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He loves Gone With The Wind, adores strong women - frankly my dears, Colin McAlpin just couldn't give a damn!

The well-known media personality discusses movies, marriage and writing novels with Stephanie Bell

A trip to the pictures with his pals when he was 11 to see what they thought was a cowboy movie turned out to be the catalyst for many adventures enjoyed ever since by renowned local journalist and author Colin McAlpin.

The young Colin had in fact gone to see the romantic classic Gone With The Wind and its setting amidst the turmoil of the American Civil War fired his imagination so much that he developed a lifelong passion for this momentous time in American istory.

Today Colin (76) is recognised as an authority on the subject and has lost count of the many times he has travelled the Mississippi walking in the footsteps of his heroes from the movie, which to this day remains his all-time favourite.

It is also the setting for his latest series of novels, the most recent of which - The Belle Of Natchez - has just been launched by local company David J Publishing. It tells the turbulent story of school ma'am Erin who, in the years immediately following the end of the Civil War, finds she has been left an almost derelict Mississippi paddle-steamer and a run-down Natchez boat yard... and she must decide what to do with her mysterious inheritance.

As with all of Colin's novels, the chief characters are strong, independent, single-minded, feisty - and sexy - females shaping their own destiny, the sort of characters the former newspaper editor, columnist and broadcaster says he admires.

"I have many such female friends, including my daughter Heidi, who runs her own magazine and works freelance as a radio and television researcher, producer and broadcaster for BBC Northern Ireland," he says.

"I love working with such strong women and, indeed, I owe a great deal of my success to my editor, researcher and mentor Angela Lubbock, who keeps me grounded and always brilliantly advised."

Colin and Heidi co-hosted their own chat magazine programme for several years on a Belfast radio station.

"It was fun, but we both hate being tied down for too long, so I finished the novel and Heidi got on with her own projects. You just can't stagnate, can you?" he says.

Colin, who was born in Northwood on the Shore Road in Belfast, now lives in Carryduff. He wanted to be a journalist from the age of 11 and after failing his 11-plus twice opted to go to secretarial college instead of university to study shorthand and typing.

Letters to local newspapers led to a job at the age of 16 in the Mid-Ulster Mail, where he cut his teeth. He went on to win awards for his journalism during a distinguished career working as a sports editor, features editor and arts/entertainment editor for a number of Belfast newspapers.

In addition, he is a regular broadcaster on BBC NI.

Today he works mainly as a travel writer for a wide range of media outlets and is author of a number of books - ironically his first three novels centred on the adventures of a female journalist in Northern Ireland but were published in the US.

Now his latest series of novels based during the American Civil War are being launched by a new publisher here at home.

Heidi is his only daughter and he has two grandchildren, Scarlett (11) and Freddie (7), who he adores. And although divorced from his wife Brenda for 20 years, the couple remain best friends and travel companions for Colin's many trips abroad as a travel writer, especially to America.

"It is one of those things where we can't live with each other but can't live without each other," he says.

"Brenda is very active and has been with the Army Air Cadets for many years and when she is not busy with them, she and I will usually travel. Of course, she enjoys travelling with her girlfriends too.

"She worked in dispatch in the City Airport so she has always had links to travel. We are best friends and when the grandkids are off in the summer if she is looking after them at her home in Groomsport, I will go down and take them out to lunch, or if she is bringing them to Newcastle, she will stop and pick me up on the way.

"We buy presents for the children together and go to family events together."

Colin is a big fan of Amtrak (America's long distance railway service), on whose every route he has travelled and written and broadcast about since the 1960s.

He explains: "I worked it out that I have crossed America many times and been on every single Amtrak route at least once.

"I've travelled from Boston to Seattle, which is three days and two nights, and New York to Chicago, another long trip, and Denver to San Francisco and many others. It is many thousands of miles."

His love of travel and his passion for the American Civil War has also led to the odd adventure as his reputation as an authority on the subject has grown on both sides of the Atlantic.

He recalls how it all began.

"I was a little lad when I and my pals went to see Gone With The Wind thinking it was a cowboy picture," he says.

"I was a bit disappointed it wasn't about cowboys but was struck by the Rebels and the Yankees and talked to my mum about it when I got home.

"She got me a book from the library on the American Civil War and I thought it was fascinating.

"I now have a collection of over 1,000 books as well as old newspaper articles and just about everything to do with the war that I could get my hands on.

"About five years ago it was the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War and I had 30 odd letters written by a Confederate major in my collection.

"I contacted the Museum of the American Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, which is a fairly famous museum, and said that I would like to donate them.

"No one had seen them before apart from the family who had given them to me.

"In them there were details of some of the battles and what it was like in the army.

"The museum didn't want me to post them, and in the end they flew me and Brenda over to deliver them in person and put us up in a hotel and even provided a car for us so that I could safely hand over the letters."

His passion led to another all-expenses paid trip to the US a few years ago as a guest at a special 75th anniversary screening of Gone With The Wind.

Again his reputation as an authority on the war preceded him, and known by filmmakers MGM from his days as a film critic, he was invited as a guest to the elaborate event.

He says: "It is still the greatest movie Hollywood ever made and I was invited by MGM to the celebrations in Atlanta, where there was a special screening in the cinema where the movie premiered in 1939.

"I was put up in the hotel where Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh and all the big stars of the movie stayed. They also had a gala ball and I was all set to go when the people who were organising it said: 'No, you have to wear a Confederate uniform'. And so I got to dress up and all the ladies turned up as Scarlett O'Hara. It was a wonderful experience."

For his latest book Colin again spent time travelling the Mississippi talking to people and fellow historians and has praise for the various visitor centres along the way for their assistance and information.

He is, though, troubled by the current trend for denouncing all aspects of the tragic conflict, the removal of statues and, he adds, the sad lack of understanding and knowledge of the events that formed the history of the South.

"It is terribly unfashionable to say you are interested in Confederate history," he says. "The war between the States was sad but it simply cannot be dismissed, it helped form the USA and it retains a tragic romance. I make no apologies for finding the period and the subsequent growth of America fascinating, and a worthy background for my novels."

He particularly loved researching the colourful history of the Mississippi riverboats for his latest book. "They were truly magnificent vessels and often the height of sophisticated luxury with great accommodation, restaurants and gambling rooms and, of course, plenty of beautiful and dangerous belles and dodgy scoundrels. All of which makes for a great story," he says.

Colin actually made an overnight journey on a restored paddle-steamer and never forgot the romantic feeling.

"I just kept recalling that experience and once I started researching the story of the Mississippi in the years after the Civil War and meeting and talking to river folk, I figured the story would virtually tell itself," he adds.

"I actually like my heroine, Erin. She became, almost on her own, a sassy, funny but tough-minded belle who has to endure much to keep her business going. And there are some shocks for her along the way."

The book is his third historical romance. The first two - The Edge Of Evening and The Midnight Star - are also due to be rereleased shortly.

He is currently finishing the third book in a series featuring two sisters from the Glens of Antrim who, due to circumstances, have to make a new life in Mexico. Trinity will be the final book in the trilogy featuring The Santefe Sisters and Julia.

 

The Belle of Natchez is published by David J Publishing and is available in Kindle and paperback from Amazon

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