In Search of My Father 2017 Writing Project

In Search of My Father 2017 Writing Project
In Search of My Father, 2017 writing project supported by The National Lottery through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Monday, 20 November 2017


Black Friday, get in a queue and wait,
dressed from head to toe in combat gear,
who dares wins, shopping with no fear,
eyes on bargains, gathered hordes salivate,

wearing elbow pads, shin pads and hobnail boots,
atmosphere rising to fever pitch,
the mild-mannered become bastard and bitch,
battering and bruising, not giving two hoots.

The lucky ones hold their prizes high,
triumphant in their quest to win the day,
victorious survivors of the fray,
while the disappointed hang their heads and cry.

And after all the sales are rung and checked,
both store displays and shop staff nerves are wrecked.


I am making an educated guess that this photograph was taken in the early 1980s, not because of my boyish good looks but because of where I was and what I was working on. The room is the smallest one in our first house as a married couple in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. The scattering of books and paper is research material for a manuscript that eventually became a biography of film star Stephen Boyd. But the significant curiosity in this modern era is that I am using a typewriter. I was not a trained typist and now that my healthy looking dark fringe has turned a tad whitish, I still only use one finger to type, two if up against a deadline and, on really adventurous days, a thumb as well. I remember all the palaver of changing messy black and red ink ribbons, struggling to align perfectly carbon paper in between two sheets of A4 paper, keys sticking when my typing became too frenzied and the slapstick joy of working with Snowpake correction fluid. My older sister Mary was the fully-trained and qualified typist in the family. I’ll come back to Mary later.

These were the days, children, before the information super highway and all of the things we take for granted nowadays like Google, online shopping, YouTube, Twitter, music streaming and all the other layers of world wide web wizardry that now obsess mankind for good or evil.

Five years ago on 20 November 2012, the manufacturer Brother claimed to have built the UK’s last typewriter in its North Wales factory. Since 1985, when the Wrexham operation opened, the site had produced nearly six million typewriters but demand in these islands had declined sharply, although there were still healthy markets for the machines in other parts of the world including the USA and the Far East, where Brother continued to manufacture typewriters.

As far back as the 16th Century, a number of inventors had a go at experimenting with ‘impressing letters onto a page’ using a machine and historical pictures show all manner of contraptions in their bids to come up with something that would benefit communications and printing. The first patent for “a machine for transcribing letters” was issued to Henry Mill, an English engineer, in 1714. The patent read, (in the days before spellchecking): “That he hath by his great study and paines and expence invented and brought to perfection an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after the other, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from printing.”

The first claim for a practical typewriter as we would recognize it today came from four American inventors working together including Christopher Sholes who designed the familiar QWERTY keyboard layout. It was the first typewriter proven to be faster than handwriting. There is a plaque in Wisconsin to record that “at 318 State Street, C. Latham Sholes perfected the first practical typewriter in September 1869. Here he worked with Carlos Glidden, Samuel W. Soule and Matthias Schwalbach in the machine shop of C. F. Kleinsteuber. During the next six years, money for the further development of the typewriter was advanced by James Densmore who later gained the controlling interest and sold it to E. Remington and Sons of Ilion, New York.”

Remington further developed the typewriter idea with various models and in a matter of years, offices were getting used to the clatter of keys and margin-reached pings. In turn this led to a boom in secretaries and personal assistants, as well as multi-staffed typing pools, jobs mostly done by women. Eventually manual machines gave way to electric typewriters and many brands and versions emerged in the 1950s and beyond from manufacturers like Olivetti, Casio and Smith-Corona. Typewriters with electronic memory functions arrived in the late 1970s to be superseded in time, of course, by computers.

Whilst it may have been hard, tedious work typing business letters, reports and news stories all day, typewriters were seen as cool gadgets for writers and you don’t have to look too hard to find nostalgic photographs of Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Anthony Burgess and many others posing, some with a cigarette or a pipe (not Agatha), next to their machines. For a jolly burst of nostalgia, it is worth heading to YouTube to listen to The Typewriter tune composed by Leroy Anderson and first performed in 1950 by the Boston Pops Orchestra. It is a brilliant piece of music making the most of keys, bell and carriage return.

Rather like vinyl LPs, the typewriter may not be extinct just yet. I am sure there are many people still using them and revering them as trusty old companions. Of course, even in this age of technological overload, computers are not universally loved. The actor Tom Hanks has stimulated interest by writing a book of short stories, each one featuring a typewriter and, it is reported that he is a collector with around two-hundred typewriters in his loft. On Desert Island Discs, he chose as his luxury a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter and paper.

Some nuggets from the typewriting archives - the writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, etc) bought a Lettera 32 Olivetti in 1963 for $50. It was sold at auction a few years ago for $254,500. Mark Twain, it is said, reckoned Tom Sawyer was the first novel ever written using a typewriter. J. K. Rowling said: “I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” As mentioned earlier, the last typewriter made by Brother in Wrexham was donated to the Science Museum in London because it represented the end of a technology that had been important to so many lives.

My sister Mary tells me that she learned to use a typewriter at Lisburn Technical College around 1968. She used an Olivetti manual machine and the teaching itself was interesting. A wooden box was positioned so that the student could not look down at the keyboard. It was not only a skill to get all the fingers choreographed, it was a memory test. Each student had to memorise the position of every letter, number, symbol and function of the keyboard. Mary’s typing speed achieved 80 words a minute and she remembers loving the sounds of hitting the keys and the growl of the carriage return. 

A text book at Lisburn in those days was The Early History of the Typewriter by Charles E. Weller who was an advocate of the practice drills of typing over and over again phrases like ‘now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party’, ‘now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country’ and the classic ‘ the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, a popular teaching phrase or pangram, as they say in the trade, because it uses every letter of the alphabet, (for the pedants, using a few letters more than once).

Mary’s skills led her to a great career, starting at 17 years old in Belfast with Solomon and Peres, the music, entertainment retailer/distributor for Decca, RCA, Brunswick and Coral Records in Ann Street and then to Cyril Lord’s, the carpet people in Bangor before moving on to several Northern Ireland civil service jobs doing secretarial work, shorthand and typing. She describes leaving a typing pool, in which she punched away at manual typewriters, as “escaping that enclosure”.

We are so sophisticated now with our finger and thumb gadgets that most of this modern generation of texting and phone-checking obsessives is oblivious to a good old-fashioned typewriter. But in the history of QWERTY from its outset, there are people of past generations, mostly female, who could recall their days, for good or otherwise, on automatic pilot tapping away at the behest of their bosses, mostly male, in industry, politics and media. Without typewriters and typists in the past, the whole commercial world might have ground to a halt and the brown fox and the lazy dog might have been redundant. Time moves on, as do methods for typing, but there is still, and hopefully, always something that reminds us of where it all began. My sister Mary reminds me of many great things but I am in awe of her mastery of the keyboard.

Saturday, 18 November 2017


Just like panto, my annual book of nonsense resurfaces, polished up and expanded a wee bit - hilariousoh yes it .......

Jolly Christmas Poems & Jokes

A collection of funny poems and silly jokes about Christmas with lots of ho-ho-ho - like this one: On the first day of Christmas My mother sent to me A pear tree with a partridge in it – And I said: “Just a minute, What am I supposed to do With falling leaves and birdy dooh, All covering the garden path – And what about the aftermath?” The wife comes home with shopping bag, All laden with the Christmas swag Of turkey, trimmings, wrapping paper, Preparing for the Yuletide caper. Off the bus and down the street Firmly trudge her aching feet, Through the gate and up the path, Yearning for a steaming bath. The leaves, the birdy dooh combine To skid her into swift decline And there she sits amongst the mess Of partridge, pears and deep distress.
ISBN: 9781788761239
Type: Paperback
Pages: 138
Published: 16 November 2017
Price: £5.99

Better than Christmas cracker jokes any oul day!

Friday, 17 November 2017


Here's an item from the latest Private Eye magazine;

"While university and literature festival bigwigs celebrated Manchester joining cities such as Barcelona and Dublin on Unesco's worldwide Creative Cities network as a City of Literature, many Mancunian readers have been left scratching their heads. Over the past five years the city council has cleared out wholesale the books and archive records held at Manchester's Central Library. More than 200,000 books and archives have been chucked into skips, pulped or flogged off by Lancashire-based firm Revival Books, which sells them online via Amazon and eBay. Campaigners - who called it 'cultural vandalism' - were particularly alarmed to learn that no record has been kept of the books and archives that have been junked, pulped or sold by Revival Books, which has the contract to run the Central Library on behalf of the council."

The item goes on to say that plans by city chiefs to shut 6 branch libraries in 2013 were halted following a public outcry and in neighbouring Bury, part of Greater manchester, 10 libraries are for the chop.

I read that and weep.

Then I think about other cities and towns, central and branch libraries across the UK either already closed or on the chopping block, and the hundreds of thousands of books and archives that have been lost forever, and I weep again.

The Private Eye item concluded by saying that Manchester council tweeted in search of ideas for what to do with its former library buildings to improve communities and they received dozens of replies suggesting some kind of well-supplied public study space offering book lending and computer access would be welcome.

Still weeping.

Council members, hang your heads in shame. Future generations, I can only apologise on behalf of the shortsightedness and stupidity committed by members of my generation.

Monday, 13 November 2017


I have had a near-40 year career mainly in retail management.  I have written about my career in two books – Retail Confidential and Much Calamity & The Redundance Kid.  I have managed and been managed.  I know how the people side of business is supposed to work and how it actually works. Such a handbook as this is essential to expose the existence, nature and disgrace of bullying and how to deal with it.

Gower 2015

I don’t think I’ve been bullied in a workplace.  But, having read this enlightening and disturbing book, it’s made me think.  The book is enlightening because it gets to the very core of its subject thanks to the knowledge and expertise of the many contributors, including editor Anne-Marie Quigg.  It is indeed a handbook of factual information and practical advice. It is disturbing because it reminds us that bullying is an ever-present monster in far too many organizations, with some of those organizations blatantly encouraging heavy management tactics as part of their workplace cultures.  There are also senior managers who turn a blind eye or are in denial.  But the book is also very clear about what can be done to eradicate bullying.  The monster can be destroyed.

In one phase of my career a company that puffed out its mission statement and values to demonstrate that it was a great place to work because respect for individuals was at its heart employed me.  Most people across the ranks were decent folks but one boss, after years of being a fair guy, suddenly started to give me the cold shoulder and more than once he embarrassed me in meetings in front of colleagues.  He would cut short any comments I made and would get very picky about things that had never bothered him before. For several months, it was very unsettling and it affected how I felt about work when I got up in the mornings.  At the time, bullying did not cross my mind.  But now, on reflection after reading this book, maybe I was bullied.  Anyway, that’s a digression but I thought I would mention it.

The book has a handy but important prologue that defines bullying, bullies and patterns of bullying behaviour:

‘Bullying is a form of abuse. It can be power abuse, position abuse, racial abuse, gender-based abuse.  Harassment and sexual harassment are forms of bullying; they are simply manifested in different ways.” (Sheila K. Martin)

In her introduction, Anne-Marie Quigg, sets the scene:

“As yet, no single, globally accepted definition of adult bullying exists and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  Increasingly, however, there is widespread recognition that workplace bullying is highly undesirable, destructive and costly in terms of personal as well as corporate experience.” 

In my career, managers who enjoyed shouting and swearing at teams and individuals were often described as “old school” and “characters”.  I am talking about the 1970s and 1980s here and it was deemed acceptable behaviour.  In theory, from the late 1980s, with the softer focus on corporate cultures preached by so-called gurus (mainly American), we should have seen a reduction in poor management behaviour. Alas, it appears not to be the case.  All the leadership wisdom in the world has failed to resolve many aspects of business including and perhaps especially bullying.  I have experience of working with unqualified human resources managers who have gained such a position by being “good with people” rather than trained in the intricacies of employee welfare.

Bullying targets, as they are referred to in the book, have access to resources online and elsewhere to help them find a way through their traumas.  It seems there is a stigma to admit to being bullied but anonymous and/or confidential assistance is available for anyone too shy or worried to talk face-to-face with a sympathetic and practical contact.  In short, there is awareness, there is help, there is guidance, there is some legislation but there is still bullying.

Business leaders are a mixed bunch and whilst awareness of bullying has increased, management of it has not yet reached the top of the corporate agenda.  I have often been told at times in my career that people are the most important and valuable assets in any company.  Clearly, in practice, this is nonsense - theory versus practice, and a Grand Canyon between the two on this issue. 

According to the book, as an example of scale, a 2014 survey about bullying in US workplaces found that 65 million American employees have been affected by workplace bullying. 65 million! I calculate that at around 20% of the population, give or take. Apparently, there are no current laws to protect US employees against workplace bullying.  So, whilst awareness has increased, there is no room on the agenda to tackle the problem. Bonkers.

Ireland, a country close to my heart and soul, is put under the microscope because of its exposure as a country with a terrible history of scandal and abuse in religious and government-supported institutions. Incarceration of and cruelty to orphans and unmarried mothers, for example, shames a nation famous for its hundred thousand welcomes.  Far too slowly, the truth is coming out, far too late for victims and survivors. The book also tours Europe and offers more uncomfortable reading as countries fail to do enough to safeguard people trying to earn a crust.

The Handbook of Dealing With Workplace Bullying brims with facts, analysis and advice on positive approaches for leaders not just to consider bullying and its impact but also to take appropriate actions.  There are many options available to tackle the problem, to encourage bullied employees to come forward without fear to help expose this rotten, miserable aspect of working life.

“Governments and judiciaries of the world have much to learn from each other, and in doing so they open up the possibility that one day workplace bullying will be universally condemned as unjust and a phenomenon not to be tolerated.” (Anne-Marie Quigg & Sheila K. Martin)

Isn’t it a shame that this exceptional and essential book had to be written? But written it is and its contents should be used widely to continue the work of telling the truth about bullying and, more importantly, encouraging effective action to erase the practice completely, indeed, to slay the monster once and for all.

Congratulations to all the contributors.

End note:

The only drawback I can see about this book is the price.  As I write this, it sells at £70 on Amazon.  Perhaps the publishers can explain the rationale here.  The price, as far as I can see, will limit the number of people who would like to read it, and it should, nay, MUST be read widely, studied and used extensively. The subject is too serious and important to be packaged so expensively. 

EXTRA NOTE: Anne-Marie Quigg can offer a 35% discount on the price to anyone interested in buying a copy. Contact Anne-Marie here or via her Twitter handle @amq1