Hugo Duncan: My booze hell
BBC Radio Ulster presenter Hugo Duncan has revealed the first time he met his father was during a drunken confrontation when he had already made his name as a professional singer.
“It was a shock for him at me going up to see him. I never knew who he was — I knew of him. I knew he was a cobbler who fixed shoes and he’s got a daughter who I know very well, but I never got the chance to meet him properly because when I did go up I had drink taken.”
In his official biography Uncle Hugo — The Story of the Wee Man from Strabane,’ Hugo adds: “He was sitting in a chair in the sitting room. His wife was shouting: ‘He’s not your father, you don't have a father’.
“I told him that I wasn't there to take anything, that I didn’t want anything from him, and I said: ‘All I want to know is, are you my father?’
“Again, he looked at me, and then nodded his head and turned away. The funny thing is, I didn't feel anything except a bit ashamed, because I was drunk and I'd gone barging into a man's home.”
Tragically, the next time Hugo saw his father he was in hospital suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
When his father later died in his late seventies, Hugo attended his wake and funeral.
He revealed his head was swirling with questions.
Hugo said: “You were asking yourself: ‘What if?’ I don’t think I have to forgive him for anything. I wouldn’t hold any anger or hatred against him in any way. Probably I have to be thankful that I’m here.
“I think if I had any questions to ask at all I wouldn’t really ask him, I would be asking them all to my mother Susie because she was my soulmate. She was there when I needed a father, she was there when I needed a mother, she was there when I needed a brother, aunt or uncle, she was there for the whole lot.
“I wouldn’t have appreciated it at the time because I was young, but now I would love to be able to sit down and talk to my mother about it. I might go then and talk to him and ask his side of it, but I would go to my mother first because she was there.”
Hugo is aware of the stigma his mother faced as an single mother at that time.
“For people to become single mums nowadays is a way of life but for people to become single mums in 1950 — you couldn’t have had a much bigger sin.
“She had to live through that and I’m sure she took a lot of s*** in her day and a lot of abuse. A lot of people would have turned their noses up to her, but she stayed there. They wanted to adopt me, but she kept me. She was on her own completely and she decided to carry on with me.”
It was Susie’s sudden death that forced Hugo to grow up quickly.
In one month he experienced extreme highs and lows when his 20th birthday and wedding to Joan, his wife of 39 years, were followed by her death.
Hugo, whose biography is serialised exclusively in Sunday Life over the next two weeks, said working on his autobiography had made him think about his life and career.
Reflecting on his success as a recording artist and one of Radio Ulster’s most-loved presenters whose audience know him as Uncle Hugo, he is clearly amazed at his success.
“There’s so many people who were against Anna (Carragher, former controller BBC NI) bringing me in here. I was too wrong and it was “dumbing down”. There’s still people that work about here that would have the same thoughts.”
But in spite of his critics, his Radio Ulster show is a ratings winner with young and old.
“You come into this world — first of all, the way you got there you shouldn’t have been there at all because you were illegitimate — and you end up working at the BBC and you’ve got a programme and there are thousands of people listening to you. At times you have to pinch yourself. If my Ma was alive now, she wouldn’t believe it.”
In the past, though, Hugo’s success wasn’t all that it seemed.
He admits to borrowing money from neighbours who assumed he was rich because he was a well-known singer.
“All the people in Strabane thought I had money, so I could walk into any bar and get the loan of £50.
“Then I would have to worry about giving it back at the week
end. People thought because you were a singer and you were doing this you had loads of money, but I’d never a penny.
“I used to send Joan down the stairs in the morning before me to see if there were any bills.”
By the early 1980s alcohol had taken a firm grip.
“You just drank and you drank and you drank, and your home and your family came second to being out and enjoying yourself.
“Joan probably wouldn’t take the nonsense she took years ago. If I was getting married to Joan today, she, like all the young women today, wouldn’t stand by and let her husband drink and just care about himself and nobody else.”
By Christmas 1983 Hugo feared he was dying of cancer (he has since been diagnosed with the bowel condition diverticulitis) and was waiting a court case to be tried for drink-driving.
“I got caught drink-driving and that sort of put the cat among the pigeons big time, but I didn’t know at the time because I was drunk for a week. The week afterwards I was out celebrating getting caught. I never sobered up for about three months.”
He later escaped on a technical
ity, but was at his lowest ebb and had stopped working.
The last drink he had was on December 28, 1983 simply because, he explains, “I knew that I was beat”.
He added: “Everybody who’s got a problem with drink all know. Maybe they don’t admit it consciously to themselves, but deep down inside they realise they have a problem. It’s admitting it and it’s stopping it.”
Hugo decided that if he survived Christmas he would stop drinking — and he has been teetotal ever since.
But it’s been impossible to erase some of the hurt he’s caused Joan and their only daughter Suzanne.
“There’s always that scar there. You never really get out of something like that without leaving a hurt — you leave a hurt on your wife and on your daughter who grew up with it.
“There are times you wish it never, ever happened but it was reality and you can say sorry once and hope people accept it.
“I know what a lot of people are going through today. I know there are a lot of homes and families being hurt in the way I hurt my family. But you can stop it and you can get out of it and you can leave it behind you.
“Drink is a great friend. Drink and drugs and gambling are all great friends and good craic when you start off, but then when you want to break up that relationship it’s very hard to stop it.
“It’s there all the time and it’s knocking away at you and kicking away at you — it’s hard for people to get off it.”
He emphasised that he talks about his battle with the booze to prove to others that if he can kick the habit, anyone can.
“I was very lucky to get off the drink and God gave me the strength. It is hard, but when you get over it you find that there’s so much of a reward after it.”
But he admits that the temptation still remains.
“I don’t have any fear now, but I remember one day I was in the house about four or five years ago and everybody was away on holidays. I opened the fridge door and I looked in and there was a half bottle of wine with the cork in it.
“I remember this voice said to me ‘go on ahead, there’s nobody here — no one will know’.
“Thank God I didn’t. But it’s still there — it never leaves you.”
Hugo is thankful for the opportunities which have come his way and is also enjoying being a grandad to his four grandchildren.
He says it’s his ambition to see them grow up.
He added: “I’ve been very lucky. I never really went out of my way begging or asking for work.
“God’s been very good. Things have just come along and I’ve got the opportunity to do what I love to do.”