Summer In The City

Jan Carson’s novel, Fire Starters, has gained rave reviews for its portrayal of a dystopian Belfast. She discusses magic realism, male narrators and her passion for Agatha Christie with Jane Hardy. 

Roddy Doyle signed off his review of Jan Carson’s new novel, Fire Starters, by saying she’d created a whole new version of Belfast in her “gripping, surprising, exhilarating” fiction. He’s not wrong.  Although the summer epidemic of gigantic bonfires bears some relation to our summer headlines, the  “unfortunate children” who pop up, including a little girl with wings and a boy born with wheels under his feet (“greased lightning on the hills”), are off any realistic graph. The plot concerns fathers coping with problem children, one a possible siren-baby equipped with lethal charm, the other a boy addicted to violence. It’s a funny, scary, persuasive, dystopian world.

As Jan (39) says over coffee in one of the cafes she regards as the office, her first words indicated the imaginative dilemma. “The first sentences I wrote were ‘This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.’” The hesitation is partly because, as Ms Carson explains, she can only see her version of the city. “There’s no fixed reality. There are 100,000, or 500,000, different versions of Belfast.” Magic realism is her bag and as she says later, she can’t understand why we’re so hooked on realism.

“I am probably a magic realist first and foremost and love the absurd, the ultra-real, the exaggerated take on reality.”

She values imagination – “it’s what writers do” – but reveals she got the inspiration for Fire Starters on a writing tour. “The idea came when I was giving a talk in Washington DC about bonfires and some of the symbols of Loyalist culture. I began to talk about these sixty to seventy foot bonfires, and people in the audience said they were magic realism too, which I’d mentioned. That was when the spark went off, no pun intended.” She adds: “There is something magical about them in the true sense, that is fantastical. They’re large like the Lambeg drum.”

Born in Ballymena, Jan Carson now lives near the Holywood Arches in east Belfast. She says: “I live in a terraced house and the very physicality of our spaces blurs the line between public and private. I’ve been thinking recently about writing about things from within. You feel physically placed in a community unlike in suburbia where there’s a lot of distance between people. I can hear my neighbours and my front door opens onto the street.”

The novel is relayed by two men, Dr Jonathan Murphy, father of water baby Sophie, and Sammy Agnew, ex-killer and father of his spitting image son, Mark. Was taking on the male voices tough? Apparently not, as Ms Carson explains: “I actually find it easier to write as a male. I don’t know why but think because I am a woman, there’s a responsibility when writing as a woman to get all the aspects right. Writing as a man, there’s not the same pressure.”

The relationships between the fathers and their offspring are superbly done. Carson describes the doctor cradling his child – “she curls into the corner of my neck to doze” – and his fears about her future, then makes you feel the tension in the Agnew household as the older parents hear their murderous son walking about his room. “Neither of them loved Mark. It was entirely possibly no one in the world loved Mark.” Jan Carson, who doesn’t have children herself, reveals she drew on her experience at home for the positive stuff. “My mum was a childminder so when I was growing up, I was always carting a baby around.” She adds that her niece and nephew, now eight and 11, live down the road. “They’re beyond the carting around stage but I’ve been there from day one as a very hands-on aunt. It’s much better than actually having a child.” Jan Carson is writing a young adult book with her nephew, Caleb, who is 11. “It’s about the near future in Belfast and is dystopian.”

The Fire Starters isn’t a post-Troubles book but addresses the continuing divisions through its characters’ lives. The recent death of writer Lyra McKee recalling a tough past exacts a thoughtful response from Jan Carson.

“One of the things I wanted to say here was peel back the layers. I didn’t know her but when something like Lyra’s death happens, it’s very easy to point the finger and blame the people who were directly responsible for firing the gun. Yes, there is a level of blame there, but you have to question the society behind that. I wanted to think about the young men, and have written passages about the community in east Belfast. I wanted to challenge the idea that people join the paramilitaries for one reason, because of a creed. It’s because they want community, and they like violence. Getting back to Derry, those young men are a product of lack of community and unemployment.”  

Ms Carson, who came to writing late at the age of twenty-five, has always had plenty to do. After Cambridge House Grammar School, she attended Queen’s University, studying English, then theology for a Master’s degree. “I come from a Presbyterian background and I’ve always been interested in religion. I worked for churches for several years, always in the arts. My dissertation was about Bob Dylan and the rhetoric in the gospels. It was great fun to write but totally useless. I did one article on the back of it so it’s hardly made my fortune,” she says with a laugh. 

Creatives nowadays don’t exist in garrets; they travel the world discussing literature and work hard in community arts or education. Jan Carson’s CV contains an impressive range of jobs. She went to the States in 2005, returning only when her work visa ran out in 2009. While there, Jan started an art house cinema and can still work the projector. She has also been an arts co-ordinator for elderly people, some dementia sufferers, for several years. But Ms Carson rejects the idea she got into this because of family members experiencing the illness. “Honestly, no. I slid into this as I was working at the Ulster Hall and ended up organising all their tea dances. If you’ve worked with teenagers then old people arrive who are not sullen and they thank you for things and bring buns, it’s nice.” 

Jan Carson’s interest in language also made her keen to understand how those with aphasia and increasingly gappy vocabularies cope. She became interested in the linguistics and is conducting research into the subject. Unsurprisingly, she is also writing some related fiction: “In August I will be writing a number of short pieces in what I’d call a dementia voice. Then they’ll be passed on to a musician and a choreographer and a photographer for their response.” Sylvia Plath said everything in life is potentially good copy and Jan says, “We want to get it across that we don’t just do this work because we’re lovely people but because there’s something in it.” She talks about approaching the problem of dementia not via memory but via sufferers’ imagination. “In workshops with them, I’ve come across amazing work.” 

Ms Carson wants her own amazing second novel to fly. It nearly vanished when she lost the manuscript on her computer in Edinburgh station. She says: “It would be great PR if I won the Costa prize as the baristas who found my pc worked in a Costa.” But she has the prestigious EU Prize for Literature 2019 to be going on with.

Ms Carson feels life is too short for Netflix. “I don’t have a television so go to the Queen’s Film Theatre a lot, maybe three times a week. If anything threatened the QFT, I’d chain myself to the railings. Most recently I saw Capernaum there, a film about refugees and acted by refugees which wasn’t an easy watch.” The Sunflower is Jan’s pub of choice in Belfast but she hangs out much of the time at cafes. “I don’t write at home, it’s too quiet. I write in cafes, and have a holy triangle near me, including Clements at Ballyhack and Connswater Starbucks where there’s a great table I go to for people watching.”

A self-confessed overachiever, Jan Carson believes in lifelong learning. “I’ve noticed there are two sorts of people, those who stop doing things at 60 and those who go on trying new things because they like learning.”

She is also, unsurprisingly, a voracious reader with a 200 a year book habit, Ms Carson has one surprising enthusiasm, though. “I’ve been reading Agatha Christie since I was eight and finished everything in the kids’ section. Now I am reading the novels in order, one a month. She wrote over a great span of history and you see attitudes change. The early ones are amazingly xenophobic and misogynist, the later ones less so. I love the bloody ones but my favourite Agatha Christie is probably The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It’s intriguing and I always like an unreliable narrator.”

This article appeared in our June 2019 issue. 

Empty Nest Syndrome – Ian Sansom

This month, Ian Sansom finds himself readjusting to life without his children at home. 

So, finally the moment has arrived, as we knew it would and as we know it must; the house is empty.

After twenty-three years of raising children, we’re alone together again, just as we were in the beginning.

‘You won’t know what hit you’, says a friend. We say we’ll be fine, thank you. No empty-nest syndrome for us! we are made of sterner stuff. We have rich, full and meaningful lives. We are mature, intelligent people with wide-ranging interests, full-time jobs, and plenty to keep us occupied.

But they’re absolutely right, of course. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. All of our usual routines and rhythms have been upset. It’s like we are living someone else’s life, and it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t quite fit. Nothing is the same. Everything has changed. September can come around but there are no school uniforms to buy, no last-minute trips to Eason’s, no arguments about skirt lengths and haircuts and suitable shoes. No need for packed lunches. No new exercise books to cover. No tears and no tantrums – and that’s just me. It’s the little things; after decades of setting out the breakfast stuff for the whole family, now it’s just the two of us, so really what’s the point of putting out the cereals and the peanut butter? You’ll grab something on the way to work and I’ll sit and eat last night’s leftovers: I made enough to feed everyone. Are you sure I can’t tempt you to some cold aubergine and feta bake?

We’re talking about taking up new hobbies and pastimes. Maybe it’s finally time for that Italian conversation class at the tech on a Tuesday night? What about getting back to swimming? Maybe now we’ll have time to clear out the shed and the attic? How about replanting that border in the garden? Fixing the gate? Getting fit? Going macrobiotic? But first, let’s plan our next big get-together. Christmas? Easter? Summer? We need to check on everyone’s availability – but no-one knows where they’ll be or what they’ll be doing.

Illustration by Jacky Sheridan 

There are no pick-ups or drop-offs, and no extra-curricular activities, so maybe we could meet after work one night and go out for dinner, or to the cinema? Maybe even both? We could call it a date night, like they do in America? What about a weekend away? We haven’t been on a weekend away without children for almost a quarter of a century. Whole empires have come and gone since: the last time we went on  a weekend away you had to ring to book your flight, and then a room, and then take a chance with local buses and restaurants; AirBnB hadn’t been invented; there was no Uber; no Tripadvisor; and there were no low-cost flights to cheap, possibly second-rank and ever-so-slightly obscure European cities.

Overnight, the house has grown too big. It seems suddenly haunted by memories and photographs, though looking at the photos I realise that we seemed to stop taking photos about ten years ago, the exact point at which we got mobile phones with cameras, because who prints and mounts the photos they take on their phone? So the children in the photos never seem to have reached adolescence: they remain forever children. I wish now I’d hung onto the camera.

I think I half-expected to emerge from the long experience of raising children with some kind of wisdom and insight but in all honestly, looking back, I seem to be about as ignorant now as the day our first child was born; I hadn’t a clue then, and I haven’t a notion now. We made it all up as we went along: everything was improvised.

“Overnight, the house has grown too big. It seems suddenly haunted by memories and photographs.”

I remember reading an interview in a magazine with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips – he is excellent, Adam Phillips – and the interviewer remarked that though he loved Phillips’ books he could never really remember anything about them. Phillips was delighted. ‘That’s the reading experience I’ve always loved. Certainly when people say to me, as they often have done, “I can’t remember anything afterward,” I think, Great, that’s the point! The work is not there to be repeated or identified with, but something works on you.’

I know something happened there, over all these years. I couldn’t tell you what it was. But I do know it was worth it.

Ian Sansom writes for The Guardian. He is the author of the County Guides and the Mobile Library series of novels. His most recent books are The Sussex Murder and September 1st, 1939 (both published by HarperCollins). 

This article appeared in our December 2019 issue. 

All Things Christmas with Jonathan Rea

Five times World Superbike champion, Jonathan Rea, arrives back to Northern Ireland after his record breaking triumph at Belfast International Airport to be greeted by his wife Tatia and sons Jake and Tyler.
Photo by Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press

Ulster Tatler’s Chloe Heaney talks to Jonathan Rea about Christmas and what he likes to get up to over the festive season. 

What do you enjoy most about Christmas?

We love Christmas for lots of reasons, especially since the kids have came along. First of all it’s great to get a few weeks off to indulge a little before the next racing season starts in Australia next year (Feb). However, watching the kids Jake (6) and Tyler (4) getting excited for Santa coming, being home with my family and living back in Northern Ireland, really makes Christmas a special time for us.

How do you normally spend Christmas Day?

Now the kids are that little bit older we’ll be up at the ‘crack of dawn’ no doubt to see if Santa Claus has paid us a visit and had time to eat his mince pies and drink his milk. After we play around with Jake and Tyler we always FaceTime Tatia’s family in Australia as they’ll be sitting down to their Christmas dinner around then in a much warmer climate than us. When the boys were younger, we used to spend Christmas with our Australian family. It was very different than what I was used to growing up, looking out at the sun splitting the trees rather than the frost – or if we were lucky snow – but it was lovely all the same!…

For gift ideas, recipes and things to do at Christmas, as well as the full interview, see our All Things Christmas supplement in our December issue – on sale now!

Come Fly With Me…

Ulster Tatler’s Hannah Reilly talks to Bob Cummings, a retired air traffic controller who recently embarked on a road trip through North America.

Tell us a little about yourself – what was your career path before retirement?

I worked as an Air Traffic Controller at Belfast International Airport for over 40 years having qualified at the College of Air Traffic Control in Hurn, Bournemouth. I was fortunate to become the Manager Air Traffic Control for the last 7 years of my career. I met my two travelling companions through Air Traffic Control (ATC), Leo Murphy at Belfast and Tom Quinn of Dublin, whom I met through soccer tournaments in Europe. As a controller you may retire after 40 years service and I decided to take advantage of that and travel.

What made you decide to go on a road trip through America at this point in your life?

Tom has been visiting the USA for 30 years and when he retired in 2012 we decided to embark on a road trip through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience despite our reservations about the driving, we did 1500 miles in 6 days taking in, Orlando, the Kennedy Space Centre, Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Savanna, Treasure Island and Siesta Key.

Where did you go during your trip?

For our recent trip we flew to Washington DC for 3 nights and thoroughly enjoyed a city packed with history, monuments and memorials…and bars. The changing of the guard at Arlington cemetery is a must see. We then rented a car and drove to Manasses, the scene of the first major battle (the battle of Bull Run) of the American Civil War. It was a chastening experience when told by the wonderful guides of the loss of life. We then stopped in Charlottesville, a very quaint southern town with a fantastic walking street. Next stop was Chapel Hill, via the Sykyline Drive and the Shanadoah Valley – awe inspiring scenery. Chapel Hill is a beautiful university city with a great night life, with super restaurants and bars and we had a few beers in a bar called “He’s Not Here”.

We then routed to Charleston via Appomattox, the little town where the last battle of the Civil War was fought and where Robert E. Lee surrendered his confederate troops to the Union forces of Ulysses S. Grant. So we’d like to say we covered the Civil War from beginning to end. Having stopped the night in Charleston we travelled to Savanna, Georgia, and as we are all keen golfers we detoured via Sawgrass and managed to blag our way into the club house where Rory McIlroy won the last Players Championship. Our next destination was Saint Augustine, just north of Jacksonville, purported to be the oldest town in Florida and where the Spanish first landed.  We spent two nights in St Augustine and then headed south via Orlando and Tampa to Naples and two weeks R&R and ‘happy hour’.

What sort of activities did you enjoy during the trip? 

There were many great activities we enjoyed including air boat tours in the Everglades, a cruise in Naples Bay, great golf courses, beautiful beaches, the famous Naples pier where the dolphins never fail to impress, a trip to Key West and the highlight, a pleasure flight over south-west Florida courtesy of our friend Wayne an ex Continental Airlines captain. We have become friends with a number of guys from Naples and they call us BLT (Bob, Leo and Tom) and following Hurricane Irma they named a menu after us, Irish Tom’s burger and Belfast Bob’s shrimp.

Have you any plans for another excursion in the near future?

We head back to Florida for the month of October for golf and happy hour with the girls joining us for the last 2 weeks but plans are already afoot for our next road trip in May 2020 when we intend to fly to Minneapolis and then drive to Chicago for a few days. We will then fly to Denver and take the famous Zephyr train to San Francisco with a few stops on the way. After that, who knows, but it will always be planned in advance but subject to a little last minute tweaking. Travel is the greatest educator and invigorator, in my opinion, and it is the intention of the “Three Amigos” to keep doing what we are doing for as long as we are able.

This article appeared in our July 2019 issue. 


Louise Houliston, Ninjadry

We caught up with one of Ninjadry’s founders, Louise Houliston, to better understand how the business works and to get an insight into the home service market. Ninjadry is a specialist dry cleaning and laundry business based in Belfast who provide a door-to-door collection and delivery service. The online platform enables the customer to book and pay online for their dry cleaning and laundry.


Tell us a bit about Ninjadry.

There are two big things for us, one is quality and the other is time. Quality is paramount- whilst we have spent a serious amount of time and money getting our tech and logistics to run smoothly, processing the dry cleaning and laundry to the highest standard is the big thing. One customer said that “I thought I was great at folding clothes!” until she got back her items from us! We go the extra mile, and yes it hurts our margins a little but the feedback we get from going the extra mile is what really sets us apart. The other key part of our business is time, well saving it actually! Our core aim is ultimately to remove the dry cleaning and laundry chore from day-to-day life and to give our customers back the time to spend with family and loved ones. A big mission. I run a busy family home myself so know the pressures and pulls on your time. That was the real driving force for setting up Ninjadry. A customer can order a collection and pick up time at their choice (so say in the evening when they are back in the house watching a bit of TV); we will collect within a 1 hour pick up slot, then process the dry cleaning or laundry (we also offer a full ironing service) and return it to the customer at their house within 48 hours and again with a 1 hour delivery slot. You pay online and the whole process is seamless. We also dry clean curtains, rugs, bed duvets- anything that you would ordinarily have to lug down to your local launderette or dry cleaners at the weekend, we do.

How have you found dealing with the technology side of the business?
Our website is really user friendly and allows you to place an order in about 5 seconds! It took a serious amount of time to script the customer journey and build in the various elements from front end landing page; postcode gateway; online slot bookings and merchant processing + all the copy you need to go with it. Our tech guys were fantastic in getting to grips with how we wanted it to work. But ultimately what a customer sees at the front end is only a fraction of what we have to deal with. The back-end logistics piece is fantastic and allows us to obtain statistics and converse with our customers easily and hassle free over email and text. We have a delivery tracker that is sent via a text message to the customer when your NinjaDriver is on their way. The link in the text message opens to Google Maps and you can track your delivery to your door. All this tech gives the customer trust that we handle the entire process professionally and most importantly we turn up when we are supposed to!

You are trying to disrupt an old sector, how have you found people have responded to the technology?
It has been interesting to see the range of people who have used our service so far. Initially we thought that our customer base would be predominantly young city-based professionals who would be au fait with ordering online and have a need for dry cleaning suits/dresses and shirt ironing. We certainly do have a growing client base in that demographic, but the stand out performer is people like myself- a busy mum! Our largest customer base comes from family households who want to spend more time with the family and put the weekly laundry and ironing through Ninjadry. I think once they overcome the initial fear of “what’s the quality going to be like”- once we deliver for them on that front then we have found them to be repeat customers. And there has been such a diverse range of customers from young city professionals; younger,  mid-forty somethings who have ordered online for household bedding; laundry for older parents who are less confident on the tech side and lots of students, who don’t want to run home to mum each weekend with a laundry bag.

What areas do you cover?
We cover all Greater Belfast (North, South, East and West) and then all the way through Holywood to Bangor. You can just insert your postcode into our website and it will tell you if we cover your area. But basically, if you are in and around the Belfast area then we’ve got you covered.

What does the future hold for Ninjadry?
We think it’s an exciting time to be setting up in the home services business. Even over the last 2 years there has been an explosion of services that are now regularly offered as a home service from your usual food groceries and take-aways to phone repairs and now dog grooming! Our number one goal is to be the dry cleaning and laundry business of choice for Belfast and the surrounding area. We have built a great and growing team here at Ninjadry and that is one of the secrets to our success. Once we have conquered Belfast it will be on to Dublin and other UK cities!

Find out more at

Ninjadry are offering  Ulster Tatler readers a discount. Just add add the voucher code
ULSTERTATLER20 in the basket online at


Marie Jones

Meeting playwright Marie Jones, you sense this is somebody who really has her ideal job. The theatre is her home and inspiration. Before her most recent play Sinners opened at the Lyric Theatre, she was spotted during rehearsals hanging out with the actors during their fag break. They were obviously having fun. She admits that the production was good craic. “I loved it, the actors are very smart and want to get it right. They’d say ‘Is this what you meant?’ Sometimes they’re better than I am and I’d think no, but I’ll claim it.”  For Marie, the theatre represents some kind of alchemy and for her, working there has been life changing, as she reveals over coffee in a Stranmillis cafe. “I’ve been asked to do film and television, but it’s not the same. I love the interaction of the theatre and was an actress myself so I know my way around it. It’s magic, transporting people to another world with one set and a stage.”

Significantly, the first time Ms Jones felt the pull of a theatre, she had left school and was working out what to do next. “I was 16 and had left school very young. I loved the theatre but I only had an experience of it through the school play. The old Group Theatre was the only one that would have been accessible at the time, and Jimmy Young had a play on. Nobody wanted to come with me from where I lived, Templemore Avenue off the Newtownards Road, so I thought I’m going to go myself. It wasn’t the play’s content or anything else, it was the walking into the theatre, the smell of it. At that time, the guy who ran it was Jack Hudson, Jimmy Young’s partner, and he smoked Mannequin cigars. The actors at that stage wore greasepaint, Leichner sticks no 5 and no 9, which created a strong aroma.” Marie Jones continues on her memory trip. “I remember the lights going down and they went up on stage and there was music and there were all these people there. It was almost like a spiritual thing, although I’m not like that. But I knew then I was going to spend the rest of my life doing this.” She adds that the clincher was the way the actors sounded in an era when performers spoke like Pathe news presenters. “What was even better, they sounded like me, when nobody did outside our streets. It was magic because television was RP, radio was RP, theatre was all RP.” In other words, received pronunciation, posh English.

After a long career, initially as an actress, then as a dramatist, Marie Jones OBE is reaping the rewards. The gongs are lining up, most recently the Ulster Tatler Lifetime Achievement award which she received in September. She says gaining this particular accolade was a pleasure. “It was lovely. The Ulster Tatler isan institution and 50 years old. We always laugh that when friends say ‘I saw you in the Tatler’, they have been getting their hair done or been to the dentist. But the magazine is part of our culture.” Marie adds that it was great fun for the boys – her three grown-up sons – to be at the awards ceremony with her and her husband, actor Ian McElhinney. “They said ‘Don’t be making a big speech, we need to get to the bar.’ The younger ones threw their jackets off but my oldest son Darren, ex-Royal Navy, said they shouldn’t take their jackets off before the coffee. Matthew goes ‘What is this, Downton Abbey?’”

In 2002, Marie Jones picked up an OBE for services to drama. Prince Charles was officiating and said smoothly as he handed her the award he was delighted to meet the woman who’d written Stones in His Pockets. The play had been doing a West End run and Marie already knew that Charles and Camilla – who were together – had seen it, thanks to a text from her man on the ground. 

Asked about whether she pocketed any school prizes, Marie Jones looks askance and says definitely not. “Nothing. I wasn’t disruptive, just not interested. I’d been in detention so many times, the head sent me to the after-school drama club.” This provided a sharp contrast with the drama she was taught in English lessons. “I thought it would be boring but they were doing an old musical The Boyfriend and everyone was singing and dancing. I felt I’d arrived. I played Lord Brocklehurst, as Orangefield was an all girls’ school so we had to play the men. In class, we read Shakespeare and I think we did some Merchant of Venice, titled Shylock and the Bond. Nobody understood it.” Marie adds that when Orangefield, by then mixed, closed recently, there was a festival and she was asked to give a talk. Nobody had asked her to address the school before that point. “I’d been asked to go all over the country, then they asked me when there was nobody to talk to. But it would have been churlish to refuse.” She spotted Sam McCready, who taught there, coming out after his one man show and said hello. “Van Morrison went to Orangefield boys’ and he played a concert in the assembly room. My gig was in the library. I didn’t know we had one and when I told my sister Sandra, she said ‘What library?’ and I told her that (the library period) was when we had our smoke break.”

Marie Jones’ anecdotes are as animated as her scripts. When she and a group of women founded Charabanc in the 1980s, she found her writing voice. It was a collaborative project begun when they contacted writer and producer Martin Lynch with an idea for a play about the female mill workers’ strike in the early 20th century. Martin Lynch helped them work on Lay Up Your Ends, their first show. And Marie Jones became the group’s writer. She says she returned to her childhood and growing up, the era when her mother and aunties would chat every weekend with a bottle of Sandeman’s port to hand. “They’d go to my aunt’s in Rosetta – she had a bit more money and a proper kitchen overlooking the front garden. They’d talk and laugh and cry and fight. I could hear them in my head as I was writing that first scene.” This was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “I was 10 or 11 and my mother said ‘Why are you like my shadow?’ Of course they had to hush up as they couldn’t talk about certain things in front of me.”

Marie is serious about the funny stuff. Asked whether she likes the new, female led, accessible theatre produced by highly successful writers such as Leesa Harker (Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue) and Donna O’Connor (A Night with George), Marie Jones takes a surprisingly firm line.“As long as you’re continually trying to raise the bar for people that’s all right, not just giving people something to enjoy but something that’s important. If you asked me to sit down and write a romp now, I could do it before bedtime, but I wouldn’t. What’s it about? I need to have content, I need a moral dilemma. I won’t comment on another writer but you have a responsibility and I feel that it’s a privilege. You’ve been given an arena. When we started Charabanc, we’d say we were giving a voice to the voiceless, to my mother’s generation.” She goes on to cite Women on the Verge of HRT (1995) as one of her comedies with something to say. The plot involves Vera and Anna who travel to Donegal to see and hear their idol, Daniel O’Donnell. “People may look at it and say it’s just a big romp about women but no, no, no. It’s a very serious play for me.” She says she had been talking to many women who were menopausal, a taboo subject when she was growing up. She picked up on a shift in attitude. “Suddenly people were saying ‘Let’s talk about this’ and I remember sitting in our garden with the director, thinking ‘Can we really present this play?’ It’s awful what we’re saying about how women are treated by each other and by society. It really is very sad.” When the play opened in the Whiterock Leisure Centre in the West Belfast Festival, the theatre echoed to the sound of female laughter. Marie comments: “It was the laughter of subversiveness, I should have known.” A huge tour followed with the play ending in the West End, then in southern Ireland. A group of women won tickets to the show after sharing their experiences. “One woman thought she had Alzheimer’s because nobody explained the symptoms. In the play the character says ‘You go to the doctor, he doesn’t look at you and…’ That is what I mean about producing popular theatre – even though I want to do that, it’s important to me that it’s not just a romp or out for a laugh.”

Marie Jones then moves onto the question of language. She says she sidesteps the easy laugh via the four letter word “I avoid ‘F*** this and f*** that’ for comical effect. You only have two hours to tell a story and you want the lines to work. That sounds a bit snooty but it’s just how I am.” Marie Jones and Ian McElhinney are a great team. They met when they were both acting in Stage 80. She says now: “We didn’t like each other.” Clearly, things changed and they’re an impressive professional couple; Ian has directed many of her plays with a very sure touch. Most recently, he has brought her greatest hit, Stones in His Pockets (1996), to Iceland. This two-hander has toured the world and gained rave reviews. It also led to a court case, which Ms Jones won, in which the producer Pam Brighton claimed she deserved to be credited as co-author. Since then, Stones in His Pockets has continued to move and entertain audiences with its story of extras in rural Ireland participating in a movie which with typical American imperialism, misrepresents the real tale of the ‘oul sod. The play has been charming Iceland on its recent return visit with a poignant sub-text. Marie says: “The actor Stefan Karl Stefansson, an Icelandic national treasure who went to America and appeared in the children’s TV series Lazy Town, revealed he was very ill. When he said on his website that he had terminal cancer, he wanted to do one last thing and this is it. We went over and it was great, although I couldn’t understand a word. The last performance is going to be live-streamed to the whole country.” On why this play has hit such a chord with the public and critics, Marie Jones remains puzzled. “I didn’t have a clue it would be a big hit but with brilliant direction and fantasticactors and no set, you have no limitations. We could say ‘We’re in a National School in 1930 with the mooing of a cow outside (she moos), with a wee bell and organ music we’re in a chapel. So we created the whole world of the movie with sound, light and acting. Plus there is the universal story of two guys with no control over their lives who needed to find something so that they could find their own destiny.”

Home is the house she and Ian McElhinney bought years ago in Ravenhill Park. She has said there’s no risk of her becoming Establishment, in spite of the fact she may dine out at The Ivy restaurant, a celebrity haunt, when in London. “I haven’t moved away from my background and culture. Yes, when I am in London I might go to the Ivy for dinner. But in Belfast I pop into Sainsbury’s to do my shopping and people stop and talk and tell me about their lives all the time, because these people have known me all my life.” Her middle son, Matthew, is in the business, while youngest son David, who studied criminology at university, has just got back from Australia. “He’s off to Japan next to teach English.” They also have a house on the Greek island of Antiparos.

In terms of politics Marie Jones’ output contains A Night in November about the introduction of internment and the sense of a liberal Protestant view that felt the given legacy wasn’t right. She says: “I am instinctively interested in politics but it’s not usually overt. I never wanted to join the feminists, for example. I haven’t been that angry or that discriminated against. Maybe I’ve been lucky.” Marie adds that she has always been interested in being seen as a playwright rather than a female playwright. Marie Jones’ new projects sound more than interesting. Dear Arabella started out as a onewoman show presented last year at The Old Vic Theatre in London. “It’s about a woman who feels trapped and is caring for her agoraphobic mother. She wants to escape as although the sun is shining, they live on the dark side of the street. Gemma Jones acted it and she was great.” A tragedy happens near the start which ushers in some hope. The main drama on at the theatre when Dear Arabella premiered was King Lear with Glenda Jackson in the title role. Marie Jones is a fan. “She’s 80, you know, and when asked how she prepared for the role, said she got down to 10 cigarettes a day.” With an infectious laugh, Marie says Glenda is her kind of woman. In a Q & A session after the play, Marie Jones said off the cuff that she was going to add in two other women, referring to Lear’s three daughters. So she has, and the show is being produced next year, starting in Belfast.

Moving away from her own patch, Marie Jones’ next project involved dramatizing a great little book she says she read some 30 years ago. Titled Archy and Mehitabel by New York poet and humorist Don Marquis, it tells the story of a cockroach and alley cat (with the soul of a poet) who are pals and survivors. Marie explains the appeal: “It’s got parables of life.” She eventually tracked a copy down in the Oxfam bookshop on Botanic Avenue and is pleased I know the title, saying that is karma. Marie is setting it in Martini territory, 1930s Manhattan. She refers to the “lesson of the moth” section, where Archy tries to dissuade the suicidal insect from his aim, ending with this bit of philosophy – “myself i would rather have/half the happiness and twice/the longevity… but at the same time i wish/there was something I wanted/as badly as he wanted to fry himself.” Anybody wanting to see how Marie Jones treats the pair should head to the Baby Grand in February, where she is holding a workshop. Apparently, Marie Jones’ greatest review came from an audience member. “We were out leafleting for the show, that never stops, and bumped into this woman who’d seen Fly Me To The Moon and shouted ‘It should be on prescription!’”


Jane Hardy Interview Featured in November Ulster Tatler 2017


Belfast-born Christina Bennington talks about spending Christmas in Toronto and the life changing experience of taking on the lead in the hit musical Bat Out of Hell.

How do you describe the high-octane buzz following an actor’s career-changing performance without dusting off the cliches? You ask the person involved. When Belfast born Christina Bennington landed the role of Raven – the lead in the musical Bat out of Hell – in the spring, she stepped onto one of the biggest stages in the UK. Christina says now the implications of getting her dream job arrived slowly. “When you’re inside your dream job, you don’t initially realize it. But now I think ‘I’ve been playing the lead in the London Coliseum, I’ve been going out night after night in front of 2000 people, gaining standing ovations’. If I’d told myself when I was at school I’d be doing this…it is unbelievable.” She stops, seemingly still pinching herself at the way her career has taken off. Beforehand, Ms Bennington was understudying one of the leads in Show Boat. Afterwards, it was appearances on iTV shows Britain’s Got Talent and Live at the Palladium, meeting celebrity fans and the whole media circus. Christina modestly describes it as “madness” when we talk over coffee in the city centre. We can’t reveal her age as the theatrical illusion of her 18-year-old alter ego has to be preserved. But Christina, who has been outed as in her mid-twenties, says: “It’s the brand, but I am relatively young to be doing the job I am doing. I don’t mind people guessing but it’s nice for me to continue doing the job as long as possible.”

This particular star was born while singing Jim Steinman’s gutsy numbers, made world famous by Meatloaf, on an excessively theatrical set. They have reworked the numbers to fit a storyline about the love between Strat, the permanently youthful leader of The Lost, the rough diamond who falls for privileged Raven, daughter of tyrannical ruler Falco. Christina says proudly: “we’ve got everything, fire, motorbikes, a car”. And, naturally, bats. The reviews confirmed Christina Bennington’s new status, with The Times’ critic dubbing her “enchanting” and The Guardian’s man in the stalls saying she gave more life than the writer has to the stereotype of a pampered daughter. Christina says that when you are doing eight shows a week, you are protected from the fuss. Or maybe it’s just controlled. “We are very well looked after, we have connections with Jim Steinman and Meatloaf but the fact it’s a new show means you do a lot of publicity events.” Asked whether these are fun, Ms Bennington says yes, but they can also be quite terrifying. “We filmed Live at the Palladium first, singing the title song, Bat Out of Hell. You feel very safe on your own set and stage and it was out of our comfort zone. We had static bikes, not bikes on tracks, we didn’t have the props and were doing a cut version of the song.”

Enjoying a few days off between previewing Bat Out of Hell in Canada and heading to the Ed Mervish Theatre, Toronto, to launch an autumn run, Christina says the job has allowed her a bit more time in Belfast with her family. She is also doing a lot of running and finds time to get her hair done. “I pop into Conroy to see Stephen Aiken for my colour when I’m home!”  So doesn’t she regard London as home? She answers: “Like a lot of actors, I live in London, but I also go back to ‘home home’ which is Belfast.” She adds: “In the last few months or so I’ve been home more than in the last five years. When you’re auditioning, you can’t fly home. The amount of money I have wasted on flights because of auditions, ask my mother. Then when you’re working, you just get one day off per week.”

Ms Bennington’s success is not overnight, as she’s said. She has put in the hours, training in musical theatre at the Guildford School of Acting and working her way up the ladder. She did Oklahoma after college and also appeared in a version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. One of the casting directors saw her in Show Boat and wanted to call Christina in to audition for a rock musical. But she wasn’t sure the genre was right for her voice. “All I’d done was soprano shows. Then they wanted to see me to understudy Raven. I said I wasn’t interested in understudying any more.” Impressed by this woman’s determination, the powers that be called Christina in to try out for the main role.

At home in Crouch End, Christina learnt she’d got the job at midnight. It happened by accident, thanks to social media. “A couple of theatre journalists posted about the show using my photo.” So Christina phoned her agent, got the confirmation, then wondered who to phone next. “My house mates weren’t around, so I phoned my mother.” Her mother’s reaction down the line from Belfast in the middle of the night was more or less ‘That’s nice, dear’. Christina elaborates: “I said ‘Mum, I’ve got the lead in Bat Out of Hell. She said ‘Oh lovely. How was the show tonight?’ I said ‘I don’t think you understand what this means.’” It took a couple of days for the big news to sink in.

This musical contains the kind of choreography that would definitely excite Bruno on Strictly. Watching the two leads, Christina and her co-star Andrew Polec, stalk each other in the build up to the big kiss at the conclusion of For Crying Out Loud, it’s amazing to learn the erotic moves have been generated by the actors themselves. “That’s our favourite number and the choreography is all us,” she laughs. “We really worked on the physical language for the moment Strat and Raven meet up at the start of act two. Our brilliant director Jay Scheib gave us hints – roll over at one point, kiss her feet – and got us to the point we had no inhibitions left!” Christina says when acting love scenes, it helps if you get on with your co-star. “We’re very close and I’m lucky Andrew is so wonderful to work with but there’s nothing less romantic than stage kissing. It’s very sweaty.”

Celebrity encounters are a given these days. Christina has met Meatloaf, aka Michael Lee Aday, a few times, most recently the week before the interview. “He sang with us onstage during the taster performance in Toronto in front of 5000 people in the street which was unexpected. Meatloaf is so interesting and generous and gave us a great piece of advice during the press junket we did. He said you have to commit totally to the show, with every fibre of your being, if you don’t it becomes a cliche because the emotions are so big.” She has also chatted to Simon Cowell. “He’s a very nice man.” And JK Simmons, the teacher in Whiplash, dropped by. But Christina was most excited to meet her favourite author, Harlan Coben, after he’d seen Bat Out of Hell. “He Tweeted that he was coming to the show, I Tweeted back I was a big fan and he direct messaged me. Everyone was laughing but that was the coolest.’” Mr Coben brought in a signed copy of his novel, Home, as a present.

In between shows, indefatigable Christina has also been conducting workshops. “I did one Bat Out of Hell workshop for two weeks, from ten to five every day, then took a taxi to the theatre to warm up. It nearly killed me but I like pushing the boundaries. And in my two weeks off, I played Pearl in Starlight Express in five public performances. Andrew Lloyd Webber was working up some new material and he asked me my views on the music. You don’t realize how surreal that is until later when you post pictures online and people say ‘That’s Andrew Lloyd Webber.’”


You wonder where Christina gets the energy. She says it’s partly the “adrenaline rush” which is life affirming, and that when they opened in Manchester, she used to go to the gym after the show simply to wind down. She also believes in a fitness routine. “I do Pilates and yoga, go to the gym for cardio and weights based routines. When you’re performing eight shows a week, it’s no alcohol and drink lots of water. I can’t handle the party scene, you really have to take care of yourself and your voice and take time to rest.” Christina was destined for the stage from an early age. At five, she acted the queen of the mermaids in a production at Fullerton House. “They asked who wanted to do it. I said me as I already had a costume, although I didn’t. My mother Catherine who makes costumes for the Lambeg Players quickly made me something. I realized early on you just say yes.”

The Bennington family – father Ian who runs the consultancy PART TWO Design, mother, younger sister Karen and younger brother John – were all keen members of the Lambeg Players. “I remember hanging around the panto set before I was old enough to be involved. My father Ian has a great voice, as do my uncle Paul and cousin Amy.” In P1 and 2, Christina got involved with drama, sometimes helping choreograph shows in the senior school. While at Methodist College, where Christina was head girl, she was given free rein by her drama teachers Maria Hunter and Jane Conlon. “They let me choreograph plays in the third year and gave me a lot of responsibility.” Christina was also involved with the school choir under Ruth McCartney which won the RTE All Ireland title. “We sang in Westminster Abbey and the levels of musicality are something I haven’t seen professionally.”

The Meatloaf repertoire, familiar to Christina from hearing it in her father’s car, has brought its fan base to her stage door. She says some people are coming to the theatre for the first time. “If people are making the journey, paying for a babysitter, for a hotel, you have to bear that in mind and make sure these people have a life experience. We also meet people who have lost parents who loved Meatloaf’s music. They say ‘It’s brought a bit of them back tonight.’”

Christina’s ambition, when she’s older, is to play Mary Poppins. “It’s the most inspirational show. Although I want to do new work, I would love to work on that show, how could you not. I saw Laura Michelle Kelly in it, probably three or four times. The pop-up house programme is still at home in Belfast.”

Christina says she’s been working out her Toronto first night outfit and reveals she likes to wear red at premieres. “Raven wears a lot of red, it’s a passionate colour, and it works.”  Christina says Christmas 2017 will find her in Canada with the show. “I’ll be FaceTiming my family as I miss them a lot when I’m away.” It’s very different from Ms Bennington’s Christmases when she was growing up. “It was always about going to see Granny and Granda Bennington and hanging out with my amazing cousins. Now we have them over to ours and my sister cooks up a storm, producing five vegan desserts last year just for me!” She says she also enjoyed the spiritual soundtrack of the Nine Lessons and Carols – “a major highlight of my Methody choral experience”. This year it’s Bat out of Hell all the way and Christina says there are billboards all over Toronto, plus a lot of media interest.. But at the end, before returning to Twitter, she smiles and says: “It is just madness, isn’t it?”

Jane Hardy Interview Featured in December Ulster Tatler 2017

The Voice

Geoff Hill chats to Belfast born Kathy Clugston, owner of one of radio’s ‘poshest’ and most recognisable voices.

Kathy’s voice can be heard regularly on BBC Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra, World Service and as the ‘Posh Radio 4 Lady’ on Radio 1. She played the female parts in the popular BBC NI comedy The Folks on the Hill for 10 years until the untimely death of its star Sean Crummey in 2011. It is her voice on the train urging you to ‘alight here’; she is also the female Irish voice on Tom Tom sat nav, and I speak from personal experience when I say she stays very polite even after you miss your turn.

Born in Belfast, Kathy attended Methodist College, then studied French and Russian at Queen’s University and the University of Bath, spending a year in the Russian industrial town of Voronezh. Her media career began in 1996 when she got a job as a TV announcer for BBC Northern Ireland. She moved to Holland for a few years to work for Radio Netherlands, before landing in London in 2006. Apart from fulfilling a long-held dream to read the shipping forecast, working for Radio 4 has led to her making a guest appearance at the Proms, narrating Peter and the Wolf and other pieces for the Kensington Chamber Orchestra and giving a lecture at the Boring Conference 2012 about the shipping forecast.

Her Ulster tones have generally been well received by Radio 4 listeners, apart from the man who sent in a poem complaining that Gordon Brown should not rhyme with Battle of the Boyne. In 2010 she came up with the idea for a Twitter game called #radio4minus1letter, taking a radio programme title and dropping a single letter to create a new title. The idea resulted in her book A Brief History of Tim. She is currently working on a stage musical, which she hopes will tour the UK in 2013. She plays the ukulele.

What is your earliest memory? I think I remember swimming in a rock pool when I was very small, wearing an orange and pink swimsuit (it was the Seventies), but I’m not sure if it’s a realmemory or if I’m just remembering a photograph. I’ve a terrible memory; great chunks of my life are missing. I’ve had no senseof smell since birth and I’ve always wondered if the two are linked.

Screen Shot 2017-01-23 at 16.47.04

What were you top and bottom of the class at in school? I always did well at languages. We started French at primary school and then Methody offered Russian, which was very unusual. I think I chose it just to be different. The classes were tiny because almost everyone else did German or Spanish, so we got a lot of attention and I really enjoyed it. I was OK at English and Maths, but not brilliant, and fairly rubbish at science. I gave up history and geography after third form, which I regret now.

What did you want to be when you grew up? I never had a clue, and am still not too sure! I always enjoyed sound; I used to tape things and record my own voice, but I never imagined becoming a radio presenter. Before I got my first job at the BBC I had done a bit of teaching, worked for a ferry company, all sorts. But as soon as I started in broadcasting I felt instantly at home. I love it, and doing the job on a freelance basis means I can do other things too.

Why the ukulele? Secret George Formby crush? Ha! I’m not mad keen on George’s cheeky-chappy ditties, but there’s no doubt he was an amazing player. He invented all sorts of strumming techniques that I couldn’t even begin to master. I started playing with a friend of mine who’d always wanted to learn and I fell in love quite quickly. It’s easy to pick up a few chords, and once you’ve done that you can play anything you like.

What was the first piece of music you bought? ‘I Only Wanna Be With You’ by The Tourists (Annie Lennox, pre- Eurythmics.) It was a 45 single of course. I had a wee plastic record player and a handful of singles that I played over and over, including ‘Eye Level’ and ‘Please Release Me’ by Engelbert Humperdinck (it was my Mum’s, honest). I was not a cool child. I was also obsessed with a tape she had called Beatles Ballads, and a brilliant Muppet Show tape with a yellow cover.

What’s your favourite piece of music? Favourites are too difficult. I like anything by Ella Fitzgerald. I also love folk, show tunes and classical. I’m afraid I always skip any questions about favourite things, because I find it so hard to choose and if I do manage it, I change my mind 10 minutes later. If I ever got famous enough to go on Desert Island Discs, I’d have to turn it down. Far too traumatic.




First book? I loved Richard Scarry books as a small child, Dr Seuss too, and I had a beautifully illustrated book of fairy stories called East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The stories were Norwegian, I think, and rather dark.

What were the best and worst bits about working in Holland? I lived in Amsterdam for nearly four years. It’s quite different from the rest of the Netherlands, which is rather conservative and strait-laced. Amsterdam is beautiful and full of slightly bohemian expats. Everyone speaks brilliant English, so it takes no time to fit in. I did eventually learn some Dutch but it was actually quite difficult to find an opportunity to speak it! I felt very free there, and very safe. The best part is cycling everywhere on the flat. The worst part is the food. Terrible.

Other half? Love at first sight? I’ve been with my boyfriend for over a year, but it was definitely not love at first sight. We’d known each other for about six years before we randomly kissed one night. It was slightly embarrassing and we thought nothing more would come of it, but somehow, despite the fact we’re not really each other’s ‘type’, our relationship blossomed. We both think it’s because we started as friends and (happily) the attraction came later.

Best and worst bits about work? There are so many great things about working for Radio 4. My colleagues are a brilliant bunch, we communicate live with millions of listeners every day, people generally admire what we do and we get to hear all that lovely radio. The only down side is the hours. When I’m doing the Today programme I have to get up at 3.30am, and a night shift at World Service can finish at 7.30am. If you’re not careful you can end up permanently sleep deprived with no social life.

Why do you think everyone loves the shipping forecast? Actually, not everyone does love it. Some people find it tedious and switch off as soon as they hear the words ‘Met Office’. For many others though, it’s a kind of poetry. It has a special rhythm, tone and feel. People feel comforted and soothed by it, and often say they go on a little journey of the mind around all the areas of Britain and Ireland. And it’s such an unusual thing to read out. As a broadcaster your instinct is to bring things alive, put lots of expression into them, but the shipping forecast has to be completely neutral. Each phrase must have equal weight. I often tap a beat out with my foot as I’m reading, to make sure I keep a steady rhythm.

Do you mind being the Posh Radio 4 Lady on Scott Mills?  Mind? I love it! Even though I’m not remotely posh. We don’t really do posh in NI, do we? I do turn my accent right down when I do it, but I don’t put on an English one and no one seems to mind. I get such a great response from younger folk when they find out I’m the PR4L. I love that.

How did you, er, find your way to being the Irish voice of Tom Tom? Ah, I like what you did there. I actually recorded that voice seven or eight years ago when I lived in Holland. It’s a Dutch company and I got the job through a voiceover agency there who specialised in English-speaking voices. It was ages before I started appearing on devices in the UK. Suddenly everyone was asking me: “Is that you in my car?”

Pet hates? Snacks in the theatre and cinema. Fruit in cheese. Brillo pads (touching them makes my teeth go funny).

Regrets: have you had a few? Of course. I occasionally break out in a sweat remembering various gaffs. But I try very hard not to dwell on them and to focus on the here and now.

If you had a time machine, when would you go back or forward to? I’d go back 10 years and do everything again, only better. Describe yourself in five words. Tall, anosmic, wordy, sleepy, lucky.

How do you see your next five years? I’m just finishing off a stage musical at the moment, working with composer Desmond O’Connor. I can’t say much about it at this delicate stage, but I’ve joined forces with a production company and am hoping the show will premiere later this year. It’s been a very exciting and educational experience so far, and I expect that will keep me busy for the next year or so. After that I’m hoping I’ll be inspired to write something else – for the stage or perhaps even for radio.

Sum up your lesson for life in a sentence. Why not give it a go?






January Blues

This month Ian Sansom explores why the start of a new year can often leave us feeling despair.

January can be a desolate month. In the immortal words of the Soul II Soul dancefloor classic, ‘back to life, back to reality.’ Back to work, back to school, back against the wall and back to back from now until the summer.

All of the atmosphere of expectation and joy associated with Christmas seems suddenly to disappear with the appearance of the January credit card bill, the MOT reminder, the letter from the HMRC, and the inevitable and almost immediate collapse of what seemed only moments ago like rock-solid New Year’s resolutions.

In January, it can be difficult to recognise the value and beauty of one’s everyday existence. One is not so much conscious of the possibilities of a new life and new strength and new powers as of depletion, exhaustion and despair. Life seems elsewhere.

Work, above all, can at this time of year seem like a terrible burden: the prospect of having to do yet more for even less, the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and between reality and expectation. Grim colleagues, grimy mugs, the endless email demands and responsibilities.


Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 15.05.29


‘Why should I let the toad work/ Squat on my life?’ asks Philip Larkin in his great poem ‘Toads’. Larkin wishes he was brave enough to shout ‘Stuff your pension!’ and to give it all up – but he never did. He worked as a librarian for 42 years – five of them at Queen’s. (He wasn’t keen. ‘The common room is infested with brash undistinguished young men who turn out to be new professors. This place went to the dogs long ago and now the dogs are coming to it.’)

How then to cope with the January blues? How to manage? How, frankly, to get through this most miserable of months?

One of the first jobs I had when I came to Northern Ireland was working on a farm up in the Craigantlet Hills. It should have been terrible, intolerable. I had to get two buses to get there, the pay was rubbish – and it wasn’t even cash in hand. Everything went through the books, and my so-called career had reached rock-bottom, again.

I worked with a man who was deaf and dumb – just the two of us – and we used to communicate by writing on the pad that he had around his neck on a piece of string. In January it was our job to prune the raspberry canes, thousands of plants crowded between parallel wires strung between timber posts that seemed to stretch for miles. It was wet and cold and at lunchtime there was nothing for us to do and nowhere to go but to lay down on the bare branches we’d pruned and to gaze up in silence at the endless cloudy skies.


“In January, it can be difficult to recognise the value and beauty of one’s everyday existence.”


It should have been terrible and intolerable – and let’s not kid ourselves, it was. And yet … Well. There’s probably no easy lesson to be learnt even from one’s own experience, let alone someone else’s experience. Experience is just experience. My wise friend Joseph recently reminded me of that famous John Lennon quote – from the song ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’, written for his son Sean – ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ Out in the fields I was too wet and too cold to be making other plans. I was just there. Nonetheless, if I learnt any lesson it was probably this: if you’re working outside, invest in good waterproofs and strong protective gloves.

In Dostoevsky’s intermittently brilliant and often boring novel The Brothers Karamazov there is a famous character called Father Zosima, perhaps the most famously boring and brilliant character in all of literature. Dostoevsky devotes large parts of the novel to reporting Zosima’s words of wisdom and it can be difficult to know whether to take them entirely seriously or not. At one point in the book Zosima declares that ‘We do not understand that life is paradise, for it suffices only to wish to understand it, and at once paradise will appear in front of us in all its beauty.’

This is a hard teaching that one finds in many world religions, as well as among mothers, mothers-in-law, and in the advice columns of agony aunts – the idea that Paradise belongs to the present rather than to the future, and that things could always be worse, and that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. Maybe so. But buy good protective gloves, just in case.

A Woman of Substance

Glamour. Some people have it, some don’t but eminent gynaecologist and obstetrician Samina Mahsud Dornan has it in spades. The stepmother of one Jamie Dornan, star of The Fall and not short in the glamour stakes himself, arrives in the Maternal Hospital cafe in her consultant doctor’s uniform of navy trousers and square cut jacket but still somehow manages to illustrate Raymond Ch
andler’s famous quote from Farewell, My Lovely about a woman with the kind of looks “that would make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window”.

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 12.50.22

She is unstuffy and asks me to call her Samina before making us a cup of very decent tea in her office. This woman is passionate about everything in her life, from causes like Amnesty International, whose representative she meets before I see her, to fashion. She admits to buying her stylish outfits, including the long white sequinned dress she wore to the Ulster Tatler Awards, when she picked up a gong for stepson Jamie, in Italy and France. “I like MaxMara and the clothes in Italy and France fit me. British women are straight up and down…” she gestures.

She enjoys a close relationship with husband Jim Dornan’s grown-up children. Jamie and wife Amelia Warner and small daughter are joining his father and stepmother at his older sister Jessica’s house, handily near the Dornans’ home in Crawfordsburn. “Both Jim’s daughters love to cook. And it’s nice my stepchildren don’t think ‘We can’t go back, the bitch is there!’” she says with a laugh.

The story of how the Dornans met is rather romantic. Samina was a young, newly qualified doctor working in Cork and Jim Dornan was the charismatic senior obstetrician and gynaecologist working at the Royal Victoria Hospital. She recalls: “He was giving a talk in Dublin and my consultant, a friend of his, suggested I go along and make myself known. Jim was brilliant and funny and I was impressed. Afterwards when everybody had a glass of wine, I went up to him but he was surrounded by consultants. So I chatted to the younger doctors and then he came over and said ‘I couldn’t help but notice you’.”


You don’t have to look and behave like a man to succeed, and you don’t have to grow hair under your arms or on your legs to be a feminist


When he asked her out for dinner to discuss her move to Belfast, she says she found the invitation initially not to her liking. “But he explained he could help me organise my research at Queen’s. Then my boss said this guy was so important in obstetrics that Ireland would be grateful if I said yes, so we finally went out.” The rest is history. The couple got married in Clandeboye Courtyard which they filled with flowers. Samina says that her sister Rubina and father both approved of the match. In fact, there was a good relationship between husband, whose image is above her desk in a large, monochrome portrait,
and her late diplomat father Rahim.

Sadly, when Jim developed leukaemia ten years ago, so did Samina’s father. “He got the most aggressive form and died in three months while Jim is very healthy and we think it won’t ever come back. I thought ‘God, your timing is awful’, but I don’t really do religion…”

At that point Samina, whose working life involves being surrounded by pregnant women, decided not to have children. A family with Jim had always been part of the plan yet her priorities suddenly changed. “I thought it wouldn’t be
fair although Jim would have done whatever I wanted. Anyhow, everyone doesn’t have to have everything.” And she smiles, clearly a fulfilled woman.

Of course, Samina, now over 40, inherited a ready made family and dotes on her step-grandchildren. She says she and Jim enjoy watching Jamie play sociopathic counsellor Paul Spector in The Fall. “I have to tape it as I’m usually still at work. At the start, we were  a bit nervous for him but now we just enjoy it and see him as one of the actors. I like dark thrillers…”

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 12.53.58

Her stepspon’s next role, as S and M aficionado Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey will no doubt reveal more of him in the adult scenes than Samina is used to seeing. She says: “I have read the novels and thought they were good. Some women are embarrassed to admit they’ve read them but not me.” She adds: “They might even be good for some marriages”, then says nudity won’t be a problem as she has known the actor and heartthrob since he was a small boy.

You could even argue that Samina helped launch his brilliant career as after he dropped out of university, she made him a generous offer. This good stepmother said she would support him financially for six months, at the end of which he would return to university if he couldn’t pay his own way. “He went to London and lived in some terrible places, one or two that were heartbreaking but he was soon independent of our help…” Samina adds that his siblings sometimes find it hard that their younger brother has effortlessly acquired both fame and fortune. “After all, they went to university and worked hard and now…” She doesn’t need to finish the sentence.

Dr Dornan, nee Mahsud, speaks with a privileged, identifiably Middle Eastern accent with a touch of Co. Down and finishes some sentences with ‘Darling’. She is, as she puts it, half-Persian and half-Afghan and went to finishing school in the Murree mountains of Pakistan. She grew up knowing the political Bhutto family and at her sister’s wedding Benazir, later prime minister, attended along with her mother and a sizeable entourage. “Oh, it was bloody expensive feeding them all, you know.” She points out that people may think that women’s rights aren’t very far advanced in her home country “yet we elected Benazir Bhutto twice although she didn’t really achieve what she could have done”.

You could call Samina Dornan a feminist of the Naomi Wolf school. She’s second generation and knows that society has moved on from the underwear-burning days. “You don’t have to look and behave like a man to succeed, and you don’t have to grow hair under your arms or on your legs to be a feminist”, she laughs, infectiously. In fact, looking good is a Dornan priority. “At the finishing school, we learnt good posture and yes, walked round with a book on our heads. We also learnt to be good wives. A lady always wears high heels that give but don’t take away posture.”

She is wearing L.K.Bennett high heeled black boots. Unfortunately, my black shoes are flatties.

Asked whether her looks have ever been a hindrance or meant she was taken less seriously, Dr Dornan says thanks for the compliment, then adds: “I think women are often not taken seriously anyhow…”

Her philosophy is all about women’s freedoms and she says her New Year’s resolutions will be to do more to further the cause of her sex.

So why did she enter this area of medicine? On the surface, the fact that Samina lost her mother when she was two after a series of gynaecology-related problems looks like a reason, but she says not. “My mother suffered from very bad postnatal depression so she had a tubal ligation (her Fallopian tubes were tied as a form of contraception). Later it went wrong and she died of septicaemia.” Sadly, Samina says she has no memories of the woman who brought her into the world.

Samina originally wanted to be an airline pilot but her father said there weren’t enough airlines in Pakistan and she’d probably end up a backroom girl, adding. “You’re too clever for that”. So plan B was medicine.

She has published and researched widely and says she is now the grown up in her marriage. Does she ever relax? “Yes, by walking my Labradoodle Lola in Crawfordsburn Country Park.” She shows me a cute image of Lola, a glossy canine, shot lying next to her husband.

A woman colleague comes in and they briefly discuss a case with a sad outcome where a baby died and you realise that this woman’s job means she routinely deals with life, and sometimes with death. But she knows she is working in a good, modern place and has made a real difference. “If I was ill I’d want to come to this hospital.” We’re very lucky to have her.

Breaking News

When working in children’s telly, it helps if you remain in touch with your inner kid. The best presenters in the business, from John Noakes to Floella Benjamin, always have. Fermanagh born Rachel Horne (37) who began her stellar rise onscreen as an anchor on CBeebies, ener
getically agrees down the line from London. “Yes, on Newsround, we
always used to imagine a nine-year-old viewer, and we’d think how to present stories like a terrorist attack or a missing child tobbc him. He would be interested in the truth and the world but would probably still be sleeping with a teddy bear.” We discuss whether any topics such as Yewtree would be taboo but Ms Horne thinks not. “No, and programmes like Newsround, which is very well respected, have links to things like Childline and the NSPCC.”

The mother of three is currently performing the juggling act familiar to many working women. “It’s a bit crazy, all about work and family”, she admits. The Horne family are due to jet over to see family in Northern Ireland the weekend we speak. “My brother and his wife have three girls and live in Moira and my parents are in Fermanagh. We’ll be seeing them when we go over today and I do miss the closeness of family. Northern Ireland is only a low cost airline journey away but with five of us it’s not that low cost in the end.”

“My Husband who is much shyer than me when we go out but not when he’s working, obviously, gets recognised more than I do”

These days Rachel Horne deals with grown-up news. As a good BBC employee, Ms Horne says, when asked if she’s Trump or Clinton a week before Trump’s shock victory in the US Presidential election, “Can’t say”. She adds: “I don’t think anybody can as so much in the campaign has been changing. My good friend Amanda Walker on Sky is covering it.”

Her brief is business reporting now and she is about to do shifts anchoring BBC Breakfast alongside Sally Bundock, whom she describes as a “very generous colleague”. Rachel Horne works part time to accommodate her family life with the “three little ones”. They are Thomas (7), Barnaby (5) and Dara (4). The family – Rachel, comedian husband Alex Horne of BBC Radio 4 Horne Section fame, and sons live in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. It’s pure Home Counties and she likes the environment. “You can chill there but it’s on the Tube and you can get into London in 50 minutes .”

Rachel Horne’s first foray into the media was via work experience at BBC Northern Ireland. The Cambridge graduate who studied law – “my dad was a judge, and the dinner table conversation on the subject was interesting as a topic, but not as a career” – switched topic and career choice. “In my gap year, I’d taught English in Vietnam and worked at Corrymeela (community centre) which I really enjoyed.” So Ms Horne turned to theology. It was a small department with around 30 students in Rachel’s year. “We learnt comparative religion, with Holocaust issues on the syllabus.”  After that, the woman headed to Ormeau Avenue and journalism. “I shadowed Martina Purdy, who’s now become a nun, and Mark Simpson. He was brilliant, encouraging and inspiring. I’d done a postgraduate journalism course and knew I really wanted to go into that.”

Ms Horne had a couple of encounters with Prime Minister Blair early in her brilliant career. She was working as a runner for national BBC and just before going on air, people realised Tony Blair had left his jacket in the green room. “I had to run and get it for him. Funnily enough, three years later, I got to interbbc 2view him for Newsround as part of a piece on education. It was all very cloak and dagger and they didn’t tell you who you were interviewing until he arrived by helicopter. He was lovely and very professional but I am not sure he remembered me.” Was Tony Blair charismatic? “Yes”, she comments briefly.

Rachel Horne met her comedian husband at Cambridge, so I wonder was theirs a coup de foudre and instant connection. She laughs. “No, we met in freshers’ week but it took him two years to come to his senses.” They live in his part of the world because as a successful comedian, he needs the larger audience. “We realised it could only work if Alex and I lived near London but I do get homesick. I was over in Belfast a month ago, staying with my brother, and going to the MAC. The good thing about living in the country near a small town is that I can more or less give the boys the freedom I had growing up.” Rachel Horne goes on to talk about her sons’ primary school and the way she gets to do the school run part of the time. “As Alex’s career took off, he couldn’t be based in Northern Ireland. But the free, rural childhood was really important to me so we decided not to live in central London. It’s too built up, too concrete. Living here, my friends are only three quarters of an hour away.”

Bill Clinton is another big political beast Rachel Horne has encountered. “It was one of the times he was visiting the UK and when I was shadowing Martina. I was just the work experience person but at the BBC in Northern Ireland, they bent over backwards to help you. I didn’t get to speak to him but got a sense of the si
ze of the event.”

We bat around the question of women being unfairly judged in the media, with their looks getting the sort of scrutiny somebody like John Sergeant wouldn’t have got. But she says that things are changing. “In terms of appearance, you have to look professional, especially in News. You’re doing a job and if you aren’t dressed appropriately, it matters. I go to Marks & Spencer’s a lot as they do great dresses. If I want to treat myself, though, I love a bit of Whistles.” On the question of ageism in the media, Rachel Horne again says she is hopeful about the future for her generation. “I do feel quite optimistic. I was in TV in my twenties, had Thomas when I was 29, took a year off with my first two boys, then two years with the third.”

On the thorny question of the regional accent, Rachel Horne is equally upbeat. Her voice iswarm and has a soft Northern Irish inflection. “People at home think it’s not a strong Northern Irish accent but people in England do. They say they can always tell when I’ve been speaking to my mother at the weekend as it gets broader!” Working in BBC news, Rachel Horne sometimes works with fellow Ulster woman Annita
McVeigh and a Northern Irish producer, which she enjoys.

Asked whether she socialises with the Northern Irish media types in London, Rachel laughs and admits to knowing Paddy Kielty slightly. There is an anecdote attache
d, as she explains, “I’ve worked with him on Radio 2 and he is lovely. When I was in my late teens, I remember a girlfriend and I were out after a U2 concert.” Her friend’s brother lived on the same street as the Kielty family. “There were sofas out in the street and me and my friend knocked on his door, the way you do when you’re 18.” They made a lame excuse, asking Kielty, who’d answered the door, if he knew the number of a taxi firm. “He saidno. We then asked him if he was having a party and could we come? He said ‘yes’, then ‘no’, and shut the door!” Ms Horne laughs at the memory, adding that when she interviewed Kielty years later, he said he didn’t recall the incident.
In terms of the fame question, and getting recognised, Rachel Horne says there isn’t an
issue in the family as it’s her husband who gets the ‘My God,  it’s him!’ reactions. “My husband, who is much shyer than me when we go out but not when he’s working, obviously, gets recognised more than I do because of what he does. And when the boys see me on TV, they just say ‘Ok, Mummy, whatever.’”

bbc 3She does not think her sons have inherited their parents’ performing gene. “They are all quite distinct. Tom is very thoughtful and loves reading, Barney is quite creative and imaginative, he loves Superheroes. And Dara is a crazy four year old.” She adds that he woke up one night in the gap between waking and sleeping and said something interesting. “He said ‘I’m in the garden and everything is made of soup.’ I said, ‘Go back to sleep.’”

When Rachel and her family are visiting her brother, they go to Wine and Brine. “Last time we went it was fantastic. They do great cocktails and I had a sensational gin-martini.”

Premier Poet

Discussing poet Michael Longley’s tenure from 2007 to 2010 as Ireland Professor of Poetry, we agree the title is grand and therefore rather nice. “Sounds important, doesn’t it?”, the great man says with a smile. We agree the next, deserved step up would be World Professor of Poetry. He laughs, infectiously, although he’s suffering from a bout of bronchitis and occasionally has to stop the interview, which he didn’t want to postpone, to as he puts it “explode”.Of course, the step up from that would be poetry god. Michael Longley, our premier poet since the death two years ago of his great friend and colleague Seamus Heaney, is a definite contender. And the man who is a classicist and sits in a study surrounded by just some of his and literary critic wife Edna’s 3000 books, looks a bit like a Roman sculptor’s version of one of their gods, say Hercules.

Longley, who has a couple of TS Eliot awards and many honorary degrees to his name, has just won the Ulster Tatler’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement award and says he is thrilled about the gong. “I’m delighted, really very pleased to get this for a lifetime’s work, and am thrilled t

Frank Orsmby, Michael and Edna Longley, Nuala Meenahan and David Fitzpatrick
Frank Orsmby, Michael and Edna Longley, Nuala Meenahan and David Fitzpatrick

o be receiving it on the night the boxer Carl Frampton gets his award and also to be alongside successful entrepreneurs. That shows poetry is a normal human activity, part of everyday life as I believe it is. And as the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh once said, when a young man dabbles in verses, they become his life.”

That’s certainly true of Mr Longley who has, you could say, dabbled to good effect. We start at the beginning of Longley’s brillliant career and he reveals that some of the first poems he wrote as a teenager were, unsurprisingly, chat up lines. “I fell deeply in love with a Methody girl called Pat when I was sixteen. After she ditched me, there were two or three other lovely Methody girls. I remember writing a poem at that time called ‘Song of a Watchman’. We had watchmen in the city then who occupied huts surrounded by lamps. The ending ran ‘I can’t desire what is not mine/From things in reach are out of sight.’ Not bad for a first try.” The skill was naturally there from the outset.

Longley was a jock and an aesthere, playing rugger at school (BRA or Inst) and reaching the first team. But the tender emotions prevailed. Edna Longley, the non Methody girl Longley loved and married, is referred to by her husband variously as “the brainy one” and the PA. She makes us strong tea. Longley’s account of how he met his wife is as romantic as the poems he’s written to her over his long career. He studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin, and was glancing out of a window one day when he spotted a girl with raven dark, Irish hair. “I saw this girl walking along who had this raven’s head of dark hair and said to one of my fellow students ‘Who’s that?’ He said ‘Oh she’s brighter than all of us, she’ll get the top degree.’”

“It was a very close friendship between me and Seamus although of course there was competition too.”

They didn’t get together immediately because Longley was, as he amusingly puts it, damaged by his longing for all those Methody girls. But he eventually used the old ruse of asking for a comment on his work. That is, the poems, which she still sees first, before his editors at Faber have a chance to comment. He says fondly: “She was very gentle, and generous. It went on from there, much to my delight.” Michael Longley is uxorious and he and his wife are clearly still an item. Talking to him about their marriage is quite moving as he recounts their wedding day and a resulting poem. “Marrying Edna was the best thing I ever did. We got married in December 1964 on a cold and windy day at the church in Dundalk. I wrote a poem, ‘Pattern’, about that.” When he reads it, you get the relationship and the love. The lines about the figure-revealing wind and the way he revisited their special day after finding the old Vogue pattern that Edna Broderick had used to make her wonderful, box pleated wedding dress, are glorious.

“Thirty-six years, to the day, after our wedding… I find in its fat envelope / The six-shilling Vogue pattern for your bride’s dress,/ Complicated instructions for stitching bodice/ And skirt, box pleats and hems, tissue paper outlines,/ Semblances of skin which I nervously unfold/ And hold up in snow-light, for snow has been falling/ On this windless day, and I glimpse your wedding dress/ And white shoes outside in the transformed garden/ Where the clothes-lines and every twig have been covered.”

Love poetry doesn’t get more special. In the room enhanced by Longley’s youngest daughter Sarah’s superb portraits, he goes on to say he and Edna have gone on to have three children, Rebecca, a headhunter, Daniel, a molecular biologist working in cancer research and Sarah, the artist. They now, of course, have several grandchildren and some of the poet’s most tender recent work details their conception, birth and growing up.

When you have the chance to talk to a literary legend, you have to ask one or two big questions. Why do we need poetry, for example. Longley has a twinkle in his eye and is a humorous man, which is clear in his answer to the question. “The interesting thing about poetry and the arts is that they’re useless. Which doesn’t mean to say they’re valueless. I like Cyril Connolly’s definition when he

PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 17/9/2015: Poet Michael Longley and world champion boxer Carl Frampton pictured at last night's glittering Ulster Tatler Awards at Belfast City Hall. Longley received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Frampton was awarded with Sportsperson of the Year at the gala event. This was the eighth year for the awards that were created by Northern IrelandÕs longest-running glossy magazine, Ulster Tatler, to recognise and celebrate the people and businesses of Northern Ireland that have lit up its pages since 1966. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 17/9/2015: Poet Michael Longley and world champion boxer Carl Frampton pictured at last night’s glittering Ulster Tatler Awards at Belfast City Hall. Longley received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Frampton was awarded with Sportsperson of the Year at the gala event. This was the eighth year for the awards that were created by Northern IrelandÕs longest-running glossy magazine, Ulster Tatler, to recognise and celebrate the people and businesses of Northern Ireland that have lit up its pages since 1966.

compared the arts to a small gland in the body like the pituitary gland. It appears small and unimportant but if you remove it, the body dies.” Then Michael Longley loses the smile and gets serious about the art that is his lifetime’s passion. He has written poetry his whole life except for a fallow period in his forties when he worked in arts administration, adding he was unhappy and drank a bit. He quit the job and the muse returned. “Societies ruled by dictators like Hitler and Stalin who wanted to do away with the arts and any opposition they represented did not prosper.”

Longley has an English background and his father, who was a furniture salesman travelling around Ireland north and south selling three piece suites, brought the family to Belfast for work. Michael says fondly that his dad, Major Longley who fought in both world wars, was one of those Englishmen the Ulster people actually liked. Longley was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He returned north after taking his degree and became part of a group of writers encouraged by Queen’s University English don and noted critic Philip Hobsbaum and known simply as the Belfast Group. We have to discuss Longley’s long and warm relationship with Seamus Heaney.

On a golden evening at a literary festival in Magherafelt a couple of weeks after Heaney’s death, Michael Longley stepped into the slot that was to have been occupied by his friend and delivered a blinder of a tribute. Both sad and celebratory, the resulting reading recalled Yeats’ poems that namecheck the key ones who have gone before. “I remember the evening. When I joined the group, the important thing was really about meeting Seamus, and he and

Marie Devlin, his wife to be, and Edna and I formed a kind of quartet. Seamus drove a Volkswagen and I didn’t drive, but we’d go about the country to pubs and restaurants together. I like Guinness and whiskey too, I’m afraid. It was a very close friendship between me and Seamus although of course there was competition too. I don’t think poetry is written in isolation and there’s no solo flight but we were both aiming for excellence, catching the vector flights upwards, raising our souls.”

Michael’s other friend and soulmate, although I suspect he wouldn’t use the term was his twin Peter who died a couple of years ago. He says now: “I was with Peter when he died. Having a twin is a big deal, losing him was a big deal. Being with him as he died, I wondered if I’d ever write about the experience, but in the end I wrote a lot of poems, a kind of sustained lamentation.

I’m pleased I was able to do that and sent them to his widow Catherine and my older sister. They said they’d treasure these poems. There are quite a lot of classical references too.”

Longley notes that when Seamus Heaney died, he felt the same cataclysmic sense of psychological amputation. “It was very like losing Peter. Seamus and I had done a reading down South a couple of

Lifetime Achievement Award - Poet Michael Longley
Lifetime Achievement Award – Poet Michael Longley

weeks before he died. It was a glorious evening, we didn’t go one poem from each but did chunks of work. I remember I sent him a card saying how pleased I was, and now I am so glad I posted it. On the day Seamus died, and I had no idea he was ill, a woman rang up from Radio Ulster and told me the news. She then asked for my reaction and would I say a few words. I said no.”

Victor Hugo once said that poets are also philosophers and historians. That is certainly true of Michael Longley. ‘Ceasefire’, which he reads to us after the interview with superb phrasing, is possibly Longley’s most famous poem. It takes on the Northern Irish Troubles by way of his classical education and imagines Achilles, who has lost his son Hector to Priam, managing to welcome the fellow warrior and acknowledge his status while still retaining the stain of grief. “It is, I suppose, my best known poem.” Longley says. It presents the two alpha males as spiritual contenders, both affected by the fight, both almost attracted to their status, and he says they square up as lovers do, admiring the other’s beauty. The final couplet, famously published a few days before the IRA ceasefire, runs: “I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.”

Finishing up in leafy BT9, where we have to ask the gardener to stop cutting the grass on his tractor style lawnmower because of the noise,  we talk about food and how Michael and Edna relax. “I do a good gently spiced curry but I don’t do vindaloo, all that stuff about proving your masculinity via spices.”

And the final question, about how Michael Longley would write his own obituary, produces the following insight. “I’d like to be called a poet more than anything else, for people to say I was good fun and a loyal friend. Also somebody who cared about nature and animals. Most importantly, I’d like to be remembered as a good father and would like my long relationship with Edna to be seen as central.”