One of the last interviews Noel Thompson did just before retiring brought him back into contact with someone he hadn't seen for years. The BBC NI broadcaster has been a fervent advocate for cycle helmets ever since a nasty fall on the Comber Greenway more than 10 years ago when he was pitched over the handlebars of his bike after the front wheel locked.
He was treated in the Ulster Hospital for a broken collarbone - and just before he retired this year, he once again encountered the doctor who had treated him for that injury.
"We were doing interviews about lockdown and we spoke to a surgeon at the Ulster who was saying that people shouldn't do any DIY, because the hospital could not spare the resources to look after anyone if they fell off a ladder, for example. To my amazement it was the doctor who treated me for my broken collarbone all those years ago," he laughs.
"But I've been very, very well behaved - no DIY. Mind you, even a hedge trimmer or something like that could give you a nasty accident - you do have to be careful. But I have survived so far without incident."
Now that he has retired at the age of 64, the long-term plan for Noel and his wife Sharon is to move from east Belfast to the Co Down village of Dundrum, where they already spend much of their leisure time. But the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the final push.
Explaining the timing was just right to retire, he says: "Like all of us, it was entirely our choice and the BBC would have been very happy for us to stay, but I just felt the circumstances were right.
"I don't know how different it would have been if we hadn't had this pandemic. I sometimes think retirement would just be like lockdown, except longer!
"But I've actually been doing a lot of gardening. It hasn't particularly been a hobby of mine, but my wife's a very, very good and very knowledgeable gardener. Because the weather's been so good, I've enjoyed being outside for four or five hours every day just doing stuff - it's really good fun."
Noel does admit finding it rather odd to be sitting on the sidelines when such momentous news events are in play.
"It's been quite strange to not be at the centre of things when this is the biggest news story in 100 years for all of our society and for the whole world, in a sense," he says, before hastily making clear: "But I haven't been sitting home going 'Oh God, I wish I was there, I wish I was there'.
"I've been watching the coverage with interest, of course, but I guess when you take the decision to bow out, you'd be foolish to do it thinking 'I wish I hadn't'. So I've been perfectly happy to watch other people doing it and I sort of say to myself 'I did my bit for all those years, let the young people take over and carry the banner forward'."
Noel and Sharon have two sons, Matthew (33), a senior journalist with LBC in London, and Patrick, who has just completed an MA and is poised to take up a new posting with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tbilisi.
To the couple's delight, the unprecedented times have brought Patrick home to spend lockdown with them while he waits for the now-postponed role to start.
"Although he had a job with the ICRC, they don't pay you until you arrive on site, so, effectively, he's been without income for a few months, and so he came home to Belfast," Noel explains.
"Obviously when he came home, we isolated for a while and it's been very nice to have him.
"We don't see much of the children because neither of them lives here, so it's been lovely to have him home for that time."
Noel's retirement comes after 40 years working across the BBC in Belfast and London, on TV and radio, presenting everything from Hard Talk to Newsnight, Breakfast News, Newsline, Inside Ulster, Hearts and Minds, Good Morning Ulster and PM Ulster as well as his beloved Proms in the Park.
He grew up in east Belfast, went to Belmont Primary School and then Campbell College, before studying Modern Languages and Political Sciences at St Catherine's College in Cambridge, "and then I messed around for a couple of years and ended up as a journalist".
While he doesn't admit to any childhood dreams of becoming a journalist ("first of all a Tottenham Hotspur centre forward and latterly Robert Plant"), he does mention a schoolboy stint as a barman at the Europa Hotel in the early Seventies when he encountered all sorts of big names in journalism, from Robert Fisk to David Blundell and Simon Winchester, who were staying there while covering the early days of the Troubles.
Noel says: "I spent quite a lot of time talking to them and maybe, without even knowing it, that sort of sowed some kind of a seed, because I thought journalism seemed a very good and important job. And I very much enjoyed talking to them - they were always very generous with their time although I know they were very busy.
"When I left university I really didn't have a clue - I could have gone into teaching and at one stage I was about to go into business, but I think at the end of the day, I thought that journalism was an honest profession and served some useful purpose in the world, and that was what drew me to it. I ended up in the BBC as much by accident as anything else - I mean I could have ended up with a newspaper or radio station but that was just the first journalistic job I was offered in Belfast."
Looking back on his career, Noel divides the time into life before the peace and life after the peace. "I very much remember the to-ings and fro-ings of the Good Friday Agreement as just an absolutely amazing period in our history, and the Royal visits, with the Queen's visit to Dublin, a huge event; Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen, a big event; and just all the political shenanigans that went on for so long in the late Nineties," he says.
"When I was doing Hearts and Minds, it was just a really interesting time. Before that, I had lots of difficult experiences with death and tragedy in the Troubles, things like the deaths of the three Quinn brothers in Ballymoney - that was a harrowing one. I was live on air when the news came in that it was a murder inquiry and not a fire.
"And just the usual that most journalists experienced I'm sorry to say - the big bombs, the big disasters, the big tragedies that affected us all. I was caught up in various riots here and there and I managed to escape within an inch of my life a couple of times, but we all did that.
"It was interesting times, sometimes exciting, often extremely taxing in terms of your emotional welfare. I mean, how many funerals did I go to - hundreds - in the course of my reporting career, and every one of them a sad event. That was the journalistic round in the Eighties and Nineties."
As for what he loved most about journalism, "I thought we tried to bring light to situations that were mostly heat," he says.
"For all the fact that most people hated us at one time or another, the job was to reflect society to itself honestly, and that was what we tried to do in all our programmes."
Despite retirement, he reveals that we will still hear him from time to time on the airwaves. "I'm not just sort of closing up shop and doing gardening for the rest of my life," he says.
There are things in the pipeline, little projects, none of which I can talk about obviously because they're all under development.
"I expect I'll be not entirely disappearing from the airwaves for the next few years anyway. I love broadcasting and I'm sure the opportunities will arise - certainly the BBC made it very clear that the door was open."
This year, in the absence of Proms in the Park, Noel will be presenting Proms in the Car Park, a drive-in classical concert at Titanic Belfast for Peter Corry Productions on July 4.
And despite lockdown, he has very much enjoyed taking up his old hobby of photography once again. "I've done that all my life really - I did a lot of travel photography when I was younger, and then when the kids arrived, it took a bit of a backseat," he says.
"But I did a lot of local landscape photography, because I like to walk in the Mournes - I've done some exhibitions of Mournes work - and I do headshots of people and fashion images. It's a very consuming hobby.
"You should never really go out without a camera. I go on good long walks and there's always something to be photographed and some new view and an old friend, a little bit of bird photography - there's plenty to keep me occupied."
As for whether you come out of a news career spanning the Troubles as an optimist or a pessimistic, Noel is firmly on the side of optimism.
"The phrase I probably most overuse is 'Ach it'll be alright." I have seen so many times in my life where you thought that the end had come, and it never did," he says.
"We carry on in some shape or form. And after Covid, life will probably change in many ways, but some of them will be good, some of them will be less good, but we will carry on. Yes, I'm an optimist - despite it all, I have come out with a smile on my face."
For a long time, Seamus McKee has been thinking about getting a bike — and as luck would have had it, he finally took the plunge just as the coronavirus pandemic reached Northern Ireland.
His wife Brenda, a teacher of drama and contemporary dance, has been cycling for years but now that he’s retired Seamus has also finally joined the ranks of Belfast’s cycling converts and can be spotted pedalling the Lagan towpath.
“I just decided one Saturday to go and buy a bike and that was just before lockdown,” he says. “I was very lucky, because apparently now you can’t buy a bike — they’re sold out everywhere. So the two of us have taken to cycling most days on the Lagan towpath, and it’s been a huge adventure. It’s been part of our daily exercise, but it’s been a really huge benefit and we’ve really, really enjoyed it.”
Now 71, Seamus says he didn’t get an official shielding letter, but as he’s in an age group that is considered to be more vulnerable, he is taking care for the sake of his daughters, Emma and Ruth — a lawyer and a journalist respectively — and his two grandchildren, who all live in England.
“We’re conscious of the need to do everything we can, for example, to make sure that we get stuff delivered — fresh fruit and groceries — to the house,” he says.
“There’s worry among family members, obviously, and Ruth is in London which has been the epicentre of it — the number of deaths there has been enormously high and they’ve had an enormous NHS challenge.
“So their surroundings and their daily lives have made them even more conscious of the need to be careful so we, out of our knowledge of their concern, we’ve done everything we can to be safe.”
Like many of us, he’s also throwing himself into DIY while in lockdown. “I’ve discovered the ridiculous pride you can have in the simplest of DIY tasks, whether it be restoring a bit of a dry stone wall in the garden or finding a way of storing tools in a more orderly way in the shed, things like that,” he laughs.
“Not that I am by any means an expert, far from it, but you do get this unbelievable sense of satisfaction from being able to do it. It’s not as if you get up with a plan every day but somehow every day has presented opportunities.”
Another new pleasure is the daily storytelling Zoom session with grandchildren Ava (8) and Flinn (4), who live in Farnham in Surrey with Emma and her husband Pete.
“Ava maybe reads to us first and then we read to Flinn and then we read to Ava. When you see their faces coming up on the screen, it gives you heart and hope, it really does, because it’s been a real discovery,” he explains.
“We haven’t been able to get over to see them — it just occurred to us the other day that it’s nearly six months since we’ve been actually with them rather than just seeing them on a screen.”
After a long carer with BBC NI, on January 31, Seamus stepped down as host of Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra which he had presented since 2009. Before that he had been host of Good Morning Ulster for 30 years.
But he admits that he never intended it to be a complete retirement. While he’s still casting about for a new post-broadcasting identity, he has joined the Ulster History Circle and the board of the Linen Hall Library.
“No sooner had I joined them, of course, than activities were suspended so I’ve yet to meet my fellow board members around the table in the Linen Hall,” he says.
Seamus grew up in Andersonstown in west Belfast, the eldest of four. His dad ran his own wholesale paint business and his mum was bookkeeper — Seamus’s brother now runs it.
“For most of our lives we were living in Riverdale and it was a lovely area — obviously, until all hell broke loose and the Troubles started — and even then, largely because of the kind of people my parents were and our family was, we were largely shielded from that,” he says.
“We grew up among lovely people, lovely neighbours, and have nothing but the happiest memories of that.”
He had no idea what he wanted to be when he grew up, but went on to study French and English, which led him into a career in teaching at St Patrick’s College, Knock, now renamed Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Knock.
But it was his time in Queen’s DramSoc that opened the doors to broadcasting — one contemporary at the theatre group was the late Barry Cowan, who went on to become the first presenter of Talkback, and another was Derek Hobson, who would host TV talent show New Faces.
Both, at the time, were doing part-time work at the BBC, and Seamus decided to apply for work there too.
“I applied to the BBC for an audition, got an audition and got a couple of jobs in at the deep end — the programme at the time was called Scene around Six,” he explains.
“Malcolm Kellard was the presenter but they would frequently have their people do studio interviews, so I landed more or less off the street into a TV studio to carry out live interviews — I got three on successive evenings and then heard nothing.
“But then Malcolm Kellard changed from being a presenter to working behind the scenes as the Head of Sport, and he’d obviously seen something — I’d started doing broadcasting work, and a whole range of stuff like arts programmes, schools programmes — because when he was appointed he came to me and he said, ‘Look, I’d like you to come and do a bit more for us’. So eventually that led to presenting a Saturday afternoon sports programme on radio throughout the afternoon, which got me into more presenting roles.”
In 1981, Martin Dillon (the writer and journalist was working in the newsroom in Ormeau Avenue) offered Seamus a chance to present a new morning programme alongside Wendy Austin. He had to choose between his secure teaching career of 12 years and the new year-long contract. I remember compiling two lists, one of reasons for going for the job and one of reasons against,” he says. “The reasons against were a much longer list but I still decided to go for the job. And you know, to this day, I couldn’t explain to you why!”
The first day in that role was particularly memorable, coinciding with the start of the hunger strikes in 1981.
“I gave up teaching on Friday and the next thing, the hunger strike started. So on the Monday I was — talk about learning on the job — I was plunged into that and I remember that very, very clearly,” he says.
“I remember the atmosphere at that time, full of fear, and people’s deep, deep concern about what the future for this place would be. And we were having to walk through a minefield in terms of interviewing, your choice of language,” he says.
“You try to steer a course, given the huge sensitivity around the issue, but Wendy and I found our way through it and then went on from there.”
Over the next 40 years, he had a ringside seat at many of the biggest events in Northern Ireland’s modern history, covering the Omagh bomb, the Loughinisland massacre, the Enniskillen bomb and the Chinook helicopter disaster. There were momentous occasions as well, such as the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011, the Clinton visits, the 1916 commemorations in Dublin and the Somme commemoration.
Seamus freely admits to a certain level of trepidation the day he was commenting on the Queen’s visit.
“There was so much riding on that, and there was so much history involved, there was so much background involved, there was so much preparation needed — and I immersed myself in it for weeks,” he says.
“And even with all of that, when it came to the moment when you saw her and the President of Ireland and all the others in those locations in Dublin, and you realised how momentous it was, you have to speak and you then thought ‘Can I speak?’
“For just that split second, when you saw the image, it really brought home to you, the nature of the event. You, just for that second think ‘What am I going to do, what will I say, how will I start’ — and then it all kicks in. Then of course, if you have done the preparation, you’re fine because then the professionalism kicks in, you do what you’re there to do, and you get on with it, because that’s what you’re paid to do and that’s what the listener and viewer is expecting. So then you’re up and running.”
Seamus pays tribute to the courage and dedication of the NHS staff during lockdown and expresses hope that in the “after-times”, they will be properly rewarded and valued by the country’s leaders.
“I think all parents who’ve been through this — it’s nothing like anybody ever experienced before, not in our lifetimes, and the heroic job that they’ve done with children being at home from school is just incredible,” he adds.
“I marvel at them in the way that I marvelled at how my colleagues in the BBC and other journalism have coped with these times and have managed to rise to it and let us know about the personal stories of families who are bereaved — and also called the leaders to account.”
And Seamus admits he hasn’t dwelt on what it’s like not to be involved in that coverage as he has been so focused on life in lockdown.
“I haven’t been thinking too much about what it’s like not to be involved, I have to say, but I have admired those who still are, and what they’ve been able to achieve,” he says.