Why I’ll never grow tired of looking into the doll’s house
You have very little control over your life. You may think you do but you don't. I didn't think I'd be writing this piece for the Belfast Telegraph on Saturday September 4, 2010.
I didn't think I'd be writing about what it feels like to have almost completed a year in the Editor's chair at one of the world's most well-known newspaper titles. But here I am trying to put some thoughts together about my year at the Tele against the infernal racket of drills coming from the never-ending refurbishment works on the Central Library across from my office.
I can't really believe it's been a year, a blur of jaw-dropping stories (you don't need me to tell you which ones), long hours and discovery. And I wouldn't change a minute of it. Like all people approaching the half century I would have liked to have found a way to slow down the pell mell pace of the passing of time but I don't seem to be able to.
Yet, in the hurly-burly of the last 12 months it's still possible to report that working in Belfast and Northern Ireland has been exciting and revealing in a way a cynical old hack would never have thought possible.
An old editor of mine, who used to smoke like a trooper, swear like a navvy and keep pages of reporters' copy for the possible front page splash under a big Martini-logoed ash tray on his desk, once reminded me how lucky I was.
Being on a newspaper, he said, was like opening up a doll's house, a surprisingly gentle analogy from a man who used to jig around the room when disaster struck town.
You got to see the workings of all the layers of the house from the cellar to the attic or, in journalism, from the powerless to the powerful.
Very few jobs, he intoned in rare patrician mode, allowed you that access, that privilege. Later he would go back to screwing up your ‘shameful' copy into a ball and aiming it with unerring accuracy at your head (how we laughed in those pre-Human Resources days) but it was an unexpectedly lyrical insight from the old curmudgeon which has stuck with me.
As I say, you have little control over your life and in those days on the Gravesend Reporter (or Distorter as it was affectionately known by the locals) I had no idea that I would one day wash up in Belfast.
Back then I guess you could say I — in common with the rest of the English — had that bemused non-comprehension thing going on when it came to Northern Ireland.
Even at the height of the bombings I think it fair to say that for most in old Albion the response to the mayhem never really got above mildly quizzical. There was, and perhaps remains, a failure to grasp how history and identity and which street you live on could mean so much and bring such terrible consequences.
So in 2009, having swapped one |part of this confusing and confused Kingdom, Scotland, for another and having previously edited in Wales and worked in London, you would think I was now some kind of expert in constitutional affairs. That would be far from the truth. Indeed the more you look at the doll's house the more you realise it has a few secret chambers, an extension put up at the back, possibly without planning permission, and needs a plumber — if you could find one who could turn out before the end of the year. Yet, despite the constant threat of repossession it keeps standing.
So here, at the geographical and perhaps psychological edge of things, what have I found?
I'm no authority on Northern Irish history, culture or politics; thankfully I have enough people at Royal Avenue who are. What limited skill I have is being able to put together newspapers without too many calamities. It's not brain surgery.
But it is impossible not to be impressed with the zest for life, the grabbing at opportunity, the thirst for knowledge and arts that exists here, the constant looking to the horizon for a better future in a land where, almost uniquely in Western Europe, nostalgia brings no comfort.
At the same time the fear that stalks the streets of a return to lunacy combined with nascent, misfiring democracy and frankly often dysfunctional public institutions says there is much work still to be done.
Between this ying and the yang there is a vital need for questioning, uncovering, campaigning and debating in a way that does not exist anywhere else on these isles. That is the space in which journalism thrives.
So for all the newspaper industry's own problems, changing society, new technologies, economic earthquakes, there are few places I would rather be than sitting in this office trying to |ignore the workmen's incessant |clamour across the way.
I'm not tired yet of peering into the doll's house.