The Belfast businessman who failed his English O Level...but has just written his first romance

At 18, Keith Reilly left Belfast to travel the world and build a career in engineering. Now, he's penned a novel set in NI.

By Una Brankin

Getting a damning U grade in O-level English Literature doesn't exactly bode well for a future as a novelist, but Keith Reilly has managed to pull it off, with Ahoy For Joy, a tale of unrequited love set in 1970s Belfast.

Writing was the last thing on the draper's son's idle mind at 16. A stranger to the books on his Belfast Royal Academy curriculum, he spoofed his way through the test, brazenly making up stuff - which must have been quite amusing for whoever was marking him, but not enough to prevent an ungraded result to go along with his three Cs in his other subjects.

"I call it clinical laziness, lots of teenagers have it," says Keith. "I hadn't read one of the books or plays and turned up at the exam and thought I could answer the questions anyway. But I got a good general education at BRA - it just shows you how good it was when I was able to go ahead and make something of myself."

Now the MD of an electronics company, he lives in a beautiful home in Poole, Dorset, which he shares with his Dutch-born wife Maryke, mother of their two children, Alexander (24) and Maartje (22). There's still a trace of his north Belfast upbringing in his intonations, which becomes even more apparent as the conversation deepens.

Garrulous and good-humoured, Keith doesn't take himself too seriously, and it's not hard to imagine him as an adventurous 18-year-old with itchy feet, taking off on a round-the-world trip. Before that he'd worked as a paperboy, delivering the Belfast Telegraph on his lengthy Cavehill Road route (we feature prominently in Ahoy For Joy), and in his parents' shop in Glengormley, where he would stack boxes of tights in shades, he recalls, from Sun Haze to Gun Metal.

At 16, he left school to work as an apprentice at MacNaughton Blair builders, where he learned some useful trades. He also sketched drawings of Belfast pubs, selling them to supplement his income. The creative urge stayed with him, however, resulting four decades on in Ahoy For Joy (he also painted the cover). But at 18 he'd had enough of our weather and up and left the country for a Kibbutz in Israel - much to the bemusement of his parents Myrtle and Trevor, now living in Spain.

He then hitch-hiked around Europe, getting by selling his art and picking up odd jobs, such as grape picking in France. This is how he met Maryke, his future wife - they then went travelling together through Egypt, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia, before setting up home in Poole. Keith used a photo of Maryke for the cover illustration of his novel, which he admits has autobiographical elements.

"Similarities do exist, though; the male lead is around the same age as me and like him, I also fell in love with a Dutch girl, but this is a story of unrequited love between pen-pals, largely," he says. "And although it's set during the Troubles, I wasn't directly impacted by the political difficulties, apart from having a relative in the security forces and the worry that brought.

"I focus on the world outside the violence, the world I saw through Boys Brigade summer camps, which is where my two main protagonists meet in the book."

Newly married, Keith tried to start several businesses in the 1980s but they never quite got off the ground, so he took a job in a factory and realised that he would advance much more quickly with a formal qualification. He decided to self-finance an HNC in engineering, which helped to open doors for him. His career then started to take off and he subsequently undertook an MBA, with consultancy jobs following.

Keith joined Alfatronix Ltd in Poole in 1996. He bought shares in 1998, became managing director in 2001 and led a management buyout of the company in 2007. He still directs the company, which employs 35 people and works with internationally-renowned clients, such as Motorola and Princess Yachts, as well as Ballymena's Wrightbus.

He recalls: "I continued to draw throughout all this and then I began to get ideas for a novel. We were on a really long car journey in Holland once and suddenly the whole novel unfolded in my head. I came home and wrote it in five months. I'm no Charles Dickens but I think it reads quite well."

Given his background in business and engineering, a romantic novel aimed at women in their 30s and beyond is an unusual genre to choose. So how did he tackle the sensitive task of writing love scenes?

"Well, it is very much a love story, but there's no sex at all," he explains. "It's like a comedian who said he'd try to do an act without swearing just for fun, and ended up getting far more laughs. There is very little physical contact between my characters; it's quite charming, really.

"I wanted to focus more on the futility of war, the virtue of forgiveness and that true love is timeless. This male lead of mine writes poetry in his letters, and what I wanted to portray was, that often during a lifetime, words may be irrelevant but in years to come, to others, including future generations, they can mean so much."

Now in his 50s, Keith enjoys building up his art collection and skiing in Switzerland, and spends his summers visiting his parents in Spain and his children in London. He intends one day to return with Maryke to India, one of their favourite destinations from a much-travelled past.

Unlike most aspiring writers, he doesn't have another novel up his sleeve - yet.

"I have it in my head but without the backing of a big publisher it's hard for unknown authors," he admits. "The plan is to get a following, especially in Northern Ireland, then go to London and tell the publishers that I know it can do well.

"Whatever happens, this is allowing me a means of creative expression, which never really went away. The creative brain doesn't go to sleep when I do!"

  • Ahoy for Joy, published by Troubador, £7.99, comes in paperback and is stocked in a range of bookshops across Northern Ireland. An electronic version of the book is available for £3.99. For further details go to www.ahoyforjoy.com

What Keith reads, watches and laughs at

Authors?  I like Ian McEwan.  He is good at dealing with the emotion inside the characters and the tiny issues that can affect our lives profoundly. And I'm very fond of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables - I like the obsessive uprightness and humility of the main character

Films? I like In Bruges, a black comedy about two Irish hitmen, played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, who are sent by their boss to lie low in Bruges. It takes an original satirical approach. I also like The Last Picture Show, which was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and captures rural life in Texas in the Fifties. Also, Cinema Paradiso has good music by Ennio Morricone as well as a simple story of human relationships and homecoming

TV shows? There is some very good drama around at the minute, not least The Fall. I have to admit I'm not too keen on reality TV, but I will confess to watching The Apprentice. I told my son it was "sad" that he was watching Big Brother. He said: "No, it is sad that it is interesting!" I'd much prefer to go to see one of the big London musicals such as Phantom

Singer/bands? Of the current stuff, I'd opt for Coldplay, Paloma Faith (above), Adele and James Blunt. As regards the older stuff, I like The Who, James Taylor and the Eagles

Comedian? Jack Dee. I like his dry humour

Food and drink? Smoked salmon, scallops, oysters, oven-baked camembert, steak tartare and the Indian dish Pathia. I also love garlic and would have it with anything, and a decent bit of steak is always welcome. Having said that, I'll eat everything, though. I think vegetables are undervalued and I don't mind if a meal is vegetarian now and again

Motto? It is easier to get forgiveness than permission!

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