‘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
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
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