‘I didn’t think for a minute that I’d be hav­ing any more chil­dren as I was in my 60s ... Gra­cie was a sur­prise to say the least ...’

Ra­dio Ul­ster pre­sen­ter Colum Arbuckle re­calls his shock at be­com­ing a fa­ther late in years, his hum­ble child­hood in Lon­don­derry and how his life ran in as­ton­ish­ing par­al­lel with that of his great friend, the late Gerry An­der­son. By Stephanie Bell

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - INTERVIEW -

Colum Arbuckle could al­most have come from the same mould as his late great pal Gerry An­der­son — an unas­sum­ing and huge ta­lent who doesn’t take life or him­self too se­ri­ously. The pair be­came friends in their mid teens and the par­al­lels in their ca­reers af­ter that proved to be ex­tra­or­di­nary.

Both played in the same band, shared a bed in a flat in Manch­ester for a year, went to live across the At­lantic around the same time and then joined the BBC to­gether, where even their desks were side by side.

It seems fit­ting that to­day Colum’s pop­u­lar Ra­dio Ul­ster show Time of Our Lives fea­tures in­ter­views with or­di­nary older peo­ple who have an ex­tra­or­di­nary story to tell.

His own story is fas­ci­nat­ing, with many twists and turns, and his good friend Gerry fea­tures through­out.

Gerry was one of North­ern Ire­land’s best known and most loved ra­dio pre­sen­ters and his death four years ago at the age of 69 from a long ill­ness shocked and sad­dened every­one who knew him.

For those close to him, like Colum, it was a dev­as­tat­ing blow.

He says: “There isn’t a day goes past I don’t think of him. Where I am sit­ting talk­ing to you now there is a pho­to­graph of him sit­ting be­side me, taken at my 60th birth­day.”

It’s not just Colum who mourns Gerry’s pass­ing: “Through my pro­gramme I meet loads of peo­ple, es­pe­cially older peo­ple and prac­ti­cally ev­ery one of them will say ‘ach you must miss Gerry’ and of course we do.

“In Ra­dio Foyle there is a por­trait of him hang­ing in re­cep­tion and you never ever for­get Gerry and ev­ery sin­gle day you just miss him.

“The great thing about Gerry was a lot of the old yarns he told on ra­dio about var­i­ous things that hap­pened to him, I had heard a mil­lion times be­fore.

“What he was on ra­dio, he was like that off air. When we trav­elled to gigs in an old tran­sit van he would be chat­ting away telling sto­ries just like he did on ra­dio.

“He was very nat­u­ral, he wasn’t do­ing it to en­ter­tain you, that’s just the way he was. That was the great thing about him, there was noth­ing forced about Gerry.”

Like Gerry, Colum has spent most of his work­ing life at Ra­dio Foyle, first as a pre­sen­ter and then a pro­ducer be­fore re­tir­ing at the age of 60.

Now 71, he was per­suaded to come out of re­tire­ment three years ago to present his pop­u­lar Sun­day af­ter­noon show.

It wasn’t long af­ter he re­tired that he be­came a dad again to lit­tle Gra­cie who is eight.

He also has two girls from his first mar­riage, Julie (51) and Rachel (46), and is a grand­fa­ther to seven and great grand­dad to two.

Colum is 23 years older than his wife Sharon who works for the Prince’s Trust.

The cou­ple met through work and were col­leagues first and then friends be­fore be­com­ing ro­man­ti­cally in­volved. They mar­ried in 2004 and be­cause of his age Colum says he wasn’t ex­pect­ing to be a dad again.

He adds: “I didn’t think for one minute I would be hav­ing any more chil­dren as I was in my 60s and Sharon’s bi­o­log­i­cal clock was tick­ing. Then when it tran­spired that Sharon was preg­nant it was a great shock. Gra­cie was a sur­prise to say the least.

“She is the best thing that ever hap­pened to me in my en­tire life. I am an older fa­ther and don’t have the same en­ergy that I used to but I wouldn’t change a sec­ond of it. Just to wake up ev­ery morn­ing and have this beau­ti­ful wee per­son with you is a joy.

“She is re­ally vi­brant and has red hair and is mu­si­cal. She plays the pi­ano ex­cep­tion­ally well. Her mum isn’t mu­si­cal at all and Gra­cie would say to me ‘dad, you and I are the mu­si­cians in the fam­ily’.”

His child­hood was spent in a small house at­tached to what was then a ru­ral pub out­side the city where his fa­ther Joe was a bar­man.

He says: “My fa­ther was the last ten­ant bar­man in what was an old coach­ing inn called The White Horse Inn which is about five miles out­side Derry. There was a house at­tached to this wee small coun­try bar and we lived in the house up un­til I was six. It is a big swanky ho­tel now but it wasn’t then, it was just a wee ram­shackle bar and a wee ba­sic house. There was no elec­tric­ity in the house and no run­ning wa­ter and we shared an out­side toi­let with the bar.”

He later was to share his mem­o­ries of those days with a wider au­di­ence: “I was asked one time to write the story about it for a lo­cal magazine called Water­side Voices and I got my mother and fa­ther out and had a tape recorder and the funny thing was the two of them ar­gued for about an hour and a

half over the de­tails. Out of the story I got a nice wee ar­ti­cle which has been pub­lished a few times in lo­cal mag­a­zines and lo­cal books.

Colum was just over five years old when the fam­ily moved into the Creg­gan area of Derry. At that time it was a new big so­cial hous­ing area “where all the Catholics were cor­ralled. It back­fired badly in later years but it was fine then”.

He was the first of a fam­ily of six, and has two broth­ers and three sis­ters. Mu­sic has played a big part in Colum’s life since he was a young boy. His mum Kath­leen played the pi­ano and sent him to lessons from an early age.

He re­calls: “Mu­sic has been a big cat­a­lyst of my en­tire life. All the great things that hap­pened to me in my life hap­pened be­cause of mu­sic and the rea­son for that was be­cause my mother played the pi­ano and she en­cour­aged me.

“Where she got the money to buy a pi­ano I have no idea as she hadn’t two pen­nies to rub to­gether but she did buy one and sent me to lessons and that’s where my mu­si­cal ca­reer started when I was very young.

“I re­mem­ber my pi­ano teacher put me into a lo­cal feis and I was very pleased to get a cer­tifi­cate with fourth place on it.

“It was only years later I re­alised when you get to the feis there are only first, sec­ond and third prizes and every­body else gets fourth so I was one of about 297 chil­dren who got fourth prize.”

He was in his teens when he joined his first show band, The Gay McIn­tyre Band. While study­ing for his A lev­els the band he was of­fered a res­i­dency in a bar in Manch­ester. A young Colum was per­suaded by his mum to fin­ish his A lev­els be­fore join­ing the band a cou­ple of months later in Eng­land.

Gerry An­der­son also played gui­tar for the group and the two teenagers from Derry shared not only a flat but a dou­ble bed for the year the band played in Manch­ester.

The two young men lived in poverty for those 12 months, of­ten go­ing with­out food be­cause they couldn’t af­ford to buy it.

Colum re­calls: “We were as poor as mice. It was the first time ever in my life I knew hunger. We got £12 a week and we sent £6 home. As young fel­las we had no idea how to man­age money and we lived fairly well for the first three days and then for the other four we would starve.

“I re­mem­ber one time we were so hun­gry I went into the kitchen search­ing for some­thing to eat and I found a piece of black­ened toast. I brought it in to Gerry and he said ‘give me half of it’. It was prob­a­bly all we had to eat that morn­ing.”

The lack of money also meant they couldn’t af­ford to buy clothes.

It was the early Six­ties when young men were very neatly turned out and the two boys re­alised that if they wanted to get dates with girls they needed to smarten up.

They pooled what lit­tle money they had to buy a suit be­tween them.

It proved a lucky suit for Gerry as Colum re­calls.

He says: “I re­mem­ber is was a sil­ver mo­hair suit and we called it ‘The Bird Pulling Suit’. We would take turns wear­ing this suit out look­ing for women.

“Just a few years ago Gerry was in­ducted into the hall of fame by the Ir­ish Ra­dio As­so­ci­a­tion and I was asked by the BBC to go and ac­cept the award on his be­half.

“I trav­elled down to Dublin with his wi­dow Chris and she was telling me that the first ever time she saw Gerry was on a dance floor where he re­ally stood out be­cause he was wear­ing this grey mo­hair suit.”

The boys re­turned to Derry af­ter a year when the res­i­dency in Manch­ester came to an end.

They went their sep­a­rate ways but their lives re­mained on par­al­lel lines.

Gerry went to Dublin with a well known band at the time called The Chess Men and then joined The Brown O’Brien Big Band who left for a tour of Canada.

Mean­while Colum was play­ing in Derry and met guys who had started a band in Amer­ica who asked him to join them.

He says: “These were all re­ally weird co­in­ci­dences, Gerry went off to Canada and around the same time I went to New York.

‘I am con­vinced I could stop any per­son in Belfast, Derry or Newry and they will have a story to tell’

“I was mar­ried at that time to my first wife and we had two chil­dren who are both Amer­i­can ci­ti­zens.

“About 1972 I came back to Derry and Gerry roughly around the same time came back from Canada and got mar­ried to Chris.”

The two friends then started their own band called Toe­jam which en­joyed suc­cess, tour­ing widely across Ire­land.

They missed out on a chance of mak­ing it big al­though in a twist of fate it led to Colum open­ing Derry’s first record­ing stu­dio which is how he came to be of­fered a job as a pre­sen­ter in the then new Ra­dio Foyle.

Around the same time Gerry was writ­ing for the lo­cal magazine, Com­mu­nity Mir­ror, and through his writ­ing was also of­fered a job in the new sta­tion.

Colum re­calls what could have been a chance of a life­time for the tal­ented friends: “Toe­jam was quite suc­cess­ful in a gig­ging sense; we did tours here, there and ev­ery­where.

“We were play­ing in Dublin and met a guy look­ing to start a record la­bel. He kept ring­ing Gerry up and he wanted us to be on his record la­bel.

“He wanted de­mos and asked us to write some stuff and record it. We didn’t do much writ­ing as we were too lazy and there weren’t any record­ing stu­dios in Derry.

“I had a wee tape recorder I had bought in Amer­ica and it was just a wee am­a­teur thing and we tried to do a few record­ings on it but they weren’t very pro­fes­sional.

“Mean­while the guy in Dublin started his la­bel which turned out to be Stiff Records and signed the likes of Ian Dury and the Block­heads, Mad­ness and Elvis Costello. So we missed the boat.”

It was at this time that Colum started to ex­per­i­ment with record­ing which led him to open the city’s first record­ing stu­dio.

He had built up quite an archive of mu­sic by lo­cal bands when Ra­dio Foyle launched in 1979.

Very much a sta­tion for lo­cal peo­ple, man­ager Ian Kennedy soon asked Colum if he would come in and share his rich store of lo­cal mu­sic.

It was dur­ing this meet­ing that Kennedy recog­nised po­ten­tial in Colum as a broad­caster and in­vited him to be a pre­sen­ter on the new sta­tion.

Not long af­ter, Gerry was also asked to join the sta­tion and the two pals again saw their ca­reers align, even shar­ing an of­fice as new BBC Ra­dio Foyle pre­sen­ters.

Colum says: “Gerry join­ing the BBC had noth­ing to do with me be­ing there. I got in through my record­ing and he got in through his writ­ing and the other co­in­ci­dence was that we both ended up sit­ting in the same room, desks apart; noth­ing planned what­so­ever, com­pletely co­in­ci­den­tal.”

Their ca­reer in the band came to an end shortly af­ter when they lost their equip­ment dur­ing a fire­bomb at­tack on a lo­cal bar they were due to do a gig in.

Eleven years ago, Colum re­tired and re­laxed for the first two years be­fore go­ing back to work to fill in for other pre­sen­ters dur­ing the hol­i­day pe­riod. His cur­rent show, Time of Our Lives, came about af­ter a se­ries of pro­grammes by the BBC on TV and ra­dio cel­e­brat­ing older peo­ple in North­ern Ire­land.

It led to the idea for Time of Our Lives which Colum was asked to present. The show took off and ev­ery week fea­tures in­ter­views with older peo­ple about their un­usual lives or achieve­ments.

Colum says: “It came out of the blue as a re­sult of a themed week the BBC had a few years ago on older peo­ple and the idea was to cel­e­brate older peo­ple by talk­ing to or­di­nary peo­ple about ex­tra­or­di­nary things they have done in their lives.

“It was a very sim­ple idea. Orig­i­nally it was sup­posed to be a six-week se­ries but it is still go­ing three and a half years later.

“There is no end to it; just when you think it might run out of steam we find more peo­ple. It just builds and builds and builds.

“We don’t have any def­i­nite cri­te­ria for age but roughly its peo­ple from their 50s up.

“We re­cently fea­tured a man who drove a Mor­ris Mi­nor around Africa and yes­ter­day I in­ter­viewed an 80-year-old who grew up on an is­land near Port­glenone and lost his mum at the age of two and his dad trained him to be self-suf­fi­cient.

“He also flew to New Zealand on a flight that the Queen was on; it was the Queen’s first time on a com­mer­cial flight.

“They’ve all got great sto­ries to tell. I am con­vinced that I could go out in the streets of Belfast or Derry or Newry and stop some­body in the street and they will have a story to tell. It’s great and I look for­ward to the peo­ple I meet ev­ery week and hear­ing their sto­ries.” Colum Arbuckle presents ‘Time Of Our Lives’, BBC Ra­dio Ul­ster, Sun­days at 2pm

HOT SEAT: Colum in the BBC Ra­dio Ul­ster stu­dio

PETER MORRISON

FAM­ILY TIES: Colum Arbuckle and (right) wife Sharon and daugh­ter Gra­cie Arbuckle. Be­low, a young Colum (aged four) with his par­ents Joe and Kath­leen

MERRY BAND: Jim Whiteside, Gerry An­der­son and Colum were all in the group, Toe­jam

ON AIR: Colum Arbuckle in the stu­dio at BBC Ra­dio Ul­ster and (be­low) walk­ing along the quays in his home town of Derry

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