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Why I can't wait to check in with my pal Barbara, the Evita singer

By Eddie McIlwaine

Much-loved singer Barbara Dickson, who will be at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast tomorrow night, is the only singer of my acquaintance who has had a hit about a suitcase.

Actually, her recording of Another Suitcase in Another Hall - written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for the musical Evita - is really a ballad about love gone wrong. No matter, Barbara's style and passion have endeared that song to fans like me down the years since she recorded it way back in 1976.

You'll not believe this, but the first time we met she was actually carrying a suitcase. She had just arrived here for a gig and was on her way to her hotel. Always the gentleman, I carried it for her.

Barbara enjoys her trips to Northern Ireland and is delighted to be coming back.

She will be at the Lyric with Anthony Toner, whose album Ink is selling well, as her special guest. I can't wait to see her perform live again.

A native of Dunfermline, Barbara sang in hometown folk clubs as a schoolgirl and then took up a day job in the Civil Service but still took to the stage in the evenings.

Another of Barbara's fans was Sean Hughes, the comedian and writer whose sad and premature death the other day, aged 51, shocked us all.

He and I were good mates in the past, although we hadn't been in touch for too long.

I first met him backstage at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. I was impressed at the way Sean, who was the youngest winner of the Perrier Comedy Award at 24, was packing in a youthful audience.

He became best-known as a team captain on television's Never Mind The Buzzcocks and had a part in the movie The Commitments. Sean was also in Coronation Street for a while.

He was the author of two successful novels - The Detainees and It's What He Would Have Wanted - and once, when I confessed to him that I hadn't yet read the latter, he posted me a copy.

I knew Sean as a kind of loner, a celebrity who found it difficult to make close friends.

However, there was a certain charm about the man and I liked him.

Rita is proof that blondes have more fun

Followers of EastEnders will remember that one of the soap's characters, Roxy Mitchell , was drowned in a dramatic swimming pool scene, screened on New Year's Day this year.

The good news is that actress Rita Simons (40), who played Roxy, is alive and well and on her way to Belfast next spring.

Rita will be at the Grand Opera House for a week from Tuesday, February 27 in Legally Blonde: The Musical.

She will tell you she was upset at the way Roxy was killed off.

Rita was popular in the role for 10 years and won an award in 2007 as the most popular newcomer in a soap.

But she has moved on and is winning new admirers in Legally Blonde.

Married to hairdresser Theo Silverton, with whom she has twin daughters, Rita is also the niece of multi-millionaire Lord Sugar, host of The Apprentice.

In her early days, Rita was in the band Girls@Play, who scored a hit with a song called Airhead.

Later, the actress starred in the hit TV drama London's Burning.

Also in Legally Blonde will be Lucie Jones and Bill Ward.

Rita has the part of Paulette Bonafonte in this all-dancing romantic comedy, which was a hit in the West End.

Tenor Joe Locke brought to book

I'm pleased that legendary tenor Josef Locke is still in all our thoughts as his biography, The People's Tenor, by Dr Nuala McAllister Hart, wins the important McCrea Literary Award.

Joe, born in Londonderry in 1917, died in 1999, aged 82. I loved his hit I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen and told him so more than once.

Locke (real name Joe McLaughlin) joined the Irish Guards as a teenager and later became a policeman in the Royal Ulster Constabulary while establishing himself in local concert halls.

Known as 'The Singing Bobby', Josef was a celebrity in the north-west before starting to work the variety circuit in England, where he became a legend during 20 summer seasons in Blackpool.

Perhaps Josef's best-known recording was Hear My Song, Violetta, which became forever associated with him.

As he became a highly-paid superstar, he had well documented problems with the taxman, which took years to sort out.

The day our boys beat the Italians

The confirmation that Northern Ireland will be playing Switzerland in Basel in the World Cup play-offs stirs my memory for two reasons.

You see, way back in September 1976 I was in the palatial Basel stadium with Glentoran, as the Belfast team took on the home side in a Uefa Cup tie.

What sticks in my mind is that the flight home was delayed and the Glens were on the brink of calling off their Irish League match on the Saturday.

The other memory centres around January 1958 at Windsor Park, when Northern Ireland defeated Italy in another World Cup tie.

It was my friend, the late Wilbur Cush, who was the hero of the match, which Northern Ireland won 2-1. He scored one of the goals and Jimmy McIlroy got the other.

Wilbur, who played for Glenavon and Portadown in the Irish League and Leeds United in the Football League, died too young, aged only 53.

That historic victory took Northern Ireland to the World Cup finals in Sweden for the first time.

It was on these shores that Acker Bilk wrote biggest hit

I've just been listening to Stranger On The Shore on the wireless, which is a timely reminder that the third anniversary of the death at 85 of Acker Bilk who wrote the tune and had an enormous hit with it, comes up on Thursday, November 2.

Acker once told me that he put the finishing touches to Stranger On The Shore one 1959 night in the old Arts Theatre in Belfast.

He recalled: "I had already written Stranger but to while away a couple of afternoons in Belfast I did a little bit more work on it with my clarinet.

"The first one to hear the melody was my landlady in your city."

Stranger on the Shore was the UK's biggest selling single of 1962 and also reached number one in the United States.

How a big cat woke me up each morning ... no, I'm really not lying

When I was a boy at school I had a lion for an alarm clock.

No, this wasn't a toy - Leo was a real lion.

His domain was the Bellevue Zoo and he woke me up every morning with a shuddering roar which echoed right across the valley from his lair on Cavehill right into my bedroom window on the edge of Carnmoney Hill.

I was never late for school.

You'll have noted that I call the zoo by its proper name - Bellevue.

Nowadays, even though it is in Newtownabbey, the place is known as Belfast Zoo, which annoys me no end.

I spent many happy summer days at Bellevue.

You had to climb up 365 steps - one for every day of the year - from the Antrim Road to get there to see the animals or attend the afternoon dances in the Floral Hall.

How these craftsmen are carving out a thriving trade

I'm glad to report today that the Northern Ireland Stick Carvers Club is thriving with more than 30 members.

I only raise the subject of the club, formed in 2003, because just as I thought that walking sticks were a thing of the past, I spied a box of blackthorns for sale outside a shop in Crumlin, Co Antrim.

And I recall too a 73-year-old man who once told me he had a new girlfriend all because of his gold pocket watch and chain which she loved - and his walking stick which he always flourishes briskly when they go out walking.

So I started investigating the carvers and was delighted to learn they make an assortment of sticks including the traditional blackthorns and crooks used to herd sheep.

Perhaps a member will get in touch to tell me more.

I'm glad walking sticks are still in style. I might even get one.

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